Above Photo: A club-wielding Brigade N’Hamedu mob in Seattle/Tacoma, August 5. The Grayzone.
This summer, violent mobs associated with the US-backed Tigray People’s Liberation Front assaulted Eritrean festivals across the US and Europe.
Western media is now spinning the targeted mob violence as legitimate protest against Eritrea’s government.
For 40 years, Eritrean Festivals have been held around the world to sustain the diaspora community’s connections to their homeland and to one another. But this year, a violent, well-coordinated international campaign of sabotage left festival goers badly injured and property damaged.
Major Western media reported the pogrom-style attacks as “clashes,” “riots,” “fights” and “violence” in a way that implied these had broken out between two sides, masking the reality – that hooligans had attacked peaceful festival goers. They also implied that the violence was warranted because Eritrea is run by a “repressive” government on the wrong side of the new Cold War.
In the afternoon of Saturday, August 5, I exited the Marriott Hotel in Seattle/Tacoma to see a fire truck, half a dozen cops, an ambulance, and police cars circling around the hotel. As a journalist who has reported from Eritrea, I was there as a guest of the annual Eritrean American Festival.
Bystanders told me that hooligans in blue shirts had assaulted Eritrean Americans attending the festival. Two women were in the ambulance, soon to be on their way to the hospital. One of the victims was elderly. The attendant inside the ambulance told me I couldn’t go in to speak to them as a matter of privacy.
One bystander told me that one of the attackers had kicked a young child.
At 6 AM on the day of the assaults, the mob had invaded the outdoor festival exhibition area to tear down canopies and scatter merchandise while waving American flags.
The exhibition area also included a playground with trampolines and other diversions for young children attending with their Eritrean American parents.
I later spoke with Yemane Ghdey, an auto mechanic from Chicago, who said that he and his friend Ghebar Gebreyesus, who lives in Seattle, had also been assaulted. Ghebar had been bludgeoned in the head and was bleeding from his scalp when he was taken to the hospital, where he was given a CT scan and kept under observation while Yemane remained with him. Ghebar filed an assault complaint with the Tacoma Police Department.
Yemane told me that one thug had kicked him in the privates but that he backed off when he threatened to throw hot coffee in his face. He said he elected not to file a complaint because he had to return to Chicago.
He said they met the women who had been assaulted at the hospital.
I filed a public records request about both assaults and vandalism with the Tacoma Police Department and was notified that, as of August 15, there were five incidents under investigation but that details were not yet public because the investigations were ongoing.
Politicizing a cultural festival
This festival was not a fundamentally political event. Festival goers weren’t waving giant American flags in every direction like the hooligans outside, but they stood for both the Eritrean and American national anthems, and both Eritrean and American flags hung inside the festival hall.
The violent mob, which called itself Brigade N’Hamedu, insisted that Eritrea should not exist. They attempted to market their campaign to Americans by exploiting the prevailing anti-Russian hysteria and highlighting relations between Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After their early morning attack on the festival’s outdoor space, the hooligans gathered at one side of the hotel to wave American flags and pass out delirious literature featuring an image of Afwerki and Putin, reading “Isaias is Putin’s ally.”
I went out to talk to members of the mob. They argued that Eritrea was repressive and insisted that the festival-goers were domestic terrorists who might commit mass shootings. Their brochure featured images of demonic characters wielding guns, but I didn’t see any guns at the festival – except those worn by police, many of whom showed up in response to the violence of the “protestors.”
In a classic propaganda ploy inverting victims and perpetrators, they claimed without evidence that the people they had just attacked were planning on attacking them first.
Further pandering to anti-Russia frenzy, they charged—rightly—that Eritrea was one of only five countries to vote against the March 2, 2022, UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia and calling for its unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine.
Eritrea was, in fact, the only African nation to vote against that resolution. The move reflected the country’s history as a bastion of political independence under relentless imperialist pressure.
The US-backed TPLF spearheads mob violence
So who were the hooligans who attacked the Eritrean festival? They eagerly told me that they were merely expats protesting repression in Eritrea. However, they were obviously a project of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). Tigray borders Eritrea and people on both sides of the border speak Tigrinya.
In a rambling, largely incoherent interview, one of those who attacked the Toronto festival argued for the TPLF cause. Scanning the Twitter pages of Brigade N’Hamedu members leads to TPLF advocacy.
Eritrean American journalist and activist Elias Amare, host of Horn of Africa TV, said, “These blue shirts ‘protesting’ do not recognize the independence of Eritrea and its internationally recognized flag. Instead, they advocate for the ‘Greater Tigray’ irredentist agenda of the secessionist ethno-fascist TPLF that claims large chunks of Eritrea and its Red Sea coast as its own.”
The TPLF are the ruling party in an ethnic minority region within Ethiopia— which borders Eritrea—and a longstanding US client. They ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, during which time they secured US interests in the Horn of Africa and the US called Ethiopia “an anchor state.”
While in power in Ethiopia, the TPLF not only invaded and destabilized Somalia, but also fought a 1998 to 2000 border war with Eritrea, which never fully ended until 2018, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, negotiated peace, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so.
Then in November 2020, the TPLF, with US support, started a civil war in Ethiopia and fired on Eritrea, which entered the war on the side of Ethiopia and fought effectively until the Ethiopia/Eritrea coalition won in November 2022. The TPLF remains bitter about fifteen years of conflict with Eritrea, and about losing the civil war to Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.
US support for its client continues today. The TPLF was not able to reclaim power in Addis Ababa, but it has survived as a regional political government thanks to US and IMF pressure.
