Eritrea: A Call to Action
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The debate in Sweden has long revolved around whether the ”quiet diplomacy” works in foreign relations, or if Sweden needs to put its foot down. The journalist Martin Schibbye, who recently spent some time in Eritrea, believes that the issue of Dawit Isaak’s freedom is too important to just leave in the hands of politicians. Here he shares some tips on what you can do for Dawit Isaak right now.
September 23 marks 15 years of Dawit Isaak’s imprisonment and the discussion about the best strategy to gain his freedom has raged ever since his arrest. (Eritrean-born Isaak became a Swedish citizen in 1992, but returned to his native country, where he started a newspaper in the late 1990s.) I was in Eritrea recently, lucky enough to be awarded the rarity of a journalism visa in order to write three longform stories. I was there to record Eritrea’s journey from the euphoria after independence in 1991, until reality ripped the pen out of Dawit’s hands and many other journalists like him in 2001.
On location in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, I noticed a greater openness toward journalists than in the past and received answers to the questions I asked. Just a few years ago, questions about Dawit Isaak were rejected with aggression. Now, I was greeted by the message that he is alive and that he is treated well, and that the solution is now a question for Eritrean internal affairs.
After interviewing ministers and soldiers, who spent thirty years fighting in the trenches, it became clear that there is no ”press” in the world that can make Eritrea kneel and start “obeying” Sweden. Not even a military intervention would get such a result. The Eritrean powers-that-bewould probably head up into the mountains again, dig their heels in and wait out the development for another 30 years.
Using threats and sanctions is doomed to fail because it’s based on ignorance of the current Eritrean leadership and the nation’s history.
Another striking sensation during my reportage trip there was how little contact there is between Eritrea and Sweden, considering the many refugees that have made Sweden their home over the past 20-30 years. There are no traces of aid projects, youth exchanges, or investments.
Looking back in history, there were strong ties to latch onto, from the Swedish missionaries’ work back in the 20th Century to solidarity campaigns during the long independence war.
It is about time for all compatriots of Dawit Isaak to start questioning ourselves what we as Swedish citizens can do to break the isolation of Eritrea and open up more channels for interaction.
I believe Sweden’s relationship with Eritrea is too important to be left in the hands of our politicians. It’s time to stop dancing around the issue and demystify the tiny country on the Horn of Africa.
Why not initiate collaborations between schools, hospitals, music festivals, soccer clubs and companies in each country? Are you a perhaps a sports coach of some type? How about reaching out to an Eritrean youth team?
Do you sing in a choir? Are there Eritrean choirs to reach out to, visit and engage in exchanges with? Do you direct or put on children’s plays? Why not contact cultural associations in the country?
It may sound naive to suggest bringing puppets to a country that according to the UN Human Rights Committee is so bad it forces a generation of young people to flee, with parents putting their children in rickety boats to send them across the Mediterranean. But, I think we are capable of doing two things at once.
And to have Dawit Isaaac pardoned, I think we need to add communication on different levels and in various ways. From human being to human being. From association to association.
Without giving as little as an inch on the demand for his freedom, or holding a human being imprisoned without a trial for 15 years.
This is also where Swedish foreign aid policy can play a major role in order to kick-start this type of process, by funding travel and allowing aid initiatives in education, culture, energy and healthcare.
It is high time that Sweden, Sida and the Foreign Ministry initiate a bilateral assistance directed for the civilian population in Eritrea.
At a time when all the tools in the box have been tested, and the sanctions have settled like a wet blanket over all the harsh words, the one thing that remains is to appeal to humanity.
In the tradition of pardon, a release of Dawit Isaak on the grounds of humanity, I think it would be a great step toward a real respect for Eritrea as a nation.
It is impossible not to compare his with my own case.
I am a free man today, and can write this because from the first moment of my capture and imprisonment, Sweden prioritized relations with Ethiopia, where I was detained. Swedish authorities immediately came to the conclusion that conversation and dialogue with the Ethiopian dictatorship would provide the best chance for a desired result; the release of two Swedish citizens.
Focus was on getting two Swedish citizens out of prison—not fighting or humiliating Ethiopia.
This past year, there’s a sense of hope that something is about to happen in Eritrea.
And that’s why it is so important that all of us, right now, this fall, do all that we can, using our various capabilities.
See you in Asmara.
Read Martin Schibbye and Johan Perssons story from Eritrea: