From Eritrea to Washington DC

On a recent ride into Washington DC, I had a long conversation with Mebratu (not real name) about the difficult situation in his home country of Eritrea.  A summary of our conversation follows:

Mebratu: How are you doing today?

Bryan: Waking up. How are you doing? Are mornings when you normally drive?

Mebratu: Usually I drive late at night, sometimes in the mornings though.

Bryan: Do you have any unusual experiences driving late?

Mebratu: People are often drinking. Sometime they sleep in the car. Once in a while, when I wake them up they don’t recognise their own homes!

Bryan: That’s funny – have passengers ever made you feel uncomfortable?

Mebratu: No, not really. Most people are fine.

Bryan: Are you Ethiopian, Mebratu?

Mebratu: No, I am Eritrean.

Bryan: Oops, sorry.

Mebratu: That’s ok!

Bryan: Can I ask you a question about the Eritrean government if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable? .

Mebratu: No problem.

Bryan: I’ve been told that the Eritrean government expects Eritreans living abroad to pay two percent of their income to the government as a “tax”. Is that true?

Mebratu: Yes, that’s true. I don’t pay it because I oppose the government and the way it treats our people.

Bryan: But if you had to go back to Eritrea, for example to a funeral or a marriage, they wouldn’t let you enter unless you paid this tax, correct?

Mebratu: That’s correct. It is not an issue for me as I will never go back as long as this regime is in charge. But yes, Eritreans who go back are forced to pay. The Canadian government denounced this tax. I wish more governments would do the same. It is more like extortion than a tax.

Bryan: And it is also correct that the Eritrean government forces men into national service, sometimes for years?

Mebratu: That is also true. In general, service is good. Who would not want to serve their country? But even though it is called service in Eritrea, it is something different. Conditions are bad and people are treated very poorly. I left in 1996 but have friends who were forced into national service back then are still in it. Can you imagine?

Bryan: Most refugees are women and kids – but in Ethiopia I understand the Eritrean refugees are mainly men.

Mebratu: They are fleeing conscription. It’s really a shame. Eritrea could be a well-developed country. We have smart people, a strategic location, and good ports. However, the President controls everything – he may as well be the Minister of Finance, Defence, Foreign Affairs and everything else. He is old now and won’t even designate someone to replace him when he dies. Maybe he thinks he will live forever. Ethiopia also has lots of problems but at least they have a political party in charge and not just a single individual who has to control everything.

Bryan: Were you born in Asmara? I’ve heard it’s a nice city.

Mebratu: Yes, it is a nice. I was born in the north, but like many people, I came to Asmara for work. I’ve lived here though for over ten years.

Bryan: That’s my stop. Nice talking to you!

Mebratu: Good luck!


Note: You can read more about the human rights situation in Eritrea at the links below

1) Human Rights Watch

2) Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea

3) Amnesty International

4) Department of State Human Rights Report for Eritrea: