Historical events are often created by the youth daring to strive for change and articulate new vision for the world through organized groups or movements. The Eritrean struggle for independence is an example. Youth in their twenties organized themselves into political movements with a singular vision of an independent Eritrea.
At global scale, many young people around the world joined movements against various oppressions such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa or the Vietnam War. The children of the 1960s guided those movements. Many of those young people of the 60s, actually, stood up for the Eritrean cause. One of them, Dr. Toni Locher, founder and president of the Swiss Support Committee for Eritrea (SUKE), was a revolutionary student whose heart was touched by the Eritrean cause more than forty years ago.
In the 1970s, after a visit to Addis Ababa, Dr. Toni came across Eritrean students and workers. “I remember a taxi driver from Eritrea who told me that he sent more than a third of his income to the front”, said Dr. Toni. It was the first time that he met young people of his age who were determined to support the Eritrean liberation movement the best way they could. This determination to fight for their rights fascinated Dr. Toni, a young medical student. The young student, at that time, came from a modest family living in the mountainous village of Southern Switzerland where he cultivated a sense of compassion and willingness to help and be a voice of the oppressed.
During the armed struggle, the situation of Eritrea wasn’t well known in the world even less known to the Swiss. Nonetheless, youth movements who fought for social justice came across the armed struggle of Eritrea and soon, Dr. Toni and his colleagues decided to pay a visit to the liberated areas of Eritrea in July 1977.
It was an eye opener for these young Swiss people. Seeing the struggle, its strength and its well-organized movement for independence made it clear for Dr. Toni that the whole world was wrong to turn its back on Eritreans.
Quickly, upon return to Switzerland, Dr. Toni and his friends managed to finance a small column within a Swiss German newspaper to write and inform the general public on the Eritrean cause. In October of the same year, the Swiss Support Committee for Eritrea was formed at the capital city of Bern. The long journey of solidarity and friendship began officially. The little column in a journal grew and became a newsletter, which continues until this day to inform its more than 5100 regular donors and members.
Activities started swiftly. Diaspora- Eritreans and friends of Eritrea were working hand-in-hand in raising awareness of the public through demonstrations, writing leaflets, selling goods on the cold winter-streets of Zurich to raise funds and sending goods to the EPLF liberated areas. Assistance grew after the Ethiopian bombing of Eritrean villages by napalm. Nobody except SUKE raised voices about it in the Swiss media.
One of the major contributions of SUKE happened in 1980 when it bought two military trucks from Germany and filled them with goods and medical equipment. Dr. Toni and his peers drove from Egypt through the Nubian Desert to Port Sudan where the trucks were handed over to the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), which moved the consignment to the EPLF liberated zones. In fact, SUKE was a support group that worked closely with ERA.
SUKE continued its support in the medical field, at the Orrota hospital, a 25km-long underground hospital. As a gynaecologist/obstetrician, Dr. Toni was in awe to see that Dr. Abrehet was the only gynaecologist in the field and was working tirelessly with the surgeon, Dr. Michael. “We help to put a Solar system for the blood bank; it was a very sophisticated infrastructure at that time”, the founder of SUKE said.
SUKE continued sending relief goods but also development goods such as sewing machines and another trip was made to bring ambulances on the same route from Egypt. When the drought hit in 1984, SUKE raised funds for ERA’s food distribution.
SUKE was involved with the diaspora, going every year to Bologna and “we used to shake hands and saying see you next year in Asmara, and finally it became reality”, Dr. Toni said. The focus of the solidarity group switched from a humanitarian support towards a development one focusing mainly on rural areas and every year Dr. Toni and members of SUKE come and visit the projects. Accordingly, at independence, SUKE didn’t pack its belongings back to Switzerland, as many other organizations tend to do. In fact, since independence SUKE has reinforced its willingness to support the newly independent nation the best way it can thanks to the support of its donors and engaged volunteers.
When the war broke out again with Ethiopia in 1998, the Ethiopians targeted the SUKE supported Health Center in Shambuko. SUKE still stood up and supported Eritreans during the hardship of the border war through assistance and distribution of relief goods in Afabet and by informing the outside world about the violation of Eritrean sovereignty.
SUKE, and its democratic structure, continues to be a recognized entity registered in Switzerland where donations and volunteers driven by passion and willingness to help continue to give life to this unique group. As a matter of fact, Dr. Toni and his peers insist that SUKE is a solidarity group and not a western NGO.
