The dialogue with Elsa Chyrum

“Has God deliberately blinded us, or is it that we are callous because we have seen too much suffering.” Elsa Chyrum  challenged the Eritrean community, “We can’t continue living our daily lives as if nothing is happening.” She said our first objective should be “to remove this regime and to institute a system that respects human rights.”

Elsa Chyrum

Elsa Chyrum delivering her talk after a brief introduction by Almaz Negash (not in photo)

In addition to the talk by the respected Eritrean human rights activist Ms. Elsa Chyrum, the Conference titled “A Dialogue with Elsa Chyrum on the Global Crisis of Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers.” had three main speakers: Almaz Negash, Saleh Gadi Johar and Saleh Younis. The event was predominantly conducted in Tigrinya language and ‘live’ English caption was projected for non-native attendees.

Elsa was modest in her talk and hardly talked about her work and achievements. Saleh Younis pointed this out and asked that she explain the recent hunger strike she did in protest of the detentions of Eritrean refugees in Djibouti. She explained that she took the action out of desperation having exhausted all hope that the Djibouti authorities would ever take the matter seriously. She pleaded and begged Djibouti authorities, at some point even met with the current Prime Minister.  “I even pleaded that they at-least release the Eritreans to neighboring countries under police escort if need be,” she said. Elsa said after the hunger strike, the UNHCR now recognizes the Eritreans in Djibouti as refugees and she believes that the international community has now put pressure on Djibouti authorities to resolve the matter.

Throughout her talk, Elsa was very soft-spoken person. One can feel genuine concern for the pain of Eritreans in her speech. During a visit to Eritrean refugee camps in Ethiopia, Elsa said she was touched to see hundreds and hundreds of young children who left Eritrea without their parents. “Seeing these little children living alone in refugee camp, seeing the future generation of Eritrea in such sad state I felt ill immediately. I had stomach pain that lasted for almost six months after wards.” Elsa said.

When asked a question on what we the diaspora need to do, Elsa replied that  it is important we start with helping those in our surrounding, “Our actions have to start with helping Eritrea refugees locally. We can achieve most there.”


Saleh Gadi Johar centered his talk on human trafficking, “Human trafficking is not unique to Eritrea, its a global phenomena. So what makes human trafficking in Eritrea different?” After briefly highlighting global human trafficking challenges, he said that we should try to tackle it at the organization level and we should focus less on the ‘foot soldiers’ committing the crimes.

In one instance he likened human trafficking to drug smuggling and how difficult it is even for the greatest nations to tackle, “we have become like fire fighters running around trying to put out fire here and there, let us ask bigger questions ‘Who benefits from human trafficking of Eritreans?’… lets research and try to catch the bigger fish.” He also expressed his disappointment that many don’t actively involve in fighting human trafficking, “In four years [of research] I only have two phone numbers that belong to kidnappers. So why are we not open about it. I can understand it is difficult to inform on kidnappers when your loved ones are in the hands of traffickers but we should actively try to expose the criminals once we get our loved ones freed.”

"Either you are an activist or you are not." -Saleh Gadi Johar

“Either you are an activist or you are not.” -Saleh Gadi Johar

Saleh Younis talked on issues of Eritrea refugees, “Both the pull factor and the push factors that drive Eritreans to flee have increased in the past years.” He said, “and those responsible for either side blame each other as the main cause. Those responsible for the ‘push’ factor blame that the West is making it too easy for Eritreans to be granted Asylum, those on the ‘pull’ side complain that the tyrant needn’t press his boot so hard on his population.”


“Decades of abuse have made the Eritrean pride dissolve away from Eritreans” -Saleh Younis


An Eritrean Refugee, Stephanos Semere, who was a conscript of the Eritrean regime for nine years gave a testimony of his flight from Eritrea and the challenges he faced on his way to the USA.

The talks session was followed by a panel discussion with question and answer session.

Worried that I might miss my train, I had to leave early. According to the program flyer the conference ended with Closing Remarks  followed by Award of Appreciation presented to Elsa Chyrum on behalf of the Bay Area Eritrean Community.


