(Published in Index on Censorship Magazine; Spring 2017 issue)

Over the last four years, the international media have dubbed Eritrea “North Korea of Africa,” mainly due to their striking similarities when it comes to being closed, repressive states blocked to international media. When a satirical website run by exiled Eritrean journalists cleverly manipulated the simile, the site stoked a social media buzz among the Eritrean diaspora.

Awaze Tribune launched its publication in June 2016 with three news stories including “North Korean Ambassador to UN: ‘Stop Calling Eritrea the North Korea of Africa.’”

The story reports that the North Korean ambassador to the U.N., Sin Son-ho, has briefed the press corps and warned them to stop calling Eritrea “North Korea of Africa.” He complains that it’s insulting for his advanced, prosperous, nuclear-armed nation to be compared to Eritrea, with its, “senile idiot leader” who “hasn’t even been able to complete the Adi Halo dam.”

With apparent little concern over its authenticity, Eritreans in the diaspora began widely sharing the news story, sparking a flurry of discussion on social media and accumulating 36,600 hits.

On the intensely politicized and polarized Eritrean diaspora online platforms, the opposition camp shared it widely to underline the dismal incompetence of the Eritrean government. The pro-government camp countered by alleging that Ethiopia must be involved behind the scenes. Some moderately well-read websites in the opposition camp shared the link as worth reading, though none of them disclosed or acknowledged that it was satirical. Similarly, it was tweeted and re-tweeted many times, including by some pro-Ethiopia handles.

For the average discerning reader, the satirical nature of the new website seemed obvious. The satire begins with the name, “Awaze,” a hot sauce common in Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisines. If readers were not alerted by the name, there were plenty of other tip-offs. For example, on the same day, two similar news articles were posted: “Eritrea and South Sudan Sign Agreement to Set an Imaginary Airline” and “Brexit Vote Signals Eritrea to Go Ahead With Its Long-Planned Referendum.” Read the article from Index on Censorship.

 

 

(Published in Carnegie Council of Ethics for International Affairs; March 22, 2017)

 ©Jason Florio - all rights reserved. Eritrean migrants in a sinking boat.May 2, 2015. A boat carrying 369 mainly Eritrean migrants, 45 km off the Libyan coast. The bilge pump was blocked and water was pouring in. Everyone was evacuated safely to a rescue boat and taken to Sicily. ©Jason Florio – all rights reserved.

By 2015, the UN estimated that 5,000 Eritreans were leaving their homeland every month. Eritreans trying to escape their repressive country are well aware of the perilous journey in front of them, facing obstacles at every step. It is only when—to borrow poet Abdellatif Laâbi‘s line—the fear of living replaces the fear of dying, that they decide to go.

Nobody has high hopes for a regime that has been accused of committing “crimes against humanity.” However, what’s both startling and troubling is the complicity of the international community in these crimes—the African Union, European Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and other UN organizations. They are guilty of everything from ineffectual silence to outright collaboration.

Despite the fact that Eritrea is among the signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), most of the Declaration’s articles are routinely ignored in today’s Eritrea.

Freedom of movement in the country is tightly controlled through required pass-papers, countless checkpoints, and frequent military round-ups. After the age of six, Eritreans can’t travel out of the country legally except under extraordinary circumstances. Leaving with permission involves a convoluted process controlled by the Office of the President; this includes all government employees up to the level of ministers.

Yet, it is relatively easy for married women to leave the country. As a result, in the last few years many young Eritrean women have settled in Uganda and other African countries, mainly because they don’t dare to risk staying behind until their children reach the crucial age of six. Their husbands must find ways to join them later, taking all kinds of risks and paying high amounts of money to smugglers. To cross the tightly secured border illegally, some pay as high as $6,000 to be smuggled out of the country, to cross overland into the Sudan and Ethiopia or to sail to Yemen. Yet this high price does not guarantee safety. Click here to read the original article.

(Published in Africa is A Country; March 6, 2017)

Eritrea has expelled all international correspondents and banned local private newspapers since 2001. One consequence is that Western media have had to play up their “unique” or “rare” access to “the North Korea of Africa.”

Over the last two years, some leading media–having gone through endless bureaucratic hassles and rejections–such as the BBC, France 24,  The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times  have covered Eritrea. Some independent journalists have (dis)covered Eritrea too. For many of us who lived our entire lives in the country, of course nothing is nearly revealing apart from their “sensational” stories.  (An exception was the The New Yorker’s coverage in December of a mass defection by members of the Eritrean national team.)

