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Eritrea: The land its citizens want to forget

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By James Copnall
BBC News, eastern Sudan

"I realise there are political problems everywhere, but in Eritrea it is unique," says Habtu Zere Maram, one of a thickening flow of Eritrean refugees who have crossed the border into Sudan.

Eritrean children at the Shagarab camp in Sudan
Many children flee Eritrea without their parents

"It's like the Middle Ages. Now we are in the 21st Century, how can we live like this? You can't speak, there is no freedom, you cannot say whatever you want to say.

"I dreamt of leaving, because I want to live free. Most of the Eritrean people think the same thing."

Last week, a group of Eritrean footballers absconded in Kenya, where they had gone to play a football tournament.

Eritrea has a population of about 3.5 million but more than 1,800 refugees - almost all Eritreans - cross the border into eastern Sudan every month, according to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Many of the refugees end up in tents in places like the Shagarab camp, where living conditions are difficult.

But the UNHCR says some refugees - usually political opponents of the Eritrean government - are too scared to live in the camps, as many people fear the Eritrean state has spies there.

A previous generation of Eritrean refugees still lives in camps in eastern Sudan, and some have been there for four decades.

The UNHCR estimates there are currently more than 66,000 in the camps, and maybe another 40,000 in urban areas.


Military service was terrible. I could say pages and pages and pages about it
Habtu Zere Maram

Most of the long-term refugees came to escape hunger in Ethiopia or the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and have never returned home.

But the new arrivals do not want to be caught in the same situation and hope to move on quickly.

Mohamed, a 13-year-old, speaks for many when he says his objective is to make it to Europe.

His few words of English delight the gathered crowd.

Like many of the children in the camps, Mohamed crossed the border without his parents.

No money, no prospects

Another topic of conversation that has everyone nodding in agreement at the Shagarab camp is the hated Eritrean national service.

Young Eritreans at the Shagarab camp in Sudan
There is fear among the camp's residents that Eritrea may have spies there

"Military service was terrible. I could say pages and pages and pages about it," Mr Habtu says.

"You don't have enough to eat. I am a young person, I must eat a lot. How can you serve there? Even if you have a desire to live in Eritrea... well actually, you can't desire to live there."


Eritrea map

Mr Habtu's case is far from unique.

Ura, a teacher, says he also left Eritrea because of national service.

He was not forced to join the army - instead he served as a teacher.

But the pay was poor and he says future prospects were limited.

"National service continues until you get to 40 years old. There is no good salary, and the service continues, it doesn't stop. It's difficult to live like that," he says.

UN figures 'untrue'

Another educated man, who asked not to be named, says he smuggled his whole family out because he was worried about his children's future.

He says he was paid just a few dollars a month in Eritrea, despite being well qualified.


Eritrean Halima Saleh weaving
Some refugees have been in Sudan for years

Despite these complaints, the Eritrean government categorically denies that so many their people are fleeing and calls UN figures "untrue".

In a BBC interview last month, Information Minister Ali Abdu accused the UNHCR of being "involved in human trafficking" and said some UN workers were "intelligence agents".

He said many asylum seekers often pretended to be Eritrean because "Western countries and MI5" gave priority to Eritreans to encourage them to flee.

All the same, the fear in the camp is certainly real.

Some refugees said they were too scared to speak, or hinted that they were being watched.

In careful handwriting, one refugee wrote out his complaints about the poor conditions in the camp on a piece of paper.

More than 20 families are housed in one large, fairly ramshackle tent, with little privacy and not enough bedding.

"To live here is difficult, really it is difficult," says Mr Habtu.

"Us young people, we have to put our hands out to beg. I hate that. We don't have enough blankets, we don't have enough mattresses.

"We don't have enough food either. But at least this place is better than Eritrea. At least I will survive."


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Eritrean Field Notes: A lonely nation under a glass

Eritrean Field Notes: A lonely nation under a glass

Foreigners and Eritreans alike began to tell me, always anonymously, how they saw Asmara. "My own personal 'Truman Show,' " was one description. "Animal Farm," came another. One young Eritrean explained the country's system of indefinite national service as a kind of never-ending forced labor camp. Another, explaining how complete social control is here, told me: "Resistance is futile -- the only escape is to flee!"

The fact that Eritrea produces more asylum seekers than all but one other country on the planet became more striking with each gently passing afternoon.

Many Eritreans told me they had brothers, husbands, uncles and others who had disappeared over the years, presumably into desert prisons. Sometimes, just as mysteriously, they would reappear, often with scars. One person told me a friend reappeared with brain damage.




Finally, I would like to ask the question: What would Eritrea like for Christmas?

