(Published in Africa is A Country; March 29, 2018)

In mid-February 2018, rapper Nipsey Hussle released his first studio album, Victory Lap, a paean to his complicated relationship with Los Angeles gang life. While making the rounds on American hip hop radio stations and podcasts, if he wasn’t breaking down gang codes or marketing his various businesses, Nipsey kept returning to his roots beyond his South Central, Los Angeles neighborhood: that of his Eritrean immigrant background.

Ermias Asghedom’s father had fled the ongoing war and settled in US. By celebrating his father’s background (his mother is African-American), Nipsey was partly reflecting what Boima Tucker described elsewhere on this site as “a resurgence of an unbridled enthusiasm for Africa in black America.” In recent times, American artists of African immigrant background have openly made connections to their parents’ homelands public and explicit. Issa Rae has done so on television, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya on film and Wale and French Montana have done so in music. The comedian Tiffany Haddish, another LA native, also has recently foregrounded her Eritrean background. Haddish recently traveled to Eritrea then wore a traditional outfit to the The Oscars. It is obvious that Haddish’s new found connection to Eritrea, has added to her confidence as a public figure. This is in contrast to a generation ago when the children of African immigrants to the US downplayed their family connections in fear of attracting ridicule.

In 2004, when he turned 18, Nipsey traveled with his father and brother, Samiel “Black Sam” Asghedom, to Asmara, the Eritrean capital and stayed three months. This trip would have a profound influence on him. Beyond just a celebration of his African heritage, it would become part of his personal mythology. It appears as inspiration for his brand of capitalism.

He admits that at first it wasn’t so easy arriving for the first time in his father’s home country: Click here to continue

(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; 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 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

(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

(Published in Culture Trip; June 6, 2017)

The rumor that Haile Woldu was to become the commander of our military detention center had been floating around for nearly three months. In his previous posts as commander of other detention centers, Haile was known for privileges he accorded to detainees and the relationship he cultivated with them. Which is why, when he finally arrived, and we were all called in as a group to be formally introduced to our new commander, we celebrated it as if he was our liberator.

The dream has come true, and here he sits in front of us convening a meeting…

 —I have never seen him in person. I used to hear about his light skin complexion and his slender but fit physical appearance, and as such I already had my own image of Haile, so much so that I had the feeling of having previously laid eyes on him. With the exception of his visage, in all other aspects, my imagination was almost precisely the same.

We were about eighty in number, gathered from four underground halls, sitting close to each other while in front of him. It was around 4:00 p.m., a time when the weather begins to cool down. It was a time when we were supposed to be in our cells, so to be in the open air at that hour of the day, regardless of the reason, was refreshing for us all. In my two years of detention, I had only been let out four times for similar such meetings; at personal level, I felt as if I had been  released. One such meeting occurred just last week: a farewell gathering for Tesfay, the former commander of the detention center. Although we were long embittered by his brutality and his mercilessness, we held a celebration for his departure. “When I was with you here,” Tesfay said, in his farewell address to us,“if I have shown bad character and if there is something you think I should improve in the future, please feel free to ask.” Some of us actually gathered enough courage to speak. A few others, the beneficiaries of some sort of privileges, lamented that Tesfay’s departure would be a huge loss to the detention center, that he would be dearly missed. The other meetings I attended were on HIV/AIDS awareness and a discussion on the celebratory preparations for our National Independence Day. They were tolerable enough. Read  the short story from Culture Trip

(Published in al-Jazeera English; May 24, 2017)

Unfortunately, there is not much to celebrate on the 26th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence.

A woman sits next to an escarpment on the outskirts of Asmara, Eritrea [Thomas Mukoya/Reuters]

Twenty-six years ago today, Eritrea’s 30-year war of independence against Ethiopiaended with Eritrean freedom fighters marching to the capital, Asmara. Unfortunately, it took less than a decade for the grand hopes and ideals that Eritreans initially had for the future of their country to evaporate into thin air.

The international media has limited access to the country and, as a result, their coverage of Eritrea is limited to a shallow narrative focusing on “indefinite military conscription” and “refugees“.

But the Eritrean story is far more complicated than these one-dimentional labels.

After independence the country gradually descended into a fiefdom, serving as a grand laboratory for the negligent and oppressive government experiments of President Isaias Afwerki and his clique. Over the past two and a half decades Eritrean authorities have been accused of a variety of abuses. These accusations culminated in a report by the the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in 2016, which declared the Eritrean state guilty of “crimes against humanity“. Click here to read the article