Like many Eritreans living in Minnesota, Almaz Ghilagaber has lost relatives to war—perhaps too many to name.
Among others, two of her brothers died during Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence from neighboring Ethiopia. Another one had his leg blown off by a land mine. Africa’s longest civil war cost 65,000 Eritrean lives and untold destruction, but in the end the Red Sea nation of greater Horn of Africa won its independence despite staggering odds against them.
Ghilagaber has always considered herself an Eritrean patriot. However, she now worries more about what the Eritrean government might do to her relatives than any foreign army. Unlike many in her expatriate community, she has also started to speak out about what she sees as horrific human rights abuses and persecution.
“Many Eritreans believe as I do, but we are afraid to talk,” said the 49-year-old Ghilagaber. “I hope I am opening the road for people to talk. We are in a free country here.”
Ghilagaber is not the only one. A newfound group, the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, has tried to spark debate about Eritrea’s human rights abuses among other issues under the dictatorship of Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki. Forum members have begun to produce radio and television programs for local KFAI community radio and MTN cable access stations. While many abuses have long been reported by international human rights organizations, the local group’s open democratic discussion threatens to stir up controversy in a community still deeply nationalistic, but also fearful of how a draconian Eritrean regime might affect both them and their relatives back home.
“Even two years ago, it was unheard of that 25 people would come out for an opposition meeting,” said Eritrean Forum co-founder, Petros Haile. “We call ourselves the silent majority. People are becoming fed up with what they see back home.”
Life in Eritrea
In December of last year, Amnesty International reported that the Eritrean government had raided a village six miles from the capital city of Asmara and indiscriminately arrested and imprisoned over 500 people. Ghilagaber said that she had close relatives arrested in that raid, and she fears for their lives. Such arrests have been widely reported in recent years and often target the relatives of young men who have fled the country to desert or avoid conscription into the army. For Ghilagaber, the reports remind her of the last time she was in Asmara five years ago.
“It was hell. [Soldiers] would take the youth from the streets and force them into military service or put them in jail,” she said. “It is a martial court. There are no attorneys. There is no trial. Once you are in jail that is the end result. You are history.”
Besides relatives of army deserters and objectors, the government, according to Amnesty International reports, has targeted religious groups, particularly Evangelical Christians, and journalists. (As the March issue of Mshale went to press, the human rights watch group gave “high credibility” to a report that a renowned Eritrean journalist and playwright, Fessahaye Yohannes, had died while in a clandestine prison because he was denied medical attention.) In their annual reports, Reporters Without Borders consistently ranks Eritrea as having one of the worst records of press freedom in the world often in the same league as North Korea.
Ghilagaber said that after being an Eritrean freedom fighter, her surviving brother joined the opposition and often became subjected to interrogations, as did she. He eventually escaped to Italy and she was able to receive asylum in the United States in 2002.
“At that time, they had thrown several Members of Parliament and journalists in jail,” she said, and then explained that anyone even suspected of being part of the opposition could be jailed. “We were afraid for our lives.”
It would take volumes of books and decades of hindsight to untangle Eritrea’s history and the current regional crisis in the Horn of Africa. Conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea spans over a half century, and a dispute about the border between the two countries, which led to all-out war in 1998, is still unresolved. In recent years, the war-ravaged nation of Somalia has, in part, become a proxy struggle between the archenemies with Eritrea supporting the Council of Islamic Courts and Ethiopia backing the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government. Over December and January, a U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia drove the Islamic militias from Mogadishu.
Eritrea’s alignment behind the most radical faction of Somali’s Islamic courts has furthered its tense relations with the United States, as reflected in recent remarks by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazier, at the African Union summit in Ethiopia. According to some African political experts, Eritrea has become increasingly more anti-American and volatile as it becomes more centralized and insular.
“The Isaias government is making alliances with anyone who help them in the short term,” said Professor Dan Connell, who has studied and written about Eritrea for over 30 years. “[Eritrea] has become a renegade in the region, a power that could be a threat to any of its neighbors.”
What makes the political situation all the more confounding is that Eritrea stood as a beacon of African hope for democracy, stability, and equality upon its independence in 1993. Connell was one of the few journalists and scholars who had continual inside access to Eritrean rebel forces during the 1970s and 80s. He wrote innumerable articles and books following the liberation movement and its aftermath often praising its leaders overall and the social programs started during the revolution.
Even through the 1990s, he saw signs of hope as Eritrea launched a grassroots movement in drafting its constitution, which was finished, but never implemented nor enacted into law. It was with the 1998 war with Ethiopia that, he said, marked a turning point for Eritrea that has led to its current oppressive state. He added, however, that the signs of that direction began long before independence if some journalists failed to recognize or fully appreciate them.
“The 1980s saw tremendous disillusionment in Eritrea,” said Connell. “Isaias lost his bearings and fell into rabid nationalism. He saw himself as embodying the nationalist movement. Now he has moved into pure megalomania.”
It is a far cry from what Connell wrote in the epilogue to his seminal book about the Eritrean revolution, Against All Odds (Red Sea Press, 1993):
“The maintenance and development of democracy in the political sphere will be the key to the continuation of the revolutionary process,” he wrote. “For this to happen, ordinary citizens must be the guardians of the revolution as well as the agents of future change.”
Instead of agents of change, Eritrean citizens have become subjects of oppression, according to many in the expatriate community willing to speak publicly. Several people declined to be interviewed or identified during reporting for this story no matter their political perspective. Many others simply did not return phone calls.
There are hard realities behind their hesitancies. Many Eritreans expressed fears about possible retribution against their family members in Eritrea if their names were to be publicized. They spoke about a vast system of tightly knit informants and government supporters across expatriate communities and various forms of government intimidation.
One longtime prominent Eritrean in the Twin Cities who refuses to be intimidated is Yohannes Zemedhin.
“We know some of the people who are informants or just puppets of the government,” he said. Zemedhin was a founding member of the Eritrean Community of Minnesota, which started in 1986, and owns and operates the well known Red Sea Bar and Restaurant in Minneapolis.
“There are no human rights in Eritrea at all,” he said. “One person can blame you for something, and you end up in jail.”
According to Zemedhin, that’s exactly what happened to him when he visited Asmara in 2002. He said that, upon landing at the airport, undercover government agents confiscated his passport and imprisoned him without telling him what he had done. He said that he spent two days in prison alongside Eritrean journalists and he was interrogated every hour. He added that powerful relatives of his in Eritrea were able to negotiate his release. Otherwise, he could have ended up like the thousands who disappeared.
2% income tax
Zemedhin, like others who do not support the Eritrean government, have also foregone paying the so-called 2% duty to Eritrea on their income. It is widely known in the community that the Eritrean government demands that all people of Eritrean heritage pay them 2% of their income regardless of citizenship or country of residence.
“If you don’t pay the 2%, your family will have problems,” said Haile. “That means that you are not Eritrean. You have no privileges at all. It is a control system for the government. They will start to try to know everything about you.”
For Haile, Ghilagaber, and others who want to engage the Eritrean community worldwide in a democratic discussion, such risks are worth their cause.
“My brothers died for justice in Eritrea, but there is no justice,” said Ghilagaber. “Yet nobody is going to abandon hope.”