The telephone, the new weapon of Eritreans in exile

Updated 07 May 2013
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The telephone, the new weapon of Eritreans in exile

Galvanized by the Arab Spring, Eritreans in exile in Europe are mobilizing against the authoritarian regime of President Issaias Afeworki with a new tool — the humble telephone.
Every week, members of the diaspora make hundreds or even thousands of automated calls to their compatriots in the eastern African nation, chosing their numbers at random and playing them one-minute recorded messages to spread dissent.
“It is time to restore our liberty and dignity,” says one of the messages. In another, the mother of high-profile political prisoner Aster Yohannes recalls the fate of her daughter, who was arrested in 2003 and who has not been heard of since.
Such political statements are rarely heard in Eritrea itself, where opposition parties are banned and anyone who challenges the president — who has ruled the tiny nation with an iron grip since independence in 1993 — is jailed without trial, often in the harshest of conditions.
They are the work of a new generation of exiles who refuse to fall in behind traditional opposition parties, which are widely viewed as unrepresentative and divided, explains Leonard Vincent, a Paris-based specialist on Eritrea.
Unlike those opposition leaders, their passion was forged not in the war of independence but in the conditions forced upon their people today. “Their own war is against the current problems in the Eritrean nation,” Vincent said.
About 1,500 Eritreans leave their country every month, according to the United Nations, paying up to 30,000 euros ($ 39,500) each to seek a new life free of grinding poverty and repression.
Those who make it — refugees are often a target for people traffickers — settle around the world, from Australia to Germany, Britain to the United States, but keep in touch over the Internet.
Their demands are simple — the application of the 1997 constitution which calls for elections in Eritrea, and the release of political prisoners, estimated by the NGO Human Rights Watch to be about between 5,000 and 10,000.
And they have put these demands to the Eritrean people in about 100,000 recorded telephone calls made every Friday since late 2011 — including to some members of the regime.
Ironically, “sometimes it’s actually the people who don’t like what we’re doing that spread the message because they are not afraid,” said Selam Kidane, founder of the ‘Arbi Harnet’ (Free Friday) movement.
The phone calls are a way of spreading dissent without putting those receiving the messages in danger, explains Kidane, a mother-of-three who is now settled in London.
In a country where freedom of expression and the press are virtually non-existent, logging onto a subversive website or tuning into a banned radio station could put their lives at risk.
But the project has involved people who are still in Eritrea. The phone calls have only been made possible, for example, after someone smuggled a telephone directory out of the country.
And a handful of those who remain are promoting the cause at great risk to themselves. “We have a little team inside the country that we have recruited via these calls. They have put up posters with our logo,” Kidane told AFP.
Eritrea specialist Vincent explained that some posters take the form of fake versions of the public notices of deaths that are traditional in Eritrea.
“The photo on the fake death notices is fictitious and the message is subversive, along the lines of ‘Wake up, they have stolen your freedom’,” he explained.
He said the telephone messages are a new challenge to Issaias’ authority, but cautioned that they may have limited impact in a country of five million where “only the old, the young and the slaves” of military service remain.
However, he added that the campaign may prove useful for anyone hoping to challenge the regime from the inside.
An activist who goes by the name of Miriam September was involved in the telephone campaign in its early days. The initiative was inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions, she said, then given new energy after mutinous soldiers briefly seized the information ministry in Asmara in January.
Since then, there has been “an unprecedented energy and momentum” among the diaspora, said September, who lives in Germany.
Donations to the phone call project have increased, according to Kidane, and hundreds of Eritreans have protested in several European capitals, showing their faces for the first time, something they dared not do before.
“Enough is enough. I can’t hide while my people are being killed,” said one Eritrean protester, Mussa Beshir, during a recent demonstration in London.
Vincent said the huge challenge now was how long the exiles can keep up their fight, as Issaias shows little sign of going anywhere.


WWE stars soften up to Jeddah children to introduce anti-bullying campaign

Updated 25 April 2018
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WWE stars soften up to Jeddah children to introduce anti-bullying campaign

  • Al-Oula is a non-profit organization targeted to break the cycle of poverty
  • WWE stars sat down in front of 30 students from the institution

Jeddah: The children of Al-Oula –- a non-profit organization targeted to break the cycle of poverty –- had the most thrilling school trip as they came to see World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstars Mojo Rawley and Mark Henry in King Abdullah stadium on Tuesday.
The stars sat down in front of 30 students from the institution and softened up as they shared stories from their childhood and introduced their anti-bullying campaign “Be a Star.”
The stars shared personal stories and the difficulties they have faced.
Dean Muhtadi, 31, better known by his ring name Mojo Rawley, told the children: “We are different in many ways but sometimes you have to focus on the similarities and positive aspects of others.”
Mark Henry, 46, opened up about his past: “When I was young people would call me names and were mean to me, so I decided to become the strongest person in the world.
“I won three world championships in three different world countries that had nothing to do with each other and I am very proud of myself for not letting the mean comments get to my head.”
Henry was world heavyweight champion, and is also a two-time Olympian and a gold medalist at the Pan American Games.
Later the children had the chance to talk directly with the stars. Rawley is originally Palestinian, so he spoke in Arabic with some of the children.
Henry told one of the students: “If someone is troubling you, don’t give them the satisfaction of letting the comments or actions affect you, and immediately tell your teacher or your parents or any adult, and they will help you through your problems.”
The children then took pictures and were given tickets to the WWE Royal Rumble show on Friday.
“Jeddah is a very family-friendly and a culture-loving city, so I love being here,” Henry told Arab News. “The only difference is the language. Apart from that everyone is very nice and warm.”
On the Royal Rumble, he said: “Get ready for the best entertainment you have ever seen with your own eyes.”
“For someone who comes from an Arab background, this is a historic achievement and it will be remembered for ever,” Rawley said in an interview with Arab News.
“When I first found out that we agreed to a ten-year partnership, it was the coolest thing to find out.
“I am very fortunate to be a part of this long-term partnership which will give the citizens a long time to understand and give us enough time to develop our brand here in Saudi Arabia.
“Last year the show in Riyadh was a small, non-televised show but it was one of the coolest experiences of my life, so I am very excited to perform in this grand-scale show. It’s going to be an amazing show. It will rival Wrestle Mania, which is the biggest event of the year.”
Jana Marwan, a nine-year-old student, said: “Everyone told us that the wrestlers were scary but they weren’t. In fact they were very friendly. They taught us how to look out for ourselves and I had so much fun. I am thankful to them.”