Nairobi - While 20 years ago Eritreans danced to celebrate
their newly gained independence, on May 24 this year few have much to smile
about other than fond memories of happier times.
"There is so much to be proud about as a nation,"
said Emmanuel Tesfai, a former fighter who battled during the 30-year war to
win his country's freedom from Ethiopia.
"But there is no space for political freedom in the
country today," he said, speaking from exile in Kenya.
Criticism is high of Eritrea's human rights situation
because of the absence of freedom of speech and the repression of religious
Many Eritreans flee first across the dangerous border into
Sudan, and end up either in refugee camps along the eastern border, or in the
dusty capital Khartoum.
Jamal Osman was a journalist in Eritrea working for the
state-run radio station, but fled for Sudan in 1996.
"I was not a fighter with a gun, but I fought for my
country in my profession as a journalist," he said, speaking to AFP in
"I want to see political change in Eritrea... we are
all struggling for this."
Salih Sarokh, aged 67, fought for Eritrea's freedom from
1968-81, but since then has been a refugee in Sudan.
"I'm not sad that I did my duty to my country and my
people... I'm sad because of what the regime has done."
A long way to go
Many Eritreans, succesful entrepreneurs like Internet cafe
manager Mebrahtu Dawit in Uganda, dream of change so they can go home.
"My prayer is things change back home, and then we all
return. We try to make ourselves happy here, but it is not our home," he
But inside Eritrea - as well as in the diaspora scattered
around the world - there are plenty of vocal supporters of the regime.
In sharp contrast to gloomy voices outside, Eritrea's
state-media is crammed with stories lauding the "patriotic fervour"
of the people as they celebrate independence, quoting diaspora returning to
show their "staunch resistance against external conspiracies".
"No doubt, Eritrea has a long way to go until she
becomes the developed and democratic country she aspires to be," wrote
Rahel Weldeab, a top official in the government-run national student's union,
in a recent post on her website.
But she also sharply criticised compatriots outside the
country whom she accused of trying to "exploit Eritrea's challenges by
fooling Western journalists.
"Whenever the people do call and act for change... they
will bring about this change on their own terms and for their own lives",
she said, condemning those outside the country critical of the regime.