The area also happens to be one of the hottest places on earth, with
temperatures that can crest above 50 C in the summer, making their way
of life – which involves travelling the desert on foot with goats, sheep or
cattle in tow– especially gruelling. Yet despite hard lives and a reputation for
ferociousness, those who have met the Afar in person (such as Mr. Creates)
speak of the Afar’s kindness, generosity and humility.
It was more than enough to hook Professor Magnet. According to Mr.
Creates, within a couple of months the Afar cause had “burrowed its way
into his head and his heart.”
In July 2010 the pair journeyed to Samara, the capital of the Afar state,
a far-flung city on an elevated plain more than 600 km north of Addis
Ababa. “I had very low expectations of the trip,” says Professor Magnet. “I
was asked to come along, but I wasn’t sure why.”
He broke bread with the president of the Afar Region and delivered
a speech praising multi-nation federalism, a constitutional framework of
which he believes Canada is a shining example. The turning point came
when a group of Afar elders asked to meet with him. The meeting took place
at night under the stars, with Professor Magnet and a few others sitting at
a long table across from 200 or so elders and clan leaders.
“We were placed at the head of this big table and we didn’t quite
understand why, so we just sat there, talking and joking,” he recalls. “We
were waiting for something to happen, without realising that
what was happening.
“Then one of the elders spoke up and said, ‘I’m not an educated man,
I don’t know how to read and write, but we don’t feel properly respected
here. We don’t really like what we’re seeing.’”
Professor Magnet listened intently to what the man was saying, which
included stories of human rights abuses in Eritrea and camps that were
overflowing with Afar refugees.
“There have been several moments in the enormity and the heat of the
moment that Joe realised the importance of his role in things,” observes Mr.
Creates, “and that was definitely one of them.”
When the man was done talking, Professor Magnet said, “You might
not know how to read or write, but it is very clear from the respect that
everybody holds of you that you are a very wise man. I can see that myself,
and I want to tell you that I’ve come here to help you with your problems.
And I will spare no effort to do that.”
“It became clear to me then,” he recalls, “that I had been thrust into
the centre of this.”
Since that moment, Professor Magnet has devoted hundreds of hours
to the Afar cause. He has met with senior Ethiopian government offi-
cials and Canada’s Foreign Affairs department (to debrief them on his
activities in the country), and has delivered food and clothing to refugee
camps. He’s also drafted two human rights complaints on behalf of the
Afar, one for the United Nations Human Rights Council, the other for the
UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, ensuring they were of-
ficially recognized as indigenous people.
“This Afar nationality is intensely proud. It’s joined by a language, by
a religion, by a territory and by a way of life – a tough life that few outsiders
Professor Magnet visits a UN refugee camp in Asayita, Ethiopia, during his first
trip to the country in July 2010. The camp shelters members of the Afar who fled
ever see. And it will probably be undergoing a rapid transformation very
soon,” Professor Magnet says. “That’s tremendously intellectually interesting
as an example of what you find in federations around the world that are
wracked by identity politics. So, I was looking at it through that lens, and
I got very interested.”
But his most significant contribution may be the Samara Declaration,
a document that condemns the “ongoing killings, persecution, torture, re-
pression, expulsion, and other unlawful mistreatment” of the Afar by the
Eritrean forces, calls for international action to stop “atrocities” and, perhaps
most controversially, lays out a multi-ethnic constitutional framework
for Eritrea, which he considers a failed state.
In his eyes, the 21-year-old country of Eritrea is a brutal dictatorship
that is ripe for an Arab Spring-styled democratic uprising. “If Cuba is a
prison,” he says, “then Eritrea is a torture chamber.”
He is not alone in this appraisal. Reporters Without Borders has
ranked Eritrea at the bottom of its annual Press Freedom Index for five
years in a row (below China and North Korea), the CIA has accused it of
being a hotbed for human trafficking, and the UN has placed sanctions
on the country – twice – for a host of alleged offences which include sup-
plying money and weapons to Al-Shabaab.
These are among the reasons that the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organi-
zation was formed. As one of the groups that fought for Eritrean indepen-
dence alongside then-rebel leader (and now Eritrean president) Isaias
Afewerki, RSADO maintains that the Afar were never granted the rights
and freedoms they were promised before the revolution. They believe
that under the current regime they are subject to bigotry, discrimination
and persecution, including imprisonment, torture and death.
Until recently the bulk of RSADO’s efforts at regime change have been
martial in nature. Press releases boast about armed incursions into Eritrea
and list the number of enemy soldiers that have been killed or captured.
PHOTO: WARREN CREATES
in this issue
Click to subscribe to this magazine
article text for page
< previous story
next story >
Share this page with a friend
Save to “My Stuff”
Subscribe to this magazine