Written by: Berhan Ahmed & Maher Mughrabi
Ibrahim Jahar lives in Melbourne, but when he holds up his phone you are transported to the
land he left behind.
It is not a happy scene. Over footage of people taking cover and looking on anxiously, we can hear gunshots being fired.
The footage is purportedly from an anti-government demonstration in the Akhriya district of Eritrea's capital, Asmara, on October 31. The country's Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel dismissed the event as a "small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casuality [sic] hardly breaking news":
But members of Australia's Eritrean community say that their families have been caught up in the crackdown that followed the Akhriya protests, with some imprisoned and their whereabouts unknown.
Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and since then it has been ruled as a one-party state by President Isaias Afwerki and his People's Front for Democracy and Justice. When its information minister offers his opinion on what is and is not breaking news, it is perhaps worth recalling that this small nation in the Horn of Africa has regularly come last in surveys of world media freedom, with Reporters Without Borders in 2016 terming it "an information black hole".
Jahar is originally from Akhriya and his family still live there. He said some of them were imprisoned after the October 31 demonstration, along with "a boy aged 14, a woman with children and elderly people".
Eritrean Australians believe thousands of people took part in the demonstration and say that an unknown number of protesters were killed. Some members of the community in Australia are thought to have lost family members but are scared to speak up, fearing repercussions in Eritrea.
The news that Eritrean Australians have been receiving from family and friends in Asmara is that more than 2000 people - including the elderly, children, and nursing mothers - have been held incommunicado. The government is also accused of shutting down businesses in Akhriya as collective punishment.
The protests had their origins in moves by Eritrea's ministry of education to bring schools run by religious denominations under direct state control. Schools run by the Orthodox and Catholic churches had already been put under pressure, but when the al-Diaa Islamic School was approached, the leader of its school board, 93-year-old Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, drew a line in the sand.
Khalil Ali Khalil, a leader of the Eritrean community in Australia, explains: "The government ordered the school to stop the wearing of headscarves, abandon their further studies and join the military academy Sawa. Hajji Musa... said 'we can't change, there is no reason, we have good standards'."
Since 2003, the Eritrean government has sought to ensure that all final-year pupils at secondary schools are based near the Sawa Defence Training Centre, so that they can begin military training in compliance with national service laws. Refugee agencies point to the state's enforcement of national service as a major push factor in making Eritreans one of the largest populations seeking asylum in Europe.
The protests reportedly occurred after the arrest of Hajji Musa, and parents and teachers who demanded his release were also taken into custody.
Demonstrations against the Eritrean regime have recently taken place in Melbourne, European countries and the United States in support of the school's leadership, parents and students.
Osman Ibrahim, another Eritrean-Australian with family in Akhriya, points to companies from developed nations carrying out lucrative mining operations in Eritrea, including an Australian company mining potash. He says conscripts and slave labour are involved in these operations.
"It's prolonging the life of the regime," he says.
The Australian company Ibrahim refers to is WA-based Danakali. It has a publicly available human rights policy that expressly rules out use of "forced, bonded, indentured or slave labour, including conscripted labour".
The firm's managing director, Paul Donaldson, told Fairfax: "Danakali's Colluli potash project is at a pre-construction stage and as such there is currently no revenue being generated from mining operations... The project has progressed through a series of exploration drilling and study phases. During those phases, Danakali has engaged Eritreans on employment contracts and has not recruited any conscripted individuals."
Asked whether he felt a joint venture with the Eritrean regime was appropriate at this time, Donaldson added: "Eritrea is the only sub-Saharan African country that has achieved its sustainable development targets of improving health, education and access to utilities. The [Colluli] project will create jobs for local people."
The Eritrean community here have been told that most children at al-Diaa have resumed studies, but Hajji Musa, many civilians and all school committee members are still in prison. "We have been told they have refused to sign a document to transfer ownership of the school to the government," Osman Ibrahim says.
The Eritrean consulate in Melbourne was contacted with a list of questions regarding the al-Diaa school protests and mining projects in Eritrea. No response had been received by the time of publication.
Khadija* is originally from Akhriya and studied at al-Diaa school. She has lived in Melbourne since 2013.
She said: "My brother-in-law, who is a lawyer representing the school, and my niece with four children under 10 years of age have been arrested, along with a woman from the neighbourhood who is over 70 years old. No one knows where they are".
Khadija wants the Australian government and the international community to act to secure the release of women and children in state custody.
"Akhriya and surrounding suburbs are under curfew... People are in fear of what is happening. Mobile services are being jammed as the government does not want information getting out. WhatsApp is being used as a form of communication," she adds.
"Students and teachers... are being targeted, with regular security agents' visits every day, so everyone has left the school and is scared to attend classes - everyone is hiding as much as they can".
Note: Dr Berhan Ahmed is an Eritrean-Australian activist and winner of the 2009 Victorian Australian of the Year award. Maher Mughrabi is the Features Editor of The Age.