Reverse-Engineering Regionalism/Identity Politics in Eritrea: Is the Medicine Worse than the Disease?Monday, 05 January 2015 19:39 Written by EPDP Editorial Board
Eritrea is a plural society characterized by diverse social cleavages that go along linguistic, religious, cultural and regional/geographic divisions. During the long political evolution of Eritrea as a nation-state, these diverse social groups coalesced into one entity in search of freedom, liberty and national sovereignty. Eritreans fought successive colonizers, finally ousted the last vestiges of colonialism, and secured national sovereignty in 1991 after 30 years of bloody war. Not only the prices Eritreans paid during the 30 years active armed struggle was high, but also the loss and suffering that successive Eritrean generations endured before the liberation era and after our independence in search of their nationhood was unparalleled by any account. Sovereign Eritrean is not just a country to an Eritrean, but rather it is the result of the sacrifices of each and every Eritrean family - more than 80,000 martyrs, as well as the complete destruction of villages/properties, infrastructure, and livelihood of every Eritrean. Without distinction of linguistic, cultural, religious, or regional identities, Eritrean lives were sacrificed in search of their sovereign and independent country.
Hence, the most challenging issues that post-independent Eritrea faces concerns the proper management of Eritrea’s diversity, which is a critical determinant factor for the continued existence and sustainability of Eritrea as a nation-state. These include: One, the establishment of effective and good governance that allows access to fair and equitable socio-economic development as a necessary condition for ensuring a peaceful coexistence among Eritrea’s diverse groups. Two, organization of government institutions and structures that can effectively manage and accommodate the diversity of Eritrea’s social groups in a manner, for example, that defines the relationship between the national government and its local government bodies is another crucial element. Instead, what we see in Eritrea today under the PFDJ regime is a “failed/failing state phenomenon” with dire consequences to the survival of Eritrea as a nation state and as a society. The post-independent Eritrean state turned from an intrusive state into an absentee state. Using repressive ideology, policies, and laws, the despotic regime maintains its dominance and controls all aspects of life (political, social, economic, cultural, etc.) in Eritrea, which overtime evolved to become an absolutist and extractive entity. Such a dictatorial power structure continues suffocating the political space in Eritrea and eliminating many political figures, including internal dissents such as G15 who called for political pluralism and constitutional governance in Eritrea. After shelving the 1997 Constitution for the last 15 years, Issaias in his 2015 New Year interview has finally declared that the constitution is dead before even being promulgated( ---እቲሰነድከይተኣወጀሞይቱእዩ።). By killing the constitution before its arrival, Issaias and his regime have been continuing to effectively deny the Eritrean people their rights to have a constitutional government, rule of law, and social and economic prosperity.
The basic economic resources, such as land, labor, capital and natural resources, are mainly under the control of the dictatorial regime in Eritrea. The vast PFDJ’s parastatals, such as construction companies, financial enterprises (insurance, banks, foreign exchange bureaus, smuggling networks, etc.), and trading firms, such as Red Sea Trading Company, are mainly dependent on “forced labor”. Issaias determines who has power in Eritrea and to what ends that power can be used. Hence, for the last two decades, Issaias presided over an extreme set of extractive institutions and runs Eritrea as his own private property; hands over favors and seeks patronage and ruthlessly punishes for any lack of loyalty. There are no formal institutions that place restrictions on politicians’ actions and make them accountable to citizens.
Extractive economic institutions thus naturally accompany extractive political institutions and there is a strong synergy between the two. Furthermore, this synergetic relationship introduces a strong feedback loop: political institutions enable the PFDJ elites controlling political power to choose economic institutions with few constraints or opposing forces. They also enable PFDJ elites to structure future political institutions and their evolution. What Issaias has announced in his recent interview about the secret committee that is mandated with the preparation of “his new constitution” is in line with these kinds of efforts (---- በዚ መሰረት ድማ ንዕኡ [ቅዋም] ክዓምም ዝቖመ ሓደ ኣካል ኣሎ). Extractive economic institutions, in turn, enrich PFDJ elites, and their economic power and wealth that helps consolidate their political power and dominance. Eritrea has suffered heavily under this kind of vicious cycle for the last 24 years.
Today, the Eritrean state has failed and is absent from the lives of the Eritrean people in the sense of providing public goods (protection/security, education, health, justice, welfare, and national identity). When the state fails to provide basic public goods and continues to pursue reckless policies that transfer a large fraction of resources from the population to the ruling cronies (becomes a kleptocratic state), people look for support from neighbors, friends, families, local groups (communities). It is also widely known that the Eritrean Diaspora population is the main provider of livelihood in Eritrea (remittances cover a large part of household budgets for the majority of Eritrean families back home). Even with such generous help from its Diaspora population, the average household per capita consumption expenditure in Eritrea has been deteriorating for the last two decades (see the table below). And such a failed state phenomenon breeds a monolithic narrative that believes that the crisis created by PFDJ regime is part of some wicked scheme directed against certain region (s), which we know is not true. Yet, in this kind of space, regionalists are hoping to nurture, deepen, take a more rigid form, accelerate their regional politics, and strengthening parochial consciousness at the expense of national consciousness.
The major culprit for generating regionalism and identity politics in the Eritrean political landscape is primarily the undemocratic nature of the Eritrean regime, which suffocates the political space. The irony is just as the PFDJ regime continues to mete out injustices to the Eritrean people, few people are jumping on their high horses, promoting regionalism instead of being involved in a constructive partnership with the forces of change and advocate for democracy and rule of law in their country. Indisputably, the solution for Eritrea’s ills squarely lies in dismantling the kleptocratic regime and replacing it with a democratic system of governance in which real power lies in the hands of the people of Eritrean and in which justice and rule of law with all its features become the solid foundation of Eritrean life. One can argue about how best this noble aim can be achieved. A good starting point in the search for solutions to this problem is to initiate a discussion among Eritreans about the dynamics and viability of “regional mobilization” as an answer to the quest for democracy and justice in Eritrea.
Let’s start with asking the right question: What would have to be true for regionalism or regional mobilization to be the right and viable answer to the quest for democracy and justice in Eritrea? What would have to be true for regional or identity politics to be the right “medicine for the disease”? The different assumptions that are made by “regional entrepreneurs” in promoting regional mobilizations and the respective validities of the assumptions have been presented in the 25 December 2014 Editorial of EPDP titled: State Failure and Identity Politics in Eritrea: Is Regional Mobilization the Answer? Here, let’s reverse-engineer “Regionalism” and see if it is the right medicine for the disease (decay and disintegration of the Eritrean State). For regionalism or regional mobilization to be the right medicine, it would have to be true that regional or identity politics should promote nationalism, national unity, rule of law, democracy and social cohesion in Eritrea.
History is awash with evidence (Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Mali, Lebanon, Iraq, etc.) that strong regional identification often results in the exclusion and marginalization of some other groups from the mainstream of national politics and the economy. Different groups compete for the control of key political and economic machineries, and once in power they adopt policies and provisions that empower and favor some groups at the expense of others. In the absence of well functioning democratic institutions, the groups that are excluded may engage in violence in an attempt to enter into both political and economic market. The first group may feel threatened with the loss of the previously acquired privilege, may engage in counter violent behavior – the cycle of violence and counter violence continues. Consequently, regional hatred, regional cleansing, and genocide may ensue. In this context, regionalism embraces particular identity and becomes a deeply emotional basis of mobilization that not only distinguishes one group from another, but also demonizes other groups.
