Eritrea – Under Siege

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“Operation Forto” is the name given to the incident that happened on January 21st    this year, which shook the regime of Isayas Afeworki to its core. Foreign media spoke of a “failed coup”. However, the government downplayed Operation Forto, as “a coup which never existed”.  Our correspondent reports.
eri5Residents in the capital Asmara were unaware of what was taking place. Around 10.30 am about 200 well armed soldiers, accompanied with 4 tanks, controlled the Ministry of Information located at Forto (one of the Top Hills) west of Asmara. The soldiers put all the staff in one room and forced the acting director of Eritrean TV, Asmelash Abraha, to broadcast a communiqué demanding for the implementation of 1997 constitution and the release of all political prisoners. One of the staff among the hostages whom we contacted by phone described the incident “horrifying”. Such things never happened in Eritrea, and that is why nobody could understand what was happening. The regime externally exhibits strength with overconfident attitudes and presents itself, popular, lovable, prosperous, etc; but Operation Forto revealed its weaknesses beyond repair.
According to our contacts the hostages were released in the evening ending the siege after a long negotiation between the mutineers and army generals of the regime.  According to our sources some of the mutineers are arrested and Colonel Said Ali Hijay committed suicide near the border with Ethiopia during a shoot out to avoid arrest. Some politicians are also in custody. But the big fishes who masterminded the operation are still unscathed.  Sources from the country say, the operation failed to go on board as planned because some leaked the information and the army garrisons who were supposed to occupy other key places in the capital refrained.  
eri2Did Operation Forto accomplish its mission? Yes and no; it depends how one weights the scale! As it failed to unseat the dictatorial regime definitely the answer is no. But it gave a clear message to the Eritrean populace and to the president himself that no regime is eternal, including his. In fact, many analysts say that it was the Arab Spring of Eritrea.  According to opinion poll conducted by the opposition web site Awate, 70% Eritreans believe that Operation Forto was the beginning of something big!!  Whatever the case, the effects are still lingering and time will judge.
The highest number of prisoners in the world.
Operation Forto January 21st revealed something important not so much to Eritreans, but to the outside world, who have faint knowledge of what is happening in the country. Since the day the regime of Isayas entered Asmara, May 24th 1991, it has always been described by the foreign media as secretive and oppressive. Neither the 30 years of Liberation struggle were different, as far as governance is concerned. Prominent intellectuals who challenged the system were secretly eliminated in the barren mountains during the guerilla war. For those who may not know Isayas was trained in China. Knowledgeable veteran ex-combatants say his methods have always being typically Maoist, though never declared overtly.
eri3According to the UN and many other international organizations Eritrea ranks among the last in many aspects: human rights records, economy, freedom of press/religion/movement, etc. In proportion to its population, Eritrea has the highest number of prisons and prisoners in the world. On the same line it has the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world. According to the UN Refugee High Commissioner, 3000 Eritreans cross the border either to Sudan or Ethiopia every month risking their lives. The border patrols have orders to shoot anybody found trying to cross the borders without permits. On the other hand the youth have no choice, rather than rotting in the country without future they prefer to risk their lives and escape from the military conscription which can last more than 10 years without payment. Men under 50 and women under 45 are not allowed to leave the country legally. The youth need lassie passé even to move within the country itself.
On late the situation of Eritrean refugees in the Sinai has become of major concern. They are the main victims of human trafficking and organ removal. Just how many Eritreans have been kidnapped isn’t known, in part because the global nature of the extortion has limited the ability of any law enforcement authority to track it. But according to a joint study by the Physicians for Human Rights and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, two Israeli nonprofits that run clinics treating victims, an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Eritrean refugees who arrived in that country in the past three years had been tortured. Another 4,000 Eritreans have disappeared and many are presumed dead, according to testimony for the European Union.
Eritrean Refugees
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 250,000 Eritreans have fled the country, about half in the past 10 years, which places the country ninth in the top 10 source countries of refugees. “The country is hemorrhaging human capital,” said Tricia Hepner, a specialist on the Horn of Africa at the University of Tennessee. “The scale of displacement is comparable to what you’d see in eri4famine or civil war.” The opposition web sites have been posting names and photos of human traffickers and traders of human organs. Ironically the tops names are Eritrean government Generals and businessmen with the tacit blessing of the regime. In January this year the Eritrean Government expressed its worry to the Egyptian and Israel governments about the condition of its refugees. Till this year the government has always denied the huge exodus of its population, including the defection of the national team, musician celebrities and government officials like Ali Abdu, the ex acting minister of Information who asked political asylum in Canada. In the last two years many of the national team squad asked political asylum three times in Eastern African countries and they were granted, the last being in Uganda. The national media either kept quiet or denied the multiple defections. Why the government decided to speak out about the condition of its refugees at this particular moment is unclear. But many human right activists say to be credible the regime should first bring to the book the culprits within its ranks. Otherwise the move is too late and too little.
The public inside Eritrea has no media outlet, unless one owns satellite TV stations. Eritrea has two TV channels, one radio station, one FM and one mobile phone service, all owned by the government! Compared to many African countries, Eritrea is, not surprisingly, far way behind. Everybody is asking for how long can the situation of suffering and isolation in Eritrea continue? Many people hoped that with the discovery of huge Gold reservoir in many parts of the country would urge the government to open up a bit for economic profits. But it seems it is not appening. On the contrary, the regime and the international companies digging the gold are accused by human right activists of using free labor the military conscripts, and favoring the foreign workers at the expense of the local nationals. A normal government always defends the rights of its nationals. But what observers say is that the salary due to the local employees is pocketed by the Eritrean government and its officials illegally with the excuse of “national service”.
The president is ill-health with the need of constant medical checkup in Qatar. Insiders talk of liver cancer due too much alcohol abuse. Last year the news of his death brought a lot of turmoil in the country, discrediting the opposition web sites who broke the news. In any, case it was a wishful thinking rather than a lie.  The regime, like all the other communist regimes, survives due to highly sophisticated secret agent system, which are paid luxiourlsy and given villas in the capital, unlawfully snatched from rightful owners. Even family members do not trust each other.  The first thing family members tell their visiting member from Europe or North America is “keep your mouth shut: Eritrean is not America or Europe”!
Mehari Tekle


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