In search of freedom and truth – a refugee’s journey
As a journalist and Member of Parliament, Ahmed Shareef only wanted to serve his homeland of Eritrea and see it prosper.
But his views on democracy and freedom of speech did not sit well with his troubled nation’s corrupt political elite.
Targeted as a troublemaker by brutal Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afewerki, he and his family were forced to flee for their lives.
“I am a journalist but I had to leave my country because the government was targeting the media who criticised it,” Mr Shareef said.
“In Eritrea we have a bad situation. We have a dictator, we have no democracy, we have no freedom. There are no public processes,” he said.
“I was against this situation as a journalist so I was a target and I had to leave. Also as a Member of the Parliament in Asmara I was not able to do my job.
“We had no freedom, there was no chance to speak about the problems and the corruption and violence and so I had to leave to keep my family safe.
“First I went to Sudan but it was not safe there because it was close to Eritrea, so I went to Egypt,” Mr Shareef said.
President Afewerki has been condemned for allegedly arming and financing the insurgency in Somalia and the US State Department is considering labeling Eritrea a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”.
The nation has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”, and is among the harshest dictatorships in the world, where limitations on freedom of movement are extreme and punishments severe.
The NGO ‘Reporters Without Borders’ has ranked Eritrea last globally in freedom of expression since 2007 – even lower than North Korea.
One of the nastiest aspects of the harshness of the regime in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, is the mandatory military service that citizens on average serve from 18 to 55-years-of-age and which has spurred many to flee.
Amnesty International reports that in a country where the average life expectancy is 61 or 62, this means many spend their entire adult lives in the army, frequently facing hard labor and meager wages.
Women have fled the army because they are denied the opportunity to start a family if they remain in the Eritrean military. And Eritrean army officers also have the right to have sex with subordinate female soldiers – this is not legally considered as rape.
Every month about 3,000 people flee the country on the horn of Africa. According to a recent United Nations report, more than 84 percent of Eritreans who have sought asylum around the world have been recognized as refugees deserving asylum status.
Mr Shareef worked as a journalist for 20 years reporting for radio, TV, and for newspapers.
While in Egypt as a displaced person, he began a Phd in Arabic journalism and communications. He also registered his family as refugees with the United Nations and was eventually offered a resettlement place in Australia.
“I came as a refugee with my family through the UN humanitarian program and I am studying to improve my English with AMES Australia,” he said.
In Australia for just three months, Mr Shareef hopes to continue his career in journalism, perhaps in the Arabic language service with SBS.
He says he is happy to be in Australia.
“Here we are free. We face many challenges in starting our lives and careers from the beginning again but I am hopeful and determined to work as a journalist again. And here, at least we are safe,” he said.
AMES Australia Staff Writer