Regionalism also promotes regional outbidding and threatens the unity of the nation-state. Since regional identities tend to be invested with a great deal of emotional and symbolic meanings, regional entrepreneurs have strong incentive to harness such identities as a political force, and to use regional demands as the base instigator of constituency mobilization. This often results in the failure of democratic politics because regional outbidding creates centrifugal forces that overwhelm the moderate political center. Moreover, regionalism could act as an instrument of group consciousness (primordial or instrumental) that promotes one’s sense of being and pride over others, which in turn may lead to regional tensions and conflicts. This may increase the regional sensitivities that in turn threaten the harmonious inter-regional relations, the national unity and harmony, progress and the integrity of Eritrean nationhood.
The bases for regionalism or regional groupings in Eritrea are the Italian colonial legal administrative regions that had been developed solely to serve Italian interests. Thus, the basis for the creation of communality is a set of beliefs instead of a biological trait or differences in ancestry, religion or language. There is also a significant crosscutting among the different segmental cleavages (linguistic, religious, and cultural) of Eritrea due to the assimilative power of complex population movements, displacements, and intermingling effects of modernity. What we have in Eritrea today is a mosaic and mixed plural society. Only very few people can claim that they are 100%, say, Serewetay, Akeleguzetay, Hamasienetay, Barketay, Senhitetay, etc. It is difficult to specify boundaries that demarcate regional territories on the basis of these ascriptions. The extent and intensity of regional self-awareness and the level of external ascription also vary a great deal across the different administrative regions (Awrajatat) of the country. Hence, regional mobilization could not be an effective tool to bring justice, rule of law and democracy in Eritrea. Instead, it may endanger peaceful coexistence and proper management of diversity. On a similar note, many of the ethno-linguistic cleavages of Eritrea are too small polities to serve as optimal unity of collective choice. According to the CIA Factbook Demographic Statistics (2010 estimate), the ethno-linguistic composition of Eritrea is as follows: Tigrinya 55%, Tigre 30%, Saho 4%, Kunama 2%, Rashaida 2%, Bilen 2%, others (Afar, Beni Amir, Nara) 5%.
The exercise of reverse-engineering regionalism leads to the conclusion that regional mobilization is a wrong medicine to the disease that is crippling Eritrea and its future. Eritrea is bleeding to death by the day at the hands of a ruthless dictatorial regime. In order to design an appropriate and winning strategy to avert this danger and to reverse the process of societal decay, it is imperative for Eritreans to fully understand the nature and characteristics of the PFDJ regime. The synergies between extractive political and economic institutions of PFDJ have created a vicious cycle, which seems to persist. Breaking this vicious cycle and replacing it with a “virtuous cycle” – synergies between inclusive political and economic institutions – is the solution. EPDP strongly believes that the fundamental contradiction that should take precedence in our struggle for justice, rule of law and democracy in Eritrea is the one between those who want to continue to promote the “vicious cycle” and those who want to break the “vicious cycle” and replace it with a “virtuous cycle” – between the dictatorship and injustice, and pluralism and justice, respectively. Differences that emanate from other societal cleavages, such as religion, culture, language, region, historical background and memories, etc, do not and should not constitute as basic contradictions in the Eritrean society. Since inclusive and plural political and economic institutions allow and encourage the participation of the great majority of the people, and also distribute power broadly in society, such issues (differences) are addressed by the normal process of the democratic transition under the “virtuous cycle”. EPDP wants to underline that the solution to the Eritrean quagmire is to dismantle the dictatorial regime and to replace its absolutist and extractive political and economic institutions by a pluralistic and inclusive political and economic institutions by establishing a united front of the democratic forces of Eritrea, both inside the country and in the Diaspora. No democracy is possible in Eritrea if people associate themselves only with the same region or identity; democracy is possible when we establish a struggle that cut across all forms of regional or tribal or religious identities. Let’s “play to win” instead of “playing to play”.
The Sarcasm, Denial and Lies of the Eritrean authorities: a personal account on the National service, the closure of the University of Asmara and the Scholarship program in South AfricaMonday, 05 January 2015 17:01 Written by Zekarias Ginbot
……...in Part I, I described how the aspirations of the Eritrean people have been dashed by PFDJ over the last 20 years and how the national service has ended up becoming a modern day slavery. I believe the Ethio-Eritrean border war, commented on by readers of Part I, has been used by PFDJ as an excuse, but as to who started it is beyond the theme of my article for now. In Part II, I continue to reflect on my own experience while inside Eritrea including the closure of the University of Asmara.
By the end of year 2000, an opportunity came along for an overseas study for undergraduate and graduate programs. It was rumored that the Eritrean authorities had to spend the money given to the nation by UNDP. Not sure of the accuracy of that rumor but they decided to send students to South Africa for undergraduate and postgraduate programs. I was among those who got that opportunity. But then, we were asked to produce a 150,000 Nakfa guarantee for return after completing the intended study program. This created shock-waves. “…after years in school and then the national service, and now 150,000 Nakfa!” Students who came back from the war front lines found out that their government, the PFDJ, did not trust them despite the determination they showed in protecting the country with their lives. The memory of colleagues including fresh graduates, who died in the war, was very vivid at the time. But PFDJ officials and the likes, including Dr Wolde-ab Issak, did not bother about the effect of their policies on student moral and nationalism.
The return-guarantee requirement was later dropped for undisclosed reasons but it did left scars in our minds and on our families’ relationships. I know family relationships that are broken to this day as some members were not willing to risk money or property to guarantee their next of kin’s return from South Africa. I know how difficult decision it was for anyone involved given the unpredictability of PFDJ policies within the country and abroad. Under PFDJ, this scenario is similar to that of someone abandoning the national service from his/her military post and then his/her family member being arrested for it.
Many students were indeed sent to South Africa for a scholarship which was a remote controlled program by PFDJ. They managed it like what they do with their high school program in Sawa. When we departed from Eritrea, we were told what to study and there was no proper orientation. Some of us ended up in colleges and universities that did not provide the type of study we were assigned to. Many students were made to wait idle for 6 month, doing nothing, until another university was identified. Some of us were forced to join study programs we were not interested in and this created unnecessary stress. The worst of these was when students were told to finish their program of study on the originally prescribed time without considering problems the students were facing. As a result of these, some students were forced to return to Eritrea before completing their study program: wastage of money and precious time.
Things went from bad to worse when Mr Gerahtu Tesfamicael was assigned Eritrean ambassador to South Africa. Instead of trying to solve problems, he created more confusion among students. Innocent-looking Mr Gerahtu made personal friends among students to spy on student loyalties (looking innocent and making friends is his special talent). He managed to suspend stipend of many students. Some students who applied for entry visas to travel to Europe or America were abducted from their residences and deported back to Eritrea. This is something that one would not expect but PFDJ are good in doing evil. They managed to corrupt South African security personnel for their evil activities. It was also worth noting the request made by Eritrean authorities to the South African academic institutions not to issue student certificates and diplomas on completion of the study programs. Although some of those institutions refused such a request, others did not and the certificates and diplomas were actually sent back to Eritrea. That means some students were forced to return under the arrangement described.
There were many PFDJ sponsored propaganda meetings held during my two years M.Sc. program in South Africa, one of which was with Isayas Afeworki, the Eritrean president in Durban in July 2002. I was one of the students who asked the president about the deteriorating situation in our home country, concerning the national service in particular. The president was in the country for other purpose and an arrangement was made for the students to meet him. In my humble question, referring to the social effects of the national service on parents and participant’s own families, I indicated that the program could be handled better. After explaining how the program was run, the president told us that each national service participant was paid 1300 Nakfa per month. It was a white lie.
We, the students in the Durban meeting, knew that the president’s response to my question was a deception and sarcasm as most of us were members of the national service program before we came to South Africa. That meeting was also the occasion when we were told not to come back home if we chose to do so as the government could hire expats from Asian countries. It was a very discouraging message and it was a clear indication that the authorities were not interested to build the capacity of the nation. Last week, 13 years after our Durban meeting, I heard the president make sarcastic pronouncements about the constitution that was drafted and approved by the people and then shelved away by him. He tried to act as if he understands the importance of a constitution better than anybody else. All these things show how irresponsible and blatant liars president Isayas and his PFDJ clique were then and are today when they communicate with the people.
I take this opportunity to pay my tribute to my fellow student, Hussein Mohammed, who put forward a question to the president at the Durban meeting, and died later tragically. He asked the president about his father’s arrest and disappearance. He was polite in stating the question. I am sure anyone of us would ask the same question at the time if our parent was taken away by security personnel and disappear. He just wanted to know if the president knew about it and when his father would be brought to court if he did anything wrong. The president’s response was hostile and threatening. Although Hussein’s death was in a car accident, he suffered tremendously as a result of what followed. His stipend was suspended and he couldn’t continue to finish his study program. As for me, by then I had already completed my master’s program and was planning to return to Eritrea. Despite all the challenges I had gone through and the fact that the Eritrean president showed up his ugly personality in the meeting described above, I was still blindly optimistic about my country and returned back. I thought I would contribute and make a difference in the lives of my countrymen especially the young.
I returned to the University of Asmara at the end of 2002 and started to work as a lecturer. By then, my friends whom I left in Asmara working as journalists including Mattewos Habteab, Medhanie Haile and Yusuf Mohamed Ali were already imprisoned (and their fate remains unknown to this date). These men were brilliant, young and motivated new graduates from the University of Asmara and, like many other innocent Eritreans, they were taken away from the society because they believed in freedom. It was also the aftermath of the mass arrest of the University students. After their release from Wia, the students were traumatized and were not in a proper mental status to learn. I found the students calm and non-responsive. Under ideal and western-world standards, they should have been de-briefed and rehabilitated first (I do not know which type of world PFDJ belongs to!). I do not wish these type of cruelty to the sons and daughters of PFDJ supports so that their parents would see what PFDJ stands for but these are facts of everyday live in PFDJ’s Eritrea today.
Like any other staff at the university, despite the obvious challenges, I continued to carry-on teaching. The university was already under threat of closure. Some Eritrean expats from the diaspora who used to work for the university had left. Dr. Welde-ab Issak, the then president of the university, did not return from an overseas trip in 2004. Following this, the academic administration and the non-academic management offices became rivals; one reporting to the office of the minister of education and the other to the president’s office; one giving promotion to academic staff and the other withdrawing it. None of them bothered of the threat of closure of the university, the future of the staff or the students. Money of us felt helpless and PFDJ managed to fully infiltrate the university at all levels.
I did not know where Dr. Wolde-Ab Isaac has been since he left the University of Asmara. But last year, I found out that he was working for a certain US college in California, and as I expected, as an acting president. This power hungry person always goes for administrative posts despite his qualification in science. I do not mean this is a taboo but from my experience, Dr Wolde-ab does not have administrative qualities. He would be better suited for a military general than an academician or administrator. He was an arrogant person who did not have any relationship with his staff or the students and was better known for intimidation of staff at the University and demobilization of government employees without compensation in other government institutions.
While at the University of Asmara, Dr Wolde-ab did not care about academic issues. I don’t remember him chairing a discussion on academic issues during the time I worked as a lecturer but only PFDJ sponsored functions. Every time someone approaches him with a question, he does his best in belittling the individual by going into side issue instead of addressing the concerns raised. No one denies that he is an excellent orator but he uses his talent only to intimidate others. When I spoke about him to people who knew him while he was at the Uppsala University in Sweden, their response was, “…well, what do you expect from Wolde-ab”, no surprise at all.
Back to my personal issues: in 2004, I was offered an opportunity to pursue a PhD program at the University of Cape Town where I obtained my master’s degree before. But then the management at the University of Asmara refused to let me go. As we all know, the immigration office in Eritrea considers exit visa applications if accompanied by employer’s institutional letter of support. They use such kind of bureaucracy and tactics to legitimize their suppressive administration, and hence I could not get that letter. When I came back from South Africa at the end of 2002, I was called at the university’s management office to tell about my experience. I believe my honest communication at the time was taken out of context and above all, I was questioning the wisdom of the country’s president while in South Africa.
In 2006, after 4 years of working for the university, I was again refused permission to leave for a PhD scholarship. To make matters worse, the University was officially closed in September of that same year and the academic staff were told to report to the other colleges run by the military. We, the staff were required to sign a document to guarantee compliance with the working environment at the MaiNefhi College or at the other sister colleges. That signing included bringing a parent or a spouse to sign to guarantee compliance. It was a serious matter as we all knew the intension of the authorities. On top of all these non-academic and degrading procedures, the working environment became so bad and unbearable for the staff and the students who were brought there. It was under these circumstances that I was forced to leave my family and my country by taking a dangerous route into the Sudan.
……..Part III will follow
Peace and Prosperity to the Eritrean people!!
(Asmara 02-01-2015) Freedom Friday (Arbi Harnet) activists in Asmara have this afternoon confirmed that the Eritrean regime has called off the announcements requiring many Asmara residents to report for training, tomorrow 3rd of January 2015.
The calls were issued with stern warning of severe repercussion for those who failed to report for training some three weeks ago. However sensing the determination to ignore these calls just like the previous calls in October authorities in the Central Region of the country have started spreading last minute messages about the postponement of the training.
The activists stated: ‘Asmara residents were determined to ignore these calls just like the three previous calls, but they [the regime] backtracked at the last minute and tonight nearly everyone, at least here in “zoba maekel” are aware that it has been called off, we don’t think they will ever pursue the plan again. If the challenge from the public is maintained at this level there is no reason why we won’t see the end of the regime in this new year’.
Three weeks ago all members of the Popular Army and members of the national service who have not registered were informed to report for training on the 3rd of January and sternly warned about repercussions of failing to report. It was feared that the regime will force people to go to “Gahtelay Military training Center”, renown for its inhospitable climate, where the elderly recruits of the Popular Army would have found impossible to cope with.
The repeated show of quiet resistance has become a norm in the Capital where there is a growing confidence and solidarity among residents, who have stood firm in their determination to resist forced militeraisation of the civilian population.
The Popular Army in Eritrea is made up of civilians over the age of fifty, who are required to get armed and trained and be on call for duties in their local area, including night patrols.
In 2014, Eritrea continued to be a scene of human disaster and a country under siege: from systematic state brutality, gross human rights violations and eliminations of any political dissent within the country to indefinite military conscription, which is forcing thousands of its youth to flee the country and becoming victims of human trafficking and organ harvesting enterprises.
According to UNHCR, in 2014 around 70 Eritreans arrived daily in the refugee camps in Northern Ethiopia. Currently, there are over 93,000 Eritrean refugees living in four camps in Northern Ethiopia: Shimelba, May Ayni, Adiharush, and Hitsats (established in 2013),including in two camps in the Afar region of Ethiopia. The country has lost a large number of its productive force (the youth) in 2014 more than the preceding year, entirely crippling Eritrea of its promising and future vision of its people. A country without a youth has no future. Eritrea saw its human and social capital bleeding to death under the predatory regime of a malignant narcissistic leader in 2014. In Eastern Sudan, the number of Eritrean refugees who arrived in 2014 totaled 10,700, an average of more than 1,000 a month.
In addition, the country saw its human suffering going from bad to worse, with a near collapsed economy, widespread poverty, and a health system that cannot deliver a semblance of basic services. There was hardly any family in Eritrea that has not been affected by the consequences of the violent repression of the PFDJ in 2014.
