MERON ESTEFANOS | A CONVERSATION ON ERITREA WITH THOR HALVORSSEN | OFFinJOBURG1 2020-07-18T05:42:31-07:00 Danielle Wollerman f629cbb78acffc24b05d6b8b0b578d081573ac30 37533 5 “MERON ESTEFANOS | A CONVERSATION ON ERITREA WITH THOR HALVORSSEN | OFFinJOBURG.” Youtube.com, Oslo Freedom Forum, 11 April 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQdeQ-9nXow. plain 2020-08-03T06:51:47-07:00 Hilary Bussell 2ad9df3f7f156a31101e0b2bfe104964b8682b6b
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The experiences of Eritrean women.
Women contributed greatly to Eritrea. They were not rewarded for their efforts.During the Ethiopian occupation, women were heavily involved in the resistance movement. They fought alongside the men in the EPLF, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Following Marxist philosophy, the EPLF decided that equality among men and women would be one of the focal points of their organization. They followed the slogan "Equality through equal participation".
Even though they touted women's equality, this was not the reality. Women were not exactly recognized. Instead, they wore androgynous clothing and inhabited a masculine role. Victoria Bernal explained this phenomena in her article "From Warriors to Wives: Contradictions of Liberation and Development in Eritrea" on page 135.
Gender equality was constructed by EPLF in part through the erasure of the feminine.26 This is reflected in the photographs of fighters that illustrate news articles and EPLF publications: women and men dress alike in khaki and rubber sandals and wear their hair “Afro” style. Indeed, one foreign visitor to the field reported difficulty distinguishing women from men.27 Says one ex-fighter, “I never knew myself as a woman. I thought of myself as a man. I faced the same problems as men.”28 The construction of women as not only equal to men but as male equivalents meant, however, that some profound issues of gender relations were not so much transformed by EPLF’s cultural revolution as repressed and rendered invisible.29Once Eritrea gained independence, women were expected to return to their traditional roles. Society treasured them as child-bearers and good wives, not as independent women. In addition, jobs were not available, and the communal style living of the EPLF—in which childcare, healthcare, and education were provided—was no longer there to support working mothers.
After independence, everyone—including women—who did not agree or conform with the actions of the new government were harassed.
Today, the Eritrean National Service (ENS) poses a unique threat to women in terms of abuse.Mandatory participation in the ENS requires young women to attend training camps rife with abuse and lacking protections. Women are at the mercy of their superiors, who often take advantage of their authority. Hiba Said from Ethiopia Insight shares the horrors women endured in her article "No peace for Eritrea's long-suffering female conscripts".
Survivors of military service say those who refused sexual relations to a military leader endured punishments such as being locked in shipping containers and underground cells, exposure to extremely hot temperatures, beaten, tortured, denied leave, deprived of food, suspension from trees, sent to dangerous locations such as the front line, and other cruel and unusual punishments.
Strong social stigma makes life difficult for rape victims.Rape is the most dishonorable thing that can happen to a woman in Eritrea. Getting married and having a family is the status quo and a source of pride; failure to live up to these expectations can result in social ostracism. Virginity is required for marriage, so when someone is raped, marriage is no longer a possibility for them. As a result, women are often pressured the attacker.
The Eritrean woman I interviewed told me that men who have been rejected will rape women to force them into marriage.
Fleeing is incredibly dangerous.It is dangerous for women to flee Eritrea. Getting caught can lead to indefinite detention without trial. Ciham Ali Ahmed is one young women who attempted to flee and was detained. She was 15 when she was arrested in 2012, and no one has heard from her since. Her situation is unique because she is a US citizen. The US is aware of the situation but has not publicly shared their plan of action. CNN reporter Stephanie Busari shared a statement from Ciham's father in her article: "Jailed at 15 she dreamed of being a fashion designer. No trial and 6 years later, she's still missing".
"Because she is US born... I really thought the government of the United States would scream bloody murder but no one is speaking for her. It's very, very disappointing. She is a United States citizen but because she grew up in Eritrea and because her parents are Eritreans, then I guess she is not fully American," he says.
