By Alex Reichmuth | for Die Weltwoche (Swiss Weekly Magazine),
This article is about Eritreans. Crowds of Eritreans. But not these Eritreans who queue at the border of Calais or in front of a reception centre asking for asylum in Switzerland. It is about over a thousand Eritreans who came to Geneva from all over Europe. They protested in front of the UN headquarters. They expressed their indignation against a UN report that had characterized their homeland as a stronghold of evil and bad.
A few days before this report had been published. Its written by Sheila Keetharuth, head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and former activist of Amnesty International. The report describes the country at the Horn of Africa as a totalitarian state in which abductions, forced labour and torture are on the daily agenda. A “climate of fear” is existing. President Isaias Afewerki rules the country as a bloody dictator who forces young people into compulsory military service for years. “Torture, inhumane living conditions and sexual abuse” would be waiting for them there.
“Stop demonizing Eritrea”
The allegations of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights were once quoted extensively in many Swiss media. For refugee organizations they were proof that the people who come from Eritrea to Switzerland across the Mediterranean in increasing numbers need protection. By the UN report the asylum authorities in Bern feel confirmed in their attitude that repatriation of Eritreans would be inhumane and cruel.
It is a colourful sea of Eritrean flags in front of the UN building in Geneva that catches the eyes first. You can see dark-skinned men and women, adults and children, babies in strollers and old men on sticks. Some of them are pushing towards a podium in the middle of the Place des Nations where there are speeches in German, French, English and in Tigrinya, the official language of Eritrea.
Other demonstrators carry banners and posters. “Respect Eritrea’s Sovereignty“, “Stop demonizing Eritrea“, “Shameful, untrue, inhuman report“, or “Eritrea: an oasis of peace” are some of the catchwords of the banners. Others carry images of President Isaias Afewerki with expressions of loyalty like “We are him, he is us“. If you ask the protesters how they assess the situation in their home country, we learn attitudes, viewpoints and facts one has hardly ever heard and which have never been a subject in the Swiss media.
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Arrived at the demonstration have also Johanna Tesfalem and Johanna Tewelde. The two young women living in Germany were born there. In the eighties their parents were close with the Eritrean independence movement which fought against the occupying power Ethiopia. They had to leave their country because of persecution and oppression and they came to Europe as refugees. As genuine refugees.
In 1993, Eritrea became independent. But in 1998 a bloody war with Ethiopia blazed up and ended 2002 on the basis of an international agreement. But Ethiopia violated the established boundary line until today which still leads to military skirmishes with Eritrea. The international community turns a blind eye on the border violations and instead condemned Eritrea regularly as alleged unjust state.
Sanctions on a questionable basis
Both Johanna’s from Germany are well informed about the events around Eritrea. No wonder, since they regularly visit their home country where the independent movement has won. The UN investigators, however, have not made a single journey to Eritrea to make their own picture of the situation, criticize the two women.
“They have only questioned people from the opposition who fled the country”. And these would, of course, describe the situation in Eritrea as bleak as possible. In fact the UN report shows many reports of alleged refugees whose identity is not disclosed. “It cannot even be checked if they were really Eritreans – or rather Somalis and Ethiopians who decried our country”, criticizes Johanna Tesfalem.
The two German-Eritrean women feel especially disturbed by the economic sanctions against the country. These were imposed by the UN in 2009 and increased later mainly because the Eritrean leadership allegedly helped terrorist militias in Somalia. Though a monitoring group of the UN had to admit last year that they “have found no evidence” that Eritrea actually supports the Al-Shabab militia in Somalia. The sanctions stayed still in force. “These sanctions are an obstacle to the development of Eritrea” say Johanna Tesfalem and Johanna Tewelde. The measures are in fact an action of punishment because Eritrea wants to decide itself and so thwart the interests of the great powers.
These sanctions are illegal says a twenty year old Eritrean living in Switzerland for many years. “The UN should rather sanction Ethiopia because it constantly violates the fixed boundary line”.That Eritrea is being portrayed as an unjust state, has, according to the young man to do with geopolitical interests. Specifically it is about controlling the 1500 kilometres coastline of Eritrea to the Red Sea which is strategically important for the USA. But Eritrea refuses to dance to Americas tunes – already for many decades.
Present at the demonstration is also Amanuel. The 33 year old has travelled from London. At the age of four years he fled Eritrea from the turmoil of the war of independence together with his family. He lived first in Sudan and later in Sweden, today in Great Britain. His home country must remain on constant alert because an advance of Ethiopia threatens at any time, says Amanuel.
The most recent armed conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia dates back only three years. Only if the international community is willing to stop the aggression of Ethiopia, Eritrea could scale back the national service which all young Eritreans are obliged to serve in, according to Amanuel.
The national service – a public service which is rendered military or civilian – is one of the main points of criticism against Eritrea. According to the UN it is a long-lasting, illegal forced service. But Amanuel thinks that as long as Eritrea stand somewhere between war and peace, the service is an expression of self-defence. Instead of criticizing this, the UN should rather ensure that foreign investors come to Eritrea to stimulate the economy and thus improve the living conditions.
Peer pressure to emigration
Present at the rally are also some non-Eritreans. Albert Zuberbühler is one of them. He is a board member of the Swiss Support Committee for Eritrea. He visits the country since 1967. “Since then I was there almost every year – most recently last autumn”. For a long time he thinks nothing of the condemnations of Eritrea. The country is being betrayed since it was allocated to Ethiopia almost seventy years back. The truth is that the great powers like the USA want the military control of Eritrea’s coast line.
Concerning the national service, Zuberbühler waves aside. “My father was in active service for six years during the Second World War”, he points out. Eritrea is under threat as Switzerland was at that time. The reasons of flight the Eritreans claim in Switzerland, he considers as a farce. “In Eritrea they know exactly how generously Switzerland is”. Young Eritreans were directed by their families towards Europe. An actual “peer pressure” prevails to emigrate.
Life expectancy has increased significantly
Thomas Mountain mingled with the demonstrators. The American journalist has been reporting from Eritrea for many years. “I am living proof that there is freedom of press in Eritrea, contrary to what is suggested”, says Mountain. Moreover, the living conditions in Eritrea are far better than usual in Africa. “The people have to eat and drink, they have a roof over their heads, there is good medical care and the get a good education”. The most basic human rights are fulfilled.
Actually Eritrea can show impressive development successes since independence, such as health care. Child mortality and malaria cases, for example, have massively decreased, while life expectancy has risen from 48 to 63 years. The UN itself has confirmed these achievements.
Some protesters begin to chant slogans. “No more lies” and “long live Eritrea“, are directed towards the UN building. But this looks like an immovable monolith. The arguments of the Eritreans seem to interest no one – not at the UN, but not otherwise. Not a single report on the big event appears the next day in Swiss newspapers.
*Software translation from German
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Die Weltwoche is a Swiss Weekly Magazine based in Zurik. The original article can be found HERE.