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Eritreans still denied freedom 25 years after independence

Young people are fleeing at an alarming rate, preferring to face uncertainty in Europe rather than oppression at home, The Conversation reports Eritreans celebrate during the war with neighbouring Ethiopia in 1998. Photograph: Sami Sallinen/AP Valerie Frank

Young people are fleeing at an alarming rate, preferring to face uncertainty in Europe rather than oppression at home, The Conversation reports

Eritreans celebrate during the war with neighbouring Ethiopia in 1998. Photograph: Sami Sallinen/AP

Twenty-five years ago the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front marched into Asmara, sending the Ethiopian forces they had been fighting for 30 years scrambling out of the city to safety.

People were elated. The underdogs had triumphed and the streets were filled with war-wearied citizens, who were free at last.

But this excitement was short-lived. The liberation forces quickly morphed into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, a political party that has ruled ever since. It turned Eritrea into one of the most isolated countries and saddled it with the nickname: “Africa’s North Korea”.

Hundreds of young people are fleeing each week, from a country of just 5.1 million, and Eritreans now make up a significant number of those entering Europe on dangerous crossings from Libya. What was once a relatively unknown and underreported country is now at the forefront of the EU’s mind, as it scrabbles for a way to “stem” the movement of people to Europe.

But how did it come to this?


Ex-fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front depart from Asmara to the Ethiopian border in 1998.
Ex-fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front depart from Asmara to the Ethiopian border in 1998. Photograph: Sami Sallinen/AP

Optimism for Eritrea’s future was high in the 1990s. The Liberation Front’s discipline and impressive achievements in undermining the Ethiopian forces resulted in a strong belief that the new government could produce similar successes.

But the outbreak of the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 fundamentally altered the nation’s course. It wreaked devastation around the countries’ shared borders and entrenched Eritrea’s militarisation.

To this day, senior members of the ruling party maintain that the border conflict is still unresolved, and that Eritreans must remain in indefinite national and military service in case of Ethiopian aggression.

This sense of constant threat has been used to legitimise the government’s restrictions on freedom of speech, association, movement and the press. With tens of journalists in jail, many held in secret prisons for decades, the country ranks among the worst in the world for press freedom.

More recently, the UN imposed sanctions on the country over its alleged support for al-Shabaab and refusals to withdraw its troops from Djibouti following an inter-state conflict. Though no recent evidence suggests Eritrea backs the terrorist group, the UN appears reluctant to drop the sanctions until the government permits observers to enter the country.

Restrictions on movement into and around Eritrea makes understanding its conditions extremely difficult. More foreign journalists have visited in recent years, but reports of what is going on inside are largely provided by state-controlled sources, who closely follow the party line. Laudable successes in reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating infectious diseases must therefore be viewed with caution.

What we do know is that people are leaving Eritrea at an alarming rate: an estimated 5,000 young people a month.

This is driven by harsh conditions, poor pay across civil and military employment and disproportionate punishment associated with national service, where individuals are condemned to a life of debilitating servitude in the interests of “national security”.

Beyond this, young people feel smothered by the lack of opportunities in the country. Obtaining exit visas to study elsewhere is notoriously difficult even though further education within the country is under-resourced.

Young Eritrean refugees are the third-biggest group trying to reach Europe, after Afghans and Syrians.
Young Eritrean refugees are the third-biggest group trying to reach Europe, after Afghans and Syrians. Photograph: Vincent Defait/AFP/Getty Images

Given this rather grim picture of conditions in Eritrea, are there any silver linings?

Success stories

In the past few years, the Eritrean regime has suggested that it will reduce the length of national service, pay conscripts more and draft a new constitution. As yet there is no evidence of developments on any of these fronts.

Eritrea’s modernist capital city, Asmara, is edging closer to being givenUnesco World Heritage status in recognition of its unique architectural style. This would provide money for much-needed restoration work and, perhaps, put Eritrea on the tourist map.

But the greatest success stories are arguably on the sporting front. Eritrean middle- and long-distance runners are gaining podium placesin major international races. The nation’s cyclists have also shot to global fame after two riders – Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus – became the first black Africans to race in the Tour de France last year.

But if emigration from the country continues at the current pace, it is hard to imagine where Eritrea will stand in the coming years. Those leaving may provide vital remittances to their families back home, which in 2006 were understood to constitute just under 40% of gross domestic product, but their loss is depriving the country of its youth.

