Living in Eritrea, the Horn of Africa, where human rights are non-existent

It is difficult to know how to write this without causing trouble for who I shall call my source. I will not supply a gender or the age of the person. But this person was born and grew up in the country of Eritrea.

Everyone has heard of Eritrea’s neighbors – Sudan and Ethiopia. Eritrea is a country in the Horn of Africa. To be honest I didn’t even know it existed until just a few years ago. My ignorance unsettles me but it has also given me the gumption to create this page and hopefully help other people to be more aware. There is nothing worse in this world than keeping silent when you see an injustice. Truly, I would like to somehow be a voice, be an advocate to the people who still live in Eritrea and to those who have been able to leave but still have loved ones in peril.

Growing up in the United States I can say the only peril I have seen has been on an intimate level. Seeing people I care about being abused, having known people who have been assaulted and then of course reading about death in the paper or hearing it on the news. None of that compares to the events that transpire every day for the people living in Eritrea.

Photo from unicef.org
Photo from unicef.org

As a child my source remembers times when war would break out in the streets near their home. They would flee to caves and hide, listening to the sound of explosions and gun fire. It is those memories which made this person do what needed to be done to come to the United States. It is a fortunate thing that just a couple decades ago it was far easier to flee as the current corrupt government was not as strong.

What have I learned about Eritrea and why have I decided to advocate for this misfit country? There are a million and a half reasons…

There are extreme poverty and food shortages in Eritrea. In the decade between 1990 and 2001, 53 percent of the country’s households fell below the poverty line, and 44 per cent of children under the age of five were underweight. This is mostly due to the fact that the government is not accepting assistance. They are aware there are people starving. Yet they turn away food, at least to the civilians. Trust.org states Eritrea is one of the top 20 countries with “alarming” or “extremely alarming” levels of hunger. The United Nations Development Programme states “the poor constitute about two-thirds of the population of the Country and slightly more than one-third of them are extreme poor.” I am confident these numbers are even more dramatic now but I am unable to find the statistics to support this assumption.

I have asked my source why are people not standing up to the government, why do they not leave? The answer is simple. Fear.

When a person is abused for a long period of time they start to feel worthless, afraid, numb, maybe even complacent. Perhaps they have a couple good days and so they hold onto that feeling for as long as possible so as to not spiral into a dark hole of depression. But truly, when you feel afraid, when you feel hopeless…you just, well, give up. How is it that an entire country is in that very position?

As an adult, why not just get a Visa, leave the country. People under the age of 60 are expected to be actively serving their country’s government. In fact, my source has an uncle who is now 60 and has lived an entire lifetime with the military, he was never let go. It’s not like you dedicate three, four or even five years, when you go into the service there, you ultimately remain in the service. If you try to leave you are jailed, you are a beaten or if you are lucky you are just charged hundreds of thousands of dollars. There isn’t a consistent way in which the government holds their people hostage, they do whatever works in the particular scenario. Hey, that works, it certainly makes it easier to hide from the rest of the world, how would you track something like that anyway.

I asked, “What do parents do? If they have children, do they try to get their kids out of Eritrea?”

I was told this, “Yes, some people do. They pay for a smuggler. They smuggle to Egypt and from Egypt to Israel. But there are bad spots, the Sudan. Desert you must cross. And there people are killed. Harvested for their organs.”

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), some 3,000 Eritreans leave their country every month fleeing the oppressive conditions imposed by the dictatorial regime in Asmara, including indefinite military service, religious and ethnic persecution, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention. For most, the first point of entry is Sudan, although it’s hardly a safe haven for new arrivals.

The local Rashaida tribe and other armed gangs operating in and around sprawling camps on the Sudan-Eritrea border are responsible for kidnapping scores of asylum-seekers and refugees.

A UN Security Council (UNSC) report found that Eritrean, Sudanese and Egyptian smuggling gangs and government officials collude in a sophisticated human trafficking industry estimated to generate $10 million annually.

I don’t understand. I stand there talking to this person just feeling completely oblivious. How can this be happening? Why? Where are the people who can help? What could someone do if they wanted to help? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I have made it my mission to learn, to seek, to compile data, to reach out… to be a voice.

I have been told that if the government sees a group of three or more people standing on a street in Eritrea they are arrested. Getting together in a group is not allowed.

I ask, “On what grounds? How can they arrest someone? What happens to the person? What if someone tries to get them out of jail?”

I am told, “There isn’t a reason. They just arrest you. You stay in jail until they decide to let you go. If someone comes to your aide they are beaten.”

In Eritrea all of the kids go to school just like we do here in the US. But after the 11th grade they are sent away. During their 12th year they begin training for the military, they are Diasporas. There is no choice. Some kids will drop out of school in the 11th grade and go into hiding. If they are smuggled out, if they find a way to leave the country and the government finds out, their family is charged a fee. It is a sort of ransom. They are told, if your child comes back then you will get this money back.

