“I want my country back”

An Eritrean passport. These didn’t exist before independence in 1993, when many Eritreans had Ethiopian nationality. It shows a camel, the national emblem. © Private

A young woman from Eritrea describes how her country’s joy of independence was smothered by a political stranglehold that is still keeping thousands of people locked up.

“We are moving back to our home country, it’s a beautiful place – you’ll see,” my parents told me. It was 1993, the year when Eritrea, a small nation in the Horn of Africa, finally gained independence after a 30-year liberation struggle with Ethiopia.

We arrived in the capital, Asmara, in early 1994. Those were exciting times. Many families who had fled the conflict and settled abroad were slowly returning, some after a 30-year absence.

I could feel the euphoria in the air…

Freedom fighters strolled the streets of Asmara sporting their distinctive plastic shoes – commonly known as shida – and their infamous afro hairstyle. Foreigners were eager to visit the newest country in Africa. Families returned to what was now their own country with anticipation and jubilation, rekindling links with long-lost relatives.

The capital bustled with energy.

Embracing my newly found identity, I quickly grew to love my country and its people. The richness of its culture and language, seeing the President walking down my street, unaccompanied (he even waved at me!). The beautiful weather, the art-deco architecture (remnants of the Italian colonial past), the palm trees, the azure coast…

And the commitment.

The undying commitment of my people to their country. Students dedicated their summers to rebuilding the country. Journalists were able to exercise their profession freely. The Constitution was written through a process deemed highly participatory by many scholars.

Eritrea seemed to have all the ingredients to become a democratic state where its citizens could freely enjoy their rights.

And then everything changed.
In 1998, a border dispute erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It ended in 2000 with a peace agreement, but not without tens of thousands of casualties and the loss of diplomatic ties with ethiopia which remain severed  to this day.

High profile politicians became critical of the increasingly authoritarian President. In September 2001, a group of prominent politicians were arrested; they remain held in incommunicado detention to this day. Shortly after, the Eritrean authorities arrested journalists and shut down all newspapers, leaving the country with no independent media.

Arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, torture, forced labour, restricted freedom of expression, diplomatic channels closed off: these all became synonymous with Eritrea.

Thousands of prisoners languish in prison, some for over 20 years, without charge or trial. Their families don’t know whether their loved ones are dead or alive. Scores of people attempt to flee the country every month.

This video shows how people in Eritrea are being detained in secret containers.

In my country, individuals are rounded up and forced to do indefinite national service. Conscientious objection is not an option.

“Do you go back to visit your country?” I’m often asked.

“No I can’t. I risk indefinite conscription and military service. Not sure I see myself holding a Kalashnikov”, I respond without irony.

It’s time for change
On 21 January 2013, I read tweets about soldiers occupying the Ministry of Information and broadcasting a call for the release of all political prisoners and the implementation of our Constitution.

My heart started racing. I couldn’t believe it. These were the first signs of organized dissent in years. I started to see myself in Eritrea again, walking in the streets of beautiful Asmara.

My euphoria was short-lived. The government proceeded to do what was customary – arrest and imprison everyone believed to be responsible, without charge or trial.

My country is being asphyxiated from the inside. But I haven’t lost hope and I’m not alone.

The Diaspora, particularly the youth, seized this sign of internal dissent and organized activities in their countries protesting against the violations committed by the Eritrean government.

But it’s not enough.

I believe that we need more people to act. It’s time for people all over the world to hear the story of Eritrea.

It’s time to hold the government to account for the violations it has committed.

I want my country back.


Posted in Demonstrations, Eritrea, Press Freedom, Unlawful Detention | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

  1. Habtom says:

    This is not my real name and the Email is not mine either . You see I want to sign the petition for all the prisoners in Eritrea to be released. If I give my real name ,Email address and country of residence then I have to be ready for the consequence for doing that. And that is not only for me ,but also for my family members in Eritrea. You might ask what are the consequences . The main reason for me is I can’t go back to Eritrea as long as this BRUTAL regime is in power.

  2. Daniel says:

    “Do you go back to visit your country?” I’m often asked.
    “No I can’t. I risk indefinite conscription and military service. Not sure I see myself holding a Kalashnikov”, I respond without irony.

    Amnesty, couldn’t you or the so-called Eritrean come up with a better lie & try to win the peoples’ hearts. If not, repeat the same lie so that it could sound real.

  3. Mike says:

    Well I can confirm everything mentioned above is true about Eritrea. I don’t understand though some Eritreans deceive themselves by making the issue look like Foreign powers trying to falsely accuse the current government of Eritrea. This is not to say that no country is tainting Eritrea bad names or all the activities of the superpower nations is based on good intentions. However it is not healthy even it is not right to outrightly blame the problem on these foreign contries. Therefore it is not really fair to deny the people everything a developed nation would strive to have which are peace, freedom, rule of law, constituion etc. This tools would have allowed us to work towards peace and prosperity which would make the Eritrea that our martry’s sacrificed their life for. Regardless of the intentions of other countries on eritrea, what is the need for lying to yourself when you have a choice to be truthful to yourself and everybody else. My understanding is, this issue is currently creating polarised eritrean communities both inside and diaspora. The need of the people should come before politics. As an Eritrean I am not interested in politics but I know that our martry’s did not sacrifice their lives for this thus I stand with my fellow eritreans who stand for the right. For those who try to deny those accusations in the above you have everyright to be but nobody has a right to support a criminal. In addition do not try to politicise everything. How hard is it for someone to differentiate between inhumane and humane person. If people are being imprisoned for no good reason — how is that accepted. I have nevver seen anyone being put before the court and given orders instead once these people are taken from their home you don’t know their abouts–how is that accepted. The government news papers never dare to write the issues of those eritreans who died in Libya or suffering in Sinai rather they have recently wrritten about a Norwegian and Israeli nationals abducted and released in Sinai—–your so called government thinks to not put this on its newspapers but does of others — what message does this send for someone?–this is a no brainer, because the governemnt knows that it is the cause of all this sufferings. what ever it does is just to prolong its life in power that is it? I hope we get through this soon and see the ERITREA we all want, God bless

  4. Matthew Brown says:

    Appalling!!! Absolutely APPALLING!!!! Free these people, NOW!!! Every man, woman, and child, NOW!!!!!!! Not tomorrow! Not yesterday!!! BUT NOW!!!!!!!!! Freedom will come to these people, and when it does those that took the power from the people, will have have their power taken from them, and have to answer for their crimes against humanity. My heart goes out to you all, and may that day of justice, be today, and NOT TOMORROW!!!

  5. Valerie John says:

    All people should be FREE.

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