Lesser Known Dictatorships: Eritrea

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By Shwan Haddad


One country we all think of when we think of brutal dictatorships is North Korea.

But did you know that there is a country, that is quite often compared to them?

Eritrea has quite the reputation among human rights watch groups.

Topographic map of Eritrea

Often called the “North Korea” of Africa, the country has been under the regime of Isaias Afwerki, since the early 1990s following thirty years of war.

Reporters without borders reported that as of 2021, the State of Eritrea has the worst press freedom overall.

There have been no elections in Eritrea since 1993, when the country received de jure independence.

The UN Human Right Council said:

“No national elections have taken place since that time, and no presidential elections have ever taken place. Local or regional elections have not been held since 2003–2004.The National Assembly elected independent Eritrea’s first president, Isaias Afwerki, in 1993. Following his election, Afwerki consolidated his control of the Eritrean government.”

Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s long time Dictator

Not to mention that the country is the fourth poorest country in the world.

While there are some promising signs in terms of economic improvement, there still isn’t that much to be said in terms of how it currently stands.

What’s it like over there?

Keriya, a young woman, who fled Eritrea at age 19 told us about her experience living under the regime.

She grew up in the city of Dekemhare and told us about what her life was like and what she saw happening in the country.

We asked how her early life was and she told us that:

“Everything was amazing I would say, we had a very big family, our dad was a driver, he had his own truck and we had a good life, relative to other people, because for most families, the father is a soldier, and they earn, maybe £30 a month.”

She then explains:

“Things then started to change, after, from what I can remember in 2008, because of the recession, which hurt Eritrea really bad, everyone was a beggar. There was not enough food, there was no rain, because of a drought, and nothing grew”

Two Eritrean Boys gathering water.

She continued with:

“During that time, my dad had a really hard time and he had to leave the country because of that. So he left, and sold his truck and went to Kenya and tried to start a life there, but he couldn’t because of language barriers, and life wasn’t as easy as it was, back at home, so he had to move again and he went to Ethiopia.”

Keriya then tell us about how one by one everybody in her family started being called up for military service, which is mandatory for both men and women.

And how her home started to become more lonely due as one by one her family began to leave.

She also tells us how she had to take part in military training at age 17 at SAWA.

SAWA doubles up as both a military training camp and as a final place for education for youngsters in the country, before they can enter college.

The internet is also hard to access in Eritrea, according to Keriya.

You have to go to specific ‘internet cafés’ to use the internet, which is censored by the government.

Owning a SIM card is prohibited to people under the age of 35, even though residents can have phones.

There is also only one ‘allowed’ TV channel in Eritrea, which serves as a propaganda outlet in the country.

Keriya also tells us that the only education about other countries they get, is that everyone is after them.

Afwerki often accuses the outside world for the situation in Eritrea, and this is all Eritreans learn about the outside world.

She told us that support for Afwerki is fanatical.

She says:

“It is religious, they deny all the bad things happening in the country, they do know that there is bad things happening but they deny it, they’re brainwashed.”

The poverty in Eritrea

Keriya also told us what happened the last time someone caused a protest:

“The veterans of the war with Ethiopia once tried to raise their concerns and caused a strike, and do you know what happened to them? They all were shot down by the police and the army.”

When were your eyes opened?

We then asked her when she started seeing how wrong her situation was.

She explains that her eyes were opened while at SAWA camp, when she was observing the instructors there.

She told us:

“They (the instructors) were not educated very well, I’m not even sure if they could read, they were just soldiers, and didn’t seem to know about how to manage human beings, and at the end of the year, we were told that we could go back home for a month, and then come back to SAWA to get our results. When I heard that, it really broke my heart, I was wishing to never go back to SAWA even for that reason.”

She then further explains why they had to go back.

She says:

“We were about 22,000 students that year, and I’m quite sure, that out of those 22,000 people, only 2000 actually passed their exams.”

She then told me how the conditions in SAWA, seemed to have contributed to this.

Keriya explains to us that she thinks the reason why so many failed was because the camp was made to be too difficult to study under.

Military service can be indefinite, leading to many being stuck there for a lifelong term, unless they are released.

Mandatory military service is for both men and women in the country.

Though the average time spent in the army is about 6.5 years.

We asked her how employment in Eritrea works and she told us that people are assigned jobs by the Government.

She explains:

“You get assigned a job, nobody gets to choose their job. Most of the time, you get assigned as a teacher.”

Keriya explains to us that this is why she left Eritrea during the middle of her studies in college.

She didn’t see any hope or future in Eritrea.

Prison Camps

She also tells about the prison camps in Eritrea, which are described as ‘Nazi Concentration Camps’.

She tells us that they are kept a secret by the government.

The UN reports mass extra-judicial killings inside these camps as well as slave labour and torture of prisoners.

When we asked her about what could get you sent there she said:

“The worst crime you could do to get yourself sent there was to step out of line and tried to say anything about the situation there. If you’re caught saying anything, you disappear, and nobody knows where you went.”

Eiraeiro Prison near the capital Asmara

She also tells us that you are imprisoned if you do not conform to the three prescribed religions in Eritrea (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Islam), 

Fleeing is a shootable offense and soldiers have shoot-to-kill orders when encounter those who try to flee the country.

We then ask her how people are caught doing any of these things.

She explains that the government pays ordinary citizens to act as spies who report on any ‘elicit activities’.

Is there hope for Eritrea?

Keriya tells us that she doesn’t see a good future in the time to come yet in Eritrea.

She tells us:

“I don’t see change coming soon, because I feel like the people are fed up with the whole situation. Eritrea has been colonised and has been at war for years and everyone’s tired. Nobody has the motivation to fight back anymore”

She goes on to say:

“There are around 500,00 Eritreans around the world, most of them are the youth, most people in Eritrea are old or children, do expect them to fight back? The youth chose to flee, and they’re spread around the world trying to settle down and make something out of their lives, they don’t feel like going to war again. I don’t see people gathering to start a revolution.”

She then goes on to say:

“I feel like in the future, with knowledge, technology, and with money, maybe in the future the Eritrean people will do something about the situation there.”

So what now for Eritrea?

Afwerki has been in charge for nearly thirty years, and it looks like his son is next in line.

With slow economic growth, here is much that the people there can do to get rid of Afwerkis regime.

Anytime they are questioned about their human rights they deflect or lay blame on others.

Only time can tell what will happen there.


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