The detention centers are horrific places. In the following clip, witnesses for the UN Human Rights Council share the torture they encountered:
Detention is just one of many things to fear when fleeing Eritrea. Women must avoid or survive harsh conditions, human trafficking, kidnapping, rape, refugee camps, and harassment from the government. When I spoke with a woman who fled Eritrea as a teenager during Ethiopia's occupation, she explained the hardship of leaving her home. She left Eritrea with a friend by walking for two weeks to Sudan. She considered herself lucky because they did not encounter major trouble along the way, like attacks by hyenas.
Various reports share the fates of those who were not as lucky. Refugees, particularly female refugees, are vulnerable to kidnapping and human trafficking. In her article "Captured, raped, ransomed: the kidnappers preying on Eritrean refugees", Sally Hayden recounted the story of two teenage girls who had a terrifying experience when crossing the border into Sudan. When they crossed the border the girls were tricked, kidnapped, and held for ransom.
For six weeks, Ella was locked in a room in her captor’s family home, a “nice house, with electricity and lights”. Both girls were raped. The ransom set was half a million Eritrean nakfa, or more than $33,000 (£23,852).
“I thought they would kill me,” says Ella. Each day, men would beat and assault her with a plastic stick. They would also press a phone to her ear, so her family could hear her pain. She’d try not to cry or whimper, which made the men hit her harder.
This is common practice for kidnappers; they call the victims family as they attack or rape them. Kidnappers also commonly increase the amount of ransom they demand, making it nearly impossible for families to save their loved ones. The American Team for Displaced Eritreans shares the stories of kidnapping victims on their website, eritreanrefugees.org. Read the following account by a victim they interviewed:
E. Tesfay – Age 26
Two girls in our group were gang-raped; one became pregnant; one had her breasts burned. Eight of the 24 died from torture – I saw them die, and I was forced to sleep next to their corpses. Seven who couldn’t pay were sold to other traffickers. The ten others, including myself, agreed to and were able to pay. Some of my relatives in Eritrea raised money from neighbors and friends – everyone they knew helped, even by selling their houses. But then our captors demanded an additional $33,000 from each of us. So we decided to try an escape, because we knew we would die anyway. We cut our chains with a hard stone, then we escaped through the metal walls of the shed in which we were held.
Upon crossing the Eritrean border, many women end up in refugee camps and/or continue the dangerous journey to Europe.
There are many female activists calling for change in Eritrea.Eritrean women are leading the charge in the movement to free Eritrea. They are calling for international action, providing assistance to those fleeing, and getting information into and out off Eritrea. Listen to Meron share how she helps people fleeing Eritrea.
Venessa Tsehaye is the young activist behind the One Day Seyoum campaign. Her uncle is a part of the G15 and has been in prison since 2001. She is fighting for him and other Eritreans to be free from the oppressive government.
This contains a general overview of Eritrean history.
In modern history, Eritreans have struggled with one bad government after another.Italy, lead by Mussolini, occupied Eritrea and forced Eritreans to fight a war with Ethiopia. After Italy was defeated, the British occupied Eritrea before the UN passed control to Ethiopia; their annexation of Eritrea lead to another war. In its description of Eritrea's history the Lonely Planet states:
Eritrea became Ethiopia's 14th province and disappeared from the map of Africa. Little by little, Ethiopia began to exert an ever-tighter hold over Eritrea, as both industry and political control were shifted to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. When in the early 1960s Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea in violation of international law, Cold War politics ensured that both the US and the UN kept silent.
With no recourse to the international community, the frustration of the Eritrean people grew. In 1961 the fight for independence began. In 1978 the Eritreans were on the brink of winning back their country, but the Ethiopians benefited from the logistical support of the Soviet Union. From 1988 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the most important resistance movement, began to inflict major losses on the Ethiopian army. In 1990 amid some of the fiercest fighting of the war the EPLF took the strategically important port of Massawa.
By a fortuitous turn of events, the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu was overthrown in 1991, his 140,000 troops fled Eritrea and a final confrontation in the capital was avoided. The EPLF walked into Asmara without having to fire a single bullet. As a result, Asmara was one of the very few Eritrean towns to survive the war undamaged. Heavy fighting in Nakfa and Massawa saw both towns inflicted with massive amounts of damage that have taken decades to repair.
In the following interview, Meron Estefanos shares her experience living under Ethiopian rule and then escaping it.
