Long Read | Eritrean refugees fight Afwerki’s regime

Exiles from the northeast African country are using social media and TV satellites as weapons to resist the brutal government of Isaias Afwerki.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to come to Malta and complain about Maltese society,” said Major Sium, a 35-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker. “I want to complain about my government. I want to talk about the regime that caused my displacement.”

Sium sat at a restaurant in the town of Msida in Malta along with two other Eritrean asylum seekers. They were here to speak about their experiences in the small island nation. But they quickly changed the topic, retracing a haunting picture of their lives back in Eritrea – often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa” – shaped by indefinite and compulsory national conscription and wide-scale human rights abuses.

“We are here because of an unelected regime that is steering the whole nation into becoming refugees or submissive subjects,” Sium says. Several buzzing fans propped on the walls spew hot and humid air over the table.

“This is a government that rules the nation by fear. It enslaves and arrests its citizens and doesn’t have any regard for the values of human rights. As long as these issues that forced us to flee continue, we can never think about going back to Eritrea.”

But Sium is not sitting idle. He has decided to do something about it.

Like thousands of other Eritreans in exile or from the diaspora, Sium has joined a growing social movement aimed at toppling President Isaias Afwerki’s regime in Eritrea through social media campaigns that highlight the brutal and oppressive practices of his government, while encouraging other Eritreans to speak out.

“I don’t live there anymore so they can’t hurt me,” Sium said. “They will instead target my family and they will try and hurt them to punish me. Of course, I am scared. But how much longer can we possibly go on living in fear?”

Undated: One of the posters on the Human Rights Watch Facebook page.

Oppressive regime

After fleeing into neighbouring Sudan, it took Sium 11 days to travel from Khartoum to Tripoli in Libya, where he boarded a wooden fishing boat in July 2013, along with hundreds of other migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and took the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, where thousands have lost their lives over the years attempting to reach Europe.

“We were all terrified,” Sium said. “We were in the boat for three days. The boat was so overcrowded. There was no space to move. People were getting sick and shouting. All you could see was endless blue sea on all sides of you. It was horrible.”

After two days, the engine permanently broke down and the boat stopped moving. “People started going crazy. They began jumping into the sea because the heat was too unbearable,” Sium recounted. “People were panicking and praying. Some of the passengers began confessing their sins. It felt like judgement day.”

Someone had a mobile phone and called an Eritrean priest living in Italy, who then alerted authorities. It took about 14 hours before the Italian and Maltese coast guards arrived to rescue the refugees and migrants. Sium was taken to Malta, where he was given subsidiary protection status – a temporary status that does not provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

Sium never aspired to travel to Europe. “The only thought in my mind was getting out of the country and finding a place where I could have safety and liberty,” he said. Sium was a teacher in Eritrea’s national service and had always dreamed of fleeing the country. But it wasn’t until he was imprisoned for a year – accused of assisting a fellow teacher to flee – that he realised he no longer had a choice.

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Since 2001, Eritreans have lived under what Laetitia Bader, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says is “probably the most oppressive regime in Sub-Saharan Africa”. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The countries fought a bloody war from 1998 until 2000. For the past two decades, tensions have continued between the countries.

Hostilities with Ethiopia provided Afwerki an impetus to create a system of repression and authoritarianism that has continued today, in which independent media is banned, criticisms are prohibited and scores of political prisoners face appalling conditions and torture – oftentimes held incommunicado, according to rights groups.

The core of this system of control is the country’s compulsory and indefinite national conscription, which allows the government to “hold a large proportion of the adult population hostage”, Bader said.

In their final year of secondary school, both male and female students are sent for basic military training at the Sawa military academy, where rights groups have documented systematic abuse, torture, degrading punishments and harsh working conditions.

Following the basic training, “they are sent either into the military for the rest of their working lives or into civilian service – and they have no control over or say in their deployment or assignments they get. They are often sent far away from home with little pay,” Bader said.

Eritreans in national service need government permission to so much as visit the home of their families. This permission is rarely granted, according to Bader. If an Eritrean is lucky enough to obtain permission to travel to another area of the country, they are issued a permit that details their national service status and exactly where they’re allowed to go.

Checkpoints set up in between towns and cities in Eritrea ensure that no one is moving without government permission. According to HRW, 15% of the population has fled the country in the past two decades – and hundreds continue to flee each month.

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Sium wanted nothing more than to forget about Eritrea. “I always thought politics were pointless,” he said. “In Eritrea no one is speaking out. The best thing you can do is save yourself by escaping and living the rest of your life as a refugee until you die.”

“What’s the point of speaking about a story that I left behind? It would be better for me to focus on where I am now and what I want to do now,” he added.

Sium, along with 30-year-old Mazelo Gebrezgabhier, another Eritrean asylum seeker, had high hopes of being resettled in the United States. But after US President Donald Trump took office and froze the country’s refugee resettlement programme, their dreams of obtaining a normal life were shattered.

“I’ve just been living and waiting for my turn to be settled in another country. I was told I was going to be resettled in America,” Sium said. “But after Trump got elected, it all suddenly vanished.

“So we decided we needed to do something to change the situation back in our country. No matter how far you flee, it’s never the end. We decided we should start organising the refugees here to start speaking out.”

Various nonprofits, civil society organisations and groups have emerged in the diaspora over the years to raise awareness and speak out against Afwerki’s human rights abuses. Last year, all the various organisations, individuals and groups active in the movement united under one hashtag: #yiakl or “Enough!” in Tigrinya, a language widely spoken in Eritrea.

“We decided to create an umbrella movement that unites everyone,” Semhar Ghebreslassie, a prominent activist in the movement, explained. “Regardless of your politics or your ideologies, as long as you oppose the regime and want changes in our country then you are part of the movement.”

Social media campaigns have involved Eritreans posting videos on social media of themselves reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Tigrinya. In the #yiakl movement, Eritrean activists are identifying themselves, speaking out against the regime and then encouraging others to do the same.

“I chose to use my real name because I want other people to come out from hiding and use their real names,” Sium said. “I want my people to know that we shouldn’t be scared to be doing what is right for our country.”

“All of us, including me, have been really scared to use our real names when criticising the regime. But we need personal liberation. We have to stand up and think for ourselves. We need to stop thinking that the regime is following and watching us wherever we go.”

He added: “The more we come together, the weaker the regime will be. This is how we are going to defeat it. We need to identify ourselves and be courageous if we want to change our country.”

Sium and Gebrezgabhier are now organising the Eritrean asylum seeking community in Malta to also join the movement.

“We realised that becoming refugees ourselves would not stop the problem of people becoming refugees,” Sium said. “The only reason that more than a million Eritreans have ended up as refugees in foreign lands is because of our silence.”

11 September 2019: Mazelo Gebrezgabhier, an Eritrean asylum seeker in Malta, is using social media to campaign against the government. (Photograph by Jaclynn Ashly)

In the blood

Ghebreslassie fled Eritrea with just the clothes on her back. She embarked on the journey on 17 December 2014 – the day of her 28th birthday.

Ghebreslassie, now 32, and a 17-year-old boy were led by a local smuggler across fields of maize and sorghum. They walked nonstop for two days and three nights, hiding behind bushes and mountains to avoid detection by armed Eritrean soldiers at the border, until they arrived in the first town in Sudan.

“I’m not usually a girl who is scared of anything,” Ghebreslassie said. “There is a shoot-to-kill policy at the Eritrean border for those who flee. I kept thinking I was going to die on the same day that I was born. I was feeling amazed at the coincidence of that. You’re thinking of surviving and dying at the same time.”

Her voice begins to crack as she fights back tears. “I kept thinking about my family. I was scared that if they caught me they would take my family to … prison.”

Ghebreslassie stayed in Khartoum for about a year before a smuggler fixed her visa to France, allowing her to reunite with her siblings in Sweden, where she was eventually granted refugee status.

Ghebreslassie was active against the regime even while she was in hiding for two and a half years in the Eritrean capital city of Asmara, after fleeing her teacher post in the national service. Eritrea is widely considered to be the least technologically connected and the most censored country on Earth.

