Two decades after shutting down free media, Eritrea remains a ‘locked door’

By Matthew Norman

HISTORICALLY, Eritrea has manoeuvred its way around the world’s spotlight.

On September 18, 2001, in a morning radio broadcast, the Eritrean government ordered all independent media outlets in the country to shut down and announced that all media would be state controlled from that day onwards.

Following this, dawn raids were carried out and many prominent journalists detained. Some still locked away to this day. It’s no accident that this attack on freedom took place only one week after 9/11.

The Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, knew the eyes of the world would be set on the US and not on the eradication of liberty in a small Horn of Africa nation.

Twenty years later, Eritrea remains a locked door, and although some journalists and human rights workers have managed to infiltrate ‘behind the scenes’, there’s still a lot of information that can’t be gathered by outside sources. To learn more about the inner workings of the country, we spoke with Simon, now a student in the US having escaped Eritrea only a few years ago.

“Every citizen is employed under the government. We have not seen any company, or business open since 1991. All those owned or run by citizens are old businesses which have been serving for 30+ years.

Simon told us how the state keeps track of student information, ready to group them into the different sections of national service:

“From Kindergarten or elementary you’ll have a file. This file holds all your academic records. A student is issued a student copy for records but not any original documents. This file is not accessible to any student and from kindergarten it’s sent to your elementary school. And then to middle school and to high school. All these transfers of the file are internal.”

Students in Eritrea are categorised and filtered into a premade system of work depending on their grades. The grade which determines the rest of their life is the one given for the matriculation exam at Sawa Military Camp, the complex where all 12th grade students complete their final year of high school, and the next drop-off point for each student’s internal file.

“After completing Sawa matriculation examination, results will be available to students at the end of the year. And only those who score a GPA of 1.2-4.0 will be sent back home for a month of break.” After this break “1.2-1.8 scorers will continue school to earn their diploma (associate of science or arts), and those whose score is 2.0+ will join bachelor’s degree colleges.

But the 85 per cent of students who score below 1.0 GPA remain in Sawa Military Camp. Scores of 0.2-1.0 will stay in Sawa for a year of technical course, and the others will join the military and depart to their respective military locations directly from Sawa. It can be at the borders, in cities, in the port, airforce…They depart from Sawa and start their endless service.”

Simon achieved a 4.0 GPA in his matriculation exam and was sent to Eritrea institute of Technology, an institute made up of three colleges and attended by around 5000 students. He says this number is “Less than 5 per cent of high school graduates.” But even for those who achieve the necessary grades for further or higher education, the future is still bleak:

“Even if you complete your bachelor’s or associate’s you’ll serve for life from the day of your graduation. And you still won’t be handed the file. Which continues to go to the college and then to your respective ministry, who you’ll be working for.”

Simon shared that his father used to serve under the “National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS)”, a governmental organization that manages propaganda events. Simon’s father worked for NUEYS from 2002, “right after he returned from the 1998 border war.”

Simon told us that his father’s superiors routinely gave him time off and continued to report him as being ‘active’, which allowed them to carry on collecting his wages.

“He was being reported as active, but it was for the benefit of him and his bosses, who were taking his salary. The reason he wasn’t working was because he was working full time at the business we had in Asmara (formerly my grandfather’s).”

But this had consequences for Simon’s father “after imprisonment of the NUEYS chairman, he [Simon’s father] was called back by the new boss, and they sent him to jail as they found out he wasn’t working.

After being jailed, he was released and there was a ‘public army’ program, which ordered all elderly people and exempts to return back to take military training. This was a national program and all people up to the age of 70 were forced into it. And my dad was not an exception.”   

Featured Image: US Department of Defense @WikimediaCommons

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