After liberation, Isaias Afwerki was elected as the Eritrean president. Soon after, war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In their summation of human rights issues in Eritrea, the One Day Seyoum organization states:
Former guerrilla leader Isaias was careful to consolidate his power in increments - saying that it takes time to build a democracy, so the people gave him time. In 1998, a war broke out with Ethiopia over disputed territory, ending in stalemate in 2000, with Ethiopia refusing to withdraw its troops and demarcate the border. The end of the conflict encouraged Eritreans to openly call for the democratic reforms which had been ‘put on hold’ by Isaias’s regime. However, President Isaias chose to double down on authoritarianism - moving in 2001 to permanently silence opposition, effectively establishing a dictatorship.
The government that promised democracy became an extreme authoritarian government, using the war with Ethiopia as the excuse for their actions. When dissent occurred, the government justified their actions in the name of national security. This earned Eritrea the reputation of being the North Korea of Africa.
In 2018, the Eritrean government signed a peace deal with Ethiopia. The human rights condition has not changed and the amount of refugees leaving Eritrea has increased. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been zero reforms implemented. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic there has been no change in protocol to alleviate the harsh, cramped, and unsanitary conditions of the prisoners and forced laborers.
Each government abused the Eritrean people; human rights were never properly awarded to Eritreans.One of the most severe human rights abuses that occurs is the country's indefinite military service. All Eritreans are required to serve starting around the age of 18 until the age of 50. The Guardian reports:
National service usually lasts between five and 10 years, but can last for up to 20. Conscripts often work 72-hour weeks in extremely harsh conditions with inadequate food and low pay. No one is legally entitled to take leave, which depends on the whim of commanding officers. Some conscripts have reported going for years without being allowed to visit home. If a conscript fails to return after taking leave, their parent may be jailed until they do.
Eritrean teenagers spend the last year of high school in a military camp before going straight into military service. If they get good enough grades, they might attend college and be given a civilian role. But the only way out is to leave the country. ("It's just slavery": Eritrean conscripts wait in vain for freedom)
Human rights went from bad to worse in 2001. When the entire world was focused on 9/11 Isaias Afwerki instituted a severe crackdown. Journalists, students, and political dissenters were disappeared—meaning they were killed, tortured, and/or imprisoned. Freedom of expression is still nonexistent. According to Human Rights Watch:
Arbitrary and indefinite detention the country’s extensive network of official and secret jails and prisons is common. Thousands of prisoners detained arbitrarily languish indefinitely in overcrowded places of detention, including underground cells and shipping containers, exposed to the sun during the day and freezing temperatures at night, with inadequate food, water, and medical care. Many prisoners are denied contact with family, lawyers, humanitarian organizations, or other outsiders. Torture and ill-treatment are common. The government has neither released nor improved the conditions of its most prominent prisoners. Government officials and reporters arrested in 2001 have been detained incommunicado ever since. ("They Are Making Us into Slaves, Not Educating Us": How Indefinite Conscription Restricts Young People's Access to Education in Eritrea)
The G15.The arrest of the G15 and the journalists who wrote about them occurred during Eritrea's pivotal moment in 2001. The One Day Seyoum organization shared the following interview with the children of a G15 member:
Indefinite arrest for attempting to leave the country.
If you are caught trying to flee Eritrea, you are arrested and can be jailed indefinitely.
Even children and young adults are sent to these prisons when they try to leave Eritrea. Hanna, the young woman from the One Day Seyoum video, was caught and detained when trying to cross the border into Sudan.
Escape from Eritrea.
Leaving Eritrea is difficult. You have to avoid being caught by Eritrean authorities, survive the harsh environment, get across the border, dodge kidnappers, and establish yourself in a new country or repeat the process by moving on to the next one. Despite the danger, many people still choose to take their chances because of the terrible conditions in Eritrea.
Hear from some refugees in Ethiopia about their journeys and see what it is like in the camp:
Crime rates committed against refugees are extremely high. People are often kidnapped, smuggled, robbed, and/or raped. The UNHCR shares a story about an Eritrean refugee named Gabre by Greg Beals.