Only 1.3% of the population in Eritrea has access to the internet. In Asmara, there are only a few internet cafes, all of which are monitored by security agents. Eritreans are usually too fearful to read or open an opposition website because it could lead to interrogations or arrests.

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But Ghebreslassie was one of the few Eritreans willing to risk it.

She got a job at an internet cafe in Asmara for a few months and stumbled upon the various groups abroad that were speaking out against Afwerki’s regime on social media. She became an informant for two opposition media outlets based in the United States and France and shared first-hand information on the happenings inside the country.

But Eritrean soldiers often carry out “roundups”, where they search for national service deserters. “When you’re hiding, you can’t move from city to city because of the checkpoints. But even in the city, they sometimes come inside people’s homes, but mostly they stop people on the streets to check to see if they have a permit to travel,” Ghebreslassie explained.

At times Ghebreslassie was not able to leave her home for days; other times she was forced to sleep at work in fear she would be caught in the roundups. Eventually, she decided to flee the country entirely.

The farther she got from Eritrea, the louder Ghebreslassie’s voice became. In Khartoum, she regularly met with other Eritrean activists who had fled and when she arrived in Sweden, she quickly became an outspoken and prominent member of the movement on social media.

“Once I left Eritrean soil, I couldn’t stop speaking out. It feels like it’s in my blood. The first time I was able to access wifi was in Sweden, and then I became very involved in politics.”

Ghebreslassie has since helped organise scores of social media campaigns and protests against Afwerki’s regime, including the historic 2016 demonstration in Geneva in which thousands of Eritreans from the diaspora rallied in support of a UN commission report that accused the regime of committing “crimes against humanity” and “enslaving” up to 400 000 people. 

Afraid of their own shadows

According to the Eritrean activists, the biggest obstacle for the movement is overcoming the fear that has followed them from Eritrea. “There is still a lot of mistrust among us,” Sium said. “There are still [pro-regime] informants among us. We are scared to speak out against Afwerki to anyone. This fear has followed us to Malta.”

Amnesty International released a report last year detailing the harassment by the Eritrean government and its supporters against Eritrean activists in the diaspora, which included activists being assaulted, harassed and threatened.

Ghebreslassie herself has been barraged with death threats since becoming a visible and vocal member of the movement. “They tell me to stop or else they will find me and kill me,” she said.

Bader concurred, saying that “the government definitely has a long arm and it has different ways of maintaining control and monitoring individuals outside the country”. There have also been concerns of Eritrean translators and interpreters in the European asylum systems being security agents and government collaborators.

Activists also face serious risks of their family members being targeted back in Eritrea, Bader said. But, according to Ghebreslassie, the more activists come out from hiding, using their real names and identities, the more others are encouraged to do the same.

“The fear is overwhelming,” Ghebreslassie said. “People are afraid of their own shadows. It’s very difficult for us to convince people to come out and speak out. But I tell people that if there are only a few people speaking out, then of course the regime will target our families. But if there are many of us, how will the regime hurt all of our families?”

Gebrezgabhier said: “I am very worried about my family. But the fear doesn’t matter anymore. The regime is making all of us into refugees. We can’t tolerate living in fear anymore.”

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According to 23-year-old Vannessa Tsehaye, the founder of the rights organisation One Day Seyoum – named after her uncle who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001 – a major turning point for the movement was the 2018 peace deal between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Afwerki. For 20 years, Eritreans were told that these restrictive measures on the population were necessary to ensure the country’s national security amid tensions with Ethiopia.

But although telephone lines and flights between the two countries were restored and the border temporarily opened for a few months – before gradually being sealed again – nothing changed for the people of Eritrea. The number of Eritreans participating in the movement began to surge.

According to activists, even dedicated regime supporters have begun changing teams, enraged by what they see as a two-decade-long lie by Afwerki to justify keeping hundreds of thousands of Eritreans in bondage.

