Video | Eritrea Bisha: Strong Testimony from Within the Country’s Suspected Slave Mine



Strong Testimony from Within the Country’s Suspected Slave Mine | December 21, 2017 





ERITREA. The giant break is over two kilometers wide and almost 500 meters deep.



Here in the copper mine of Bisha, Eritrea – a country in desperate need for positive publicity and investment – found a new story.



Everything looked good until three former miners sued the company for slavery in a Canadian court.



“You’re well here because you’ve heard about the slave workers that we’ve been kidding in the mine and as we torture, we’ll show you everything,” says Milena Bereket, the PR woman and laughs big.



Expressen, in collaboration with Blankspot, can publish Martin Schibbye’s unique report from the closed dictatorship.


Kortvågsradion gives a slight green shine and crushes.



The sun has finally come up behind the mountain massifs, and outside the windows it draws a dry desert landscape.



– Welcome to Bisha, put on the seat belt, says Bereket Semere and turn around to make sure I really do as he says.



On the floor in front of my feet lies a white protective helmet. On Berekets breast, the Eritrean copper mine’s logo is sealed. His job is to supply the villages around the mine with water and electricity.



In the rear-view mirror, the desert town Akordat disappears with heavily loaded camels. Next to us are children with plastic sandals and goats goats. 150 kilometers west of Eritrea’s capital Asmara witnesses clothes, signs, buildings and goods on the market that we begin to approach the border with Sudan.


WORLD HERITAGE. The architecture of the capital Asmara was recently occupied by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE


Suddenly we sluggish in front of a thin blue rope pulled across the wheels in the sand. In the shadow of a palm tree there are about ten young soldiers and dads. It is the third roadblock since Asmara.



Respect for the military is so great that there is no need for more than a slight rope so that the lorries encircled by sand clouds will form a long queue. It has been a month of rumors. About protests in the capital. About rebel in the military.



But on the surface there is no crack in the façade.



The soldier waves past us, turning to the mine, passing by city, bathing in the warm morning sun.



This year, 10 087 Eritreans have continued straight ahead, aiming at the Sudanese border, with the aim of moving on through Libya and the Mediterranean coast.



The motives vary. Some fly for their lives.



Second for another future.



Alongside the road lies a wrecked Soviet-made tanks on the side and rusts. Not from the last war against Ethiopia, which ended unresolved in 2000, but from the third decade of war for its independence.



Scrap from what was once the largest army in Africa – and as the people of Eritrea defeated lay scattered along the way.



For every tree cut down, we who work in the mine will plant five new ones


Bereket Semere slows in and instead points out the palm trees that grow down on a dried river and used for both food and rooftops. He tells with insight about the names and history of rivers and birds.



And about how large banana plantations in the short period of Italian colony spread out in this region.



“For every tree cut down, we who work in the mine will plant five new, so it has been since the start he says.



It is his sixth year as an employee. The production of gold started in 2011 and since then, he has seen both the mines and the villages being developed.



“Everything here is world class, the gold, the copper, the security and the organization,” he tells and turns up to a paved road stump leading past a dry river.



The air on the horizon dalls like a hedge and Bereket drives carefully even though we are the only car on the road.



The speed limitation is 60, but he is never over 50.



“Tonight, I’ll drive you back, we’ll all come home to our families, that’s the reason for everything we do in here,” he says, driving past large wrapped dams where toxic wastewater is purified to stay in front of the mining company headquarters.


In an air-conditioned room, PR manager Milena Bereket is prepared with a coffee mug in aluminum and a packed schedule.



The first point is a security review.



Born in Israel and with a background in the World Bank and various UN agencies, she has the medial logic on her five fingers.



– Welcome to Bisha. You are well here because you heard about the slave laborers we’ve been kidding in the mine and as we torture, we’ll show you everything, she says, laughing big.


No elections since 1993 – and poorer press freedom than North Korea


Everything began ten years ago. By the end of 2007, Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki, announced that the prospects for gold drift in the country were very good.



The country was ready to open up to foreign mining companies and break the ore that has been untouched since the mid-1970s.



Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki. Photo: JEAN-MARC BOUJU / AP


The start signal made it possible for many to go to the small country on the Horn of Africa. But there were fears. Eritrea had not made any elections since 1993, after North Korea in the press freedom rank and was described as a totalitarian control community in report post-report. In addition, it was sometimes blowing up battles along the Ethiopian border. Should it be possible to extract minerals in such a political environment?



And how would it be that the country opened up for foreign investors but closed its borders for human rights organizations?



The critics warned of what would happen to the union rights in the mine and what would happen if the Eritrean Treasury received an increase in hard currency. There was a risk that the proceeds from the mine were used for arms purchases, or support for groups such as Al-Shabaab which, for example, the UN Security Council sanctioned the country.



The story is not new. Or unknown.



Foreign companies that enter new or fragile states with arguments for peace and prosperity are several examples.



The wave of debates went high and during the exploration, a British geologist was shot to death in protest against the outside world’s in-depth cooperation with Eritrea.



One of the biggest concerns was that the company would use forced labor, a question which, for example, was the warning of Human Right Watch.



“Mining in Eritrea is like wandering straight into a mining field of human rights violations,” the organization said in a statement.



When tonight of gold was found in Eritrea, hopes that the economy of one of the world’s poorest countries would finally accelerate. So far, however, most of the money has gone to the shareholders of the foreign company, which is the state’s partner in the mine, and now sued in the Canadian court for using slave workers in it. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE



Ruth moved home from the United States – never regretted


The gravel crashes under the feet when Ruth Negash, responsible for the mining company’s internships, takes a determined step over the parking lot. The decision to move back to the country of her parents fled from, she has never regretted.



We pass newly built classrooms, health clinics and working houses.



She points out the gym, the bar, the laundry room and the various offices. In front of the houses, flowers have been planted in the newly buried discounts.



“We are like one big family,” she says.



Since 2011, there has been a miniature society and in recent years, the educational component has grown faster than they have been building new houses, so containers have been fitted with air conditioning and are housed as homes. In total, 1200 people live and work around the mine.



Bisha mine. Although most of the work is done behind screens, the principle itself is the same: drilling, blasting, and digging. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE


We pass through a classroom where those adopted in the mining trainee program learn to cook engines and drive the heavy vehicles.



In a country that has made independence a virtue, one wants to be able to make everything yourself and not be dependent on spare parts from outside.



Along with the walls hang cables and motors that are picked apart in their very smallest components.



Already at the cathedral she is allowed to struggle for a moment to get a powerpoint in the correct language. On the walls, aerial photos hang over the mine. While Ruth searches the files, she tells us how she, who grew up in the United States, ended up here in western Eritrea.



“I was totally relieved to discover that here in Gashbarka, there was a small mini-US, with air conditioning, managers and everything. Every day, it’s so good food that I’m only able to eat once a day. Everyone we work here grows wide, she says, laughing.



In the end I fought on the United States


Ruth was born in Eritrea, but the parents fled during the war for independence and she grew up in the United States.



After studying at university, she began teaching, but always felt that something was not right.



“In the end I was vomiting the USA. On the routines and western life that lacked excitement, I sat and educated a lot of people who would not make a difference to the country.


In the end I fought on the United States. On routines and Western life that lacked excitement, says Ruth Negash. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE


The idea of ​​returning to Eritrea was rooted and the plan from the beginning was to try to work a semester as a teacher in the mine.



Four years later she is stuck.



“Teaching here is like pouring sugar into a tea cup, where in the United States it felt like pouring sugar into the sea.



In addition, it spurs her that many of her students are young women, the first in their family to get an income. In addition, they do it as a miners with orange overall and black boots, challenging in a patriarchal and traditional environment.



At home in the United States, the friends think she’s crazy. Every time she comes home, everyone believes she will stay in the country.



– People fly from Eritrea, why do you travel back there? they constantly ask me.



After four years she has an answer to the question.



“To me, my students are not going to fly. To give them an education that can generate an income.



At present she has educated over 100 students.



“None of them have crossed the border with Sudan, as all my friends said they would do. They are left and they have developed tremendously, says Ruth Negash, and extinguishes the classroom so the images will appear on the wall.



The first picture shows the mantra of the mine: Everyone should behave as if they owned the mine, be a team player and deliver results.



At a sluggish pace, Ruth then tells about routines, rules and that you have to slow down when you see a bird on the road.



– Respect the animals you see, foxes, birds, cows, stop and let them pass before driving.



She insists that I always have to keep at least 20 meters from the walls of the mine and should I lift something heavy, I have to bend on my legs. But the intensive and mandatory education for all visitors is tangible and ethical questions.



– If you mutate someone, expose others to sexual harassment or steal then you leave. And if you fight, both go out, even if you attack and defend you. It may seem a shame, but we have zero tolerance, explains Ruth Negash.



When she finishes the half-hour safety training, I ask if there were any workplace accidents?



“It will be the responsibility of the security, respond to. They have all statistics.



Shortly thereafter the classroom is filled with students. Currently, about 60 students from different parts of the country study different moments of mining. The idea is to transfer the knowledge of modern mining to a new generation.



“We can run the mine soon, breaking out one of the students.



They feel all chosen.



“Being adopted here is like a dream, breaking out another one, adding that although this mine has a limited life, it will open new ones.



I am wearing a white helmet on my head and reflex vest and walking with the students in the parking lot.



I do not like to be photographed and try to set me so I will not see when the cameras come out, but understand that they have a plan and want to show off the release of journalists in the mine.



It is an ethical dilemma to do this type of reportage. On the one hand, one gets access to closed environments. On the other hand, it is a conscious strategy not to let in independent human rights organizations or UN investigators but occasionally let a journalist stay for a few hours.



Next to my house I recognize one of the selected smokers from the security review.



– Nobody must leave more than 200 centimeters from the ashtray with a lighted cigarette. It’s international safety standard at all, explains Ruth Negash.



Matches the mine in court


A young man turns his back against the camera. The shafts are slightly stretched and their hands clasped in their knees.



Mihretab Yemane is one of 165,000 refugees living in various camps around Ethiopia.



Every month more people arrive across the border. The general criticism of human rights organizations has led the mines to always shake off.



But a couple of years ago, Mihretab Yemane, along with Gize Yebeyo Araya and Kesete Tekle Fshazion, decided to sue the mine in court.



“The Canadian company might have demanded better conditions but chose not to do that, that’s why I’m right,” Mihretab explained when he was interviewed on Canadian television.


Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest countries. A half-century of war or war-like state has put deep traces. Growing up in the shadow of the war in Eritrea forces many on the run. In recent years, the number of immigrants born in Eritrea has increased sharply and is one of the largest asylum-seeking groups in Sweden. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE



I think I’ll be killed if my identity is voiced


Unlike many others, he and colleagues do not want to show their faces or give details about their situation.



According to them, there are also spies in the refugee camp disguised by the Eritrean intelligence service.



“I think I’ll be killed if my identity is void,” Mihretab Yemane said to the Canadian television journalist who recently visited the refugee camp.



He tells him he was ordered to work in the mine despite being a soldier.



“The job was to wipe in chemical waste in the big plastic light. The hood was extreme. I got burns of the sun and still have scars in my face after that. In addition, I did not tell anyone I was a soldier.



The work was ongoing both day and night and many tried to fly.



– I saw the military punish those who left the camp at night.



The other plaintiff Kesete Tekle Fshazion tells him that he was free from military service, but it felt like he was punished if he refused.



“I was forced to work against my will, so I fled to Ethiopia.



The story could have stayed at testimony from three young refugees in a camp in northern Ethiopia.



When the mining company Nevsun got to know them, its lawyers suggested that there were no substantive evidence, nor did they buy the allegations that there was a public secret that several of the workers were soldiers.



The lawyers dismissed the allegations as “non-trustworthy” and said that the mine initially lived up to the highest standards of health and safety.



In addition, they believed that if there were any irregularities committed, the case should be tried in an Eritrean court.



There the story could have ended. Words were against words.



But in November of this year, the court in Canada chose to take the prosecutor’s evidence seriously and take the case on, one of the reasons was that it was not considered possible for a trial in Eritrea.



“I conclude that plaintiffs could not get a fair trial in Eritrea, especially given the allegations of a company that is the prime financier in one of the world’s poorest countries,” explained one of the judges.



The Court also leaned against the report of the UN Special Commission on Human Rights in Eritrea (Commission of Inquiry, CoI), which submitted its final report in June 2016. The Commission was not allowed to visit the country but assessed on the basis of inter alia interviews with hundreds of people who relocate to Eritrea have committed and still commit crimes against humanity in a number of areas.



Investigators considered that the comprehensive military service could be regarded as a form of forced labor, given that the time-limit for military service was indeterminate.



According to the prosecution, the Canadian company has been specifically involved and consequently obliged to use one of the subcontractors, construction company Segen who is close to Eritrea’s ruling party, to use conscripts to work in the mine.



The prosecution of modern slavery is unique in its kind, but even the fact that a Canadian company is prosecuted for activities on the other side the sea is new and a host of Canadian companies follow the horrified interest process.



We hope they are held responsible for the suffering they caused


The next trial will throw a shadow over the thesis that the mining industry would have a positive impact on the country and although the situation today is different, lawyer Joe Fiorante believes that the debt issue has to be resolved.


“Nevsun now seems to have a system in place where they make sure that all workers are free, but it’s hard to take it seriously because they deny the mood as a problem that never existed.


In addition to the three plaintiffs, sixty witnesses will be heard.



“We hope they are held responsible for the suffering they caused. Not just for these three people, but for all those who have to work there.



One of the witnesses compares the mine with “a great jail” and describes against promise of anonymity because he is worried about the family that is left in Eritrea’s situation as being “as objects of the governments and foreign companies, they could do what they wanted with us “.


Inside the office of the country’s mining minister in the capital Asmara, the dam was brushed off after the prosecution. The only troubled minister saw where potential investors could be scared away by all the “noise”.


Mining and Energy Minister Sebhat Efrem would rather highlight the uniqueness of the mine.


“In many African countries, we have seen how all that remains after a few years of foreign mining is a contaminated hole in the field, but could you do it differently? We were curious whether it would work out in cooperation with foreign companies to extract minerals.


The result was a project where the goal of foreign workers was to educate eritreans so that they themselves would become redundant.


The plan of the Eritrean state now has three more mines in production and use revenues to accelerate the country’s economy.


The geographic location of the country across the geologists, called the Nubian shield, means that there are rich deposits of copper, zinc and gold.


The goal is to create an image of Eritrea as a country open to investors.


But it seems to be difficult.


On the question of the ministry minister, the reports read the accusation of the ministry’s ministry for slavery, he nodded and replied:


– I read all the reports, we all do in the government. But what do you do with such a report if you have gone through blood and water? If the country is threatened with war? I wish we did not have a conscription system. But if they instead had tried to come here to understand Eritrea, they had seen that we were doing excellence, said the mining and energy minister Sebhat Efrem.


Work in the mine takes place around the clock in 12-hour pass


Standing on the edge of the huge mining shaft is breathtaking. In front of the feet a wall dips almost vertically downwards until it reaches a winding road, which in smaller circles drill down to the lowest point of the mine.


The dark parties are ore and above all there are jaws set. If they move, a detector alarms about the racial risk.


After several years of mining, the pit is 470 meters deep and a few kilometers wide, which means that you go deeper, you risk the walls rage.


“Should you go deeper, the whole mine must be broadened. But it costs and it can be more expensive than the value of the metals you get. At the moment, the board is counting on it, says mining engineer Serge Smolongov and looking at the clock.


The dark parties in the mine are ore and above all there are jaws set. If they move, a detector alarms about the racial risk. After several years of mining, the pit is 470 meters deep and a few kilometers wide, which means that you go deeper, you risk the walls rage. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE


In the bottom of the mine there are yellow wives and underneath each is an explosion charge. In a few hours, a siren will sound, first with short bumps and then a long lasting sound.



Although most of the work is done behind screens, the principle itself is the same: drilling, blasting, and digging.



“We are now in phase seven and have two good years ahead of us here, then production will begin to fall,” says Serge Smolongov, hoping for the car.



The visit is planned meticulously and the next point is the plant itself that extracts metals from the ore.



“Do not forget the helmet and goggles,” he says.



During the journey he tells us that the first years in Bisha remind everyone of joy. In a couple of years, some unimaginable 31 tons of gold were obtained, which also financed the investment in copper and zinc, when the gold went well.



“It just dropped gold from the cranes, at low cost, it was incredible,” says Serge Smolongov, with something lyrical in sight.



For 12 months, the zinc price has also risen dramatically, which has recently given priority to the metal.



“A big zinc mine in Australia closed last year, and it has led to an upturn of 70 percent,” explains Serge Smolongov, before joining his walkie talkie.



Work in the mine takes place 24 hours a day and everyone works in 12-hour pass.


“You see that it does not dust, the roads are watered with molasses so we do not get any organic material in the engines,” explains Serge Smolongov, standing in front of a roadblock.



Around the plant, the gates and padlocks still exist from the time when gold bullets were produced.



But now the chains are unlocked over the gate.



Right inside, the chief executive of Sierra Alam receives at the foot of a long staircase.



Dressed in jeans with a walkie-talkie in the belt, black sunglasses and full-length clothes, he is one of the 125 men’s great strength who works to take care of the ore. With habit movements, he takes the hundreds of steps up to the top of the plant.



Far down there, two big gray mill wheels paint at a furious pace of ore in one of the huge water-filled vessels where zinc separates copper.



The view is miles away. The sun burns in the neck.



– From above you can see everything tells the Sierra and wipe the sweat out of the forehead.




“When I arrived there were only bushes, forests and mountains. Some remains of the war, old tanks, otherwise nothing, engineer Sierra Alam remembers that the mine has emerged.” Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE



Imagine that I had taken part in that trip


To override the machines, he almost gets screamed. He has been in the mine since the start of 2010 and when he looks over the huge plant today, the contrast is great.



“When I came here, there were only bushes, forests and mountains. Some remains from the war, old tanks, otherwise nothing, he recalls.



He was just twenty-one when he came to Bisha for the first time and got his first job of the mining company.



“Seeing everything growing up has been my life’s adventure. From a hard life in the desert, to seeing the gold sticks solidify and today how copper is loaded on containers for driving to the ocean and out in the world. Imagine that I’ve been on that trip, says Sierra Alam.



The dream when he came here as a young miners was learning everything that was required to extract metal from the ore and today he is almost there.



He can take care of the facility behind the screens in the control center.



“There are some chemical processes in the minerals here and industry secrets about zinc that I have not yet huged, but soon,” he says.



Under him, a viscous mass flows through one of the tubes.



When he hears the noise of lorries in the mornings and watches his compatriots go to work, the heart hits an extra stroke.



“Every night before I fall asleep, I think I did a good job,” says Sierra Alam.



Here zinc and copper are extracted from the ore. The dream of Sierra Alam when he came here as a young miners was to learn all that was needed to extract metal from the ore and today he is almost there. Photo: MARTIN SCHIBBYE


“There are few industries that can change a country like the mining industry can”
Bishagruvan currently owns 40 percent of the Eritrean state mining company ENAMCO and 60 percent of the Canadian company Nevsun. At the start, ownership ratios were 90-10 to the Canadian company’s advantage, but in the agreement, Eritra had the right to buy another 30 percent of the shares this year.



This has meant that most of the profits that went to the Eritrean Treasury were eaten by interest and charges for the loan it was forced to take to buy a larger share of the joint venture.



A solution to Eritrea has been forced because there is no other money and no access to international capital markets.



It’s only in the next year’s annual report that you can see how much money, in addition to the knowledge and machinery that the Eritrean state has earned on the mine. The Canadian company was one of the first to settle in Eritrea and already in 2000, it was in place.



The head of the mine, Edward Moounsey, believes that the mine is a success example to take after.



“It’s a new type of mine in a virgin landscape made for large-scale mining. In a country where local workforce and expertise work together and deliver results, he says, striking a black swivel chair at the short end of one of the larger meeting rooms.



The Edward Moounsey, or Ed as he is called by all, does not know about mining is said to be not worth knowing.



After a long working life of mines in Zambia and Congo, he has been in charge of operations in Bisha since 2014.



