Dawit Isaak’s Freedom Cannot Simply Left to Politicians: Martin Schibbye

Martin Schibbye argues why the issue of Dawit Isaak’s freedom can not be left to politicians alone
The debate in Sweden has long been revolved around whether the “quiet diplomacy” works, or if Sweden should use harder words. Journalist Martin Schibbye, who recently visited Eritrea and soon travel there again, is of the opinion that the issue of Dawit Isaak’s freedom is too important to be left to politicians alone. (Photo: Magnus Bergström)


Today, Dawit Isaak imprisoned for 16 years and the debate has raged since he was arrested on the best strategy to get him free.

I was in Eritrea last year with a special journalist’s visa to Asmara and was able to notice a greater openness towards journalists and got answers to the questions I asked.

A few years ago, questions about Dawit Isaak were rejected with aggression. Now I notice that he is alive and that he was treated well, but that the question whether a solution was an internal Eritrean affair.

After having interviewed the Ministers and soldiers who fought for thirty years in the trenches, it became clear that there was no “pressure” in the world that can put Eritrea down on her knees and start to “obey” Sweden.

Not even a military intervention would have such a result. The rulers would probably go up in the mountains, dig down and wait for another 30 years.

Threats and sanctions are doomed to failure because it is based on the lack of knowledge about the current Eritrean leadership and the country’s history.

To be credible and to build a relationship, we in Sweden must also stand up for Eritrea in its border conflict with Ethiopia about the town called Badme.

Last spring, it was 15 years ago, the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was settled by the International Court of arbitration in the Hague, where it was found that the disputed area of Badme belongs to Eritrea.

Yet this fierce border conflict is something that rarely gets attention. Herein lies the key to an understanding of the country and the development.

Another striking sensation during my reportage journey was how little contact there exist between Sweden and Eritrea. There were no traces of any aid projects, no youth exchanges, no investment.

If you look back in history, there are strong ties to bond from the missionaries work during the 1900’s to the solidarity campaigns during the long war of Eritrea’s liberation.

After my return, I wrote and said it was high time that we all as compatriots to Dawit Isaak asking ourselves what we as citizens can do to break the isolation of Eritrea and open up more contact areas.

The question is whether or not Sweden’s relation with Eritrea is all too important to leave it to the politicians. It is time to break with fear and demystify this small country in the horn of Africa.

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“Why not start collaborations between schools, hospitals, music festivals, football clubs and companies in each country? Are you an athlete or sports coach? Why not get in touch with an Eritrean Youth team?

Do you sing in a choir? Are there Eritrean choirs to visit and engage in exchanges with? Are you arranging children’s theatre? Why not contact the cultural associations in the country? “

Since then, nothing has happened. Rather the opposite. We often read the same texts calling for tougher measures. While the ideas that had required political courage left untouched for fear of criticism.

During the summer, Asmara was given World Heritage status by the United Nations agency UNESCO, but not even that seemed to cause some bilateral projects or architecture tours.

It may sound naive to suggest ideas about culture and civil society into a country that is heavily sanctioned, but I think it requires new contacts to be opened up: Human to Human. Association for Association. But without budging an inch in calling for Dawit’s freedom. Or on the criminal in keeping people locked up without trial for 15 years.

It is also inevitable to compare with my own case.

I am a free man today and can attend the book fair because Sweden from the first day prioritized relations with Ethiopia, a country where I was imprisoned.
Sweden came to the conclusion that conversations and dialogues with the [Ethiopian] dictatorship would have the best chance to lead to a desired result; the release of two Swedish citizens.

The focus was on getting out Swedish citizens – not to fight or humiliate a country.

It is, therefore, important that we all, already this fall, are doing all we can from our different starting points.

Unless Dawit can go to the book fair, or boycott it if he would like to – why not contribute to a book fair in Asmara?

* Software translation