Ghebreslassie said that even a regime supporter who assaulted her in 2017 during a confrontation in Sweden has since apologised and joined the opposition movement following the peace deal.

Last year, Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the deal – to the disdain of Eritrean activists. Tsehaye, who spoke out against the Eritrean regime at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last year, said that awarding Ahmed the prize showed “huge disrespect to the people of Eritrea”.

“All it has done is legitimise an extremely brutal regime on the international stage,” she said, pointing out that following the peace deal the UN lifted an arms embargo in place since 2009 on Eritrea and the UN General Assembly elected Eritrea to be one of the 47 member states of the HCR.

Whispers of resistance

If fear is a defining hurdle for the activists in the diaspora, it takes the form of a straitjacket for those still living inside the country.

Bader said that there is “definitely no open criticism or public or civil organisations” inside Eritrea. Besides almost “unheard of” protests in 2017 when the Eritrean government attempted to nationalise the Islamic school system in Asmara, “you don’t have public protests”, Bader said, and public gatherings of more than three people are completely banned.

Anyone who publicly criticises the government is arrested and held in indefinite incommunicado detention without charge or trial, according to rights groups. Therefore, the movement is not only aimed at encouraging those in exile to speak out, but also those back in the belly of the beast.

“We want to break the fear of our people back in our country,” Ghebreslassie said. “There’s so much fear. If you speak up you either get imprisoned or killed. But this has been going on for too long. If we don’t sacrifice anything we won’t gain anything. So we’re trying to break through the fear across the nation.”

However, the limited access to the internet in Eritrea, along with the government’s strict censorship, makes the use of social media less effective at galvanising those still inside the country.

Consequently, Eritrean activists in exile, part of the #yiakl movement, did something extraordinary: they established ERISAT (“Justice”), an opposition station that broadcasts into homes in Eritrea. It’s the first opposition satellite that has made a breakthrough into Eritrean airspace. Assenna Satellite TV, another opposition satellite TV station, followed suit.  

According to Ghebreslassie, the TV programmes are meant to communicate the campaigns and activities of the Eritrean activists in the diaspora and bring those still in the country into the discussions and debates.

“But it’s not just about broadcasting our activities,” Ghebreslassie explained. “We also send personalised messages to our people in our country, like the police and army forces, and try to convince them to stand by their people and against the regime.”

Afwerki’s government, seemingly in panic, has attempted to jam the channels’ airwaves.

According to Ghebreslassie, subtle whispers of resistance are starting to be heard from Eritrea. Small groups of university students have organised themselves and distributed pamphlets that echo the sentiments of the #yiakl movement. Graffiti has appeared on the streets of Asmara that calls for an end to national conscription.

“It’s small groups doing small things,” Ghebreslassie said. “But it doesn’t even sound real to me. This is a huge step for Eritrea.” Ghebreslassie believes this is a direct result of the movement’s satellite TV channels.

Analysts have also pointed out that Afwerki seems to be increasingly concerned about the possibility of protests. Last year, he shut down health centres run by the Catholic Church, reportedly owing to the bishops criticising him, and carried out waves of random arrests.

He also blocked social media sites in the country and closed internet cafes following the revolution in neighbouring Sudan. Analysts believe Afwerki is fearful that the revolutionary ideologies of the Sudanese could spread to Eritrea.

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Despite the long road ahead, the Eritrean activists are not giving up.

“I’m not doing this just for my people,” Ghebreslassie said. “I’m doing this for myself. I was not supposed to be living here in Sweden. This is not my home. I’m supposed to be living in my own country and doing the jobs that I choose and eating the foods that I like.

“We were robbed of so many of our rights,” she continued. “I still feel it inside. I feel like half of my life was stolen by the regime. I’m fighting to reclaim my rights from the regime and for all of those who have died by its hands and who can never be brought back to life and for those who are rotting in prison.”

Her voice cracks again. She takes a deep breath and tries to steady it.

“I’m doing this for my country because I love my country so much. All of us do. We want to change our country so that we can finally go home and live normal lives.”

Update, 21 February 2020: This article was amended to reflect the most accurate information available at the time.

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