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CBC.ca: 'We will do as much as we can legally': Eritrean protesters take stock after Calgary violence

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Monday, 25 September 2023

 

Police say multiple arrests expected resulting from clash Sept. 2 in Falconridge

Men holding sticks and rocks look toward another group of men across a parking lot.
Men carry sticks and rocks at Falconridge Plaza in Calgary on Sept. 2. Patrons in nearby shops and restaurants shot cellphone videos, which were uploaded to X (formerly Twitter) by Gurpreet S. Sahota. (@GurpreetSSahota)

WARNING: This story contains graphic content and images some readers may find disturbing.


LISTEN | Calgary Eyeopener host Loren McGinnis speaks with reporter Elise Stolte
 
What we've learned about a violent confrontation involving members of the Eritrean community earlier this month in North East Calgary.

The mood was grim in many homes as Calgary's Eritrean community celebrated their New Year.

It was one week since two factions of the Eritrean community clashed in Falconridge Sept. 2, and talk often turned to the violence.  

"Like, what's going on? People get emotional from both sides and we are discussing this everywhere," Haile Gebremichael, who was not at the recent clash but has protested against the Eritrean regime in the past.

"People are hurt and in hospital. No one wants violence."

Calgary Police broke up a 150-person fight in the Falconridge Plaza and have now formed a task force to find those who threatened police, injured other community members, and smashed car and business windows.

It was anti-regime protesters against a second group of Eritreans — one they accuse of fundraising and supporting Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki. Both sides say the others came armed with rocks, sticks and hockey or construction helmets.

Police say 11 people were injured.

Both sides tell CBC Calgary they're cooperating with the investigation, and police say they expect to announce arrests within weeks.

Anti-regime activists like Gebremichael say they're struggling to know what to do next — how to build a life here as a united community while still standing up against violence and oppression.

Six men stand near Calgary's city hall.
Anti-Eritrean government protesters held peaceful demonstrations previously. Here Haile Gebremichael (with the flag around his shoulders) stands beside Simret Araya (with a hat) and several other protesters at Calgary's City Hall in 2021. (Submitted by Haile Gebremichael)

"We will do as much as we can, legally and peacefully," Gebremichael said. "We're going to ask our questions legally, without the violence, and hopefully the Calgary Police and any political parties or the government of Canada will understand the situation and support us."

According to the United Nations, Eritrea has one of the highest number of refugees per capita, as people flee violence, detention without trial in military-run prisons, and forced conscription. The Paris-based Reporters without Borders has ranked Eritrea as more repressive than North Korea.

And according to Canada's 2021 census, more than 31,000 Eritreans have fled to Canada, including 16,000 since 2016.

Community leaders here say many arrive traumatized, not just from violence at home but also from the journey — crossing borders patrolled by soldiers that are told to shoot on sight, seeing children die from the elements as they try to cross the Sahara, facing a high risk of drowning as they pack overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean.

And then there are the kidnappers operating in the desert. Survivors tell stories of being hung by chains and tortured with melted plastic as those holding them try to extort payment from their families. 

After that, they often live for years in limbo in Israel or other refugee camps, in an atmosphere of semi-lawlessness without the right to work, drive or send their kids to school.

A woman holds up a man's shirt to show wounds on his back.
Meron Estefanos, an activist and journalist in Sweden, shows a kidnapping victim's back wounds after he was held for ransom and tortured. She spoke with CBC's The Current in 2017. (Submitted by Meron Estefanos)

"We have a lot of trauma," said Gebremichael. "[I have a friend], when he went to Israel, he was going with his sister. One of the smugglers, he told him to rape his sister. So they fought with the smuggler, and the smuggler killed his sister."

It's that trauma that drives passions here, says Gebremichael. Anger flares when they see people waving the flag of the regime in Calgary or holding posters of Afwerki's face.

Gebremichael is a mature student at the University of Calgary with a background in social work. He's been in Canada for seven years.

"We were doing peaceful demonstrations for so many years. I started — it's been like 13 years. But no one can hear us. But now suddenly this happens and anger comes out, now all the media are looking at what's going on," he said.

"The government of Canada is giving us asylum. We really appreciate that. ... But on the other side, the government shouldn't allow the supporters to do festivals that help the regime to sustain its power."

What caused the fight

So what did happen on the evening of Sept. 2 in Falconridge?

There's a local group called the Calgary Eritrean Culture Civic Centre that planned an event at the Magnolia Banquet Hall.