Sponsors of the event from the flyer

7 Years a slave: story of a ‘National Service’ survivor

My name is Robel Tesfai and I was born in 1979,” A video message from the young Eritrean man starts. Rebel is a survivor of the Eritrean ‘National Service’.

Speaking in his native language of Tigrinya Robel says, “To me National Service is slavery.” And he should know, he spent seven years of his life in the ‘National Service’. Since the totalitarian dictatorship declared a mandatory 18 months-long military service in 1993, the government has been forcefully conscripting everyone between the ages of 18-ish and 50-ish.

Robel describes how he was forced to ‘serve’ without compensation and without hope of ever being released from ‘Service’. Robel confirms that conscripts are routinely made to work as laborers in farms and construction works, often for the benefit of army commanders and Party inner-members.

If the accounts of the thousands of young Eritreans leaving the country every month, such as Robel, is to be trusted; then the Eritrean government has effectively legalized slavery. 7yearsslaveEritrea’s “National Service” comes complete with all the paraphernalia associated with the practice of slavery: justification of economic importance, cultural superiority of the masters (the revolutionary culture– ‘temekuro mieda’), emphasis on the ignorance and unruliness of subjects if left to themselves, reiterating the importance of slavery for national security, etc.

Often army commanders (slave masters) are granted almost unlimited power over their subjects. Commanders routinely punish disobedient subjects  harshly through denial of annual leave and travel permits, denial of medical treatment, etc. Commanders are granted the freedom to  deliver all sorts of physical and mental torture they see fit to get the job done.

Robel concludes his video message with a touching message telling us why he decided to speak out, “I now live in Bologna, free and leading a peaceful life. I wish peaceful and free life to all compatriots who are still denied freedom. But I don’t wish that they flee their country and suffer the risks of Sinai or the Mediterranean like I did to be free. I wish to be their voice and express my desire for their misery to come to pass. I wish for the National Service to finally be for the benefit of our country. This is my hope.

The video was posted as part of “Stop Slavery in Eritrea” campaign. Over the past months the campaign has been active in facilitating survivors to make a statements by posting photos of themselves wearing the “Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea” T-shirt.


Globalization, Imitation, and Eritrean Refugees

The Africa Today journal devoted its recent volume to research papers on Post-liberation Eritrea. The first of the research papers in this special issue investigates “an important variable in explaining current and recent refugee movement from Eritrea and other countries in Africa.”

“Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea”

Considering the significance of the matter, this paper has chosen an excellent research topic. Every month up to 3,000 Eritreans flee their country across the heavily guarded, dangerous borders. Continue reading

Investigating Post-liberation Eritrea

The Africa Today journal  devoted it’s recent volume (vol. 60 no 2) to research papers on Post-liberation Eritrea. Of the five papers in this special issue, four dealt with Eritrean immigrants and refugees. This demonstrates how much emigration and refugees define Post-liberation Eritrea–or simply ‘Eritrea’.

An introduction to the volume was written by the editor Dr. Tekle M. Woldemikael. The introduction titled “Postliberation Eritrea” gives a background on Eritrea and briefly describes the five papers in the volume:

(1) Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea.
by Assefaw Bariagaber (Professor, Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, USA)
(2) Civil Society and Cyberspace: Reflections on Dehai, Asmarino, and Awate.
by Victoria Bernal (Professor, School of Social Sciences,  University of California at Irvine, USA)
(3) The Catch-22 of Resistance: Jokes and the Political Imagination of Eritrean Conscripts.
by David M. Bozzini (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Anthropology Institute, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland)
(4) Ransoms, Remittances, and Refugees: The Gatekeeper State in Eritrea
by Amanda Poole (Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, USA)
(5) Imagining Emigration: Debating National Duty in Eritrean Classrooms.
by Jennifer Riggan (Assistant Professor, Department of Historical and Political Studies, Arcadia University, USA)

In the coming posts, I’ll share my thoughts on each of these papers. First on the agenda is Dr. Assefaw Bariagaber’s “Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea” which I will post next weekend.

