Daniel Mekonnen would soon be arrested if he returned to his homeland, Eritrea. For many years, Mekonnen has received serious threats from the Eritrean Government, specifically in connection with his work on human rights, including his active involvement in support of the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. Since he left South Africa in December 2008, he has been moving from one country to another by means of a variety of fellowships for several years, until he was granted an ICORN residency in Lucerne.
Mekonnen is a founding member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), and has translated into Tigrinya, Gene Sharp’s book From Dictatorship to Democracy (2006). The book served as the main reference for EMDHR’s first ever Tigrinya educational manual on non-violence, Bidho Antsar Atehasasibana (Challenging Our Perceptions). His most recent book is the one co-authored with Kjetil Tronvoll, The African Garrison State: Human Rights and Political Development in Eritrea (2014).
He arrived in Lucerne in November 2015 as the first ICORN writer in the city. Upon his arrival in Lucerne, he spoke with Michael Guggenheimer of the German-Swiss PEN Centre, who reports the following:
- In Eritrea, thousands ‘disappear’ without anyone hearing or about it. Others end up in jail, Mekonnen said during a meeting in Lucerne, where he can work in peace in a Studio for one year thanks to the commitment of Swiss German PEN Centre and ICORN.
When asked as to why so many people leave Eritrea, he gives the following answer:
- The Eritrean government practices an unlimited form National Service Programme. This includes military service limited by law to a maximum of 18 months, but in practice with no end insight. Concripts are also used for civilian tasks with no formal pay or salary. Sometimes they are used in mining operations or field work. How long you have to serve the country as a soldier or free labourer in this way is not clear; it can take years or even decades. People are literally enslaved.
Torture, arrests without specifying the grounds for detention, inhuman conditions of detention in overcrowded prisons are common. - People are locked in containers and stay there under terrible conditions, says Mekonnen. The country, whose parliament was dissolved in 2002 under the authoritarian rule of President Isaias Afwerki, is regarded as one of the most militarized countries in the world and could well be compared with North Korea. The Constitution adopted in 1997 did not take effect until today, and press freedom does practically not exist in Eritrea. Since 2007, Eritrea has been at the bottom of the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) annually. In recent years, a UN commission of inquiry, Amnesty International and the writers' organization PEN International, have repeatedly stressed the abuses in Eritrea.
Another reason for the flight of thousands from the country is the disastrous economic situation.
Daniel R. Mekonnen was also drawn into the National Service. He was inducted into the military barracks of the port city of Assaba as a teacher. After studying law at the University of Asmara, Mekonnen became a District Court Judge, and thanks to a World Bank sponsored scholarship, he could continue his studies in South Africa, where he earned a Masters Degree in Human Rights, and later on a doctoral degree in international law. While in South Africa, he co-founded the "Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights" (EMDMR). The movement is not tolerated in Eritrea. From then on, he could no longer return to his homeland.
Mekonnen spent seven years in South Africa. Because of his commitment to human rights and freedom of expression, he was threatened several times. Via Twitter texts, government supporters have called for Mekonnen to be “hunted for justice in Eritrea.” He does have nostalgia for his country, but since 2003 he has not set foot in Eritrea out of fear of being arrested.
Today, Mekonnen lives as “an international working nomad” in Europe and gives guest lectures about the violation of human rights in Eritrea and about the freedom of speech in Africa. He conducts research on migration in Africa, advises international organizations and writes expert reports on the situation in his home country and in other countries of Africa.
He is intereted in giving lectures or seminars focusing on the role of media in promoting human rights or suppresing such rights. How media is abused and how war propaganda works, are other topics that occupy him. During a recent workshop with young Swiss researchers on migration, he talked in a workshop on "Think without Boarders". Through ICORN, a humanitarian organization that supports dissident writers and human rights activists, Mekonnen has come into contact with the Swiss German PEN Centre, which has recently established a studio apartment for persecuted writers in Lucerne.
Silenced opposition / active resistance
- The opposition within the country has been silenced, active resistance takes place today only from exile, says Mekonnen.
In Eritrea there is currently only passive resistance. For example, prompted by a recent initiative known as “Freedom Friday,” people stay at home on Friday afternoons by way of expressing discontent with the regime; a kind of sit-ins at home, to express disapproval of the regime. Sometimes leaflets are distributed, which is extremely dangerous.
The largest ever demonstration condemning human rights violations in Eritrea was recently conducted in Geneva, in which more than 5000 Eritreans from all over Europe took part. Mekonnen was chairperson of a seven-member coordianting committee that organized the demonstration. It was staged on 26 June 2015 in front of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG). - This demonstration was the beginning of a new chapter in the opposition movement against the dictatorship in Eritrea, he says.
On the 25th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence in May 2016, Mekonnen will organize a conference in which several renowned authors will present academic papers dicussing the situation in Eritrea. He inteds to publish an edited volume of selected papers from the conference. - I am not a politician, says Mekonnen, I do not aspire to hold any political office. I wish to continue on my publications and presentations for the freedom of speech and human rights. He has written numerous essays and journal articles on human rights and freedom of speech.
As quickly as possible, he wants to learn Geraman to be able to chat with people from his new environment. - In Lucerne, he says, I feel comfortable and safe.
Text: Michael Guggenheimer
DeutschSchweizer Pen Zentrum