One Day Seyoum: A nation’s fight for freedom

One Day Seyoum casts light on one of the world’s most secretive states as it fights for the freedom of Seyoum Tsehaye, a journalist who has been imprisoned for the last 15 years.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© One Day Seyoum

“Historically intriguing, culturally compelling and scenically inspiring, Eritrea is one of the most secretive countries in Africa,” reads Lonely Planet‘s Welcome to Eritrea message, which lies below a sizeable notice from the UK government that advises against all travel within 25km of Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti.

Occupying a strategic position in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea is a relatively young country which gained independence only as recently as 1993, after its 30-year long war with Ethiopia.  But, soon after, the newly independent nation plunged into military conflict with Yemen and then once again with Ethiopia, a war which left both sides with tens of thousands of soldiers dead.

Today, a fragile peace prevails over Eritrea. However, tensions across its borders remain high and this perceived threat of war has seen the government clamp down on society with indefinite, mandatory military conscriptions and a complete shutdown of the free press.

“In September 2001, 10 journalists were imprisoned in Eritrea, with neither an official arrest, trial nor explanation. What these 10 journalists all had in common was their commitment to bringing democracy to their country. One of the 10 was my uncle,” explains Vanessa Berhe in the launch video of One Day Seyoum.

One Day Seyoum is a Human Rights movement which works towards the freedom of Seyoum Tsehaye, a journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea for the past 15 years. The young founder, Vanessa Berhe, talks to INKLINE about her mission to spread the word and raise awareness about her imprisoned uncle and her little-known native land of Eritrea.

© Vanessa Berhe

INKLINE: It has been 15 years since Seyoum was imprisoned, but the government is yet to provide a response?

Vanessa Berhe: My uncle, Seyoum Tsehaye, is a journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since September 2001.  The circumstances of his arrest were that he, together with other journalists and politicians – separately and jointly – were demanding democratic reforms in Eritrea. Throughout the course of a couple of months, they were publishing articles and trying to initiate dialogue, but this was very much suppressed by the government. In September 2001, when my uncle was imprisoned along with his colleagues, the entire free press was shut down in the country and has been since.

With no free press where we can write articles and ask questions, no independent judiciary who can hold the politicians accountable, demanding justice for my uncle has been very, very difficult and because of that, we have just had silence from the government.

We haven’t been able to see him, no one’s been able to ask him how he is or know what circumstances he is in prison under. We are campaigning to raise awareness outside of Eritrea and thereby hopefully pressure the Eritrean government to release the prisoners and implement democratic reforms.

Seyoum Tsehaye © One Day Seyoum

I: How has the response been like from outside the country? Has there been any dialogue with the UN?

V: In 2014, the United Nations established a Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, which was set up to investigate human rights crimes in the country, and since then they’ve been publishing reports and the final report was published in 2016 where they basically accused the Eritrean government of committing crimes against humanity.

This was presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva last June and since then the mandate for the commission has not been renewed but there is a special rapporteur on Eritrea who is investigating and is reporting, and her mandate was recently renewed, just a week ago, in Geneva.

So, the UN has set up mechanisms to investigate and to hopefully hold the government accountable for human rights abuses in the country, but you can’t see the government replying or responding now. Maybe in the future it will have some kind of impact.

© Vanessa Berhe

I: You have never met your uncle in person. What led you to fight for his freedom? 

V: I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. I guess it’s because I became aware even I was very young. He was in prison when I was five, so my mum started telling me about him pretty early.  You know those couple of stories you always tell new people you meet, like my friends knew where my mom worked, because I was really proud that she worked in a clothing store for example, and all my friends knew my uncle was in prison because that was something that’s always been in my life. In a way, I was very proud to be related to a person like that. It was this incredible story that I always seemed to tell people.

I was involved in Amnesty in school, I think I was 12-13 when I joined and was active until I turned 16. Once I started high school was the first time I met a lot of new people.  I saw how shocked they were when I told them I had an uncle in prison. I remember one girl, particularly, I told her in the library, and she was really screaming because she couldn’t understand how no one could be doing anything and how he could still be in prison.

Living in Sweden, which is an open democratic country where I do have the opportunity and the means to speak up, protest and put pressure, I just felt that it was a bit hypocritical to go around saying that no one’s standing up for my uncle when I had the means to do so myself. That’s why I started campaigning.

That was when I realised that no one was doing anything, but that I am also a part of the people who were not doing anything. I was only 15 or 16 at the time, but I felt mature enough and that I had the resources and a platform to speak and using it was my only option, was the only right thing I could do in my situation.

Living in Sweden, which is an open democratic country where I do have the opportunity and the means to speak up, protest and put pressure, I just felt that it was a bit hypocritical to go around saying that no one’s standing up for my uncle when I had the means to do so myself. That’s why I started campaigning.

© One Day Seyoum

I: How did One Day Seyoum become a #FreeEritrea movement?

V: As I grew older, I started connecting more and more dots, and connecting so many of the problems back to the crackdown on the freedom of expression. I just realised how everything was related back to September 2001.

That’s why we started the #FreeEritrea campaign, I think maybe 2 years later, where we were basically saying by freeing the press, you are freeing Eritrea.

A lot of people are looking for solutions, trying to find new methods, ideas, but all I’m saying is that the solutions are locked up, the people who have the ability to lead the country forward are imprisoned. So by releasing them, you are releasing the potential to solve most of the problems in the country.

#FreeEritrea © One Day Seyoum

I: How much of a support does the movement have within the nation?

V: I think only 6% of the Eritrean population has access to the internet, which of course makes it harder to campaign the way we do. But, apart from a lot of the online campaigning we also do a lot of outside stunts where we try to raise awareness at public squares in different countries.

Obviously, that’s not possible in Eritrea. I can’t ask activists to go on the square and protest because that would put them in danger, at the same time it is hard to share information online without putting the people at risk. But, of course, there are people who have access to the internet, like when we released the campaign we did a YouTube video which told my uncle’s story together with Eritrea’s story. That video was viewed all over the world including Eritrea, according to YouTube at least, which I thought was incredible.

Information is getting there, but there are probably more people in Germany who have heard about our campaign than in Eritrea itself, which I think is very sad, but of course is part of the problem we are trying to solve.

I: How can our readers help? What can they do?

V:  Basically, the first thing we tell people who are interested is to tell other people. You can put up a tiny poster at your university or in a cafe you sit at a lot – anything.

The power of the word is the strongest weapon in our armoury to fight for my uncle’s freedom.

If you want to go a step further you can be an ambassador and we can send you posters and T-shirts and can help you to campaign. Also, you are more than welcome, even if you don’t want to be active, to just become a member of the organisation.

But, I think the best thing you can do is spread the word, the power of the word is the strongest weapon in our armoury to fight for my uncle’s freedom.

How to become a One Day Seyoum Ambassador. © One Day Seyoum

I: What keeps you so driven, how do you keep fighting every single day? 

V: I think everyone in the diaspora, regardless of what country you are from has a responsibility to the people of your country. Because we do live comfortably, we have access to a lot of things and we have a privilege of living outside of the country where we are from – and that  gives us a responsibility.

And for me, that is the inspiration and that is what drives me, that my people deserve better. What I am doing is the only way I know to make them get something better and that is why I can’t stop myself from doing it.

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