They crossed the border at midnight, grief-stricken at the death of their daughter the previous day. Gebre’s two-year-old girl Arsama perished from the flu. The night after they buried her, Gebre, 28, and his wife Teka, 25, decided to make their way to Ethiopia.
Arsama’s death was just one reason for their escape. Gebre was exasperated with seven years in the military - part of Eritrea’s obligatory decades-long national service - with not even enough money to pay for food for his family. There seemed no end to the misery, Gebre recalled, here in Ethiopia.
The crossing took place under a new moon. The plan was to go first to Sudan, stay for a bit and then move to Ethiopia. Gebre had friends who knew the trails across the mountainous border and they guided them through, avoiding the Eritrean patrols. By dawn, the family was walking to Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan, where they would regroup for the next leg of their trip.
Gebre asked for directions from local residents. After their conversation another group of men pulled up in a pick-up truck. These men, called raishida, were light-skinned and carried AK-47s. Gebre and his wife were ordered into the back of the vehicle, which was then covered with canvas. The men told the couple that they would be taken to Shagarab camp.
In many respects Gebre and Teka’s journey is typical. An hour-and-a-half after they were forced into the pick-up truck, the pair found themselves in the compound of the smugglers, who demanded 45,000 Eritrean nakfa (US$3,000) to secure their release. “They told us that if we did not find the money they would wrap us in plastic then burn us,” Gebre said. “They beat me, but not badly. They beat my wife hard enough to leave a scar on her back.”
For 10 days the threats continued. Gebre told his captors the truth, that he didn’t have the money to pay their ransom. “We didn’t think about anything except just to escape or to wait and see what happened,” says Gebre.
He and his wife didn’t escape and they weren’t killed. Instead they were sold and taken in another pick-up to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they were sold again - this time to Bedouin.
They were taken to an enclosed compound where they were fed a small amount of rice and porridge. There were about 35 other captives. Sudanese, Somalis and Ethiopians sat quietly. Every attempt was made to isolate them. Everyone was told that if they spoke they would be killed.
The Bedouin allegedly told Gebre and Teka that they must come up with US$6,000 ransom or be killed. The couple believed them. They gave Gebre a telephone and told him to call his family in Eritrea.
He got through, but it was more than his kin could afford and they had to beg for help from others. The negotiations for payment lasted more than five weeks. Having paid the ransom, the Bedouin now left the couple in the desert.
“I had never wanted to go Egypt and I never wanted to go to Israel,” Gebre says. “But we knew what we would face if we stayed in Egypt so I asked the Bedouin which way to the Israel border.” The captors pointed their fingers and Gebre and his wife began to walk.
It was only a few minutes before they heard the shots ringing through the air. The tribesmen had pointed Gebre and Teka towards an Egyptian patrol. Gebre was shot in the lower back, the bullet exiting near his stomach. Teka had a part of her arm ripped off by another shot.
They were taken to a hospital in Sinai, where a female doctor treated their wounds. Gebre described her as the first person during their journey to treat them with kindness. After a month, they were taken to an Egyptian prison. “It was underground and you couldn’t see anything,” Gebre recalls. “We were separated - males and females. I couldn’t talk to my wife.”
Finally, the kindly doctor came to the prison to treat the couple’s wounds. She told them she would return. Several months later she arrived, this time with a representative from the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo. The man took the couple’s photo and their address. The doctor told Gebre that she would pay their airfare to Ethiopia.
A year after their ordeal, Gebre and Teka are living in Mai-Aini Refugee Camp and have a child named Samuel. “I think of my son and I have at least some hope in my life,” says the proud father, smiling. “I hope that he will go to school and become responsible. I hope that one day when I grow old that he will take care of me.”
- This is a great documentary that does a good job explaining conditions in Eritrea today.
- This is an amazing organization fighting for human rights in Eritrea. It gives an overview of the issues—past and present, shares personal testimonies, and showcases resources. It was created by a young women whose uncle, a journalist, is a part of the G15 group that was wrongfully imprisoned by the Eritrean government in 2001.
- In this interview, two incredible young women open up about what happened to their family in Eritrea and their hopes for the future.
- This report does a deep dive into the experience of women in Eritrea, focusing on women involved in national service.
- The first part of this video is a good quick overview of Eritrean history.
- In this research paper, the author explores gender roles in Eritrea before and after independence.
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