Meron Estefanos 25 Mar 2018 00:00

The Eritrean government has no intention to change the unlimited national service that pushes the youth out of the country. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)

The Eritrean government has no intention to change the unlimited national service that pushes the youth out of the country. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)

Thousands of African refugees and migrants are trapped in Libya, where they are exposed to enslavement, torture and rape. A vast network of militias, armed groups and smugglers inhumanely brutalise these refugees held captive, demanding ransom for their release. This Old-World experience might be new for the international community, but it is sadly normal for the Eritrean people, who have become accustomed such horrors. With the abuse against Eritrean refugees persisting on for almost 10 years, in Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Israel, and now Libya, Eritreans have become desensitised; the slavery in Libya is “the new normal”.

In Sudan, we get kidnapped and sold; in Egypt we get auctioned and sold; in Libya we are sold over and over again; Israel pays Rwanda $5 000 for our resettlements; and worst of all, our president demands $50 000 from Israel for our deportation and torture. This is what it means to be an Eritrean refugee in 2018! It is an enigma that I fail to resolve.

Narrating the tragic, first-hand accounts of Eritrean refugees held in the hands of smugglers and armed militias can provide a clear picture as to why these refugees are willing to take such risks. As an activist and journalist, I have been reporting on the plight of Eritrean refugees around the world. While it was encouraging and vindicating to witness the international community’s outrage against slavery in Libya, still, every month, more than two thousand young people join the hundreds of thousands in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. Despite a population of only five million, Eritrea is one of the largest refugee-producing countries in the world.


Of all the atrocities taking place in Eritrea, be it against dissident politicians, independent media professionals, religious leaders and community elders, it is the plight of the youth that is the most harrowing. Eritrean youth are wrought with most horrifying and tragic obstacles on their way to Europe. A young Eritrean who gives up hope and leaves his native country, choosing the prospect of a dignified death abroad over an undignified life in Eritrea, is either tortured, raped or dies a slow agonising death. By fleeing the indefinite military conscription and human right abuses in their own country, they are exposed to a vicious cycle of tragedy.

In my years of activism, I have heard stories that shocked my conscience and made me question humanity. But there are few stories that remain glued to me always, that I am unable to erase from my memory. Here are three of them.

The biggest one is a story that shocked the world in 2013. On 03 October, a tragedy struck in the Mediterranean Sea, very near the idyllic Italian cost of Lampedusa. A refugee-carrying boat capsized, and more than 350 Eritrean men, women and children vanished within sight of safety.

Yohanna, a 22-year-old was among those who lost her life. Had she survived the tragic death in Mediterranean, she would have given birth to a child and enjoyed being a parent together with her fiancé in Italy. But as fate would have it, her child was born as she was sinking to her death. Both were found amidst the wreckage, with the umbilical cord still connecting them in death as they were in life.

The lives of Helen and her four children were also claimed by the tragedy of that day. She was on her way to join her mother in Europe and give her children a better future. Those who survived the tragedy remember how she had gathered all of her children near her, trying to hold them in embrace to save them. She screamed in agony as one after another slipped out of her arms to their deaths. She wailed in anguish, she cried her regret, and finally, she, too, was swept away, or maybe she decided there was nothing worth holding on for.

I am also left thinking of this horrifying story of torture and rape at the hands of the human traffickers in the Sinai Desert. Mulugeta, a former Eritrean freedom fighter, decided to abscond the country with his two teenage daughters, hoping for a better future and education for his girls in Europe. Within days, they reached a Sudanese camp. Hours after their arrival, soldiers came into the camp, and traffickers followed. Mulugeta was beaten, his legs were sliced and cut and he, along with his two daughters and a group of other refugees were taken to Sinai by force. For 15 days, they crossed the desert, with little food and water. When they arrived at a new camp, Mulugeta was forced to the ground, his face in the dirt while iron chains were roughly locked around his ankles and wrists. He was beaten over and over again. He witnessed the man next to him die from malnourishment and the beatings.


