A glimpse at the current state of affairs in Eritrea

A conversation with Abraham T. Zere

Published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of The Sparkplug
July 2020

LK: One of the most flouted achievements in Eritrea’s recent history was the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia on July 9, 2018. Two years have since passed. How would you characterize the developments between 2019 and 2020?

AZ: Dashed hopes, an unforeseeable future, where “the worst might come” sentiment has disempowered the populace and has denied them even to dream. The country is experiencing the kind of panic feeling ensued during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic breakout. For the last two years, Eritreans inside and outside the country are in a permanent state of nervousness.

LK: Isaias Afwerki recently died and came back to life in Addis Ababa, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis (a little bit like Kim Jong Un). Of course, while Afwerki is away in Ethiopia during lock-down, the media is presenting Eritrea as a pandemic “success story”, having apparently eliminated most active cases. You’ve recently written about how the coronavirus has highlighted the deficiencies of Eritrean social services, including a lack of government funds to purchase medical equipment, and shortages of water and electricity even in big cities. How do you think the fall-out of the pandemic might impact the populace, and Afwerki’s regime?

AZ: Afwerki has died and was resurrected, at least twice in the last eight years. He tried that first in 2012 and managed to generate some international news buzz. When he runs short of excuses to draw attention, I guess he uses his body and the rumors of ill-health and death for political consumption.

He came with a “success” story mainly because he was trying to prove to the world that he can handle the pandemic despite his rejection of Jack Ma’s offer. If you lock the entire population and leave it to die of starvation⁠ — as has been the case in Eritrea⁠ — any government can flatten the curve in one month. Many might not have the accurate picture, but Eritrea’s lockdown is practically locking the entire population inside and letting them figure out for themselves how to sustain.

The lockdown has been effective in silencing nationals and gave Afwerki some time to breathe. I heard from credible sources that he was unhappy about the “success” announcement as it denies him the moral authority of continuing the lockdown. Later they changed the story’s angle and announced more new confirmed cases. Many of us are reluctant to believe what the regime states as facts. With the later confirmed cases — more than tripled the initial numbers — it is hard to tell if they were on proper quarantine or were just in prison.

LK: Last year, in an article for Al Jazeera, (Eritreans have peace, now they want freedom), you wrote with some optimism about the potential for the popular uprising in Sudan that erupted in 2018 to, in turn, influence Eritreans. How would you describe the reverberations from the Khartoum protests — even amid the Sudanese crackdowns on recent protests — across Eritrea since those early days?

AZ: Sudanese people have shown their determination to remove the rotten military rule of Bashir that has bled and pillaged the country for 30 years. While remaining positive, it is too early to conclude about the course of the revolution. The current leadership has received an indebted and fragile state amid high expectations from those who sacrificed everything to see the change.

Sudanese-style revolution can’t happen in the current Eritrean political state. Let alone for such an open resistance and sit-in protest, the slightest dissidence is countered using lethal force in Eritrea.

The pandemic has changed many developments. Therefore, it is difficult to project how things might evolve. But one thing has become very clear: except for the handful of individuals who are benefiting from the system and others who have clung onto it for fear, the regime has lost its legitimacy and has exhausted all possible excuses to keep the country on hold. When such feelings reverberate among the critical masses, the least expected moment can trigger change. No one can tell when and how, but history records that is how regimes on their final breath end.

LK: In May 2019, the government notoriously blacked out social media and severely restricted access to the internet by disabling mobile access, to prevent Eritreans from organizing a protest prior to the 28th Independence Day. How would you comment on the ability of Eritreans to express themselves or connect via social media, or other communication channels? To what extent does this threat of internet black-out continue to restrict Eritreans?

AZ: There has never been mobile internet data from the beginning in Eritrea. This is to keep the entire population out of the conversation and to mitigate free flow of information and communication. Internet cafes, where most Eritreans access the internet, request users’ ID. This is done to create the impression that everyone is being surveilled and their online footprints are being recorded. But May 2019 was not the first time the state security enforced the blocking of social media apps. They have been doing that repeatedly and most users have learned to circumvent the ban using VPN.

Despite all impositions to restrict communication, there are ways of reaching the population inside the country (via satellite TVs and radios) and the people sharing their plights and smuggling out information (through informal channels and family connections thanks to the huge number of Eritreans living in the diaspora, mainly in the neighboring countries).

LK: Publishing is a volatile act in Eritrea: it has led to the imprisonment of journalists and authors, editors, academics, and artists. Eritrea is still ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom, ranking behind North Korea and Turkmenistan as the world’s most censored country. Many journalists and writers are still imprisoned for speaking out against the Afwerki regime. Can you comment on this crisis of imprisonment?

AZ: Prison has become synonymous with Eritrea. Be it in the military, civilian life or the frequent round-ups⁠ — the length could vary ⁠ — but an average Eritrean adult has experienced prison. But of course, nothing is comparable to the fate of journalists and former state officials who have been rotting in incommunicado detention since September 2001. 

With the press crackdown of 2001, the regime declared a war on publishing, free thinking, and artistic expressions. The practice of censorship that has been placed in Eritrea is difficult to explain to someone using modern language. The censorship office introduced thought crimes. Artists were not punished for what they produced, but for what they might have possibly thought.  

LK: Given that independent media was banned in 2001: would you say there are still attempts at a ‘free press’? Are there independent, DIY, or samizdat-style projects that publish underground?

AZ: There is no hope for free press soon as long as the regime is in power. Being such a small country where everything is closely monitored by the state security, underground publication is impossible, and the printing houses are under watch too. But wall graffiti, sporadic posters that denounce the regime’s policies or the very act of taking all the risks and difficulties to communicate with activists in the diaspora who might in turn broadcast or publish it back are some of the forms of popular resistance these days.

LK: One of the first Green Violin publications was your Anecdotes of Indefinite Anarchy: Dispatches from Eritrea, in which you wrote about the frustration of an associate editor of a government newspaper who was not able to understand a poem:

“There is no way the fiber, flax, will read the poem? Why can’t these people write poetry that is easily understood and communicates to human beings?”

But, this highlights the point at which artistic expression becomes dangerous precisely because of its malleability, its openness to interpretation, and thus, potential to escape censorship. Authoritarian regimes have often attacked poetry and literature at large, knowing that it is a medium of insinuation and allusion. I wonder if you could comment on the regime’s targeted censorship of poetry, and this delightful collusion between inscrutability and resistance?

AZ: Of all the literary genres, poetry has suffered the most under Eritrea’s censorship. (I am mainly referring to lyrics in albums as most poets have ceased submitting their manuscripts to the censorship office). Poetry by nature is open to multiple interpretations and readings. Hence poets have been requested to get rid of metaphors, figures of speech, simile, and symbols. The chief censor instructs for plain and straight language. If the lyricists fail to render it to the simplest and unambiguous tone, the censorship chief would rewrite many verses and stanzas to make sure the lyrics are reduced to the bare minimum.

As the poet Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu wrote on her firsthand experience of six years of detainment in military prison, the poets have been interrogated and asked to interpret their work. The interrogations were not only about what they wrote (be it published or collected from their personal files, including diaries), but for not producing artworks that glorify the state policies. 

Resistance in the face of extreme repression has eventually evolved as failure to applaud the regime’s policies or the very act of not submitting anything for publication (censorship). Few lucky ones like myself have escaped and left the country. 

LK: Censorship by the Eritrean Ministry of Information clearly does not stop at Eritrea’s borders. Journalists experience attacks on their word and on their name, even as they publish more freely from outside the country.

You’re very active on Twitter, and I’ve seen you and your posts being attacked (though I dare say they are not without their own comedy): attacking your reputation and background, decrying “fake newspapers”, and of course, as a “criminal” who should be referred to the International Criminal Court. How would you comment on this experience of retaliation through social media, or otherwise, based on your writing?

