Abiy and Kenyatta

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 President Uhuru Kenyatta with Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed attend the Kenya-Ethiopia Trade and Investment Forum in Addis Ababa on March 1, 2019.
10 MAY 2021

The planned security meeting between Kenya and Ethiopia over the fast-deteriorating relationship between Garre and Degodia clans in Mandera has been postponed. 

The meeting was scheduled for Sunday before being moved to Monday but the Ethiopian delegation sent a message that heavy downpour on their side had hampered movement. 

"We have not been able to hold a security meeting with our Ethiopian counterparts due to heavy rains on their side that has rendered roads impassable," Mandera County Commissioner Onesmus Kyatha said. 

The meeting was called after counter attacks by suspected clan militias that left at least two dead and three others injured in Banisa Sub-county. 

"We wanted to agree on ending the animosity between these two clans that reside in both countries. We shall still engage Ethiopian authorities on the same once the situation normalises," Mr Kyatha added.

MAY 12, 2021  ETHIOPIANEWSTIGRAY

“Eritrean troops are operating with total impunity in Ethiopia’s war-torn northern Tigray region”

Source: CNN

Updated 0403 GMT (1203 HKT) May 12, 2021

Axum, Ethiopia — Eritrean troops are operating with total impunity in Ethiopia’s war-torn northern Tigray region, killingraping and blocking humanitarian aid to starving populations more than a month after the country’s Nobel Peace Prize winning leader pledged to the international community that they would leave.

A CNN team traveling through Tigray’s central zone witnessed Eritrean soldiers, some disguising themselves in old Ethiopian military uniforms, manning checkpoints, obstructing and occupying critical aid routes, roaming the halls of one of the region’s few operating hospitals and threatening medical staff.
Despite pressure from the Biden administration, there is no sign that Eritrean forces plan to exit the border region anytime soon.
On April 21, a CNN team reporting in Tigray with the permission of Ethiopian authorities traveled from the regional capital Mekelle to the besieged city of Axum, two weeks after it had been sealed off by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. An aid convoy also made the seven-hour journey.
CNN team driving into the besieged city of Axum, which remains inaccessible to many aid organizations. Credit: Alex Platt/CNN
Ethiopia’s government has severely restricted access to the media until recently, and a state-enforced communications blackout concealed events in the region, making it challenging to gauge the extent of the crisis or verify survivors’ accounts.
But CNN’s interviews with humanitarian workers, doctors, soldiers and displaced people in Axum and across central Tigray — where up to 800,000 displaced people are sheltering — indicate the situation is even worse than was feared. Eritrean troops aren’t just working hand in glove with the Ethiopian government, assisting in a merciless campaign against the Tigrayan people, in some pockets they’re fully in control and waging a reign of terror.
The testimonies, shared at great personal risk, present a horrifying picture of the situation in Tigray, where a clash between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in November has deteriorated into a protracted conflict that, by many accounts, bears the hallmarks of genocide and has the potential to destablize the wider Horn of Africa region.
Ethiopian security officials working with Tigray’s interim administration told CNN that the Ethiopian government has no control over Eritrean soldiers operating in Ethiopia, and that Eritrean forces had blocked roads into central Tigray for over two weeks and in the northwestern part of the region for nearly one month.
As the war and its impact on civilians deepens, world leaders have voiced their concern about the role of Eritrean forces in exacerbating what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to spokesperson Ned Price, has described as a “growing humanitarian disaster.” In a phone call with Abiy on April 26, Blinken pressed Ethiopia and Eritrea to make good on commitments to withdraw Eritrean troops “in full, and in a verifiable manner.”
CNN’s efforts to reach Axum were thwarted by both Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers multiple times over several days.
On one of the first attempts, the CNN team encountered what it later learned was the aftermath of a grenade attack, where a group of local residents were flagging down cars, warning passersby not to go any further. But before we reached the scene, a large army truck drove up and parked sideways, blocking the road. Our cameraman got out of the car and started filming only to be confronted by Ethiopian soldiers, who threatened the team with detention, demanding that we hand over the camera and delete the footage. But we refused and were able to conceal the footage until we were eventually released.
On another occasion, CNN was turned back by an Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) Command operating out of a former USAID distribution center in the outskirts of the city of Adigrat, where several trucks laden with sacks of desperately needed food sat languishing in the hot sun. The aid, bound for communities in Tigray’s starved central zone, had been stopped from going any further despite daily phone calls from humanitarian workers pleading for access.
Even after being granted entry to Axum by the Ethiopian military, CNN’s path was obstructed by Eritrean troops controlling a checkpoint on a desolate mountain top overlooking Adigrat. The forces were wearing a mixture of their official light-colored Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) fatigues and a woodland camouflage with a green beret, which military experts verified as tallying with old Ethiopian army uniforms.
It is one of the first visual confirmations of reports — relayed in recent weeks by the UN’s top humanitarian official Mark Lowcock and US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield — that Eritrean soldiers are disguising their identities by re-uniforming as Ethiopian military, in what Thomas-Greenfield described as a move to “remain in Tigray indefinitely.”
CNN was informed by aid agencies that they had also been turned back by Eritrean soldiers manning the same checkpoint. Ethiopian military sources in the region confirmed to CNN that Eritrean soldiers were in control of key checkpoints along the route to Axum. The military sources said they had requested multiple times for the Eritreans to allow cars and convoys through, but had been refused.
CNN has reached out to the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments for comment.
After repeated phone calls to Ethiopian central government and senior military officials, CNN was finally allowed into Axum on its fourth try. On the same day, international medical humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres demanded that the 12-day blockade of the road into Axum be lifted.
Many aid agencies are still being barred from the besieged city, where one of the few hospitals operating for miles is running out of essential supplies, including oxygen and blood, humanitarian workers working in the region told CNN.
On arrival at the Axum University Teaching and Referral Hospital, patients are greeted by a sign asking for blood.
The medical staff we spoke to asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, but requested that CNN identify their hospital — they say that they want people to know that they are still here.
Inside one of the under-resourced examination rooms, a malnourished 7-year-old was lying on a gurney, wrapped in a blanket to cushion her fragile skin. Latebrahan’s emaciated legs could no longer hold her weight and she lay wide-eyed, staring up at the crowd of doctors gathered around her bed.

