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Eritrea 20 years after independence: the largest refugee producing country in the world

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Eritrea: 20 years after independence the largest refugee producing country in the world

I decided to prepare this article as a continuation of my previous controversial article entitled: Bedouin Rashaida: The Human Traffickers in North-East Africa. My main intention in preparing the first and this article was and is not to talk about Bedouin Rashaida as an ethnic group, but to express the crimes that are perpetrated by some bandits from this ethnic group. I was shocked and surprised to observe my article being interpreted as a pure “hate-mongering against the Rashaida ethnic group”. I clearly understand that the Rashaida-speaking human traffickers cannot represent the entire tribe or ethnic group. I am also very much aware that there are other Eritreans (including Tigrinya-speaking) human traffickers involved in kidnapping these refugees from camps in Sudan.

Thus, it is unimaginable to blame  the whole ethnic group for crimes committed by few members of the Rashaida tribesmen in the Eritrea-Sudan border area and the Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai Peninsula or Arabs for that matter.   If my article in any way led to such kind of wrong interpretation, I stand corrected and would like to apologies for the unintended result. I would like to emphasis that my intention is not hate-mongering or blaming but showing the world and the Eritrean community the dire situation Eritrean refugees are facing in Eastern Sudan and the Sinai Desert, and bring those who are committing such a crime to justice.

This being as it may, in few days Eritrea will count 20 years of its independent existence. The usual drama of PFDJ in the form of festivities has already begun for Eritrea’s 20 years of independence. Preparations for the drama, both inside Eritrea and abroad are being described as ‘colorful’ by the government media. In addition to the live shows which is taking place in the ‘Stadium of Asmara’, in “Cinema Odeon”, in the streets of Asmara and other Eritrean towns; Symposiums of all the Ministries in Eritrea and the six Eritrean  Regions is underway with the sole aim of propaganda. And Eritrean media has been describing the last 20 years as the years of Glory and pride.  The president delivered his usual monotonous speech which included this: ‘in the last few years (20 years are few to him), we have accomplished such and such and the British Special Forces, CIA… are posing major treats to Eritrea’s survival.’

Leaving aside the speech of the president, Eritrea’s 20 years of independence was/is not glorious at least to the general Eritrean Public.  Because  the Mediterranean Sea,  Libyan  Soil, Italian Coastlines,   Egyptian Sinai and Eastern Sudan  are telling the world the true picture of Eritrea and the  political and economic climate of the  Eritrean Government. Around 325 Eritreans are confirmed drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, out of which more than 60 are Females, and 13 are children. Around 400 Eritreans are taken hostages by Bedouin tribesmen in different camps in Egyptian Sinai and the death toll is increasing on a daily basis.  The torture they are facing is hard to believe and it creates doubt among many people including Eritreans – for such forms of torture including electric shock, rape, chain in both hands and legs, melting burning plastic on the skin of the victims, branding, whipping does not often happen in the contemporary world – except in Hollywood films. Thus, at first, I do not mind when some people have doubts on the real situation in Sinai – after all we are all entitled to doubt. However, recently, through interviews with the victims and eye-witnesses who survived from the hell, international media coverage from hospitals in Israel, and Human rights report from Israel, it is proven beyond doubt that young Eritreans in Sinai are dying one by one.

In my interviews, one of the victims who was severely hit on the head by the Bedouin tribesmen told me: ‘the best option I have is to take my own life’’. Another hostage told me, ‘I am one or two days away from death; they will shoot me dead, thus if you give birth to a son please name him after my name.’’

Another victim in a different tone said, “This time we cannot bear the sufferings we are facing and we are in a position to prefer death to life. Death is not simple to get it here, only the lucky ones get it. We have no means to take our lives as both our hands and legs are in chains.’’

