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Twin Cities Daily Planet: Eritreans in Minnesota weigh a dream gone mad


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’s grabbing 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 mraculous 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.

Douglas McGill has reported for the New York Times and Bloomberg News — and now the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

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