Mulugeta was helpless to intervene as his daughters were stripped, sexually violated and beaten. The traffickers used stones, chains, or tree branches to beat victims on their legs, back and even head, he explained. The pain was excruciating, but after a while, he admitted, he didn’t even feel it as his body became numb and it all became a blur. The traffickers demanded $40 000 for each of them. Mulugeta’s community in Eritrea raised the funds and gave them to his wife to transfer to the traffickers. He was released after three months with four others, was forced to abandon his daughters and arrived in Tel Aviv in November, where they were left out on the street.

Still, thousands of Eritreans perish at the hands of human traffickers in Libya or crossing the Mediterranean Sea. This situation is exacerbated by Europe’s attempt to contain African refugees in Africa and its push policy of external border protection and deportation. The failure to come up with policies to address the refugee issue is another problem. Providing development funds for countries like Eritrea in the hope of reducing the refugee crisis hasn’t worked. The Eritrean government has no intention to change the unlimited national service that pushes the youth out of the country. Until Europe and the international community proactively responds, it is not only Eritreans who will suffer from human trafficking but also other Africans, who are fleeing their countries in search of freedom and better life in Europe.

The question remains, what are Eritreans doing to change their plight to get rid of the root cause?

The dream of a prosperous Eritrea that respect the rights and dignity of its people still resonates with the youth. The resilience of this dream is instilled within them and they won’t give up fighting for it. They organise themselves and fight back. First, they fight their own bewilderment and then the system that has caused it. They organise solidarity marches and protests. They are the ones who marched in support of the finding of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea. They organise rescue missions and lobbying missions and try to organise mass phone contacts with their counterparts in Eritrea to keep the dream alive. They have made hundreds of thousands of calls as part of the Freedom Friday Movement. One-to-one calls and automated mass calls are made in an effort to engage Eritreans inside the country and encouraging them to show their resistance by taking actions that build their solidarity and confidence.

This relationship among the locals and across activists in the diaspora has encouraged a small but sturdy team to form inside the country. Their enthusiasm and boldness inspires everyone, including observers in the international community. They smuggled video clips, posted protest posters, launched and distributed an underground new paper. Recently, team Arbi Harnet were among those who shared several video clips and photos about the unprecedented 31 October 2017, protest staged by students Diae Al Islamai on Asmara.

This was a vindication and affirmation of what I said in 2013 at the Oslo Freedom Forum and I will reiterate it at next week’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg on 26 March. “It is extremely early days and these are tiny baby steps, but the momentum of resistance doesn’t follow the normal stages of development, the Arab Spring has demonstrated that. I am fully confident that with time Eritreans, too, will rise and challenge the most brutal dictatorship in Africa.

As President Obama rightly articulated, “the refugee crisis is a test of our common humanity. We must recognise that refugees are a symptom of larger failures – be it war, ethnic tensions, or persecution.” Democracies do not produce refugees. If we need a permanent solution to the refugee crises, we need to address the root cause: democratisation and the violation of human rights in Africa. This is a global crisis, which needs global solution. Let the European countries and other international organisations use their leverage to push for change in Africa. Let the African people stand up against their own dictatorial regimes. It is through our combined effort that change can be real in Africa. Thus, on the occasion of World Refugee Day on June 20, let us all renew our commitments to fight for democracy and human rights all over the world. It only then that of tragedy of the refugee will come to an end! 

Meron Estefanos is an Eritrean journalist and human rights activist, who will be speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg on March 26. 
Meron Estefanos

Meron Estefanos

Meron Estefanos is an Eritrean journalist and human rights activist. She is a contributor to the leading Eritrean diaspora news site Asmarino, and a presenter for Radio Erena (Tigrinya for “Our Eritrea”). She is also the co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, an advocacy organisation for the rights of Eritrean refugees, victims of trafficking, and victims of torture. Estefanos identifies families around the world who have been blackmailed into paying ransoms for their kidnapped family members, and she was a key witness in the first blackmail trial in Europe. Estefanos has been threatened and harassed for her work, especially her coverage of the case of Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist imprisoned without charge for more than 10 years in Eritrea. Despite the backlash, she continues to campaign for democracy in her country, which has suffered under the dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki since 1993. Estefanos has co-authored two books, "Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death," and "Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond.” Read more from Meron Estefanos

Eritrea's Qatar attacks don't come out the blue

Link to original article
Analysis: UAE and Saudi designs on the Red Sea have seen East Africa’s Eritrea join the blockade of Qatar. Asmara’s rhetoric against Doha now mirrors the Riyadh-led bloc’s line.

