Where is the Eritrean dictatorship collecting money in this photo, in Africa or in Valais?

The Eritrean regime organizes controversial propaganda events in Switzerland. The opposition is trying to prevent this, the police are alarmed. 

Source: NZZ Magazine

By George Humbel
PFDJ Festival Valais Switzerland
PFDJ Festival Valais Switzerland

The whole thing doesn’t look like a peaceful cultural festival. A band is playing on stage. But the dancers next to the musicians are wearing battle gear. The two men in army uniforms wield rather real-looking submachine guns. They clench their fists again and again and hold their Kalashnikovs in the air in a victory pose. There is a tent next to the stage, also here people in uniform. They praise the struggle of the Eritrean military and call for donations for the “martyrs”.

These pictures were not taken on the Horn of Africa – but this summer in a multi-purpose hall in Conthey near Sitten in Valais. The whole thing was actually camouflaged as a cultural festival. But in fact it was a propaganda event by supporters of the Eritrean regime. Several senior officials were flown in as guests of honor. The Eritrean ambassador acted as the host. You can see all of this on a YouTube video.

What is made public afterwards is top secret in advance. This also applies to the event that was supposed to take place yesterday, Saturday. The fear of riots at the festival is too great, too great the fear that the authorities could ban such events.

And rightly so: there are regular riots and police operations. The Federal Office of Police (Fedpol) writes: The past has shown “that there is a certain potential for violence and riots are possible”.

It is an expression of the deep ditch that the diaspora goes through. It is mainly Eritreans who fled in the 1980s who are still ardent supporters of the founder of the state, Isaias Afewerki. To this older generation, he is a freedom hero who fought for the country’s independence. It doesn’t matter to them that elections have never taken place and that the human rights situation is miserable.

Those who fled the Afewerkis regime in the 2000s see things very differently. They have experienced oppression and poverty in the supposed paradise themselves and are fighting against the government.

So did Habteab Yemane. He left the country in 2016. The former law lecturer and judge now lives in Switzerland as a recognized refugee. It is a slap in the face for him and his comrades-in-arms that the dictator’s supporters can hold such events. “This is an abuse of freedom of speech and assembly,” he says. The opposition leader’s phone has been ringing every minute for the past few days.

Playing cat and mouse

Only a few knew where this Saturday’s event was to take place. Eritreans loyal to the regime and presumably the Eritrean ambassador to Switzerland Adem Osman organized it. The regime holds such festivals every summer. Selected artists tour Western Europe. They play in Stockholm, London, Bologna – everywhere where there are many Eritreans who have fled.

Yemane and his comrades tried to prevent the festival. They spoke to the police, they wrote a letter to Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter, and they started a petition. They threatened to demonstrate on site if the event did take place. “Peaceful,” as Yemane emphasizes.

The venue of the event was kept secret until the last minute. On Saturday, buses were waiting for the participants at the meeting points. Only those who had registered were allowed to board.

Protest against Swiss Festival

But the authorities and the opposition have had their hands tied in recent days. If only because the venue of the event remained secret until the last minute. The organizers acted clandestinely. On Saturday, buses were waiting for the participants at collection points. As stated on previously distributed flyers, admission was limited: Only those who had registered by telephone were allowed to board. The Eritreans, who are loyal to the regime, wanted to prevent the opposition from disrupting the event.

The example of Giessen in Germany shows how tense the mood within the diaspora is. A big event was supposed to take place in the Hessian city a week ago. It ended with an outbreak of violence: members of the opposition tried to storm the hall. More than 200 people fought a mass brawl. The opponents attacked each other with iron bars, in the midst of an overwhelmed police force. 33 people, including seven police officers, were injured. The incident made headlines across Germany.

The Netherlands is also a key stop on the Eritrean regime’s annual propaganda tour. But the country banned the event this summer. The authorities feared calls for violence and raised security concerns.

In Switzerland, both sides have been playing a cat-and-mouse game in the past few days. Yemane spent nights in front of the screen, searching social media for clues to the venue. Comrades-in-arms reported constantly with rumours. His cell phone kept beeping. New rumour, denials, another new rumour, another denial. It went like that for hours.

