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ERITRA

 

Destruction of a promising country

 

Eritrea is an insignificant country to the international community. However, if it would get a minimum of attention, like Kenya and Zimbabwe, just to mention some African countries, the world would remain dumbfounded to know about the absurdities, contradictions and the degree of suffering of the people. Even for me an Eritrean in Diaspora, who went back after 10 years, was a shock of my life to discover so many untold hardships and abuses that the people are helplessly enduring. Diaspora Eritreans know only the big events that somehow capture the headlines of the opposition web sites. What make unbearable the life of the people are exactly the small nuances and daily abuses of the ruling party ignored by the international media as routine.....

 

During my stay in Eritrea, I often asked myself whether I was in a country ruled a by government, or in a land administered by a single person, as his own private property. It is ridiculous to see so many abuses and transgression of laws inside an internationally recognized state; who moreover is a member of the UN. What about the rule of law? What about the international treaties? When sometimes I confronted government official on certain illegalities they often reply: “this is our rule, we don't care about other countries..”. The day after one sees them doing the opposite with the same arrogant reply.

I am neither a politician nor a journalist, but a concerned Eritrean in Diaspora who has his country and his people at heart; and one who wants to see the end of the suffering of his people, as soon as possible. I am writing this article with the sole purpose of creating public opinion, so that some kind of pressure is exerted for a positive change in Eritrea. The people of Eritrea have suffered enough. The present one is more painful because it is inflicted by our brothers and sisters whom we helped and assisted to get our independence. The party of Isaiah Afeworki immersed the whole nation in total slavery and changed it in a state of terror and perpetual mourning, never experienced before.

1. BACKGROUND HISTORY

Eritrea got its independence in 1991, after 30 years of bloody war with Ethiopia, which cost our small country 68.000 lives, according to the official statistics of the ruling party. Undoubtedly several groups contributed to the independence of Eritrea, including the factions that splintered during the liberation struggle, like the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) and others who now operate in opposition camps outside the country. But mostly it is the merit of the people and Eritreans in Diaspora that enabled the EPLF (Eritrean Popular Liberation Front, the incumbent ruling party) to march triumphantly inside Asmara on the 24th of May 1991. The EPLF leadership itself (now PFDJ, Popular Front for Democracy and Justice) repeated this truth several times and in several occasions.

The independence of Eritrea was rectified by a Referendum monitored under the auspices of the UN. From 1993 to 1997, Eritrea registered a steady economic progress, sometimes up to 7% GDP. The same can also be said about political stability with the exception of diplomatic crisis with Sudan due to some terrorist insurgencies, which the government described as Islamic extremists; and the border conflict in 1994 with Yemen for Hanish Islands which was settled after the International arbitration. During these years there was relative freedom of movement, press and a cautious free market. The enthusiasm of independence and the trust of the people on the government was so high that several changes of ministers and officers were simply taken as routine and indeed, for the good of the country. Only few insiders knew that those changes were early signs of division and frictions within the ruling party.

Of significant importance is the drafting of the Constitution with a vast participation of Eritrean both inside and outside the country. The constitutional Assembly adopted it in 1997 and was just pending to be implemented by the government. Several learned Eritreans, like Professor Bereket Tesfazion, of international recognition contributed in the process. The constitution was hailed as very democratic and modern by the international community. In fact, it reflects several international laws and modern international treaties. 11 years later the constitution has still to be implemented. The ruling party repeatedly replied to accusations that the delay was caused by the border conflict with Ethiopia.

Immediately after the referendum the government put as its priority two year compulsory military and national service which was welcomed by the youth and the population in general. Again due to the border conflict with Ethiopia the national service became eternal. Many of the youth are in national service for more than 10 year with a token of 400 nakfa (20 US dollars per month). Grade 12 is complete in Sawa, the training center and after that small fractions which get good results are sent to colleges and the great majority is in national service: construction, education, agriculture, defence, tourism.., etc. According to many, the national service is a plan of the ruling party meditated long ago before independence. In the light of the present situation some see it as a way of controlling the youth and keeping them under continuous pressure.