AZ: I will be more bothered, not with their trolling and online attacks, but if they were silent. Otherwise, that has been the norm for years now. In April 2009, when I was in Eritrea, the Information Minister then (Ali Abdu) published a public denunciation in the state newspaper stating that I should immediately be restrained. The sort of open arrest warrant was published in the Law and Order section of the newspaper, where corruption charges of former state officials were published. This was in response to an article I wrote for the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) ruling party magazine. Anything published and approved by the ruling party’s magazine can’t be rebellious.

I left the country in 2012 and started to sporadically contribute for international media since 2015. When I published my first article in June 2015 on Africa is A Country, shortly after, I received a one-line email from one of the executives of the PFDJ ruling party: “Abraham, what has happened to your sense of shame?”

 In July 2017, the Eritrean Ministry of Information issued an official response to my Al Jazeera (English) article and called me “a notorious author who routinely engaged in a smear campaign against the country.”

In March 2018, a long-ailing regime supporter testified in the national (state) TV that she has suddenly recovered from severe knee injuries after she had touched President Isaias Afwerki’s magic hand and bathed in the dam he was supervising during construction. Shortly after, I blogged (in Tigrinya, my native language) about the strange testimony and mocked the TV. The next day, probably the regime or security reported my article to Facebook. Facebook then acted upon this, and removed my blog post from being shared on Facebook stating: “it violates Facebook’s community standards.” Facebook acted without verifying it because of the language barrier. Two days later, my blog was attacked with malware and was put down.

The vicious trolling against me, and practically everyone who criticizes the regime, is well planned and executed. Trolls receive training and collectively identify targets. Someone who participated in such “training” has inadvertently mentioned to a friend that they have been allegedly shown my photo and Twitter handle to be attacked. The trainer, according to the source, is now the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Many of us who are vocal against the regime have been blocked by state officials on Twitter even without engaging them. Other independent journalists, including non-Eritreans, have received death-threats and physical assaults.

And who am I? Just an ordinary citizen without influence or any public post. My crimes? Doing the minimum things any sane person is expected to do when opportunity presents itself: sharing my firsthand experience.

LK: Given the suppression within Eritrea — and your own experience publishing, leading PEN Eritrea, and public appearances — I wonder if you could comment on the role the Eritrean diaspora can play in advancing the conversation on Eritrea’s future, and continuing to plant the seeds of optimism, hope and dignity?

AZ: Change should come from inside the country by those who endured repression most. The role of the diaspora⁠ — as should be⁠ — is to support change. In situations like Eritrea, silence amounts to endorsing the ongoing suppression. As an ordinary, concerned citizen, without exaggerating my role, I only defy silence.

Yet, no matter how fragmented it seems, I believe the Eritrean diaspora is raising the issues, challenging the monotonous state narrative and supporting the nationals either in direct or indirect ways. It is both a symbolic gesture to those suffering inside, and other times taking up the matters at hand as the state failed to perform its role. Significant parts of the conversations and public engagements have been spearheaded by social media. With all its limitations, social media has opened rooms for dialogue which otherwise would have been either muzzled or extremely dispersed.

Abraham T. Zere

Abraham T. Zere is US-based exiled Eritrean writer/journalist whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Mail \u0026amp; Guardian, Index on Censorship Magazine, among others. Having published his short stories in Dissent Magazine and Berfrois, his debut collection of short stories in Tigrinya⁠ — ካልእ ስለ ዘየሎ (2020) ⁠— was published by Emkulu Publisher. With Daniel R. Mekonnen and Tedros Abraham he edited Uncensored Voices: Essays and Poems and Art Works by Exiled Eritreans (Loecker Erhard Verlag, 2018) and with Tedros Abraham co-translated Dawit Isaak: Hope and other Texts (Reporters Without Borders–Sweden, 2018) from Tigrinya into English.