Seven-year-old Latebrahan lies on a gurney at Axum University Teaching and Referral Hospital, where she's being treated for malnourishment.

The medical team were doing their best to keep her alive, but they had run out of a therapeutic feeding agent due to the blockade, the only way to help her gain weight without disturbing her delicate system.
Latebrahan’s father, Girmay, who asked to be identified only by his first name, told CNN the journey from their home in Chila, around 60 miles north of Axum, near the border with Eritrea, had been dangerous and costly.
“There is no help, no food, nothing. I didn’t have a choice though — look at her,” Girmay said.
Like many other rural border towns, Chila has been blocked off from receiving aid since the conflict began six months ago. Humanitarian workers say famine could have already arrived there and they would have no way of knowing.
“Based on guesswork there is a sense that in these areas that we are not able to access, out in the countryside for instance, places are falling into pockets of famine. But we’re not able to verify that and that’s part of the problem,” Thomas Thompson, the UN World Food Programme’s emergency coordinator, told CNN.
The fighting erupted during the autumn harvest season following the worst invasion of desert locusts in Ethiopia in decades. The conflict has plunged Tigray even further into severe food insecurity, and the deliberate blockade of food risks mass starvation, a recent report by the World Peace Foundation warned. The Ethiopian government itself estimates that at least 5.2 million people out of 5.7 million in the region are in need of emergency food assistance.

USAID distributes supplies in Hawzen, central Tigray, where residents hadn't received aid for two months.

Eritrean soldiers have been blocking and looting food relief in multiple parts of Tigray, including in Samre and Gijet, southwest of Mekele, according to a leaked document from the Emergency Coordination Centre of Tigray’s Abiy-appointed interim government obtained by CNN. In a PowerPoint presentation dated April 23, the center states that Eritrean soldiers have also started showing up at food distribution points in Tigray, looting supplies after “our beneficiaries became frightened and [ran] away.”
That report was corroborated by humanitarian workers in Tigray, who said they had “protection” issues around distributing aid in some areas as civilians were later robbed of the aid by Eritrean soldiers. Emily Dakin, who leads the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team in Tigray, also told CNN that she had received reports of health centers being looted, which was “contributing to some of the dysfunctionality of the hospitals.”
Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Meskel has rejected these claims.

Hannibal, 7, is treated at Axum Teaching and Referral Hospital for a gunshot wound to the leg, which he received from soldiers' gunfire as he was sitting on his mother's lap.

Eritrea’s power in the region feels absolute even in the Axum Teaching Hospital, where Eritrean soldiers are among the gun-toting troops roaming the corridors, dropping off wounded soldiers and threatening medical staff. It is a terrifying scene for patients, many of whom say they were injured either directly or indirectly by soldiers.
One doctor, who asked not to be named, told CNN that the siege had prompted a surge in patients. In addition to cases of malnutrition like Latebrahan, doctors and nurses are treating a grim array of trauma from shrapnel, bullets, stabbings and rapes. In a desperate attempt to keep pace with demand, medical workers have also begun donating blood.

A sign at Axum University Teaching and Referral Hospital reads:

But despite this, there wasn’t enough blood on hand to save one young woman, who had been attacked by soldiers who tried to rape her.
The doctor treating the woman told CNN that the hospital had seen a spike in sexual assault cases over recent weeks, but that the rise was just “the tip of the iceberg,” as many were too scared to seek medical services.
An alarming number of women are being gang-raped, drugged and held hostage in the conflict, in which sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war and its use linked to genocide. According to one agency’s estimate, almost one-third of all attacks on civilians involve sexual violence, the majority committed by men in uniform.
An autopsy photo of the young woman seen by CNN showed her internal organs spilling out from a wound in her lower abdomen.
“She came to our emergency department and she had a sign of life initially. [But] if you find blood for a patient, it’s only one or two units and one or two units could not save this woman. She bled [out] and she died,” the doctor said haltingly, overcome with emotion.
He took a deep breath, then added, “I see this woman in my dreams.”
This reporting would not have been possible without the support of dozens of Tigrayans, who shared their stories at great personal risk. CNN is not naming them to protect their safety. It also builds on a series of investigations into massacres and sexual violence in Tigray by CNN’s Bethlehem Feleke, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Katie Polglase. Read CNN’s full Tigray coverage here.
 

The second trend is the increased prominence of foreign troops and mercenaries in domestic and regional conflicts. …Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki is a central driver of this trend. He has built an entire economy centred on seeking economic rents from mercenaries and military bases.

Source: Al-Jazeera

The common political vision of the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia threatens to throw the region into turmoil.

