Swedish Journalist Trip to Eritrea: Interview with Eritrea’s Information Minister
Software Translation from Swedish
www.sverigesradio.se | January 22, 2018
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Eritrea, the country that competes with the war crimes Syria and Iraq as the main country of origin for asylum seekers in Sweden.
What is the reason for this mass escape from the small country on the Horn of Africa?
We have visited one of the world’s most closed states and found a country with two faces.
The old steam locomotive from 1937 fights up the mountains against Eritrea’s capital Asmara at more than 2300 meters in height. The journey goes through tunnels and bridges in the dramatic landscape.
The narrow-gauge railway was built at the beginning of the last century during the Italian colonial rule, but was destroyed during the long war of freedom against Ethiopia. When independence was won in the early 90’s, the work began to rebuild the old railway, with original parts, tells the railways chief Tekles Mender.
After a decade, the work was completed and the railway again clustered Asmara with the port of Massawa on the Red Sea coast, a symbol of the independence and independence of the young nation of Eritrea.
The idea was that the railway should be reused, for passengers and shipping. Then it has not been. Today there is no money for coal and maintenance of the ancient buildings and wagons. The only passengers on this trip are a small number of diplomats and other foreigners who paid expensive to go a few miles on the unique old railroad.
Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest countries, despite some lightning in recent years. The country is still ruled by the guerrilla fighters who led the struggle against the Ethiopian regime, with President Isaias Afwerki at the forefront. There is no free press, no free elections and no parties except the president’s own. In Sweden, Eritrea is perhaps best known for Dawit Isaak, the Swedish-Eritrean journalist who has been sitting behind barracks without trial for 16 years.
On site in Asmara, the image of “Africa’s North Korea” is hard to recognize. In the old Italian Art Deco houses there are bars, cinemas and internet cafes. It’s poor but no obvious misery. Few soldiers and police officers appear on the streets, and as a visiting journalist, I move freely, without the accompanying “overrock” from the authorities. A handful of foreign journalists have been released recently, indicating a cautious opening to the outside world.
At the same time thousands of Eritreans continue to fly from their country every month. Eritrea is on the top 10 list of countries whose citizens joined refugees over the Mediterranean Sea last year. To Sweden, more than 2017 asylum seekers arrived from Syria and Iraq only from much less Eritrea. The increase from 2016 was over 50%.
An important part of the explanation for the mass flight is the so-called national service that all young Eritreans must do. It is a kind of military service, but with a decisive difference: it has no end.
– I do national service, here in Asmara.
At a while , I met Asmara , I meet Benjamin, who is lucky enough to do her national service close to her family. Others can be posted far away from home, with little opportunity to travel home. Actually, Benjamin is something else, it’s sensitive to talking openly about questions like this.
The national service provider first receives a half-year military training and is subsequently assigned a civil service for an indefinite period. Actually, the national service will only last for 18 months, but since the war against Ethiopia in the late 90’s there still exist exceptions. Benjamin is in her fourth year, and some have now done national services for over 10 years. You get compensation, but according to Benjamin and others in his situation I meet in Asmara, he is not enough to live on.
– I get 1200 nakfa in the month of the month. It is not enough for a pair of shoes in this country, Benjamin says about the compensation amounting to about 600 Swedish kronor.
The national service is forbidden to leave Eritrea with the threat of imprisonment.
Nevertheless, and despite the great risks during the flight, many young eritreans see no other way out. Those who go to Europe can make money and send home to their family.
Many families are economically dependent on the diaspora. The contact with abroad is via social media. The internet cafés in Asmara are well-stocked, despite the fact that the speed of the network is very slow.
Eritreans who relocate the country have testified of systematic and extensive human rights violations, including torture and forced labor, not least in the national service. Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel rejects the allegations.
– These stories are fake all. There can always be an overthrow of individuals, but institutionalized abuse? Absolutely not. Those who do the national service are our sons and daughters, our children, says the information minister.
Sweden usually provides all Eritrean residence permits, as the actual escape from Eritrea is seen as an opposition act with a risk of punishment for the sentenced person. Yemane Gebremeskel regrets Sweden’s attitude, which he believes drives more Eritreans to leave the country. He claims that most people who fly from Eritrea do so for economic reasons.
– We have signed the Geneva Convention so if someone is really persecuted so okay – but 99% of those leaving Eritrea do not make it because of political persecution.
He answers openly to most of my questions, but there are limits to what can be discussed. Such a limit is the detained Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak. My questions about him are rejected on the contrary. Despite his dual citizenship, Eritrea sees Dawit Isaak as a completely internal concern.
“Sweden is doing things that do not concern them. We can not accept that Sweden is hacking on Eritrea. This country must be small, but we have self-respect.
Half a world away, in an apartment in Bagarmossen in southern Stockholm, Meron Estefanos is sitting at his kitchen table. She is a human rights activist with roots in Eritrea and runs a regime-critical radio program, and has close contact with people in the country. She compares the national service in Eritrea with slave labor.
“We call it national slavery. It is pure slavery.
Meron Estefanos says that the regime in Eritrea utilizes the refugee crisis for its own gain, primarily through the money the refugees send back home to their families.
“The regime is the reason people fly, at the same time they earn a lot of money on it. First of all, it’s the remittance that the country survives through remittance. For others, Europe gives money to Eritrea because of the refugee crisis. It’s an irony.
A week before my visit to Eritrea , something very rare happened in the country: an open street demonstration in Asmara, protesting that the authorities had taken the lead for an Islamic school. The demonstration was scandalized by police and everything was quiet when I visited the site, but Meron Estefanos still sees the event as a sign that the regime is weakened.
“It’s something incredible as we had never thought we would see people protesting in the country. It’s like watching a demonstration in North Korea. It is big. The country is 26 years old and has never had any protests. I’m very hopeful that it’s the beginning of the end of this regime.