The border conflict with Ethiopia erupted in 1998, after one year of diplomatic tension, with a loss of 100.000 lives and serious economic and social devastation. The conflict got international ruling in 2000, according to the Algiers Agreement, but as Ethiopia refused to accept the final verdict demarcation has not taken place. The two countries are in a situation of “no peace and no war”. Seeing it now calmly after 10 years my judgment is that the war should have never taken place. The tension could have been resolved with a bit of good will and spirit of dialogue. I am convinced that it is the stubbornness of the two leaders who don't have at heart the good of their people and countries. According to many political analysts, the main reasons of the conflict are more complex than Badme which is insignificant piece of land. Economic ties,, regional hegemony, personal ambition and unfulfilled promised are the real reasons. The general public from both countries believe that the border conflict, as it stands now, is a way of prolonging the two leaders in power and a way of delaying democratic reforms: elections, freedom of press, human rights...etc. I believe that this is morally irresponsible and history will one day question the incumbent ruling party. 

The above analysis is to help your readers get a global view of the background that has brought Eritrea to the present situation of agony. What follows below is the daily life of each and every Eritrean that people outside don't know.

2. DESTRUCTION OF A NATION

Since 1998 the Eritrean people have witnessed a gradual but visible annihilation of their country with feelings of disappointment and helplessness. With the excuse of the border conflict the government has blocked all private businesses, hence paralysing the free market and any form of private property. Flouring industries, factories, businesses and construction firms are at a total standstill. Import and export firms ,as well, are forbidden to operate. It is disheartening to go around Asmara and to find empty shops and stores, which were packed some years ago. The only firms that are allowed to function are owned by the Red Sea Corporations, the economic wing of the party. The Red Sea Corporation failed the ambition of substituting all private industries and the pretence of providing goods to the public according to their demands. People have seen the results: lack of bread, sugar, oil, fuel, medicine, soft and alcoholic drinks, cereals, electronic equipments, etc. According to some economic analysts of the International Monetary Fund, released two months ago, Eritrea has the highest rate of inflation in the world. During my last visit in 1998 I could buy for my uncle a packet of Marlboro cigarettes at 7 nakfa; now it is 50 nakfa, if it is there. The last increase of salary was in 1996.

The government has no foreign currency to import goods. The meagre resources are spent for purchasing military arsenal. It is difficult to know the real military expenditure of Eritrea, but some experts say that it may well exceed 5 billion US dollars in the last 10 years. The government itself does desperate and illegal business transactions to get foreign currency. While consumer goods are rare for the people, the government imports a low cost flour, cooking oil, sugar, electronic equipments, spare parts for cars, etc; and sells them in US dollars to the Rashaida, businessmen of nomadic origin, near the border of Sudan in a place called Togolit or Transit. Many are eye witnesses, including myself of this shameful black market. The Rashaida take these goods and sell them to Sudan, while the Eritreans are dying of hunger. This operation is conducted by the notorious Red Sea Corporation, owned by the ruling party. Equally shocking is the party owned plantation of “chat”, illegal drug leaves, in the vicinity of Anagule and Fagena, on the way to Filfil- Solomuna. This scandal is coming into surface just in the past months, but the plantation started more than 4 years ago. One of the owners of the land, who had coffee plantation, told me that they were ordered to leave the area without explanation and without compensation. 

Wrong policies of the government have paralysed the country, and it is the powerless people who are paying the consequences. Party rulers and army commanders are living lavishly in their villas taking advantage of the situation. Boys in the national service told me that they were taken by military trucks to build, without payment, villas and business firms owned by party members and army commanders. No one is surprised about corruption in a country like Eritrea where there is no rule of law, or better where the law is daily decreed to meet the needs of the few who are in power. However, what people ask is what about the bright future that we were promised? What about the blood of those who died for our freedom? Did we wait for 30 years to see this kind of independence? Eritreans suffered for many years under the Italian and the Ethiopian rule, but the suffering could be supported because they were “outsiders” and there was always the hope for freedom. As stated above the present affliction, however, is caused by our own brothers and sisters; and of course it is more agonizing and humiliating.

From the political side the picture is daunting and discouraging. Things took a sharp downward turning during and after the 3rd round of hostilities with Ethiopia in 2000. The day the G15 were arrested, 18th September 2001, the national radio announced the closure of private press, as well. At present there are only state owned mass media channels: one daily news paper in Tigrinya, one weekly in English, one radio station, one FM radio station and two TV stations. All of these operate in different languages. What is ridiculous is that the material broadcasted in all these centres is identical even in wording. Once one have listened news on the radio, does not need to open other news sources. All the news broadcasted in Eritrea are properly screened by ERINA (Eritrean News Agency). It is really shameful when one compares this with other African countries with flouring newspapers, FM radio and TV stations.

The ruling party has never being a champion of human rights records. But the situation of human rights became open and widespread at the beginning of this decade. Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment without charge, severe torture in prison cells are the order of the day. People who were released or managed to escape have narrated incredible methods of torture. Their witnesses are recorded both inside and outside the country. The opposition web awate.com last year reported 12 methods of torture perpetrated by the party of Isaiah Afeworki. The Chinese style torture is inflicted on political suspects, religious dissidents and youth who are arrested while trying to escape from the country. Perhaps the worst of all these is that once one is arrested his/her whereabouts are not revealed. Family members and friends cannot visit the prisoners. Some prisoners may need assistance like medication or special food, but all these rights are denied. They cannot hire lawyers, they can’t defend themselves, they have no access to the outside world, etc. Sometimes people who are charged with criminal offence are allowed to meet family members, but the political prisoners, which are the majority, are denied all these rights. 

There are thousands of secret agents operating in the country headed by Abraham Kassa, a powerful man of the politburo. As one arrives in the country the first thing family members and friends advice is “don’t talk with anyone about the situation”. Fear of being arrested is the predominant suffocating feeling of the people. Parents whose sons and daughters have escaped are arrested and asked to pay 50.000 nakfa (2500 US dollars). How can a family which earns 400 nakfa monthly (20 US dollars) pay that amount? Or else the one of the parents is arrested and the family is denied the monthly food portion (bought from government stores) and other services, like telephone line, passport, travel-permit, etc. 

The government of Isaiah Afeworki successfully managed to isolate the country from the rest of the world. Tourists are rare and the few who come are not allowed to travel in the country without permission. Many areas of the country, especially those bordering with Ethiopia are closed to outsiders. There are no foreign resident journalists in the county. In November last year the whole world was shocked when the government expelled 13 Catholic missionaries. These are religious who taught, fed and cured the people for many years. It seems their presence was a threat to the government. The official reason given was that their residence expired, but everybody knows that this is a deliberate move to isolate and neutralize the Catholic Church which is powerful and outspoken. The government wants national Churches and feels threatened by other Churches who have outside juridical ties, like the Vatican for Catholics.

Isolation is also within the country. Men under 50 and women under 40 cannot leave the country. Of late the limit age has been elevated. Anyone under this age has to show “menqesaqesi” (travel permit) in all the roadblocks. The national ID is not enough to travel with the country. That is why one lady told me “Wedi Afeworki ab gheza’i adina isurat gheruna” (the son of Afeworki (the president) made us prisoners in our own country). The victims of all these are the youth. They should be either in their camps, military colleges or with their families. They cannot go where they want and when they want. The government should know where they are. This is absurd seen in the light of western mentality, but it is a daily reality of the Eritreans.

The government hides itself behind the “border conflict with Ethiopia” and the policy of the US department which has sided with Ethiopia against Eritrea. People are repeatedly told the present hardships are caused by the conflict and people have to be patient. Obviously, no body believes in this rhetoric and people are convinced that the causes are deeper and inherent in the hidden political agenda of the party. What hurts people more is the arrogant statements and interviews of the president and party official that the country is doing well and looking ahead brilliantly. They even announce that Eritrea is on the way of self-reliance for food supplies. How can they say such things while people have no bread and other essential commodities? In many areas of the country the government took from the fields of the people maize, sorghum, wheat, etc, and promised to pay them back in cash or “mashella”, durra. Until I left the country no one has seen the payment. Around Keren, people were also forbidden to sell at the market their own products, like groundnuts and sesame; and they were forced to sell to the government at half price. That is why many elders call the government of Isaiah Afeworki “shifta” (bandit).

In conclusion, many people are convinced that the problems they are facing now would have come all the same even without the border conflict with Ethiopia. The real problem is not the border conflict or the US department, but the wrong policy and in the agenda of the party. The dictatorship of Isaiah Afeworki and his Maoist vision are the real obstacles of the country. People are not stupid: they can’t understand why the party wants to force on them communism which is outdated and with a record of total failure. Even China has opened up after experiencing economic collapse, though the political system is still oppressive and totalitarian.

3. WHAT WENT WRONG?

This is a question what many Eritreans inside and outside the country are asking. Political analysts, however, say that things went as expected. The problem is that the euphoria of independence blinded the Eritreans from seen the dangerous signs which were already present, even during the years of struggle for independence. In fact, many of the opposition groups were warning people immediately after independence, but many people considered them as failed and frustrated politicians. But looking back and analysing things in the light of the present situation things are crystal clear that Eritreans should have been with the eyes open long ago.

