On Sunday 7 May 2017, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) helicopter reportedly attacked an Afar fishing boat, killing one person instantly while injuring nine others. According to the Eritrean Afar State in Exile (EASE), a second person succumbed to his injuries last weekend, bringing the total death count to two. The eight remaining victims are reportedly being treated at Duhtum Hospital in Assab.
At the time of the attack, the fishing boat was travelling from Edi to Bara-Assoli, both small villages on the coast of the Dankalia region in Eritrea. The boat was spotted by a UAE helicopter gunship, which made two turns hovering over the fishing boat before opening fire. According to the President of EASE, Ahmed Youssouf Mohamed, the Afar fishermen had raised their hands “showing the fish in one hand and the white flag in the other hand so as to signify they’re peaceful fishermen.”
The Dankalia region where the attack took place is the indigenous homeland of the Afar people, an ethnic minority group in Eritrea that has faced persecution and exploitation at the hands of the government. Since Eritrea’s independence in 1991, it is reported that the Afar have been subject to systematic land grabbing, forced displacement and various forms of violence including rape, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Although denied by the Eritrean government, the UAE reportedly signed a 30-year lease agreement on 2 November 2015, giving them control of the port of Assab, a town in the Dankalia region. Their military presence in the region is well established with, in addition to the port of Assab, a military base and naval facility north of the town, as is shown on satellite images. The air and naval bases in Eritrea are meant to support UAE operations in Yemen, where they are part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Houthi rebels and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Even though the attack on 7 May was carried out by UAE forces stationed in Assab, EASE President Mr Mohamed stressed the complicity of the Eritrean government and placed the recent attack within a widespread and systematic campaign of aggression against the Afar. With many Afar people forced off their ancestral lands in order to make way for the UAE military bases, this recent attack is seen as a further attempt to disrupt the identity and traditional life of the Afar in Dankalia. An attack on their fishermen may be seen as an attack on the livelihoods of the Afar, a view also expressed by Mr Mohamed, who said: “This is their bread and butter, if they don’t go on the sea, they don’t survive. These guys are not farmers. They don’t have any other trade to support their family. This is their ancient tradition as indigenous people in that area.”
While the Red Sea Democratic Organization (RSADO), an armed Eritrean opposition group based in Ethiopia, has spoken of repeated airstrikes on Afar fishermen in Eritrea’s Dankalia region, the President of EASE was not aware of such prior incidents but did recall a similar attack on an Afar fishing boat on 1 October 2016 off the coast of Mocha, a city in Yemen. The attack ended up killing three fishermen and wounding two others. Mr Mohamed denounced the expanding military presence of the Saudi-led coalition in the region, arguing this “will likely result in incidents like these happening more often, thus opening our people to a new level of insecurity.”