Martin Schibbye says Sweden needs a people to people approach with Eritrea
By Martin Schibbye | GP
Today, Dawit Isaak has been imprisoned for 16 years and since his arrest, the debate has raged on the best strategy to get him free.
I was in Eritrea last year with a unique journalist’s visa and could, on site in Asmara, notice greater transparency towards journalists and answer the questions I asked.
A few years ago, questions about Dawit Isaak were rejected with aggression. Now I was notified that he is alive and that he was treated well, but that the issue of a solution was an internal Eritrean affair.
After interviewing ministers and soldiers who had been thirty years in the trenches, it became apparent that there was no “pressure” in the world that could put Eritrea down and start to “obey” Sweden.
Not even a military intervention would have such a result. The rulers would probably go up in the mountains, dig up and wait for another 30 years.
Threats and sanctions are currently doomed to fail because it is based on an ignorance of the current Eritrean leadership and the history of the country.
To be credible and to build a relationship, we must also stand up for Eritrea in Sweden in the border conflict with Ethiopia about the town of Badme.
This spring 15 years ago, the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was settled by the International Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague, where it was found that the disputed Badme area belongs to Eritrea.
Yet this fierce border conflict is something that is rarely noted. Here lies the key to an understanding of the country and development.
Another striking feeling during my report was how little contact there was between our countries. There were no traces of any aid projects, no youth exchanges, no investments.
Looking back in history, there are strong ties to bond to, from the missionaries’ work in the 20th century to solidarity campaigns during the long liberation war.
After my return, I wrote and said it was high time that we all as compatriots to Dawit Isaak ask ourselves what we as citizens can do to break the isolation of Eritrea and open up more contact areas.
The question is whether Sweden’s relation to Eritrea is far too important to hand over to our politicians. It is time to break the fear of touch and demystify the little country on the Horn of Africa.
“Why not initiate collaborations between schools, hospitals, music festivals, football clubs and companies in each country? Are you a sports coach? Why not get in touch with an Eritrean Youth team?
Do you sing in a choir? There are Eritrean choirs to visit and engage in exchanges with? You arrange child theatres? Why not contact the cultural associations in the country?”
Since then, nothing has happened. Rather the opposite. We often read the same texts calling for tougher measures.
While the ideas that had demanded political courage were left untouched in fear of criticism.
During the summer, Asmara was given world heritage status by the UN UNESCO UNESCO, but it did not even cause any bilateral projects or architectural trips.
It may sound naive to bring ideas about culture and civil society into a country that is severely sanctioned, but I think it is necessary to open up new contact areas: Human to Human. Association for Association. But without budging an inch in calling for Dawit’s freedom. Or on the criminality to keep people locked up without trial for 15 years.
It is also inevitable to compare with my own case.
I am a free man today and can attend the Book Fair since Sweden first prioritized relations with Ethiopia where I was imprisoned.
Sweden concluded that conversations and dialogue with the dictatorship would have the best opportunity to lead to a desired result; the release of two Swedish citizens.
The focus was on getting Swedish citizens – not to fight or humiliate a country.
It is therefore important that we all already this fall do everything we can from our different starting points.
Unless Dawit can go to the Book Fair, or boycott it if he would like – why not contribute to a book fair in Asmara?