Monday, August 19. At first blush, you could have mistaken it for an impromptu music show. A speaker. A microphone lying on top of it. A surprising group of men wearing Canada-brimmed hats, waving Canadian flags, congregating on the sidewalk near the Masonic Lodge near Osborne and Pembina.
I almost walked right past this protest as I was on my way home from the Rapid Transit Station. Something stopped me. Perhaps it was their energy — so pure, so uplifting — even as the seriousness of their task lay before them.
Their goal was to raise public awareness about a music event was happening inside the Masonic Lodge to raise money for what they say is a government engaged in terrorist acts against its own people. Individuals from Eritrea, often refugees themselves, were paying $50 a ticket to hear members of a military band play in a concert sponsored by the Eritrean government.
In Eritrea, these men say, basic freedoms we take for granted are absent; no elections and no voting for 23 years, and many people are slaves.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, there are “extrajudicial killings; [a] shoot-to-kill policy; enforced disappearances and incommunicado detention; arbitrary arrests and detentios; widespread torture;…inhumane prison conditions; compulsory national service of an unspecified and extended duration; no respect for civil liberties…”
According to the Chairman of the Eitrean-Canadian Human Rights Group in Manitoba, Teklezghi Gabir, government agents are even selling people to organ smugglers for their kidneys. “So far, over 4000 people have been killed for their kidneys,” Gabir claims.
The headliners for the show, billed as “Festival Eritrea 2013”, Bereket Mengisteab and Tesfay Mehari, were in the Masonic Temple raising money for the activities of the very government that the refugees are fleeing. Through its agents in other countries, the government of Eritrea administers a 2% tax on former Eritreans living in the Diaspora. People are intimidated into paying, afraid for their families back home.
The situation is so distressing that the UN and fifteen NGOs have released reports condemning the Eitrean government. And yet, behind me, I saw a family with young children unloading to go into this concert. I have read elsewhere that such events work as much through cultural nostalgia and homesickness as through extortion and fear.
All the protesters were men. They were quite earnest but also upbeat. I was surprised by the Canadiana they wore and carried, because I am often cynical about my own country and the human rights abuses I have seen and experienced here. But after talking with these folks, Canada seemed like a much better place.
Gabir spoke beautifully about what being in Canada means to him: “I survived these guys in Eritrea. I would have been killed. We need the same freedom like we have [in Canada]. We thank Canada because we are treated like human beings there.”
I took a few pictures of the men promising to post a story on Facebook “or somewhere”. In order to get the best photo opportunity, they practiced chanting their slogans. They were simple, single-word wishes. “Eritrea deserves: Peace! Democracy! Prosperity! Constitution! Rule of Law!”
“Close the prisons and open schools and hospitals!”
“Stop sponsoring: Terrorists! Criminals! Murders! Killers! Dictators!”
The dictator they speak of is Isaias Afewerki, President of Eritrea. His party, The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, is the only political party allowed to exist. Afewerki has been in power since 1993.
I am shocked that I didn’t learn about this sooner. But I am also heartened by the bravery and camaraderie of the men I saw protesting outside the Masonic Lodge. They were small but mighty. An example to all of us that you don’t need a horde to have free speech.