Radio Erena: A radio hotline for refugees fleeing dictatorship
A group of Eritrean refugees in Calais, France, return to an open field where they sleep, in an industrial area close to the city’s port. Photo by Allison Griner.
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter at @alligriner.
When her phone rings, Meron Estefanos feels compelled to answer. On the other end of the line, there could be someone drowning on a rickety boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Or she might pick up and hear the screams of refugees being tortured for ransom on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
It was only four in the afternoon, and already she had received a call from a fellow Eritrean trapped in a Libyan prison, and another from an Eritrean stuck in exile in Sudan. As she picks up the phone to speak to ivoh, she finds herself in a predicament: Her recorder has stopped working. It’s her main tool to share and publicize the stories she hears — of exiles risking their lives to flee Eritrea’s dictatorship.
Raised in the Eritrean capital of Asmara and living in Sweden, Estefanos is one of the highest-profile voices on Radio Erena, a Paris-based station dedicated to providing Eritreans with uncensored news and entertainment.
This past June, Radio Erena’s work was honored with a One World Media award for enabling Eritreans to “hear a different story to the one forcibly imposed by the regime.” Through her weekly show, “Voices of Eritrean Refugees,” Estefanos contributes to that narrative, by documenting the difficulties Eritrean refugees face.
“That’s what inspired me to be a journalist. For me, it’s about covering issues that were not being covered,” Estefanos told ivoh. But Estefanos warns that in order to understand her work, it’s important to first understand what conditions are like today, under Eritrea’s dictatorship.
Nearly sixteen years ago, Eritrea’s government violently ended media freedom within its borders. It was September 2001, and the world was reeling after a series of plane hijackings destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, as well as part of the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
But in the shadow of those tragic events, the Eritrean government used terrorism as a pretext to crack down on journalists, politicians, war veterans and anyone else who was critical of its leadership.
On September 18, President Isaias Afwerki ordered that all private news outlets be closed. Police roved Asmara’s streets, rounding up political dissidents. Some journalists were so scared that they hid in cellars to avoid imprisonment. The day would become known as “Black Tuesday.”
Radio Erena’s founder, journalist Biniam Simon, escaped years later, when a state-run TV station sent him to Japan for training. Simon was not alone on his trip — the government had sent a “mosquito” to monitor his movements — but when he heard about another media purge happening at his TV station, he knew he could never go home. From Japan, Reporters Without Borders helped smuggle him to safety.
Estefanos met Simon after he went into exile, and they soon became friends. So when he asked if she would like to join a radio station he was founding in France, she naturally said yes. He let her pick the topic she’d like to cover, and she chose one of her interests: refugee issues.
Brought to Sweden at age 13, Estefanos doesn’t have a refugee story of her own. She left before there was even a country called Eritrea — back when Ethiopia had annexed the country, ending a short period of autonomy.
For 30 years, Eritrea fought against Ethiopia’s rule, in a conflict that united Eritreans around the world, according to Estefanos.
“Everybody was contributing to the struggle for independence,” she said. Members of the diaspora sent money, books, anything they could to help fund the war. A child at the time, Estefanos remembers collecting pens in hopes of supporting the independence movement. “It was something that everybody dreamed about, something beautiful.”
Victory came in 1991, and Eritrea finally became independent. But it was the start of a whole new struggle, this time for the soul of the newly sovereign state.
With old war heroes like Afwerki in power, the government became increasingly authoritarian. Citizens were conscripted for lifelong military service, and religion was strictly controlled. Arrests could happen arbitrarily, without warning.
Estefanos thinks the moniker fits. But she didn’t fully grasp the extent of Eritrea’s problems until she moved back in 2002. Suddenly, she saw what was happening with her own eyes — how the war heroes she grew up admiring had turned toward dictatorship.
“That kind of woke me up from idolizing the people who were ruling the country,” Estefanos said. “There were people disappearing, people getting arrested and not brought to court. There were no charges against them. They just disappeared. And asking what a person did was a crime.”
