The small African nation of Eritrea had the United Nations Security Council impose sanctions against it in December 2009 for allegedly funding and arming the al-Shabaab islamic militia group in neighbouring Somalia.
Eritrean government supporters abroad rallied to protest against the sanctions, with co-ordinated rallies in Australia, Switzerland and the US.
However, not all Eritreans abroad support their government. Many are refugees from what they describe as a regime of arbitrary arrest, disappearances and inhuman treatment of political prisoners.
One opposition group is the Eritrean People’s Movement (EPM). Habtemariam Berhe, provisional chair of the EPM, spoke to Green Left Weekly from Italy, where he lives in exile.
He supported the sanctions on the Eritrean government, but said the focus on activities in Somalia meant “no-one is looking at the internal affairs of the Eritrean people”.
“The Eritrean people are suffering under this government, they have no right to speak, no peace, no freedom, no justice at all. People cannot move freely from place to place.
“Even if your brother, mother or sister is taken away by the guards, you have no right to ask where these people are.”
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki came to power after the decades-long war for independence from Ethiopia. Elections have not been held since independence was won in 1991.
Berhe said: “Afewerki has his own colleagues, a few in the military apparatus. Those who are very near to him, they now live well. They have money, they do whatever they like.”
He said Eritrean society, including the military, “is controlled by these few people”.
Asked if ordinary people would be hurt as well as the government when the sanctions start to take effect, Berhe said: “Our people are already under sanctions from this government.”
He said the government will “say that people cannot even receive any aid from family living outside under the sanctions. I’m sure ordinary people are fearing this.”
He pointed out that Eritreans abroad, “if they oppose the government, cannot go to Eritrea to see their family. If some people accuse them of being against the government, they take them away for a week, for a month.”
The penalty for speaking out can be harsh. The supposedly secular government is notorious for persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities.
Berhe said “Political prisoners are uncountable now. [There are] many, many.
“I was in the struggle before we liberated Eritrea. My close friends, comrades, I don’t know where they are now, whether they are living or dead.”
There are many refugees from Afewerki’s government. In Libya, whose government is friendly toward Afewerki, many Eritrean refugees are waiting in prison under threat of deportation back to a grim fate in Eritrea.
Berhe said: “In Libya the situation is very difficult, we cannot assess it, we cannot contact them. Our people are passing through a very dark time.
“In Sudan, very near to Eritrea, the Eritrean secret service enter into the country and kidnap people of interest to them.”
The EPM is mostly organised outside Eritrea. “There are many movements outside; inside Eritrea it is impossible. Every individual is controlled. They cannot move around easily inside Eritrea.
“We are organising our struggle outside, peacefully. But this government will not accept any solution by peaceful negotiation.
“There are organisations, my organisation even, which believes we must use some practical action, targeting people in higher positions.
“Not the ordinary military people — they are not our enemies.”
Despite some dissatisfaction in the armed forces, Afewerki has maintained his rule through manipulating different factions. “For the time being it is very difficult because they are controlled and divided”, Berhe explained. “In the army there are many classic divisions of ranks.
“In this situation it is very difficult to organise military groups to take action against Afewerki. The only thing we collaborate with them on, secretly, is to organise people to be ready for a change.
“Some military personnel have fled to Ethiopia, Sudan and Europe. But it is very difficult to organise inside Eritrea, we are trying to organise ourselves outside.
“We have some contacts inside Eritrea, and step by step we are doing these things.”
Since the end of the independence war, Eritrea has had many border conflicts, including with Sudan and Yemen. In 1998, war broke out again with Ethiopia and at least 70,000 people were killed.
Afewerki’s government uses fear of Ethiopia (and its powerful sponsor, the US) to strengthen his position domestically. Berhe said that he provoked Ethiopia by arming the al-Shabaab islamist militia who resisted Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia.
“Afewerki says every day to the ordinary people in Eritrea, through his press and TV broadcasts, ‘Eritrea is a small country, but its enemy is a big one’.
“So what he is doing now … is to try to destabilise the neighbouring countries.
“He hides his policy from the Eritrean people by beating the war drums.‘We are going to be annexed by Ethiopia, we will lose our freedom, we will lose free Eritrea’ — this is his propaganda.
“He creates problems to stay in power.”
During the Eritrean independence struggle, there was a relatively high level of solidarity within Australia. Australia’s famous eye doctor, Fred Hollows, was a big supporter of the Eritrean cause, as was author Thomas Kenneally.
Berhe had a special message for Australians: “Before independence, I know that Australian people supported our struggle. I will not forget this. I will try to teach my children what Australian people gave us during our struggle for independence, when the war escalated in Eritrea.
“We need some support from Australians again, to change this situation so we can become free, democratic and peaceful.”
From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #832 31 March 2010.
Ben Courtice 27 March 2010