"Freedom from fear is as important as freedom from want. It is impossible to truly enjoy one of these rights without the other”. This insight from Amartya Sen is probably a statement many Eritreans, if not all, can relate to. Eritreans comprise the second largest group fleeing to Europe in the current crisis. Eritreans have been amongst the largest group of refugees for years on end. This is not because of war, but because of official slavery; forced labour with a monthly salary that is insufficient to cover basic needs under the guise of military service.
Today’s generation of Eritreans are the children of freedom fighters: those who sacrificed their lives to become independent of Ethiopia. Many wonder what freedom really means as it certainly feels odd that their current situation would be what the world knows as freedom.
Although Eritrea has not been in war since 2001, the government still requires every man and every unmarried woman, between 18 and 50, to do military service. The ‘official’ length of this military service is supposed to be about 18 months, however people that have fled the country report that they do not know any people who were let out of the military; they are kept in service for an indefinite period. They are being forced to perform labour for companies, which are partially owned by the state. This medieval slavery in modern times serves mainly to both intimidate the Eritrean people and for the regime to sustain itself economically.
Eritreans might be the people with the least luck in terms of where they are born. The government resembles a mafia-like regime accountable for widespread torture of its people throughout the country, according to the United Nations. The government controls, invigilates and exploits its people to such an extent that it is sometimes referred to as the North Korea of Africa, and this might be an understatement. Their surveillance is Orwellian in a sense that people are expected to betray each other when one is trying to flee.
Tired of being slaved away for years on end, more and more Eritreans are not letting their lives be influenced by the regimes intimidating practices. Not even the policy of shoot-to-kill at the borders, the life-threatening detention and torture they face when they are caught attempting to escape or when they have to return after having escaped illegally, stops them from fleeing their country.
Many of the refugees are minors who flee the slavery, which leaves villages completely depleted. The independence from Ethiopia gave many Eritreans hope for a prosperous future, sadly more than 20 years later, young Eritreans still see no signs of a better future for themselves in their home country. The regime has robbed them from developing their potential, which made them lose all their hopes and dreams. “The government has appropriated the dreams of Eritrea’s youth by turning them into machines of endless servitude”.
…but little by little hope will regain
Repressing an entire population never holds strong forever. It requires the people to be intimidated, scared, and somehow willing to be repressed. Luckily, Eritreans are not. In 2013, Eritreans outside the country launched a campaign called 'Freedom Friday', in which they ask people who are still in the country to stay at home for a day to quietly voice their opposition to the government. This sparked an underground movement in Eritrea that is growing until today. Citizens dare to openly criticize the regime by pasting posters and calling for protest in public spaces.
The uprising of an opposition is also nurtured by the disappearance of essentials like water, electricity, petrol, and even food, which has become increasingly expensive to such an extent middle-class families can hardly afford it. This illustrates that freedom from want just as much as freedom from fear is an essential necessity for every human being. If we are deprived of any of these freedoms we are unable to develop in a positive direction. The upcoming rebellion in Eritrea might mean that the Eritrean people will maybe one day experience these freedoms after all.
Written by Sabrina Gehrlein and published on 24-October-2015