Protesters crash Eritrean culture festival in Oakland

by yeEthiopiaforums

By Matt O’Brien
OAKLAND — Activists crashed the West Coast’s largest Eritrean festival
this weekend, turning an event meant to promote Eritrea into a heated
debate about the East African nation’s government and future.

As Eritrean-American children played a soccer tournament on a field
outside Oakland Technical High School, adults clashed verbally and
waved flags and signs at one another at the Saturday segment of the
3-day event. The megaphone-amplified arguments attracted the attention
of Oakland police. Officers monitored the scene on foot until several
dozen protesters marched their demonstration from the center of the
festival to a sidewalk outside the school.

The festival organizers support the government of Eritrean President
Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled the small country since it gained its
independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The protesters, also
Eritrean-Americans, shouted that Afewerki is a dictator.

“We’re trying to show them we have guts, that people in Oakland can do
this instead of being silent,” said protester Medhanie Berke of
Oakland. “This festival, they collect the money and send it to
Eritrea.”

ERITREAN FESTIVAL protestors

Samira Hassan, of Sacromento, along with a group protest just outside the Eritrean Western USA Festival being held at Oakland Tech High School, in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011. The protestors disapprove of the current government in Eritrea. The annual festival is sponsored by the Temescal's Eritrean Community Cultural Civic Center. (Anda Chu/Staff)

Several festival goers said they were upset that the rally disrupted a
family event.

“We believe that Eritrea is on the right track,” said Tsegereda Embaye
of Walnut Creek. “They’re doing the right thing. They are building
infrastructure,
hospitals. Illiteracy is gone, almost. So the government is doing a
really good job. They think Isaias is a dictator, but he’s not.”

The festival, held in Oakland in the daytime and Richmond at night,
featured food, music, art, traditional handicrafts and sports but was
also a regional conference for the People’s Front for Democracy and
Justice, Afewerki’s ruling party.

An Eritrean diplomat and a prominent pro-government activist, Sophia
Tesfamariam, were among the listed speakers. Topics on the agenda
included how to end the United Nations arms embargo imposed on the
country.

Clutching an Eritrean flag, Embaye was among several festival goers
who had strong words for the protesters.

“Most of us are professionals,” said Embaye, a scientist at NASA.
“These people are nobody. They are nobody in Eritrea, they are nobody
here.”

Across the fence, however, protester Asghedet Mehreteab, a civil
engineer from Vacaville, said that “deep in their heart,” she believed
many of the festival goers were actually on her side but afraid to
speak up.

“Even the people who are at the festival, some of them, a couple of
them, said, `We support you,’ but openly they cannot support us,”
Mehreteab said. “Most of them, except for the ones who were insulting
us and calling us names, most of them know the facts now.”

The facts about Eritrea’s government and human rights record have been
disputed for years between various factions in the Bay Area’s Eritrean
community.

A United Nations report released last month claims Eritrea broke
international arms sanctions against it by planning a bomb attack in
Ethiopia earlier this year, bankrolling armed militants throughout
East Africa and running an underground economy that raises tens of
millions of dollars from Eritreans living in the United States and
elsewhere through an extraterritorial income tax, fundraising events
and other means. The report identified Oakland, home to a large
Eritrean immigrant community, as a major source of cash for the ruling
party. Eritrea has blasted the report as unfair, inaccurate and
motivated by the West’s bias in favor of its rival, Ethiopia.

“It is sad that it repeats accusations (from suspicious sources,
including individuals with personal agendas) without providing any
evidence that insinuate that Eritrean community members and business
people are involved in illegal activities,” said a written statement
from the Eritrean government in response to the U.N. report. “These
allegations are simply defamatory and tarnish the reputations of these
individuals.”

Signs displayed at the festival included messages such as “America,
hands off Eritrea” and “We are the government.”

“Any money that goes back to Eritrea is an individual’s own decision,”
said Temesgen Fekadu of Santa Rosa, who ran a festival booth for the
Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. “If you don’t want to
send it, you don’t have to.”

Had the protesters not been so disruptive, they might have been
invited to take part in the festival, said Berhane Kassa, director of
North Oakland’s Eritrean Community Cultural Civic Center, which helped
organize the event.

“Even those people who are outside, if they stay quiet, they can come
in here,” he said. “Every Eritrean is welcome, provided they behave
like an Eritrean.”

Kassa and another man walked over to the fence separating the festival
from the protesters, and hung a large sign directed at the
anti-government rally. “We never kneel down,” the sign said. The
protesters booed him and pulled it down. After a few hours, they
dispersed.


To read the United Nations Monitoring Group report on Eritrea, visit
http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2011/433

To read Eritrea’s response, visit
[gview file=”http://www.embassyeritrea.org/press_statements/2011_July_Remarks_Annex_by_Yemane_ghebreab.pdf”] http://www.embassyeritrea.org/press_statements/2011_July_Remarks_Annex_by_Yemane_ghebreab.pdf

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