10 May 2021

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi pose during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia on November 10, 2018 [File: AFP/ Eduardo Soteras]Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi pose during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia on November 10, 2018 [File: AFP/ Eduardo Soteras]

Three years ago, a wave of political change swept across the Horn of Africa. In Sudan and Ethiopia, popular protests led to a change in leadership and what many assumed were democratic transitions. Ethiopia and Eritrea ended their two-decades-long rivalry, for which Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The peoples of the Horn of Africa were euphoric for what many thought would be a new chapter in the region’s history.

Today, contrary to expectations, mass atrocities, inter-state wars, and autocratic entrenchment have become the defining features of the region. Over the last six months, several international conflicts have (re)emerged, notably between Ethiopia and Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and Somalia and Kenya.

Egypt and Sudan are also threatening Ethiopia over the latter’s plans to proceed with a second filling of the controversial Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river. Within Ethiopia alone, two significant insurgencies have been launched in this period, while ethnically motivated mass atrocities continue to take place regularly. The Horn of Africa is caught in a spiral of violence where domestic and regional conflicts overlap and fuel each other.

The conflicts and rights violations in recent months are not isolated incidents but part of a broader pattern of regional disorder, in which non-compliance with fundamental international legal norms is a central feature.

Four destabilising trends

The first indicator of creeping anarchy in the Horn of Africa today is the recent proliferation of territorial disputes and overall disregard for state boundaries. Eritrea, for example, has begun occupying parts of Tigray in northern Ethiopia and is issuing Eritrean ID cards to residents. Ethiopia is making territorial claims on Sudan’s Fashaga region and in response, Sudanese officials are raising claims on parts of Benishangul Gumuz in Ethiopia.

Within Ethiopia, Abiy has supported the Amhara Regional State’s annexation of parts of Tigray Regional State. Sensing Ethiopia’s weakness, Djibouti recently announced its intention to exploit the Awash river in Ethiopia. At the same time, Ethiopian politicians are publicly making irredentist claims on Eritrean territory. Finally, Somalia and Kenya have exchanged threats over contested maritime space.

While there is nothing wrong with territorial demands made through legal means, what we see is a recent trend of states trying to take over territory by force in order to create a fait accompli. This has led to a contagion effect where one actor’s breach of the norm of territorial integrity encourages other actors to do the same.

The second trend is the increased prominence of foreign troops and mercenaries in domestic and regional conflicts. Abiy Ahmed has outsourced counterinsurgency to Eritrean soldiers in his war against Tigray as well as employed them in the border conflict with Sudan. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi has also used Ethiopian troops against local opponents in Somalia. At the same time, Somali soldiers have allegedly fought in Ethiopia.

The main problems with these forces are their legal ambiguity, their tendency to commit extreme human rights abuses, and their unique capacity for fuelling inter-communal tensions. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki is a central driver of this trend. He has built an entire economy centred on seeking economic rents from mercenaries and military bases.

The third problem is the growing disregard for international humanitarian law. Over the last six months alone, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have engaged in systemic ethnically cleansing, rape, starvation, and massacres on an unprecedented scale. Eritrean troops have also destroyed refugee camps in Ethiopia hosting Eritrean refugees and forcibly returned thousands of them back to Eritrea. So far, this has not had any serious repercussions for the culprits, and when faced with criticism, Abiy and Afwerki have been dismissive.

Finally, today the Horn of Africa is also characterised by a sharp decline in multilateral diplomacy. The regional body Intergovernmental Agency for Development has been excluded from most of the conflicts and peace processes; it has notably been absent in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process and the war in Tigray. Instead, leaders have chosen to structure their cooperation and manage conflicts outside of institutional frameworks and through personal channels, which is a significant obstacle for preventive diplomacy.

The domestic politics fuelling regional instability

The destabilisation of the Horn of Africa is primarily a function of the domestic politics of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Abiy, Afwerki, and Abdullahi forged the tripartite alliance in 2018 with the aim of moulding the regional order according to their domestic political ideals. The three leaders are opposed to federalism, the accommodation of ethnonational diversity, and institutionalised governance. Instead, they prefer a centralised state under the command of a strongman who rules by fiat.

Afwerki – the godfather of the alliance – has ruled Eritrea without a constitution or a single election for almost 30 years. The source of his autocratic longevity is a universal and indefinite military conscription policy that has contained most of the youth in military barracks and compelled hundreds of thousands to migrate. These conditions have made popular rebellion practically impossible.

In Ethiopia, Abiy was selected by his political party to transition the country to democracy in 2018. However, using COVID-19 as a pretext in June 2020, he postponed elections and imprisoned his opponents. His attempt to concentrate power and suppress Ethiopia’s various ethnonational groups has led to civil war and looming famine.

Abdullahi was supposed to prepare Somalia for its first direct elections in several decades. Instead, he has been trying to centralise power in the federal government, which has resulted in conflict with various regional governments, notably Jubbaland. His term expired in February, and following the example of his regional allies, he extended it for two more years. This has initiated a constitutional crisis and armed conflict, which eventually forced Somali lawmakers to cancel his term extension. He is the first president since the Somali state-building process began in 2004 to try to remain in office after his term expired.

The regional trends that are today destabilising the Horn of Africa emanate from these domestic conditions. The efforts to break federalist forces in Somalia and Ethiopia have led to a spill-over of conflicts across state borders and have fuelled regional rivalries. The members of the tripartite alliance also manage inter-state relations in the same way they govern their domestic politics – they conduct diplomacy through personal channels and resolve disputes through military means.