Reporting on Eritrea has reduced into a standard template: it starts with description of how clean and peaceful the capital city, Asmara is (there is also emphasis on its Italian colonial legacy, here reduced to architecture and café culture), inhabited by friendly people. This is usually followed by long descriptions of the palm-tree-lined streets of the capital; disproportionate part on the capital’s art-deco and futuristic buildings; some confused and contradictory notes on the overcrowded cafes (with a note of the recent mass-exodus), visits to the remnants of war tanks near Asmara (linking it with the bloody war of independence) and at last interviewing the usual suspects, media-friendly officials such as Yemane Ghebreab, the ruling party’s political affairs and presidential advisor and the minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel. The latter two get to dole out their regular scripts of “we are in emergency state and the international community should pressure Ethiopia to demarcate the borders.” Click here to continue

(Published in Sabotage Reviews Nov. 21, 2016)

The collection portrays the “orgasm of crime”, following themes of shattered dreams; the bond between a father behind barbed wire and his waiting family; the atrophied and docile body; and mechanisms of torture and fear. The poet, “translator of pain and humiliation”, graphically portrays physical torture and psychological torment in which victims are “skinned alive” to confess to crimes they never committed. The long, mostly unpunctuated poems are loud cries of abuses and read as hallucinatory notes. Ultimately, the form becomes the message: these poems embody bold defiance against injustice.

The poems written in prison or immediately after Laâbi’s release do not fall into conventional sound rhymes or meters: he expresses collective maltreatment through free verse, capturing the suffering that he describes as “inferno of solitude”. The poem ‘Letter to My Friends Overseas’ explains why he might deflect traditional poetic forms: Click here to read more.

(Published in online journal of African Studies Quarterly Vol. 16, Issue 3-4)

Flaws and oversights resulting from such disregard of readily available scholarly material written by Eritreans are evident throughout the text. Although the book seeks to explore modern architecture in colonial Eritrea, the author, if one did not know any better, seems to be writing about a literally empty space. It’s difficult to see how one can write about distinct buildings and their history, without mentioning the human element. The book ignores the interactions, relationships, and acts of conscription, dislocation, and nationalization of land that played such crucial roles during the Italian colonial period. By ignoring these ignominious hallmarks of Italian colonial rule, and instead gazing at the Eritrean historic spaces through the eyes of the colonizer, the book reads more like an homage to the latter.

The book uses leading scholars in the field of architecture to substantiate its theories and conclusions. It provides a thorough look at the Italian colonists’ justifications and perspectives during the early colonial period in Eritrea, through travelogues of the early settlers and diaries from colonial missions. Employing theoretical abstractions and overusing minute details at the expense of rendering a bigger picture, the book avoids any meaningful treatment of the excessive use of lethal force and brutality exercised by the Italian colonizers. Furthermore, the author, by omitting discussion of these sensitive but relevant areas and quoting texts that appear to justify the colonial occupation, exacerbates, ignores, and/or misrepresents the rarely discussed Italian colonial “color bar” (racial hierarchy). For example, the book cites a text that glosses over the Italian color bar (later infamously adopted in Apartheid South Africa), casually observing: “Sons of Europeans mingle and play freely with native boys” (p.173) Click here to read the review (pp-179-180)

 

(Published in Carniege Council for Ethics in International Affairs; December 30, 206)


In addition to groups that primarily serve as platforms for political debates, there are also other important social media groups for the thousands of young migrants. Most Eritreans take the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route to get to Europe. They use social media, particularly Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber, to navigate the routes, exchange information, and support each other. As the journey entails terrible risks, starting with leaving the country and then dealing with multiple smugglers and human traffickers along the way, shared information is crucial and Eritrean social media platforms frequently contain posts about safe routes from the Sudan to Libya and from Libya to Europe. If certain routes are particularly risky, those who have survived and are safely in Europe will quickly share their experiences and advise others to avoid them. Posting photos, names, and contact details of malicious smugglers, accompanied with detailed descriptions of their misdoings is also very common, so that others can stay away from them. Although the possibilities of false allegations are inevitable, this kind of information-sharing is literally life-saving.

