The East African nation of Eritrea is amongst the highest refugee-producing countries in the world. There are a number of reasons for this. People flee from 'national service', or as it could be called, 'a campaign of forced labour or slavery'. Or, they leave because of the lack of freedom of expression - the imprisonment of journalists, government Ministers and Generals in 2001 in particular made Eritreans lose their confidence in their ruling party.
Some who have left the country have joined campaigns against the dictatorship in Eritrea. They do so at great cost: they face social, political and personal rejection - from the government, from their families and from supporters of the regime.
In Eritrea, there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of worship or organisation, and no right to refuse military service. To speak about these abuses in public is frightening for many Eritreans.
Although the proclamation of 1994 states that military service is 18 months in duration, in reality it can be unlimited. Some of my friends and relatives are still in the army after ten years or more. However it has been a challenge for many Eritreans to oppose this. Many remain passive, despite all the inhumane treatment. Those of us who are engaged in campaigns have been suffering from fear regarding the social, political and personal repressions of this work. But why all those challenges of fear? I will try to pin point some of the reasons.
There are many reasons why Eritreans in Diaspora fear expressing their true attitudes towards the policy of the regime. In the Eritrean Diaspora, there are some fanatic Eritreans who blindly support the dictatorial policies of the government. Some are ex-fighters for independence, who left the country soon after it was achieved. Others were supporters of the armed Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which fought until 1991. Those people have not experienced the present Eritrea, under the repressive single party 'Peoples’ Front for Democracy and Justice' (PFDJ).
Some are members of PFDJ, or they are organized by the Eritrean security office (under Embassies or Consulates) to disrupt the action of campaigners or attack any campaigner, physically or morally. The motive of the supporters can be private interest, or they might wish to act against anyone who opposes the government’s policy. Those people have a problem differentiating between the government as an institution, the country of Eritrea, and the concerns of the Eritrean people. For them, anything against the present government’s policy is against Eritrea, or against Eritrea's independence. They refer to the martyrdom of 65,000 fighters, the disappearance of thousands of civilians, and the distruction of people's property. But the so-called martyrs were fighting for the freedom of the Eritrean people from all kinds of injustice and abuses – abuses that are now common under the current Eritrean administration.
For many centuries, Eritrea was not independent. The country was an Italian colony from 1890—1941, under British authority from 1941—1952, and under Ethiopian rule from 1952—1991. Although the independence of the country is guaranteed after the UN supervised referendum of 1993, for political reasons the government propagates the idea that Ethiopia represents a current threat.
The machine of fear and intimidation is used 24 hours a day by the Eritrean government and its supporters, making people live in a state of fear. The system pretends through its radio channels that the country is threatened by outsiders and insiders, sponsored by those who are against Eritrea, and against Eritrean independence.
The other problem is the fear of threats and harrassment by the government against the families of campaigners, and those who escaped successfully from military service and emigrated. The families of people who have migrated have been punished, either by being taken to prison, or by being fined 50.000 Nakfa (Eritrean currency) - $5.000 - a figure that is totally unaffordable for an Eritrean farmer.
Diaspora campaigners also fear social rejection by the Eritrean community. They face social rejection at community events: at holiday times, weddings and other social ceremonies. Moreover, if someone is campaigning against the bad policies of the government, he/she can face rejection/isolation from his/her own brothers and sisters and the whole extended family, in everyday life. A family conflict can also occur when there is disagreement between couples/partners. This might lead to a family conflict which can also affect their children. So, some people prefer not to be involved in any action against the government.
Many Eritreans also fear of losing their identity. The regime taxes 2% of the income of Eritreans in the Diaspora. Anyone who can’t pay, or is not willing to pay, will not be able to get any basic citizen services back in Eritrea. This can even include obtaining your birth certificate, academic certificates or any other legal document from the government-controlled office. In other words, there have no possibility of legally staying in Eritrea. The 2% taxt and additional payments ordered by the government are always put as preconditions for obtaining government services.
How to deal with fear
Challenging the fear and repression of campaigners is not an easy matter. It requires a commitment and determination from activists. Many Eritrean human right activists have been working individually and in an organised way in the form of civic societies in different countries. Despite all the personal and organisational challenges, in the last 11 years they have tried their best to face the reality in Eritrea and speak out publicly. Those actions opened the door for many Eritreans to break the yoke of fear and repression. Through the limited media organised by Eritreans, activists have been working hard against social rejections and have contributed in showing how Eritreans should face the government in Eritrea.
Hundreds of thousands of articles and blogs have been published in the last few years. The number of websites and radio programmes (available on satellite and the internet, as well as short wave radios), are increasing from season to season. Thousands of Eritreans that oppose the policies of the government are communicating on Facebook, following what is going on in Eritrea. Everyday, especially during the weekends, thousands of Eritrean activists are on Paltalk rooms (an internet chat service), discussing the current affairs of the country. Unlike 11 years ago, there are now many high ranking ex-members of the PFDJ who are ready to share their experiences, and expose the true nature of ruling party to the new generation.
Moreover, civic societies are organising demonstrations in almost every major PFDJ meeting, conference and seminar in the Diaspora, mainly in EU states and the USA. The message is very clear. Eritreans have been continuously calling upon the international community to put pressure on the Eritrean government: to release political prisoners, to open a constitutionally-guaranteed forum, and to respect the Eritrean human rights situation and the rule of law.
Despite ups and downs, it is generally becoming easier for Eritreans to talk openly about the current situation. However, there is still a long way to go to mobilise the Eritrean Diaspora to face the reality in their homeland.
Having a better-organised movement, empowered with alternative strategies, having unified actions, making good friendships and contacts with international peace and human right organisations, are some of the main things that can break fear and repression. These things can build a strong sense of confidence among the activists.
Abraham G. Mehreteab.