Voices of Justice

By Petros Tesfagiorgis

I would like to express my thanks to the organisers Justice Africa, African Studies and the University of London for organising “Talking Eritrea”.  A series of events at the University of London- School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

The people of Eritrea are honoured by these extraordinary and well organised events.  Having a Government that has subjected the people of Eritrea to gross human rights violations and is mobilising some Diaspora supporters to defend its inhuman actions and intimidate all those who advocate for justice I thought our African brothers in the United Kingdom particularly Justice Africa have abandoned the people of Eritrea.

I was concerned because during the struggle and after independence there was lots of active support from African intellectuals in the UK and in USA that is absent today.   These events have proved me wrong

By a  coincidence, as I drafted  this article, I saw an obituary on face book for  Mbulelo Mzamane by The publisher of the Red Sea Press,  Kessahun Checole in which he said,  “ I was honoured when he joined us in Asmara, Eritrea, in January 2000 at the pan-African conference of African languages and literatures: Against All Odds. True to his character, he captured the Asmara spirit and played a significant leadership role.  He quickly and charmingly made many friends in Asmara and beyond.”  Many beautiful photos of the Asmara seminar were in the Facebook posting.

The first talk was by Dan Connell dated 3 February 2014. The title was: Eritreans: Migrants or Migrating refugees?


Dan Connell is an authority on Eritrea since the liberation movements: he is one of the staunch supporters of the struggle led by EPLF. He visited the field frequently and used to come to London to publish his articles in the Observer and the Guardian or the Financial Times and do interviews with the BBC on his return from the field.

During his meeting I was out of London and could not make it. But I was told that his advocacy was strong, and he documented in great detail that the Eritreans are not economic migrants but migrant refugees.  He said most of those fleeing are conscripts escaping an open-ended “national service” of military posting and forced labour. I also heard that there were a few young YPFDJ supports who tried to divert the issue of the talk and pointed their fingers in accusation to Dan Connell and the moderator, Martin Plaut the journalist calling them anti-PFDJ. The moderator had to send out a young woman for misbehaving. What a shame. These talks are taking place in a prestigious institution of higher learning and to misbehave there shows disrespect to knowledge and wisdom. It is a shame not only for them but for all Eritreans whether supporters or non-supporters of the present government.  Little do they know that the hearts and minds of both Martin Plaut and Dan Connell were there for the people of Eritrea yesterday, and still are now but not for the regime- just for the people of Eritrea.  Their voice is a voice of justice. And they do share the pains and suffering of the refugees subjected to kidnapping, torture and other forms of violations.  In the beginning of 1980’s Martin Plaut attended the first congress of the National workers Union of Eritrea and the first congress of the national union of Eritrean women in Sahel – liberated areas of Eritrea, representing the British Labour Party.  And when he joined the BBC he played a key role in reporting on Eritrea’s long fight for freedom. Like Lionel Cliffe, he visited the field and reported from there on our liberation struggle against Ethiopian occupation.

An international Symposium on Eritrea was held in London in January 1979 chaired by Basil Davidson, who was an advocate of anti-colonialism in Africa and wrote several books. I remember when Dan Connell came to London to present his paper. I am sure most of the YPFDJ was not born at the time. They should be in a position to learn from the historians and activists.  He was deeply sad because of the Soviet involvement with Ethiopia in 1977-78 that changed the nature of the war as Ethiopia managed to re-occupy many liberated towns. In spite of that what he said was encouraging. I quote from his talk, printed in a book titled, Behind the War in Eritrea.   “In the aftermath of Ethiopia’s re-occupation of all the major towns previously held by the EPLF, the Eritreans have shifted their tactics from conventional siege and assault warfare to surprise guerrilla-style actions against the now extended Ethiopian Government supply lines and numerous small garrison.” He was optimistic on the future of the struggle.  His prediction was correct.

We are also proud to recall the work of the South African revolutionary and educationalist, Ruth First. A supporter of the Eritrean cause at a time when the African National Congress was sceptical or even hostile to it because of its ties with Addis Ababa, she backed us. As Vice President of the Permanent People’s Tribunal she wrote an article entitled: “Eritrea and the Right to Self-Determination”. She also convened an important hearing in Milan on 24 – 26 May 1980 at which the case of Eritrea was presented. She was – tragically – to pay with her life for her revolutionary activities and was assassinated by the apartheid regime on 17th August 1982, when she opened a parcel-bomb addressed to her.]

Such an attack by the government supporters in the Diaspora against those who gave their valuable time during the struggle and who expressed their opposition to the violations of human rights by PFDJ has become routine. The Nigerian   Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Rahim, the ex- Director of Justice Africa, once said. “It is amazing:  what is the matter of these Eritreans? Have they lost their sense of reason and humanity?  During the struggle when we were advocating for International community recognition for their just cause and render support they called us African brothers. When I pointed out in writing that it is wrong to violate the human rights of Eritreans they told me it is none of my business.  They made me an outsider.”

Some years ago Dr. Tajudeen became the secretary general of the Pan African Movement based in Kampala. After a few years he died in a car accident in Nairobi, Kenya. He was a true friend of Eritreans and other oppressed Africans.  Thank you justice Africa you put us back to where we Eritrean belong:  Africa.

Dan Connell has travelled far and near to share with people the pain and sufferings of the Eritrean refugees in seminars, lecture halls, radio interviews and university lectures so that they too raise their voice of justice in support of the prosecuted.

On 17 February it was the turn of Prof. Gaim Kibreab:  He talked about the national Service and the impact on the social fabric of Eritrean society.

Gaim is an authority on the refugees in the Horn of Africa.  He wrote several books. The following are the two articles on national service.  Gaim Kibreab (2009) “Forced Labour in Eritrea.” Journal of Modern African Studies, volume 47, issue 01, pp. 41-72.  Gaim Kibreab (2013) “The national service/Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign and forced migration in post-independence Eritrea” Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2013 Vol. 7, No. 4, 630–649

His talk – based on his research to be published soon, focused upon the deepest problem the people of Eritrea are facing.  The indefinite national service - the forced labour is destroying the fabric of Eritrean society and shattered the future of the youth, the most productive members of the Eritrean societies and the damage is enormous. His talk was based upon interviews with those who escaped the forced labour, the so called “Warsai and Yekealo development project”.

On his findings, he said 67% of those interviewed support national service of 18 months.   But when it became indefinite they left with no future.  They have no chance to exploit their god given potential for education, work and raising a family. They are forced to flee to other countries, where they can get sanctuary and live as free people.  Sadly, for thousands the grass is not greener on the other side. They don’t make it to the Promised Land like those who drowned at sea, the Lampedusa tragedy and those in Sinai where they are murdered by Bedouin traffickers to sell their kidneys for lucrative profit.  The pressure on the entire population is so heavy that the fabric of the family is reaching breaking point.

After questions and answers, the outspoken activist Salem Kidane introduced the;


Commemorating the International Women’s day, is the right moment in time to hail the brave Eritrean women (The Dr. Alganesh, Elsa Chirum and many more) who have risen with dedication and commitment to expose the gross human rights violation in Eritrea and help Eritrean refugees.  This period is the most challenging period for Eritreans and the rest of humanity. African refugees and mainly Eritreans are being persecuted, kidnapped and imprisoned in many countries The Eritrean women are addressing those challenges.  They are making history contributing in the process of creating the future of Eritrea, a democratic Eritrea.   Meron Estifanos talk on March 3, 2014 symbolised the women’s activism, courage and creativity.  Long live the International Women’s day.

To continue on part 2.   Meron’s Talk.