(Published in African Arguments; March 7, 2018)

The death of a respected elder while in jail has prompted an outpouring of grief and anger on the streets of Asmara.

Screenshot from a video of the recent protest in Asmara, Eritrea.

Last week, the respected elder Hajji Musa Mohammednur inspired aggrieved crowds in Eritrea‘s capital and shook the confidence of the regime. This was the second, and last, time he will have done so in the past few months.

This first occasion was when the well-known Eritrean figure was arrested last October. The 93-year-old had recently criticised a government decree to nationalise Al Diaa Islamic School, whose board he chaired. His detention was one of the triggers that prompted hundreds to take to Asmara’s streets in an uncommon show of defiance a few days later, leading to a brutal crackdown.

Speaking to parents and teachers before his arrest, Mohammednur had said he was prepared to sacrifice his life in resisting the state’s plan. The second time he stirred people to mobilise was last week when he did just that.

Mohammednur’s condition deteriorated during the months of his incarceration. In December, his poor health reportedly prompted the office of President Isaias Afwerki to instruct that he be released and put under house arrest. The nonagenarian refused to leave prison unless those arrested along with him were also let out. “You can carry my dead body out of here, but I am not leaving alone,” he is reported to have said. He died a few months later. Click here to read

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; March 1, 2018)

The alleged death in detention of veteran freedom fighter Durue deeply saddened, but also angered the Eritreans abroad.

The Eritrean regime follows the script of George Orwell's 1984 to erase prisoners of conscience from the country's collective memory, writes Zere [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Since February 19, Eritrean social media have been flooded with tributes to Haile “Durue” Woldensae, the country’s former foreign minister who had been in incommunicado detention since September 18, 2001.

The social media reaction was ignited by a post bySacttism, a Facebook page run by an anonymous regime whistle-blower, which announced the death of Durue.

The Facebook post stated that the veteran freedom fighter died in the infamous Eirairo prison on January 25. According to the report, he was allegedly buried in the bushes near the grounds of Eirairo by guards, like many others who died in the prison camp before him.

The post received nearly 2,000 shares on Facebook and garnered a thread of comments that went beyond 4,500 in just a couple of days.

The comments reflected a wide range of feelings, including vulnerability, sorrow, anger but also a sense of guilt.

This surely must be a cause for all of us to do something,” one commentator said.

“I urge all justice-loving Eritreans to reserve a wall in their home. This wall must be filled with pictures of all prisoners of conscience,” added another. Click here to read

(Published in African Arguments; February 13, 2018)

Musicians in Eritrea used to have to sing the government’s praises to pass the censors. Now there are other ways to get heard.

Screenshot from Aytitehamel, by Eseyas Debesay and the Yohannes sisters.

In 2005, Eritrean singer Ghirmay Andom had just completed his latest album. As required by the government, he submitted the lyrics to his ten songs to the censorship office (officially known as “evaluation unit”) in the Ministry of Information.

The artist was hopeful that his uncontroversial songs of love and life would pass the censors and that he would be allowed to start distributing it. But when he finally heard back, all his lyrics had been rejected. Along with some more nitpicking comments, he was informed that: “When the country is facing lots of adversaries, it is unjustifiable to consistently sing about romance”.

Andom’s experience was far from unique. The government in Asmara has long tried to maintain a close control on artistic expression. It not only shut down the independent press in September 2001, but has also imposed a medieval practice of censorship on literature, art and music.

Before being able to broadcast or print their work, artists have had to endure long waiting periods to hear from the censorship unit, which consisted of a single official. Artists would not dare submit anything sensitive, and gaining approval was effectively reduced to appealing to the personal tastes of the censorship chief. Click here to continue

(Published in Africa is A Country; Jan. 27; 2018)

The comedian Tiffany Haddish has been hailed by Vanity Fair as “the funniest person alive right now.” She was also the first black female stand-up comedian to host Saturday Night Live; an American television institution. Just recently, Haddish presented at the ceremony for the announcement of The Oscar Award nominees, which, like everything else she does, endeared her even more to her fans. Her breakout role came in the 2017 ensemble comedy Girls Trip with Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Regina Hall where she stole every scene she was in. That earned her a Best Supporting Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

One more little known fact about her is that she is also half Eritrean. She recently visited the country for the first time, and this American rising star’s visit to one of Africa’s most repressive states presented all kinds of political minefields.