Eritrea launched a series of surprise verbal assaults on Qatar this week, claiming the Gulf state and Sudan were both interfering in the East African state’s internal affairs.

A bizarre statement issued by Asmara claimed that the two countries were backing an anti-government figure and that Doha sent fighter aircraft to an area of Sudan close to the Eritrean border.

In an interview with Saudi broadcaster al-Arabiya on Wednesday, an Eritrean diplomat alleged that Qatar had been meddling “for years” in the East African state. 

The claim contradicted the cordial relations between the two countries over the past many years.

In 2016, Qatar helped broker a deal which saw four Djibouti prisoners of war released from an eight-year stint in Eritrean captivity.

They were captured during a bloody war between the two countries in 2008, which ended in 2010 when hundreds of Qatari troops were deployed to the fraught border region as peacekeepers.

Last year, Eritrea distanced itself from Qatar and joined a Saudi-led blockade launched on Doha in June.  


Asmara’s latest attack on Qatar came through a statement issued by Eritrea’s information ministry this week.

In the bizarrely worded complaint, Asmara named Qatar as “one of the military threats that the African horn region could face”.

Eritrea went to on to claim that Qatar and Sudan had established a joint military training camp for an Eritrean opposition figure named Mohammed Jumma, described by Asmara as a “radical cleric”.

The ministry then alleged that Qatar and Sudan had deployed three MiG fighter jets to Kassala in eastern Sudan, flown by two Qataris and an Ethiopian pilot.

The military deployment was to “thwart” a planned attack by Eritrea “that would be unleashed with the support of the United Arab Emirates”, the ministry added.

  The historical bond between the peoples of Qatar and Eritrea [is] strong  

Qatar and Sudan swiftly denied the claims. Qatar’s foreign ministry said Eritrea’s reports were “false” and contradict “Qatar’s foreign policy principles that respect the sovereignty of other countries and promotes peaceful coexistence”.

[click to enlarge]

The statement added that Qatar was committed to security and stability in the Horn of Africa region. “The historical bond between the peoples of Qatar and Eritrea [is] strong,” the statement added.


Eritrea was one of several African nations to follow the Saudi-led alliance and cut ties with Qatar in June, all of which are believed to have been rewarded by their Gulf patrons.

Shortly after Asmara announced it was cutting ties with Doha, Qatar pulled its 400 peacekeeping troops from the Eritrean-Djibouti border region.

Eritrea soon seized the contested territories that were once monitored by the Qatari troops, despite earlier assurances it would not. It appeared to be a pay-off by the Saudi-led coalition to Asmara for its diplomatic support during the crisis.

The UAE has been building its military and diplomatic relations with Eritrea for some time.

In late 2017, the UN said Abu Dhabi might have broken an international arms embargo imposed on the repressive Eritrean regime and that the UAE was building up its military presence in the state.

  The UAE, has meanwhile been expanding its presence along the strategically vital Red Sea coastlines, boosting its military presence in south Yemen and East Africa  

Eritrea’s role in the Yemen war also remains unclear.

This could be a dangerous escalation in the military balance in the region, given the risk of war between Eritrea and its neighbours Djibouti and Ethiopia still remains high.

With the aggressive military regime in Asmara getting the clear backing of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, things could get worse.

East Africa’s fragile peace has not been helped by the dispute over control of the Nile waters. Egypt has signalled it could take military action against Eritrea’s historic rival Ethiopia over its massive dam project.

Egypt’s ally, the UAE, has meanwhile been expanding its presence along the strategically vital Red Sea coastlines, boosting its military presence in south Yemen and East Africa.​

Abu Dhabi is now building up its military presence in Eritrea with a naval and airbase near the port of Assab. Naval ships, helicopters and attack aircraft are thought to be operating from the military base.

UAE-backed Egyptian forces also reportedly entered Eritrea in January, according to the Kuwaiti al-Sharq newspaper.

Given the UAE’s other economic and military endeavours in south Yemen, it is likely that Eritrea could be part of Abu Dhabi’s plans for controlling key shipping lanes through the Bab al-Mandab strait.

With Turkey also building up its presence and having concerns about Abu Dhabi’s designs on the region, the latest allegations from Eritrea – which echo the Saudi-led bloc’s own rhetoric – could signify something much bigger. 

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcloughlin




by Martin Plaut

Sudan, Qatar to sign $4 billion deal to manage Red Sea port - ministry


Source: Africanews 27/03 - 10:33

Sudan and Qatar will sign a $4 billion agreement to jointly develop the Red Sea port of Suakin off Sudan’s coast, Sudanese media quoted Transport Minister Makawi Mohamed Awad as saying.

Awad made the announcement during a visit by Qatari officials to Suakin on Sunday, the reports said.

Officials from Qatar’s transport ministry visiting Sudan told Reuters on Monday that the deal was being prepared but that its cost and other details had not yet been finalized.

The deal is likely to anger Sudan’s northern neighbor Egypt, which accuses Qatar of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, which Doha has denied, and which joined a Saudi-led boycott of the gas-rich Gulf state last year.

Another neighbour, Eritrea has accused Qatar and Sudan of supporting an opposition group in its country that is led by Islamist Mohammed Jumma.

Sudan last year signed a separate deal with Turkey whereby Ankara will restore part of Suakin and construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.

It was unclear if the Qatar deal would affect the existing agreement with Turkey.

Khartoum’s strengthening ties with Turkey and Qatar come as it pledges further cooperation with Cairo after a year of rocky relations between the two North African nations.

Sudan recalled its ambassador to Egypt in January without explanation, but allowed him to return earlier this month.

Martin Plaut | March 30, 2018 at 7:35 am | Tags: Qatar, Suakin, Sudan | Categories: News | URL:

Eritrea: two more journalists arrested

%PM, %28 %786 %2018 %19:%Mar Written by


Sources for Radio Erena in Asmara have confirmed the arrest of two journalists in the past few days.

The two journalists have been working for the Ministry of Information Tigrinya and Arabic newspapers.

One is Abdulghadir Ahmed the cultural editor of Hadas Eritrea and the other is Mohamednur Ahmed the chief editor of Arabic paper Eritrea al Haditha.

Mr. Abdulghadir is the nephew of the famous Ustaz Beshir who served as a managing director of Diya’a Islamic School in Akhria, Abdulghadir himself taught in the school before joining the Ministry of Information and he is currently a member of the parents’ council of the school.

Mr. Mohamednur Ahmed has been a former fighter and longtime member of staff of the Arabic Eritrea AL Haditha paper where became editor in chief.


by Martin Plaut

The Eritrean government is accusing Qatar of increasing tension along the Eritrea- Sudan border by sending aircraft to Sudan and backing dissidents in the area. [see below]

This follows the Sudanese deployment of thousands of troops in Kassala State in eastern Sudan.

A previous article provided some background to the story. Sudan has not provided an explanation for what has taken place.

Source: Eritrea Ministry of Information

As it will be recalled,the fabricated news of “the deployment of Egyptian troops in Sawa”, and the subsequent closure of the border by Sudan that “this event ostensibly triggered” was recycled and amplified with high drama recently.   But the story did not end there.  In these times where past events fast evade memory, it may be useful to reiterate the fundamental truths occasionally so that the public is not confused. In this respect:

•    In early January, the State of Qatar gave the Sudanese Defence Forces three Mig jet aircrafts that were subsequently deployed in Kassala.  This was purportedly done to “thwart an attack from Eritrea that would be unleashed with the support of the United Arab Emirates”   The pilots for the three Mig fighter planes being two Qataris and an Ethiopian.  The Sudanese Security and Intelligence apparatus is in charge of the operations, including determining specific missions as well as overall administration.

•    In early February, the followers (the full list is available) of the radical Islamic Cleric, Mohammed Jumma, opened an office, under extreme secrecy, in a secluded area to organize political and military activities as well as to train their members.  Funding of their activities is provided by the Embassy of Qatar in Khartoum.  Training and other logistical functions are managed by the Sudanese Security and Intelligence Service.

