Eritrea, a small, little known country on the Horn of Africa, has a serious press problem. Despite the fact its journalistic freedom index is ranked lower than that of North Korea, and its harsh dictatorship has created one of the largest diasporas in the world, few in the West are actually familiar with this small nation. Something journalist Yonas Embaye, an Eritrean refugee living in exile, is determined to change.
At first glance, Yonas comes off as little more than a modern African man. His clothes are kept, his manor calm and friendly, and he strolls through a myriad of social situations with ease. Yet, his life has hardly been average. “I grew up in diaspora in Ethiopia. My family told great stories about my country, Eritrea. Later on, when I get deported back to Eritrea [due to an ongoing border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea] I started writing stories on why Eritreans were being forced to leave. I felt like I really had to study journalism to serve my people and let the the world know about what is happening.”
It was this passion for journalism that drove Yonus to take up with a local paper Hadas Admas. His eyes brighten when he speaks about his work. “It’s a personal responsibility of mine. I don’t care about religion or affiliation, my tribe is journalism.” Like the most infamous journalists of our time, it was this unyielding drive that led him to undertake a number of risky articles. “I pushed it in my newspaper with stories of how the Eritrean constitution could be implemented. That people had the power and they have to support the implementation first, then we can ask all kinds of rights according to our constitution.”
This challenge to national governance, combined with an attempt by a number of Eritrean journalists to form a trade union led to a severe crackdown by the Eritrean government. During The Day of Silence, on September 18th 2001, all independent media houses were shut down and a number of journalists and local ministers were carted off to to jail, Embaye included. His face goes blank and his voice loses all emotion as he describes his imprisonment by the Eritrean government. “I spent four years in detention.” he tells me, “Two of those years were in the capital, Asmara, and then the Red Cross came around too much, so we were transferred to an old Italian mining town called Nefasit. It was underground where they stored the political prisoners. Nobody knows it exists because there’s nothing around but desert.”
It was in this prison that conditions deteriorated rapidly. Embaye speaks of prisoners dying under the harshest of circumstances. “There is no medication, not much water, and little food. The temperature soars to 41 C during the day, and stress disorders there lead to many suicides. What they do is wake you up at 4am and put you in freezing rooms. They wait until your blood is running cold and then torture you.” He rolls up his sleeves and shows me old burn scars that snake across his forearm. “These are some of the marks from the torture.”
It was in this prison that Embaye and two other men formed an escape plan. Using urine and makeshift tools to weaken the cinder blocks of the prison, they escaped into the desert and ran for Sudan. “We spend 3 days and nights in the desert without any hospitality. We had to fight scorpions and snakes and insects constantly. When we finally got to the border, one of the prisoners, Samuel, was shot in the leg. Due to his poor condition from treatment and the desert, he suffered a heart attack and died. But the other two of us made it across the border.”
It was here that Embaye found freedom as a refugee. However, his passion for exposing issues in the region had hardly dwindled while he was in prison. In Sudan he went to work for a project by UN Human Rights Council on Darfur. “We had a team called the Khartoum Center for Human Rights and Environmental Development. We documented on the 3 main articles, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. All the documents have been used by the ICC and it was our research and evidence that helped accused the Sudanese president on this issue. We proved that yes, war crimes and genocide is exactly what happened in Darfur.”
“In Dec 2009 I received a letter from Sudanese government that I have to be in Khartoum immediately and I was sure they wanted to arrest me. They found the documentation from the ICC and the accusations of the 3 charges. So I escaped from Khartoum to South Sudan and from there I decided to come to Uganda.” In Uganda Embaye applied for political asylum and was recognized by both the UN and Ugandan Government as a refugee and given until 2016 to work and live in Uganda.
The stability of Kampala has allowed him to stage a number of protests and write about his time in Eritrea. He joined a number of journalist rights groups and it was through this writing that he met a German human rights activist and writer. It was with his encouragement that Embaye decided to write a book about his experiences. “My profession of journalism has given me a unique ability to document all the crimes committed by the Eritrean government with specific situations and locations.” His book, My Life in Exile, was written as an expose on a government that is so closed down, that international journalists with CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera are routinely chased out.
However, publishing a book of this magnitude does not come without a cost. Embaye’s family members have been threatened and imprisoned as a way to coerce him into silence. “Two of my brothers are in prison right now” he says, “nobody has heard from them and we have no idea if they are alive or dead. They also threatened my parents and this has led to a lot of strife. It’s a very dangerous situation for my family right now.”
Yet Embaye is hopeful that journalism may be what finally saves his country. “Look at Libya” he says, “journalism helped inform and move those people from dictatorship to the next level of government. It can be a bridge between people and government and create peace participation in a positive way. In Eritrea, there is no freedom of movement. Even to go from one town to another is not possible without special access. To talk to a foreigner is impossible.” Embaye advocates for sanctions and pressure from the international community to help crack the imposing silence of the Eritrean government. “Solidarity and action must be taken. We have to put more pressure on the government to at least send food items and emergency medication to the villages.These are the areas that are really really suffering with people living in the worst conditions. There is terrible hunger in Eritrea because the government doesn’t buy food, they shop for arms and ammunition to ship it to Somalia to destabilize the Horn of Africa. So the first action must be the international community allowed by force to enter into the country and give food and medical access to the people. Then the second level is to invest in education and build high schools and elementary schools. I fully support UN resolutions to put sanctions against the government and the ministers who try to shop weapons to Somalia.”
The security situation in Africa can be difficult to guarantee, however. And Embaye is hoping that soon he’ll be granted access by the US where he’ll be able to spread his story and rally support for his cause from a safer distance. With so little independent information about Eritrea, it will be an uphill battle, but he is ready for the fight. “People are dying in Eritrea, and we all know is it’s a dictatorship but after that it’s chapter closed. We don’t know about the detentions, the programs, the restrictions, and illegal taxations. My goal is to spread this knowledge so the international community can mobilize and become invested in the struggle for Eritrea.”
The cost of apathy in regards to Eritrea might have other, unforeseen consequences as well. According to a number of reports, the Eritrean government has been steadily supplying weapons into the Horn of Africa, and contributing to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of all time in Somalia. With most of Africa stabilizing and East Africa in particular attracting foreign investment and substantial GDP growth, the instability in Somalia has been threatening, and occasionally spilling into its neighboring countries. Famine, piracy, and number of high profile tourist kidnappings in Kenya have put neighboring and international troops in harms way more than once.
Yet, like most in diaspora, what Embaye wants most is just to return home so he can be with his family again. “I’ve sent a few letters to the Red Cross and they’ve worked really hard to put me into contact with my family” he says sadly. “But they are always in danger, they are always being spied on, and the threat of imprisonment and death is always there. Every family should have the right to stay together.” For Embaye the future is somewhat cloudy. If he publishes his book, it could cause ramifications for his family for years to come, and his security situation may become compromised. However, it isn’t in his nature, nor in the best interest of Eritrea as a whole, to just shut up and keep quiet. “It has to be about more than me. It has to be solidarity and mobility amongst Eritrean refugees and amongst the international community as a whole. Otherwise it’s not possible. With the will of the people, we can change everything, but with their apathy, we are hopeless. We will continue to die.”