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(Published in Strangers Guide; Jan. 28, 2019)

As Eritrea improves relations with its neighbors, one writer in exile reflects on the country of his birth

Amid news of Eritrea’s rapprochement with its neighboring Ethiopia after 20 years of deadlock and the resulting improved relations in the Horn of Africa, my interest in my home country has taken a new turn. Until these relatively recent developments, Eritrea had been descending into a bottomless abyss, thanks to the reclusive and short-sighted policies of its government. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to adapt to my new home, following my exile and becoming a stateless person.

It has been seven years since I left my home country. Over the years, as I went through several stages of rage/denial/adjustment, my relationship with Eritrea has constantly shifted.

Eritrea has gained adverse notoriety for being the source of a disproportionate number of refugees, fleeing particularly to neighboring countries and Europe, risking the deadly Mediterranean Sea journey. For different reasons, including to explore how this very inaccessible country functions, many people have expressed a renewed interest in visiting Eritrea and experiencing it firsthand.

Recently, I have received many requests for travel tips from independent researchers, journalists and documentary filmmakers who plan to visit Eritrea. At the same time, the opportunity to visit my country and see my family members and friends has been denied to me. I can’t deny that I’ve been reflecting a lot about this. Click here to read the article

ረቡዕ ዕለት 19 ታሕሳስ ምሸት᎓ ንሚኒስተር ምክልኻል ነበርን ህሉዊ ሚኒስተር ጸዓትን ማዕድንን ጀነራል ስብሓት ኤፍሬምኣብ መንበሪ ገዛኡ ፈተነ-ቅትለት ተኻዪድሉስ ተሃሪሙ ብህይወት ከም ዝወጸ ኣብ በበይኑ መራኸቢታት ክቃላሕ ዝጸንሐ’ዩ። ምስኡ ዝተኣሳሰርዓሰርተታት ትንታነታት ክውሕዝ ንቡር ስለ ዝዀነ᎓ ምናልባት ካብ ዝሰማዕኩዎን ብዝተፈላለየ ኣጋጣሚታት ዝፈልጦን ሓበሬታ ከካፍል።

ዝተፈጸመ (ከም ዘለዎ)

ረቡዕ ምሸት ጀነራል ስብሓት ኣብ መንበሪ ገዛኡ ኣጋይሽ ዓዲሙ ኣምስዩስ ከፋኑዎ ንደገ ወጺኡ ክምለስ ከሎ᎓ ብረት ምስ ዝሓዘ ሰብ ብሃንደበት ኣብ ውሽጢ መንበሪ ገዛኡ ተጋጢሙ። መንበሪ ገዛ ስብሓት ብኽልተ ወተሃደራት ዝሕሎ ደኣ ይዅን እምበር᎓ እዚ ዕጡቕ ሰብ መዓስን ብኸመይን ኣቢሉ ኣብ ውሽጢ ከም ዝኣተወ ክሳብ ሕጂ ኣይተፈልጠን።

(ቀዲሙ ኣብ ዝነበረ ዛንታ መኣረምታ ተግይሩ ኣሎ) ኣብ ውሽጢተዅሲ ከፊቱ᎓ ብቐዳማይ ፈተነ ስሒቱዎ። ዳሕራይ ክትኵስ ክብል ብረት ስለ ዝዓከሰት᎓ ተኳሲ ብኣካል ቀሪቡዎ። ብሰደፍ’ታ ብረት ደጋጊሙኣብ መንጋጋኡን ርእሱን ብምህራም ኣብ መሬት ኣውዲቑዎ። ስብሓት በቲ ሃንደበታዊ ማህረምቲ ወዲቑ ኣንፈቱ ከጥፍእ ከሎ᎓ ተኳሲ ግንተታሒዙ፣ ኣብ ትሕቲ ቀይዲ ውዒሉ’ሎ።

ኣብ ሆስፒታል ተዓቝቡ ዝጸንሐ ስብሓት᎓ ዓርቢ ንግሆ ብፍልይቲ ነፋሪት ንሕክምና ኣቡዳቢ ከይዱ ኣሎ። ምንጪታት ካብ ውሽጢ ከም ዝሕብሩዎ᎓ በዓልቲ-ቤት ስብሓት ምስኡ ክትጓዓዝ ሓሲባ እኳ እንተ ነበረት᎓ ብወገን ኢሳይያስ ስለ ዘይተፈቕደላ ግን ንሳ ተሪፋ᎓ ኣብ ክንዳኣ ከኣ ብርጋዴር ጀነራል ዶክተር ሃይለ ምሕጹን ምስኡ ከም ዝጓዓዝ ተገይሩ ኣሎ። ምንጭታት ከም ዝጠቕሱዎ᎓ ወኑ ደኣ ይምለስ እምበር᎓ ብኸቢድ ተሃስዩ ኣሎን በበይኖም መጥባሕታት ይጸብዩዎ ኣለዉን።

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Insiders say President Isaias is now ruling largely unilaterally, keeping the public, military leaders, and even ministers out of the loop.

The lack of information about President Isaias' plans as Eritrea undergoes a period a change is making many nervous. Credit: Sailing Nomad.

Eritrea’s life-president Isaias Afwerki could hardly have had a busier 2018. This year, he has signed an historic peace deal with Ethiopia. He has built close relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He has re-emerged as a man of paramount importance in regional politics, and he has had UN sanctions lifted on Eritrea.

Who knows what 2019 will bring?

That is not a rhetorical question. Isaias has long overseen a closed political system, but this year, its secrecy has reached new heights. While the president used to maintain close relations with his subordinates as a way of control, he is now making momentous decisions almost single-handedly. He is governing without informing, let alone consulting, his colleagues.

When Isaias made the dramatic announcement on 20 June that Eritrea would send a delegation to Ethiopia to discuss peace after 20 years of hostilities, for example, most ministers were hearing the news for the first time, according to inside sources. The first time the cabinet met to discuss relations with Ethiopia was on 28 September, almost three months after the 9 July peace deal had already been signed.

The president has been similarly tight-lipped with the Eritrean people. It was only on 3 November that Isaias sat down for his first interview on the topic. But in the 80-minute monologue-cum-lecture with state media, he talked only about regional dynamics. It was advertised that he would address domestic issues in a second part, but Eritreans are still waiting for that instalment. In the meantime, Isaias has returned to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for a seventh time and signed another mysterious deal, this time joined by Somalia’s president. Click here

(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

(First published in English PEN; May 3, 2016)

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Today, on World Press Freedom Day, the director of PEN Eritrea in Exile shares his experience of life as a journalist in Eritrea, the country ranked worst in the world (180th) for press freedom in a report by Reporters without Borders.

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English PEN image2

In Kafka’s classic psychological novel The Trial, unidentified authorities suddenly show up one morning and inform Joseph K. that he’s under arrest. Mr. K. proclaims his innocence and tells a lengthy story in his own defence. Unfortunately, in this repressive world, the very fact of an arrest renders one guilty. A seemingly never-ending, nonsensical court case follows. Throughout, K. is never officially charged or even aware of the charges against him. K.’s sense of self and well-being is systematically destroyed by the incessant harassment and the torment of constantly being watched by anonymous authorities.

In the modern Eritrean media-scape, one faces similar hazards, including constant fear and uncertainty. Journalists carry the gut-churning knowledge that they could be found guilty merely by association and/or friendship, facing severe punishment without a trial. Click here to read the article from English PEN.