•    At the beginning of March, a delegation of Qatari military officers, led by the Ambassador of Qatar in Khartoum, Rashid Bin Abdurahman Alnueimi, paid a visit to the “Joint Sudanese-Ethiopian Defense Unit”, to inspect its operations and gauge the security situation in the Kassala area.   This outfit was recently established by the Sudanese and Ethiopian Armed Forces with the funding from Qatar.
The question is why does Qatar involve itself in such senseless intricacies?

Ministry of Information
22 March 2018


by Martin Plaut

In January this year Sudanese troops were sent to man the country’s border with Eritrea.

The border was sealed: trade between the neighbouring states ceased.

This has caused real hardship for many on both sides of the border - but particularly in Eritrea, which relies on imports from Sudan.

So what is behind these dramatic events?

Sudan Vice PresThe origins of the dispute can be traced back to a visit to Eritrea by the Sudanese First Vice - President and National Prime Minister, Lt. Gen. Bakri Hassan Salih in December last year.

The official Sudanese statement said the two sides had "discussed progress of the bilateral relations between two countries and issues of mutual concern.”

But Sudanese sources suggest the discussions were far more dramatic. Sudan has been drifting away from its traditional alliance with Egypt, and closer to Ethiopia.

Khartoum has sided with Addis Ababa rather than Cairo over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam on the Nile.

At the same time relations between Eritrea and Egypt have been warming. During General Salih’s visit to Asmara, President Isaias Afwerki suggested that the time was ripe for the General to replace President Omar al Bashir as Sudanese head of state.

Apparently speaking with the authority of Cairo, President Isaias said that such a move would be supported by both Eritrea and Egypt.

When General Salih returned to Khartoum the news was received with consternation.

Sudanese troops were rushed to the Eritrean border and the border sealed.

media A mosque in Nakfa, in northern Eritrea, April 2005. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Germain

Eritrean authorities have arrested a number of people attending the funeral of an Islamic school director who died in custody, a UN special rapporteur has said. Haji Musa Mohamednur was arrested in October 2017 after resisting orders from the government to enforce a ban on the Muslim veil and stop religious teachings, according to the human rights expert.


“He's a well-known person in Eritrea. Many people were attending the funeral and there's some very young ones, a 13-year-old boy, among those arrested,” Sheila Keetharuth, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, told RFI.

“This is the second wave of arrests, there were arrests previously, sometime at the end of October last year,” said Keetharuth. “These arrests were in the context of a protest when the elder, who passed on, was arrested together with other members of the school committee.”

Musa had ignored orders from the government to ban Muslim girls from wearing a veil to school, stop religious teachings and introduce mixed classes, a statement from the rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council said.

She said that more than 100 people were arrested in Asmara’s Akriya neighbourhood alongside Musa during a protest against the restrictions against Al Diaa private secondary school. Eritrean security forces wielded truncheons and fired gunshots in the air, she added.


“The right to religious belief is something that is very much undermined and curtailed in Eritrea,” said Keetharuth, speaking by telephone from Geneva. “There's some very specific violations that have happened including detention, arrest and loss of life.”

“The pattern of arrests, detention without trial, etc is the modus operandi of the Eritrean government - it has been documented and recorded many times previously,” the rapporteur said, saying that other schools have been closed over recent months.

Being a secular state should not mean that freedom of religion should be curtailed, said Keetharuth. “Can they deny the fact that someone died in custody? An elderly gentleman, who was a respected elder,” she said.

“Spurious allegations”

“Eritrea is a secular state and exclusionist religious teachings are not allowed or part of the national curriculum,” Yemane Meskel, Eritrea’s information minister, told RFI, describing the UN rapporteur’s comments as “spurious allegations”.

“Religious institutions – Christian or Muslim, etc - can run religious teachings,” said Meskel. “But public schools are open to all citizens without discrimination,” he added.

“The school in question was in breach of these regulations,” said the information minister, saying that the Eritrean embassy had made its objections to these allegations known to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Keetharuth is “not a neutral expert”, according to Meskel, saying that she had an “agenda of regime change”.


