Renowned Eritrean activist Meron Estefanos has told an international conference in Oslo that of all the atrocities taking place in the repressive Red Sea nation, the plight of its youth is the most harrowing.
In an eloquent and quietly emotive speech at the fifth annual Oslo Freedom Forum in the Norwegian capital earlier this week, Estefanos said the aspirations of an entire generation following the country’s 1991 liberation had been squashed by the dictatorial Asmara regime.
“Betrayed and bewildered, this generation of Eritreans is scattered right across the globe and with every year the tragedy of this reality reaches new and untold levels that the world simply fails to grasp”, she said during her speech, adding that “fear is now the most common emotion in Eritrea”.
The three-day forum was attended by hundreds of the world’s most influential dissidents, journalists, philanthropists and policymakers, with the aim of exploring how best to challenge authoritarianism and promote free and open societies.
FROM FREEDOM TO OPPRESSION
When Eritrea defeated occupying Ethiopian forces in 1991, thousands of children were among those who lined streets across the country to cheer on the victorious freedom fighters.
However, by 2001, Estefanos says, the tide had turned and those same freedom fighters turned brutal oppressors against the children who had once celebrated their hard-won achievements.
According to Estefanos, the country’s only university was dismantled and the student union leader arrested. Harsh restrictions were imposed on media and dissenting journalists simply disappeared into the country’s expansive prison network.
The previous mandatory 18-month national service was extended to an indefinite period, with the country’s youth now required to enter military units from the age of 16 or 17 years old, where everything from what they read to what jobs and education opportunities they access is controlled, she said.
Up to 3,000 young people are currently in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. Most are fleeing grave human rights abuses and the bondage of indefinite national service, from which Estefanos says death or exile are the only escape.
The risks are high, with the government practicing a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy for those found attempting to leave.
Increasing numbers of Eritrean refugees are also falling into the hands of a brutal network of traffickers operating in and around Shagarab refugee camp on the border in eastern Sudan. Victims are kidnapped and then sold off to Bedouin criminal gangs in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula for various purposes, including the extraction of their organs.
Captives are subject to gang rape, beatings and other torture in order to extort large ransom payments from their families.
Estefanos is no stranger to the intimidation tactics employed by her country’s government. A journalist and human rights activist, she actively campaigns for freedom and democracy in her country and has been threatened and harassed for her work, particularly her coverage of the case of Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist imprisoned without charge for more than 10 years in Eritrea.
As part of her speech, the Sweden-based activist played an excerpt from a recorded interview she conducted with one hostage, who desperately begs for help to pay a $35,000 ransom demand.
She also showed photos taken of one hostage, who still had visible physical scars two months after paying $50,000 to secure his release from kidnappers.
However, even after trafficking victims are released, Estefanos says many young people are still denied their basic rights as genuine asylum seekers and forcibly deported from neighbouring countries where they are seeking refuge, including Israel.
Estefanos’ adopted country Sweden recently halted forced deportations of Eritrean asylum seekers, after the country’s migration board decided to re-evaluate its policy regarding applicants from the East African nation.
Prior to this month’s suspension, Sweden had been the only European country in recent years still deporting Eritrean asylum seekers.
Estefanos said that activists in the diaspora community are now mobilising to engage and inspire those still inside the country.
She cited the grassroots Freedom Friday Movement (FFM) which is using random automated voice calls to build solidarity with Eritreans inside the country. The group, which has become a household name in Eritrea, has made more than 90,000 calls, inspiring a number of small passive acts of resistance, including the emptying of streets on Fridays and the filling of mosques and churches during various occasions.
A video smuggled out of the country earlier this month also shows residents in Asmara reading posters placed around the capital, calling for mass demonstrations.
She said a failed coup attempt by a group of dissident soldiers on 21 January, who stormed the ministry of information and took over the state-owned television service to broadcast their demands, also represented a “faint glimmer of hope”.
She said activists are seeking support from the international community to continue the FFM campaign, including expertise in underground movements, technology and mass communications.
The group currently employs commercial operators used by large multi-national companies to carry out its automated voice calls to Eritrea, with the diaspora community currently footing the campaign’s hefty $3,000 weekly cost.
Despite the enormous challenges still ahead, she says she remains “fully confident” that Eritreans will eventually rise up against the brutal Asmara regime.
“Eritreans have started the long journey back to dignity, but it is not going to be an easy ride and we invite all freedom loving people to support us along the way”, she said.