Eritrea: Thirty Years After Eritrean Independence - Youth Activist Vanessa Tsehaye Talks to Georgia Cole

The flag of Eritrea.

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On May 24th, Eritreans around the world marked the 30th anniversary of the country's independence from Ethiopia. For those who oppose Eritrea's current ruling regime, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which has been in power since 1994, the anniversary is overshadowed by ongoing and severe human rights abuses in Eritrea. The country's elusive military leader, President Isaias Afeworki, presides over a system of arbitrary arrests and mass imprisonment, while Eritrea's mandatory and indefinite national service programme, and lack of basic rights and freedoms, continue to push thousands of young people to flee.

In this abridged interview with Vanessa Tsehaye, a Swedish-Eritrean human rights activist based in London and currently working as Amnesty International's Campaigner for the Horn of Africa, we discuss how Eritrean youth in the diaspora are affected by the situation in the country as well as the diaspora's potential to support political change within Africa more broadly. Vanessa is a globally recognised critic of the PFDJ, and the founder of One Day Seyoum, a youth-led organisation campaigning to end human rights abuses committed against Eritreans.

Georgia Cole (GC): Firstly, thank you so much for agreeing to speak on this topic on the 30th Anniversary of Eritrea's liberation. To begin, it would be great to hear how you first got involved in advocacy?

Vanessa Tsehaye (VT): So, it began in an international school in Sweden when I joined an Amnesty club that my teacher had started. That was the first time somebody told me that I could actually do something about issues happening in the world and that was my introduction to human rights activism.

My first introduction to rights as a concept though was as a child hearing about my uncle, the journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, who was imprisoned in Eritrea when I was five. I knew that people went to prison when they'd done something bad, but my mum would tell me that my uncle had never done anything wrong and was still detained and that really stuck with me. But it was when I got to High School [15 in Sweden] that I remember mentioning my uncle's situation to someone in class and she was outraged and asked why nobody was doing anything about it. That moment really sparked something inside of me because I realised that I was part of that 'nobody'. By the end of that year, I'd started One Day Seyoum to fight for my uncle's release and continue his mission to speak up for the Eritrean people.

GC: Were you expecting this to turn into your 'life's' work (caveat: I know you're only 24!)?

VT: When I started One Day Seyoum I wanted it to be big and the language we used in our first campaign was 'We want to unite the world for Eritrea.' I thought it could happen quicker than it did and now I'm realising that so many of these things take time and that it's only through careful consideration and effort that some of the goals that we set out to achieve eight years ago have now become reality. And with many of the other goals, we still have a very long way to go. So I have to be committed to do this work for as long as it's needed if I want to see the results Eritrea needs.

It hasn't been difficult to stay energised in this work and that is not because we get any results - as you know, Eritrea remains the same, with this year the 20th anniversary of my uncle's and others' arrest, which marked the beginning of the repressive campaign that continues to this day. Due to this, Eritrea is in a very unique position where people are literally unable to lead this work within the country. The extremely dire situation Eritreans are in and the fact that people like my uncle have sacrificed so much to do their part in speaking up, always reminds us why it's important for us on the outside to do this work and never give up.

GC: How do you pick your political battles? There are so many disappeared individuals in Eritrea and there's no shortage of issues you could mobilise to change there, so why did you pick individuals such as Ciham Ali (pictured below) - an American-Eritrean dual national who has not been seen since she was arrested in 2012, aged 15, while trying to cross the Eritrean border into Sudan.

VT: Choosing individuals was a way of humanising a crisis that is both hard to grasp because of the huge numbers of people affected by Eritrea's ruling regime, and because many of us are so far away from Eritrea that it can be hard to relate and properly understand what's happening there and how it impacts individuals and communities - to not be able to afford basic necessities because the national service salary is too low, to see friends and family continually disappearing, etc. Ciham's story is important for this reason - a lot of our members are around Ciham's age, so they can relate to things like the music she liked and the poses she struck in photos before she was detained. And through learning about her, they can better understand the situation of countless other people suffering in similar ways in Eritrea. But we have also chosen Ciham's case because, compared to many others detained in Eritrea, she has a potential lifeline. Ciham is a US citizen who is detained without trial but despite this, the US government has been completely inactive, so this is also an opportunity to actually affect change on an individual level.

