The month of September means much to Eritreans all over the world for it reminds them of the austere change that took place in September 2001 back in Eritrea.
During that time Eritrea closed all paths that would lead to democratic deliverance. That sudden change of direction came at the heels of a badly managed conflict with Ethiopia – the 1998-2000 border conflict that consumed, according to conservative government estimates, 19,000 young Eritrean lives.
The months leading to September can be summed up as follows:
- In February 2001 UN troops arrive to enforce the 2000 peace deal that was signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea in Algiers.
- The country’s leading politicians, all former freedom fighters who spent around 20 years of armed struggle each in the battlefields of Eritrea, approach President Isaias Afwerki to call a Central Council meeting and put the democratisation agenda back on track. He refuses.
- At the same time, Mahmood Ahmed Sherifo, the head of local government, who supports the introduction of reforms, is suddenly fired from his job for disclosing plans to hold multiparty elections. He, as a member of the Cabinet, had the responsibility of leading the country towards multiparty elections. Yes, there were plans to hold elections in Eritrea for the first time after the war. Elections are suddenly postponed indefinitely.
- In April, a detailed proposal of reforms appears on the pages of the then burgeoning private newspapers. The proposal calls for the implementation of the constitution of Eritrea that was ratified in 1997.
- In May, fifteen of the individuals who petitioned the President to introduce reforms and restructure party apparatus publish their Open Letter to PFDJ members (party members) on the internet. Eritreans throughout the world begin to take notice of the political atmosphere in the country.
- In June, Haile Woldetensae and Petros Solomon, two prominent ex-fighters who held high government posts after independence, and were among those who petitioned the president, are suddenly ‘frozen’ out of their positions – they were stripped of their ministerial posts.
- Removing highly adorned ex-combatants (but who were critical of the president’s ways) continue to speak out during the summer of 2001.
- In July, High Court chief justice Teame Beyene is removed after criticising the president for judicial interference in a public meeting. Gagging outspoken citizens does not stop there; Semere Kesete, University of Asmara student union leader, is arrested for protesting summer work programme. A month later, the students are rounded up and forcibly despatched to work-camps. Their union is disbanded straightaway.
- During the same month, the group who petitioned the president, by now branded as the G-15, publish their open letter in local newspapers. And they are widely interviewed by local journalists to explain their positions.
- Then comes September 2001; the day considered the gloomiest day on the Eritrean calendar. When the international community was looking the other way – during the Twin Tower incident – government agents pick up most of the former government and party officials who criticised the president publicly and make them vanish without a trace. Furthermore, 10 journalists and newspaper editors are also made to disappear a week later.
That is why 18–19 September ranks high on the Eritrean calendar. The sudden obstruction of the freedom project touched many citizens and rendered them helpless and vulnerable. Having lost credibility, the government uses heavy-handed tactics to bring things under control. Eritreans sense the change of atmosphere and react by leaving the country in scores. The number swells to a massive level year after year.
The stifling atmosphere in the country has produced over half a million refugees in the region alone since then.
Many governments admonished the Eritrean government and many more human rights groups and institutions called for the release of the prisoners that are held incommunicado since then. All to no avail!