The alliance’s behaviour is particularly destructive because of its long-term consequences. For example, territorial conflicts, ethnic cleansing, and rape as a weapon of war sow the seeds for inter-generational grievances. In Ethiopia, Abiy’s policies have already revived secessionist sentiments in Tigray and Oromia. And the extent to which Ethiopia will continue to exist as one nation after the war is now questionable. In the last six months alone, these conflicts have displaced more than two million people in Tigray, and the European Union’s envoy to Ethiopia says this may be “the beginning of one more potentially big refugee crisis in the world”.

What is unfolding in the Horn of Africa is a significant threat to international security. Halting the ongoing descent into anarchy requires, first of all, concerted efforts to compel leaders to respect their constitutions.

In both Ethiopia and Somalia, Abiy and Abdullahi must be pressured to enter into a political dialogue with their contenders to reset their democratic reform processes. Secondly, the use of foreign mercenaries in domestic conflicts must be deterred. In particular, verification mechanisms must be established to ensure the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from conflicts across the region. And finally, perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law must be held accountable in order to pave the way for a reconciliation process but also to deter others from engaging in such acts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

MAY 5, 2021  ERITREAETHIOPIATIGRAYUNCATEGORIZED

Ethiopia

40. We recall our statement of 2 April 2021 about the situation in Tigray, and remain deeply concerned about the continued violence and the worsening humanitarian and human rights crises. We condemn the killing of civilians, rape and sexual exploitation, and other forms of gender-based violence, destruction and looting of religious and cultural heritage sites, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans and Eritrean refugees. We welcome the agreement between the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate human rights violations and abuses. We call on all parties to cease hostilities immediately, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law as well as media freedom and access, and hold those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence, accountable. We urge parties to the conflict to provide immediate, unhindered humanitarian access, given the worsening food insecurity. The presence of foreign forces in Tigray is deeply disturbing and destabilising. We acknowledge the announcement from the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea that Eritrean forces will withdraw from Tigray but remain concerned that this has not yet commenced. The process of withdrawal must be swift, unconditional and verifiable. We call for the establishment of a clear inclusive political process in Tigray. We remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. We also call for a broader inclusive political process in Ethiopia to enable credible elections and wider national reconciliation.

MAY 5, 2021  NEWS

Eritrea Focus

2 Thorpe Close, Ladbroke Grove,  London, W10 5XL

3 May 2021

Mr Tim Davie

BBC Director-General, Broadcasting House, London, W1A 1AA

Dear Mr Davie,

I was pleased and re-assured to see your statement marking World Press Freedom Day (BBC boss warns of ‘growing assault on truth’ around the world (yahoo.com). You are absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that journalists across the globe face “intimidation, harassment and hostility”. I agree with your assessment that “Trusted information is an essential public good, but many journalists around the world – including those from the BBC – are facing intimidation, harassment and hostility. Some even face threats to their lives and liberty.”

You will no doubt be aware that the people of Eritrea face the worst restrictions on their access to information in the world. This is recorded by the index produced by Reporters Without Borders, which shows Eritrea as even more repressive than North Korea (2020 World Press Freedom Index | RSF).

The people of Eritrea have relied on the BBC for accurate news and information ever since the 1960’s when they began their fight for independence. We had assumed that our nation would have an open media landscape when it achieved its independence in 1993. Sadly, this was not to be and the dictatorship that our people live under restricts the activities of its own journalists as well as visiting reporters. There is no independent media of any kind based in Eritrea. It is one of the few nations in which the BBC – along with other international media houses – has no resident correspondent or reporter.

No other nation or people have a greater need for the BBC’s accurate and reliable news. It is for this reason that I am calling on the BBC to make a commitment to make a particular effort to report about and to Eritrea. We welcomed the BBC’s recent broadcasts in Tigrinya and our people listen and watch the BBC keenly. But there is room for a greater concentration of BBC journalism on Eritrea – particularly since its forces are involved in the tragic war in Ethiopia, and its troops are accused of some of the worst abuses, including the rape of girls and women.

I offer to meet you and your colleagues in the next few weeks to discuss how the BBC’s work can be augmented. This is an extraordinary situation and requires an extraordinary response.

Yours faithfully

Habte Hagos

Chairman, Eritrea Focus

MAY 5, 2021  ETHIOPIANEWSTIGRAY

The medical charity, known by its French initials MSF, said residents were struggling to access food distribution points and lamented that the aid response “hardly ever extends beyond larger towns” to Tigray’s rural areas.

This warning from the US government’s aid agency, USAID, says it all.

It underlines a similar warning from Doctors Without Borders – MSF

‘Alarming’ malnutrition in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray: MSF

Doctors Without Borders on Wednesday described “alarming” malnutrition in parts of Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region and said the situation was likely to worsen with the coming rainy season. 

The medical charity, known by its French initials MSF, said residents were struggling to access food distribution points and lamented that the aid response “hardly ever extends beyond larger towns” to Tigray’s rural areas.

“MSF teams are observing alarming levels of malnutrition among children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers screened at mobile clinics across several locations throughout the Northwest region of Tigray,” Karline Kleijer, head of MSF’s emergency support department, said in a statement.

Among 309 children screened at remote clinics in recent weeks, 26.6 percent were malnourished and six percent were severely acutely malnourished, Kleijer said, adding the situation “warrants immediate action.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party that once dominated national politics.

He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps and that fighting would be over quickly.

But as the six-month-old war drags on, world leaders are increasingly concerned about what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month called an impending humanitarian “disaster.”

Tigray’s North Western zone includes the town of Shire which is housing tens of thousands of displaced Tigrayans, many kicked off land in western Tigray in what Blinken has described as “ethnic cleansing.”

Fighting in Tigray disrupted the harvest in a region that was already food insecure.

Wednesday’s MSF statement did not specify why residents couldn’t access food distribution points.

But documents from Tigray’s Abiy-appointed interim government, obtained by AFP last month, said Eritrean soldiers were blocking and looting food aid and forcing aid workers out of parts of the region.

Eritrea denied the allegations.

Kleijer said Wednesday that “the quality and quantity of food available has fallen sharply, with many families eating just one meal a day and often only bread.”

She added: “As rainy season approaches food insecurity issues are expected to worsen, as fields are often inaccessible to the farmers due to the conflict or they don’t have the means to plant crops.

Without more aid malnutrition could become widespread, as could outbreaks of communicable diseases, she said.

MAY 5, 2021  NEWS

In a scene from the FRONTLINE documentary “Escaping Eritrea,” a source shows secret footage from inside a prison.

MAY 4, 2021

The United Nations estimates that Eritrea is among the top three countries, alongside Syria and South Sudan, with the greatest proportion of their citizens who have become refugees — with 12,500 refugees per 100,000 people.

According to the U.N.’s last available estimates, released in mid-2020, more than half a million Eritreans have become refugees.

In FRONTLINE’s latest documentary, Escaping Eritrea, producer Evan Williams set out to learn what was driving so many Eritreans from their homeland. He talked to FRONTLINE about his investigative journey, which stretched across five years, as he found people who were trying to smuggle secret footage out of the country and worked to corroborate their findings.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you first come upon this story?

The refugee crisis was at a real peak [in 2015-2016], with people coming across the Mediterranean, and one of the biggest groups coming across into Europe, in particular, were from Eritrea. And the idea was, “Well, why are they coming from Eritrea, when technically there isn’t a war, or famine, or some other natural disaster there?” Particularly compared with why Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans were fleeing.

There had been a number of television pieces about the terribly dangerous conditions that Eritreans and others face when they go through the desert, and they’re going through North Africa and they cross the Mediterranean — many of whom, of course, drown. But nobody had ever tried to investigate at the source what was going on inside the country that made them want to leave. …

The documentary mentions this investigation took five years. Why did it take so long?

It’s a country that’s gone through many years of privations and a 30-year war against Ethiopia … and it’s had border hostilities with Ethiopia ever since. And this is very important because what it meant was that the country is a one-party, one-leader state. The place is run as a dictatorship, and it’s a very tightly controlled country, and with a small population, it’s very easy for them to control information. It’s actually very easy for them to control the population. [The U.N. estimates Eritrea’s population to be 3.5 million, although other estimates put it as high as 6 million.]

When we tried to contact groups who might be interested in trying to get some material out, it was very, very difficult — first of all, finding people who were brave enough to take those risks to try and get information out and also had the wherewithal to get it out, because the internet is controlled, mobile phones are monitored. It doesn’t have the same communication infrastructure that we are all used to, in developed and many developing countries. It just doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, it’s controlled. Or people believe that they’re being monitored or can be monitored through it.

That’s a long way of answering the question that we couldn’t just call an “opposition group,” if there was one, and say, “Let’s organize a secure way for you to transfer material.” We had to find groups that were already trying to do it or were interested in trying but just didn’t have the technical capacity. And that took time. …

“Some of these are people who decided that this was the way they wanted to get the story out, they were leaving their country. It’s a phenomenal sacrifice.”

We had a good initial start. We did find Michael, who came out reasonably early in the production, around 2016. He had a whole bunch of material that he had remarkably filmed secretly inside one of the prisons [that held people who tried to escape national service]. And that set us off on a course of, “OK, let’s try and get more about the detention centers that are across the country, because that’s one of the things that drives people away.” So, we discovered through our reporting that it was the country’s system of mandatory national service — which means military service at the age of 18 — that was driving many away.

The system in place is really one where, at 18, you do your training for several months and then you’re in the military service for as long as the government may want you. …

Read more: 500,000 Refugees, ‘Slavery-like’ Compulsory Service, No National Elections, Border Conflicts & Secret Prisons: 5 Human Rights Crises in Eritrea

If you’re caught trying to flee the country or escape that national service, that’s when you’re put in detention centers. That’s why detention centers became very important to us: trying to get visual evidence that, first, these places exist, because the government denies that; and second of all, gaining information about what the conditions were like inside those detention centers — and also then getting testimony from survivors and refugees and others about what happens inside them, and exhaustively cross-checking these reports, studies and other reporting.

How did you build trust with activists and eyewitnesses who were afraid to tell their story because of what might happen to them?

That took time, not only to find them but then yes, you’re right, for me to go and establish the right level of trust with them, so that we could work together. Once we’d agreed how to go forward, then it would take another several months in many cases for them to be able to obtain anything. And that’s one of the reasons it took so long.

And then of course we had the layer of, as I said before, you can’t just email it. It’s real old-school. So that meant someone physically bringing material out. Some of these are people who decided that this was the way they wanted to get the story out, they were leaving their country. It’s a phenomenal sacrifice. And yet this is what some of the people that we were working with decided that they would do. …

What kind of safety measures did you take to protect the identities and whereabouts of your sources?