The conference of cantonal justice and police directors (KKJPD) also followed the developments. “We have informed our members and the police corps that such an event is planned,” said General Secretary Florian Düblin.

Foreign exchange for Asmara

The Dutch professor Mirjam van Reisen is a proven Eritrea expert. She says these festivals are the “long arm of Afewerkis” in the West. The collected donations are a source of foreign currency for the isolated regime. In addition to the donations, the country also lives from the diaspora tax. All Eritreans living abroad are obliged to pay two percent of their income to the state.

This is encouraged at the festivals. “These are definitely not cultural events,” says van Reisen. She is in favor of a ban like the Netherlands has enacted. In addition to the money, Asmara is primarily concerned with showing the strength and influence of the regime. The choice of artists is also highly political.

The poet Awel Said was announced for the event on Saturday in Switzerland. He is considered the chief propagandist and likes to show himself together with the head of state Afewerki. His speeches are tirades delivered in aggressive staccato against all supposed opponents of the regime. Said rails against the West, against the USA and the people of the Tigray.

The Eritrean army is waging war against so-called Tigray rebels in neighboring Ethiopia. Awel Said glorifies this war and calls the Tigray an inferior people. According to van Reisen, this war is also the reason for the extremely heated atmosphere on both sides.

Last week, NZZ Magazin tried several times in writing and by telephone to contact the Eritrean mission in Geneva. This was not available and did not answer any inquiries.

Waiting and staring at the phone, drinking coffee. Even on Saturday evening, Yemane and his comrades-in-arms didn’t know the venue. A demo on site was impossible. Instead, they gathered in Bern, Geneva and Zurich for small silent marches.

The secrecy tactics of the supporters loyal to the regime paid off this weekend.

The secrecy tactics of the supporters loyal to the regime paid off this weekend. Or the event didn’t take place after all. The opposition suspects that the event was ultimately held on a smaller scale on private property. Maybe you will see it later on social networks. The pro-regime movement has its own media service that produces images and videos.

The embassy is also busy filming and taking photos. Some of these images are broadcast on Eritrean TV. The state news agency also reports on the festivals. In this way, the regime wants to show its own population how much Isaias Afewerki is celebrated abroad.

Visit from Asmara: State secretaries receive Eritrea’s number two

It was a discreet but top-class meeting: As research shows, the Eritrean presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab was in Bern on October 18, 2021. Gebreab is considered the closest associate of the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki and the second most powerful man in Eritrea.

It was a “polite visit”, writes the foreign department EDA on request. The meeting was suggested by the Eritrean side. According to information from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Presidential Advisor’s reception lasted half an hour and took place in a meeting room of the FDFA. However, the Swiss delegation was important for such a short courtesy visit: Livia Leu and the then head of migration Mario Gattiker, two state secretaries took time for the guest from Eritrea.

The Swiss Refugee Aid (SFH) sharply criticizes the visit: “From the point of view of the SFH, it is incomprehensible that the reception took place at a time when Eritrean troops were deployed in the Tigray region.” A civil war has been raging in neighboring Ethiopia since 2020. Eritrean troops repeatedly take part in the fighting. According to the refugee agency, the Eritrean soldiers are accused of war crimes and alleged crimes against humanity.

The Department of Foreign Affairs countered the criticism. Such contacts would allow important points to be raised. State Secretary Leu “urgently” called for compliance with international humanitarian law. In addition to the war, the meeting also dealt with the issue of migration.

Eritreans were for years the largest group of asylum seekers in Switzerland, tens of thousands of Eritreans are currently living here. The regime does not accept returns of rejected asylum seekers. That is why bourgeois politicians have been calling for negotiations with the East African country for years.

“A solution is needed in the area of ​​migration policy,” says Central National Councilor Marco Romano. The situation has been blocked for over ten years, he criticizes. “We have a huge diaspora in Switzerland and should therefore remain in contact with the regime,” says FDP National Councilor Andri Silberschmidt. “Unfortunately, not all countries are democracies. However, if a dialogue gives the prospect of improving the status quo, it is preferable to breaking off contact.”

NZZ am Sonntag, Switzerland

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