To start with, Isaiah Afeworki studied in China during the years of liberation war. That alone would have made the Eritreans except something of leftist ideology. The party has always been secretive and only few members of the politburo knew the real plan and intention of the party. The party always used slogans and catchwords typical of communist regimes: “broad masses”, “martyrs”, “sacrifice”, “enemies”, “we shall win”. All these betray the philosophy and ideology of socialism/communism whereby prosperity and peace are realities of the future and never of the present. In fact, the slogan of the party of 2007 was: “investment of today, prosperity of tomorrow”. But the heaven and the prosperity they promise never come.

Other signs are cruel method of torture and secret elimination of rivals which are reported already during the years of liberation war, before independence. In 1993, few days before the referendum some disabled ex-fighters, on wheelchair from Maihabar, protested complaining that they were forgotten and promises given to them were not fulfilled. The reaction of the government was shooting at random the disabled in wheelchair; and 13 of them were killed. People did not approve the protest, but got shocked at the degree of cruelty of the government. It was enough to detain then for few hours and that could have been the end of the story. And may be the disabled had a point to protest which should have been taken into consideration.

Another rampart sign was the proclamation of 1996 which forbade religious institutions from owning and running social services. They were told to register all their property, source of income, number of personnel, etc, with intention of nationalizing and confiscating them. The government of Isaiah Afeworki has been very intolerant towards religious institutions which the it could not put under total control. Similar things happened only in communist regimes like Russian and China. Hence, the public should have smelled by then the danger.

Under the pressure of post-independence for democracy, free elections, multiparty system, etc; the party erected constitutional commission which drafted a very modern and highly appreciated constitution in 1997. With the excuse of the border war with Ethiopia the constitution is still in paper and never implemented. May be this is the climax of contradiction. The legislative body (bayto), elected by the people, was eliminated slowly. Nowadays there is no distinction between the legislative, the executive and judiciary bodies in Eritrea. 

The cabinet of ministers meet often, but every now and then the state media announces that a joint meeting of ministers, army commanders and zonal administrators took place to assess the economic development. People are totally confused of the roles, but they know that everything is done to fit the plans of the president. During these meetings insiders say that the president dictates everything and no one has the courage to oppose. If one opposes he runs the risk of being eliminate secretly. Often it has also been reported that the president walks out of the meetings if he is strongly challenged. And here lies the problems of his close collaborators: they have to tell him the things he wants to hear and nothing else.

Of late the opposition camp web sites report that public and state affairs are at a standstill. The only preoccupation of the party is how to survive and how to keep president Isaiah in power. Many believe that the government is weak because it has no more support of the public and of the common military. The statement may be just a good wish, but from what I saw I am also convinced that things cannot continue like that. Something should happen sooner than later.

4. IS THE GOVERNMENT OF ERITREA LEGITMATE?

Eritreans have never elected the present government. The only time the people voted was during the referendum for independence in 1993. Ever since the government has never organized any kind of political election. President Isaiah was elected by the party and not by the people.

Going back to the above question, people have concluded that the government has no legality be it juridical or moral. The constitution which was drafted by the government, but never implemented, states some important assertion that put more light to our question:

“We the people of Eritrea… Desirous that the Constitution we are adopting will be a covenant between us and the government, which we will be forming by our free-will, to serve as a means for governing in harmony this and future generations and for bringing about justice and peace, founded on democracy, national unity and the rule of law;”
(Paragraph 8)

“Today, 23 May 1997, on this historic date, after active popular participation, approve and solemnly ratify, through the Constituent Assembly, this Constitution as the fundamental law of our Sovereign and Independent State of Eritrea:”
(Paragraph 9)

“The constitution enunciates the principles of which the state is based and by which it shall be guided and determines the organization and operation of government. It is the sources of government legitimacy…”

(Article 2(2)

“This constitution is the supreme law of the country and the source of all laws of the State, and all laws, orders and acts contrary to its letter and spirit shall be null and void.”

(Article 2(3)

Well, the constitution was drafted by the present government, and if one evaluates it, in the light of what was said above, the government of Isaiah Afeworki lost its legitimacy long ago with the letter and sprit of the constitution it drafted itself. As the constitution was never enacted we may not talk of its juridical legitimacy, but the moral and popular legitimacy is totally absent. If the ruling party believed in the constitution it would at least respect its spirit. Many experts in international law and political science say that the present government of Eritrea is automatically outlawed by the numerous abuses of human rights it has committed. In fact, the above quoted opposition web site, awate.com, has listed the names of “wanted” individuals during post-Isaiah Eritrea. These are people who will be taken to the law for crimes against humanity; and number one in the list is the president himself. This is also the common talk of the people. Many elders who are disgusted by the present government speak of public trial, according to our culture, to those who inflicted so many suffering to the people of Eritrea. People know that this situation of fear, oppression and one-man-rule cannot continue for long. The people are already talking about and planning for post-Isaiah Eritrea. A government which commits more crimes than the general public has no legitimacy whatsoever.

