On Saturday morning, two exiled Eritrean journalists in exile and two European journalists – British Martin Plaut and me – had an hour-long telephone conversation with activists from ArbiHarnet (Freedom Friday) resistance movement in Asmara. The arrangement was made and coordinated by members of this network of internal resistance in Europe , and the interview took place via a secure connection with a thousand precautions, and of course after a preliminary agreement on their security (anonymity of the activists and the interference of their voice if we chose to broadcast the recording of our discussion).
Therefore, their real names are withheld to protect their identity and referred to as Sami and Temesghen here.. We were able to ask the questions we wanted. I just hung up. As I am currently unemployed, I am publishing the content of the discussion here.
These are the voices of men determined, thoughtful and well articulated in Tigrinya. They pass the telephone to each other, depending on the issues. Sami gives the first response, Temesghen elaborates.
The conversation started with an update on the tense situation in the capital for the last 48 hours, several reports indicating deployment in the suburbs of Asmara of around sixty trucks and hundreds of foot soldiers of the Ethiopian Tigray rebel group called “Demhit“( Tigrai People’s Democratic Movement,TPDM), which regularly plays the role of auxiliary militia of the ruling junta. Having no confidence in his own army, President Isaias Afeworki regularly uses this force of tens of thousands of men, according to the UN , to maintain order or do the dirty work. Sami and Temesghen confirmed that.
However, in recent weeks, many high-school graduates called for national service are no longer obeing the notices posted on the walls of the city ordering them to report to the barracks. Furthermore, numerous members of the so-called “People’s Army“, civilians over 50 years who have been given a Kalashnikov and a basic military training by the government, no longer go out at night, as they are ordered by the government. Civil disobedience is gaining ground and the arrival of Demhit around Asmara is raising concern: the city is preparing for a massive “giffa”, these raids that have been terrorizing ordinary citizens for years.
However, Sami remains cautious:
“There is something happening in Asmara that I had never seen before.The streets are quiet but the tension is important, especially as shortages of water, electricity and fuel have become unbearable. As for the trucks and soldiers which were seen outside Asmara, it is possible that they were positioned to conduct raids in the city. But it is also possible that they were parked in a safe place because of the gasoline shortage.”
One thing is clear: The government is in a state of extreme tension, especially since this summer conscripts go into hiding, or stay on leave and no longer report to the barracks. For him, this silent rebellion is motivated by the fact that many people – who are married with children and working in the informal sectors to earn a little money – refuse to lose their meager livelihoods and leave their families destitute by going back to the army.
Furthermore, in the countryside, after years of a disastrous drought, rain has been abundant this year and the crops are looking good. Returning to the army, given the meager ration provided and the omnipresent violence, would mean destroying small farms that support entire families. Cases of illegal border crossings of these Eritreans have been multiplying recently.
“The other reason for the growing disobedience, continues Sami, is the fact that everyone is wondering why, at the end of the day, we are forced to return to military life. People say they do not refuse to obey orders for political reasons.Yet this disobedience seems to me as eminently political.”
Ethiopian as police force
It is ironic that foreign soldiers are used as a police force by a regime which postures as nationalist – and maintains terror because of a supposed Ethiopian threat. Temesghen remarked bitterly:
“They tell us they are here to conduct operations to destabilize Ethiopia, but we see nothing of the sort, here in Asmara, he says, surprised. I’m sure they have another agenda. Demhit’s men are privileged compared to Eritrean soldiers. They get a good salary, he said, they drive nice cars that even the Eritrean army officers or government officials do not even have.”
Temesghen suspects the Demhit soldiers to be in the eyes of Afeworki the only one now who are likely to obey his orders.
Sami recalls the aftermath of the terrible shipwreck of Lampedusa, in October 2013 . Soldiers of Demhit, recognizable by their accent of Ethiopian Tigray had then conducted identity checks in Asmara, but some had gone wrong: Residents of the capital reacted with protests, fighting, riots.
“It’s a sign. For a long time, Eritreans remained silent.But today, people dare to disobey openly.Even some government officials speak loudly criticizing the regime in cafes.The fear is broken, “said Temesghen.
Pay the price of freedom
The risk taken by the two men speaking with foreign journalists does not scare them. “After completing my military service, I should have gone to college and build my life”, says Sami categorically.
“But it did not happen. So when you want something, when you want freedom, you must be prepared to pay the price. If I die, I’d rather it be remembered as a man who fought for his freedom, rather than as a chap who was always complaining about the situation in conversations with his neighbors.”
