Feb 01 2013
Last week, soldiers in one of Africa’s most closed and repressive nations — Eritrea — occupied the country’s Ministry of Information and issued demands. The pattern was a familiar one. News spread quickly that a coup was underway.
But feisty little Eritrea, which got its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after defeating successive US- and Soviet-backed armies in a 30-year war, has never fit the mold of postcolonial African states, and it was not doing so now.
In a country where chatting about politics at open-air cafés can get you arrested, this was the only way people with a grievance could get attention and survive: in a large group with guns. Their point was to start a national conversation where none was allowed. And they did.
Tens of thousands have fled a tyrannical regime often compared to North Korea: Eritrea has one political party; no national elections, ever; no organizations not controlled by the state, including religious denominations; no independent media; no space for raising any questions about government policies. Yet when Eritreans escape, usually at great personal risk, they often find themselves treated like criminals — or just turned away.
The worst off are the victims of a human trafficking ring in which refugees are kidnapped from camps in Sudan and taken to the Egyptian Sinai, where Bedouin criminal gangs torture them during phone calls to relatives while forcing them to beg for ransoms as high as $30,000. One I spoke with in Tel Aviv recently, a 28-year-old former computer programmer, had lost all use of his badly disfigured hands after being hung from them for weeks while awaiting payments.
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