I am working in the lobby at my hotel when I see a bus draped in Eritrean flags stop for a red light. Not much later, I sit on a bus heading to the airport to pick up my cousin Abie. I pass a park filled with people all dressed in the colors of the Eritrean flag. When I walk on the streets I hear my native language being spoken everywhere around me.
I am in Geneva and this week Eritreans from all over the world have come here. But we are not all here for the same reason. Last week, a UN commission accused Eritrea for committing crimes against humanity, one the most serious crimes a state can be accused of. On Tuesday, Eritreans demonstrated outside the UN in support of the regime. On Thursday, Eritreans gathered outside the UN in protest against the regime.
We are a divided people. It has come to the point where I cannot meet someone who looks remotely Eritrean without immediately wondering what side of the issue they are on, what fight they are fighting. Because we are all fighting. With each other, with the world. The question is what you are fighting for.
I am in Geneva with my cousin Abie Seyoum. When she was two years old, her father was imprisoned without a trial. She has not seen him since. Three years ago I founded an organization to work for the release of her father, my uncle, and journalist Seyoum Tsehaye. We are in Geneva to demand justice.
The regime and their supporters argue that they are in war, and that they have been for the past 16 years, and therefor cannot handle any cases right now. Because they are in war, mandatory indefinite national service also needs to continue. They argue that it takes time for democracy to evolve. They argue that the western world never cared about Eritrea and ask why they suddenly do now.
The regime talk about the importance of true independence from foreign powers, about grand ideas and ideologies, all rooted in a toxic patriotic spirit. This is what the regime supporters echo. But in this instance, they are actually wrong. Regardless of what they chant at their demonstration or state in the human rights council, the truth contradicts all of it; the western world did not start the dialogue about human rights in Eritrea. This dialogue began a long time ago. By Eritreans themselves, in Eritrea. These Eritreans were silenced. They were put in prison without a trial and have not been seen since.
We turned to the western world because you gave us no other choice.
Some of these arguments I hear from the Eritrean representatives at the United Nations in response to the new report. I look around the room and see Hanna Petros Solomon. Both of her parents have been imprisoned without a trial. Her dad Petros Solomon is supposedly in the same prison as Seyoum. In the middle of the desert. Burning hot during the day, freezing cold during the night. No communication between the prisoners or guards. Maximum security. Prisoners in both body and mind.
Politics have real consequences on people's lives. That is the whole point. Regardless of what their arguments are, or what theory they are based on, fact remains that the completely illegal actions of the Eritrean regime have had serious consequences for people's' lives. There is a human face to what we are fighting for.
The Eritrean regime made Hanna and her siblings orphans. They made Abie and her younger sister Beilula fatherless. There was never any trial, explanation or justification. These children had their parents stolen from them by the Eritrean regime. As an ex prisoner testifies to what she went through in prison, I take Abie's hand and squeeze it tight. I am not sure how it would feel to hear details about how your parent is being tortured. It is not something one should ever have to hear. They are just kids, simply longing to see their own parents alive. There is no secret neo-liberal agenda behind that.
I have never felt such a heavy sadness as I did when I sat on the bus passing that park. I think about Abie Seyoum, about Hanna Petros, about the hundreds of children who have had their parents stolen from them by the Eritrean regime. I think about how these people gathered in the park willingly chose to ignore the fate of these innocent children. It angers me that all the parents in that park disregard these children's' suffering and actively support the regime that caused it.
But more importantly, Abie and Hanna are not the only faces. The prisoners are not the only victims. There were thousands of refugees at our demonstration. Many who have fled the national service that the regime has deemed necessary in preparation of a possible war with Ethiopia. They were chanting for their friends who did not make it to Europe. What is the worst thing a war with Ethiopia can do to our country when our children are already dying like flies? This was for all of them.
I also think about how difficult it is going to be to demand justice from the regime when they keep getting support from so many of their people. Yoel Lino, an Eritrean activist, said:
Eritreans like Seyoum Tsehaye, Petros Solomon and Aster Yohannes tried to challenge the undemocratic ways of the regime. We are in Geneva because they can't be. But we are also here to show that another future is possible. The regime supporters were 2 000, but we were 12 000 strong. Our fight bears meaning - we believe that our people deserve better. I assure you, Geneva is only the beginning.
"It's very easy to support people in power. Very easy and comfortable. But it takes a lot of courage to stand up against people in power. We made our statement clear in Geneva - a demand of an Eritrea ruled by law and justice. The power of the people is much more greater than the people in power."