They’re anonymized in the film itself. And we’ve taken steps not to give certain information away about them and their location. That’s number one. And when we were filming them, we would often have to choose locations that they were secure in. It comes down to being careful about who sees us with them. …

We had to be careful about communicating. I never called in to the country. We always used second or third parties from the community itself, who might have had other reasons to call. We spoke often in code. We would never directly talk about detention centers or secret filming or any of the key words that might trigger some sort of attention. We didn’t know whether that would or not, but we decided that’s how we would do it.

We worked together in establishing a safety protocol for the people involved in trying to film things. …

How did you work to verify the footage and the testimony that you were getting?

What we would do is go through all the material with the person who actually filmed the material. And that gives you a layer of authenticity about detail to start with. …

Read more: ‘I Didn’t Lose Hope’: Meet a Man Who Risked His Life to Secretly Film Inside One of Eritrea’s Brutal Prisons

Then we would actually show large sections of this to other refugees who had come out, who had been in the same location. … I would get them to describe for me conditions inside wherever they said they were held and see if that sort of matched with what I had. Then I would show them some of the material and get them to tell me where it was and what was going on. … It’s a process of getting them to lead you through it, rather than forcing them to tell you what you want to hear. …

Were you able to get into Eritrea at any point during the filmmaking process?

No, unfortunately. We asked the government if I could go in, towards the end of 2016, beginning of ’17, and they just didn’t get back to us. Which, again, is important, because I’ve exhaustively sought their response to the film. I gave them more than a month, once we had the final bits together, to respond. I’ve written to them several times. I’ve had conversations with the embassy in London and with the ministry of information, and we’ve been very specific about the allegations we make in the film and the material we have and would have welcomed their input.

“We spoke often in code. We would never directly talk about detention centers or secret filming or any of the key words that might trigger some sort of attention.”

But basically, their condition was, unless I could send them the entire film before it goes on air, they would not participate in a filmed interview. … We said we’d be more than happy to show them excerpts and some of the more important material in a filmed interview, with a representative of their embassy, and they rejected that. They said, quote, “We are not going to play the media game.” The ministry of information would only say the accusations were “astounding.”

Hanna’s story is one of incredible courage and resilience. Are people like her at risk, even though they are no longer in Eritrea?

No, is the answer. … You’ve still got people around you that would consider themselves part of the Eritrean independence revolution and would see any criticism as a betrayal of the nation. … But they’re not a physical threat, as such, to people. There’s been no evidence of them committing any violence against people, not even among Eritreans that I’m aware of. But they are noisy, and they can be threatening.

Hanna’s story is so incredible. In many ways, it embodies, in one woman and one family, the country and its struggle. It’s so moving and also so terrible that this could happen to somebody [like Hanna’s father] who was actually very powerful in the country. And I think the message from the government is probably … if they can do it to them, they can do to anybody. …

When people watch the documentary, what do you hope they take away from it?

With my current affairs hat on, I want people to know why these people are leaving their country. And I want us to then look, perhaps more knowingly, when we see refugees in our countries, about why people leave. …

I think all countries have become a lot tighter and a lot more unsympathetic towards [refugees]. So, hopefully, this will help inform people about this particular case of Eritreans but also then the broader refugee situation.

I also think there’s something quite moving in the examples of the human spirit here, where people have gone through all sorts of untold misery and problems, and yet they refuse to be broken by it.

If you look at Hanna, for example, she’s an amazing woman who just burns with this sort of incandescent hope. Remarkably. I don’t know how she does it. But she’s got that feeling about her, that she’s not going to give up. The fact that the teams themselves wanted to get this material out to me said a great deal about people’s courage, and their lack of willingness to just completely accept an unjust situation for themselves — where they perceive that to be unjust for them and their country people. …

When you were mentioning it, I recalled that in the beginning of the film the narration mentions that a lot of these refugees are younger, almost teenagers. Is that the makeup of the refugee population?

Remarkably, what we found is, I think the latest figure [from this U.N. report] was something like 8,000 were officially registered as unaccompanied children. So that means these were children under the age of 18 who had left the country on their own.

Now, when you think about that, there’s something pretty bad going on, if children under 18 are going to cross a hostile border with landmines and soldiers, with the possibility of being shot and imprisoned. And they’re doing that because they don’t see any hope. They see their elder siblings or relatives or neighbors going into the military and having what they see as a terrible life, or worse, if they’re detained for trying to flee it. …

“I also think there’s something quite moving in the examples of the human spirit here, where people have gone through all sorts of untold misery and problems, and yet they refuse to be broken by it.”

They get officially dragooned into the military training service at 18. But some of the children told us that [the authorities] would do what they called a “giffa,” which is like a sweep. So if the military felt, or a unit felt, it needed to boost the numbers, they might go through and clean up all the kids that were roughly 18, 16, 17 and then get them in to train and get them into the barracks. …

You’ve now done quite a few films that involved really terrible atrocities, from ISIS to the brutal campaign against the Rohingya in Myanmar. How do you cope?

It is upsetting and it can be quite traumatic. … But I think I’ve just tried to channel any emotion into the project, in a way, to try and make that the outlet. We’re doing this for a purpose, which is to help these people tell the story that they couldn’t otherwise tell. …

Whatever impact it has on us as filmmakers is absolutely nothing compared to the experiences of the people we speak to and document. And while it can take a toll, it’s our job to try to give them a voice and reveal their reality.

Escaping Eritrea premieres Tuesday, May 4, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings). It will also be available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of documentaries, on YouTube and in the PBS Video App.  

