Eritreans in Germany:
The tentacles of the Eritrean Regime are long enough to still reach into Germany. Those who are living there are still being held hostage. Let us glimpse into this parallel world.
This is a translation of the article “Eritreer in Deutschland. Von wegen Freiheit” published in Frankfurter Allgemeine, on 12th May 2016. Original text by Morten Freidel.
Eritrea starts behind the train tracks. At the Ottostraße of Frankfurt am Main, Eritrean bars and restaurants are standing side by side, the doors are latticed, the windows are barred. In front of them, teenagers, smoking. Inside, they crouch together in obscured rooms where they drink tea with lemon, talk about ordinary things, enjoying themselves. Free, however, they are not. The long arm of the military regime even stretches to here. Although they are already in Germany, Eritreans are under observation; here, too, they are being monitored and persecuted. It is an opaque system, well protected against outsiders’ curiosity. Almost no one openly talks about it. Whoever has something bad to say about Isayas Afewerki or the regime is not only in danger of being in the line of fire themselves, but also has to fear that their relatives at home will be persecuted. This is why most of them choose to remain silent. In the midst of the station district and its broader surroundings, fear has found its place.
Anbessa, 49 years old, speaks up anyway. He can risk criticising Eritrea because most of his relatives have left the country by now. Anbessa wears a short beard, a beige jacket and a beige cap; he looks like a revolutionary who has grown old. He has lived in Germany since 1986. During the chaos of the Eritrean fight for independence, he fled and ran off to Sudan from where he took a flight. As soon as Anbessa starts to speak, the surrounding tables of the cafe become quiet. Everyone listens. He does not mind and he gets straight to the point. His most important point of criticism about the regime: the Diaspora tax.
“Eritrean, you always are”
Every Eritrean living abroad is required to pay two percent of her/his annual net income to the Eritrean government, regardless of whether one has a job or lives from social benefits; Regardless of whether or not one has become a citizen of another country. “Eritrean”, Anbessa says, “you always are.” The government wants to have money from everyone, and there is a simple means of pressure: whenever someone needs an official certificate from their homeland – a graduation certificate, a marriage certificate – they must prove that they are paying the diaspora tax. It is not even possible to send a package to Eritrea without it.
Anbessa refused to pay the tax as long as possible. He demonstrated against Afewerki, he attended events of the opposition. Suddenly, he became seriously ill. He thought to himself: If I die then I want to die in Eritrea. This required him to renew his passport and now they have him too. He had to pay for all the years that had passed.
The money protects the brutal regime
Until 2011, the diaspora tax was paid directly to the Eritrean embassy in Berlin or to the consulate in Frankfurt. This has now been prohibited because diplomatic representatives are not allowed to collect taxes. Nevertheless, the Eritrean government has found other ways to get the money. Officials in Berlin and Frankfurt now only calculate the tax while the money will be paid in Eritrea. Those who are not willing to take the journey themselves, are required to send a relative. Approximately one million Eritreans are living abroad; among those there are 70.000 in Germany. Their money supports a regime whose rulers have been dominating the country with authoritarian power for over more than twenty years, a regime where freedom of the press does not exist, where torture is omnipresent and even women are forced to serve in the military for years.
However, this is not the only reason why Anbessay did not want to pay a single cent. He feared that if he paid, he would surrender himself to the regime. The diaspora tax is more than just a tax. It is also an instrument of oppression. Whoever wants to pay and has left Eritrea illegally is required to sign the “Taesa” – a comprehensive admission of guilt. This document is a carte blanche for the Eritrean government to punish its citizens at its leisure. It culminates in the paragraph: “Herewith, I confirm with my signature that I regret to have committed a crime because I have not fulfilled my national duty. I am prepared to accept the respective penalty as soon as a decision will be taken.” Those who sign it, condemn themselves to complete captivity. Whatever they says can from that moment on be used against them as well as against their relatives. Hence, it is better to keep your mouth shut. This is how Eritreans are made to obey.
If you’re lucky, they only give you beatings with sticks
For this purpose the government has its spies. They are everywhere. Once, Anbessa was in Italy, visiting a relative. They met in a restaurant as dusk was already setting in outside. A man sitting at the table next to them said to Anbessa: “I know you.” He replied: “But I don’t know you.” “And it better that it should stay that way”, the man said, “However, you should know, the government knows about it”. Another time, after a demonstration in Berlin, Anbessa’s father, who was still living in Eritrea at this time, called him. Today, he said, soldiers came to visit me and asked me why you are a traitor. He begged Anbessa to stop protesting.
