Isaias Regime and Lampedusa: A Week Late, A Weak Explanation

Since hundreds of Eritreans perished off the coast of Lampedusa on October 3, there has been a stark contrast between the reaction of the world and that of the Eritrean regime and its most ardent supporters.

The facts as we know them:

  • In the very early hours of October 3rd, a 20-meter 3-deck boat en route from Libya to Italy experienced mechanical problems just a couple of kilometers off the shores of the island of Lampedusa, Italy. 
  • The boat, like transports managed by human smugglers, was overcrowded: it had almost 520 passengers. 
  • The passengers could not call for help because their mobile phones were confiscated in Libya. 
  • Survivors say that they used their flashlights to draw the attention of other boats and that they cried for help, but they received none.  At one point, two boats came nearby, one even circled them, but there was no help. 
  • At about 2:00 am, the captain, a Tunisian, in an effort to draw the attention of rescuers,  set some bed sheets on fire.  But he did this without first securing a safe, isolated place and without communicating his intentions. 
  • The fire he ignited, combined with fuel leakage from the boat, expanded.
  • To avoid the fire, the passengers moved to one end of the boat and, as they noticed that this was capsizing the boat, they would move to the opposite direction, all while fighting the now raging fire.
  • While this back-and-forth movement was occurring, some of the passengers (especially the very young) fell of the rails to the sea; still others  jumped to the sea.
  • Those who jumped off the boat, those who were jerked into the sea, who could swim and were fortunate enough not to be dragged down by those who couldn’t, or by the weight of the boat, swam for four hours to the shores. 
  • Nobody had life jackets which is prohibitively expensive in the bazaars the human smugglers manage.
  •  153 people survived: 152 Eritreans and one Tunisian (the captain).  Almost all of the survivors are male (only 5 were female) and the average age of the survivors is 22: the youngest is 11 and the oldest is 44.
  • Survivors report (Assenna radio) that of the 520 passengers, about 6-8 were Ethiopians but the rest were all Eritreans. 
  • About 350 passengers, presumably Eritreans, and disproportionately female and couples, are dead. 
  • The survivors, in co-operation with Italian immigration office, took the initiative to compile a list of the dead and to call their family in Eritrea and give them the sad news.
  • As of today, according to Abba Mussie Zerai (Voice of America radio), the rescues are trying to find 80 un-accounted  for bodies. 

The Reaction of Europe

  • On October 4th, Lampedusa was shut down in respect of the dead: shops, schools, business were closed and the Italian flag was flown at half-mast;
  • Italian citizens questioned the policies of their government and officials who came to visit Lampedusa were jeered;
  • In public events– football games, meetings–Europeans observed a minute of silence to honor the dead;
  • France called for a conference on refugees and Europe’s reaction to it;
  • Pope Francis, who has taken a leadership issue on how Europe treats refugees even before the incident–to symbolize its importance, he made sure that his first papal visit was to Lampedusa– set aside his prepared notes to talk emotionally about the shame and how outrageous it is for the world to be indifferent to the plight of refugees.
  • Italy proposed to provide posthumous Italian citizenship to the dead.
  • On October 6th, a religious service was held for the dead.  Videos show rows of coffins, including four tiny ones of children.
  • Eritrean civil society, facebook pages, in the Diaspora initiated a petition to pressure the Eritrean regime to repatriate the dead.  Taking the initiative, they reached out to Italian authorities who provided details on the process of repatriation: Click here to sign the petition.
  •  On October 9th, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, while touring Lampedusa, disclosed that the EU will give Italy 40 million to deal with its refugee crisis.  

