After opponents of the Eritrean government stormed a festival in Stockholm that was allegedly promoting the east African country’s regime earlier this month, setting light to cars and throwing stones, the Swedish government tried to distance itself from it all. The justice minister, Gunnar Strömmer, said it was “not reasonable for Sweden to be drawn into other countries’ domestic conflicts”.
But in the sunlit cafeteria of a community space in Kista, a few miles from the festival site in Järvafältet, a wooded area north of the Swedish capital, Abdulkader Habib disagreed. Opposition to Eritrea’s dictator, Isaias Afwerki, was not an Eritrean problem: “this is a big international problem,” he said.
Eritrean festivals are held in several cities around the world, and billed as cultural events, but much of the country’s diaspora see them as a show of power by the regime to intimidate those who have fled the dictatorship.
Sweden has not been alone in seeing violence. Opposition to the events has descended into chaos in Canada, the US and Germany in recent weeks.
Habib, a 51-year-old volunteer and school founder, said: “The Swedish government should take moral responsibility.” Would it also allow Putin supporters to hold a festival in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, he asked.
The festivals were formed entirely of people who support the government, he added. “It’s not a normal party where everyone is welcome.”
Activists say the festivals consist of hate speech against those who fled the country and military displays that include children in uniforms being encouraged to act out violent scenes.
Semhar Ghebreslassie, a Sweden-based member of global Eritrean activist group Yiakl, said activists in Sweden had written letters to the authorities urging them not to allow the festival, but had been ignored.
“These programmes are to promote the brutal dictatorship, to glorify war and whitewash the name of the dictator himself,” she said. “They try to portray Eritrea as a heaven on Earth, that it’s in good hands and that the west is evil. This is all done to brainwash and keep people under control, especially kids born and raised in the diaspora.”
While a multiparty democracy was promised when Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody war, it was never delivered. The country has been ruled ever since as a one-party state under Afwerki, who led the fight for independence. At a summit in St Petersburgthe dictator recently met Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who promised Afwerki free grain supplies.
Human Rights Watch calls Eritrea a “one-man dictatorship” that enforces indefinite military conscription, forced labour and arbitrary detentions, and has reportedly targeted Eritreans abroad.
More than 500,000 Eritreans are registered as refugees with the UN, but tens of thousands more leave every year – many to escape conscription – taking the perilous route across the Mediterranean.
Eritrean journalist Marymagdalene Asefaw, who is based in London, said that with their inflammatory music, military themes and the involvement of government officials, the festivals felt like a threat to Eritreans who had fled. “People are really sick and tired of this war propaganda,” she said. “All these young people who fled across the Sahara and through hardship thought they were finally safe, but they’re not safe any more. Every Eritrean in a European country has escaped hardship and trauma and now they’re using these festivals to amplify that.”
Critics also say the regime uses the festivals as fundraisers to finance repression in Eritrea. It has also sought to raise funds through a 2% “diaspora tax” which Eritreans abroad must pay to embassies in order to receive consular services, but British MPs last year called for it to be ended.
The Stockholm festival has been running since the 1990s, but Habib said its roots went back to a 1974 festival in Bologna, Italy. While before independence it was supported by the majority of Eritreans, feelings had changed as a result of its government connections, he said. He said older Eritreans were often more amenable to the festivals because they did not want to cut their ties with their homeland, while younger people who had grown up in democracies felt more empowered to speak out.
Sonia Sherefay, an author and integration consultant in Sweden, used to go to the festival when it first started, but has not been in many years. She said the violent protests made her feel “ashamed to be Eritrean”.
The Eritrean government, which uses a system of exit visas to stop people leaving the country, has long accused the west and the UN of conspiring to “depopulate” it and stop its development. That claim was repeated by minister of information Yemane Gebremeskel recently; he called those who disrupted the festivals “asylum scum”.
While the regime’s supporters have accused opponents of using violence, the demonstrators in Sweden said they had been provoked when attempting to protest peacefully.
“I will never forget what happened that day,” said Ghebreslassie. “It didn’t feel real to be inside what was unfolding. It was chaos.” She said that before she and fellow protesters could reach a rallying point, they had been interrupted by government supporters who threw stones.
The rise in protests has followed the creation last year by young Eritreans abroad of Brigade Nhamedu, a group that actively counters government propaganda. Henok Tekle, a US-based organiser for Brigade Nhamedu, said the group was expanding among the Eritrean diaspora into a “mass movement” around the world.
He said momentum was building as a growing young diaspora spoke out against the regime, after seeing relatives forced into fighting when Eritrea joined Ethiopia’s war in the Tigray region.
Tekle said that while government supporters used disruption at festivals to portray the movement as violent, its strategy was to use peaceful protests and legal action. Its next step is to take legal action against Eritrean embassies, which it says are the regime’s tool against the diaspora, and try to have them expelled from Europe and the US.
“This is a mass movement from every corner. People of all ages and social backgrounds are coming into this movement right now, and we want to be heard,” said Tekle.
“The country needs change. That’s why we are trying to advocate, and now the momentum is on our side. Definitely, we will continue this fight, we will continue peaceful demonstrations and we will continue a legal way to do everything we can.”