It was Africa’s longest war. For 30 years, Eritrea, a small state nearly edged off the land in the northeast of the continent, fought Ethiopia for its independence. The rebel army, which never had more than 110,000 fighters, and had foreign states withdraw their support at crucial moments, took on a heavily armed and Soviet-backed Ethiopian force and triumphed. In defiance of military statistics, of informed opinion, and of simple logic, the little country’s sheer persistence brought it its independence in May of 1991.
At last achieving its own country, the people of Eritrea felt a profound sense of hope and expectation and, considering the improbability of what it had just accomplished, everything felt possible. But now, 20 years since that momentous month of May, many of us Eritreans can’t deny that this project is unfinished.
Eritrea has no independent media. In 2001, the state came down hard on journalists who voiced their criticisms. Jailed, tortured, some even killed, the country has no journalists who are free to write or say what they think. Eritrea has a one-party political system, with the president, Isaias Afwerki, maintaining power since independence. Often deemed the North Korea of Africa, the state has taken to planting spies to inform on citizens critical of the government.
Between 1998 and 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia yet again took up arms, fighting over which side of the border some regions should lie. The long-term effect of the border dispute was the establishment of a national service program which would conscript everyone between the ages of 18 and 50. What began as a program which would have citizens serve about a year and a half has evolved into indefinitely long deployments. Some find themselves forced into the military for years, unable to pursue their chosen paths.
The country has become a military state. The economy appears to exist only to fund its army—a force propped up to defend against largely exaggerated enemies. Putting all its resources into fighting Ethiopia has crippled the domestic landscape. People are suffering—and yet Afwerki refuses support from international NGOs—and the future looks bleak when the state has even gone as far as shutting down the only university.
In the face of this stark reality, Eritreans are leaving the country. But because it’s illegal to do so—people are shot at the border if caught escaping, and, if they succeed, their family is often targeted—the risks are incredible. A wave of stories has emerged recently, telling us of how Eritreans pay human traffickers to take them across North Africa into Europe or the Middle East, only to be taken hostage, raped, tortured, and held for ransom. Escaping abysmal prospects back home, they’ve inadvertently run right into the arms of their exploiters.
What were once our country’s most admirable qualities—our self-reliance in the face of consistent betrayal and our willingness to fight—have transformed into isolation from the international community and a fixation on the, relatively minor, threat posed by Ethiopia. But this can change.
The 20th anniversary of our country’s independence should mark more than that victory. We should use this time to reflect on what we can do to improve conditions in Eritrea. It would be a shame if our courageous countrymen, who fought in the liberation struggle and longed for freedom and a life of peace and prosperity, will have done so much and lost more than we can imagine for nothing.
Daniel Tseghay works as a director at ACORN Canada.