(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

(Published in Africa is A Country; May 24, 2017)

Despite all that’s been written and spoken about extreme repression and economic blight in Eritrea, surprisingly little has been publicized about its inscrutable leader, Isaias Afwerki, who has led the country with an iron fist since independence in 1991. Based on common knowledge among Eritreans in the country and other information that I have collected over the years from frequent contacts, I am attempting to profile him.

Having closed all independent media and banned international correspondents, President Afwerki rebuilt the national media to exclusively serve his own interests and ambitions. In regular interviews with the state media, he approves all questions beforehand. In the midst of interviews, he often takes over, addressing a single question with lectures that ramble on for 30 minutes or more. The journalists’ only role is to help him transition between topics and occasionally nod in approval or agreement. Once during a pre-recorded interview, one of the “journalists,” Asmelash Abraha, fell asleep during the president’s long reply. In his regular interviews with the state media, Afwerki talks at leisure and analyzes many world developments. During an interview on the national broadcaster, Eri-TV, journalist, Temesghen Debessai, asked the president questions interchangeably in three languages, Tigrinya, English and Arabic. Afwerki talked about a variety of issues, demonstrating his command of language, history and current events for his Eritrean audience. Click here to read the whole article

(Published in PEN Eritrea; May 25, 2017)

Be it an article for international media or a research work, anyone who attempts to write on Eritrea is ostensibly confronted with two most basic issues: sources to be quoted and most updated facts on crucial subjects. What is worse for many of us who have experienced it firsthand is also balancing what is being cited (and recycled) as facts by some organizations and using our judgments to find the middle ground.

Eritrean authorities promptly decline to comment on any development; or else it has been the weary script of blaming the international community and failing to take responsibility. The regime solely survives on secrecy and violence; and thus employs a strategy of creating confusion and making sure critical facts remain hidden.

The Eritreans who are fleeing the country in droves could at least fill in some missing links, if not the whole story. Yet, useful information on their country is conspicuously lacking among recently exiled Eritreans. The lack of widespread awareness of methods of documentation and information sharing poses serious challenges for anyone tasked with connecting the dots. When most escaping Eritreans reach their safe destinations, only a handful of them will agree to openly discuss their firsthand experiences at the hands of the regime Click here to continue

(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 Amnesty International Magazine No. 88; March 2017)

Via Google translate

Perpetual escaped

Eritrea practices the most fierce media censorship in the world. For eight years, the country has occupied the queue of Reporters Without Borders rankings after North Korea. The repression is such that even journalists working for the state media live in constant fear of being arrested. Many journalists have preferred exile to prison. Abraham is one of them.

During his studies at the University of Asmara, he worked as an independent journalist for various private newspapers, until they were banned by order of the president. “At the time, although the media was limited, we could freely express our ideas, we were not governed by terror. In 2001, everything changed. “On 18 September this year, 15 senior government officials were arrested for denouncing the dictatorial drift of the president. The newspapers that have published their opinions are closed. “My country suddenly plunged into darkness, the army was everywhere. Arbitrary detention became the norm, prisoners were held in detention without trial or indictment for years. “According to Amnesty International’s investigations, At least 10,000 people are currently detained on political grounds in 360 detention centers. According to the United Nations, 5,000 individuals leave the country each month.>Click here to read the article via translation>

(Published in Global Journalist: Project Exile; February 2nd, 2017)

In Eritrea, even being part of the East African nation’s tame state media is no protection. That was the conclusion Abraham Zere reached after years of working as a columnist for the government newspaper Hadas Erta and later for the ruling party’s magazine.

All independent media outlets in the country of 6 million were closed in 2001 amid a massive crackdown on internal dissent following the country’s disastrous two-year border-war with Ethiopia. More than a dozen prominent journalists were jailed – and to this day it’s not known how many are still alive.

But as Abraham has written, for state media workers Eritrea became a Kafka-esque world of uncertainty and seemingly random detentions by security forces.

In 2006, security forces detained 10 state media journalists who worked at the Ministry of Information without any apparent rhyme or reason–keeping some in custody for weeks. In 2009, the military raided a state educational station called Radio Bana, arresting at least 40 reporters and media workers for reasons that are still unclear. Some were held in prison until 2015.

Abraham had his own difficulties in 2009 after publishing a column in the ruling party’s Hidri magazine highlighting the disaffection of Eritrean youth. That led to an immediate rebuke from Eritrea’s powerful Minister of Information Ali Abdu (himself now an asylum seeker in Australia after fleeing in 2013) – who published his own column in the state newspaper labeling Abraham’s work “irresponsible and dangerous.” Click here to read more.