“There are few industries that can change a country like mining can,” says Edward Moounsey



The first time he was in Zambia in 1972, he has seen what the breakdown of ore from the belt of gold and copper extending into Congo has meant for the country’s economy.



“In both Congo and Zambia mining was started immediately after independence, but here in Eritrea nothing happened, which means that today we have many foreigners employed and must train local staff,” says Edward Moounsey.



On a PowerPoint, it is emphasized that tax rules have been the same for all years and that the workforce speaks English and is productive.



Eritrea is described as a stable political system with a one-party state.



“The good news is also that the Eritrea government has lived up to every letter of the agreement with us. So the framework in terms of administration and rules is in place.



The challenges mean he is that the maintenance lines are extremely long, all material has to be taken from Saudi Arabia.



Every year, the company spends 10 million dollars on finding new deposits and he believes in new mines and sees an opportunity to work for the next twenty years with mining in Eritrea.



The model chosen where the government owns the mine and the land and gives licenses to companies that receive a share of the return is, according to him, a model that has now proved to work.



“In Zambia there are 40 mines and there are 1 or 2 mines so you can get started 10 to mines to be important to the treasury.



But then more foreign investors are required, and many are hesitating because of the human rights situation?



“Well,” said Ed Moounsey, not surprised at the question, then it is best to come here and see his own eyes. The story in the media is not the same as the situation on the ground.



In the mine, some of the witnesses told the UN investigators that they were forced to work “underground” and break gold.



Once the mine has always been a break.



But the question of the three former workers who sued the company in Canada does not kill Edward Moounsey, even though he believes it was before his time.



“I know the case from the media and all I can tell about is what it looks like now: everyone here is free workers, they are free to work here and they are free to quit. What happened here during the design phase, I do not want, or something like this: I suppose it worked like now, but now these individuals have listed this as a legal case and I do not want to comment on it.



So during the construction phase can military personnel or conscripts have built the mine?



– According to the information I have, the answer is: No! But I do not want to comment because these individuals have now been brought to court. We used and used the company Segen for work at the mine occasionally, they are skilled and they would be a natural partner if a mine were to be built. But what happened here before 2014 when I came here, I can not comment, says Edward Mounsey.



“Revenue is to be distributed evenly across the country”


Out in the parking lot, Bereket Semere stands in front of his white Toyota in reflex vest and with



The sun throws long shadows and it’s a long way to drive. Everyone wants to get home before dark falls.



On the way from the mine, we pass several specially-built trucks with a gray container on the flak, filled with copper and zinc on the way to the coast and then onto the world’s ocean.



On the one hand, Eritrea is a country in desperate need for publicity, which in Bisha found a story that longed for – a brilliant symbol for the future.



On the other hand, a place where a Canadian court investigates serious human rights violations.



But maybe all sides go a little too big gear on a hole in the field, far out in the desert?



At best, Eritrea, according to Nevsun’s latest annual report, may receive $ 19 million a year from the mine in the next two years, then production will decline.



The fact that Eritrea has a single mine that draws in half of what Stockholm has entered into congestion tax since its inception – is it really possible to change the country completely and get the economy started?



Will everything be left “a contaminated hole in the field” as the minister expressed it or will Eritrea succeed in tying its economy and getting investment and trade?



Bereket Semere slows in to let go of a cow that hurts over the road.



For him, the job is about anything but big-political visions. Tomorrow he will continue the laborious effort to provide the cities with water and electricity.



When he sees the lights in the huts so that the children can read homework in the evenings or that water is pouring out of the cranes, it means something to those people, beyond campaigns and goodwill.



Within a 30 kilometer radius of the mine, he has been working for many years to involve all villages and housing families, and efforts are now beginning to be felt.



But he is careful to point out that the mine is the whole country.



“Just because the mine is located here, not only these villages will receive income, but they should be evenly distributed across the country.



I take my business card from the ministry’s PR accountant and read on the back where the bids are printed: act as an owner, act with sharpness and urgency, be a team player, improve you continuously and deliver.



“During next year, this village will also get water, tell Bereket Semere and swipe his hand toward the huts of clay. And then next town and next.