An activist’s life in an inner resistance is exhausting. Sami describes his daily ordeal: Little sleep, since most of the illegal activities are conducted at night, after a day of scramble to find some money to survive. The constant risk of arrest for carrying propaganda materials. The dangerous game played with the police patrols.
The goal? “Victory”, concludes Sami with an upbeat tone ,”soon, we will invite you to drink a cappuccino here in our capital.” Anyway, life has become impossible in the country. The market prices are sky high. A loaf of bread costs 5 Nakfa, for an average salary of 500 to 600 Nakfa per month for those who have a job, he says. A bunch of spinach can reach 20 Nakfa. Water is delivered by tanker truck and a barrel costs up to 200 Nakfa. “All these daily humiliations only increase the anger of the people against the government,” said Temesghen.
Asmara, dangerous city
These members of a peaceful resistance movement that is secretly putting up posters, distributing leaflets and passing subversive phone calls see with sadness the disintegration of a long united and cohesive society. In the streets of Asmara, a new and disturbing trend is emerging, Temesgen said again:
“There are gangsters, thieves and even murderers.The cliché about Asmara, the safest city in Africa, is a myth. Our capital has become very dangerous, especially at night.” He evokes the recent murder and stealing of a photographer – a first in this country previously known for its calm.
For both men, this suffering and the frustrations also deepen the contempt they feel for the gilded youth of the diaspora , who publicly supports the regime in festivals and concerts in the West. “These people are dancing on the graves of their brothers and sisters”, said Temesghen. “When they come in Eritrea, they have the nerve to go out in nightclubs and go to Sawa singing” (Sawa is a military city, near the Sudan border, where young conscripts, that still live in the country, are held and brutalized.)
“These kids who come from abroad have identity problems, or financial interest in supporting the regime, or fill a personal void, but they destroy their own history.The government is collapsing and they persist in not recognizing it. So basically, the supporters of the regime in the diaspora inspire us pity.”
“The mafia governs now”
Even the veterans are starting to rebel, he says. Some of them, “frozen” for years into inaction by the government, finally wake up. They are now refusing to identify the dictatorship to the heroic People’s Liberation Front of Eritrea (EPLF), which won the independence struggle. “For it is not the EPLF which governs now”, claims Temesghen, “Now it is the mafia .”
Despite this impossible life, the two activists admit, the Eritrean population has not risen as in Egypt or Tunisia. “Things are moving now, and soon we will have our own popular revolution”, adds Temesghen.
“But we must understand that, for years, the EPLF was revered religiously, its statements were both the Bible and the Koran, and it has hipnotized the Eritreans. Today, the religion of Tegadelti (the independence “fighters”) is collapsing. So we hope that things will change soon.”
Moreover, the fact that the government has confiscated the technological tools such as the Internet or the phone, which makes the organization of a popular movement very difficult, he adds. But he said the situation can not go on, since the dictatorship “is near its end.”
Sami and Temesghen want to send “a message of unity” to their Eritrean brothers and sisters: “You all know what happens here. So let us unite and make this government fall.” To the outside world, the two men first want to give an advice and convey a thank you. “Please take care of our brothers and sisters who have managed to flee to your country.You must take care of them because we need them”, says Sami. “To you who are not Eritrean, we ask you to open your eyes to what we endure and, most importantly, to open the eyes of the officials of your government on the dictatorship that has been acting in total impunity for years.”
But this is not the path taken by our governments, I add today, parenthetically. It is said that the European Union should unlock a new aid package for Eritrea next year. Some say that the amount of previous envelope of € 122 million , could be doubled … The last time, in 2008, the Eritrean government had promised the naive European Commissioner Louis Michel the release of political prisoners. Obviously nothing of the sort happened but the check has nevertheless been signed.
One last joke
One day, a famous shoemaker in Asmara saw Isaias Afeworki passing outside his shop. Flattered by a compliment of the president, the shoemaker decided to make a pair of shoes for him. But when he went to deliver his gift to the president, Isaias was astonished: “Thank you.But how do you know my exact size?” “You’ve been walking all over us for twenty years”, the shoemaker replied, “So how do you expect me not to know your exact size?”
The article was translated from French and published on HornAffairs with Leonard Vincent’s approval. The original French version can be found on his blog.
Leonard Vincent is the author of the book Les Erythreens (The Eritreans) published in Paris in 2012; producer of the documentary “Biniam, the voice of freedom” and served as head of Reporters Without Borders’ African Bureau, and a correspondent of Radio France Internationale (RFI). Currently, he is a freelance journalist on Africa.