Her father, Tsehaye Haddish — from whom she was estranged and finally met in his final days — was originally from Eritrea. He had migrated to Los Angeles, where he met her mother. When Haddish was about three years old, her parents drifted apart. What followed was a traumatic childhood, as she bounced between foster families and living with her maternal grandmotherClick here to read


(Published in African Arguments; Nov. 29, 2017)

The student protest in Asmara last month was rare and unique, but not unprecedented.

Are Eritrea's young people saying enough is enough? Credit: David Stanley.

On the 31 October, Eritrea experienced a rare protest as hundreds of people took the streets in opposition against the nationalisation of an Islamic school. Government forces reacted in characteristically brutal fashion and dispersed protesters with gun-shots in the capital Asmara.

A protest in the hugely repressive state of Eritrea is remarkable in of itself. But last month’s demonstration was additionally notable for the make-up of its participants. Many of those who took to the streets were secondary school students. An article on the Ministry of Information’s portal dismissively referred to the protestors as “a group of teenagers”.

For over 16 years, there has been virtually no space to challenge the government of Eritrea. There is no independent press or right to free association and movement. Internet penetration is almost non-existent. And extreme militarisation and surveillance pervade society. All the government’s former critics have all been imprisoned, disappeared or have fled.

However, that does not mean there is no opposition to the regime in the country. They may be disconnected from one another and uncoordinated, but 31 October was not the first time “a group of teenagers” has expressed its frustrations and openly defied the all-powerful Eritrean government. Click here

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; Nov. 11 2017)

On October 31 there was a rare protest in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara [Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]
On October 31 there was a rare protest in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara [Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]

Amid the standard heavy military presence and the regime’s ban of any associations and gatherings, Asmara experienced an unusual protest on October 31. As the widely shared video clips captured by mobile phones have shown, demonstrators in Eritrea’s capital city that day were met with gunshots and violence from government forces.

The Asmara regime rarely acknowledges such incidents unless they get out of control. Apparently realising it’s impossible to conceal what has been widely shared, Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel instead chose to downplay the incident, tweeting “Small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualty, hardly breaking news”. On November 4, an opinion piece appeared on theofficial organs of the Ministry of Information claimed that the demonstrators were “a group of teenagers” chanting “Allahu Akbar”. Click here to read more

(Published in the Fall 2017  issue of Dissent Magazine)

Abraham T. Zere, journalist, activist, and executive director of PEN Eritrea (Yonatan Tewelde)

Journalist and writer Abraham T. Zere has been a key figure in raising awareness of human rights violations in Eritrea. Under President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the country has earned the nickname “The North Korea of Africa.” The Asian country is the only one to rank below Eritrea in the World Press Freedom Index. In June, a coalition of human rights lawyers, activists, and institutions submitted a joint letter to the UN, urging them to reinstate an investigator to track torture, enforced disappearances, and other violations in the country. Among the signees was the Eritrean office of the literary and free speech advocacy institution PEN, of which Zere is executive director. For the past three years, he has represented a membership that comprises exiled writers and journalists scattered throughout the world. Three of its active members, including Zere, are based in Ohio, where Zere went after escaping the country, and where he is able to safely document the regime’s ongoing crimes. Other Eritrean journalists, who make up a sizeable number of the country’s many political prisoners, are not so lucky.

As a fiction writer, Zere’s expatriation has also allowed him to fine-tune a particularly poignant style of satire. His story “The Flagellates,” is exemplary. Set in one of Eritrea’s infamous underground prisons where torture and cruelty are commonplace, “The Flagellates” concerns a new “benevolent” prison commander who attempts to have a civil discussion with the inmates on how they prefer to receive their requisite lashes. The ensuing Life of Brian-like hysterics offer an unnerving consideration of Eritrea’s present-day prison conditions.

—Michael Barron

(Click here to read the short story)

(Published in Africa is A Country; October 11, 2017)

In today’s Eritrea, there is no difference between the jailer and the jailed. The political culture is so violent and desperate that the president’s own son attempted to escape the country.

