Why Must Eritreans be Crushed into Silence?

On October 31st 2017, a student-led protest in the capital of Eritrea was met with gunfire, after the demonstrators gathered in the streets of Asmara to demand the opening of their school which had been forcibly closed. They were primarily students of the Al Diaa Islamic School - a private community school, located in the Akria neighbourhood-and they wanted to be heard by the government. The Eritrean government, however, is not one that tolerates people voicing their opinions, let alone demonstrating in the streets and demanding respect for their rights.

In the weeks prior, the Eritrean government had started yet another crackdown on religious freedom by arresting leaders of a Catholic clerical school, known as Seminario, for refusing to close their ecclesiastical school. Although the school’s leaders were freed later, it was not the only incident of encroachment on religious freedom the government has committed in the last month. On October 20th 2017, the head of the board of Al Diaa, Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, was arrested for refusing to close the school. Following his arrest, the government closed the school and it was then that the students gathered in protest. 

The shootings seem to have begun in the school’s premises in Akria, and then another shooting happened in the main avenue of the city, and many protesters were imprisoned. Videos have emerged online in which gunfire can be heard, with the sounds that rapid-fire battlefield weapons make. The Eritrean government and its spokespeople yet again tried to smear the protestors, the majority of whom happened to be Muslims, describing them as extremists, and insisting that only warning shots were fired in Asmara. Although that does not seem to tally with the true events, as independently reported, even if that had been  the case, warning shots are an extreme reaction to students, mothers and children demonstrating peacefully: warning shots mean the next shot  will be to your body. Many children were arrested, as well as parents and adults who were caught in the roundups following the protest. It now appears that the school has been reopened and that, after about a week in jail, most of the children have been released although some have been hospitalised due to the torture they suffered under interrogation. The Eritrean government tortures children.  It is impossible to know exactly how many have been killed or doomed to rot in undisclosed prisons, like so many before them.

The shock strategy

The Eritrean government, led by Isaias Afwerki and the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) never allows dissent. Eritreans live in fear of expressing their desires for change and demanding their human rights. Every time they try, they are met with brutal hostility which results in many deaths and discourages the survivors from trying again. In its short history, Eritrea has witnessed several occasions which indicated how much its citizens want to have their say in the running of their own country; but each one of these instances has almost always been followed by killings and imprisonments.

The protest by disabled veterans 

In 1994, in Mai Habar, veterans who were disabled as a consequence of war injuries sustained participating in the struggle for liberation were gathered in protest because their pleas for decent treatment and integration into the civil community were not being heard. They started making their way towards Asmara and refused to stay in the camp within which they had been living, segregated from the rest of society. When attempts to disperse them failed, owing to the veterans’ insistence on being given real solutions to their problems, the government sent soldiers who opened fire on the unarmed disabled veterans. Immediately after the war of liberation, whilst reverence for those who had risked life and limb for independence was still high, an event such as this would have caused uproar in the population. However, Isaias Afwerki’s newly formed government manipulated the way the news broke by presenting the massacre in the government run newspaper “Hadas Ertra” essentially as a small altercation which, due to misunderstanding, led to a few deaths. It would be years before the true details of the massacre emerged, by which time Isaias Afwerki’s oppressive and authoritarian intent was obvious for all to see.

Veterans repeatedly persecuted 

The atrocious Mai Habar massacre was not the first instance in which Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ (formerly EPLF: Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) manifested subversive and deadly behaviour towards the citizens of an independent Eritrea. When independence was gained in 1991, only a portion of the freedom fighters (known as “Tegadelti”) were demobilised. Asked to bear with the difficulties that come with organising a new nation state, the Tegadelti who were still serving were given no pay except some pocket money as they worked in assigned public and military posts for two years, until the referendum in 1993. After the referendum and Eritrea gaining international recognition as a sovereign country, without consulting the mass of Tegadelti still serving under him, Isaias Afwerki announced publicly that these veterans would serve two more years without pay. Having been made to be patient without pay for too long, and given no voice in the matter, the Tegadelti confronted Isaias Afwerki and, refusing to let him leave, demanded that they be heard. They did not harm him or anyone else.