Many parents share similar experiences; they have to atone for the behaviour of their children, including,for example, the parents of Demsas – who has curly hair, is wearing Chucks and a black t-shirt. Demsas is 24 years old but the look in his eyes resembles a man whose life has passed already. There is no passion, almost no emotion at all. The only things that light up are his cigarettes, one after another. Soldiers brought Demsas to a military prison when he was 16. The accusation: he tried to escape and leave the country. He spent one and a half years in the camp. At 3 o’clock in the morning they would wake him up. After that, he had to stack a pile of stones, without any reason. In the heat of the midday he was forced to stand barefoot on hot stones,his face turned to the sun. If the guards were in the mood, and often they were in the mood, they chained Demsas by his hands and feet and hung him up until all the blood left his limbs. Sometimes he was lucky and only got the soles of his feet beaten with sticks. During these months, in which he was imprisoned, the accusation that he had wanted to flee became reality. Demsas was called for military service after he was released. He used his very first visit to his home village to leave for Sudan. Immediately the next day, they broke in at his mother’s home. She had to go to prison for her son’s flight.
One single wish remains: peace
In Germany, Demsas refuses to answer any question about the regime and its methods. Everything is fine, no problem, no hassle. Nothing can be risked anymore. No other relative should be sentenced to prison. He only speaks of one wish: peace. He appears to have only one last wish: Peace.
Those who do not try to keep a low profile, as Demsas does, will be taken care of by an association called “Eri-Blood”. Most of its members belong to the “security sector”. Critics of the regime say that Eri-Blood is a troop full of bullies, who muzzle opponents and prevent them from attending events. They also exist in Sweden and Italy. The unofficial headquarter of this association in Frankfurt is the restaurant Mosob, just a stone’s throw away from the cafe used by the opponents. This is the place where Ermias Tewolde resides, who is described by many as the unofficial boss of Eri-Blood. At least, this is the case ever since the actual boss was imprisoned.
There are many accusations against Eri-Blood
Tewolde himself – a man with broad shoulders, a beard and a black jacket – rejects this accusation. All decisions are taken as a group, he says. A man with piercing eyes is sitting next to him; Tewolde introduces him as a former soldier. The tables at Mosob are all occupied. However, as soon as Tewolde starts to speak, the room goes silent. Tewolde deems it unfair that everyone always complains about the regime. After all, the country overcame thirty years of war. “We started from below zero.” This is why he gladly supports the Eritrean government. This is also the reason why he supports Eri-Blood at events which are organised by a government-related culture association or, from time to time, by the consulate itself. Tewolde claims that he works voluntarily in ninety percent of the cases. He only asks for a salary when an admission fee is included in the event. His work relates exclusively to ensuring the security of the visitors, he hastens to add. “Eri-Blood has a lot of young members, bouncers, tanks like me; this is why this has often been mistaken.” At the Eritrean consulate, Tewolde is also well known; however, questions regarding Eri-Blood are not answered.
There are a lot of accusations against the association. Here are two examples: On Valentine’s Day a dissident artist was singing in Frankfurt. Visitors to the concert said that members of Eri-Blood tried to prevent the performance. Musicians from the band were pressured, threatened and called traitors. However, they did not let the intimidation get to them. It is about music, not about politics, they said. Members of Eri-Blood were later seen to be swearing at the audience of the concert. Go find another place, they demanded. As soon as the artist started performing, they started yelling through the music and told him to stop.
No witnesses, not enough evidence
Four years earlier, people of Eri-Blood attended a discussion event which was moderated by an Eritrean lobbyist. A few opponents requested entry. However, this was denied by men of Eri-Blood. One of the people who was there said that these men had taken him and dragged him to a side street. There, he was beaten up with baseball bats. He had filed a complaint with the police but the criminal investigations went nowhere. No witnesses, not enough evidence.
Tewolde cannot recall the baseball bat incident. However, the police investigated all the details. Concerning the evening of the concert, he says: “We would never intimidate anyone. And we cannot forbid anyone to attend here.” Either way, most of the members of Eri-Blood would have been with their families in Eritrea at this time.
Later on a bald man steps into the restaurant. “Ah, this is my cousin”, says Tewolde. “He is also a member of Eri-Blood. Yes , together we have beaten up some of the opposition assholes.“
After that he steps out for a smoke. It is afternoon, the Eritrean cafes are getting crowded. All tables are occupied and laughter fills the room. You could be thinking that those who are sitting here made it, they left behind the worst part of their lives. However, you would be fooled. In fact, Eritrea is not just situated in the Horn of Africa. It is right in the heart of Frankfurt.