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"I want my country back"

By Kristin Hulaas Sunde

A young woman from Eritrea describes how her country’s joy of independence was smothered by a political stranglehold that is still keeping thousands of people locked up.

“We are moving back to our home country, it’s a beautiful place – you’ll see,” my parents told me. It was 1993, the year when Eritrea, a small nation in the Horn of Africa, finally gained independence after a 30-year liberation struggle with Ethiopia.

We arrived in the capital, Asmara, in early 1994. Those were exciting times. Many families who had fled the conflict and settled abroad were slowly returning, some after a 30-year absence.

Euphoria
I could feel the euphoria in the air…

Freedom fighters strolled the streets of Asmara sporting their distinctive plastic shoes - commonly known as shida - and their infamous afro hairstyle. Foreigners were eager to visit the newest country in Africa. Families returned to what was now their own country with anticipation and jubilation, rekindling links with long-lost relatives.

The capital bustled with energy.

Embracing my newly found identity, I quickly grew to love my country and its people. The richness of its culture and language, seeing the President walking down my street, unaccompanied (he even waved at me!). The beautiful weather, the art-deco architecture (remnants of the Italian colonial past), the palm trees, the azure coast…

And the commitment.

The undying commitment of my people to their country. Students dedicated their summers to rebuilding the country. Journalists were able to exercise their profession freely. The Constitution was written through a process deemed highly participatory by many scholars.

Eritrea seemed to have all the ingredients to become a democratic state where its citizens could freely enjoy their rights.

And then everything changed.
In 1998, a border dispute erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It ended in 2000 with a peace agreement, but not without tens of thousands of casualties and the loss of diplomatic ties with ethiopia which remain severed  to this day.

High profile politicians became critical of the increasingly authoritarian President. In September 2001, a group of prominent politicians were arrested; they remain held in incommunicado detention to this day. Shortly after, the Eritrean authorities arrested journalists and shut down all newspapers, leaving the country with no independent media.

Arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, torture, forced labour, restricted freedom of expression, diplomatic channels closed off: these all became synonymous with Eritrea.

Thousands of prisoners languish in prison, some for over 20 years, without charge or trial. Their families don’t know whether their loved ones are dead or alive. Scores of people attempt to flee the country every month.

This video shows how people in Eritrea are being detained in secret containers

In my country, individuals are rounded up and forced to do indefinite national service. Conscientious objection is not an option.

“Do you go back to visit your country?” I’m often asked.

“No I can’t. I risk indefinite conscription and military service. Not sure I see myself holding a Kalashnikov”, I respond without irony.

It’s time for change
On 21 January 2013, I read tweets about soldiers occupying the Ministry of Information and broadcasting a call for the release of all political prisoners and the implementation of our Constitution.

My heart started racing. I couldn’t believe it. These were the first signs of organized dissent in years. I started to see myself in Eritrea again, walking in the streets of beautiful Asmara.

My euphoria was short-lived. The government proceeded to do what was customary - arrest and imprison everyone believed to be responsible, without charge or trial.

My country is being asphyxiated from the inside. But I haven’t lost hope and I’m not alone.

The Diaspora, particularly the youth, seized this sign of internal dissent and organized activities in their countries protesting against the violations committed by the Eritrean government.

But it’s not enough.

I believe that we need more people to act. It’s time for people all over the world to hear the story of Eritrea.

It’s time to hold the government to account for the violations it has committed.

I want my country back.

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