"You'll thank me later." ( Monk, the greatest detective in the universe)

“You’ll thank me later.” ( Mr. Monk, the greatest detective in the universe)

ይገርመናሎ፦ ኣብ ደገ ዝቕመጡ ኤርትራውያን ይግረሙ::

ፕረዚደንት ኢሳይያስ አፈወርቂ ብዛዕባ ምሕደራ ኤርትራ አመልኪቱ ብዝሃቦ ርእይቶ ብዙሓት ግዱሳት ኤርትራውያን ይግረሙ፦ “ዴሞክራሲ ዘይ-ዴሞክራሲ: ብዙሕነት ናይ ሰልፍታት:… ከምኡታት ዝበሃል ምህውታት አብዛ ሃገር ክመጽእ’ዩ ኢሉ ዝሓስብ እንተልዩ አብ ካልእ ዓለም: ወይ ድማ [ከም ኣማራጺ] አብ ወርሒ ሰፊሩ ክሓስብ አለዎ:”

እዚ ከምዚ ዝበለ ርእይቶ፣ ኣተሓሳስባ ናይቲ ዘብረዮ ዘይብሉ ን ልዕሊ 23 ዓመታት ኣብ ስልጣን ዘሎ ፕረዚደንት ምዃኑ ሃንደበት ዝኾኖም ዜጋታት ብዙሕ ይግረሙ:: “አብዚ ሃገር ካልእ ሰልፍታት ክህልዉ አይነፍቅድን ዘስምዕ ዘረባ ተዛሪቡ ምስ በሉኒ: መጀመርያ ሓሶት’ዩ መሲሉኒ:” ይብል ሓደ ካብቶም ዝተገረሙ ዜጋታት: “ሕጂ ውን ‘ተኾነ… ከቢድ’ዩ::” ንምግራሙ መግለጺ ዝኾኖ ቃላት ስለ ዝሰኣነ: ናይ ዓቅሊጽበት: ርእሱ የማነ ጸጋም እንዳበለ::


“ዴሞክራሲ ዘይ-ዴሞክራሲ: ብዙሕነት ናይ ሰልፍታት:… ከምኡታት ዝበሃል ምህውታት አብዛ ሃገር ክመጽእ’ዩ ኢሉ ዝሓስብ እንተልዩ አብ ካልእ ዓለም: ወይ ድማ አብ ወርሒ ኮይኑ ክሓስብ አለዎ::”

“I’m surprised!” ትብል ካብቶም ዘዘራረብናዮም ሓንቲ ቅድሚ ሽዱሽተ ወርሒ ብትምህርቲ ናብ ካናዳ ዝመጸት ኤርትራዊት መንእሰይ፣ ብምቕጻል: “I’m surprised! ካብ ኣፉ ክሳዕ ዝሰምዖ: ናይ መንግስቲ ኤርትራ መርገጺ ከምዚ ምኳኑ … you know… wow..” ብምባል ምግራማ ገሊጻ::

ሓደ ካብቶም ንመንግስቲ ኤርትራ ብትሪ ዝቃወሙ መንእሰይ ብወገኑ: “Now we have the proof!” ኢሉና: ገጹ ብታሕጓስ ብርህ እሉ:: የማናይ ኢዱ አብቲ ጣውላ አሞርኪሱ: ነቲ ጣውላ ብአመልካቲቶ አጻብዕቱ ደጋጊሙ ከም ደርሆ ትኹብ ትኹብ እናበለ: “ኣብ ኤርትራ ዴሞክራሲ ከምዘየለ: መንግስቲ ጨቋኒ ምኳኑ: ሕጂ ኣሉ ዘይትበሃላ መርትዖ ረኺብና::” ነቲ ጣውላ ምምርኳስ ገዲፉ: አብ ሰድይኡ እንደገና ንድሕሪት ቅንዕ እንዳበለ: “now we have proof!” ኢሉ ብታሕጓስ::

ብ፦ ብኹላቶም ዝተገረመ ተዓዛቢ

“Concentration camps of Israel” – Eritrean President

Yesterday, expressing the undesirableness of becoming an immigrant, President Isaias Afewerki particularly mentioned Israel to emphasize the objectionable life Eritrean refugees experience.