FILE PHOTO: A old Fiat car drives along a street in Eritrea's capital Asmara, February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File PhotoReuters

March 14, 2018, at 12:53 p.m.

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Eritrean authorities detained hundreds of perceived opponents this month after a school director who defied government orders died in custody, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Most of those arrested were males and some were as young as 13, Sheila B. Keetharuth, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur for human rights in Eritrea told a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.

The leaders of the country in the Horn of Africa should be tried for crimes against humanity including torture, rape, murder and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people, a U.N. investigation set up by the Council said in 2016.

President Isaias Afwerki has led Eritrea since independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and his government operates a policy of compulsory military service that thousands each month flee the country to escape, according the United Nations.

There was no immediate comment from the government on Wednesday. In 2016, the government rejected the allegations and said they were an attempt to harass the country.

This month's arrests followed the death in custody of Haji Musa Mohamednur, 93, who was a director of a private Islamic school in the capital Asmara and a respected elder, according to a U.N. statement.

He and other members of the school's administration were arrested last October for defying government orders including enforcing a ban on the veil and stopping religious teachings.

"Reports reaching me ... point to the arrest of hundreds of people, mainly males, some of them children as young as 13 years, after the burial of Haji Musa," the statement quoted Keetharuth as saying.

The statement gave no details of the circumstances of Musa's death this month. In October, there was a similar wave of detentions when law enforcement officers violently broke up a crowd and arrested over 100 people including students, she said.

"The indiscriminate mass arrests in October 2017 and during the past week were carried out to quell any kind of protest or resistance," she said.

(Writing by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)



On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Eritrean women residing in 10 different countries in Europe convened on 8-10th of March in The Hague, the Netherlands for a march from Central Station to the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the banner of “Respect Human Rights in Eritrea”, followed by a two day conference of historical importance and magnitude discussing the current situation of Eritrea in general, and in particular situation of women at home, along migration routes and in the diaspora.

The March and conference celebrated and reflected Eritrea’s diversity with representatives from several women’s organisations that included the youth, veteran freedom fighters, professionals and activists. Some of the accomplishments of the event were the following:

  • A march against the gross human rights abuses in Eritrea in general and in particular itsimpact on Eritreanwomen and called for a constitutional governance and rule of law in Eritrea;
  • An appeal addressed to the International Criminal Court ( ICC) calling to hold the Eritrean regime accountable for committing gross human rights violations, as reported by the UN Human Rights council;
  • A two-day conference primarily discussing issues on how to empower women so that they effectively contribute their due share for a better outcome, by enhancing their role in the on-going struggle for political, social & economical change in Eritrea to play role in re-establishing peace, stability and the rule of law; and
  • Appointed a coordinating committee to overlook and strengthen thecollaborativework locally as well as across the region, enhance participation and raise capacity of women.

The Conference provided an opportunity for participants to know one another and to exchange experiences and social challenges that women face in Eritrea and refugee camps including all forms of gender based violence.

Concerned with the ever-worsening vulnerable situation of the Eritrean people, the Conference dedicated substantial time for discussions on the deteriorating state of the nation and concluded by underlining the fact that all opposition groups andthe women’s organisations have to come together to campaign and bring about a lasting solution to the current dire situation in Eritrea. 

The conference has strengthened Eritrean women’s solidarity in Europe and across the globe.

Finally, we would like to thank all organisations and individuals who supported us financially and morally including all platforms of Eritrean media in the diaspora. Your assistance has enabled us to take our initiative further to the next level.

#PressForFreedom    #PressForJustice   #PressForProgress

Eritrean Women for Justice


The death of a respected elder while in jail has prompted an outpouring of grief and anger on the streets of Asmara.

Screenshot from a video of the recent protest in Asmara, Eritrea.

Screenshot from a video of the recent protest in Asmara, Eritrea.

Last week, the respected elder Hajji Musa Mohammednur inspired aggrieved crowds in Eritrea‘s capital and shook the confidence of the regime. This was the second, and last, time he will have done so in the past few months.