In 2014, the PFDJ regime continued to kill, abduct, torture, and imprison citizens, and committing extrajudicial executions and disappearances of hundreds of citizens, including holding hundreds of others incommunicado and in clandestine detentions across the country. Many of those arrested and held incommunicado in the crackdown of 2001 are reportedly died in prison,including members of the G15. Access to political, economic and social rights, and fundamental freedom to exercise own religion, culture and traditional norms/values continued to be violently repressed in 2014.
The Moral Courage of Eritrean Faith Leaders
Informed and morally courageous four Catholic priests authored a document “Where is Your Brother” that gained a groundswell of support from the Eritrean opposition and the public at large in 2014. “Where is Your Brother” is a document that captured the unprecedented scale of violent repression and terror of the PFDJ regime on Eritrean citizens, and how as a consequence of it, the country is sliding into a deeper social and political crisis.
The document opened a new public and political discourse regarding the gross human rights abuses by the PFDJ, and helped to lay a groundwork for Eritrean people inside and outside not to capitulate but to stand up, defend their rights, and hasten the transition of power to the people and salvage their country. The manifesto also revealed that it is a matter of time before both the opposition and the public indignation reaches a critical mass inside the country.
In a similar vein, in September 2014, the clergy of the Union of the Eritrean Orthodox monasteries put out another document declaring excommunication of the notorious individuals who have been running the Orthodox Church establishment for the last decade or so. The underlying message of both documents is that the long and disastrous road that the PFDJ took the country for the last two decades is being challenged by the people that have an ecclesiastic power on faith, moral, cultural, and social authority in our society. These are the two most important documents that delegitimized the political power of PFDJ in 2014 and broke the culture of conformity and fear of our people that the PFDJ uses to perpetuate its misrule of the country.
Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), Bologna, and Frankfurt Festivals
In May 2014, the EMDHR and its partners organized one of the most important workshops of the year that brought together Eritrean scholars, experts, political organizations, and civil society groups. Under the themeof “Strategic Thinking on Political and Socioeconomic Crises in Eritrea: Implications, Scenarios and Responses”, participants presented a wide array of empirical study papers and explored the current state of affairs of Eritrea under the PFDJ misrule: from the lack of constitution/rule of law to economic and human crisis, from the destruction of Eritrea’s social fabric to the migration of the most skilled and productive force and its far-reaching impact on the health, unity, and development of our country, and to how we should formulate a transition to democracy as well as forge a strategy of bringing all the forces of change together in the fight against the PFDJ regime, be it inside Eritrea or abroad. In the same spirit, the Bologna festival, which was held under “the theme of Eritrean Solutions for Eritrean Problems” and the Frankfurt festival, which both brought large number of Eritreans together came out with a strong voice in support of the EMDHR workshop declaration, including adapting the resolutions of Bologna 2013 and establishing a task force charged to work on a number of areas on how to form a united national movement, dialogue and reconciliation and others.
Regionalism that Knows no Bounds
The politics of regionalism was one of the ugliest developments in 2014 that caught the attention of many Eritreans. Certain groups and personalities have been busy promoting regional politics in 2014 by claiming that the PFDJ regime is suppressing and/or targeting their region more than other region (s). The fact is there are stacks of evidence that the PFDJ regime is no less cruel or repressive to other regions in Eritrea, be it Barka, Seraye or Senhit…etc.
For PFDJ, all Eritrean regions are the same; there is no one region different from the rest of regions when it comes to the state of repression. Again, although it is a well known that the PFDJ regime applies the same method of repression against all those who oppose its regime regardless of any color of region, Muslim or Christian, unfortunately the wretched political situation of Eritrea is one factor that is serving as a perfect field for all sorts of divisions and factionalisms, especially for those few willing to subscribe to it. But those sowing the seeds of regionalism know that there is no particular region in Eritrea that is exclusively mistreated, systematically discriminated, killed or persecuted more than the rest of Eritrean regions by the dictatorial regime of Issais.
Yet, those who subscribe to such politics under the pretext of saving our region or my region are simply perpetuating PFDJ’s tyrannical politics, which would help it to further strengthen and tighten its iron grip on all Eritrean people. It also suggests that those who signed on to the regionalism politics are unable to rally a united force against the PFDJ regime; the easy path they found is to follow a downright sub national politics, which they believe is easy to dupe few apolitical and disillusioned Eritreans. The brute fact is that by involving in regionalism, they are not helping their region, but the regime of PFDJ that is making Eritrea increasingly divisive, oppressive, and bloodstained country, which their region will continue to bear the brunt of it like any other region in Eritrea.
The irony of all is this: if our regionalists (regional entrepreneurs) are accusing PFDJ of being a regionalist, one would ask why are they mimicking it and carbon copying it (PFDJ)? In fact, the pattern of imitation or emulation is interesting because the regionalists see the PFDJ as a regime that is ruling Eritrea by siding with or representing one region, and yet the regionalists themselves are aspiring for power of their region by marginalizing other regions.
More importantly, the point is, you see, Issais’ regime has squandered the accumulated social and political capital of Eritrea’s revolution. Now, instead of reclaiming our revolution, we are handing PFDJ more ammunition to use - regionalism which will enable it to extend its life span. They are writing a wrong history. Eritrea does not need sub national or identity politics; what it needs is democracy, strong institutions, and constitutional system of governance that provides rule of law and equal treatment for all of its citizens. And this means that we have to avoid polarization of Eritrean society on basis of region, ethnic, or religion. If we continue the discourse of regionalism politics, at the end of the day it won’t be only democracy and freedom that will be at risk in Eritrea. In the long term, it means creating an embittered and polarized generation too blinded by hatred and intolerance of one another, and that won’t fix what ails the state of Eritrea. EPDP believes this is the lesson we need to take away for 2015.
Women of Extraordinary Resilience
In 2014, many Eritrean Diaspora women have done remarkable job in championing the rightof Eritrean refugees around the world, advocating for political asylum and protection of Eritrean rights as refugees on their host countries, campaigning against the human trafficking and organ harvesting in the Sinai desert, and echoing the plight of Eritrean refugees in the halls of UN and in the European governments.
Many to mention, but the most inspirational women who made great strides as human rights activists against the gross human rights violation by the dictatorial regime of Issais Afeworki are Elsa Chyrum (Human Rights Concern Eritrea), Dr. Alganesh Fessaha (NGO Ghandi foundation), Meron Estefanos (Journalist and Activist), Sister Azezet Habtezgi Kidane ( Combonian Missionary Sisters), Salwa Nour (Activist in the Gulf States), and Selam Kidane (Activist and ‘Freedom Friday’ campaigner). All of them individually or collectively have made a significant contribution to the struggle for democracy, human rights and freedom in Eritrea in 2014. Elsa Chyrum staged hunger strike in the Djiboutian embassy mission in Geneva in March 2014 against the detention of 267 Eritrean refugees in Djibouti. The hunger strike finally led to the release of the 267 Eritrean detainees in Djibouti. Meron Estefanos coauthored “the Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond” in March 2014, which captures the gruesome account of Eritrean refugees at the hands of human traffickers. All these Eritrean women brought the struggle of democracy close to home in a very resilient and remarkable way in 2014.
A Tireless Defender of Eritrean Refugees
Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest in Switzerland, is another devoted Eritrean who fought gallantly in 2014 and the years before in saving many Eritrean refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Father Mussie established a satellite mobile phone to reach out many Eritrean refugees detained in the Libya and other North African countries. This fearless and crusader for justice uses his satellite mobile phone to alert coast guards on behalf refugees stranded in a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. His active involvement in the saving many lives of refugees has earned him recognition as one of the most devoted and tireless defender of Eritrean refugees.
