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  • David Dijkhuis

The North Korea of Africa

In September 2019, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Eritrea the number one most censored country, even lower than North Korea. Its Human Development doesn’t rank much better; in 2018, it was ranked 182nd out of 184 countries listed.The report on Eritrea by the Human Rights Watch concluded the following;

“Forced conscription into “national service” was prolonged indefinitely despite a decree limiting service to 18 months. Political opponents—anyone who questions Isaias Afwerki’ rule—are jailed indefinitely without trial, often incommunicado. Independent media is prohibited, and journalists imprisoned. Political parties and nongovernmental organizations are also prohibited; elections, a legislature, and an independent judiciary are all not permitted because [president] Afwerki argued they would weaken Eritrea’s defenses.”

This crushing analysis should sketch the basics of what Eritrea has become. But why did it become like this? What are the stories of the people who are trapped in one of the most nightmarish states when it comes to human rights? How did they escape? And what happens after escaping? This brief blog post will try to make a slither of sense of the phenomenon internationally known as the State of Eritrea.

President Isaias Afwerki / Source: Getty Images

Eritrea became independent in 1993, after a violent separation from Ethiopia. Its first, and thus far only president, Isasias Afwerki used the situation to justify his authoritarianism. Despite his party being called the Popular Front of Democracy and Justice, there has been very little democracy and very little justice. Eritrea has never had a fair election in the 27 years that it has existed, and there is not a trace of a fair and independent judiciary. For example, according to Amnesty International in 2018, not a single political prisoner has been charged for a crime or has had access to a lawyer; instead, they are arbitrarily detained.

The exact same goes for journalists. Eritrea has the third highest number of journalists detained, only after China and Iran. It can be said that Eritrea is a militaristic, totalitarian state, ruled by fear. In June 2016, Eritrea was accused by a UN report of crimes against humanity. The government allows no dissent and attempts to control every aspect of its citizens lives, employing torture mass surveillance, and endless military conscription. Even after the claimed ‘military necessity’ of an ever-present Ethiopian threat vanished, the central role of the military has not.

Source: Time of Israel

It is needless to say that the people of Eritrea suffer. Many are subjected to indefinite forced conscription into the armed forces. They are unable to express any dissenting opinion, as the totalitarian government controls all, and rules with violent repression and fear. On top of that, Eritrea is extremely poor. The conditions of life are dreadful, and many Eritreans receive only a marginal education as they are conscripted at a young age.

Thus, given this background, it is hardly surprising that, according to the United Nations in 2018 there are over 500.000 thousands Eritrean refugees, compared to a population of 5 million Eritreans total. The stories of Eritrean refugees are often heartbreaking, as they speak of the tribulations they faced or face in Eritrea, and their punishments that await them if they go against the regime in any way. In 2019, the Guardian reported the story of Osman Ahmed Nur, a young Eritrean who made it to Europe and who eventually committed suicide out of fear that he would be sent back to the country where he was tortured and imprisoned as a child.

I have attempted to outline the basis of the sociopolitical situation in Eritrea in this short post. Over the next week, I will publish a short account on the trials Eritreans face when they escape. Nonetheless, nobody can give a better account of Eritrea and of escaping it than Eritrean refugees themselves. As such, join us in our storytelling night on February 20th, from 7 to 9 pm and hear the experiences from those who lived them. Details can be found on Facebook and on Instagram.

Sources and additional readings;

“Eritrea tops CPJ list of worst countries for press censorship” Al-Jazeera, September 10th, 2019.

”Eritrea: Events of 2018”

Human Rights Watch, 2019.

”Eritrea: Rampant repression 20 years after independence” Amnesty International, May 9th, 2013.

"UN Inquiry finds crimes against humanity in Eritrea"

OHHCR, June 8th, 2016.

“Eritrean refugee, 19, killed himself as he 'feared he would be sent back'” The Guardian, November 8th, 2019.

"Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018" United Nations, 2019.

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