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Feature: Weekend of contrasting realities in Eritrea as Martyrs’ Day coincides with World Refugee Day

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: IOM

By Zecharias Zelalem @ZekuZelalem

Addis Abeba, June 26/2020 – Twenty-three year old Simon left his native Eritrea seven years ago, crossing the border into neighboring Ethiopia where he still resides. He uses remittances from relatives in Canada to rent a two room apartment in Addis Abeba’s Lafto district, which he shares with two fellow Eritrean refugees. “I feel stuck here,” he says, “it’s like my life came to a halt.”

Simon fled Eritrea as a 17 year old teenage to avoid being drafted into mandatory military service that in Eritrea, which critics lament can go on for years without end. He says his father sold cattle to pay a smuggler to get him across the border into Ethiopia. Currently registered as a refugee with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he hopes to be resettled in Europe or North America. But the years of waiting are taking a toll on him.

“I haven’t gone to school or done anything with my life since coming here,” says Simon, who bemoaned the slow pace of the resettlement process. “I have another brother who has spent three years in Sudan. I use movies and music to try and forget that I’m just wasting away here.”

Simon’s family situation, where children are cut off from parents and other relatives for years, is common in Eritrea, one of the largest per capita producers of refugees in the world. There are over 170,000 refugees like Simon, who left behind families in Eritrea to cross into Ethiopia. The UN estimates that there may be over 500,000 Eritrean refugees around the world, almost 10% of Eritrea’s population of around 6 million people.

Lack of prospects, conscription into often endless military service, monopolization of the business sector by the government and marginalization of religious minorities, all contribute to the exodus. It has led to growing numbers of ageing parents who are separated from children caught up in a life of perpetual limbo in migrant corridors such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Egypt and Israel. But the impact of the migration induced breakup of families on Eritrea’s social fabric may currently be impossible to fully assess.

That’s because Eritrea’s government, run by President Isaias Afwerki since 1991, maintains strict controls on life in the country. Press freedoms advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has consistently ranked Eritrea on par with the likes of Turkmenistan as the world’s worst violators of press freedoms over the past decade. Conducting a study that would highlight government policy failures isn’t feasible in Eritrea.

The UN’s World Refugee Day, which was observed this past weekend, is often commemorated around the world with the plight of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa in mind. This year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Foreign Ministries of Pakistan and France among others, issued statements honoring the day. Egyptian football star Mohammed Salah called on world leaders to ensure refugees have greater access to education.

But there was no mention of World Refugee Day in Eritrea, where June 20 is Martyr’s Day. Eritreans commemorate their fallen war heroes, among them the 60,000 Eritreans who died fighting the Ethiopian army in the country’s war for independence that ended in 1991.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki after laying a wreath in honor of Eritrea’s fallen fighters as two members of Eritrea’s security forces in ceremonial attire salute their fallen comrades on Martyrs’ Day (Image: Eritrean Ministry of Information)

Normally, crowds descend on Asmara to take part in Martyrs’ Day commemoration ceremonies, but this year, covid-19 social distancing regulations prohibited this. Nevertheless, state media played patriotic tunes, and a smaller ceremony featuring songs and celebrating Eritrean martyrs were broadcast via state television outlet Eri TV. The state run English language newspaper Eritrea Profile dedicated three quarters of its Saturday edition to the Martyrs’ Day holiday. An effort to raise funds for families of fallen martyrs was highlighted in the newspaper, under the campaign slogan “Honoring them by Honoring the Families they Left Behind.”

But there is little evidence that anything is being done to honor the growing number of Eritrean families torn apart by the desire to flee the country. Nor is there any official honoring of Eritrean refugees, victims of horrific tragedies such as the 2013 Lampedusa disaster where 360 migrants, mostly Eritreans, drowned when their vessel capsized in the Mediterranean. Or the thousands, tortured or killed after having been kidnapped by traffickers in Egypt’s Sinai region. The Eritrean Ministry of Information’s depiction of the day was solely of “patriotic zeal.” The state media portrayal is likely to contrast with the collective sentiment of the many who struggle to cope.

The impact on the mental health of families longing to be reunited with loved ones or reeling from deaths, is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that their suffering is done in silence.

Eritrean refugees at a processing center in the town of Shire, shortly after having crossed the border with Ethiopia, November 9, 2017 (Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri)

An Eritrean army veteran of Eritrea’s 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia described his own family’s situation to Addis Standard.

“I’ve been a refugee in Addis Abeba for seven months now. I lost a brother to war,” explains the former soldier who requested anonymity. “Martyrs’ Day brings up memories of comrades who died, but the sadness of my parents who mourn one son and are separated from another, hurts me deeply.”

Cemetery for Eritrean victims of the Lampedusa disaster on the Italian island of Sicily (Image: Refugees Deeply)

Sweden based Eritrean activist Meron Estifanos has spent years as an Eritrean refugee advocate, going as far as paying ransoms to save the lives of migrants at the mercy of traffickers in Egypt.

“The children of the martyrs we remember and honor in Eritrea every year are the ones suffering and dying around the world today, as refugees,” Meron Estifanos told Addis Standard.

Their plight, commemorated elsewhere on World Refugee Day, remains overshadowed in Eritrea. AS

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