The children who remain in Eritrea and are then trained for the military, Diasporas as they are called, remain loyal to the government. Loyal or brainwashed? Again, it is the same with people who are abused. They are worn down, they are made to believe they are worthless, they are afraid. Very often they repeat the same pattern as their abuser when they are older. If by the time you are of age you are made to join this military to strengthen this insane government then perhaps you become less afraid and you start to feel like you are worth something. Here the government who was holding you and your family down has now invited you in so you can be a part of their force. As twisted as that all sounds, it makes sense doesn’t it?

So I ask, what can be done? How can this cycle be broken?

Recently, a group of “mutinous soldiers” were able to storm an information center and steal the phone numbers of many people in the country. I am told the numbers were going to be used to try and reach out to the people of Eritrea and get them to ban together, to create a united front. But calling them and telling them merely to all stay inside on a Friday is something these people are too afraid to do. If a mass group of people all stay inside then the government will force themselves into their home and they will be interrogated.

President isn't looking to hungered or impoverished. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
President isn’t looking to hungered or impoverished. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki has tried to “calm fears” of those who are upset this data was stolen. I would say “Is he crazy, doesn’t he realize that is not what they are afraid of?” but I already have the impression he is out of his right might and therefore it wouldn’t matter if I said anything. The people of Eritrea are not upset that data was stolen. They are anxious because they know it was stolen for a purpose of attempting to unite a group who might be willing to help overthrow the government.

I am told the person who stole the data has been captured. The assumption…he is probably dead now. This is not confirmed, I am not sure there is a way to confirm it unless Afewerki decides to come forward with that information.

Fleeing the country knowing you are leaving family and/or behind has to be difficult. How do you help them, can you help them? The answer is yes, but not easily. You can send care packages to folks in Eritrea but everything that goes into the country is picked through. The people who receive the package are asked by the government to pay a very hefty tax as well, we’re talking thousands of dollars. So if the receiver does not have that kind of money, well then, they don’t get their package.

You know it’s odd to me that there is not more information out there regarding these injustices. In fact, when you Google Eritrea to find news the majority of what you find makes it seem that the government is good, that they are dealing with rebels in their country. I know that is not the case. I want other people to know that is not the case. I want people worldwide to know the truth and to help the people of Eritrea to rise above these issues.

The Eritrean private print press stopped operating in 2001, after a ban imposed by the government of President Isaias Afwerki and the subsequent imprisonment of key editors and journalists. The three newspapers, two television stations, and three radio stations that operate in the country remained under state control. I understand Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki bans independent journalism in Eritrea, but how can it be that not more news mediums elsewhere in the world are writing about these topics?

Forced labor, mine is "helping economy" of Eritrea while promoting lack of human rights
Forced labor, mine is “helping economy” of Eritrea while promoting lack of human rights

I was able to find a Human Rights Watch Report but it mostly discusses mining and forced labor. While the report is current to 2013 it speaks of a problem within the mining industry that Alison Williams from Reuters wrote about back in 2009, it’s news but it’s old news and the only things we know for sure is that it continues to worsen. Yes, these are issues, big issues, but there is so much more and it is hushed. Hushed by fear.

The United States is aware, to what degree I am not clear, of the atrocities happening daily in Eritrea.

From a report dated August 2011:

Ambassador Rice: The United States is very, very concerned about Eritrea’s behavior in the region. Its support for Al-Shabaab, its support to destabilize its neighbors is documented quite thoroughly and persuasively in the report of the special panel. We heard during the session last month from virtually all of Eritrea’s neighbors that they face a pattern of destabilization that is quite troubling and quite disturbing. Moreover, we’re profoundly troubled and we have clearly condemned the support that Eritrea lent to the terrorist attack that was planned for—to coincide with the African Union summit last January in Addis Ababa. We think that’s an absolutely abhorrent development, and we think it merits the full attention of the Council. Yes, the United States is very much interested in additional pressure and sanctions being applied on Eritrea. This is something that we’ll continue to discuss and debate in the Security Council. But from the U.S. point of view, we think that that is timely.

I see, I hear, I am aware that Eritrea has become, over time, a completely locked out country. No one is welcome to visit and no one under the age of 60 is permitted to leave. It is essentially a prison for all living there, I would say even for the majority of the military soldiers, many who are young adults and probably even for some of the government who remain loyal solely due to their fears of reprisal. Those who “live” in that country will die in that country, but I dare to say at this point in time they aren’t really living.

Sources:

“Burundi, Eritrea, Haiti Top 2012 Global Hunger Index.” AlertNet – Thomson Reuters Foundation. N.p., 11 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

“Eritrea.” UNDP. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. .

Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2012 – Eritrea, 2 November 2012, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/509906d3c.html [accessed 15 February 2013]

Rice, Susan. Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice at the UN Security Council Stakeout on Somalia, Syria, Eritrea, and Sudan. N.p., 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

Williams, Allison. “Africa News Blog.” Africa News Blog RSS. 29 June 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. .

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