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Eritrea: 30 years of bitter independence for the diaspora

Eritrea: 30 years of bitter independence for the diaspora
A member of the National Union of Eritrean Women demonstrates with ...   -  
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STEVE FORREST/AFP or licensors


As a child, in the years following Eritrea's independence, Filmon Debru looked forward to the month of May and the festivities celebrating the country's new sovereignty and independence heroes.

Parties, music and dances lasted a month to commemorate the victory over the Ethiopian army in May 1991, then the independence was proclaimed in May 1993 after a referendum supported by the UN.

Perched on the shoulders of parents, the little Filmon watched colorful parades pass by, in an atmosphere of "euphoria". "There was real happiness. (...) Everything seemed to be turned towards the best", says this man, now 37 years old.

This new country of 117,000 km2 in the Horn of Africa, on the shores of the Red Sea, was bathed in optimism. Eritrea celebrates 30 years as a state this year but for Filmon Debru, there is nothing to celebrate.

The hope and potential he felt disappeared, crushed by a totalitarian and repressive regime led by Issaias Afeworki. The country is nicknamed "African North Korea".

In this small closed, one-party state, dissenting voices disappear in the gulag and civilians are conscripted for life into the army or forced into forced labour as part of a national service assimilated to slavery by the organizations of defence of human rights and the United Nations.

There have never been elections, there is no free press, political opposition or civil society.

A global pariah, Eritrea has been placed under sanctions for its interference in regional conflicts, most recently in Ethiopia's Tigray War, where its army has been accused of numerous abuses.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country in search of jobs and freedoms.

Filmon Debru is one of them. "Honestly, what the hell could I be celebrating?" , launches this computer developer who almost lost both his hands on the roads of exile, tortured by smugglers in the Sinai Peninsula. He has lived in Germany since 2014.

In Eritrea, public commemorations are in full swing, with school children in costume singing patriotic songs on this year's theme: "Heroic achievement rooted in united ranks".

An "Independence Cup" has crisscrossed the country, collecting "holy ground" from the sites of legendary battles against powerful neighbour Ethiopia.

Propaganda aired on the national Eri-TV channel honours freedom fighters. But it has erased the figures of independence who have become critics of the regime, underlines Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist and activist.

Like many Eritreans, she lost family members in the struggle for independence and the recovery of their sacrifice angers her. She evokes her four dead uncles. "What would they have said?", she says: "Is that why they died?"

Issaias Afeworki, who led the rebels to victory, became president after independence, pending the organization of elections under a new constitution.

In those promising years, parents called their newborns Netsanet (freedom), Awet (victory) and Selam (peace), freedom fighters were mobbed in the streets with flowers and kisses, the media flourished.

All of this was short-lived. In 1998, Eritrea and Ethiopia embarked on a two-year border war, a bloody stalemate with tens of thousands dead.

For Meron Estefanos, the generation that carried the future of the country, that of the children of independence, was decimated at the front. "They danced for independence then (...) were sacrificed for a war that made no sense," she said.

The last hope for democracy was extinguished with a violent purge of political opposition in 2001. Eritrea occupies the bottom of world rankings on press freedom, human rights, civil liberties or development economic.

Vanessa Tsehaye has not seen her uncle Seyoum, a respected journalist, since the 2001 crackdown. For this 26-year-old Swedish-born activist, "Independence Day is a call to action", an opportunity to pay tribute to all those who, like his uncle, dreamed of a free Eritrea.

Many members of the diaspora "dream day and night of returning" to the country, explains Habte Hagos, who has spent most of his adult life outside Eritrea.

Independence Day sounds to him like a painful reminder of the lost years.

Today, he says, judgments on the country's situation are harsher, in particular, because young Eritreans have the same destiny as their ancestors, forced into exile or to find themselves infantrymen in wars like the one in Tigray.

“We have known more than 60 years of misfortune”, explains the man who founded the defense group Eritrea Focus in 2014: “Eritreans have had enough”.

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