The Shimelba refugee camp in the Tigray region of Ethiopia (file).
3 MAY 2021
Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy (Washington, DC)

DOCUMENT

The war in Tigray region of Ethiopia is not just about Tigray or Ethiopia but also about Eritrea and the whole region.

First of all, the humanitarian catastrophe that has been perpetrated on the people of Tigray and Eritrean refugees, and still continuing as we write this letter, must stop. All parties to the war should unconditionally agree to ceasefire immediately. At the core of all the havoc that is being wreaked in the region is the unelected president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki. Action delayed in halting his military maneuvers and destructive adventures  will have grave consequences for the entire region of the Horn of Africa for a very long time to come.

As the international community struggles to resolve the calamitous war in Ethiopia's Tigray region, the plight of the 100,000+ Eritrean refugees living in the four camps in Ethio-pia is drowned out by the so many emergencies that are going on in the region. It is re-ported that about 20,000 Eritrean refugees have been forcibly repatriated to Eritrea and two of the four refugee camps are burned down. The war is causing limitations on movement and access in the region, thus putting the refugees who depend on the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies for their livelihood, at risk of hunger and dis-placement in addition to being made vulnerable to the dangers of being in the crossfire of the war. Concern for the human rights and humanitarian needs of Eritrean refugees must therefore be a high priority, but this matter will never be completely resolved without understanding and addressing the internal crisis in Eritrea that is partly responsible for driving this conflict and producing disproportionate number of refugees.

While calls for the Government of Eritrea to pull out of the conflict in Ethiopia increases, the international community must also consider the repercussions of Eritrean intervention in the Tigray war if a lasting solution is to be developed.  Since Isaias Afwerki took control of Eritrea in 1991, the country has not held elections to allow its citizens to choose the path on which their government manages the country, and the government has never implemented the 1997 constitution, which guarantees civil rights and limits executive power.

Eleven of the fifteen National Assembly members who called for the implementation of the 1997 ratified constitution were imprisoned on September 18, 2001 without due process and incommunicado to-date. Consequently, the Isaias regime has instituted a reign of terror on its own people.

Civil society groups, religious communities, independent journalists, and opposition political parties are marginalized, and often criminalized, imprisoned, and tortured. Military conscription is mandatory and indefinite beginning at the age of 18 as stipulated in the national service proclamation. However, reports are increasingly coming out that the government is rounding up children as young as 15 and 16 and sent to the war in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia with little or no training. In 2016, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Human Rights in Eritrea reported that the way Eritreans were treated in detention facilities and military training camps amounts to crimes against humanity.

Eritrea is among countries with the highest prison population rates in the world, with prison conditions beneath human decency. Reliable sources put the number of prisoners in Eritrea in the tens of thousands. Many of them are prisoners of conscience who dared to express their views peacefully, and many others who tried to flee the country or escape from the indefinite conscription into the so-called National Service.

Eritrean authorities show no mercy; they are cruel to disabled veterans, underage boys and girls, expectant mothers and brides, respected elders, and religious leaders. These leaders include the Head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, His Holiness Abune Antonios, who has been under house arrest since 2007, and Hajj Musa Mohammed Nur, the Board President of Al Dia Islamic School in Asmara, who died in prison on March 1, 2018. The overcrowded prisons in Eritrea contain people who took part in the armed struggle, top military officers, ministers, journalists and religious leaders. It is also important to underscore that there are hundreds of thousands of Eritrean conscripts, many of whom are underage currently sent to the war in Tigray whose parents do not know whether their children are dead or alive.

It is no wonder, then, that so many Eritreans – both young and old – are desperate to leave Eritrea.  Unfortunately, their flight from Eritrea has been extraordinarily perilous.

Back during an April 18, 2018 hearing of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Co-Chair Rep. Randy Hults described the hazards caused by the growing refugee crisis in Eritrea in the following manner: "For those that leave Eritrea, the dangers they face are almost unimaginable. Many of these asylum seekers are exploited by smugglers and human traffickers, or find them-selves in Libyan slave markets enduring detention, torture, and forced labor. Some, after gaining their freedom, expressed they would rather endure the experience of slavery over again than to be sent back to their native country. The question remains why are so many people leaving this country?"

The answer to this question lies in the horrific conditions with which Eritrean citizens have been forced to live, the indefinite national service, economic stagnation, lack of opportunity and absolute control of every aspect of life. Currently, for example, Eritrea is under a complete lock down, supposedly because of the pandemic, which is causing tremendous hardship and hunger, due to loss of livelihoods. On the other hand, the regime has refused to participate in the WHO vaccine distribution program, COVAX.

There is increasing evidence that the Federal Government of Ethiopia contrary to inter-national refugee law, is making it easier for the Isaias regime to kidnap Eritrean refugees and return them to what amounts to indentured servitude or prison.  In a December 16, 2020 statement, Refugees International explained the seriousness of this matter:
"Refugees International is concerned about reports that Ethiopian government forces and Eritrean soldiers have forced Eritrean refugees to return to Eritrea or other locations where they may be in danger. For example, Eritrean refugees who fled to Addis Ababa to avoid the fighting in Tigray have been rounded up and returned to camps in Tigray. This is unacceptable, as camps in Tigray are in the middle of an active conflict zone and have little access to food or medical supplies."

Human Rights Watch reported on April 21 of this year that the Ethiopian government quietly changed its asylum procedures for Eritrean refugees, undermining their access to the asylum process and denying the numerous unaccompanied minors necessary protections.  While it has for years provided asylum to Eritrean refugees as a group, the human rights agency said that in January of this year, the Ethiopian government began registering limited categories of Eritrean refugees, particularly eliminating minors and placing them in danger of being returned to abusive situations in violation of international refugee law.