CONCLUTIONS
As I said at the introduction I am just a concerned Eritrean who returned to Europe with a bleeding heart seen the torment of my people. The people of Eritrea don’t deserve such punishment. They suffered enough and there should be an end to that. What I said above are just a small part of the absurdities that are happening in Eritrea. If we have some changes, more horrifying things will be revealed.

What I fail to understand is how can one man destroy the whole nation? Many people say that he is sick and others even think that he is paranoid and suffers of Schizinofrenia and sadism. Well, these are serious psychological disorders, but I am afraid that the truth may not be far. A normal person cannot allow so many contradictions. 

My intention is to create a public opinion so that some thing could be done to end the anguish of our people. I feel sad when I see so much publication of other African countries, like Darfur, Kenya, Chad, Somalia, etc, and no body talks about the hardships and persecution of the Eritrean people. Time also has come for the Eritrean Diaspora to get more organized and do something to save our people. It is time to forget about our differences and political agenda and concentrate more on how to bring an end the present oppressive regime. People have suffered enough and it is time to give them a new breath of freedom and liberation.

It very sad to see all the youth crossing the borders of Eritrea to other countries just to breath some air of freedom, not knowing the risks that await them. Many died while crossing: either they were shot by the Eritrean guards, or capsized in the waters while they were trying to cross with unsafe boats. Some countries are hostile to the immigrants and countries like Malta, Sudan and Libya returned some refugees to Eritrea, despite the protest of UNRHC and other Human Rights groups. These countries know that the youth will facing torture and severe punishment on their arrival and yet they went ahead with their insensible and inhuman plans. It is an international law to respect political asylum seekers.

Ghebremariam Tekeste

Witnesses narrated to me personally
(names are not real)

Hayat: 21 year

I did not want to go for military service because my fiends told me all the problems that girls face there: heavy work, sexual harassment, rape, discrimination, etc. My fiancé is in Norway and asked me to try to go to Khartoum and from there he would process my papers.

I managed to forge my ID card and travel permit up to Tesenei (town bordering with Sudan), paying 30.000 nakfa ( 1500 US dollars). Unfortunately I was arrested at the roadblock of Tesenei and taken to prison. I was put for 2 months in a cell and everyday they were coming to beat me. They wanted to know who helped me to forge the documents. I was beaten with sticks and with painful leather scourge daily. Three times they lit a candle and put it under my vagina trying to extract confession from me. After two months they put me with other 10 girls in a very small room and I felt better. But after a week some girls who trusted me told me confidentially that two of the fellow prisoners were government spies. We were given a cup of tea and a soup of lenticels per day.

After 5 months I was taken to Wia (infamous camp near Massawa) for military training and stayed under severe and harsh condition for another 12 months. When I finished I went home for the first time. As a result of the beating my doctor told me that I need immediate surgical intervention on my right breast and she doubts very much if I can have children. My life is spoiled…(and she weeps deeply)

Hagos: 31 years
I studied in Debre Zeit (Ethiopia) mechanical aeronautics and I worked at Addis airport for 5 years. When the border conflict erupted I was one of those who were deported from Ethiopia to Eritrea. My father was an Ethiopian and died in 1989. I left in Addis my mother, my two sisters and my fiancé.

When I reached Asmara I went to my uncle and was happy to be in independent Eritrea. After one week I went to Asmara airport and presented my papers asking for job. I was told to come back after a week. When I returned a car was waiting for me and took me to prison for reasons which I did not know. I stayed in one cell for three months. Nobody ever asked me any question. After that I was taken with others and stayed there for other 18 months. Still nobody asked me any question. One day one official came and told me to go home and strictly ordered me not to tell anybody what happened to me. Then I asked “why was I arrested”? He then ordered the guards to take me back to prison. I stayed there for another 45 days. After that they asked me to go home with the same warning. I did not open my mouth and went to my uncle. I still don’t my crime…. I lost my family, I lost my job and my only wish is to go back to Addis, where I was born…..

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