There are females among the hostages. One of them was continuously crying when I was conducting the interview and she was upset because someone informed her mother about her situation.   She does not want her mother to know the situation she is in, because there is no way her poor mother can help her.  There are also children, who are 11, 12, 13 and 14 years, among the kidnapped Eritreans. Two of them are kidnapped from the river that flows alongside the UNHCR refugee camp – where refugees wash their clothes. One of those children, who is 13 years old,   told me that he was kidnapped from Eritrean territory near the township of Geluj. Surprising enough, nearly half of the refugees I have interviewed came to Sudan from Mai Ayni refugee camp in Ethiopia.          

Recently, with the new anti-emigrants policy of Israel, the number of Eritreans who willingly go to Israel has declined. This means, the Rasahida Bedouin’s are running out of preys and their income is in danger. As an alternative, the Rashaida are engaged in hijacking Eritrean refugees from the UNHCR-protected refugee camp in Eastern Sudan. Most of the victims were kidnapped from the agricultural fields near the camp. As the UNHCR camp does not provide the basic necessities for refugees, some of the refugees especially those who have no relatives abroad, work in the nearby agricultural fields. This implies the Bedouin Rashaida will not be confined to kidnap people from Eastern Sudan and western part of Eritrea – but may   continue to GEluj, Tessenei, Barentu, Akurdat…Keren and in the Eritrean highlands in search of people to be kidnapped.  One of the kidnapped Eritreans, who has heart and kidney complications, told me that he was kidnapped before he arrived in the UNHCR camp and he asserted that he had no intention to migrate to Israel.  

Among the kidnapped refugees in Sinai, there are also underage females from Eritrea,   aged 15 and 16 years, who told me that they are facing sexual harassment which they never heard of before. For instance, Asmeret is an 18 years old with epilepsy. She was raped, harassed and tortured. After getting an epilepsy attack she was unconscious for a while, her kidnappers thought she was dead and they threw her body at the desert with two others. But she was lucky enough to be found by an Egyptian man who was kind enough saved her life, made sure she got treated. She now is in Israel with his help after paying 10,000 US dollars. Abrahley a 13 years old child is mentally ill due to torture and harassment. He does not know who he is and his whereabouts anymore. The Bandits are asking amount 3500 USD for his release, he cannot even say that he needs that amount of money. Just last week two young men died as the result of electric shock. The kidnapping is continuing, there are around 100 Eritreans newly held hostages, which I have not had a chance to conduct an interview with yet.

As I have mentioned earlier, there are Eritreans (Tigrinya-speaking) human traffickers involved in kidnapping these refugees from camps in Sudan. Some relatives of the hostages in the Sinai Peninsula are able to identify a young Eritrean man, who sold 28 Eritreans to the Rashaida. They were able to notify the Sudanese authorities for his arrest and to be apprehended. However, to their dismay the Sudanese authorities are not willing to arrest him. Until now no government is ready to cooperate concerning the case of Eritrean refugees in Sinai.

Therefore, after  conducting these  interviews and eye-witnesses accounts who arrived in Israel,    any further doubts or an attempt to conduct reality check on this matter is just a denial and inhumane as well – as it will only prolong the suffering of the victims.

Beyond doubt, Sinai has become a burial ground for Eritrean refugees. Beyond doubt, the Bedouin mafias, through their merciless actions are telling us they have an utter contempt on an Eritrean life. Besides, there is no need to conceal the fact that the way the Bedouin mafias treat an Eritrean is different from the way they treat other citizens – Ugandan or Sudanese. Their ignorance and their intolerance to other religions is reported to be the main reason for the ill-treatment of the so they call ‘Habesh’. 

Those Eritreans who are subjected to extreme forms of torture and rape are failed to be supported by the Eritrean Government, and by the majority of Eritreans who are living in Diaspora. Some of us have been mixing the purely humanitarian issue with politics. The victims are young Eritreans whose ages range from 11 to late 20’s, bound by chains around their ankles, deprived of adequate food, given salty drinking water and tortured using extreme methods including branding, electric shocks and whipping, in order to force friends and families abroad, who are contacted by satellite telephone as the torture is occurring, to make these payments. In addition, women are held separately and subjected to continuous rape and immoral sexual harassment by numerous bandits. Thus, the victims’ cases could not have connotative or denotative implications to political choices or affiliations; rather it is purely humanitarian issue which needs to be addressed by all Eritreans.

As to the stand of the Eritrean Government on this issue, it is crystal clear from the onset of the crisis. The Eritrean ambassador in Cairo, Mr. Fasil Ghebrselassie, stated that large numbers of Eritreans are entering Israel illegally, attributing the flight to economic factors. I don’t think the ambassador knows the concept of a refugee – who could have economic or political causes. Mr. Ambassador did not stop there,  but unashamedly made the following statement: Any fugitive who escapes to any other country and crosses the borders of another state does not have any rights, as provided for in international law. We cannot say that the Eritreans were treated poorly by the Egyptian authorities, because international law is against smuggling. This is not only in Egypt but also in any country in the world in order to protect its borders. We understand very well that the Sinai border area is sensitive for Egypt, given the existence of Israel.’


The Eritrean ambassador sounds more Egyptian than Egyptians themselves. No Egyptian official – even the hardliners who are obsessed with the existence of Israel- would have defended the crimes of Egypt as our ambassador did. 

To assert his ideas, the ambassador tried to generalize by saying ‘smuggling is against international Law’. In the first place, since when did Eritrean officials start to quote ‘International Law’, because the defiant ruling party in Eritrea does not recognize international Laws or norms.    And secondly, the hostages are not smugglers, but refugees kidnapped from Eastern Sudan and UNHCR camps.  However, the worst part was his word ‘Fugitive’ which tells his audacity to tell the world the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who left the country are criminals. The main point we can comprehend from his speech is, he (his government) does not care if the Egyptian security forces shot dead Eritreans crossing to Israel, or if Bedouin Rashaida tortures and rapes Eritrean refugees. From this we can understand that the Eritrean Government is giving a green light to both Egyptian security forces and Bedouin Rashaida to continue their crimes against the Eritrean youth. Had it not been the case, by the recent tragedies in the Mediternean Sea and the Sinai Peninsula, there would have been a three-day national mourning in Eritrea.

To Eritreans who are inside Eritrea, the choices given to them are between life and death After all this time there is war inside Eritrea – or is there not? War between the general Eritrean public and the oligarchy. The former is vulnerable as it is defenseless – with no tanks, machine guns, ammunitions. The general public could not go to the streets and demand for the release of their sons and daughters.   In the last 20 years the Eritrean mafia oligarchy has taken several ruthless measures against groups  who have resentment/objections– including disabled war veterans, higher government officials, Journalists, university students, army commanders, religious leaders and common people in the streets.  The track record of the government is not faded and is haunting the people in their dreams. 

As a result, the Eritrean young folk is born and raised in a petrified time and environment.  In Eritrea’s 20 years of independence, the notably visible class is the military – which consists of a few loyal army commanders. The   rise of this military class instills fear and terror on the Eritrean people. A loyal major, colonel or anyone with higher ranks are the most feared people in Eritrea. Nobody dares to   talk to such people. This time, this group is the most privileged in Eritrean political and economic structure, looking down and undermining all civil servants.  

…Lets come back to our point; the war in Eritrea is between a slave who wants to set his life free and a slave-master who continues to keep a slave. Therefore, practically speaking, a slave inside Eritrea has no means to support another slave under the Bedouin Mafia in Sinai Peninsula. Thus, the only people who could support the victims in Sinai, Libya and Eastern Sudan are those of us who live in the free world.

So far, a group of human rights groups including Agenzia Habeshia, Every Ones Group, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release Eritrea, Eritrea Help Network (Switzerland), Eri Help Net (Netherlands) and Eritrean People Democratic Party sent appeal letters to the EU, England, Italy, UN and Egypt, to intervene on behalf of the Eritrean refugees who are being held hostages in Sinai Peninsula.. So far, no support is attained from UN, EU or other countries to alleviate the problems of the hostages. The greater job so far achieved is Pope Benedict has denounced the kidnapping and reminded the world to pray for the refugees.