He said Eritreans are languishing in Israel’s refugee camps, which he quickly paraphrased “Concentration camps”, to quote the President’s exact words: “When you consider the life of those in camps, concentration camps, of Israel you can’t even say there is anything worst or more horrific than that.”

Regarding other Eritrean refugee destinations he said. “even in other cities, European cities, you can’t say [Eritreans] are having any life that has much meaning”

The President said that the country has suffered absolutely no set backs due to citizens leaving the country. The only damage, he explained, is to these individuals themselves. He repeatedly pleaded Eritreans to return, “for the sake of yourself, please return to your country.”

In an effort to discourage those planning to flee the country, the President challenged them not to be shortsighted and instead to, “Think in-terms of where you’ll be in five or six years time”. “The things you are loosing today” he remarked, “you can’t gain back tomorrow.”

He advised the youth not to succumb to trivial thinking such as, “I don’t have enough salary, or I don’t have any salary; I don’t have this and that; my family are going through this or that; my mother is suffering because of this or that, … and I’ll go abroad and send her money.”

The interview was conducted by the State media (the only media in the country) on the occasion of “Fenkil” military victory commemoration (February 10, 1990).

“When you consider the life of those in camps, concentration camps, of Israel you can’t even say there is anything worst or more horrific than that.” ~Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, February 2014

{This post quoted at The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz Newspapers}

They too have their story–Desiderata

Political discussions in countries ruled by dictatorial governments are marked by arrogance and noisiness—persons the poem Desiderata advises us to “Avoid” in its first stanza. Such arrogance is even extreme when the government is a totalitarian one.

In Eritrea, where I am from, we have a saying which I translate as “It is better they do evil deeds to you, than they imprint on you to do evil” (ካብ ክፉእ ዝገብሩኻስ ክፉእ ዝምህሩኻ).

Sadly the legacy of oppressive governments is not only in the deeds they do to their citizens but the evil they imprint on the political culture of the country. Many African countries, and my country in particular, are case in point.

The arrogance, the intolerance and noisiness of the government is mirrored in those change-seeking groups (all in exile or in Eritrean prisons, by the way). Once learned, it is difficult to un-learn something (and we all thought learning was hard). The damage of such a political culture becomes more painful when you see such arrogance become the cause of weakening whatever few pro-justice or pro-human rights groups these countries have; there by prolonging the life of the evil oppressors.

Before advising that we avoid loud and aggressive persons (vexations to the spirit, indeed!), the poem advises us to listen to others, and even to the dull and ignorant (I am thinking government sympathizers); they too have their story.

This timeless piece by Max Ehrmann has a lot to teach us. May God give us the wisdom to and the strength to un-learn the evils and to speak our truth quietly and clearly.

Desiderata first stanza (click to be directed to the entire poem)

Desiderata first stanza (click to be directed to the entire poem)

ለበዋ ደዚደራታ

“ለበዋ ደዚደራታ” እትብል ጽሕፍቲ ገና ንእሽተይ (አንቢቡ ዝኽእል ንእሽተይ) እንከለኹ’የ ዝዝክራ:: ኣብታ ፊት ካቴድራለ እትርከብ እንዳ ጫማ ንጉሰ ገብረታትዮስ (ንጉሰ ገ.) አብቲ መንደቕ ከም ስእሊ ኣብ “ፍሬም” ኣትያ ተለጢፋ ትርከብ:: ጌጋ ይኽልኣለይ እምበር አብዚ ቀረባ ግዜ’ኳ ካብቲ መንደቕ ተኣልያስ አብቲ ገዚፍ ጣውላ አብ ትሕቲ ነቲ ጣውላ ዝሽፍን መስትያት አትያ ርእየያ አለኹ::

