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By Tammy Ford
PRETORIA--The classroom is full to capacity. The pungent smell of bodies cramped in the small space thickens the air. The subject is human rights in Eritrea. The lecturer today is Dan Connell.
The room is decorated with posters displaying human rights issues and announcing a yearly competition called the Moot Court. This is a course for Africans from 19 countries intended to strengthen their research and documentation skills. The nine Simmons students there are also guests for the day, as are five Eritrean refugees who live in South Africa.
Professor Connell stands at the lectern in jeans and a black sweater with a gray collar peeking through the opening in the neck. It is his signature look. His hands clasped in front of his chest, his passion for human rights spills from his lips, as he describes the tyranny in Eritrea.
In the 20 years since it gained its independence from Ethiopia, the acting president, Isaias Afwerki, has refused to implement the constitution or hold national elections. Ruling as a dictator, he keeps a tight reign on the country.
The only way for people in Eritrea to receive independent information is by radio as all other media are controlled by the government. Professor Connell says foreign journalists are not welcome within the borders of Eritrea either. He was tossed out in 2002 for criticizing the president's human rights record.
Michael Asfana, an Eritrean refugee who has been in South Africa for six years, says he feels the pain of no communication between himself and his family. He is a political refugee and he, like Connell, is not allowed within the borders of the country.
After the lecture, Asfana sits at a table in the bustling student center with the smells of ethnic foods permeating the air. Twisting his straw as he talks, he says the Eritrean government doesn't "give a damn about their people," and he hasn't seen any good leadership there.
People disappear and end up in prison and no one even knows where they are, he says. The government carries on surveillance on anyone they consider dangerous, just as the government did in South Africa during the apartheid era.
Asfana says it would be helpful if Eritrea had a good leader like Nelson Mandela who used forgiveness instead of revenge to bring the country together.