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Eritrean Independence Day: why the diaspora is at war with itself

Police forces around the world are preparing for Eritrea’s independence day this Friday, fearing violent clashes, as disgruntled Eritreans who cannot protest at home can do so at events abroad to mark the day in that the country was born, 33 years ago. Some countries have even banned celebrations.

It was a hard-won battle to liberate Ethiopia after a three-decade conflict. But the anniversary is bittersweet for some, as the promised freedoms never materialized.

President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea for the past 33 years without holding national elections.

It is the only country in the world that does not have a constitution. No form of political dissent and association outside the ruling PFDJ movement is permitted.

There has been no free press since the closure of independent newspapers and the arrest of most of their editors and journalists in 2001.

Hundreds of thousands of young Eritreans have escaped into the diaspora, many of them undertaking dangerous journeys to escape the indefinite conscription that is the fate of any able-bodied citizen.

Thanks to this mandatory national service, Eritrea has become one of the most militarized societies in the world.

It is from this group of Eritrean immigrants that a new form of opposition has been formed in the diaspora, with a much more radical tone.

They are fed up with the fragmented exiled opposition groups, made up of, among others, disillusioned former senior government leaders and the PFDJ.

Determined to fight the regime they believe forced them to leave their country, they formed a militant youth group two years ago, known as the Ni’hamedu Brigade.

Their battlefield is national pro-government anniversaries and festivals organized by embassies and pro-government communities.

Image source, fake images

Screenshot, Eritrea is one of the most militarized societies in the world

Given Eritrea’s history, there is a great mix of communities abroad, including people who left during the war, sent money home to support those fighting, and who are still proud that their efforts enabled the creation of a new nation. .

Opposition activists in exile have long said they have been harassed and intimidated by the PFDJ even in countries where they have sought refuge.

Robel Asmelash, president of the British branch of the Ni’hamedu Brigade, says his contemporaries feel it is time to fight back.

“People have been denied the right to express their opposition peacefully,” the 27-year-old taxi driver, who fled military service in 2013, told the BBC.

Their campaign is also known by the name “Blue Revolution,” a reference to the blue flag created in 1952 when British-administered Eritrea became an autonomous region of Ethiopia before later being annexed.

It has branches all over the world and insists that no pro-government events should be allowed to take place.

Over the past year, Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have witnessed violent clashes at these meetings.

The two rival groups have used stones, sticks and, in some cases, knives to attack each other.

In Tel Aviv tension has escalated into tit-for-tat attacks and a few weeks ago a Blue Revolution activist was murdered, leaving behind four children and a wife.

A government supporter is reportedly fighting for his life in hospital after being seriously injured earlier in the day.

Screenshot, Violent fighting between rival Eritrean communities has been witnessed in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Last week, London police released photographs of Eritreans wanted for their involvement in an attack in December, when they stormed a pro-government event being held at a theater in Camberwell and injured several officers.

“The level of violence used against officers, who were there to keep the public safe and protect people in a theater, is one of the worst I have ever seen,” said a detective investigating the matter.

“So far we have arrested 44 people for a range of offenses related to this demonstration and we are continuing to make progress, however there are still a number of suspects outstanding to identify which we need the public’s help.”

The action of the Blue Revolution is having some effect, as the Swiss authorities have denied permission for this year’s national day celebrations to take place.

The Eritrean embassy in Switzerland was shocked and accused the authorities of appeasing “violent thugs”.

The Dutch city of Rijswijk also banned independence day gatherings.

Robel admits that things initially got out of control at some events, but claims that members of the Ni’hamedu Brigade have also been attacked.

“In the beginning, there was no leadership to manage things and take security responsibly; as a result, many of our members were victims of violence,” he said.

“But now, in every country, Ni’hamedu Brigade leaders are raising awareness about protest laws.

“In coordination with law enforcement, we will continue our resistance.”

Because he is aware that not only his contemporaries have become radicalized.

A generation of Eritreans born in the diaspora, whose families are more aligned with the government, has also mobilized.

The ruling PFDJ has created a youth wing for the diaspora, described by one of its officials as a “militant” group.

Created in 2005, the Youth Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ) was created to denounce “the lies spread by the enemies of Eritrea,” according to the state news site.

Some of those recruited have even traveled to Eritrea to participate in military training at the famous Sawa training camp, although unlike Eritrean-born recruits, they are free to leave.

In fact, President Isaías, who has never ended his country’s war situation, introduced a new system of government in 2017, known as the “Four Challenge Fronts”:

  • The first three fronts – Eastern, Central and Western – operate in the country and include the army commanders in their respective regions.
  • The Fourth Front, called 4G from its Tigrinya acronym, is organized and mobilized by Eritrean embassies and enthusiastic YPFDJ branches abroad.

Daniel Teklai, an Eritrean based in California, United States, who describes himself as a nationalist rather than a supporter of the PFDJ, told the BBC that this conceived of the diaspora as an “economic zone”.

The 53-year-old banking professional says it is a mistake to consider that many Eritreans in the diaspora who send remittances in a spirit of patriotism have blind loyalty to the PFDJ.

Daniel has spoken out against the government in the past, but says his patriotic fervor was revived during the recent two-year war in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern province, which borders Eritrea.

Image source, fake images

Screenshot, The Tigray war further divided opinions in the diaspora: these Eritreans in South Africa demonstrated in 2021 against the conflict.

Eritrea fought in the conflict on the side of the Ethiopian army against fighters from the TPLF, a party that once ruled Ethiopia and is blamed by its neighbor for its deadly 1998-2000 border war.

“During the conflict, the vast majority of Eritreans abroad, regardless of their political views, supported the Eritrean government, its armed forces and the interests of the nation,” explains Daniel.

“This show of unity led to a surge in the popularity of Independence Day and other national holidays, and celebrations became even more vibrant and patriotic.”

However, the vast majority of Blue Revolution supporters, many of whom fled conscription, opposed Eritrea’s participation in the Tigray war.

“In response to this rise in national unity, a radical sector of the opposition resorted to violence… throwing stones, burning cars, damaging property and attacking police officers,” says Daniel.

He does not believe the YPFDJ have ever been associated with any counter-violence, placing the blame firmly on their rivals.

As co-founder and president of One Nation, an organization that advocates for democratic change in Eritrea, he is determined to see Eritrean festivals thrive around the world, and does not see the cancellation of jamborees as a response to the actions of “extremists.” ”.

“The solution is not to surrender to these tactics. Law and order must prevail.

“Those who break the law by committing these crimes must be held accountable for their actions.”

More BBC stories about Eritrea:

Image source, Getty Images/BBC

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