After two years in exile and journeying thousands of miles, Eritrean journalist and academic Tedros Abraham has posted an account of his odyssey online. It began in November 2007 when he and two colleagues set off on foot from Asmara and, after an exhausting six-day walk through the desert, crossed into Sudan. It continued in Wedisherifay, a refugee camp just a few miles from the border, and then in Khartoum. Finally Tedros is free of his fear of being sent back to Eritrea, after being resettled by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Norway, where he is starting a new life.
Reporters Without Borders believes it is important to offer a forum to journalists like Abraham who are forced to go into exile. Many of his colleagues have been imprisoned and his compatriots continue to suffer, but Tedros is determined to combat his government’s cruelty through his writing. “My pen is still my weapon,” he says.
Tedros was just 18 in 2000, when he began writing for Setit, which was Eritrea’s leading privately-owned newspaper until it was closed in September 2001. He wrote more than 60 articles for the newspaper. While studying journalism at Asmara University, he also worked for the newspaper Hadas Eritrea and other news media. As a result of what he wrote, he received warnings from the authorities and spent several periods in detention.
After graduating in June 2006, he was assigned to do his compulsory “university service” with the website of the ruling Popular Front for Democracy and Justice, the country’s only political party. Although relieved that he had not been made to work for the information ministry and its acting minister, Ali Abdu, he was nonetheless dismayed that he was working for an organisation which he regarded as “responsible for the Eritrean people’s misery.” While there, he stood by the “defence of press freedom” and refused to bow to the demands of government propaganda, arousing his boss’s mistrust and hostility.
Aware that many of his colleagues had been sent to prison camps and fearing for his own safety, Tedros tried repeatedly to flee Eritrea, succeeding with two other journalists on his sixth attempt. Their survival was due in large part to their good fortune in encountering a “hero,” an old Sudanese nomad, in the border area, where so many other Eritreans have died, including journalist Paulos Kidane in June 2007.
Soon after crossing the border, they were put in a prison in the eastern city of Kassala, “where most of the Eritrean asylum-seekers first end up before they get transferred to the nearby refugee camp.” The prison guards made false promises and extorted money from them before they were finally taken to the UNHCR refugee camp at Wedisherifay.
The fact that from Wedisherifay “you can see Eritrean hills just a couple of miles away” heightens the fears of the camp’s inmates that they could be abducted at any time by the Eritrean security agents believed to be regular visitors to the camp. Nonetheless, Tedros discovered that he had been lucky to make it to Wedisherifay as the Sudanese government had been sending hundreds of asylum-seekers straight back to Eritrea at the time.
Tedros later travelled illegally to Khartoum, a terrible two-day journey with 40 other people who were squeezed into a single truck by a smuggler. He quickly got absorbed into life in the Sudanese capital and created his own newspaper, Shewit. But its popularity exposed him to new threats from the Eritrean authorities and he decided to terminate it.
Wanting to move to a country where he could work freely as a journalist, but refusing to migrate clandestinely to Egypt or Libya, like many of his compatriots, he finally decided to apply to the UNHCR for refugee status and resettlement, although the procedure was “complicated (…) frustrating [and] extremely long.”
Now in Norway after two years of dangers and ordeals, Tedros is taking advantage of his hard-won freedom, planning to resume work as a journalist and writing a series of articles about his arrival in Norway and his life there.
Tedros Abraham’s account in full: