Eritreans in Minnesota Weigh a Dream Gone Mad – Douglas McGill

August 21st, 2008 Print Print Email Email

The following headline popped up last week in my email alerts set for Eritrea, a tiny nation bordering the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa: “Eritrea Shuts Christian Students into Shipping Containers.”

Shipping containers? What on earth is happening in Eritrea?

I know Eritrea is small, but Georgia is small, too. In such small places we often glimpse our fates and futures.

And stuffing human beings into bare shipping containers, isn’t that something only a crazed and perverted monster would do? (more…)

The following headline popped up last week in my email alerts set for Eritrea, a tiny nation bordering the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa: “Eritrea Shuts Christian Students into Shipping Containers.”

Shipping containers? What on earth is happening in Eritrea?

I know Eritrea is small, but Georgia is small, too. In such small places we often glimpse our fates and futures.

And stuffing human beings into bare shipping containers, isn’t that something only a crazed and perverted monster would do?

The fiercely proud, patient, hospitable people of Eritrea wouldn’t possibly condone this.

Who or what then is their monster?

Religious Persecution

My summer project has been to learn all that I can about the Horn of Africa – sometimes called the “third front” in the War on Terror our country is waging — by meeting with refugees from the region who live in Minnesota.

About 50,000 immigrants from the Horn of Africa live in Minnesota, most of them refugees from civil wars, famine, and political and religious persecution in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea.

Not every alarmist headline checks out, of course. But where there’s smoke there’s often fire, so I did some digging on Eritrea’s cargo container prisons.

I discovered what many Minnesota’s Eritreans have known for years: the Eritrean government is filling up its prisons with dissidents, journalists and practitioners of outlawed religions so fast it’sgrabbing rusty old cargo containers from their Red Sea ports to handle the overflow.

No Fantasy

They put the containers, which have no plumbing or toilets, in the desert.

Why hasn’t this news gotten around more, not just in Minnesota but worldwide? And within what larger picture of Eritrea do these shipping containers fit?

The Eritrean community in the Twin Cities hosted a talk recently on the current human rights situation in their country, at the First Cup Café in south Minneapolis, an African diaspora hub. I stopped by to listen.

The speaker, Seyoum Tesfaye, an Eritrean American political writer and blogger, said that Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, has in recent years carried out a firm policy of jailing, torturing and often killing anyone who even mildly disagrees with his statements and policies.

“Pretending this is not happening is a fantasy,” Tesfaye told the group of about 20 Eritrean immigrants living Minnesota. “People are being picked up at the airport and disappearing. The organic cause of the Eritrean crisis is the present one-party dictatorship. Our puny tyrant is doing it.”

Sky-High Hopes

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the deterioration of human rights in Eritrea in recent years, corroborating every claim of Tesfaye’s and more.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea’s press dead last in this year’s world press freedoms index, even below the North Korea press. Even reporters at Eritrea’s state-run TV station have been arrested and jailed.
Mass conscription of young people for military service, and using forced labor to build infrastructure projects, are also widely documented.

But even now many Eritreans are still in denial, Tesfaye said. That’s thanks to the sky-high hopes that followed Eritrea’s seemingly miraculous secession from Ethiopia following a 30-year struggle in 1991.

Isaias Afwerki was one of the dashing, brilliant and courageous revolutionaries who led the country to that victory. When he became president, hopes ran high that finally a leader had arrived who would stand up to outside aggression and fashion a genuine, thriving Eritrean state.

Electrification Projects

Even through several disastrous stumbles, such as the calamitous 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia that claimed 75,000 lives, Eritreans mostly held their faith that Afwerki would pull the country through to better days.
Today, keeping such faith in Afwerki is a fool’s dream, Tesfaye says.

“Somewhere along the line we made a big mistake,” Tesfaye added. “We considered ourselves so special, so different. Instead of putting our faith in the rule of law, we put it in a man, who is weak and flawed like the rest of us.”

At these words, one aggrieved young Eritrean-American in the audience practically jumped out of his seat in protest.

“You are manufacturing facts as you go along!” the young man bellowed. “The fact is that there has been a lot of progress under the government. They have built 500 hospitals, put in paved roads, reduced malaria deaths by 40 percent, and built small dams and electrification projects in rural areas!”

Warning Signals

“Mussolini built roads too,” Tesfaye coolly replied. “Did that make him a great leader? Yes, there are new schools, but who is attending them? There are 197,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan and who is responsible for that?”

Several older Eritrean men in the audience, showing the young man respect but trying to head off an escalation, nervously patted the air to calm things down.

After the meeting, I chatted with several Eritrean Minnesotans but none wanted to give me their names, saying they feared for the safety of relatives who still live in Eritrea if their names appeared in print.

The world’s smallest places often clearly exhibit the symptoms of global dysfunction, offering warning signals of a potentially spreading cancer.

The grip of fear that reaches all the way to Minnesota – all the way from those shipping containers — seems like a powerful warning signal to me.

Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report

  1. jgnaw
    | #1

    Poor Eritrians, they think they can creat a country out of the tinair. I guess they are learning the hard way. The party is over, reality dictates it is a no manland like Somalia. soon more Warlords will be ruleing that God forsaken land.

  2. | #2

    Eritrea should choose democracy.Democracy is the only antidote for the current misrule of Isayas.The gains of thirty years of national struggle need not be sacrificed on the altar of Isayas’s dictatorship.He should depart!

    Yet,some say that the only glue that keeps Eritrea together at the momoment is the dictatorship of Isayas.Eritrea without his autocracy,they reason,will tear asunder under the weight of old ethnic and religious animosities.But I believe that this is an exaggerated and irrational fear.It is through democracy rather than dictatorship that the issues of ethnic and religious inequalities can seriously be addressed while greater opportunities are created for building the solidarity of the people along durable lines.

    Most importantly,democracy redirects the full potential of the people and their meagre resources from war and war preparations to peaceful developmental ends.

    The days that Isayas’s Eritrea should live under siege mentality and thereby it would need to provoke expensive wars with all its neigbours(Yemen,Djibouti,Ethiopia and others)to justify its existence must really come to an end.The Eritrean people must not be held hostage to this mentality and all their youth must not be persecuted or harrased to be perpetual military conscripts of EPLF.Eritrea and her suffering people deserve better.All of us should feel for them.Like their Ethiopian brothers and sisters they are fiercely proud,hardworking and they are people of great potential.

    In order to realize these,I think it is imperative that Eritrean democrats should work with the democratic forces of the region particularly with the pro-democracy movement in Ethiopia.I wish them good luck.

  3. duba
    | #3

    what are you talking about ppl???.
    eritrea is one of african singapoor kkkkkkkkk
    and there shefafa leader is one of known dimocratic leader in the worled. long live shefafa eritrean PIA. for keeping eritrea like singa_poor.hahahahahhah what a civlaized nation

  4. eritrawi
    | #4

    eritrean issue, not ethiopian. two seprate people and country
    tigain agamee propganda.
    worry about your starving ethioian nation
    read august 18 USA TODAY, ethiopia starving again like 80′s
    we, eritrean love our presedent 1000%

  5. GIGI
    | #5

    eritrawi.
    you must be one of isayass afeserakys family
    if not there is no one eritrawi who saport your shefafa old camel isayas. why dont you go and see your poor ppl haw they sufer in your dream land singapoor kkkkkkkk do you know your ppl get 12 kilogram par month for a family. dedeb shabia go and talk to the ppl who dont know you. thoes lucky eritreans are in shemelbal ethiopia. they have a chance to eat atlist 2 x a day. tahedidam shabia get out of my face now ketafy.

  6. gemoraw
    | #6

    I am Ethiopia born Ethiopian like one of eritrian girl above tried to mention I have no idea why some flighty folks of ethiopia worry about negbouring eritrea.It is not clear what the hake this publsihers are talkin about? please brothers let them leave alone and focused in our issues.we are a chunk of problems home let resolve it first.teddy afro dahilak minamin minamin and abugidas got to hell.

  7. | #7

    Dear gemoraw.Dear Eritrawi.
    Consider the big picture.No country exists in isolation.Eritrea is not an isolated nation.It,exists,needless to say,in close proximity with its neighbours,particularly with Ethiopia.Problems plaguing Eritrea somehow adversely affect Ethiopia.Conversely,
    the peace of Eritrea is also Ethiopia’s peace.
    The good of Ethiopia is Eritrea’s good.

    The dictators of our respective countries recognize this interdependence better than us.Nevertheless,they manupilate it by interfering in each others affairs through their proxies in order to stay in power.

    We the people,on the other hand,should not be part of their practice but we still need to acknoweldge the interdependence of our countries through the common democratic aspirations of our people.

  8. bob
    | #8

    to dedeb ethiopians pls stop begging to eritreans like dear eri bla bla those slave ppl dident understand what respeact means so stop talking to them. i know some of you are rascals in neture but no one eritreawi cares for ethiopia.dowen with shabia long live agazi.

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