The State of Stagnation
Eritrean political organizations remained in a state of stagnation in 2014 regarding pulling their resources together and mapping a united strategic roadmap against the dictatorial regime of Issais Afeworki. However, there were some efforts seemingly towards unity, for example, as in the case of the ‘Consultation Forum’ that brought leaders of the opposition forces together and deliberated on a number of issues, ranging from the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust that exists between the opposition forces to the uncompromising political culture and embracing political polarization to a combination of other weaknesses and failures in the opposition. But no concrete, joint, and/or workable agreement was reached that can be characterized as a turning point over the status quo. Individual groups in the opposition have also attempted to engage in a bilateral discussion on how to work together, but this too did not translate into any meaningful development. It seems the opposition has been caught again in a vicious cycle in 2014, maintaining the status quo and unable to transcend beyond the root cause that is holding it back from moving forward – trust deficit.
Lampedusa and Beyond
Lampedusa spurred a serious debate among Eritrean Diaspora in 2013. And the impact was a renaissance of spirit and reawakening, which eventually led to the establishment of multiple grass root movements across the globe. At the beginning, all those movements captured the hope and enthusiasm of Eritreans towards grass root movements unseen in the last two decades. And they have done a number of remarkable public engagements, major protests, and forums aimed at PFDJ regime, including a wave of protests in the PFDJ’s Diaspora gatherings and events that sometimes led to clashes with PFDJ supporters.
But the enthusiasm and tenacity that started in 2013 did not continue with the same weight in 2014. Although still struggling and functioning at some level, the scattered nature of its existence appeared to be part of the problem in 2014, meaning the lack of regional and international leadership that would enable the grass root movements to operate on the same page. But the second and major obstacle to the grass root movements in 2014 was the interference of some political organizations whose efforts were focused on modeling the grass root movements’ ideas and practices on their own image. This means more polarizations and disagreements between the various grass root movements across the globe. And this is the obstacle that the grass root movements need to tackle worldwide, and march beyond Lampedusa.
The Man Behind the Most Important Book in 2014
Ambassador Andebrhan Woldegiorgis published a book that provokes, illuminates, and narrates how the sad state of affairs of Eritrea came into being that overtime not only bankrupted and paralyzed the hopes and dreams of nation building process in the country, but also how the hegemony and dictatorship of PFDJ regime has exposed the country to unprecedented level of social and political crisis. Grounded on the history and experiences of the liberation era as well as on the crisis that took place in post independence Eritrea, Ambassador Andebrhan discusses the entire existence of the state, how it has been delegitimized by not allowing Eritrean citizens to participate in the political system of the country, and provides a framework on how to understand the situation Eritrea is in, as well as how address it.
EPDP Strides & Pushes in 2014
EPDP continued its strides and pushes in 2014 on the subject of national dialogue and building consensus between the forces of change in the Eritrean opposition on the principle of establishing a broad based alliance/coalition. In this respect, one that stands out is the formation of “Consultation Forum” in 2014. Although, it opened some space for honest discussion on the critical failures and weaknesses of the opposition, the forum did not translate into any practical step or into challenging the fragmented state of affairs of the opposition. Thus, the forum did not set conditions for concrete implementation of a broad based alliance, a regressive pattern that the opposition could not overcome. And if the current polarization and disunity continues unchanged among the Eritrean opposition forces, it is incumbent upon us all to redefine our strategy as we cannot justify the current stalemate of the opposition.
Yet, EPDP has registered a degree of strength and success in many fronts sometimes alone and sometimes with leaders of the Eritrean civil society organizations. In this context, EPDP reached out a number of international agencies and institutions in 2014 with aim of seeking a valuable support to our struggle against the repressive regime of Issais Afeworki. What EPDP did in all those contacts and diplomatic reach outs is scaling up the Eritrean people’s struggle for democracy in the international opinion on one side, and seeking diplomatic recognition of the Eritrean opposition forces as a whole that has been largely absent on the other side. EPDP also worked closely with a number of Eritrean civil society organizations in 2014, namely the EMDHR, Medrek, Bologna Forum organized by youth, and Cdrie on a number of important international and national issues such as the participation in the workshop of South African Development Community Council of Nongovernmental Organizations (SADC-CNGO) and others. Although EPDP maintained good relationship with the Eritrean civil society organizations in the previous years, the relation was more reenergized and reshaped in 2014 as part of fostering a unified struggle.
EPDP also continued holding a number of public meetings, and interactions with the Eritrean Diaspora across the globe in 2014: advocating the importance of united struggle, ways of embracing the social, cultural, and political unity of Eritrean society, promoting nonviolent struggle, understanding the significance of reconciliation and peace, the short and long term objectives of the struggle against the PFDJ regime, and our position on Ethiopia and other neighbors...etc. In the course of all those engagements, EPDP received numerous inputs and suggestions that are crucial to our struggle against the PFDJ and beyond.
Those who Passed Away in 2014
Many from the generation of our national liberation movement era passed away in 2014. EPDP salute them, and honor them for their life time dedication and contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy for their country. They gave their entire life to make Eritrea the land of free and the land of heroes. Their passing means a great loss for the justice and peace loving Eritrean people. Among those who passed away in 2014 are Ahmed Nassir, former ELF Chairman; Dr. Beyene, former member of ELF Revolutionary Council, Dr. Tewolde Tesfamariam (Wodi Vacaro), and Omer Jabir. These nationals were instrumental in sparking the Eritrean Nation Liberation Movement at a time when Ethiopia and its foreign enablers were conspiring to abort it. 2014 was also a year where EPDP suffered a big loss of some of its gallant members who contributed to building and consolidating the party. Among them was the most vibrant, committed and unrelenting fighter Asghedom Wedi Bashai in USA, Ms. Mebrat Beyene in the Sudan and Zekarias (James) in Grmany.
What is the Way Forward for 2015?
Many, but one is challenging the status quo, and that is how to break the vicious cycle of division and polarization amongst the Eritrean opposition forces. Two decades of efforts to establish unity among Eritrean opposition forces did not materialize. This is a deep crisis and we need a radical solution. It is EPDP’s stand and many others that our unity cannot take place in abstract. The unity we seek to achieve must take place in a concrete ground. What does this mean? We have a system of tyranny and exploitation that we all need to challenge and confront: this includes all social groups in Eritrea as well as religious groups, the youth, the women, the civil society, and the political groups…etc. In essence, the central dynamic theme that binds us all together should not be to exist as opposition but to end the power of PFDJ regime. This requires both rethinking and redefining of our fight that takes unity as a foundation for democracy, freedom, and nation building. We must link the struggle with the internal resistance, including building a strategic road map/direction, and having a leadership that can understand the scope and depth of Eritrea’s crisis and is capable of raising the voices of the Eritrean people that would enable us to take our fight against the PFDJ to the next level.
By Woldeyesus Ammar
Today, 1st of January 2015, Eritrea completes its 125th year of existence under that name. According to the earliest available figures, the population of the colony in 1893 counted only 191,127 followed by the 1900 estimate of 300,000 residents that included this writer’s father. We can assume that no one of those “first Eritreans” is still alive to celebrate this anniversary with the distressed 5 or 6 million of us today, whose gross inadequacies include being unable to know even the real count of the population at home and the figure for our shamefully increasing number in exile after quarter of a century of independence.
Anyway, it is an occasion to say Happy 125th Anniversary to our (إرترياኤርትራ) Eritrea and then proceed to mention a few lasting legacies and notable events in the ups and downs of our past since the issuance of the Royal Decree of King Umberto the First on 1 January 1890 that put us on the world map.
