I left Eritrea for the first time in January 2012. More recently, some European countries have claimed that the situation in Eritrea has improved in order to justify accepting less Eritrean refugees; from a country with the highest ratio of imprisoned journalists that does not allow international media. Yesterday, a new report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea concluded: “It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear.”
Eritrea is a country engaged in continuous cycles of ceremonies. The Independence Day celebration (May 24) goes on for about ten days in which the whole country shuts down and the media continuously broadcast footage of the armed struggle. It is followed by Martyr’s Day (June 20) and then a ten days long National Festival. After the festival comes the Commemoration of the Armed Struggle (September 1). Those nationalistic holidays are coupled with Christian and Muslim holidays; all are broadcast live on the national TV station.
Fish is rarity in a country that has more than 1000 kms (621 miles) of sea coast. Mining is booming, but has hardly improved the deteriorating living conditions. Government employees are underpaid and therefore disfranchised. Government salaries that were restructured in 1994 do not allow for incremental raises or promotions – despite that a decade later, inflation has increased by 700 percent. With the current inflation rate, a Minister’s gross monthly salary is equivalent to less than $100.00. As a result, corruption is rampant. Private businesses were crippled when the government tightened its import policy in mid-2003. The ruling party’s company, Red Sea Corporation (09) is the sole importer of goods. Basic food commodities are rationed and allocated to families, often based on their obedience in attending party meetings and doing mandatory community work.
The three bodies of government remain dysfunctional. The military commanders continue to assume the highest authority. With their unlimited power to issue arbitrary arrests, the country has turned into one big penitentiary state with numberless underground prisons. As reported by Amnesty International, there are currently more than 10,000 prisoners of conscience.
Although every Eritrean is by default a member of the Defense Army, the government also started another program in 2012. It decreed all government employees and others demobilized from the army for medical reasons would be enlisted in the reserve army, known as the militia. All civilians (aged 18 – 70) with the exception of ministers are now required to go to military drilling. Every member of the militia is required to report regularly to guard major government institutions and residences. All are armed. In addition to the frequent military training, members of the militia are also forced to leave their homes for weeks at a time to do manual labor in the dams being built around the capital.
Since 2003, the last year of secondary school education has been taught in the military training center, Sawa. (The only university, University of Asmara, was officially closed in February 2006.) In the last year of secondary school, students combine military training and academic studies amid difficult weather and acute shortages of basic supplies. At the beginning students at the colleges were also doing regular military training and the colleges were under the command of the military training center. Although the military interference in the colleges has slowly eased, students continue to be watched and organized under close scrutiny of the ruling party and its many manifestations. Every summer, substantial students and young lecturers from the colleges attend a mandatory political indoctrination program in a desolate place far from the capital called Nakfa.
The country’s manpower and capital have fled the country. Despite that there is not currently an armed conflict, the country has 357,400 registered refugees from a population of 6 million people. This makes it second to Syria in terms of the numbers of refugees.
But leaving the country is not as easy as the staggering figures indicate. From age 6 onward, Eritreans cannot leave the country officially unless they are granted permission by the government for ‘exceptional conditions’ – like government delegates or critical medical reasons that go through a tedious screening process. The young people who are fleeing the country daily must navigate a dangerous journey across tightly secured borders guarded by an army that follows a “shoot-to-kill” policy. In very complex situations, where the border guards turn into smugglers and the security personnel selectively negotiate, some people have to pay sums of $5,000 to be smuggled by cars from the capital.
The remaining young people are stranded in Eritrea with few options. Religious practice, like any other form of individual freedom, is highly controlled. The government closed all Pentecostal churches and nationalized their properties in May 2002. Only the official Islam, Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Protestant, and Catholic faiths are allowed. Believers of the growing Pentecostal churches have to practice in hiding under the vigilant eyes of state security. If they are caught, they are imprisoned in unusual military prison centers in very tight and small ship containers until they renounce their faith.
The sole alcoholic beverage and beer factory, run by the ruling party, produces a limited quantity of alcohol; alcoholic drinks are also rationed. It is only for this reason that substance abuse is not a common trend among young people living in a state of limbo. As communication with outside world is nearly impossible, people take refuge by watching European football and re-runs of Arabic dubbed Turkish soap operas; the often crowded cinema houses broadcast live football matches of Premier League or La Liga. The usual discussions and bets in public spaces are only about football. Most youth wear jerseys of the European clubs; even the President watches football and is a public Arsenal fan.
My experience of life in Eritrea is best captured in the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem, “In Praise of Defeat.” As Laâbi describes: “Death has grown weary/Even peace is ugly,” because in the poet’s description, “The fear of living/has replaced/ the fear of dying.”