(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

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; July 6, 2017)

If available at all, facts about many crucial issues in Eritrea fail to capture the reality in the country. Reading the news about Eritrea, an outsider would not understand the extent and complexity of its transformation: from a country with a promising future into the personal fiefdom of President Isaias Afwerki and his clique at the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). A pastiche of daily encounters does a better job of illuminating the disfigured Dadaist reality of present-day Eritrea.

Pasta and oil instead of lectures

The Eritrean government closed the only university in Eritrea, the University of Asmara, in 2006, after the last class finished their studies and no new students were admitted. I had been working in the university as teaching assistant at the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature since October 2004. After the closure, the staff and faculty continued to report to work for a year. We were still receiving our salaries, but we didn’t have any classes to teach. We had no obligation to show up to “work”. However, we continued to do so because our food rations were being distributed at the university campus. With the ruling party rationing the most basic food items, such as pasta, cooking oil and grain, and with no students to attend to, faculty found food rations the only worthwhile topic of conversation at the university. As shares were distributed, bits of pasta and leaks of cooking oil became common in faculty offices, along with professors hauling bags full of food items away from the campus.Click here to read the article from Al-Jazeera

(Conversation with Michael Barron published in Culture Trip; June 7, 2017)

“The Flagellates” is a satire set in a detention center where its prisoners debate with the commander about the distribution of their requisite lashings. Could you talk about the basis and realities that this satire is commenting upon?


Fiction pales in comparison to the reality of present day Eritrea. There are over 360 prison facilities (majority underground detention centers run/owned by military commanders who extort money for plea bargains) in this small nation of less than five-million people. One way or another an average Eritrean has served time in these detention centers (myself in a labor camp). The degree of dehumanization and brutality many prisoners of conscience experience is difficult to fathom. George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial read not as allegorical stories of a dystopian world, but as slightly embellished accounts of life in Eritrea itself. Personal stories of the prison facilities vary—I’ve heard of people who were forced to eat with defecation-tainted utensils; to others who served for years in the solitary confinement because of mistaken identity, with even the guards freely admitting that they were detained the wrong person. I’ve also heard of some workers who were imprisoned under harsh conditions because the jailers want to extract information regarding their bosses, men who would themselves never be indicted. I wrote “The Flagellates” having all such stories as a backdrop. A straight, realist narrative story couldn’t grasp the scale of such bizarre reality so I had to be just as bizarre with my imagination; I remember even bursting into a loud laughter while writing it in a coffee shop.

This story has as its subtitle “A true fictional account” and I’m wondering if you could discuss the nuance of this phrase as it pertains to the story.
I put that in to create ambiguity; the narrator is also named Abraham for the same reason. Overall, I weave between fiction and reality, as it is difficult in an Eritrean context to discern between the two, particularly in the detention centers. For example, when this story (in its original Tigrinya) was published in a blog, one Eritrean wrote me expressing the “fury he felt reading about this experience as if it were my own,” and even suggested that I report it to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. On a different reading, this example also shows such practices are normally expected in Eritrean prison centers. Read the full interview from Culture Trip here