Hundreds of Eritreans have been dying each year along the Mediterranean and Sahara routes and social media platforms are often used to make public appeals to save endangered or trapped groups or to get support for families of the deceased. Since Eritrea is a highly communal and interdependent society, responses to such appeals have been very encouraging and crowd-funding targets are quickly not only met, but surpassed.

After reaching their destinations, mainly in Europe, many Eritreans also share information about the policies of the host countries on social media. Either in closed groups or publicly, it is very common to read messages of communal support and tips on how incoming brothers and sisters can use available resources or reach the relatively better countries in Europe. Information may include the conditions of political asylum each country accepts or the offers/challenges available in the most common destinations Click here to read the article from Carniege Council

(Published in The Athens News; Nov. 23, 2016)

The global surge of populist leaders foreshadowed the rise of Donald Trump. In seemingly bold defiance against establishments, many countries have been lining up behind populist leaders with their false albeit seductive promises.

They include India’s Narendra Modi who proposes to tackle climate change through yoga; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkeywith his recent crackdown on the news media, educational establishment and the military, among other social institutions; Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who publicly said, “EU, f**k you”; and the populist Brexiter Nigel Farage.

There are plenty of examples of populist leaders creating political chaos. Check the media tycoon and convicted tax-fraudster who led Italy as prime minister for nine meddled years, the controversial Silvio Berlusconi. He used to claim he did not need to work as he is rich, but he was serving out of love for Italy to save it from the left. Or how about Muammar Gaddafi of Libya who argued in his manifesto, The Green Book, that “soccer is not democratic enough as it is not fair for thousands of spectators to watch only 22 players.”

And then we have Saddam Hussein of Iraq who claimed to have transcribed the Qu’ran with seven gallons of his own blood. Click here to read the article

(Published in The Guardian; Sept. 18, 2016)

Today marks a bleak date in the country’s history, when a paranoid elite began a brutal campaign to cement its grip on power

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Exactly 15 years ago, Eritrea’s hard-won independence was hijacked by a paranoid political elite who have clung to power ever since.

It was on this day in 2001 that President Isaias Afwerki jailed 11 top government officials and banned seven independent newspapers. So started the insidious takeover that has seen the country become a military state, prompting the exodus of Eritreans to Europe we are witnessing today.

State security agents then rounded up and jailed 12 journalists. To this day, none of the detainees have been tried in a court of law, and they remain incommunicado in secret prisons. Their families don’t know if they are alive.

Many civilian posts were taken over by military commanders. The army was stationed in all major towns and cities, and anyone working in the public sector was instructed to report to them. Click here to read the whole story from The Guardian

(Originally published in Index on Censorship; Sept. 16, 2016)

It initially sounded like a joke; gradually it got serious and then tragic. A decade and a half later, it is catastrophe.

megedi-adina-yonatan-tewelde

Fifteen years ago on 18 September, 2001, fellow students of University of Asmara and I were confined in two labour camps, GelAlo and Wi’A, for defying a requirement of unpaid summer work. We were kept in the camps, under harsh, atrocious living conditions and open to the weather that normally reaches 45 C (113 F) for about five weeks. As we were preparing to return home, we learned the government had banned seven private newspapers and imprisoned 11 top government officials.

The day after our homecoming, beaten down and demoralised, I went to meet Amanuel Asrat, chief editor of Zemen newspaper. About 10 days before that, he had received an article, in which I detailed our living conditions, that I had managed to get smuggled out of the prison camp. My piece was published in the last issue of the newspaper. Click here to read the original article from Index on Censorship

(First published in PEN Eritrea; Sept. 2, 2016)

Photo Courtesy of (http://www.theeritreanexodus.com/ )

With the Eritrean government’s dismal failure to live up to high expectations, and a hopelessly polarized diaspora community, we’ve reached a vile state where seemingly any casual observer can suddenly turn into an Eritrean expert and even be celebrated among the Eritrean diaspora. This trend, unfortunately, is devolving into self-hate and an unseemly dependency on foreigners. Characteristically, if non-Eritrean appears on the international media or other forums to discuss the Eritrean abysmal situation, subsequently many Eritreans on the opposition camp would change their Facebook profile photo to the person’s the next day. It also goes similar way on the other camp.

The situation can present fertile ground for pseudo-experts to exploit and capitalize on the continued suffering in Eritrea. You can click here to read the original article in PEN Eritrea.Continue reading