Eritrea, the Cuba of Africa
Eritrea is a small country of five million people, with less than half the population of Cuba, but excoriated and sanctioned much as Cuba is. The US has imposed its most severe sanctions on Eritrea, excluding it from the SWIFT system for instantaneously conducting financial transactions. In the eyes of the collective West, it exists in the company as “Axis of Evil” states such as Iran, North Korea, and the Russian Federation.
Eritrea is poor, but everyone has access to free education and basic health care, everyone eats a basic diet, and no one is sleeping or begging on the streets. Infant mortality from easily treated diseases and maternal death in childbirth have been all but completely eliminated.
Even worse from the US foreign policy establishment’s point of view, Eritrea is one of only two African nations which refuse to collaborate with AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, and is free of Western NGOs. It has also shirked off the debt traps of the IMF and World Bank which have kept other African nations in perpetual servitute. Its president, Isaias Afwerki, famously says, “Aid is like a drug. Keep taking it and you’ll get addicted.”
Afwerki traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia this August for the Russia-Africa Summit. There, he criticized the US drive for global hegemony and put forward his view that the US had been at war with Russia for the past 30 years.
Should it then be any surprise that the advocates and organizations that weaponize human rights have turned their guns on Eritrea? Or that the Western press is backing up the violence at these festivals, even implying that it’s justified?
Internationally organized attacks
Regardless of how many of the festival attackers were Eritrean and how many were TPLF, they were well-organized internationally and boasted obvious financial backing for transportation and logistics. In Europe, Canada, and the US, most wore light-blue t-shirts with green insignia like the pre-independence Eritrean flag. Their brochure in Tacoma highlighted the coordination with a link tree for calling and emailing Tacoma’s mayor and convention center director to demand that the event be canceled.
In both Toronto and Seattle/Tacoma, trucks displaying massive video screens parked outside the Eritrean festivals and blasted attendees with TPLF propaganda. Such video-capable vehicles typically cost $5000/day.
Change.org petitions demanded that the festivals be canceled in Toronto, Seattle/Tacoma, and Edmonton.
The attackers brought violence to Eritrean festivals across the West during July and August:
In Giessen, Germany (population 84,000), on July 9, anti-Eritrean mobs attempted to storm an Eritrean festival, injuring 26 German police officers who held them back. Hundreds of officers were called in to stop traffic and arrest 100 people. Police issued a statement saying that the attackers threw bottles and stones at police, damaged vehicles, and ripped down fencing around the festival venue. The BBC reported that they also threw stones at buses carrying participants to the festival.
In London, authorities canceled the Eritrean Festival in Lambeth Borough because of the violence in Giessen.
In Stockholm, on August 3, the attackers actually received a permit to protest the festival, but had it rescinded after 1000 of them stormed the event, attacking festival-goers with sticks, stones, and tent spikes, and even lighting canopies and vehicles on fire. More than 50 people were injured, and police said they detained around 100. Stockholm authorities later announced that they had opened an investigation into violent rioting, arson, and obstructing the work of police and rescue services.
In Toronto, on August 5, anti-Eritrean hooligans stormed the city’s Eritrean festival, causing so much violence that Toronto authorities revoked the festival’s park permit midway, but the indoor program continued. Nine people were injured and one person was stabbed. Some festival-goers reportedly fought back.
In Edmonton, before the August 19 and 20 festival, the anti-Eritrean forces campaigned to have the permit pulled, but that didn’t happen.
Attacks on the festivals were all attacks on the most basic rights to free speech and peaceful assembly guaranteed in the constitutions of every nation where they occurred.
Their goal was twofold. The first was to cause so much trouble that festivals were canceled or halted midway, as Toronto’s was, and to keep any city, hotel, or convention center from agreeing to host next year’s festivals.
The second was to generate bad press for Eritrea, which clearly succeeded. Most establishment media coverage twisted the story to blame Eritrea for the violence, branding it as a repressive dictatorship, as though that—even if it were true—justified violence against festival-goers.
A Toronto City News broadcast featured video footage of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki speaking with Vladimir Putin across a conference table at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg.
The Associated Press ran a widely published story, “Eritrea’s repressive government criticizes exiles who attack overseas festivals as ’asylum scum,’” which the Toronto Sun ran with a photo of President Isaias shaking hands with Vladimir Putin:
The Guardian joined the victim-blaming spree with an August 7 report spinning the mob assault as a necessary protest action that drew “scrutiny to human rights abuses.”
On August 12, The Guardian reported:
What these violent “activists” told mainstream media could not have been further from the truth.
The Seattle/Tacoma festival was organized by the National Council of Eritrean Americans. While most people present may have been supportive of the Eritrean government, it was not a political event. Attendees came to sing and dance, network, play soccer and basketball, and enjoy Eritrean food. There were workshops and panels on how to survive and thrive as an immigrant, and one for Eritreans who had studied and worked here and then decided to return to Eritrea.
Eritrean and American flags made it clear, again, that those present were hardworking, law-abiding immigrants appreciative of the opportunity they found in the US.
Eritreans have held these festivals for over four decades without violent incidents.
In Tacoma there was fundraising not only for cancer treatments in Eritrea, but also for legal expenses rising out of the attacks, and for the legal actions that will no doubt be required to secure permits for next year’s festivals.
The German-Eritrean Society (DEG) issued a press release asking, “How can it be that an unleashed mob ready to go to extremes, which had made no secret of its intentions on the social media platforms, was not stopped beforehand by the state?”
The answer is clear: Eritrea, like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, has resisted the neoliberal model imposed by the West and placed itself on the “wrong” side of a new Cold War.