Editor’s Note: Vanessa Berhe is a Swedish-Eritrean human rights activist and founder of One Day Seyoum, a youth-led organization that campaigns for the release of political prisoners in Eritrea, including her uncle, Seyoum, whom the organization is named after.
Berhe is a 22-year-old law student at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. She writes for CNN about a global campaign on human rights she is coordinating where activists are holding 17 minutes of silent protest to commemorate the 17th anniversary of a press shutdown in Eritrea.
The opinion expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
It was one week after 9/11, and the world’s attention was on New York City. The terrorist attack had changed the world forever, but in a small country in the Horn of Africa, things were about to alter even more drastically.
In the early hours of September 18th, 2001, a radio message announced the shutdown of the press in Eritrea.
Following the announcement, a group of journalists and politicians who had been advocating for democratic reforms were imprisoned without a trial.
The country was due to hold its first-ever elections, but they were canceled, and several democratic institutions were shut down.
September 18 represented a significant turning point in Eritrean history, but the government’s actions went mostly unnoticed to the outside world.
I grew up hearing about this date because my uncle, Seyoum Tsehaye, was one of the journalists imprisoned in 2001. Being born in Sweden, thousands of miles away from the rest of my family in Eritrea, my mom raised me with stories about home.
When I was 16 years old, I started advocating for Seyoum’s release but realized quickly that his imprisonment was much more than a personal tragedy. There were so many more people affected.
Eritrea has been a country marked by war. It has been locked in perpetual conflict with neighboring Ethiopia. But in 2001, citizens were feeling generally optimistic about the future.
They had lived through a long independence struggle and the guerrilla group, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), had been instrumental in liberating the country from Ethiopia.
Almost by default, the EPLF guerrilla leader, Isaias Afwerki, became Eritrea’s first president in 1993. The war of independence was fought on the premise of democracy, justice, and equality, so the unelected president assured the people that he would hold elections.
However, there have not been national elections in Eritrea since independence.
In 1998, a dispute centered on the new border with Ethiopia resulted in a war lasting two years. The Eritrean government has used this border war with Ethiopia as a justification for turning the country into a dictatorship.
A government has the right to suspend certain individual rights if there is a threat to national security, but the actions that have been committed as a response to the “no peace, no war” situation have been disproportionate to the actual threats.
The fact that there has been a standoff at the border cannot justify enlisting all capable Eritreans in national military service indefinitely and denying them autonomy over their own lives.
Neither does it justify the horrible rape, torture, and crimes committed with impunity there. The UN commission on human rights in Eritrea has described the country’s national service as a “crime against humanity,” and likened it to slavery.
It cannot justify the fact that the only university in the country has been shut down or that Eritreans between the ages of six and 65 are not allowed to leave the country unless granted an exit visa, one that is almost impossible to obtain.
The fact that Ethiopia has refused to demarcate the border cannot justify the fact that Eritrea is the only country without any independent press in Africa.
It cannot possibly justify the fact that the parliament has not convened since 2002. The government has refused to implement the country’s first constitution, and tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned, without a trial, for merely expressing their opinions, practicing their religion or attempting to leave the country.
For the past five years, I have been advocating for human rights in Eritrea through the organization One Day Seyoum that I started in the name of my uncle. Despite the Eritrean government’s insistence on using the border dispute as an excuse for the oppression in the country, I have never taken this justification seriously.
Not only have the crimes perpetrated by the Eritrean government been disproportionate to the threats posed by the conflict, but more than two months after signing a peace agreement with Ethiopia, President Afwerki has not addressed the domestic situation in the country, let alone made any promises to bring about change.
Despite this, this peace deal was blindly celebrated, and Afwerki congratulated by politicians from all over the world. With the prospects of change seeming as distant as before the peace agreement, we started the campaign #QuestionsForIsaias demanding answers about Eritrea’s future.
With our leader not listening to the cry of his people, Eritreans from all over the world were forced to turn to social media.
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We are launching a new campaign on the 17th anniversary of the creation of the Eritrean dictatorship to increase pressure on the Eritrean government.
We aim to continue to actively and publicly ask questions to Afwerki but also to share content explaining our questions to raise awareness about what is going on in Eritrea, to increase worldwide pressure for change.
We ask questions because 17 years on, Eritreans, home and abroad have tried everything and do not know what else to do.
We ask questions because my cousins deserve to see their father. We ask questions because my cousins are far from the only ones.
We ask questions because enough is enough. The indefinite national service program is robbing Eritrean youth of their future.
They face the stark choices of a life without a future in Eritrea or being killed or severely traumatized as they try to flee the country.
We ask questions because we refuse to stay silent when our people are suffering.
We ask questions because the Eritrean people deserve better.