NAIROBI, Kenya -- Flaming cars, violent clashes, dozens of people detained. As one of the world’s most repressive countries marks 30 years of independence, festivals held by Eritrea's diaspora in Europe and North America have been attacked by exiles the Eritrean government dismisses as “asylum scum.”
People who fled the Horn of Africa nation say the violence against festivals in Germany, Sweden and Canada are protests against a repressive government that's been described as the “North Korea of Africa.” Some allege that proceeds from festivals might support the government.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Eritrea over the years, many setting off into the deserts of Sudan and then North Africa in attempts to reach Europe.
President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has led Eritrea since it won independence from Ethiopia in a long guerrilla war. There have been no elections. There’s no free press. Exit visas are required. Many young people are forced into military service with no end date, human rights groups and United Nations experts say.
The violence at some Eritrean festivals shows the bitter split in the diaspora between supporters of the government and their children — often protected by foreign passports — and exiles who fear for their loved ones back home.
Eritrea’s government speaks harshly about those who flee and accuses the West of trying to weaken the country by depopulating it. On Friday, Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel asserted that the attacks on the festivals were part of that strategy.
“Complicity in attempts to disrupt decades-old Eritrean festivals using foreign thugs reflects abject failure of asylum scum,” he said in a message posted on social media. He later criticized the “distorted portrayal” of the community's “joyous events.”
Beyene Gerezgiher, a member of the Eritrean community in Europe who leads an organization that seeks regime change in Eritrea, told The Associated Press that a separate group called the Brigade Nhamedu was set up last year to counter what it calls the government's hate speech and war propaganda. The word “Nhamedu” means being ready to fight and sacrifice.
“Our movement helped and participated in recent rallies against the so-called Eritrean festival,” he wrote in an email. In pursuit of regime change, the new group plans to act via “lawful democracy,” sharing information with the international community and “disturbing the situation,” he said.
He called the Eritrean information minister's comments "usual and laughable.”
A U.S.-based organizer of the Brigade Nhamedu, Henok Tekle, described the group as “mass discontent and anger against the regime” led by young Eritreans who he said had experienced the injustices of Eritrea's one-party state.
The group doesn't advocate violence, said Henok, the executive director of a satellite television station aimed at countering what it calls government propaganda. But he acknowledged that protests at festivals often turn into violence because of different factions are present.
“We regret any damage to property and person from either side, as we didn't have any intention to hurt anyone,” he said.
Some Eritreans and state-backed media have blamed attacks in Stockholm, Toronto and the German town of Giessen in part on ethnic Tigrayans from northern Ethiopia. That's where Eritrean forces joined Ethiopia’s military in fighting a two-year war against Tigray forces until a peace deal was made in November. Eritrean forces were accused of some of the worst atrocities, including gang rapes.
Kassa Hailemariam, a U.S.-based advocate for many Tigrayans, told the AP “it is ridiculous to blame Tigrayans for the global Eritrean movement against the age-long dictator in Asmara,” Eritrea’s capital. “We are not part of this movement!”
In Giessen last month, German police said at least 22 officers were injured as people throwing smoke bombs and bottles tried to force their way into a festival. Dozens of people were detained.
In Stockholm this month, Swedish media reported that about 1,000 protesters stormed a festival, setting booths and cars on fire and using rocks and sticks as weapons, leaving at least 52 people injured. Police said more than 100 people were detained.
“This is not a festival. They are teaching their children hate speech,” one protester, Michael Kobrab, told Swedish broadcaster TV4.
And last weekend, authorities in Toronto canceled an Eritrean festival after clashes sent several people to the hospital.
Other festivals have been held without incident, and some Eritreans continue to share videos showing crowds dancing and waving the national flag, along with messages of defiance and peace.
Eritrea’s government openly encourages members of the diaspora to contribute funds to its activities back home. On Monday, the information ministry published a story about Eritreans in Austria being urged by diplomats to “shoulder the timely responsibility of participating and contributing to the success of the national development drives.”
But citizens living overseas must show the government evidence of paying a 2% tax on income earned abroad if they want to obtain services such as passport renewals, which has been criticized. People who flee Eritrea without exit visas and wish to return must pay the tax and sign a “regret form,” according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report on the country.
Eritrea, with a population estimated at less than 5 million, is one of the world’s poorest countries, and one of the most secretive. The World Bank said poverty appears to be widespread but updated information is lacking. “The most recent available survey data from 1996/97 indicate a 70% poverty rate,” it said.
Rights groups say Eritrean authorities keep the country's citizens in a state of war preparedness, despite making peace with Ethiopia in 2018.
A U.N. independent investigator on human rights in a report circulated on Monday said some families are left destitute as Eritrean authorities use evictions and confiscations to force people into military service and punish draft evaders.
Mohamed Babiker’s report said Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers alleged torture, sexual violence, forced labor and other abusive conditions during compulsory national service.
Gebremeskel, the information minister, on Wednesday called the report “fallacious."