ትሕዝቶ እዛ ጽሕፍቲ ሰናይ ምንባሩ ይዝከረኒ: እቲ ፍረ ነገሩ ግን ዳርጋ ኣይዝክሮን:: ብተወሳኺ’ውን እዛ ብኣተሓሳስባይ “ደዚደራታ” ዝስሙ ግለሰብ ዝጸሓፋ ምዕዶ ኣብ ዓለም ፍልጥቲ ጽሕፍቲ ትመስለኒ ኣይነበረትን::

ሎሚ ብኣጋጣሚ ሓንቲ ጽሕፍቲ እናንበብኩ ከለኹ ምስዛ ብ ንእስነተይ ዝዝክራ ጽሕፍቲ ተራኺብና:: ካብ ግዜ ንእስነተይ ምዝኽኻር ንላዕሊ ድማ: እቲ ትሕዝቶኣ አዝዩ ተንኪፉኒ::

አብ ኤንተርነት ብዝገበርክዎ መጽናዕቲ መሰረት ክልተ ነገር ተገንዚበ:: መጀመርያ: “ደዚደራታ” ስም ሰብ ዘይኮነሲ ኣርእስቲ ናይታ ጽሕፍቲ እዩ:: ደዚደራታ ብ ቋንቋ ላቲን “ተበሃጊ ነገራት” ማለት እዩ:: ብ 1920ታት ዝተጻሕፈት ግጥሚ ኮይና: ብ ሓደ ናይ ጀርመን መበቆል ዘለዎ ኣሜሪካዊ ኣቶ. ማክስ ኤርማን እያ ተጻሒፋ::

እቲ ካልኣይ ዝተገንዘብክዎ ነገር ናይ ትግርኛ ትርጉም እዛ ጽሕፍቲ ኣብ ኤንተርነት ክረኽቦ ዘይምኻለይ’ዩ [ተረኺቡ]:: ይኹን እንበር ዋላ ብ እንግልዚኛ ይኹን ሓቲመ አብ መንደቕ ክልጥፋ መዲበ ኣለኹ:: ምናልባት ከምዚ ከማይ ነዛ ጽሕፍቲ ክትውንኑ እንተደሊኹም: ንሕትመት ድልው ጌረ ኣብዚ ዝስዕብ አድራሻ ጌረያ አለኹ:- (1) Clean PDF version (2) Large JPEG image version


“Desiderata” prose poem – Larger version of this image is provided in the links above.

Updated 2: Jan 29

Eritrea: Human Rights Watch 2014

Human Rights WatchEritrea: Human Rights Watch 2014

“Eritrea is among the most closed countries in the world; human rights conditions remain dismal….

Eritrea has no constitution, functioning legislature, independent judiciary, elections, independent press, or nongovernmental organizations; it does not hold elections. All power is concentrated in the hands of President Isaias Afewerki, in office since 1991.

… Eritrea conscripts all men and unmarried women into “national service.” … most conscripts serve for much of their working lives.

… Since mid-2012, all men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are compelled to perform militia duty…

Thousands of ordinary citizens are arrested and incarcerated without charge, trial, or opportunity to appeal, and without access to family, lawyers, or independent prison monitoring organizations. While some are freed without explanation and warned not to speak about their detention, most prisoners remain in jail indefinitely.

… Since 2002, the government has jailed and physically abused citizens for practicing religions other than the four government-controlled or recognized religions.

… The government maintains a complete monopoly on domestic sources of information”

Are Eritrean refugees legit?

This is a legitimate question given the polar opposite answers out there. “There are two sides to a story” the saying goes, but in the case of Eritrea it is more appropriate to say “There are two stories,” period.

On one side, the Eritrean government and the Iranian State television (Press TV) tell us that Eritreans choose to leave their country for economic reasons. For better jobs, bigger salaries, etc. On the other side, many nations, many more humanitarian agencies, and the immigrants themselves tell us that Eritreans are forced to flee their country because of extreme government oppression. Continue reading