During the past year, ERIPS has informed the U.S. Government of Isaias' designs of forcibly returning Eritrean refugees. It also explained that this aim is one of the factors in his government's decision to intervene in the Tigray conflict.  We continue to urge action to bring a peaceful, sustainable resolution to the ongoing crisis in Eritrea that has spread to the region.

The international community must give due consideration to the disastrous impact the Isaias Afwerki regime has had in the Horn of Africa.  This regime is known for instigating conflicts with neighboring countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen) since the early 1990s. These wars have led to the unnecessary loss of lives, which in the eyes of Isaias Afwerki are expendable. The current war will inevitably devour the lives of Eritrean youth, who are forcibly conscripted to the army, and exposing the Eritrean civilian population to death, destruction, and displacement.  For these reasons alone, the international community should want to end Isaias' reign of terror in the Horn of Africa expeditiously.

To effectively address the conflict in Tigray and to bring upon a political settlement of the crisis, ERIPS calls again upon the international community to immediately act so that:
1.    All warring parties (the Federal Government of Ethiopia, the Tigray Regional Government, Amhara militia and the Eritrean regime) will enter a binding cease-fire immediately.
2.    The Eritrean regime of President Isaias Afwerki will stop interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia, cease and desist any war footing.
3.    The Federal Government of Ethiopia will lift any blockade and allow free access to all humanitarian agencies , to ameliorate the current humanitarian crisis of the civilian population in the Tigray region, for the UNHCR and all other agencies to have free access to all refugees and to relocate the refugees to third countries to ensure their safety.
4.    The Federal Government of Ethiopia will ensure that all Eritreans have the right to apply for and receive asylum and publicly announce any changes to its asylum and camp management policies.
5.    UN will lead an independent investigation of the atrocity crimes and crime against humanity in the Tigray region.

For the international community to play its role in bringing a lasting solution to the Horn of Africa, addressing the political and humanitarian situation in Eritrea will be critical. ERIPS recommends that the international community put significant pressure on Eritrea so that:
1.    Eritrea will make a transition to democracy.
2.    National service will be limited to 18 months.
3.    Eritrean prisoners of conscience and political prisoners will be released.
4.    Those responsible for the grave human rights violations and regional wars will be held accountable.

EU cancels election observation mission to Ethiopia

Tuesday, 04 May 2021 21:22 Written by

EU High Representative Josep Borrell says Ethiopian authorities would not agree to key parameters regarding the bloc's observation mission. The June elections come amid an ongoing crisis in the Tigray region.

    
Election campaign in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

National elections in Ethiopia are scheduled for June 5

The EU on Monday canceled its upcoming election observation mission to Ethiopia, High Representative Josep Borrell said in a statement. 

Borrell said Ethiopian authorities would not agree to key parameters of the election observation mission. "As conditions are not fulfilled, the deployment of the mission has to be cancelled," he said. 

"The integrity of an election observation mission is the cornerstone of the EU's support for democracy."

"It is disappointing that the EU has not received the assurances necessary to extend to the Ethiopian people one of its most visible signs of support for their quest for democracy," he later added.

The statement says the EU has given more than €20 million ($24.1 million) to the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to prepare for the upcoming elections this summer.

When are the elections?

Ethiopian elections are slated for June 5. The elections were originally supposed to be held in August 2020, but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's Prosperity Party is facing off against ethnic parties based in various regions of Ethiopia. 

The Prosperity Party grew out of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled the country with a tight grip for 28 years from 1991 to 2019.

One political controversy in recent months involves the state of Oromia. Several opposition leaders belonging to the Oromo ethnic minority were jailed last year after the killing of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

Hundessa's killing triggered massive protests in the Oromo region last summer. The Ethiopian government at one point shut off the internet to quell the demonstrations and cracked down on the anti-Ahmed opposition amid the unrest.

Reports of new atrocities emerge from Tigray

How has Ethiopia responded to the withdrawal?

Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement after the announced withdrawl saying they were disappointed, and that they had made all possible efforts to ensure the mission went ahead.

It said negotiations had fallen apart over disagreements on telecommunications technologies. It said the EU wanted to import satellite communication equipment, despite suitable infrastructure in the country.

It said the EU had rejected its demands that observer members make no disparaging remarks about election integrity before it released its preliminary report.

"The government is committed to make the upcoming elections free, fair, and democratic and is determined to continue working with all stakeholders to make it so," it said.

"While external observers could add some value to strengthen the quality of the electoral process, they are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election.

"The validity and legitimacy of Ethiopia's election is determined solely by Ethiopian laws, Ethiopian institutions, and ultimately, by the people of Ethiopia."

What's the current political situation in Ethiopia?

The elections come as Ethiopia faces a political and humanitarian crisis in its restive Tigray region, which lies in the northern part of the country.

In November, an ethnic nationalist paramilitary group called the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked several Ethiopian military bases in the Tigray region. The TPLF claims Abiy Ahmed's rule is illegitimate, since elections were postponed.

Ahmed characterized the attacks by the TPLF as "treason" and has ordered a military offensive against the group. The Ethiopian government has been accused of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, although it denies the allegations. 

The TPLF has also been accused of war crimes in its operations against the government. Eritrea, which backs Ahmed in the conflict, has also sent troops to Tigray.