This world is full of lies. President Trump has criticized CNN for its supposed fake news, and what the media has reported about Eritrea, I have come to realize is downright fake news. The world’s media outlets are spreading lies about Eritrea and promoting the idea that Eritrea is one of the worst violators of human rights in the modern world where people are suffering under a dictatorship.
Prior to my trip to Eritrea, I wrote on my blog about my question as to whether or not what the media has said about Eritrea was true. This is what I wanted to find out the most during this trip. In fact, in Eritrea, an election has not been held, and it has been ruled by a one-party dictatorship since its independence 28 years ago. It is said that state recognized religions include Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant Lutheran, and Islam while independent Christian and Protestant groups are banned with their followers facing arrest and persecution.
Christian media from around the world repeatedly calls for the freeing of Eritreans. This is not a trivial matter, especially for me since I am a Protestant pastor. When I was heading to Eritrea, I was apprehensive about the possibility of being arrested and thrown into prison because I could have been seen as an American conspirator.
No matter which country I am about to enter, I am the most nervous at immigration. I wrote a book entitled Bible Reality which caused me to be a source of concern for the Public Safety Commission since they suspected that I might be anti-Semitic, and on our tour to Israel, I was nervous about going through immigration. I was relieved when I was able to enter the country because we had a letter from the Israeli ambassador to Japan and we were civilian music diplomats sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When I heard that Eritrea was a tyrannical state which monitored people and controlled information, I couldn’t help but be a bit nervous and wonder if I could get in and out of the country safely.
Well, how did it go?
If the leader of HEAVENESE could not enter, it would not have been funny.
I thought they would be suspicious of us because of the large quantity of luggage which included Taiko drums and other musical instruments.
I was in line at immigration at Eritrea’s only international airport, and as expected it was taking time. I was wondering if everyone was being harshly interrogated by the immigration officers. All the members were given a copy of the official invitation from the Eritrea Commissioner for Culture and Sports. They were going to show the letter along with their passports.
One after another passed without problems, then came my turn.
When I said “Hello”, the immigration officer smiled at me.
I understood why it was taking so long upon looking through the glass divider.
Inside the booth was a man doing data entry on a computer so slowly because he was using one finger.
I could only see the back of the monitor which looked much used.
There was no hi-tech identification verification system that can be found in the US with the immigration officer telling us to "Look here" or "Place your fingers here".
Immigration was completed after he copied something onto a piece of paper while looking at the screen.
When I handed a HEAVENESE flyer to him, he was greatly excited and let out an "Ooh!"
I thought to myself, “That’s it? This is so easy.”
With a sense of relief, I entered the North Korea of Africa.
Our group was officially invited by Commission of Culture and Sports of Eritrea, which, in Japan, falls into the category of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
The people who hosted us in a sense were government officials and bureaucrats.
I was expecting to see inflexible and serious officials watch us during our stay, which was a bit inappropriate on my part to think that way.
Contrary to my preconceived ideas, throughout our stay we never felt we were being monitored. On the day when we were leaving for Japan, we hugged Mr. Mohad who was in charge of us from Commission of Culture and Sports, and ruefully said goodbye to him with the promise to see each other again while fighting back tears.
Let me tell you the conclusion of this matter.
If this is what is considered as the North Korea of Africa to be a gross violator of human rights, there would not be a "decent country" in the world. Portraits of the dictator are usually found in a despotic state, but we never saw such a thing. In Eritrea, the President is not particularly deified. The Eritrea we experienced and witnessed was peaceful. It is said that Japan is peaceful and safe, but the news of the indiscriminate murder targeting children in Kawasaki two days after we returned made me feel that Eritrea was much safer. When I talked with an Asahi Newspaper reporter who is based in their South Africa office and was in Eritrea to cover their independence festivities, I asked him about how safe it is in South Africa.
He said that his wife was almost killed.
He continued to say, “There is no safety there like in Eritrea”
At night, woman in Eritrea can walk alone.
Children’s laughter never ceases to be heard out in the streets until late in the evening.
News reports and blogs are infested with the fake news that people in Eritrea live in fear. However, Eritrean people approached us with smiles on their faces, and there seemed to be an absence of fear.
Neither was there any trace of nervousness or alarm in them concerning whether or not they might be arrested by some secret police for what they said to a foreigner.
On the contrary, even a policeman who stood guard during our outdoor performance was kind and greeted us with a smile and said,
"Your concert was wonderful. What you said especially captured the hearts of Eritreans."
Another policeman asked for handshake saying
"I want you to come back again."
Isn't this supposed to be a highly monitored society?
The police are on the side of the ruling party, right?
Eritreans seemed to be very conscious of fashion, and some stylish people were walking around the city. There were cafes and restaurants with caffé macchiato the drink of choice and served alongside tiramisu and cheesecake.
Apart for hygiene, cafes and restaurants in Eritrea were very much like what you would find in Omotesando.
Due to its history of being governed by Italy, pizza and pasta was very prevalent, and it was delicious.
With half the population being Christian, they do not abstain from drinking as Muslims do. People enjoyed drinking at bars in the evening.
The owner of a stylish live music club invited us to visit.
I thought, "Wow, there's a place like this here!"
The restaurant close to our hotel, which featured a salad bar, was thriving.
The area was not crowded with tourists.
Since this country is not a major tourist destination for Westerners, I saw less than fifty Caucasians in the eight days we were there.
The majority of these were Germans who were with the medical support team Médecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), or people related to the United Nations.
Therefore, it was the local people who were patronizing the restaurant.
We also met many Eritreans temporarily returning to their country for their Independence day clebrations.
It was just like what so-called "democratic nations" do.
No one monitors people.
They were free to talk about anything.
Some of the younger generation seemed to be dissatisfied with the present regime but it is normal for no political system is perfect. Since it has monopoly power, there may be repercussions if people demonstrate outright resistance. But it seemed that they were not all that concerned about it.
We were there during the week of the 28th independence day celebrations, so Eritreans from all over the world returned to Eritrea. If this were a super-surveillance society, they should restrict or monitor the entry of Eritreans who live in the West and have better access to information, but that was not the case.
However, a Japanese woman who is a member of UNICEF and lived there for two years said, "People think that their text messages and the like are monitored."
If you bring that up, then neither the United States nor Japan have privacy anymore. It is no exaggeration to say that since there is ECHELON, the digital communication of most people around the world is being monitored.
We don’t even realize it.
Perhaps the Eritrean people are aware of it because of the "one-party dictatorship” system they live under. Since independence was achieved just 28 years ago, the country is still young and pressure has been placed on those who opposed the administration of the current president.
I can imagine such a history, and I'm sure it's not a lie.
Therefore, a number of refugees crossed the boarded to escape.
I can’t deny that digital communication was a challenge.
It was said that the internet connection was particularly bad during the time we were there. The internet connection we had on the first day was almost nonexistent after that. However, it is unclear whether it was caused by the government or poor infrastructure.
With the population having increased since Eritreans living abroad returned for the celebrations, the internet might have been overloaded.
However, when some band members went to an internet cafe, they said they were able to use "LINE app" which we had no access at the hotel.
Another inconvenience was that there were sudden blackouts.
These were planned blackouts that the government implemented to meet the energy demands because the supply was not sufficient.
But the problem was "when, where, and from what time to what time" was not announced, so it would happen all of a sudden. People might think that the government was doing it as a form of ‘surveillance'.
Both the hotels we stayed at and the theaters we performed at were equipped with their own generators to deal with the blackouts, so there was no issue with power outages. Phone service became suspended on the day of the Independence Ceremony. I don’t know whether this was controlled by the government or if the phone lines were overloaded. People seemed to think it’s one form of government control, but they are used to it because it happens so often.
Even if the phone doesn't work all of a sudden, they seemed to not be bothered by it all that much and accepted it as that's just the way it is.
In other words, this may seem like a scheme to monitor society.
We found that finding hot water in hotels Eritrea comes with the same likelihood of winning the lottery. As a whole, the public service infrastructure has not been developed well in comparison of Japan. So, having a prominently pleasant internet envirment seems to me a somewhat remote possibility. In other words, considering the state condition of the infrastructure, the "inconvenience" just seems reasonable regardless of whether or not they are living in a surveillance system.
This country became independent 28 years ago after being at war for 30 years with Ethiopia.
Brave warriors who fought for independence are still alive.
Numerous people bear scars from bullets wounds.
Eritrea is now at the stage of becoming fully unified to strengthen its national power as an independent state. Given the circumstances of this country, it is only natural that there is a certain degree of "authoritarian" government. Otherwise, a power vacuum could lead to a disastrous situation like in Iraq. Don’t misinterpret this though, I am not saying that dictatorships are good.
However, looking at this matter unemotionally, Eritrea now is in a developmental stage as a nation. I believe that it is not necessary for Eritrea to all of a sudden become a "democratic" nation now that it is independent in order to be recognized by the United States and the United Nations.
I think everybody agrees that dictatorship is not the way it should be but in the first place, "democracy," which we and the United States are familiar with, is not the only “righteous" way to govern. The multiethnic societies of Africa have their traditions and standards.
After all, it's only 28 years since Eritrea became independent. The fact is that post-independence peace free from civil war is more worthy of praise than what can be criticized.
to be continued