I started One Day Seyoum though because we generally thought that the Eritrean regime wasn't getting enough pressure from international institutions, from world leaders, from civilians, so we wanted to mobilise people and voices, and we thought that if we showed that atrocities were happening to people who look like us, to our family members, it would get Eritreans involved. But we also wanted to mobilise Eritreans who were not really engaged with by existing opposition groups, and for us that was young Eritreans who were born outside the country, who are able to speak up and pressure governments from across the world because we exist in so many different places and have space to mobilise. So, we thought that Eritreans in the diaspora had massive potential for collective action, but we also knew that people were scared to go against their communities and sometimes their parents. There's still a price for speaking up against the Eritrean regime even if you're in the diaspora, so the campaign was slow until the peace deal with Ethiopia in 2018.

GC: And then what happened?

VT: When the human rights crisis really intensified in 2001, with the free press being shut down and politicians and then journalists getting detained, the government justified this by saying that the conflict with Ethiopia, which lasted between 1998 and 2000, had entered a 'no peace, no war' situation that required them to shut down anything or anyone that was threatening in order to protect national security. Many believed that justification for repressive measures, or at least held out that when peace finally came, the situation in Eritrea would have to change. Then the peace deal with Ethiopia was made in 2018, and the President of Eritrea didn't say anything for four months, no new promises were made, and no change came. For many people, that was a turning point. It revealed that the situation in Eritrea was because of the government's choosing and not because of external factors.

GC: And what do you see as the most effective pathways or channels for catalysing political change in Eritrea?

VT: We are not equipped as relatively young people in the diaspora to encourage Eritreans to mobilise on the ground in Eritrea - this would be irresponsible without the resources to support that - so we are making sure the Eritrean government knows that there's pressure on them from different angles. When people inside Eritrea decide to do anything, whether it's to rise up or protest in any way, we'll also be here to support that. I always use Sudan as an example of the team effort between people on the ground who were risking their lives and people outside who were doing everything they could to make sure that this wasn't in vain - they mobilised the international media to make sure that the Sudanese government couldn't shut down protests without the world seeing, and they mobilised countries to apply pressure on the Sudanese government.

Our role is to prepare and mobilise a specific portion of the Eritrean diaspora to do that - we don't have an age limit, but there is a generational divide. Our generation speaks differently, we communicate differently, we build community differently - and we weren't being targeted or engaged, and that was a huge waste of potential for our movement. Not all of our initiatives are directly focused on campaigning. We also focus on political education and community building as well, for example through our 2001 magazine and our book club, as we think that these are necessary for both current and future mobilisation efforts.

GC: How has the older generation responded to what your generation is attempting to do?

VT: We've received amazing encouragement and support to continue some of the work that these people started during the liberation struggle though young people are still not invited to all the discussions.

I found a speech of myself recently at a conference with that older generation where I said it's time to welcome us in and to widen the idea of what an Eritrean is. For many people, to be a credible Eritrean involved in the anti-regime movement means that you were born in Eritrea, speak an Eritrean language, or were involved in the liberation movement or the human rights movement in the early 2000s, but we are all equally Eritreans - we might have been born outside of the country but that's just a reflection of our history and the state of our country. It doesn't reflect our value as Eritreans within the movement. The person who spoke after me at that conference though said that they were part of a youth movement back during the liberation struggle and that nobody invited them in, that they had to take that space themselves, and the audience applauded him. And I thought, why should we continue that? We should critique that. My generation won't forcefully hold the baton back from the next generation because that's what the previous one did. Inclusion doesn't mean that other people have to go, it just means that more people can share the space that exists, and that space is massive.

GC: Obviously, you said that 2018 was a turning point where mobilisation really kicked off for One Day Seyoum. Recently there's also been this interest from prominent members of the diaspora in Eritrea's situation - let's take Tiffany Haddish in the US as the most prominent example of this. Do you see this as a new phenomenon, and what do you think is driving this public engagement and celebration of Eritrea? Is it new, or is it just more visible because of social media?

VT: I actually think we've seen more room for public opposition recently rather than support. Before, it was assumed that if you were Eritrean, and particularly if you were a celebrity or influencer with a platform, that you wouldn't oppose the government. There are lots of reasons why people would support the government, particularly those born in the diaspora, but what the Eritrean government has been particularly successful at is painting themselves as against the world, especially the Western world, and it has set up this false dichotomy between neocolonial powers in the West and Eritrea as this revolutionary postcolonial force. Which is fundamentally not true when you look at the country's business and investment relationships and political partnerships with powerful Arab countries, China and Western governments. That narrative though has been very convincing for people born in the diaspora and so between this belief in the Eritrean government's alternative political stance, and the fact that the risk of criticising them was ostracisation or worse, people used to stay quiet.