An end to oppression; an end to imprisonment for imaginary crimes; the freedom to leave the country; the freedom to write the truth in newspapers and speak it on the radio and show it on television; the freedom to study for a better future in a restored university rather than waste one’s youth half-starved in an army training to fight an imaginary foe; the freedom to sit at home surrounded by ALL your family, with plenty to eat, with work to return to, with a future that is not uncertain and masked with fear; the freedom to pray to any divine being to worship in any way one wishes - everything, in fact, that Eritrea does not have.


Issues and Ideas: Q & A with noted Journalist Habtom Yohannes

Issues and Ideas: Q & A with noted Journalist Habtom Yohannes A: President Isaias Afwerki and his cohorts have brought this disaster upon themselves and the nation. They deserve it but not Eritrea and the Eritrean people. From the regional perspective and the interest of Eritrea as a nation, I am against any sanction that weakens Eritrea but targeted sanctions that hit the regime on its Achilles heel must be welcomed by all who want a peaceful transition in Eritrea. At the same time we must be realistic. There are many countries that will breach the sanctions for their own interests. I have mentioned some of them earlier, but one can mention also different countries in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union that will supply the Afwerki government with every support it needs. Sanctions haven't worked miracles in Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Iran. Even targeted sanctions alone won't bring quick change in Eritrea. Lasting change is only possible from inside with genuine outside support.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church Reasserts Itself

The Eritrean Orthodox Church Reasserts Itself ICFC has just learned that after eight years of silence, the publication of Finote Berhan (The Way of Light), the one and only official mouthpiece of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), will resume as of December 2009. This dramatic development is the result of a five-months long deliberations and planning by the Archdiocese of the Eritrean Orthodox
Church of North America.

When the government of Eritrea closed down all private media and arrested most independent journalists in September 2001, one of the casualties of this crackdown was Finote Berhan, one of the oldest publications in the country. It was shut down as it was undertaking preparations to celebrate its golden jubilee. Unfortunately, after 50 years of uninterrupted ministry as the voice and conscience of the EOC, the curtain was brought down on it. Finote Berhan was no more.

Eritrea's controversial push to feed itself

Eritrea's controversial push to feed itself ... the former ministry of health official was able to confirm that two-thirds of the population in Eritrea were now malnourished.

"Especially people who live outside the cities," he said.

"The government is confiscating their grain and their land, so how can they get enough nutrition?" Read more...



Eritrea’s Lingering Malnutrition’s Divisive Publications

The only leader who thinks it is o.k. to preside over a nation with the worst record in press freedom is Eritrea’s strongman Isayas Afewerki. He argues there is no such thing as “free press”. Of course there isn’t. But the rest of humanity agrees it is vital to have systems which enable people to freely express ideas and exchange information. “Free press” is not an absolute standard but is meant to serve as a guideline in the establishment of free and united communities. Even Denmark at the top of the list of 175 countries does not have a perfect “free press”. But it is striving towards that goal. And it is never too late for Eritrea to join the civilized world in the fight against darkness. Repression and ruthless censorship create intellectual retardation and hinder progress.


UPDATE 1-Eritrean turmoil weighs on Nevsun shares

UPDATE 1-Eritrean turmoil weighs on Nevsun shares

* Nevsun stock tumbles more than 14 percent

TORONTO, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Nevsun Resources <NSU.TO> insisted on Thursday its Bisha gold project in Eritrea would proceed as planned despite United Nations sanctions against the African country.

Nevsun shares tumbled more than 14 percent following the sanctions, despite its assurances the U.N. actions -- including travel restrictions and asset freezes -- should not have any direct impact on the company or the project.


Alert: Fear of Deportation of the Eritrean Football Team!

Alert: Fear of Deportation of the Eritrean Football Team!

“I am an Eritrean citizen who is closely following the case of the Eritrean foot ball national team players who defected to Kenya on seek of refuge on the date of December 13, 2009. These players are now …… [It] is not safe for the foot ball players for they are being hunted by the Kenyan police in cooperation with the Eritrean embassy in Nairobi Kenya. As Eritreans, we are asking for the UNHCR to do something about this and consider the safety of these players. If not at this historic moment in time it will be very difficult and disgraceful for the innocent football players to be victims of the hunting Kenyan police and the government of Eritrea.”

This is a call to Eritreans all over the world to make the loudest noise possible to make sure that the disaster that happened to refugees in Egypt and Libya should never happen again: (a) Lets inundate Kenyan embassies all over the world with our messages of protest. (b) Let’s also make sure that the Nairobi hears from us from wherever we are. (c) Let’s call the nearest UNHCR office from our area of residence. (d) Let’s also agitate as many humanitarian groups as we can. For too long a time, we have let our brothers and sisters down at their hour of need. Never again!