Understandably, the figure of 125 years is reached by adding the:
- 51 years of Italian colonial rule;
- 11 years of the British ‘caretaker’ administration;
- 10 years of Eritrea-Ethiopia ‘federation’;
- 30 years of armed struggle, and
- The past 23 years under a home-grown repression that replaced alien rule.
Anyone of us may have his/her take in listing only two topmost legacies of our modern history, and add a few memorable events within each of these periods. I am taking today’s occasion to list mine. I will start with what I term the two topmost legacies – one positive, and the other negative.
- One People
Before the Italian advent, we belonged to our separate linguistic and small geographic entities and sub-entities. After common suffering under numerous hardships and humiliations, we have become one people – the Eritreans. To cut a long story short, our unity as one people with manageable diversities is the topmost legacy - achievement - of the past 125 years.
- One Military Mindset
The second enduring legacy in us is what one can call a military mindset. This is a legacy, a ‘philosophy’ in our lives, a social behaviour built - or at least further solidified - through the countless armed conflicts we participated at or conducted by ourselves in the past 12.5 decades of our modern history. Although the pieces of territorial units that became Eritrea were not at peace locally even before 1890, it is sufficient to mention here only the wars we fought as one people: wars that unfortunately bequeathed us an unwanted behavioural infection – the military mindset - that highly values wars and the bravado in violence. We are all part of it because of our past history briefly mentioned below.
The Unwanted Wars Fought for Italy
The Battle of Adwa:
Take the skirmishes with Ethiopia before the Battle of Adwa, like the one at Debre-Ayla, in which over 8,000 Eritrean militias (bandas) took part. Then the Battle of Adwa of 1896 in which almost every young man in the new colony was required to partake. In that single battle, over 2,000 Eritreans died; unaccounted number were left disabled, and selected 500 elite askaris (soldiers) of the numerous prisoners of war suffered the amputation of their right arms and left legs.
Campaign to colonize/pacify Somalia:
Between 1907 and 1910, well over 5,000 Eritrean askaris (soldiers) were recruited and sent to fight in Somalia. This was not a small number compared to the population of the territory. Although Italian Somaliland was declared Italian by 1908, Eritreans continued to be frontline fighters in the conflict that continued till 1920 against the Somali rebellion led by Sheikh Said Mohammed (‘Mad Mullah’).
Italy’s wars in Libya (‘Zemen Trubli’):
Between 1911 and 1932, an estimated 60,000 Eritreans were recruited and sent to fight Italy’s wars in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Libya). After the defeat of Turkey in Libya, fierce conflicts continued to rage against the patriotic rebels led by Omar Mukhtar that claimed untold number of Eritrean casualties. Some of those Eritreans who perished then included the Setimo battalion that sunk and disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea - and remember what is happening to Eritrean youth of today in the same sea!!
The Battle of 1935-36 (Trenta Cinque):
Fascist Italy’s preparations for war against Ethiopia further militarized the entire Eritrean population. Eritrean askaris ranged in 28 battalions were the usual cannon folder at war frontlines in the battles that opened in October 1935 and continued till Mussolini’s declaration of his “East African Empire” in June 1936. An estimated 75,000 Eritrean askaris fought Italy’s conflicts in Ethiopia and in the pacification of the country till the end of Italian rule in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia in 1941.
The so-called period of ‘peaceful’ struggle: 1941-1961
We usually wish to believe that the duration of British care-taker administration (1941-1952) and the federal period (1952-1962) was somewhat peaceful. However, taking into account the absence of security and the killings organized by Ethiopia-supported unionists and the various banditries/Shifta of the time, those two decades can hardly be called a period of peace.
The 30-year war for national liberation:
This was the only period that Eritreans saw logic in conducting the war for their freedom. It was not only very costly but it also further militarized the society and its mindset. This prolonged war that was hoped to be the war that would end all wars did not prove to be so.
Other unwanted wars with Yemen, Ethiopia and Djbouti:
After its independence, Eritrea continued to suffer of the military mindset of its leaders and in the society. There was little logic to fight all these painful armed conflicts with neighbours after 1991, but they occurred. The main cause was not only the leadership but also the general society’s acquired belief in solving conflicts through the barrel of the gun.
The military campaigns and conscriptions introduced after independence; the 28 Sawa military camp training rounds, the regular army and militia formations etc have deepened militarization of the entire society.
The net outcome has been a negative mindset that denies space to moderation, dialogue, to tolerance and to the rule of law. In a word, the belief in the use of force/violence to solve differences is a collective madness. But it can be cured. It can be changed through steadfast struggle of the conscious segments in the society. For this reason, the struggle to fight and conquer this 125-year old negative legacy in us shall continue for quite some time to come – even in post-PFDJ years.
Notable Occurrences (other than wars) During the Italian Period
- Italy’s settlement project in Eritrea: One of the primary interests of Italy in creating colonies was the objective of finding suitable land for the resettlement of Italians who were facing economic/land problems at home. Between 1876 and 1889 alone, some 2.2 million Italians migrated to the Americas. hat is why a few months after declaring Eritrean an Italian colony, the Italian parliament and government passed laws that aimed to seize large tracts of land in Eritrea (terra domeniale). Pilot projects of the resettlement programme were started in a number of places. Extensive land confiscations deprived many peasants and herdsmen of their land. Eventually, all land below 850m altitude was declared state land and land concessions for up to 99 years were granted to Italians. However, the growing protests by the affected people, like the resistance led by Bahta Hagos of Segeneiti, and the unsuitability of many parts of the country for European settlement partly aborted the resettlement programme in Eritrea. Therefore, instead of going to Eritrea, 7.1 million Italian emigrants, mainly from southern Italy, settled in the United States (4.1m), in Argentina (1.8m) and in Brazil (1.2m) till the start of the First World War in 1914.
- Transport and communication Networks
Construction of the railway, the ropeway, and 3,400 km stretch of primary and second roads throughout the colony helped transform the life of the people who became “different” from the same peoples across the new frontier lines.
- Industrialization, urbanization
In its war efforts, Italy established nearly 2,200 industrial enterprises and built modern urban centers in the colony. The labour force in industries, mines, transport and modern agriculture reached nearly 40,000. Modernization was quick to spread in the colony, especially during the second half of Italian rule.
Notable/Memorable Occurrences during the British Administration
- The spread of education was the most important occurrence during the British care-taker administration from 1941 till 1952.
- The second most memorable event of this period is the emancipation of serfs in western Eritrea under the leadership of Ibrahim Sultan. It was estimated that up to 93% of the social groups in Barka and Sahel regions were, until the mid-1940s, subjected to serfdom that required them to provide heavy feudal payments and services to landlords. Vast majority of the emancipated serfs later rallied behind Ibrahim Sultan who led the largest pro-independence party and a block that helped create the symbolisms for Eritrean national awareness.
- The 2 December 1950 Resolution of the UN General Assembly on Eritrea.
Notable/Memorable Occurrences during the Federal Period
- This period was marked by succession of violations of the Federal Act decided by the UN General Assembly. Those unwarranted violations by Ethiopia and its local agents in Eritrea increased political consciousness among the urban population in all parts of Eritrea.
- The lowering of the Blue Eritrean Flag in late 1958 angered the general population, especially the young generation.
- The formation of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM/Mahber Shewate) in Port Sudan in 1958 and the establishment of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in Cairo in1960 were the other major events of this period.
Notable/Memorable Occurrences during 1961-1991
- The massacre of about 1,000 innocent civilians at Ona and Besik-Dira in December 1970 created renewed anger against the Ethiopian occupation among Eritreans at home and in diaspora (including students in the Middle East, Europe and North America). The student (youth) movements in turn rekindled the forces in the liberation struggle.
