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Africa

Resistance in exile: Eritrean freedom fighter Mesfin Hagos

Eritrea is one of the most authoritarian regimes in Africa. Mesfin Hagos was once the country's defense minister. Now he fights those in power from his new home - as a refugee in Germany.

The flow of refugees from Africa to countries within the European Union does not appear to be slowing – even after the disaster which occurred near the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa at the beginning of October. Many of the 300 people who drowned were from Eritrea. Human rights organizations describe the East African country as "Africa's largest prison." For close to 20 years, authoritarian president Isaias Afewerki has ruled the country. Anyone who unsuccesfully tries to flee the country can expect to be thrown into prison.

Mesfin Hagos was lucky. For the past 12 years, the Eritrean national has been living in exile in Germany as a political refugee. From Europe he is fighting for a regime change, despite once helping Afewerki stay in power. Today he stands waiting in the autumn sun at a Brussels airport hotel. Business people push past him. Very few of them would know that the 65-year old man dressed in a crumpled jacket and wearing a cap is revered by many Eritreans as a national hero and one of the most important opposition figureheads. This is also the reason for his visit to Brussels; he plans to meet with others from across Europe to discuss resistance against the country's dictator.

On the black list

Eritrean men attend the commemoration ceremony for the victims of the boat sinking disaster off the Lampedusa coast on October 21, 2013

Eritreans in Italy protest after the Lampedusa disaster

"Every Eritrean wants to leave Eritrea because they can't survive, they can't work. They aren't given the opportunity to provide for their families so they can't live," says Hagos. "Every Eritrean has now left Eritrea, except those in the army. The problem is there is no one left who will threaten the government." Anyone resisting does so from outside the country.

Hagos was one of Eritrea's powerful elite. In 1988 he commanded the Eritrean rebels in the legendary battle of Afabet. The conflict brought Eritrea independence from its neighbor, Ethopia. Hagos fought side-by-side with the country's current president, Isaias Afewerki, and was later appointed minister of defense. But Afewerki began to emerge as a brutal dictator. Twelve years ago, Mesfin Hagos along with 14 others from within the country's military and political ranks, wrote an open letter demanding a constitution, the establishment of political parties and free elections. President Afewerki responded by killing or abducting 13 of the letter's signatories. Hagos was lucky – he was already on his way to Germany and once there, applied for political asylum.

Since then, he has been fighting the Afewerki regime from the city of Frankfurt am Main, in the south-west of Germany. "Our role should be mobilizing, educating, and showing the way to rebel against the government. Simply by disobeying the government, it can be brought down," Hagos said in an interview with DW. "So, if the people want to rise, we believe it can happen."

Independent, but supressed

Mesfin Hagos in 1991

A young Mesfin Hagos in Eritrea (1991)

Mesfin Hagos learned early on how resistance is best organized: the son of a peasant family, at the age of 19 he was sent to the Eritrean Liberation Front in China to be trained for six months in guerrilla warfare. That was in 1967, six years after Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia. "First of all we had to learn how to mobilize the population, how to make explosives and how to use them against the enemy," he recalls.

On March 18, 1988, at five o'clock in the morning, Hagos' troops attacked Ethiopian occupying forces near the town of Afabet in the north. Many men died on both sides. The Ethiopians' only option was to retreat through the narrow Ad Shirum pass. Hagos' troops set the first and last army tanks on fire – the Ethiopians were trapped.

Map showing Eritrea and Ethiopia

Eritrea became independent from its neighbor Ethiopia 20 years ago

Independence from Ethiopia followed in 1993, but 20 years later, the situation for 5.6 million Eritreans is worse than ever. The United Nations ranks the country at 181 of 187 in its development index. Hagos feels he is partly responsible for the current situation. Never did he think that the people who gave everything to be independent, would have to endure a dictatorship, he says. "That is the bitterness I feel."

Exile in exile

Bitterness, Hagos adds, extends to how the regime in Asmara has managed to make itself felt in Germany. The Eritrean exile community in Frankfurt is one of the largest in Europe. Nevertheless, Hagos feels alone. Those with family still in Eritrea have distanced themselves from him, he says. Returnees are asked if they know with whom Hagos is in contact. Those who are able to name names get special travel privileges. Only those who do not want to return to Eritrea have no need to fear the government. "They can freely greet me and sit with me in public," the 65-year-old says.

President of Eritrea Isaias Afewerki EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki

A change in the regime would probably see Hagos offered an important leadership position within the political arena. He dismisses the idea. He says he will continue to fight for democratic change in Eritrea but when that's accomplished, he wants just one thing: "To go to Eritrea and to stay there for the rest of my life. I don't want any political role after that."

As he speaks, Mesfin Hagos turns and observes the hustle and bustle of the Brussels airport hotel lobby. Suddenly he discovers a group of political friends and greets them warmly. Together, they will continue to fight for the freedom of their country. Mesfin Hagos suddenly appears years younger and has an air of a man who is now fighting the second biggest battle of his life.

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