President Isaias Afwerki’s erratic and mercurial temperament – he has been the head of a one-party dictatorship since independence in 1993 – has culminated in a profoundly dysfunctional nation. A “hit and run” style has replaced any thoughtful long-term planning. Not being able to count on any stable or secure future, many public servants place their energy into amassing as much capital as possible, by any available means. 

The distinctive political culture of Eritrea suffers from an unclear boundary between the abuser and the victim. A guard can switch places with his/her captive at any moment. Some of the most notorious prison commanders and security chiefs who terrorized the nation with unchecked power end up in the harshest dungeons; many of them in prison facilities they have had commanded. Such perilous uncertainty enables the president to keep his subordinates guessing.

In the current Eritrean political landscape, officials are usually promoted to key posts only after being humiliated and pacified through an intricate web of control designed by Afwerki.

For example, Brigadier Gen. Eyob “Halibay” Fessahaye was among the first of the army’s command officers to be incarcerated for alleged corruption in the early 1990s. President Afwerki announced and read the charges against Halibay in a public seminar. Halibay was a sacrificial lamb and his incarceration a warning to the other officers. Shocked at this severe reversal of fortune just as he was preparing to take a new post as internal security chief, Halibay attempted to commit suicide twice while in jail. Later, after his release, in a bizarre twist Afwerki gave him an important post as head of a commission in charge of privatizing government houses. Click here to read the article

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; September 18, 2017)

Eritrea’s transformation into a police state started with a ban on independent media 16 years ago today.

By demolishing the independent media, ceaselessly recycling tired propaganda, and introducing pervasive censorship, Afwerki has created a grim state, writes Zere [Reuters]

People who haven’t experienced Eritrea’s descent into totalitarianism first hand cannot truly understand what daily life looks like there. Even the infamous labels associated with the country – such as “most censored” country on Earth or the bottom-ranked nation on the Press Freedom Index for 10 consecutive years – do not help understand Eritrea’s day-to-day reality. 

So let me share my first-hand experience.

Exactly 16 years ago, on September 18, 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his clique banned seven independent newspapers and imprisoned 11 of the most senior government officials. 

That “Black Tuesday” was the start of Eritrea’s transformation into the police state that it is today. Before this happened, despite various challenges, Eritrean independent media briefly had created space for open discussion, even providing a forum for dissident political leaders.

Exactly 16 years ago, on September 18, 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his clique banned seven independent newspapers and imprisoned 11 of the most senior government officials. 

That “Black Tuesday” was the start of Eritrea’s transformation into the police state that it is today. Before this happened, despite various challenges, Eritrean independent media briefly had created space for open discussion, even providing a forum for dissident political leaders.

Crushing dissent

The first official response to the promising signs of a vibrant press and open political forums in Eritrea came in early September 2001 when President Afwerki appointed Naizghi Kiflu as minister of information. Kiflu had acquired a bad reputation for being a brutal and merciless commander during the struggle for independence. He had served as chief of the infamous military prison then called the Revolutionary Guard. Never shy about his dark past, in his first meeting with the ministry’s staff members and journalists, Kiflu reminded them that he had been “a cruel cadre and ex-chief of the Revolutionary Guard”.

After banning private newspapers and ordering a swift wave of arrests, the minister circulated an order to Eritrea’s printing houses to immediately cease printing any material, including wedding invitations and nightclub posters. 

Thus, began the country’s steady descent into the abyss. Click here to read the article

“I’m not from here, I’m not from there; I don’t belong anywhere.”


A man's suit hangs off a street marker as a cab carrying asylum seekers pulls up near the US-Canada border in Champlain, New York [Christinne Muschi/Reuters]

If exile is characterised by an endless feeling of estrangement, seeking political asylumis a perpetual state of anxiety.

When I started the process of claiming asylum in the United States, an apparently safe and democratic country, I assumed it would help seal off the trauma of my life in Eritrea, the country I had fled. I hoped it would open a new chapter.

But as I embarked on the journey of asylum, I realised that there is a comprehensive dehumanisation process at the heart of it all. The deeper you descend into the legal process of escape, the more you are required to prove who you are, prove the horrors of your experience, while all the time revisiting the very things that forced you to flee. Click here to read the article from Al-Jazeera