A Silent Country: Giving a Voice to the People of Eritrea by Mahdi Ibrahim (A’23)

by heatherbarry
Jul 06

When I was in the seventh grade, I recall my mother asking me to keep my aunt in my prayers while she was moving to a different country. Her request sounded a bit extreme at first—to actively pray for someone for merely moving, and the fact that my mother had never asked me to pray for someone before made it all the more puzzling—but I figured that my mom simply wanted to be safe, and I thought nothing of it. It was not until months later that my mother told me the full story, and only then did I understand the magnitude of her move and my mother’s request.

My aunt was not moving from one first world country to another, moving to find work, or moving for leisure. She was escaping one of the most oppressive totalitarian dictatorships in the world: Eritrea. paid a man nearly $5,000 USD to help her escape. Since the Eritrean borders are armed and guarded, it was possible that she would face the fate of countless Eritreans who had attempted to escape—death at the hands of the country’s “shoot-to-kill” policy at the closed border, or lifelong imprisonment. With the help of lucky timing and the man who planned her escape, my aunt ran, by foot, across the Eritrean border into Ethiopia. Over the course of several nights, she had accumulated numerous bruises, infections, and fractures, all while narrowly avoiding being killed by wild animals. Though my aunt thankfully made it to Ethiopia alive, she must still grapple with the trauma of her escape and of the country she left behind. This story was hard for me to process at first, but it awakened me to the horrific conditions in Eritrea and sparked my interest in investigating and raising awareness of the numerous human rights violations in my home country.

As upsetting as the story of my aunt and the situation in Eritrea are, they fuel my excitement at working with One Day Seyoum this summer. One Day Seyoum began in 2001 as a platform advocating for the release of Seyoum Tsehaye and the many other journalists who have been unjustly imprisoned. It has since expanded into a youth-led organization, mobilizing to end the crimes against humanity committed by the Eritrean regime against its people and providing support for Eritrean refugees worldwide.

The COVID-19 pandemic luckily has not affected my internship, as it was planned to be remote. I started working a few weeks ago, so things have not swung into full gear yet, but so far, our team of interns each gave a presentation covering a unique topic in Eritrea’s history and current state. I presented about the current political structure and political climate in Eritrea, going into topics such as the dictatorship, the country’s designation as the most censored in the world, and the horrific prison conditions.

For the remainder of the summer, the bulk of my work will be turning the many campaign ideas we have into a reality. The first campaign I am working on is #EvacuateRefugeesFromLibya, a movement to create a coalition of people and organizations that will apply pressure on international organizations to take action in stopping the enslavement of refugees in Libya. Migrants from all across Africa—in particular, the nearly 5,000 Eritreans who flee the country monthly—cross through Libya en route to Europe. However, most do not make it out as they are captured, tortured, and sold as slaves. I will also be working on several media campaigns which bring attention to issues such as the imprisonment of children in Eritrea and the failure of the government to deliver on the promises made during the 2018 peace deal with Ethiopia, as well as the #19StolenYears magazine, which will document the 19-year timeline of how Eritrea turned into one of the worst dictatorships in the world.

Surrounded by a strong, supportive team and driven by a dream of bringing justice to the people in my country, I am looking forward to spending these next two months spreading awareness of the dire humanitarian crisis in Eritrea and growing one step closer to freedom.