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Investigations of Attacks on the Eritrean Diaspora Are Underway

African UnionInvestigations of Attacks on the Eritrean Diaspora Are Underway

February 17 Eritrean Independence Day Celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina. The event was attacked by violent protestors who threw bricks at police and set a tractor trailer on fire. Police made eight arrests.

28 Feb 2024 – Ann Garrison spoke to Eritrean British attorney Feven Yemane regarding attacks on Eritrean diaspora festivals and gatherings and the investigations underway.

Eritrea is a uniquely self-reliant African nation with an egalitarian social system that guarantees health care and education to all its people. It’s free of IMF and World Bank debt, and it refuses to collaborate with AFRICOM, the US Africa Command. Western governments and press have, not surprisingly, sanctioned and excoriated it for decades.

Since 2022, Western press have even seemed to justify violent attacks on peaceful Eritrean diaspora festivals and gatherings, but the tide may be turning as law enforcement investigates what’s actually happened. Investigations of the many 2023 attacks  are underway, and in Calgary, 28 people have been indicted  on 63 criminal charges.

Shortly after the 2023 attack there, Calgary Chief Constable Mark Neufeld told local news , “We’re not policing ideologies. We don’t get on one side or the other of this. This is around behavior for us, and so the behavior that we see in the videos and the reporting of this is the very same behavior that we’ve seen in other cities, and it’s not OK. It’s not OK in our city.”

Neufeld also said that these were not clashes between two groups but violent attacks by one group upon another.

In recent weeks, the violent Eritrea haters, who call themselves “Brigade N’Hamedu,” once again emerged to attack diaspora gatherings, this time in The Hague , Netherlands, and Charlotte , North Carolina, but both attacks are under investigation.

I spoke to Eritrean British attorney Feven Yemane about the attacks and investigations.

ANN GARRISON: Who are the Brigade N’Hamedu who keep attacking peaceful Eritrean festivals, and what is motivating them?

FEVEN YEMANE: Brigade N’Hamedu are a militant, violent diaspora group. Many seem to be of Tigrayan, Ethiopian origin. Others seem to be Eritreans from near the border between Tigray Region and Eritrea who identify with Tigrayans.

The group first came to our attention in August 2022 at an incident  in Gissen, Germany, when they attacked a venue where an Eritrean cultural event was underway. They assaulted attendees and caused criminal damage to property and cars.

Their slogan is “regime change in Eritrea,” but their attacks extend to the Eritrean diaspora at large, including businesses and individuals. There are reports from The Netherlands, for instance, that they attacked guests at a christening just because they considered the singer booked to perform to be a supporter of the Eritrean government.

The Brigade accuses Eritreans in the diaspora of being “pro-Eritrean government” regardless of whether they might or might not be. In Sweden, they accused festival organizers of not aligning with Sweden’s democratic values, and one liberal Swedish politician argued that the festival should be banned because it supported a dictator.

In another instance, the Brigade accused festival organizers of promoting violence and indoctrination of the young because children dressed in military outfits and reenacted scenes from the thirty-year Eritrean independence struggle.

They argue that the Eritrean government is guilty of transnational repression, that it harasses and extorts taxes from members of the diaspora, but that argument is not backed by evidence or legal weight.

AG: What is their modus operandi for attacking an event?

FY: Brigade N’Hamedu will bombard the owners and managers of a venue where an Eritrean event is booked with emails and phone calls demanding that they cancel  the event. If it’s not canceled, they will warn that there may be a clash between pro- and anti-government supporters. They will cite and send links to incidents reported in the media such as the ones in Israel and Sweden. That is their Plan A.

If the venue doesn’t cancel the event, the Brigade moves to what they call their “Plan B.” This means they will attend the event under the guise of peaceful, permitted protest but instead orchestrate violent attacks against the attendees, the venue, and the police.

Brigade N’Hamedu activists discuss their Plan B openly on their social media accounts, primarily TikTok. In live, hours-long sessions, they will talk about preparing to attack both attendees and police.

One of the Brigade activists arrested after the February 17th riots in The Hague is known to Dutch and German police for his social media calls for violence not only against attendees but also against the police. In this video , he says they will target police who try to prevent them from shutting down the event. There are many similar Brigade videos calling for violence and using derogatory, dehumanizing words against those who attend festivals and other events.

AG: Western immigration policy gives special preference to Eritrean asylum seekers in what seems to be a strategy of depopulating Eritrea, draining it of its youthful population. If you’re Eritrean, it’s very easy to get into Western countries. Many people say that the Brigade are largely Tigrayan Ethiopians who were able to emigrate by claiming to be Eritreans, which is relatively easy because they speak the same language. Do you find that credible?

FY: Over the years, there have been numerous reports and testimonies that Tigrayans have adopted Eritrean identities to migrate to the West and seek asylum as Eritreans. Simon Tesfamariam reported on these stolen identities in Black Agenda Report, and Andreas Melan, the former Austrian Ambassador to Ethiopia, estimated  that 40% of those admitted to Europe as Eritreans are in fact from northern Ethiopia, meaning largely from Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. Even Abiy Ahmed claimed so in an address to the Ethiopian Parliament.

There are witness testimonies from refugees who lived in refugee camps in Tigray about how their Eritrean IDs were stolen or taken from them and then sold to Tigrayans who wanted to emigrate and register with UNHCR as refugees for relocation to Western countries. There are social media posts  of Tigrayans openly admitting to applying for status as Eritrean.

Regarding Brigade N’Hamedu, many of them carry both the former blue and green flag of Eritrea and the red and yellow Tigray flag. So, considering the history of stolen Eritrean identities and Brigade activists’ affiliation with Tigray during the Tigray conflict, it seems logical that the majority are from Tigray.

The truth of this might come out in investigations of the violence.

AG: Who attends the peaceful Eritrean gatherings that the Brigade keeps attacking?

FY: People of Eritrean origin all across the diaspora. The events are open to all Eritreans and whoever wants to attend, regardless of what they may think of the Eritrean government. No one is in any way pressured or compelled to attend, as the Brigade would have us believe.

The gatherings are social, and many Eritreans attend them simply to celebrate their culture, history, and music, to meet with old friends, and, most importantly, to give Eritrean children a chance to experience their cultural heritage.

AG: What have been the consequences of the attacks there in Europe? Are venues refusing to host Eritrean cultural events, and are diaspora Eritreans becoming afraid to attend them?

FY: There is an Eritrean saying, “While the dogs bark, the camel marches.” The camel represents Eritrean endurance in the face of adversity. There have been difficulties with venues canceling or refusing to rent because of the Brigade’s threats, but these challenges are surmountable. The communities are finding new ways to adapt, so I wouldn’t say they’re fearful. They have been disappointed and angry when media, officials, and/or police have misconstrued the violence as clashes between rival Eritrean groups.

In some countries, however, the police are now changing their approach, recognizing that the Brigade is attacking peaceful gatherings. Investigations are underway in Seattle, The Hague, and other cities, and after investigations of last year’s attacks in Calgary, prosecutors have indicted 28 people on 63 criminal charges. Eritreans welcome these investigations and prosecutions, knowing that they will reveal who the aggressors are and punish them in accordance with the law.

These are legal issues that might take some time to resolve, but they will be resolved.

AG: Last year, the Brigade violently attacked peaceful Eritrean festivals in Stockholm, Seattle, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Tel Aviv, and Gessen, Germany. In the past week, they violently attacked gatherings in The Hague and Charlotte, North Carolina. Why do you think they’ve gotten away with this for so long?

FY: To be fair to authorities, the Brigade has disguised itself as a protest movement, but now, considering the number of violent attacks, you would expect countries to consider whether they are national security concerns.

On February 28, The Hague’s mayor, Jan van Zanen, will take the issue of the February 17 attacks to the city’s municipal assembly. Dutch News has reported that he “blamed a group opposed to the Eritrean regime, Brigade N’Hamedu, for orchestrating the violence, which he called “appalling and unacceptable.”

This is the first time a public inquiry will be held into the Brigade’s activities in the Netherlands. Although police investigations are underway elsewhere, and attackers have been charged in Calgary, this may be the first public inquiry anywhere.

AG: Most of the press reporting these stories so far has described the violence as “clashes between rival Eritrean groups” and then focussed on the Brigade’s complaints about the Eritrean government. Some even quote former BBC reporter Martin Plaut and Dutch academic Mirjam Van Reisen, who’ve made careers out of attacking the Eritrean government and its supporters. Why do you think that is?

FY: It is what they have been fed. Also, the media is lazy regarding Black and African affairs, so the research and interest are not thorough. Therefore, they run the same headlines and use quotes and analysis provided by received experts like Martin Plaut and Mirjam Van Reisen, who are both ardent supporters of Brigade N’Hamedu.

Van Reisen recently hosted a seminar about Eritrea with anti-Eritrean government activists at the EU parliament. One of the participants was Beyene Gerezgiher , a prominent and influential figure in the Brigade. He lives in the Netherlands, and in a Facebook post later shared on Twitter, he directed his followers, who are Brigade activists, to the secret location of the Eritrean event that descended into a riot in The Hague.

AG: Martin Plaut actually heroizes Brigade N’Hamedu. In a blog post, he said that they’re forming their own government-in-exile and have contacts in the Eritrean military who will help effect change from the inside. In other words, stage a coup. Could you respond to that?

FY: Plaut is an activist who worked for years with Eritrean opposition groups. In the UK, he is closely affiliated with Eritrea Focus, an opposition group based here. In a video  widely circulated online, he was filmed saying, “Do not go and have another demonstration outside the Eritrean Embassy unless you’re going to burn it down.”

Interestingly, the Brigade is now burning cars. Did he direct them to do that? Probably not, but they are no doubt emboldened by the support they have in people like Martin Plaut and Mirjam Van Reisen.

Who knows what the Brigade thinks they may accomplish by burning cars or lighting whatever else on fire. This will have no effect on the Eritrean government, and it has the opposite effect with Eritreans, who are now coming together against the violence.

Eritrea has already endured years of sanctions and Western hostility and it will endure beyond this too.

The Brigade has for years talked about forming a government in exile, and there have been initiatives to establish one in the past. However, like the Syrian opposition, the Eritrean opposition is divided into multiple groups. They won’t be able to form a single, cohesive group or overthrow the Eritrean government.

If there were going to be a military coup in Eritrea, it would’ve happened by now. Most Eritreans have done military service, and should they choose to revolt against the government, they wouldn’t need the help of a movement like the Brigade. The US, the West, and the TPLF have all attempted to undermine President Isaias Afwerki and the government of Eritrea, but they are still there because they represent popular will, even if it is not expressed in the West’s electoral democratic form.

Some argue that the Eritrean people are brainwashed and controlled. That is condescending and demeaning to people who historically fought against oppression.

AG: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

FY: Brigade N’Hamedu attacks the rights to peaceable assembly and freedom of expression guaranteed in the West’s constitutional democracies. Therefore, their argument would not seem to be with Eritrea, but with the nations where they live, which uphold those principles. Can the Brigade expect the Western nations where they live to change their principles in order to suit the Brigade’s agenda? No.

Bringing their cause to the media’s attention might get sympathy for a while, but once police actually investigate their violent criminal offenses, they won’t be able to continue them.

_______________________________________________

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Stanford University and is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. In 2014 she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison, ann@anngarrison.com.

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