The Reaction of The Isaias Afwerki Regime

  • On October 4th, while Diaspora Eritreans were in a state of shock and grief, Eri-TV referred to the incident as a case of “illegal African immigrants” who are said to be of “Horn of Africa nationality.”
  • On October 4th, Yemane Gebremeskel, the director of the President’s office,  tweeted (on Twitter) “Condolences to the families who have lost their dearest ones in the Lampadusa disaster. Time 4 urgent action 2 ensure this never happens.”  This line was featured prominently on without disclosing that it was a re-write of the tweet.  
  • Yemane Gebremeskel then went on to have twitter flame wars with Leonard Vincent (AFP) because the latter had asked “Has anyone thought of asking #Eritrea’s top official if he still thought the Lampedusa tragedy is “not a big issue”?  Vincent was referencing Yemane Gebremeskel’s interview with Fox News/AFP a month earlier when, asked about the exodus of Eritreans, he had replied “It’s not a big issue.”
  • In Eritrea, the state media did not cover the news that everybody in the world was discussing.  This wall of silence blanketed the state media from October 5th to October 9th.  Flags were still flying at full mast.  Its supporters, at Paltalk sessions, website comments section were either implying that the Eritreans are actually Ethiopians, or that they have nobody but themselves to blame for the tragedy. Some were writing entirely irrelevant issues to deflect attention.   As the loved ones of the dead were receiving phone calls from Lampedusa, the Eritrean regime and its media had no words much less words of comfort.
  • On October 9th, an unsigned statement from the Eritrean embassy in Italy, posted to regime-friendly websites only, acknowledged that the dead are mostly Eritreans, that it was working with authorities to repatriate the dead Eritreans back to Eritrea, and that it would provide financial support to the survivors.  The Eritrean flag at the Eritrean embassy in Italy was lowered to fly at half mast (five days after a flag that Eritreans have no allegiance to, the Italian flag, had been lowered.)
  • On October 9th, the Eritrean regime issued a press release where it, for the first time, gave its condolences to Eritreans and the bereaved family members, but most of the press release was dedicated to deflecting blame to the United States for being behind human trafficking whose sole purpose is to empty Eritrea of its youth–this after all previous campaigns of instigating border conflicts and illegal sanctions had failed–and that the regime has facts and is willing to make its case.   This press release was also read in Eri-TV.
  • On October 9th, Eri-TV newscast attempted to explain why it was reporting on something that happened a week earlier–because the government was conducting a “careful study”–but then had nothing to report about the alleged “careful study.”  In fact, other than reporting that news had been reported, it failed to disclose the magnitude of the tragedy.
  • On October 9th, Yemane Gebreab, political director of the ruling party and presidential advisor, was interviewed by Voice of America. He indicated that for Eritreans who die in exile, to be repatriated home for burial is “their right.”  And in this regard, particularly since it is all the wish of the bereaved families, his government is in discussions with Italian officials to make it happen.

Questions to the Eritrean Regime

1. Why did you, the spokespersons for the regime, have nothing to say between October 3 and October 9th, in media accessible to Eritreans in Eritrea?
2. Why didn’t Eritrean State media cover the Lampedusa tragedy between October 3rd and October 9th?
3. Yemane Gebremeskel: Is your position that the exodus of Eritreans is, as you told Fox News/AFP on August 20th “not a big issue” or is it, as you say now, a big issue that deserves urgent action? If it is the latter, what changed between August and October since your government’s position is that the Lampedusa incident is one of many?
4. Yemane Gebreab: you said that it is the right of every Eritrean to be repatriated home for burial.  But you have first hand information that this right is frequently violated as assurances you personally gave the widow of your own colleague, Naizghi Kflu, that her husband would be buried in Eritrea were not kept.  Why should Eritreans believe your assurances that the right of Eritreans to return home to be buried in their birthplace will be honored?
5. Why is it that every single time Eritreans face a massive tragedy, or they are dragged into wars, that the head of state conveniently disappears? Is he aware that being a president is not just lecturing, touring, hectoring and presiding over rubber stamp cabinets but actually consoling citizens and showing leadership in times of crisis?
6. Do you intend to evaluate your policies to see what their contribution is to the exodus of Eritreans or is your claim that the United States is to blame your final answer?  And since you have stated often that you are too powerless to influence Washington, have you accepted tragedies like Lampedusa as recurring events, a price to be paid to “protect our sovereignty”?

These are all rhetorical questions for which we do not anticipate answers.   We raise them to point out that the long-suffering Eritreans deserve better, much better, than a regime which never owns up its mistakes and is always blaming others for its own mess.  At minimum, we deserve a government that does not reduce Eritrea into a hellish police state whose most productive citizens–its youth–pay any price, bear any burden, to abandon it.  Because, unlike them, we know that the youth are not “going out for a picnic.”  The reality of exile is that most people who leave their countries never return home.

The Isaias Afwerki regime must go and its entire criminal enterprise must be dismantled now.  All of us who consider ourselves agents for change must recognize our strength–there is no doubt that the panicked reaction of the regime is the result of our pressure–and must work in a coordinated effort towards one goal: ridding Eritrea of the Isaias Afwerki regime and its nasty, incompetent, brutish infrastructure.  In Eritrean tradition, tragedies are occasions for people who gather to forgive each other and pledge a new start.  Whatever it is that our civil society, political organizations, media outlets (yes, including find cause to separate from, they must now use Lampedusa as an occasion to come together.  Quite simply, our people deserve better and we don’t have much time.
inform.  inspire.   embolden.  reconcile.


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