Campaigning for a free Eritrea since the age of 16, Vanessa Berhe can even count the Pope as a supporter. After founding One Day Seyoum to campaign for the release of her uncle, the Eritrean photojournalist Seyoum Tsehaye, Berhe has followed her uncle’s path, becoming a strong voice fighting for freedom in Eritrea.
“Eritrea has never had television,” says journalist Seyoum Tsehaye in a video interview filmed in 1994, three years after the country had won its independence. “This country waged a 30 years war, so it was completely devastated. There was no life in Eritrea, it was only a life of resistance. We resisted and we had a victory.”
The interview shows a hopeful Seyoum set on bringing television and free media to the Eritrean people. A few years later, in 2001, Seyoum and 10 Eritrean journalists were imprisoned without trial. They are still in prison today.
Their story is being forgotten, Berhe believes. Seyoum Tsehaye’s niece, Berhe’s parents were exiled from Eritrea during the 30 years of civil war. She grew up in Sweden, and at the age of 16 founded One Day Seyoum, a campaign to get her uncle out of prison.
“I was telling my friends in school about how my uncle has been imprisoned because of his journalism, and was astonished by the fact that people are so interested and passionate about this case,” Berhe told Index.
“Because Seyoum’s government let him down, the rest of us have to unite, go beyond borders, nationalities and skin colour and prove to Seyoum that he is our brother,” she said when she launched the campaign.
Tsehaye has never formally been charged with a crime, had a trial or been allowed visits from family. Little is known about where he is held, and his family has heard nothing from him since he went on hunger strike in 2002.
One of many prominent journalists to be arrested in 2001, Eritrea has had no independent media since, with only ministry of information-approved media allowed in the country. Press freedom in Eritrea is consistently ranked the lowest in the world, surpassing North Korea in its restrictions.
Berhe’s One Day Seyoum campaign uses social media, video, petitions, speaking engagements and offline actions to spread its message. Berhe has also worked to build a network of ambassadors across the world to help share her message – she now has more than 70 ambassadors across Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and North America.
And she has even had the support of the Pope. Representing Eritrea in a conference about illegal human trafficking at the Vatican, she had the chance to meet him. “I saw him and I brought a paper, took a pen and just wrote ‘I am the Pope and Seyoum is my Brother’… I told him about the case and he supported it of course and took a picture.”
She also used the opportunity to launch a second campaign, Free Eritrea. “With that campaign we aim to raise awareness about crucial issues that are going on with Eretria that also are being forgotten; national service, Eritrean refugees, the lack of freedom of religion, expression, and all those vital human rights that are being violated.”
When asked what her plans were in 2016, Berhe answered “We’re planning to free him.”