- The ELF-EPLF civil war of 1980-81 changed the direction of the liberation struggle at many levels, and planted seeds for power control and polarization in the society.
- The victory at Afabet in March 1988 reassured Eritreans of a final victory in the liberation war.
Notable/Memorable Occurrences during the Past 23 Years
- The final defeat of the Ethiopian army, 24 May 1991.
- The crackdown of the PFDJ regime on the G15 reform movement in September 2001.
- The Lampedusa tragedy of 3 October 2013 that symbolized all the suffering being inflicted upon the entire nation in recent years.
Eritrean human rights and democracy activists in Australia have, on 22 December, interviewed over a public service radio in Melbourne the head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, reported Mr. Arei Mohammed Saleh, member of the EPDP branch in Melbourne.
The newly designated head of the Commission, Mr. Mike Smith, who is a university professor in Australia, was interviewed by Mr. Arei Mohamed Saleh and Ahmed Mahmoud Alhaj to explain a long range of topics including the mandate of the Commission and what Eritreans can expect from its reports.
Summarized below are points from the radio interview with the chairpersonof the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea of which Ms. Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Eritrea is also a member.
Question: Does the setting up of a UN Commission of Inquiry mean the possible existence of crimes against humanity committed in Eritrea? What is the time frame the Commission’s mandate?
Answer: The Commission of Inquiry has been mandated to investigate alleged human rights violations in Eritrea. We are required to report back by June 2015. There is no mention of crimes against humanity in the resolution but … the Commission will document what violations of human rights have been committed (since independence of Eritrea).
Q: How can people contact you?
Q: You launched your inquiry task on the 20th of November 2014 and have already met with Eritreans in Switzerland and Italy. Do you plan to meet Eritreans residing in other countries, in particular the Sudan ad Ethiopia where there are a large number of Eritrean refugees?
A: Yes and very definitely and we would like to meet Eritreans who are living in a number of different countries. We have in fact sent letters to a number of the neighboring countries to Eritrea. …. But we will be visiting a number of countries. We would like to visit all countries where Eritreans are living including Australia….
Q: Are you optimistic that the Eritrean government will allow you to visit Eritrea? If not, how will this affect your work?
A: We have written to the Eritrean government and also spoken to the diplomatic representative in Geneva and have asked for their agreement to our visiting and meeting people, and visiting various sites in Eritrea. They have not replied yet and I do not want to pre-judge… The Office of High Commission for Human Rights has a lot of experience in this area….where the commissions were not allowed to visit certain countries, information was collected from outside those countries from people who have first-hand experience, expertise … and were able to provide very credible and compelling reports. …we will do our report whether we visit Eritrea or not.
Q: How do you verify the creditability of information you receive?
A: Commissions of inquiry follow established standard procedures…. We check the credibility of the information and the reliability of the source of the information…..
Q: How will you protect the identity of those who provide you with information as many may need assurances that their information and identity will not be leaked to the Eritrean regime?
A: We have all the measures to ensure the full confidentiality of all information and the identity of people who have had contact with us. Their concerns are well addressed if they do not want to be mentioned by name…
Q: How do you report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva?
A: In March 2015, we will give an oral report to the Council. We will tell what we were doing and will answer questions from Council members…..Then in June 2015, we shall make a presentation to the Council in Geneva and to the UN General Assembly in its next session, probably in October 2015. ….I would expect that the reports will include recommendations….
By Imogen Foulkes BBC News, Switzerland
Einsiedeln Abbey, Switzerland's oldest and most famous monastery, has opened its doors to asylum seekers.
The abbey was founded in the 10th Century; for over 1,000 years it has been a place of pilgrimage. For the Benedictine monks who live there, the daily routine, bounded by prayer, has changed little during that time.
But Abbot Urban Federer, who has been in the top job at the abbey for less than a year, wants to create new roles for Einsiedeln that reflect the challenges confronting 21st Century Switzerland.
Switzerland has a population which is now almost 25% foreign, with most immigrants coming from the European Union. Like other European countries, it is facing an increase in applications from asylum seekers, particularly Eritreans and Syrians.
Swiss voters have gone to the ballot box twice this year to vote on measures aimed at limiting immigration, but the country retains a relatively generous policy towards asylum seekers.
"As everywhere in Europe, there are more and more people coming from other countries, from other continents," Abbot Federer says. "And I thought we should do something too, as a church, as a monastery."
The 30 Eritreans live in bunks once used by the monks
Coincidentally, the local authorities approached the abbey, asking if it could house asylum seekers while their requests were being processed.
Former army barracks and even underground civil protection bunkers are being used as authorities struggle to respond.
Switzerland - Eritrea's biggest diaspora
- Switzerland is now home to some 20,000 Eritreans
- The UN estimates 4,000 people flee Eritrea every month
- The UN Human Rights Council has condemned Eritrea for repression of political opponents and its policy of requiring all citizens to do unpaid, indefinite military service
- Switzerland expects 25,000 asylum applications in 2014, mostly from Eritrea and Syria
- Some cantons have used underground bunkers to house asylum seekers
The Eritreans staying at the abbey survived perilous journeys across the Mediterranean
"We did not want to put the asylum seekers into bunkers, in civil protection centres which are all underground with artificial light, artificial air conditioning and so on," says Fiona Elze, who is in charge of asylum in canton Schwyz, where Einsiedeln is situated.
The abbey agreed to make space for about 30 asylum seekers from Eritrea. They arrived in October, and live in accommodation once used by pilgrims.
Forced military service
Among them are 25-year-old Samuel, and Simon, 29. Both made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
Simon, who was travelling with his brother, remembers being loaded into a boat fit for 60 or 70 people. When it finally set sail, it was carrying almost 300.
The boat carrying his brother, which set off just afterwards, did not make it. Simon never saw his brother again.
Samuel's boat, too, quickly ran into difficulties. "We were a day and a half in the sea," he remembers. "Then Italian ships saved us."
Samuel was a teacher in Eritrea, but was imprisoned when he protested against forced military service. He was held for five months before escaping and trekking across Sudan and Libya to the Mediterranean. Eritrea's regime has been condemned by the United Nations for serious human rights violations.
In Einsiedeln, his life is very different. The abbey is a business as well as a place of worship, and the asylum seekers can earn some money, chopping wood at the timber yard and maintaining the extensive grounds.
Both Samuel and Simon have pinned their hopes on being accepted as refugees, so that they can live and work legally in Switzerland.
Many of the asylum seekers are Christians and are welcome in the church if they want to visit. But by and large the newcomers exist side by side with the monks, rather than together.
The monks have their own daily schedule, and tend not to mingle.
In addition, Einsiedeln is in one of the most conservative and traditional regions of Switzerland.
"I think some people were scared," admits Abbot Federer, who realised that locals were not completely enthusiastic about welcoming asylum seekers to the area.
"But I have the impression now they see it hasn't created a problem."
Fiona Elze says that "politically it is controversial".
"But if you look at it, who is coming? They are from Eritrea, where you have severe human rights violations, or from Syria, where there is actual conflict."
As for the monks themselves, Abbot Federer believes they have reacted to the newcomers in their midst with their usual Benedictine tranquillity.
Their days continue as they always have, punctuated by prayer and contemplation.
And, as their abbot points out, while the current project to accept asylum seekers is new, the abbey does have a 1,000-year-old tradition of offering sanctuary to pilgrims, many of whom trekked long distances in the hope of receiving physical and spiritual comfort.
For centuries, pilgrims have travelled to the abbey to see its Black Madonna
"We have always had people living with us," he insists.