Anti-regime protesters say this group supports the dictator, flies the flag of the regime at their celebrations, and raises money that ends up going back to Eritrea to support the military. The protesters point to posts on social media to back that up, and organize protests to shut these events down.

But leaders from this Civic Centre group tell a different story.

Men stand in front of a cake that has an image of the Eritrean flag.
Calgary Eritrean Culture Civic Centre Facebook page livestreamed an event in May 2023 where two flags with the Eritrean colours are visible on the wall. Anti-regime protesters say the one with the star represents the Eritrean regime. (Facebook)

They say this was just a cultural celebration. And they say even if they fly the flag of the regime at their events, no one has a right to attack them for political views.

"We've got various people who had different opinions about the Eritrean government and they have every right," said Walday Abeda, an organizer and local geo-technical engineer.

"The same way we have different opinions — we're Liberal or New Democrat or we're Conservative and nobody has the right to carry a violence act against you."

But it gets more complicated than that.

Makda Ephrem, who works in retail and is public relations officer for the Civic Centre group, says this debate between pro- and anti-government sides is not at the heart of the violence at all.

They say they are under attack from a third interest group, one with ties to the more recent Tigrayan conflict.

That was a civil war in Ethiopia. The Eritrean army got involved to fight against the Tigrayans and hundreds of thousands of people died.

Ephrem and Abeda say people tied to that conflict are bringing this new level of violence. 

"There's a bigger picture at play here and some geopolitical moves driving it. There are people that are funding this. ... In Edmonton, there were people who actually came from out of province and out of country, who came to attend and shut down [our] celebration events," said Abeda, who immigrated more than 40 years ago.

Is that true? The police investigation might shed light on that question when they announce charges.

Gebremichael certainly disputes it. He says the pro-government group is pretending opposition is only coming from Tigrayans to deflect criticism from the regime. 

A police officer stands in front of a group of men wearing white t-shirts.
Police try to hold two groups of men apart during a clash in the Falconridge Plaza. This is a screen capture posted to X (formerly Twitter) by Gurpreet S. Sahota. (@GurpreetSSahota)

Anti-regime activist Simret Araya, an accountant in his 40s who was there that night, said his group came to peacefully protest, not attack. He said they were surprised by attackers with rocks, sticks and hockey helmets.

Videos show large groups of men throwing rocks, hiding behind cars and threatening others with sticks. Eventually, police officers mounted on horses and others arrived to reinforce the first police responders and control the violence. 

Police spokesman Jay Huryn said they anticipate charges "in the coming weeks" and on Thursday, police released 16 photos of people they're trying to track down.

When asked what he did during the incident, Araya declined to comment but thanked police for trying to keep both sides safe. 

He said his community is continuing to protest and trying to keep it peaceful. For example, several people flew to Ottawa last week to show support for the Israeli government, which suggested it would deport supporters of the Eritrean regime following violence there.

A community takes stock 

In the aftermath of the violence, a second local Eritrean community association, one all sides say had no involvement in the fight, called an emergency board meeting to see what they could do to respond.

This group is called the Eritrean Canadian Community Association of Calgary or ECCAC (pronounced E-Cack). They recently hosted a BBQ to celebrate high school graduates, held a job fair this year attended by hundreds of job seekers, and they banned all Eritrean flags at their recent soccer tournament to try to prevent escalating tensions.

Daniel Egubat, public affairs officer for the association and a local insurance salesman, said they're planning an online information event to help people learn about their rights and responsibilities under Canadian law. They'd also like to bring in more psychological support to help people work through their trauma.

A man in a police uniform takes a shot on a basketball court.
Const. Abdi Hassan at a community basketball game in March 2023. (Submitted by the Calgary Police)

Calgary Police say they aim to stay neutral in the political conflict; the task force is looking specifically at the criminality related to that one specific conflict.

But in addition, they have a team of officers that meet regularly with community leaders, building relationships and offering training on Canadians laws. 

That includes work with the Eritrean community. "I do work closely with both the anti- and the pro-government communities," said African community liaison Const. Abdi Hassan, who grew up in Calgary and has ties to the Somali community.

"Everyone has the legal aspect to protest. However, no protest at any time should be violent in nature and hurting anyone, or include hate speech," he said. "Hopefully, people in the communities can understand that. I personally will tell you, I'll do my best in educating people ... about how important it is to not be violent and be peaceful when protesting."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Journalist

   *Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal. You can reach her at elise.stolte@cbc.ca.


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