Over Labor Day weekend, while most of the City of Davis was out of town vacationing for the holiday, UC Davis’ Freeborn Hall became the site for a large youth conference organized by the government of what is often referred to as “Africa’s North Korea.” Eritrea has consistently been ranked among the most oppressive and authoritarian regimes in the world. Severe human rights violations are common there, including indefinite military conscription; severe restriction of freedom of speech, press, association and religion; frequent disappearances; forced labor; the detention of political prisoners; and a shoot-to-kill border policy for people attempting to escape the country.
The ruling party of Eritrea held a conference for the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ). The YPFJD is a youth organization associated with the Eritrean government. I attended a presentation entitled “Human Rights and Eritrea’s Image” at the invitation of conference organizers.
What I hoped would be a conversation about charges of serious human rights violations in Eritrea turned out to be little more than an hour of indoctrination and rhetorical sidestepping on critical issues. Not only were known big-ticket items not even mentioned, but panelists denied outright the occurrence of human rights events of significant proportions including ongoing human trafficking in the Sinai desert, an attempted military coup by 100 armed personnel that took place in January 2013, and the UN’s allegation that 10,000 political prisoners are held in Eritrea.
As I sat there witnessing what I realized was a foreign government actively brainwashing several hundred young people, it occurred to me that no one else probably knew this was happening. Unlike the first eight annual conferences that were all held in major metropolitan areas with substantial dissenting diaspora communities, this year’s conference was in Davis. There were very few people in Davis – particularly over the long weekend – to protest, witness or even notice what Eritrea was doing in Freeborn Hall. With this letter, I hope to bring to light the significant events of that evening so that they do not fade away into the forgotten history of a small college town in northern California.
Jihan A. Kahssay, Esq.
Human Rights Attorney