Sweden: Dawit Isaak was so proud of you, are you?

Sweden: Dawit Isaak was so proud of you, are you?

The jailed Swedish journalist

By Aaron Berhane It was my first time visiting Sweden, the country, my colleague Dawit Isaak used to talk about often with such great excitement befor...

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By Aaron Berhane

It was my first time visiting Sweden, the country, my colleague Dawit Isaak used to talk about often with such great excitement before he was thrown into jail in Eritrea on September 23, 2001. It’s s the country he chose as his home after he left Eritrea in 1985 to reunite with his brothers in Sweden.

According to Swedish statistics, there are about 35,000 Eritreans who live in Sweden. This figure could be lower than the actual number as most of the Eritreans who came to Sweden before Eritrea’s independence used to be recorded as Ethiopians. They entered Sweden as refugees and settled there to make a living for themselves. They have benefited from the Swedish resources, and contributed well to the economy of the country. This has been a win-win arrangement for Eritreans or any other refugees who have come from different countries as they are provided with opportunities that they don’t have in their countries of origin.

Expressen's head office

Sweden is a small country with a population of ten million, but it’s a safe haven for millions of refugees like Dawit. This makes the country a multicultural nation as 15% of the people were born outside the country.

Despite its tiny population, Sweden is one of the top ten innovative countries in the world. Pacemakers, adjustable wrenches, safety matches, Spotify and Skype were invented by the Swedes. The country invests huge amounts of money for innovation in comparison to its GDP. It provides free education and free health care to its citizens, too.

I can imagine how happy Dawit was in his new country. He adapted to the weather, integrated with Swedish society, received his Swedish citizenship, and enjoyed the freedom to write whatever he wanted.

It was in Göthenburg that he wrote his first book and drafted his second.

After Eritrea got its independence in 1993, Dawit returned to start family and find a way to contribute in Eritrea. He wrote short plays and poems to Sewit Children’s Theatre, and at the end of 1997, he joined my newspaper – Setit. He’s an eloquent writer and fun to work with.

I understand now why he was so proud of Sweden: why he spoke so frequently about it; and why he wanted Eritrea to adopt Swedish values.

Dawit respected the values of mutual respect in Sweden, the dedication of members of parliament to assist their constituencies, the freedom of speech, the transparency of the government in its day-to-day business, and the burning desire of the country to defend human rights, etc. Sweden has everything we’re longing to have in Eritrea but are unable to achieve.

Unfortunately, Dawit is now far away from the grace of Sweden. He’s suffering in an unknown location with the rest of my colleagues inside Eritrea simply because of his profession as a journalist.

The Eritrean regime shut down all seven independent newspapers and came after all of us journalists in September 2001. I managed to escape while the gunfire was raining down on me and I crossed the border of Sudan and Eritrea. However, Dawit and ten of my colleagues were most unfortunate. They were taken from their homes and kept incommunicado since 2001. Seven of the ten have already died in prison and we know nothing about the rest, including Dawit.

It’s a very painful experience for all his loved ones, particularly his three children.

Is Dawit alive? Does the Swedish government know anything about him or is it doing anything to advocate for one of its citizens?

That’s what I would like to know.

a great location to relax in outdoor lounge

The day I arrived in Stockholm, the capital city of Sweden, I felt I’d been there before. Probably because I had heard so much about it and Gothenburg from my colleague Dawit. The infrastructure and the design of the buildings are stunning. The streets are very pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. You hardly hear the sirens of police cars, ambulances or fire trucks. There are lanes designated for everyone. You don’t need to watch over your shoulders now and then as you walk like we do in Toronto. The drivers seem very patient and they stop instantly when they see the white striped lines, designating pedestrian crossings. That seems a vivid reflection of Swedish society.

Swedes are very friendly and into tasks. Everyone seems to be on a mission to make the world a better place. The warm welcome you encounter at the airport, hotels, restaurants and offices is uplifting; the organizations that collaborate with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on the cause of Dawit are numerous; the journalists who march to tell real stories and increase public awareness are many; the volunteers who try to make the event a success and the donors who funded Dawit’s cause by stretching a helping hand are marvellous. There is a vibrant involvement of citizens, businesses, media and NGOs to highlight what truly matters. I was really touched by everything I saw, encountered and experienced.

Seminar organized by RSF
photograph by Anna Widmark
RSF panelists analyze the policy of the Swedish government in handling Dawit Isaak’s case

The turnout of the events and interest of the media organization to do interviews and cover the issue of Dawit was exhilarating. More than 12 media outlets—newspapers, radios and televisions—covered the issue extensively and made the week colorful. Like me, most of them made it clear that the silent diplomacy that the Swedish government has been using to deal with the Eritrean government simply isn’t working. So, they want something done to force the Eritrean dictator to release Dawit.

Since 2001, RSF has been campaigning for Dawit’s release by increasing public awareness; lobbying the government to use its diplomatic tools; and fighting in the African Court of Justice and Human Rights. This was the continuation of their usual fight and I was grateful to be invited & become part of the event. The panelists which consisted of Swedish politicians ( Mr. Fredrik Malm and Mr. Anders Österberg), journalists (Bjorn Tunback and Martin Schibbye) and I explored the issue of Dawit and the role of the Swedish government on the topic from many different angles in the seminar organized by RSF and moderated by Ms. Karin Elfving.

I would like to make it clear that Sweden has nothing to lose through changes in their course of action, but Eritrea does.

Because, the Eritrean regime depends on the diaspora for one-third of its annual GDP. So, what it doesn’t like is the pair of scissors that can cut the link which connects with the Eritrean Swede.

That’s what Sweden has to do right now if the regime doesn’t want to release one of its citizens— Dawit Isaak. Sweden should cut off all diplomatic relationships with Eritrea, close its Eritrean embassy in Sweden, issue a travel ban to senior officials of the government and deny visas to the cultural music band that comes to raise funds every year. This could create tremendous inconvenience to whatever illegal activities the Eritrean representatives engage in to fatten the financial coffers of the regime in Sweden.

Although I’m disappointed about the silent diplomacy of the Swedish government which has been going on for about 18 years, I’m happy to see that Dawit has become a symbol of free press for many people in Sweden. I have a strong feeling that people really care and they want their government to act sooner rather than later.

Swedish members of parliament
photograph by Bjorn Tunback
Aaron Berhane speaks with Swedish MPs to demand their help in the release of his colleague

I also get that when I and Bjorn Tunback (one of the strongest advocate of Dawit and board member of RSF Sweden) met with five members of the Swedish parliament – Amineh Kakabaveh, Sesiree Pethrus, Barbro Westerholm, Maria Nilsson and Thomas Hammarberg to demand their help. They took their precious time to listen our concerns and they are keen to help by inquiring their government.

this timer reminds everyone that Dawit is still in Eritrean prison camp.
The timer that counts the time Dawit Isaak spends in jail

I saw Dawit’s photo displayed in many different places and a timer that counts every single second of his jail time in one of the biggest national media institutions—the P4 Göteborg.

He is not forgotten. This gives me hope. I’m sure that gives hope to Dawit’s family too.  

But, let me remind you again, Sweden. Dawit was so proud of you.  He needs your help badly. Act now before it’s too late.