Her childhood teacher lived next door, and one night the police came for him too. Estefanos knew him as “the most decent man in our area,” someone who was “a father figure to everybody,” so his arrest flat-out bewildered her.
She asked people about what had happened, but she remembers they all replied with the same warning: “Stop asking these types of questions. You are going to get in trouble.”
Those kinds of experiences spurred Estefanos toward activism. She returned to Sweden in 2004 and started speaking out against the Eritrean government’s abuses. After looking for others who shared her mission, Estefanos joined the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), a nonprofit that promotes nonviolent reform in Eritrea.
Though she had no prior journalism experience, her colleagues at EMDHR thought she’d be good at broadcasting. They taught her the basics, and Estefanos grew confident after her first outings got positive feedback.
From 2005 to 2009, she worked with EMDHR to broadcast radio programs into Eritrea, but their venture didn’t have any external funding. Paying for the project out-of-pocket put the group under tremendous pressure, Estefanos said — to the point where the radio programs started to feel like a distraction from their activism.
“We decided that this radio was going to kill us, so we had to kill it instead,” Estefanos said.
Luckily, 2009 was the year Radio Erena was founded, so Estefanos reestablished herself as a radio host there. The station airs a variety of programs, in both Arabic and Tigrinya, with topics ranging from sports to literature to human rights. One show famously makes prank calls to Eritrea’s officials, live on air. But Estefanos had something different in mind: a radio hotline for the Eritrean refugees dispersed around the world.
“Once you have fled, you are a traitor. There is no government or embassy that will protect you,” Estefanos explained. She calls her program “action-oriented,” her aim being to encourage listener engagement.
“So [the refugees] will call, and I will encourage listeners and say, ‘Okay, this is a problem, and this is how it looks for Eritreans in, let’s say, Yemen. So contact government officials and lobby on their behalf and try to find a solution,'” she said.
According to the United Nations, Eritrea is the fifth largest producer of asylum seekers in the world. While it’s hard to document just how many people flee, a 2014 survey found that there was an average of 2,000 Eritreans crossing into Ethiopia each month.
Even once the refugees have left Eritrea, they are far from safe. Estefanos herself has gone to Egypt to investigate camps where captured Eritreans are tortured to extort money from their family members. She often receives phone calls from teetering boats in the Mediterranean Sea, whose occupants hope to reach Europe but fear drowning before they reach land. When they call, Estefanos gathers their coordinates and contacts the Italian Coast Guard, in hopes that they can send rescue boats in time.
“There was a time when five people that I interviewed in the morning died in the afternoon. And I would have to be the one to notify their families,” she said. “So this kind of pressure, this kind of responsibility, is in your hands.”
With her phone constantly buzzing with life-or-death struggles, Estefanos admits her life has changed completely. “I don’t recognize myself,” she said.
She used to enjoy going out with friends, shopping, partying — but now she says those things irritate her. The change has cost her most of her female friends. “That kind of happiness doesn’t give me happiness anymore,” she said.
Funding for her work remains frustratingly scarce — she says she makes ends meet by working as a translator and researcher — but Estefanos nevertheless finds the motivation she needs in the refugees she speaks to.
“It’s amazing. It’s just a phone call. I haven’t done anything in their life,” she said. “But they make it a big deal.”
It’s become a tradition in Estefanos’s household to invite refugees over to celebrate Christmas and New Year. Last year, she says, she had 11 guests. And over the years, her work has gained momentum, attracting the attention of news outlets around the world, including This American Life and The Guardian.
But she remains frustrated with how little awareness there is about Eritrea’s struggles. She blames the media in part for not covering the human rights crisis as much as it should.
Estefanos says she hears, time and again, that Eritrea’s story won’t sell in the press. Hers is a country without vast riches. It isn’t a large oil producer. So, editors aren’t interested in covering its struggles, she says.
It’s not a question of bottom lines for Estefanos, though. It’s a question of humanity. And she believes in showing people the reality of the refugee crisis, hard though it may be to hear. In her eyes, Eritrea is facing an invisible war — one whose victims she hopes to make more visible, every Thursday on the airwaves.