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We spoke to the activists pushing for change in Eritrea, Africa's North Korea

One in 10 refugees arriving in Europe is fleeing the human rights abuses of the Eritrean regime. Working for change in Eritrea can be deadly, but that is not deterring some activists.
Photo by Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

In BLACKOUT, a series made possible by Jigsaw, VICE News takes viewers across the globe, from Pakistan to Belarus, to examine technology's role in the ongoing fight for free expression. Watch the rest of the series here.

Each month, thousands of people flee the tiny African country of Eritrea, making dangerous trips to neighboring countries like Ethiopia or taking various sea and land routes in an attempt to reach countries all over the world.


Eritreans have been risking their lives by the thousands to escape poverty, dictatorial rule, and human rights abuses for years. Early defectors made their way out even before the country gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Now, one in every 10 migrants aiming to get to Europe hails from the country of 6 million people. More than 30,000 Eritrean migrants arrived in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean in 2015.

President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea since independence using a system of fear and intimidation to maintain control on society. Under his leadership the country has become one of the most censored nations in the world, often referred to as Africa's North Korea.

A series of reports from a United Nations human rights commission of inquiry in the last year documented several human rights abuses and accused the regime of crimes against humanity. The government has strongly denied these accusations and consistently accused Western governments of being biased against Eritrea.

Still, an estimated 400,000 Eritreans have fled the country in recent years. As the diaspora population has grown, Eritreans living outside the country have formed a sprawling activist network employing radio stations, phone hotlines, robocalling systems, and undercover sources inside the country to gather information and also to disseminate material internally. Often, these activists devote most of their time to tracking migrant boats, counseling people wishing to defect, and pushing for regime change.


Selam Kidane is one of those activists. Selam was born and raised by Eritrean parents in Ethiopia before moving to the UK as a refugee. A trauma researcher by profession, she is one of the founding members of Freedom Friday, an Eritrean diaspora campaign that started in 2011 with a call to action asking Eritreans to stay home on Fridays in protest.

Watch VICE News' Blackout: Leaks from Eritrea, Africa's North Korea

We spoke to Selam, who also appears in the Blackout documentary,about the work she and her fellow activists have been doing to improve the situation in a country they cannot return to.


How did you end up involved with Freedom Friday?
Freedom Friday is a result of many activists trying to come up with a safe yet effective way of encouraging collective action for change in Eritrea. As you know, Eritrea is run by a ruthless dictator who is strangling an entire nation of people who have very little right in their own country. People are too afraid to protest and society has been fragmented, hence people are too suspicious to discuss a collective solution to their problem. So we needed some way of getting people to rise above that fear and show their protest.

So in 2011 we decided we were going to ask people to stay indoors every Friday evening and empty the streets as a way of protesting human rights violations in the country. Now the challenge was how to get the message to the average person on the streets, and since there are no independent newspapers or radio stations we decided to use the telephone. So we started calling people and then later increased that to making automated calls customarily used here by telemarketing companies. We had a wide reach and Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) became a household name, and people became very aware of our simple call: stay at home and show your outrage.


Why do you do this work?
Personally, I think it is the only response to the level of injustice that any normal human being should have. The question should be why isn't every Eritrean doing this? I really don't understand silence in the face of injustice.

Do you worry about endangering people inside the country?
Yes, and I often have to say no to good suggestions made by colleagues inside Eritrea, as the level of risk involved is far too big for me to consider. All of what our colleagues inside the country do is very dangerous and I get really worried every single day that something will happen and I will live to regret it.

What do you think the biggest misconception is about Eritrea?
Well, up until a couple of years ago the biggest misconception was that things can't really be that bad. People think we are exaggerating about the level of violations in the country. The fact that national service is indefinite, the fact that churches that are not approved by the president are illegal, that parliament was disbanded permanently in 2002, all journalists not working for the government are either in prison or in exile. That 11 senior politicians and thousands of people accused of supporting their call for reform disappeared in 2001 and have never been confirmed alive since. People understandably found this a reality too difficult to even imagine.

Are there any recent trends from people within the country that make you optimistic that the situation will improve?
I think I see a level of boldness in people inside the country and this is a result of the fact that people are finally thinking it is so bad that it can't get worse. And also the growing recognition of the problems at the international level are giving people something to hope for and I am optimistic that we are now beginning to change the momentum.


How are Eritrean refugees supported once they arrive in Europe? People talk a lot about how the culture of fear stays with Eritreans even after they leave, is that true for the recent groups fleeing the country?
Yes, often it takes years before people realize they are actually safe. As I said earlier I am interested in trauma and particularly collective trauma and this is a very live issue for us as a community.

Is there anything else that you feel like does not get discussed enough when it comes to Eritrea?
I don't think many people know about the level of organization of the civil society organizations of the Eritrean diaspora. We have over the years managed to mobilize a significant proportion of the communities starting from scratch. Not that long ago resisting the regime in Eritrea was a rare if ever occurrence even in the diaspora, but now you see thousands of people at rallies and also in social media actively engaged in resistance activities. Last month Geneva, Tel Aviv, and Addis [Abeba] alone saw over 30,000 people on their streets in a simultaneous event protesting crimes against humanity in Eritrea and demanding that the Eritrean leaders responsible be held accountable for these crimes that were reported by the UN human rights commission following a two-year investigation.

What are some of the biggest sacrifices you have made for this cause?
By far the biggest one is being unable to visit Eritrea. Being unable to show my children their ancestral land. Not being there to bury relatives that pass away and not being near my aging parents.

What comes to mind when you think of a day when you can travel freely back to Eritrea?
Just thinking about it makes me smile — a bittersweet smile, that is. I am currently working in Uganda and am only a couple of hours' flight away but I will return to London without setting foot in Eritrea…

What gives you hope for Eritrea's future?
The fact that the sun always does shine and that even at the end of the longest night there is a bright dawn.