This first occasion was when the well-known Eritrean figure was arrested last October. The 93-year-old had recently criticised a government decree to nationalise Al Diaa Islamic School, whose board he chaired. His detention was one of the triggers that prompted hundreds to take to Asmara’s streets in an uncommon show of defiance a few days later, leading to a brutal crackdown.

Speaking to parents and teachers before his arrest, Mohammednur had said he was prepared to sacrifice his life in resisting the state’s plan. The second time he stirred people to mobilise was last week when he did just that.

Mohammednur’s condition deteriorated during the months of his incarceration. In December, his poor health reportedly prompted the office of President Isaias Afwerki to instruct that he be released and put under house arrest. The nonagenarian refused to leave prison unless those arrested along with him were also let out. “You can carry my dead body out of here, but I am not leaving alone,” he is reported to have said. He died a few months later.

When family members went to collect Mohammednur’s body and bring it to the mosque for prayer, witnesses say they were joined by thousands more who wanted to pay their respects. On 3 March, the community leader’s funeral was held. The procession quickly escalated into an angry demonstration. Sources say some people threw stones at the police, who opened fire in an attempt to disperse the crowds as defiant youth carried the coffin through the streets. There have not been reports of casualties, but residents of the capital claim warning shots could be heard until late in the evening.

Witnesses say Asmara has been tense in the days since. In one of the world’s most repressive countries, they claim that fully-equipped anti-mob police have been deployed and that there have been several arrests. An opposition news-site suggests close to a thousand people have been rounded up. Sources within the police forces say stations are on emergency alert.

The death of a respected elder

Mohammednur was a widely-recognised individual in Eritrea. He was a key figure in organising the 1960s pro-independence student demonstrations in which Afwerki participated, and he was once arrested for his active role in Eritrea’s armed struggle.

His younger brother, Taha Mohammednur, was a co-founder of the Eritrea Liberation Front (ELF), the rebel group that started the war of independence. The current ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), originated as a splinter of the ELF. Taha also died in custody, in 2008. He had served in several senior government posts after Eritrea’s liberation before he was arrested in 2005 alongside several other prominent figures on unspecified charges.

The outpouring of grief and anger following Mohammednur’s death last week can partly be explained by his influence and reputation. The elder’s decades-long service and dedication to his community and country earned him a deep respect. It was for this that he was made president of Al Diaa Islamic School despite his advanced years.

Sometimes when prominent individuals have been arbitrarily arrested in Eritrea, they have been quietly dismissed as possible accomplices or quickly forgotten by the wider community. But this was not the case with Mohammednur. After his detention, sheikhs at Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin, Asmara’s biggest mosque, reportedly took the bold step of using their Friday sermons to urge adherents to stand by him. Sources say that since the protest in October, most of the capital’s mosques have been subjected to tight security. It is even believed President Afwerki himself followed Mohammednur’s case closely and was personally behind the order of the prisoner’s release in December.

Security forces also seemed well aware of the possible flare up the elder’s death might cause. They allegedly delayed the release of his body for a day in order to avoid it coinciding with Friday prayers, when which large numbers of people gather. However, that did not stop mourners mobilising a day later for Mohammednur’s funeral.

A sign of things to come?

That large demonstration of popular frustration was one more sign that the government’s faith in the power of the gun to maintain control and keep the population silent is increasingly being challenged today.

The police on the streets of Asmara are said to be nervous. The same may well be true of officials in the President’s Office following another public expression of dissent in a country where the price of expressing dissent is high. In Eritrea, the free press has been stifled and thousands of political prisoners languish in appalling conditions.

On the one hand, Afwerki’s government may be quietly relieved by the passing of Mohammednur despite the disturbances it inspired. His death means authorities longer have to deal with a man who commanded wide respect, whose age-old credentials as an Eritrean patriot were tough to question, and whose recent open defiance was causing it trouble.

However, on the other hand, the incarceration, maltreatment and ultimate death of the admired nonagenarian at the hands of the regime may mark another step in its slow unravelling. In the eyes of some of Eritrea’s citizens, Mohammednur’s sad demise may only further confirm the government’s moral bankruptcy as they grow increasingly tired of, and increasingly bold in their resistance to, Afwerki’s almost 27-year rule.