Daniel Teklehaimanot of Eritrea put on the polka dot jersey during the 2015 Tour de France.
Tour de France rider Daniel Teklehaimanot has become an Eritrean success story against a backdrop of mass emigration. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


Agitation for political change from those who have left appears to have achieved little, though some insurrection has been documented within the country.

The most notable were the events of Forto 2013, when the country’s Ministry of Information was surrounded by disgruntled soldiers demanding political reform, and the Freedom Friday Movement, which encourages citizens to undermine the government through small, subversive acts.

For now, 25 years after it gained freedom, Eritrea’s political system remains unchanged. It is unclear who or what will follow President Isaias Afewerki, who is 70 years old and unlikely to stand down.

For many of those celebrating 25 years since independence there is thus a heart-breaking truth being simultaneously acknowledged: that the respected fighters who so valiantly won them their freedom after decades in the trenches are so painfully and egregiously failing the next generation now.

Valerie Frank is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the author. A version of this article first appeared on the Conversation

The Guardian

Review overview
  • Berhe Tensea May 26, 2016

    As long as people especially the young remain silent , and tolerant of their worst enemey and abuser the pain and agony will not stop.
    People , who are followers and order takers deserve what they get.
    People must be taught the is a word called ENOUGH.
    People need to stand up for their right and git rid themselves of the parasite that is sucking their blood.

  • DEATH in VAIN May 26, 2016

    እዋእ ካብቲ ባርነት ናይ ኢትዮጵያ ይሓይሽ። ብጊዜ ኢትዮጵያ ክሳዕ ዩኒቨርሲቲ እብንዳተምሃርና ንጽለል ኔርና፣ሕጂ ግን ሳዋ የድሕነና ኣሎ።ቀደም ሓሙሽተ ሳንቲም ቆጽሊ ሻህን ሽኮርን ገዚእና ህዝብና ሽኮርያ/diabetis mellitus ይሕዞ ኔሩ፣ቀደም ቡን ናይ ከፋ)Ethiopia) ልብና ዘሕርረና ዝነበረ፣ሕጂ ዝሓረረ ስገም ብጨው ንሰቲ ኣለና ጥዕናና ተመሊሱ፣ቀደም ህዝብና ሃብቲ ካብ ኤርትራ ክሳዕ ጎምጎፋን ሲዳሞን እናጥረየ ስጋን ጠስምን ለሚዱ ኮለስተራሉ/high cholesterol ላዕሊ እናኸደ ይሓምም ኔሩ፣ሎሚ ዘይቲ እንጣጢዕን ሓምሊ ኣድግን ወዲ ዓከርን እናበላዕና ናብታ ዝነበርናያ ቨጀተርያንስ/vegetarians ተመሊስና፣ ቀደም ብጊዜ ኮሎኒ ኢትዮፕያ ሰብ ሰሪሑን ተዋሊዱን ንቑጽሪ ህዝቢ ዓለም ጸገም ይኸውን ኔሩ፣ሎሚ ሳላ ሰውራና ብንእሽቶኡ ዝቑጸ ብዙሕ እዩ። ንዓለም ብብዝሒ ህዝቢ ከይትጠፍእ ንሕግዝ ኣለና።ሳላ ሰውራና ወጻኢ ኴንና ወጻኢ ንመውት ኣለና።

    ነጻነትና ኣይነናኣእሶ።

  • AHMED SALEH !!! May 26, 2016

    That is true . Old timers Americans also remember the old good days .
    – To own a house $ 25,000 .
    – McDonald’s hamburger with fries , drink and desert less than $1.oo .
    – For $ 1.00 couple gallon of gas to your car and so on .
    But that doesn’t mean nothing comparing present daily expenses to dream
    on the past . DERGHI government economy was affordable than HGDF and
    Hailesellasie era was cheaper than DERGHI .
    In Sudan half gine used to cover lunch for three .
    In Cairo 10 cents get you felafel sandwich .
    Nowadays $ 100,000 dollars get you decent house not your dream house .
    Even Ethiopians from Addis complain from high cost of living . I can’t
    say about Sudanese people situation which I don’t know much .
    Yes in deed to belittle freedom and to praise and trust crooked broker named Issayas will bankrupt the nation . It isn’t his fault to complain, we asked for it . What can be done is the question longed for answer .

  • AHMED SALEH !!! May 26, 2016

    ” Eritrean modernist city , Asmara mentioned by UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE
    STATUS for unique architectural style ” .
    Too bad Asmarina fell at wrong hands . From the time we observe bunch uneducated military personnel promoted to became chief of engineers , medical doctors and other profession , I lost hope .