NAIROBI, May 22 – While 20 years ago Eritreans danced to celebrate their newly gained independence, on May 24 this year few have much to smile about other than fond memories of happier times.
“There is so much to be proud about as a nation,” said Emmanuel Tesfai, a former fighter who battled during the 30-year war to win his country’s freedom from Ethiopia.
“But there is no space for political freedom in the country today,” he said, speaking from exile in Kenya.
Criticism is high of Eritrea’s human rights situation because of the absence of freedom of speech and the repression of religious minorities.
Many Eritreans flee first across the dangerous border into Sudan, and end up either in refugee camps along the eastern border, or in the dusty capital Khartoum.
Jamal Osman was a journalist in Eritrea working for the state-run radio station, but fled for Sudan in 1996.
“I was not a fighter with a gun, but I fought for my country in my profession as a journalist,” he said, speaking to AFP in Khartoum.
“I want to see political change in Eritrea… we are all struggling for this.”
Salih Sarokh, aged 67, fought for Eritrea’s freedom from 1968-81, but since then has been a refugee in Sudan.
“I’m not sad that I did my duty to my country and my people… I’m sad because of what the regime has done.”
Many Eritreans, successful entrepreneurs like Internet cafe manager Mebrahtu Dawit in Uganda, dream of change so they can go home.
“My prayer is things change back home, and then we all return. We try to make ourselves happy here, but it is not our home,” he said.
But inside Eritrea – as well as in the diaspora scattered around the world – there are plenty of vocal supporters of the regime.
In sharp contrast to gloomy voices outside, Eritrea’s state-media is crammed with stories lauding the “patriotic fervour” of the people as they celebrate independence, quoting diaspora returning to show their “staunch resistance against external conspiracies”.
“No doubt, Eritrea has a long way to go until she becomes the developed and democratic country she aspires to be,” wrote Rahel Weldeab, a top official in the government-run national student’s union, in a recent post on her website.
But she also sharply criticised compatriots outside the country whom she accused of trying to “exploit Eritrea’s challenges by fooling Western journalists.
“Whenever the people do call and act for change… they will bring about this change on their own terms and for their own lives,” she said, condemning those outside the country critical of the regime.