(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

(First Published in Global Voices August 4, 2016)

Eritrean diaspora on social media. Photo by Yonatan Tewelde, used with permission.

Eritrean diaspora on social media. Photo by Yonatan Tewelde, used with permission.

A few months ago an Eritrean acquaintance called me to discuss an article he wanted to write for PEN Eritrea’s website. He had worked as a journalist in Eritrea, where we’re both from, before fleeing the country nearly ten years ago.

He had recently spoken out (under a pen name) about his former colleagues who were languishing incommunicado in detention centers in Eritrea, a story that was then covered by various media including The Guardian, in partnership with our organization.Click here to read the whole article from Global Voices.

 

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(An abridged article taken from Index on Censorship Magazine issue 250th; appeared in The Independent June 30, 2016)

Journalist Abraham T. Zere has been identified as a ‘security threat’, and watched his colleagues go to prison. Now exiled in the USA, he reveals the dangers facing writers in the “world’s most censored country”

This is an edited extract from an interview with Eritrean journalist Abraham T. Zere, for Index on Censorship magazine’s 250th issue:

In early 2016, journalists and staff members who held key positions in Eritrea’s ministry of information were required to fill out a detailed personal form, including information on their bank accounts, and where their family lived. The threat to those thinking of leaving the country was clear.

It has been more than 10 years since I stopped working for the ministry of information. In that period, it has evolved into a centre of terror, more militarised than ever and more overtly interfering in journalists’ lives. Click here to read the original article from The Independent.

halloween-costumeDepending on who you ask, the reaction to Halloween varies considerably. For example, if you ask the Christian church representatives (I assume they are self-appointed) whom I see in the middle of the crowd with their big crosses, they will explain to you how sinful it is and would ask you to repeat some verses from the Bible. If you were in Eritrea before about a decade and read the article published in the national newspaper written by Ghirmay Yohannes (not to be confused with the comedian Ghirmay “Sandiego”) you would hardly understand anything apart from possibly condemn the act as “stupid and utter non-sense.” Then, when some returnees and possibly joint with other “wannabes” celebrated the day in one of the night-clubs owned by an Eritrean-American man, some days later the then freelancer Ghirmay published an article under the title “Satanic Day was Observed in Asmara.” Not to mention the confusion it created as result of name similarities with the comedian Ghrimay Yohannes that led him to write an article to clarify his stand and expectedly condemn such “irresponsible act,” the article created an uproar. Until recently my friend Yonatan mentioned it casually, I had no idea the writer was discussing Halloween. Readers can also hardly guess what the real event was as the writer spent great portion of his article describing the scene which he described it mostly as “semi-naked” and made it sound like “nude party.” As he possibly did not grasp the aura of the event, he has been very vague and repeatedly referred as “satanic day” instead of using the term Halloween.Continue reading

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Abraham Zere was in 2001 a young freelance journalist for the newspaper Zemen, run by editor and poet Amanuel Asrat. “He suspected he would be arrested, but thought it could never last long”, Zere tells about Asrat, who he calls “my role model”. Most detainees disappeared in the infamous Eiraeiro prison. Zere, who works for Pen Eritrea (an international group which agitates for the interests of writers), obtained  over the years a little bit of information about them, first by a camp guard and  then an anonymus whistleblower: of the 35 taken in detention 15 years ago 15 are still alive. Click here to read the article.

(First published in The Athens News: August 28, 2016)

Athens is at its best, characterized with endless house parties and a leap forward for most, where everything is looking gay. That is why I do not want to spoil returning students’ mood with an admonishing tone; you already had that in last week’s back-to-school orientations, right?

The Athens air is filled with positive vibes and superlative adjectives such as “awesome,” “incredible,” “super excited,” “terrific,” etc. – those commonly used in Donald Trump’s speeches. Freshmen students are experiencing their first stay away from home (in most cases), and many international students are possibly celebrating their coming to America, rapidly deconstructing the initial image they had of the United States. The process of getting an American entry visa by itself, for many, is as big as graduation.

I have returned back to school after two years and have to go through the mundane (in most cases) first week orientations that I already had first experienced four years ago. Going through all these orientations and email communications, I feel I am either too old, or else, nothing is new. Of course, at the other end, I also feel everything is new. Click here to read the original article from The Athens News.

(First published in The Guardian; April 27, 2016)

An anonymous whistleblower claims to have new proof of human rights abuses, galvanising opposition online

Eritrea has become nicknamed ‘Africa’s North Korea’ in recent years.
Eritrea has become nicknamed ‘Africa’s North Korea’ in recent years. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In a bid to upend years of secrecy in the country dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”, a new Facebook page is publishing documents claiming to show how the Eritrean government abuses its citizens.

In just two months, SACTISM – Classified Documents of the Dwindling PFDJ has garnered more than 16,000 followers on the social media site by alleging to have new information about human rights violations committed at the hands of president Isaias Afewerki’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Click here to read the article from The Guardian.

(First published in The Athens News; July 6, 2016)

 

Fast forward. The steady process of teaching new tricks to an old dog, unlearning old habits; four years life in America and Athens summarized:

Extremely student-friendly professors compared with the neo-feudal system I experienced back home. Tons of reading materials. “Never ask to challenge students, but test how much they know” philosophy. An obsession about weather. Exceedingly programmed lifestyle where you take half an hour to figure out a 10-minute coffee meeting. New terms and concepts like hookup, one-night stand, three-somes (disclaimer: I am married and never tried any of those, and my wife will also read the article, anyways). An extreme capitalist culture that trickles down to individual levels and entered the linguistic register where a friend offers to “buy coffee,” instead of other terms such as invite, accompany or join. Unlearning old habits such as avoiding conversations with a person next to you in a bar or a coffee-shop, but have your iPhone to check Facebook, text or take selfies (my compliment to a young woman sitting next to me could also be interpreted as “sexual harassment,” lesson learned). The humiliating experience of splitting bills in restaurants where invitation to dinner or lunch does not necessarily mean the person will take care of the bill, but asking you to accompany him/her (sharing is caring as the great Barney says it, right?). Learning to converse at length about pets with strangers in the street (the only way of talking to random people). Abandoning the metric system and start to count in feet, pounds and Fahrenheit (Google is a savior). A system that honors individual liberty (“mind your own business,” how I love it!). Exceptionally friendly assistants/secretaries in most administrative offices (I had terrible experiences with their counterparts back home where they literally bully customers).Click here to read the whole article from The Athens News.