The current group of asylum seekers are expected to move to local housing once their requests are processed, but Einsiedeln Abbey is expecting more newcomers.
And the monks may well find those new arrivals even more unusual: taking the place of the asylum seekers in the old pilgrims' quarters will be nuns from a neighbouring convent.
Nevertheless, Abbot Federer says that, should the authorities request space for asylum seekers again in the future, Einsiedeln will continue to be welcoming.
"If they ask, we are here."
The Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) expresses its deepest shock to yet another tragic loss of Eritrean refugees in the Atbara River and the harassment of the refugees in the Shegerab Refugee Camp by Sudanese security forces.
According to recent reports, early this week dozens of Eritrean refugees run away from the Shengerab refugee camp and attempted to cross the Atbara River to Khartoum on a wooden boat. Tragically, the unsafe boat capsized and as a result most of its passengers are believed to have died. With an intention to rescue the victims, another group of Eritrean refugees left the Shegerab camp which is extra ordinary and daring step given the spate of kidnappings over the years and the failure of Sudanese authorities in providing adequate protection. Yet, the Sudanese authorities chose to arrest the rescue team and burn the refugee shelters in the camp, instead of investigating the fatal incident and providing support to the traumatized refugees reeling from the dreadful incident and many more before that.
While we have always been grateful for the historical and continuing generosity of the Sudanese government and people in hosting Eritrean refugees, we condemn the unlawful arrest of vulnerable refugees and the use of paramilitary security forces in the refugee camp.
- The Sudanese government to set up an independent inquiry commission to investigate the incidents surrounding the crisis involving Eritrean refugees in the Shegerab Refugee Camp;
- Sudanese authorities to immediately release all Eritrean refugees unlawfully arrested and held by Sudanese security forces; authorities must also immediately withdraw paramilitary security forces out of the Shegerab Refugee Camp;
- The Sudanese government to do all under its power to find and identify the bodies of the victims of the Atbara River and return them to their families in Eritrea for proper burial;
- The Sudanese Government to grant Eritrean refugees freedom of movement within Sudan which will no doubt stop the fatal practices of human smuggling and extortion by unscrupulous individuals;
- The Sudanese authorities have the obligation and responsibility to provide adequate protection to the Eritrean refugees under their jurisdiction;
- The UNHCR and the international community must seriously pay attention to the Eritrean refugee crisis and assist in finding durable solutions;
- The international community must reject and condemn the totalitarian regime ruling Eritrea which is the primary cause for the human rights and refugee crises. In the face of the continuous tragedies and precarious conditions in Eritrea, the world should join us in saying enough is enough and press for democratic change.
Refugee Protection Office
Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR)
27 December 2014
Pretoria, South Africa
In an urgent Christmas-day message to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) regretted the continued failure of UNHCR to protect refugees and condemned the mayhem carried out by the Sudanese security forces at the Shagarab camp on 24 and 25 December 2014.
The memorandum stated that following the drowning of about 28 out of 30 Eritrean refugees in the Setit-Atbara River on Christmas Eve of 2014, misunderstandings flared up between the locals and the refugees.
By taking this excuse to intervene, the Sudanese security forces have invaded the Shagarab camp and committed untold atrocities. They mindlessly beat camp residents, burned their improvised shacks, and looted property. The security forces also loaded to army vehicles nearly 1,000 young people under duress and reportedly took them to the Ghirba region. They are currently threatening to send them to Eritrea
The EPDP message also informed UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres that well over 50 camp residents, many of them with seriously broken hands and legs, are reportedly in hospital. Many refugees who fled from the camp are also scattered around the region and are under the fear of being taken hostage by the Rashaida human traffickers in east Sudan.
The memo further expressed anger and frustration with Sudan’s and UNHCR’s continued failure to protect the residents of the reception camp at Shararab which has been under the constant threat of human traffickers and their accomplices in the Sudanese security forces.
The EPDP memo recalled the High Commissioner’s visit to the camp in January 2012 and his promise to boost protection to the residents from all abusers in the region. Unfortunately, what followed in January 2013 was the tragic incident of January 2013 in which 8 camp residents were taken hostage from inside the camp only a year after that visit, the memo added.
This memorandum underlined the inescapable responsibility of the Sudand and the UNHCR for what is going on at Shagarab now, and that they should have done all what it needed to protect the affected Eritrean refugees.
The EPDP memo, which was copied to the government of the Sudan, concerned EU offices, and the UN Permanent Missions to regional Europe office in Geneva, also called on the international community to make pressure bear on the Sudan not to forcibly hand over the Eritrean refugees to the criminal regime in Eritrea.
This article will address the issue of participation and relations of the civil society associations and political organizations in the struggle from dictatorship to democracy in Eritrea.
The meaning of civil society and political organization in the Eritrean Diaspora is complicated but the scholarly definition of civil society is that,
" an association of people who act between the state and the market. Civil society is an associational sphere between the state and family separated from the state but enjoy autonomy in relation to the state and are formed voluntarily by members of the society to protect their interests and values."
The participation of civil society in the struggle against dictatorship to democracy is an important factor in the struggle for democratization in Eritrea. Civil society is the force that can hold the government and political organizations accountable and is the base upon which a truly democratic culture can be built.
Looking at the Eritrean civil society associations and political organization in Diaspora one can see that the civil associations act as political organizations and contribute to increased ethnic and religious fragmentation and political violence in the camp of the opposition struggling for democracy.
The Eritrean Diaspora struggle from dictatorship to democracy in Eritrea has been a struggle for power between political organizations and civil society associations. The main argument of this article is,
What framework and strategy can we have to increase participation of civil society associations and build a strong working relationships with opposition political organizations?
It is necessary to support and develop societal organizations and strengthen the struggle from dictatorship to democracy increasing the possibilities of a successful transformation to democratic politics in Eritrea. In fact the civil society associations and political organizations in the struggle are interdependent.
Some recent studies show that civil society has played effective role in bringing social and political change and were instrumental in overthrowing dictators( recent Arab Spring) but how about the Eritrean situation? Are we towards playing effective role or weakening each other? Discuss and compare our situation with others.
The Eritrean civil society associations and political organizations flourished in Diaspora but how effective and united are they in their struggle for democracy. The Eritrean Opposition is pluralistic based on ethnic, religious and region if these identities are politicised lead to more conflict than to democracy.( See Studies from IDEA's website) because they lack a framework and strategy of managing this pluralism.
The Eritrean civil society associations and political organizations are similar both in their organizational structure and their operations, thus their constituents are based on kin- and clientelist networks.
The main issue to be discussed is how can both the civil society and political organizations transform from such linkages to programmatic issues. I think this is the main issue to be discussed by the Eritrean scholars and practitioners.
The Eritrean civil society associations should not stand in contrast with the opposition political organizations but complete each other by uniting their efforts promoting democracy and development inside the opposition camp.
Reconstructing the weak Eritrean Opposition
The Eritrean political leadership in the struggle from dictatorship to democracy must come out from their isolated caves and come together and perform political dialogue building a broad united democratic front that can regain the trust of the Eritrean people and get legitimacy both at the national , regional and international level.
The Eritrean civil society associations in the struggle from dictatorship to democracy must also come out of their isolated caves and come together discuss on the misperceived assumption about the relationship between civil society and political organizations now at this time of struggle and after the fall of dictatorship. The civil society associations can make their values and interests from now clear.
I think the focus at this time must be building a united umbrella partnership of all civil society associations locally , regionally and globally.
After reconstructing the political organizations and the civil society associations separately then these two can join and build partnership of cooperation locally, regionally and globally against the dictatorship in Eritrea and lay foundations of democracy in the post-dictatorship Eritrea.