By Angelica Linde
For 25 years Isaias Afwerki, president of Eritrea, has slowly but steadily taken away rights after right from his countrymen. Today, the country has one tv channel and one newspaper, both of whom are filled exclusively with propaganda.
“People call Eritrea ‘Africa’s North Korea’. I don’t agree with them. I think Eritrea is worse”, Matteous Mebrahtu says. “At least they have a one party system in North Korea. In Eritrea it’s a one man system. The only one in the government who is not in prison is the president himself. He was the put the other ones there.”
Matteous Mebrahtu fled from Eritrea to Etiopia in 1998. At that time, Isaias Afwerki had been leading the country for seven years, and been a president for five. Back then, things weren’t quite as bad as they are now, Mebrahtu says. “We didn’t have a tv station, but we did have multiple private newspapers. You see, Afwerki took the power very slowly, he didn’t do it all at once. So back then it was still okay.”
Today the country has one newspaper called Haddas Eritrea and one tv channel called ERI-TV. Both of them are run by the state. Private media outlets are illegal in the country. “I’ve read the paper and I don’t like it. It’s all propaganda. They promise things they don’t keep, and says they’re doing great things they’re in fact not doing. And most people know that they’re lying”, Matteous Mebrahtu says.
It was in 2001, when the president decided to arrest and imprison 20 critics and journalists who had independent newspapers, that the independent press of the country was destroyed. Nobody still knows where they are, but half of them are said to be dead. Mebrahtu says they are in underground prisons, living in the dark. He knows what it is like, he spent 3 years in one of those in Etiopia for the only reason that he was from Eritrea.
“Imagine sitting there in the dark, day after day, not knowing what is going to happen. These people never got to go to court. They don’t know their sentance, how long they will have to stay there. And nobody knows how to save them.”
In Eritrea, no one can be trusted. Your son, friend or neighbour can be a spy, ready to report you if you say anything you are not aloud to say. You can end up in prison if you are in opposition of the president, if you are any other religion than muslim, catholic or ortodox, if you want to end your military service or if you try to leave the country. “Eritrea is hell. If the soldiers see you try to leave there is a ‘shoot to kill rule’. And if you manage to escape, your parents will probably end up in prison for you.” Matteous Mebrathu says.
Matteous has been living in Sweden for 8 years, and one of his strongest memories except reuniting with his family was the first time he got to vote. “Before I came to Sweden I had never voted in my life, and I am 60 years old. I was very happy when I first got to do it, it was beautiful. At the same time I was sad for not being able to have my voice heard for so many years. I am very lucky to get out of that hell.”