As a result of the intervention of senior Tegadelti acting as mediators, Isaias Afwerki was released in a matter of hours, having promised to hear the Tegadelti’s grievances in full. In the succeeding days after the confrontation between Isaias Afwerki and the Tegadelti, those who confronted him and took part in the small uprising were arrested, court martialled and imprisoned. Most of those imprisoned were detained in Adi Kwala, although some of them have eventually been released. The veterans were made to work without pay for four years, regardless of their pleas.

The Tegadelti had spoken out against Isaias Afwerki’s methods of running the government on various other occasions, but the most prominent figure to this day must be Bitweded Abraha. Arrested on 6 October 1991, presumably for dissenting with the new interim government, Bitweded was detained for 7 years before he was briefly released. Even upon his release, his message was one of peace and harmony among the people and the leadership. Nevertheless, his outspokenness was not something Isaias Afwerki could tolerate and Bitweded was re-arrested in a matter of months and has since been detained incommunicado to this very day.

Targeting civilians as well as veterans

In 1994-95, the Eritrean government detained without trial many Muslim clerics and teachers throughout the country and particularly in Keren. They were arrested without trial and detained incommunicado. It has emerged through witness testimonies that those arrested in such ways were executed by 1997.

As it is internationally known by now, the 1994 massacre of veterans was not the last time the Eritrean government violently oppressed those who dissented and protested. Along with persecuting those who challenge the regime’s authority and policies, ridiculing and attempting to alienate those who speak their mind is also another tactic used by Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ. One notable example came in 1996 when, in a public Question and Answer session with the leader of the country, a law student questioned the necessity for the then newly-established ‘Special Court’. Isaias Afwerki gave a vague answer, as he often does, and proceeded to ridicule the ‘academic’ questioning him. Given the imbalance of power in that exchange, it is no surprise that the student was derided by those attending. However, the most salient issue is that, not long afterwards, he was made to disappear. The Special Court has since become one of the vilest methods of suppressing dissent. It sentences citizens without due legal process, and detains them incommunicado for years, often leading to deaths in custody of people forcibly and inexplicably made to disappear from society.

Silencing, intellectuals, students, the media and politicians

During the International Conference on Eritrea held in Asmara in May 2001, the then Chief Justice publicly criticised the government’s interference in the judiciary system, claiming the latter could not be entirely independent because it received, among other things, “pressure from the government”. He wrote in the paper he presented during the conference that the pressure “from 1996 and up to 1998, was done by attacking the courts in public places and through the public media and by instituting a parallel court such as the Special Court”. This, he said, was “demeaning and humiliating the regular law courts and it was a blatant interference with their independence.” By August that year, he was removed from office by Isaias Afwerki’s government and prohibited from gaining any employment ever again.

That same month the Eritrean government arrested over 2,000 students from the University of Asmara, and sent them to Wia Military Camp in the eastern low-land desert. Conditions were so harsh some of them died and many suffered illnesses due to the harsh elements and beatings they suffered. As is common with most authoritarian regimes, the critical and independent thinking of university students was feared enough by the Eritrean government to set in motion a plan that eventually saw the only university indefinitely stop enrolling students the following year. The University of Asmara has been closed since 2006, replaced by vocational militarised higher learning colleges spread across the country, in an attempt to disperse the students from coalescing and organising in another protest.

These kinds of incidents, coupled with lack of accountability in the leadership, had become too many for the citizenry and, after the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, a group of Eritrean ministers, generals and senior officials wrote an open letter on demanding change in how the ruling party conducted its affairs and led the country. This group, since known as G15, had 11 of its signatories imprisoned on 18 September, 2001 for expressing a different view and asking for a reconciliatory process of change. Isaias Afwerki’s regime refused to hear their plea and on that same date all independent media were banned in the country. Along with the 11 officials and politicians arrested, 10 journalists and directors of independent newspapers were detained as well. Many of those imprisoned died in remote jails, after years of incommunicado detention, owing to the appalling, abhorrent conditions they were kept in, which drove some of them to commit suicide.

