Soon after independence, there were close to a million Eritrean refugees around the world. Half of them were in the Sudan. Although the newly formed government of Eritrea of the time had no resources to resettle the refugees, particularly those residing in the Sudan, it failed to cooperate with international agencies that specialize in resettling refugees on numerous occasions. UNHCR was one organisation that was consistently frustrated by the Eritrean government. The organisation was denied to manage its own program. Due to delaying tactics played out by the government and its belligerent attitude towards ‘foreign agents’, the on-and-off resettlement program which was masqueraded as a self-reliance initiative, failed to gain traction. In fact, after numerous endeavors to resettle refugees, the 1998 Badme erupted. Many of the resettled and those who returned to Eritrea by themselves, once again crossed the border to seek refuge in neighboring countries. In that sense, they were ‘twice-a-refugee’.
Those who left Eritrea in the 1970s and 1980s waited eagerly and patiently to return to ‘liberated’ Eritrea. Unfortunately, the political climate in Eritrea dashed their hopes; consequently, the diaspora stayed put in their host countries. That generation of the diaspora, educated and with sufficient resources, had the potential to bridge relations between Eritrea and the international community. However, the Isaias regime could not care less of their potential; instead, it systematically precluded them from playing constructive roles altogether. Why? All to do with utter distrust of the other - deep-seated paranoia about non-combatants taking over the reins of governance. And now, the roles of this resourceful diaspora group have been confined to receiving the younger generation of refugees, their family members, who are being pushed out of the country. That means post-independence Eritrea lost two generations of its experienced and promising citizens back-to-back.
Eritrea degenerated to a state where young Eritreans have little control over their personal life and the state controls their livelihoods. As the ‘national service war’ that has been declared on them persists, they continue to decamp from their units and head to neighboring countries. Isaias is on the record as saying that the fleeing youngsters are the undesirables. That is why Eritrea, once again, has ended up becoming land of ‘undesirables’ – one that is producing more and more refugees. Thanks to PFDJ, the term refugee has now become synonymous to being an Eritrean.
The pace of ‘marching to the rear’ is what has made the country stand out. Independence was supposed to get rid of all oddities, be it political, economic or social. Instead, Eritrea, under the rule of Isaias Afwerki, turned out to be the oddest among the odd countries of the world. Independence was supposed to bring joy and happiness to the average Eritrean; instead, the country became a pariah state, a source of shame and misfortune. Instead of reveling in the outcomes of the revolution, Eritreans, to put it lightly, are left scratching their heads and trying to figure out what happened. Yes, independence was supposed to bring pride and increased self-worth; instead, Eritreans are sinking in the sea of revulsion. Again, what is more unique about the country is the fact that those who liberated Eritrea have become victims of their own struggle for independence. That is bizarre! Life cannot get any weirder than this.
On the flip side, one of the most striking characteristics of today’s Eritrea is the conscious attention which the government devotes to the organization and indoctrination of youth. The dictatorship is unique in having set the pattern of such activity.
Young People's Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ) is an ultra-nationalist Eritrean Diaspora Youth organization which is directly affiliated with the parent organization that is ruling Eritrea (PFDJ). Their members, who are indoctrinated in PFDJ ideology, are striving to repudiate the human rights abuses that have been reported by various international institutions - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN and various other agencies. YPFDJ are organized into local cells on a community level under adult leaders. Their regional leaders organise rallies in which several dozen cells would participate. Government officials fly in from Eritrea to address the crowds. Literally, YPFDJ’s cognitive development is based on processes of assimilation and accommodation of PFDJ values.
The members of YPFDJ realize educational quality has remained poor in all scholastic institutions in post-independence Eritrea. They know their counterparts, young people inside Eritrea, are exploited in Isaias's Eritrea. They also know that youth camps in Eritrea, such as Sawa, are means to entrench and spread mortifying propaganda and revolutionary social and political ideas. Yes, they know the endless national service program in the country is a form of slave labor.
Over the years it has become apparent that Isaias fears the youth. That is why he sends the young people to camps like Sawa - to disperse, control, emasculate and exploit them. Others are indoctrinated to do his dirty work. Most of the refugees we are seeing today in the West are escapees from those camps. The diaspora-based YPFDJ group, however, are hell-bent on repudiating the causes of the mass exodus. They seem to have forgotten they themselves or their parents were once refugees. For that matter, these ex-refugees do not want to go back to Eritrea.
Throughout history there were many youth groups that sided with dictators; the Blackshirts went through the same experiences. Like any other ultra-nationalist groups they will, sooner or later, learn from the demises of such movements. BTW, YPFDJ is nothing but what is referred to within non-government international circles as a GONGO. Basically, GONGOs are government-sponsored non-governmental organizations. They have become the tool of choice for undemocratic governments in order to portray their domestic politics as spick and span affairs. The idea is those governments have to look democratic to the outside world – that is where YPFDJ groups come in.
The YPFDJ use the practices of democracy to subtly undermine not only the plight of the Sawa victims but also democracy at home. Abroad, as if they are representatives of Eritrean citizens, they lobby the international institutions - to do away with the sanctions, for instance. They do that by pretending they possess lofty aims, when, in fact, they are pawns of the government back home that funds them.
YPFDJ members are compromising themselves not only because they are pawning off government thugs as legitimate and democratic officials, but also by repudiating the real situation of Eritrean asylum seekers. They have their brothers and sisters blood on their hands. We wonder where the YPFDJ groups are heading?