GC: The PFDJ though has always very forcefully argued - as exemplified in the postcard above - that 'if you haven't been, just shut up!' As an Eritrean in the diaspora, how do you respond to that position, which also involves the PFDJ deploying powerful postcolonial rhetoric to challenge criticism of them and to defend their approach to self-reliance and autonomy?

VT: I've had to come to terms with my role, my work and my position as someone in the West using Western language to speak about what's happening in Eritrea. I'm obviously convinced by the right of African countries and other formerly colonised countries to reject all forms of neocolonialism. So when pro-PFDJ individuals quote postcolonial literature at me, I'll agree with the quote, but I won't agree with how they have misused it in the Eritrean context.

But after deep reflection and research, I started thinking how dare any organisation, including the Eritrean government, give the West ownership over human dignity. This didn't come with Western powers or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human dignity is a fundamental aspect of all cultures, and there have always been people fighting for it and protecting it. To dismiss these conversations then in Eritrea on the grounds that the idea that we should have human rights is a Western and foreign imposition shows huge disrespect to every Eritrean who has been fighting for our dignity for generations. The politicisation of human rights is a different conversation - the fact that certain countries get targeted for their abuses while others don't, for example - that is very valid and that should be critiqued, but it should never be that because Western countries are not being criticised by these institutions, African ones shouldn't be either - the way forward is for equal critique, not none at all. Everybody needs to be held accountable.

Self-reliance has also been branded by the government as a revolutionary postcolonial project. First of all, Eritrea isn't self-reliant - it relies on major international business investments, development funds from Europe and the Gulf, etc. That's really important because you can't then claim that the price to pay for self-reliance in terms of personal sacrifice is worth it when the thing you're paying for doesn't even exist. Secondly, self-reliance is a beautiful policy idea, but you can't decide on self-reliance if you're not part of that 'self'. Self-reliance isn't self-reliance, it's 'them'-reliance, it's reliant on the Eritrean people, on all Eritreans who are captured in indefinite national service. So, it should be up to those Eritreans, the actual 'self' in self-reliance, to decide if that price is worth it given their labour and sacrifice. But those Eritreans don't have the right or space to choose this because the people supporting and promoting self-reliance are the leadership in Eritrea and their supporters in the diaspora who are not being affected by this - none of these people are part of the 'self'. Therefore, their willingness to sacrifice other people is not noble, it is not progressive, it's a continuation of an exploitative system that we've seen in our continent, just that it was historically done by non-Africans and so it might be hard to see that we're continuing similar structures.

GC: I know there can be a challenge in framing political opposition in the Eritrean context in terms of acknowledging that the Eritrean liberation struggle was an incredible feat while recognising early authoritarian tendencies within it and then what's happened subsequently. Do you see a tension there? And how do you acknowledge that history without undermining or silencing any critique?

VT: For me, it's not a difficult task at all because for me it was a liberation movement run by the Eritrean people. We could give credit to the leadership of the movement, but it wasn't their movement, it was the people's movement. And the current leadership betrayed people in that movement because they made out like the patterns of abuse and human rights violations that they committed during the liberation movement were necessary for independence - the people were told that they couldn't dissent or disagree with the leadership in case this undermined the struggle, but of course the patterns of abuse continued even after they won. So, for me, the independence movement and even Independence Day is energising and inspiring because it's not about President Isaias, it's about the people who fought, who sacrificed their lives for Eritrea.

Celebrating the 30-year anniversary has been extremely difficult because people fought for 30 years - enduring immense sacrifice - to create a country that people could then benefit from, but to then have the exact same number of years of suffering, of complete betrayal, it's heart-breaking. It's very hard to think about the fighters today - those who died, those who are still with us, those who are detained and who we haven't seen in years - because the current situation is still not what they fought for.

GC: Finally, what can people do to support your theory of change? What does useful assistance look like to you?

VT: The whole point of One Day Seyoum is to make it as easy as possible to get involved so I'd urge people to join as a member and to get updates on campaigns and ways to get involved. We want to mobilise people so that they can pressure governments and affect change through collective action.

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