Eritreans in Diaspora, for good and/or bad reasons, have been active   in our domestic politics at home.   However, in the crisis of Eritrean refugees in general and particularly on the issue of Sinai, the response is not recommendable. How many of us think about Eritrean refugees raped, killed and tortured in Sinai? How many of us think about Eritrean refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.  In short:  How much do we care about our fellow citizens?  How devoted we are to support them? How many of us feel the suffering of brothers and sisters?  So far, one of the main reasons for the continued suffering of our fellows, apart from the evils of the ruling party in Eritrea, is our less involvement in the refugee issues. There are only few people who feel and work to alleviate the suffering of Eritrean refugees all over the world – including in Sinai, Libya and Sudan.

To cite this with example, our poor brothers and sisters went missing in the high waters of the Mediterranean Sea for days.  However, very few people were aware of the fact, and many of us heard after they were found dead at coastlines thorough the media.  Why? Because there are only few Eritreans or Eritrean organizations, concerned with the plight of refugees, besides, because there has not been organized body that deals with our refugees. And most probably, most of us might have been obsessed with PFDJ’s Community festivals (Gua’yla) or speeches by Eritrean ambassadors.

The absurdity of the matter is the Eritrean authorities and some supporters of the regime in Diaspora, are obsessed with political issues and give no attention to humanitarian issues. In the meantime, we will hold the Eritrean authorities and their supporters responsible for depriving Eritreans and Eritrean refugees of their rights; our struggle against the PFDJ and their blind followers is a noble effort to bring to immediate end all the injustices they are perpetrating against Eritreans for cheap political advantages.

Most of us lost hope that the Eritrean Government will give value to Eritrean life and treat people with respect and dignity any time in the future. Logically, governments are formed to protect their citizens; however Eritrean political elites are formed to   defend not only their present interests but their future interests - by hijacking the hard-won and self-acquired independence of the Eritrean people. The regime is distant and unresponsive to the people’s basic rights – including right to life. Then it will be just ‘Victim mentality’ to count the evils committed by the Eritrean political elites in the last 20 years. Thus, what we need to do is to contribute our part to bring change in Eritrea, and more urgently to save the lives of our brothers and sister in Sinai and Libya.

So what is needed to be done? How can we help these victims?

1. First and foremost, we need to collect data about those Eritreans who are cooperating with the kidnappers.  Through this their names can be publish in the cyberspace and let all Eritreans and the world know about them. There is an unconfirmed piece of information that their network goes as far as Europe and US. Some of them are living in Western world so let us bring those Eritreans, who are perpetrators or accomplice for this barbaric act to be committed. This way we can minimize the number of the hostages.

2. We need to set up a task force to coordinate the activities of different groups who are working and advocating on behalf of the Eritrean refugees. As it is proposed by Dr. Yebio we need to set up Worldwide Committee, similar to Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), which coordinates activities without assuming the responsibility of all the activities currently undertaken by various organizations advocating for the fair treatment of Eritrean refugees. International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (“ICER"), which is still in the formation, has been working diligently to connect organizations, personalities and individuals across the globe to match a common strategy for the alleviation of the suffering of the refugees, for educating the uneducated, for informing the uniformed and for lobbying on their behalf. This organization comprises both Eritreans from all walks of life and friends of Eritrea. So I call upon Eritreans regardless of their political inclination to join this group and strengthen its work. I am sure this will be as big as ERA if each and every one of us participate and contribute our potential.

3. Transcribing the audio recording of the interviews into English has been the hardest task. So far I have over 100 hours of audio recorded interviews with the hostages. I would like to ask Eritreans to translate the interviews and send me. This will be of great help in creating awareness about the situation. 



Meron Estefanos

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مرض الرئيس الأريتري بين الشائعة والنفي

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