In Eritrea, everything is political

When Tesfazion, an Orthodox Christian from a deeply conservative household, stood up for his religious convictions, he found himself in a political minefield from which there was no exit—except flight from the country he loved.


TEL AVIV—Tesfazion, as I am calling him, is 32. He grew up in a town west of Mendefera in Eritrea Southern Region [zoba], the son of an Orthodox Christian priest and the third of eight children, all of whom remain in Eritrea today. It was a politically conservative household, and Tesfazion himself was not, in his view, ever a political person.

On completing his eleventh year of secondary school, he went to Sawa for the mix of academics and military training in his twelfth year required for all members of his generation. He tested out well and went on to study plant breeding at the Hamelmalo Agricultural College in Keren, on the northern escarpment of Eritrea’s highland plateau. While there, he also taught Sunday School at St. Mary’s, a prominent Orthodox Church, where he became close with the monks associated with it.

He insists he was not looking for trouble, but trouble found him.

In January 2006, a government-supported "coup" took place within the church hierarchy when the sitting Patriarch—Abune [Father] Antonios—was deposed after criticizing the regime’s interference in church affairs. A new, pro-government Patriarch was installed 16 months later, but in the interim a struggle broke out between supporters and opponents of the popular bishop, who was placed under house arrest when he, too, protested. Tesfazion walked—strode is more like it—into the middle of this.

When supporters of the government tried to take control of the church in December 2006, he organized students at the college and people he knew in Keren from his Sunday school teaching to protest. They joined a group of dissident Orthodox monks at St. Mary’s where soldiers quickly surrounded the church and arrested the leaders—Tesfazion and three of his friends, along with eight monks.

The protestors were taken to the Keren jail and held for questioning. The monks were released after a month. Tesfazion’s three friends were let go after two. He was held for three.

The interrogation started with “Who made you do that?”—the usual starting point for a government that sees dark conspiracies behind every act of dissent. But this had arisen from Tesfazion’s religious convictions, not politics, and no one stood behind him or pushed him into it. Nor did anyone but his father and two or three college friends come to inquire about his condition, which taught him a hard lesson about the level of fear and intimidation in the general population and within the church itself, as he had had many gestures of support before the protest. But the most painful outcome was his father’s denunciation after authorities convinced the priest, an unquestioning supporter of the regime, that Tesfazion had sold out his country to foreigners.

For his part, Tesfazion took the opposite lesson: that his country had been taken over by thugs. When he was picked up by the security forces, a bag was put over his head, and he was driven around for a day, then put into a featureless cell without any indication of where he’d been taken. It was days before he discovered he was still in Keren where he’d started. “This was shocking to me,” he said. “Really, I was surprised.”

During the last two weeks of his incarceration, he was let out of his cell to mix with the general population. There he met men who had been accused of trying to flee the country to Sudan and brutalized for it, though never put before a judge or formally charged. He said this was the first time the thought had occurred to him, which is a measure of how removed he had been from the charged political environment into which he’d stumbled.

After this incident, he returned to school, kept his head down, and graduated in 2008. For his national service he was assigned to an agricultural research program in western Eritrea funded by an external agency. He told me this to emphasize that his eventual flight from Eritrea was not about economics or his personal prospects: “When I graduated, I was in my profession and receiving a salary, and my family could survive on their own, so I didn’t leave for economic reasons.”

He acknowledged that some did, but he insisted that 75 percent did so for “political reasons” after undergoing similar treatment to his for what he still considers to be a legitimate protest, motivated by religious belief, and not a crime.

“Finally, I left over having no freedom—no chance to talk freely, no press, no future,” he said. The last straw was a harangue he and his colleagues on the research team got from their commander after two fled to Uganda, threatening them with prison if they had abetted the disappearance.

“If I stay in Eritrea, I know I will end up in a jail,” he went on. “Each time I am at a conference I am asking questions, and they don’t like this. I am criticizing the behavior of the military and security people who come and take produce from us with no receipts. After some time they will shoot me or arrest me.”

But when he got to Sudan in June 2010, he found a situation that was not much better, with Eritreans fighting among themselves and Sudanese police demanding daily “protection” money. He said he could not go back to Eritrea, so after two months he paid smugglers $3,000 to take him to Israel. But nothing was easy for him.

Once in the Sinai, Bedouin traffickers held him for ransom instead of letting him pass. They kept him for a month during which he insisted he had no more money. Finally, in what sounds like the one piece of good fortune he had, they released him.

“Now I am relatively okay, but not okay,” he said, reflecting the contradictory outcome, as Israel, too, proved difficult.

Once he was settled, he applied to Hebrew University’s agricultural program in Rehovot. He was provisionally accepted but told he needed to get his documents from the college in Eritrea from where he’d graduated. Despite his discomfort with this, he went to the Eritrean embassy and signed a “letter of apology” they demand for assisting with such matters. They also charged him $3,000 to get an Eritrean passport, which he needed before they’d help.

But when he asked for the college documents to be sent to him, they demanded more money to cover costs, plus $50 for communications fees. Again he paid, but he said he only received receipts for $2,000 for all the transactions, leaving him convinced that he was not only being extorted by the regime but also cheated by corrupt officials. This was in 2013. He is still waiting.

Meanwhile, time is running out. Tesfazion worries that Israeli authorities may summon him to the Holot Detention Center, as they have for all the unmarried Eritrean refugees who arrived before May 2009, before he resolves his status. He, like most Eritreans in Israel, expects the government to steadily move the date forward until all asylum seekers are either in detention or have voluntarily deported themselves to Eritrea or a third country that will accept them (at this point only Uganda or Rwanda, which they do unofficially after allowing them to enter on short-term travel documents provided by Israel that are confiscated at the airport).

“Now I can’t think of anything,” he said. “What will be the future, we are just going to see.”