Eritrea: A Caged People in Urgent Need of Global Action – and Prayers

CISA – Catholic Information Service for Africa (Nairobi)

11 December 2007
Posted to the web 11 December 2007

Asmara: The people of Africa’s youngest nation, 14-year-old Eritrea in the northeast, live as if locked up in a vast prison manned by a rogue communist regime.

CISA is today able to reveal the sufferings of the tyrannized and poverty-stricken Eritreans, groaning under the weight of Africa’s last single-party dictatorship.

Prone to prolonged droughts, its economy destroyed by more than 30 years of war, Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest countries, with up to 60 percent of its 4.6 million people surviving on less than a dollar a day.

The legacy of war is still evident in unexploded landmines, destroyed infrastructure and displaced people.

The government of President Isaias Afewerki has crippled the private sector through Maoist policies and kicked out relief and development agencies, insisting that it alone can serve the needs of the people.

Not even the Church has been spared. Last month, the regime refused to renew the entry visas of 14 Catholic missionaries, ordering them out. A source told CISA the move is part of “a nationwide campaign to neutralize, paralyze, isolate and nationalize the Catholic Church.”

But the expulsion is also a cruel attack on poor Eritreans who depended for survival on projects run by the missionaries. The projects will most certainly collapse, as the local Church cannot sustain them.

The regime is one of the leading abusers of religious freedom worldwide, with as many as 2,000 mostly evangelical Christians languishing in detention for their faith. The state recognizes only four religions: Orthodox, Catholicism, Lutheran and Islam.

Suppressed society

It is not easy to get an accurate picture of the situation in Eritrea. Even Eritrean exiles are silenced by the fear of having their relatives harassed back home by the government should they speak out.

Another source with considerable experience in Eritrea gave CISA, on condition of anonymity, a hard-to-believe account of the dire conditions imposed on the people by their rulers.

Through an elaborate police system, the state keeps a keen eye on goings-on around the country. A visitor will be struck by the overwhelming presence of state militias everywhere.

“It is a much suppressed society; if you talk, you just disappear,” our source said. “There are militias all over. You see, almost everyone is a military person. In every village you will find militias. It is very well-organized. You cannot say anything.”

The government has clamped down on its critics and all independent media. There are no civil society groups. State media specialize in entertainment and propaganda, especially against the country’s ‘enemies’: Ethiopia, the United Nations, the international community, non-registered churches.

Human rights violations are rampant, including compulsory, unending military service for persons under 40, even for priests and religious. The state harasses parents whose children flee the country in search of opportunity.

Though primary and secondary education is free of charge, the quality is dismal due to lack of teachers and basic supplies. Secondary students spend their final year in secret camps. “We do not know what goes on there, but we do know that when they graduate they are in military uniform,” our source said.

A few graduates are enrolled in state colleges while the rest go for further military training. Soldiers are not paid, but receive a small allowance. Many of them have families, as parents urge sons to marry before they are recruited. Girls also marry or have children early to avoid conscription.

Killing enterprise

Freedom of movement is restricted, especially for missionaries who cannot move far out of their stations without permission from the authorities. They must also register at roadblocks.

A government decree allowing every vehicle only 30 litres of fuel a month has also hampered the Church’s pastoral work.

There is hardly a private sector in the country. The government imports basic commodities to sell to the public at subsidized prices, making the people “depend directly on the government, so that they can feel that it is the one that takes care of them. It is also a way of killing private enterprise.”

Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year separatist rebellion. The two nations again plunged into another devastating border war five years later.

After 14 years of independence, many people must be questioning the real value of their hard-won freedom – but only silently. “Eritreans are so quiet you would think they have no problems,” our source said.

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