What elections?

The Eritrean constitution that was drafted and ratified by the National Assembly in May 1997 was put on hold, the national election which was scheduled for December 2001, was indefinitely postponed, and the National Assembly has not convened since 2002. So, Eritrea is ruled without constitution and by unelected self-proclaimed leader.

Religious freedom:

Since 1993, Eritrea consistently and routinely harasses, imprisons, and tortures Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In May 2002, the government banned followers or minority faiths, except Orthodox Christian, Sunni Islam, Catholic and Lutheran denominations. Their churches were closed, and the Eritrean government started persecuting them. However, the government’s interference continued, and in 2006, it arrested the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Eritrea, Abune Antonios. Among other things, Abune Antonios was ordered to close the Medhine Alem church and threatened with imprisonment if he did not comply. This elderly church leader refused to do so and also wrote an open letter about the government’s interference in the church affairs. He was removed from his position, and he is still under house arrest more than a decade later.

Shoot those who flee

The Eritrean people have shown in various ways, often after being pushed to the limits, their opposition to the government’s unreasonable demands and oppression. The method perhaps most used to show radical disagreement with the Eritrean government is escaping the country, despite there being a shoot-to-kill policy at the border. Eritreans young and old escape their homeland via the treacherous deserts and open seas in the hope of living freely, with their rights and dignity respected. Unfortunately, many die in this pursuit and are never heard of again. 

In October 2013, however, the world was able to see up close the fates many are handed in their journey of escape, as a boat full of Eritrean refugees capsized and burned near the shores of Lampedusa, Italy. In Eritrea, the government did not acknowledge their deaths and went as far as trying to ban obituary notices from being posted in public notice boards (as is customary) in the streets of Asmara.

Shoot those who stay, too!

As things continue to worsen in Eritrea, in the last couple of years there have been two prominent incidents of protest which involved shootings in the capital of Asmara. One is the aforementioned shooting of the last few weeks and the other one was last year, on April 3rd 2016. A convoy of conscripts was going through the city when some of them took the opportunity to jump out of the trucks carrying them and attempted to escape by dispersing into the crowd. Although the details remain unclear, it appears the crowd tried to assist them in their escape before the soldiers opened fire on the conscripts and civilians. The government suggested that only two conscripts died in falling from the trucks as they tried to escape; however, reports from witnesses estimate over a dozen were killed and an unknown number wounded. 

A continuing history of violence?

In this article, we have tried to chronologically highlight situations in which the Eritrean people have spoken out against the Eritrean government, despite for the most part living quietly with the oppression and violation of human rights they endure on a daily basis. Each time Eritreans do speak out demanding change they are met with violence, further oppression and persecution. However, the incidents we mentioned above are just that - highlights - for the Eritrean government’s preferred method of avoiding opposition is to eliminate it before it starts. It is not easily estimable how many have been killed and imprisoned for the imagined crime of having thought something ‘anti-government’ but it is undoubtedly true that many, possibly hundreds or thousands, have died. Of course, anyone who has shown hints of being against the government or deemed to pose a threat to imposed order is also eliminated before they get a chance to influence others by expressing their discontent. They are thus both made less of a concern to the oppressive regime as well as used to serve as examples to others. Eritrea is a country dominated by a regime which prefers the reign of silence, and if people voice their opinions in genuine suggestions for change or demand their basic human rights, they are always met with brutal violence.

The Eritrean people have learned, throughout the years, the way they will be treated if they voice their thoughts and aspirations. This has for years fomented a culture of silence among the population within the country, a condition which follows many of those who do manage to escape to safety as well. It can only be hoped that perhaps by now the Eritrean people can see, through bitter experience, what exactly it is the Isaias Afwerki-led Eritrean government and the PFDJ fear the most: our voices!

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)

21 November 2017

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