Eritrea, one of the youngest countries on earth, is quickly emerging as one of the largest violators of human rights. Born in 1993 out of a brutal and hard-fought 30-year war with Ethiopia, Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki wasted little time in rewarding his beleaguered nation of five million people with a regime based on violence and oppression.
Following a border-war flare-up with Ethiopia in 1998 that lasted two years, President Isaya Afewerki abruptly initiated swift and immediate actions to consolidate his power and eliminate any independent civil society and rule of law. Top government officials were immediately thrown in jail -- where they remain today, if any are still alive. All independent media organizations were shut down with the immediate arrests of all journalists and media members. This policy continues today, effectively eliminating all freedom of speech.
The soldiers who fought long and hard for most of their lives under President Afewerki have all been compensated with indefinite national service until the age of 55. Secondary-level students spend the last year of school in war camps preparing for a lifetime of military conscription and government-assigned labor. Paid meager salaries that do not provide for basic necessities, desertion is common despite that fact that it is punishable by death and imprisonment. The families of deserters suffer as they lose their land to the government and face heavy fines and imprisonment.
There are no elected officials or semblance of political representation of any kind. Anyone suspected of dissent or any form of government opposition is promptly arrested. This results in an atmosphere of paranoia in which no citizen is safe from random arrests at any point in time. If caught without proper papers from the government approving of their location and actions, all citizens are subject to arrest. Freedom of movement is prohibited within Eritrea.
Religious freedom in Eritrea is also almost non-existent, with the government approving only four religions and their practices: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam. When President Afewerki outlawed all but these four religions, any and all property of suspected members of non-approved religions became in immediate danger of government seizure. Bible burnings and house raids in the middle of the night, in which suspected worshipers are arrested, are now commonplace. Even the approved religions must get permission from the government to distribute material while the government manages all of their financial assets.
Furthering the despondency in Eritrea is also the reality that once arrested, sentences are arbitrary to the actual crime, and prisoners are often held indefinitely without trial, representation, or court. The fate of those arrested and their prison sentence is completely subjective, as it is most often determined by the commanding officer of the particular jail, a practice lacking any prospect for justice. The charges range from anything that the government believes to be a threat to national security to the previous mentioned "crimes."
Most of the firsthand accounts from refugees point to random arrests and time served in jail. Political prisoners, military deserters, and anyone suspected of practicing outside of the four registered religions seem to be the most common "criminals," although it is difficult to gauge. Any act interpreted as seditious or upholding dissent can result in years of imprisonment or execution.
The jails, as you would expect, are notoriously inhumane, if one can even find them. There is no way to tell the exact number of jails in Eritrea, as many of them consist of underground pits and caves in which prisoners rarely see the light of day for months at a time.
Extreme temperatures and overcrowding within jails cause disease to be rampant among the prisoners with no medical aid. While serving time in an Eritrean jail one can expect to be beaten, tortured, tied up, and forced to work without adequate food and water. Reportedly, every method of physical and psychological torture has been inflicted. Further, in order to hold the increasing amount of prisoners, Eritrea has become infamous for their brutal methods of holding prisoners. Metal shipping containers with no air circulation or windows have become the most common method of holding the prisoner overflow. Left out in the oppressive East African temperatures day and night, prisoners are locked inside these metal boxes for almost 24 hours a day in overcrowded and cramped conditions.
It comes as no surprise that the dire conditions in Eritrea have produced some of the highest refugee numbers in the world. However, exiting Eritrea can be difficult and dangerous. Exit visas are only granted to older citizens who are no longer of age for military conscription. At the border of Eritrea there is an official "shoot-to-kill" policy against anyone attempting to flee the country.
Along with much of Africa, Eritrea faces challenges of severe hunger, drought, and economic difficulties. The government of Eritrea compounds these challenges by rejecting much-needed international humanitarian aid. The government suspended the World Food Program and placed restrictions and taxes on all non-government aid organizations, effectively eliminating their presence within the country. In 2008, the European Commission on Humanitarian Aid deemed a Global Acute Malnutrition rating of over 15% in parts of Eritrea, far above an emergency level. For the citizens of Eritrea, the lack of food is a daily reminder of the self-inflicted pain the government is imposing on its people.
The situation in Eritrea wasn't always this dire, but the future doesn't look bright. Immediately after the 1993 independence, there appeared to be hope as a glimmer of representative government and basic freedoms were present. However, after the two-year war with Ethiopia ended in 2000, paranoia overcame President Afewerki and his government. This paranoia has led to a government committed to maintaining an entire population mobilized for war and a president whose policies are rooted in heavy-handed dogma's used to control all aspects of life with force, violence, and fear.
Considering the strife and unrest arising in fellow African countries -- Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and Yemen -- it is only natural to question Eritrea's future. The youth-heavy population is unhappy with its leaders and the absence of freedoms is equally as prominent. A key factor in the stability of Eritrea is the future of their relationship with Ethiopia, a relationship that is always contentious. The people of Eritrea have only known bloodshed and war with Ethiopia for the past 50 years, and exhaustion from constant war and violence consumes them. This said, it will be interesting to see if and when the mobilized citizens of Eritrea finally turn their aggrieved attention away from Ethiopia, and towards the more structural issues within their own government under the leadership of President Afewerki.