Eritrean opposition asks international community to pay attention to repression in Eritrea

This is a translation of an article by Dutch Newspaper NRC- Wim Brummelman

The banned Eritrean opposition again asks the international community to pay attention to the repression in Eritrea. “Foreign countries must send observers to find out what is happening here,” according to an opposition member speaking over the phone from the Eritrean capital of Asmara.

This most recent plea for help follows the crackdown of security troops last week in Asmara, during the protest against the plans of the government to restrict Islamic, Catholic and other private schools. When a group of about a hundred protesters, mainly students, gathered close to the government center on Tuesday afternoon, the crowd was dispersed with batons. Gunshots were heard and an unknown number of people were arrested. The American embassy warned that protests, including those peaceful in nature, could easily escalate into violence.

According to the researchers of the UN, human rights in Eritrea are routinely violated. Overt protests in the streets of Asmara are a rarity and therefore, the protest of last week attracted attention, especially among the opposition activists in the diaspora. Protests have been planned at Eritrean diplomatic representations in various European and North-American cities. A protest in The Hague is set to take place on Tuesday (7 November).

Due to the secretive nature of Eritrea, it is difficult to get a clear and reliable image of what has taken place in Asmara. One of the opposition groups, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO), reported that 28 people had died in the protest. However, a commentary  of researcher Felix Horne from Human Rights Watch points out that RSADO is financed by Ethiopia, the arch enemy of Eritrea, and that its information absolutely cannot be qualified as reliable. Ethiopia benefits from stirring unrest in the neighbouring country.

The opposition member in Asmara, who is a member of the network of Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) that was founded in the US six years ago, says that violence was used and that people have been arrested. However, he stresses that no protesters have been killed. The most remarkable thing was: “They were not shooting at people. They refused to do that,” he says.

Three years ago, the Eritrean Ministry of Education revealed the plan to reform all schools into public schools. The unrest of the past couple of weeks was centred around the Al Diaa Islamic School in the neighbourhood of Akhriya. Honorary chairman Muasa Mohamed Nur had passionately spoken out earlier against the forced secularisation of the school, and he and other leaders were arrested last month. One of Nur’s brothers, co-founder of the Eritrean Liberation Front, died in prison in 2008. It were the students of the Al Diaa that first took to the streets last week.

However, it is not just Muslims, but also Christians that participate in the protest. “Muslims and Christians are united. They want the government to stop meddling in their education. That is why people took to the streets,” according to the spokesperson in Asmara, who himself is not a Muslim. And, he adds, it is not just about the restriction of religious freedom. “This regime restricts all possible freedom of its citizens. That is why so many people flee Eritrea. This has to stop. That is why we pray for this government to disappear.”

It looks as though the unrest had died down. However, the resistance will continue, the source in Asmara states. “Of course I am afraid. So many people are afraid. We are under great risk. However, new protests will emerge. Maybe they will be small in the beginning, in different places. And maybe they will grow into something big. That is why it is so important for the world to know what is going on here.”