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Brutalised Eritreans faced with a terrible choice

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Horror has been expressed at the latest migrant drowning catastrophe in the Mediterranean. Little has been said, however, about Eritrea. But 22% of all people entering Italy by boat in 2014 were from the former Italian country, according to the United Nations refugee agency. After Syrians, they are the second-most common nationality to undertake these journeys. Many who died last week were from there.

So why is it so rarely discussed? 

The answer is essentially the problem. Eritrea is without Western allies and far away. It is also in the grip of a highly repressive regime. This week, it was named the most censored country in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists, beating North Korea, which is in second place. Reporters without Borders has called it the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. Nobody talks about Eritrea because nobody (that is, Westerners) goes there. 

In 2009, I travelled there undercover with cameraman Scott Corben. We remain the only independent journalists to have visited the country in more than 10 years. 

There we witnessed a system that was exerting total control over its citizens. It was difficult to engage anybody in conversation. Everyone believed they were under surveillance, creating a state of constant anxiety. Communications were tightly controlled. Just three roads were in use and extensive documentation was required to travel. There were constant military checks. 

It is one of the most expensive countries in the world to buy petrol. Even maps are largely prohibited. At the time, Eritreans had to seek permission from a committee to obtain a cellphone. 

Dissent is forbidden. It is thought there are more than 800 prisons spread around the country. Some are shipping containers in the desert. Torture is widespread. 

The media is an arm of the government. All critical journalists have been imprisoned or killed. The news we saw entailed segments of the population praising Eritrea and denouncing its enemies. There were long broadcasts of soldiers moving in formation to local pop music. 

Despite government declarations to the contrary, there was obvious poverty and food shortages. One of those we interviewed was sharing a toilet with 20 families and living on slightly less than a dollar a day. 

Most people I met were highly educated but had no prospects after university. Instead, there is conscription for adult men and unmarried women until the age of 50. Bullying and sexual abuse are common within the army. 

The country feels as if it’s at war and that’s the justification for what goes on there. After decades of conflict, Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Its leader, Isaias Afewerki, has consolidated his power by insisting another war is imminent. As a government supporter told me, sacrifices have to be made when “your existence is under threat”. 

He also claimed that nobody would come to Eritrea’s aid if Ethiopia attacked it again. On this, regime critics agree. Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa and Eritrea has compounded matters by forming alliances with al-Shabab in Somalia. Eritreans are thus faced with a terrible choice. They must either live in misery or risk death by leaving. 

I met a number of people who were preparing to go. Despite a shoot-to-kill policy on the border, thousands still leave each month. Their journey is incredibly dangerous. Kidnapping is increasingly common en route to Israel. Or there’s the Mediterranean option. For the survivors, there is huge anxiety about those left behind. Relatives of escapees are sometimes arrested. The government also has spies within the expatriate community. 

For us, of course, it was different. We, too, were followed and getting our film footage out was frightening, but at least we could leave. The Eritrean response to our films was immense. Though the links kept disappearing, they had hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. There were also a large number of death threats directed at me. Complaints were sent to Al Jazeera’s English service. But there was little reaction from Western audiences. 

All kinds of solutions to the Mediterranean crisis are now being considered, including better regulation for asylum seekers. Many agree that the causes of migration must also be examined. I think wanting to know about what is happening in Eritrea is an important first step. – Guardian News & Media 2015

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