“In our language, Tigrinya, independence means freedom,” says Meron Estefanos. “Many Eritreans say: Why should we celebrate if we are not free?” The 44-year-old Estefanos left Eritrea for Sweden when she was 12. Yet she still has close ties to her home country and the new arrivals who flee to Europe.
Sometimes she even receives calls late at night, when refugees who have received her number are caught at sea in the Mediterranean. “Mama Meron,” as they call her, has helped many Eritrean refugees in distress. “Those martyrs that died for Eritrea’s independence, their children are scattered all over the world and they are dying in the Mediterranean sea, in the Sinai desert, in the Sahara. It makes you really sad, because this is not what our martyrs died for,” she told DW.
It looked very hopeful
In 1993, the situation had on the other hand looked very different. After 30 years of civil war and dominance by neighboring Ethiopia, Eritrea was declared an independent state on May 24, 1993. People celebrated and danced on the streets of the capital Asmara.
“Today is the day that Eritrea is born again. It’s the reward for everything that we have fought for,” declared the newly named president Isaias Afewerki. Two years before, his troops had taken Asmara, ending the decades-long conflict. The country had been under the rule of Ethiopia for until this point even though most of the population had wanted independence.
The new government promised peace and economic development and the small country in the Horn of Africa seemed like a beacon of hope for the entire continent.
Post independence was an incredible period
“It was an incredible period,” says Michela Wrong, a British journalist and author of the book “I didn’t do it for you: How the world used and abused a small African nation.” She first visited Eritrea in 1996. “A lot of Eritreans had fled in the 1970s. They were coming back and they were investing in the country, they were bringing their know-how, their skills, they wanted to open factories, there was a constant sound of construction, there were building sites all over the city,” she remembers. “Eritrea had that reputation for being uncorrupt- The government was a very open government, you could go in and see any minister if you wanted to,” she adds.
But the good times didn’t last. The border to Ethiopia is still not clearly drawn and some regions are still disputed. In 1998, the war erupted again and ended with a defeated Eritrea. Aferwerki became increasingly unpopular and as criticism against him grew, he started arresting his critics, which included cabinet ministers and his former fellow fighters, explains Wrong.
No elections, no free press and national service
From then on, the situation deteriorated. Eritrea became increasingly authoritarian. Elections haven’t been held and on the Reporters without borders index for press freedom, Eritrea ranks second from the bottom.
Government critics disappear behind bars and even the fate of prominent political prisoners is unclear. Critical journalists and human rights defenders have no access to the country and even foreign diplomats are only grated entry into Asmara under close observation from the government.
“The human rights situation is very difficult and my guess ist hat it may deteriorate even further,” says Sheila Keetharuth, the UN special envoy for human rights to Eritrea. In 2016, a UN team of experts accused Eritrea of crimes against humanity including slave labor, rape and torture.
The country’s compulsory national service is often at the center of such critique. All Eritreans above the age of 18 are obliged to enter the national service which authorities can extend indefinitely. Refugees and human rights advocates claim that the service is nothing else than forced labor in government institutions and factories. Many young people flee Eritrea for this very reason.
Germany tries to build ties
Yet many countries are once again trying to re-establish relations tot he regime in Asmara. In 2015, for instance, German development minister Gerd Müller visited the country and in 2016, a high level delegation from Eritrea visited Berlin.
One reason behind the Germany’s efforts, are the high number of refugees coming to Europe from Eritrea. UN special envoy, Keetharuth, however, believes that countries should practice caution in their dealings with Eritrea. “Some governments and international actors have invested in strengthening their engagement with the government with Eritrea and that is in an effort to normalize relations over the past three years or so. I would pose the question: What tangible progress has been achieved on the ground regarding the fundamental human rights? I do not see much there,” she told DW.
Regime denies accusations
In Eritrea, Keetharuth’s criticism is not very welcome. “In this country, everbody can voice their opinion about the government without having to fear arrest,” Eritrean information minister Yemane Ghebremeskel told the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2015. He blamed the unresolved conflict with Ethiopia for the fact that Eritrea had not yet held any elections and he said that Eritrean refugees made up the stories of abuse and torture to obtain asylum in Europe.
It’s difficult to predict whether things will change in Eritrea any time soon. “There is a sense that change is inevitable,” says Wrong. “Eritrea is a military-run state, the national institutions such as the national assembly or the judiciary do not have any real power. It is the army that is running that country. So if Isias Aferwerki were to retire or to die, you are left with some important generals who would bring up the rear. And there is a younger officer crew below them who are much more in tune with what young people feel,” Wrong explains. According to her a military takeover is much more likely than a democratic change in government.
The activist Estefanos is more optimistic about the country’s outlook. “We Eritreans fought for our independence. We will continue to fight and the people are getting braver.”