Unfiltered Notes: The Sinai Tragedy

Saturday, 13 April 2013 08:32 Tewelde Stephanos

Unfiltered Notes: The Sinai Tragedy

By Tewelde Stephanos        April 12, 2013

The numbers are staggering. Eritrea, a country of 4 to 5 million, has produced over 250,000 refugees in about 10 years. 35,000 live in a state of limbo in Israel. And these are the lucky ones. Over 4000 have perished in Egypt’s Sinai, some after ransom was already collected by traffickers (here is a good summary by Dan Connell)1. In a poor country where annual income is less than $500 USD, ransom for Eritreans has reached $40,000 - with some reporting as high as $50,000. Traffickers don’t demand much from other nationals lending credibility to those who believe Eritreans are contributing to their problems by submitting to traffickers’ demands. Horrific crimes of organ harvesting, torture and rape are common occurrences going back to the Mubarek years. Egypt has done nothing to stop these crimes and Amnesty International’s2 recent appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Eritreans are running away from unbearable life under a ruthless dictator. And as younger Eritreans who are more likely to bring about change leave the country in big numbers, the regime feels less threatened and tightens its stranglehold even more. This is a double whammy. Eritrea loses the most productive segment of its population and the regime that is running it to the ground gets more years to make things worse.

In the meantime, the regime and foreign mining companies, like Canada’s Nevsun, reap the benefits of forced-labor the remaining Eritreans are subjected to. Mr. Cliff Davis, Nevsun’s CEO, says there is no corruption in Eritrea3 which, of course, is ethically and factually wrong. Nevsun is currently one of the few prominent enablers of tyranny in Eritrea. The super secretive and opaque regime Mr. Davis praises has perfected corruption and abuse of power for over 40 years. Outside of the unelected president and his personal treasurer, no one knows how or where Eritrea’s resources - including Nevsun's gold revenues are spent. That is how deep the corruption at the top is.

“When… is Nevsun going to do business ethically?”4 wonders exiled journalist, Aaron Berhane, who miraculously survived the regime's hail of bullets when he was running for dear life to the Sudanese boarder. Belying Mr. Davis' words, there is absolutely no sign Nevsun’s gold revenues are trickling down to benefit the Eritrean public. The economy is in ruins, the cities crumpling, poverty is worse than ever before, hope a distant memory.

The Root Cause

The lawless regime is the root cause of the mass exodus that is reliably feeding the Sinai tragedy. Stuck in the quicksand of its Maoist past, it continues to torture and murder Eritrea’s brightest who dare to think independently.

Education, usually a good equalizer, is devalued and blind loyalty is rewarded handsomely. The least qualified, people with unethical past or with blood in their hands are put in positions of power (listen to Said Saleh’s two part interview with assenna.com)5. These are people the regime has and can easily blackmail into total submission to do whatever they are told.

Vast, multi-layered spy networks are effectively used to terrorize the population. In such an environment, trust is one of the first casualties. With trust out of the way, the regime’s propaganda machine kicks in to distort reality at will. It is illegal to organize and discuss solutions to common problems. There is no freedom to debate, to think freely or to act on one’s dreams and aspirations.

The Supply

Deeply frustrated, many choose to leave the country becoming easy targets for traffickers. The regime has the capacity to shut off this supply by normalizing life in Eritrea. But it hasn’t and there are no signs it will. Isaias Afwerki, who has shaped and reshaped this ruthless regime for four decades, sadistically refers to those fleeing his tyranny as people going on a picnic. He sent a pretentious letter of protest to the UN recently, but exposing his usual insincerity, refuses to allow UN personnel access to Eritrea to assess the situation.

And here is the irony. Eritrea is a highly militarized country with over 300,000 under arms and few Rashaida tribesmen are believed to operate the human trafficking ring. The Rashaida are 1% of Eritrea’s population. That comes to a total of about 50,000 Rashaidas in the country. Assuming 1% of them are involved in human trafficking, it begs the question how a highly militaristic and trigger-happy regime that has waged war with all its neighbors is unable to disrupt a 500-strong criminal gang? Given its vast spy network, it is even reasonable to assume the regime knows each one of them by name.  The ratio of Eritrea’s army to the few Rashaida traffickers is 600 to 1. Said another way, Eritrea’s 600 military personnel are no match to one Rashaida operative. The regime either has no desire to stop the trafficking or, as some suspect, the regime is actively profiting from it.

The Money

Those trapped in forced-labor earn - if it can even be called that - 500 nakfa/month. That is equivalent to $33 USD per month at the arbitrary official exchange rate. More realistically, this is a mere $12 at black market rate which is a better measure of the Nakfa’s buying power. With Eritrea's runaway inflation, one egg costs 11 nakfa these days. So the entire monthly ‘salary’ of over 300,000 Eritreans trapped in forced-labor cannot even buy 50 eggs. That is it, 50 eggs – with nothing left for rent, food, clothing or occasional milk for children.

It is against this reality that the $40,000 USD ransom to free loved ones from traffickers becomes so unbelievable. There are credible reports indicating initial payments of $3,000 to $5,000 USD are collected in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. Government vehicles are used to transport those who paid to the Sudanese boarder. Six to eight people can fit in one SUV and a single trip of less than 400 kilometers can generate at least $30,000 USD – a staggering amount, especially compared to monthly ‘earnings’ of $12.

The Enablers

The primary culprit in this human trafficking ring is the regime itself. By making life so difficult, it is guaranteeing the traffickers will have ample supply. And it has full capacity to shut off the networks - definitely in both Eritrea and in the Sudan, and possibly in Egypt. The regime falsely claims the CIA is behind the human trafficking but does absolutely nothing to protect its citizens. Similarly, the scattered political opposition groups have also done nothing. Strangely, many Eritreans enjoying freedom in the diaspora also support the regime unconditionally. Conditional support is one thing but unconditional support in this day and age is simply insane. The regime’s true identity has been fully bared for well over a decade now and the time to give it any benefit of the doubt has long expired.

We have otherwise capable people like Dr. Ghidewon Abay, a professor of mathematics himself, unwilling to do the basic math. The simple math being poverty has no better friend than locking young people to a life of forced-labor indefinitely. Dr. Ghidewon is one of the few remaining ardent supporters of the regime - a regime that murders, tortures and terrorizes its people and robs them blind every single day. One hopes the good doctor will join many former supporters who saw the light - sooner than later.

The Brave

In spite of these grim realities, there are also brave souls who continue to light candles in the darkness rekindling hope and optimism. Zebib Sultan6 is one of them. Realizing sustainable change can only come about if owned and driven by their peers inside Eritrea, Arbi Harnet is another group trying innovative ways to reach and embolden those who matter most.

Although there is a lot going badly for Eritrea, this is not the time for pessimism or inaction. It is time to search for friends, not enemies. YPFDJ is misguided by better-resourced and skillful operators. Its leadership is rotten for sure but the broader YPFDJ or PFDJ membership should not be dismissed or alienated. The bad ideas of exclusion they are getting bombarded with daily can and should be defeated with better ideas of inclusion.

So far no viable organized body has come up with better ideas to inclusively build momentum in the right direction. The Sinai tragedy proves the point very well. Even a tragedy of this scale does not seem sufficient to overcome the silly differences that have fragmented folks into regional, religious and political silos.

That is why supporting those who are doing good work like Zebib and Arbi Harnet is a great place to start. If you are frustrated by the lack of progress and have been sitting on the fence, start supporting them today. Because it is those small and ordinary efforts that add up to produce extraordinary results eventually.


Email: testifanos@gmail.com

[1] http://asmarino.com/articles/1701-refugees-ransoms-and-revolt

[2] http://asmarino.com/press-releases/1713-egypt-sudan-kidnap-and-trafficking-of-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-must-be-stopped

[3] http://www.capitaleritrea.com/nevsuns-ceo-makes-the-cover-of-resource-world/

[4] http://asmarino.com/articles/1716--nevsun-resources-ltd-puts-canadian-values-and-innocent-lives-at-stake

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzj9j-7KzFs

[6] http://asmarino.com/news/1703-zebib-sultan-at-women-in-action-conference