SUKE, indeed, as a solidarity group has dialogue and engages with the Eritrean authorities, civil society groups as well as local communities to ensure that the support provided responds to the needs of the country. “We follow projects the Eritrean Government thinks are needed, it’s a joint partnership that we have”, said Dr. Toni.
Driven by passion, SUKE multiplies its projects throughout the country. Several water irrigation projects, construction and monitoring of schools such as the Abraha Bahta School for the Blind in Asmara or the schools of hearing impaired in Asmara and Keren have been accomplished. One of the greatest projects was the construction of the Semomo Dam on the outskirts of the town of Adi Quala in addition to the Areza Dam.
For instance, in Berak, located in the highlands, SUKE supported the integrated village development including water supply, electricity and building schools and kindergartens by working together with the village development committee and the local Government of Berak.
Similar projects were supported in Tokombia in partnership with the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) in the distribution of donkeys to vulnerable women, micro-credit project and the building of mogogo adhanet, an economical and smokless cooking stove. “We always try to be in direct contact with the people because our aim is to create a sense of solidarity and friendship” added the president of SUKE who very often visits the different projects along with his colleagues. “They get the means to support their own life which is a principle of self-reliance that SUKE strives for”, said Ester, project manager of SUKE.
Also, the dam project in Begu in the Anseba region has changed the lives of the inhabitants. It is important to have different types of projects in different areas. That’s when you start to really know the country”, Dr. Toni said.
Engagement indeed is mainly done by actively working with civil society groups such as the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers in the distribution of bicycles. “The bicycle project is an interesting one as it linked the people of Switzerland and Eritrea. All bikes that are not used any longer by Swiss people are collected and repaired by disabled people living in Switzerland and then they are sent to Eritrea and given to the Association of the Disabled War Veterans and the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW)” said Mrs. Isabella Locher, who is in charge of communications of SUKE.
A great cooperation also exists with the Association of HIV/Aids, locally known as Bidho, supporting income-generating activities in rural areas such as bee farming as well as providing support in the production of eye lenses in Asmara.
These examples of SUKE – and of the ingenuity of Eritreans in the development of their country-supported projects need to be told to the Swiss audience and fight back against the media rhetoric on Eritrea. The Newsletter is part of the process of raising awareness on Eritrea but also by showing SUKE’s projects and the country in general to Swiss journalists and more recently the visit of parliamentarians to Eritrea.
Ms. Silvia Voser, a photographer and member of SUKE, just launched her photo book project depicting portraits of ordinary people of Eritrea.
“Photography is like a language for me; it is my way of telling a story to the Swiss people. A photograph can tell a story. I take photos to tell stories of Eritrea that I want to bring back to the Swiss people”.
Besides its active engagement with local communities and associations, SUKE is working closely with sister solidarity groups such as the Eritrean Relief Association of Germany “to create synergy in areas of common support to the country by ensuring that all projects are community-based”, added Mr. Martin Zimmerman, President of the Eritrean Relief Association of Germany, which is known as EHD.
A more recent project looks at the cultural exchange between Switzerland and Eritrea through the support of music schools in Asmara. The group, Sound of Oasis, with the support of SUKE, is teaching youngsters music theory and how to play different instruments as well as providing musical instruments such as pianos and violins. Sound of Oasis has already shown success and is appreciated by the local Eritrean audience when performing several times at the opera house, Cinema Asmara and other piano bars in the city.
At the end of this year, to mark the 40th anniversary of SUKE, a grape-farming project with the NARI in Halhale will be launched. It will be an occasion to share the longstanding tradition of grape planting of Switzerland with Eritrea while creating opportunities for employment and professional development in this sector.
To promote vocational training for the youth, the Massawa Vocational Training Center in collaboration with NCEW, will be launched by the end of November. This center, which was jointly financed by SUKE and NCEW, aims at giving skills for the youth living in the Port City and its surrounding to increase their chances in finding jobs.
Since 1977, SUKE has shown determination and compassion to the Eritrean cause. SUKE listens to and engages with local communities and responds to their needs by providing assistance for sustainable development for the people.
As any voluntary association, SUKE is facing challenges financially as well as in informing the Swiss public on the Eritrean reality and responding to numerous media trying to diminish the image of SUKE among the Swiss general public.
Undeterred by the challenges, the student group continues to expand its work and engage young people volunteering in Switzerland. The solidarity group carries on its work with the vision of creating a prosperous Eritrea in which SUKE, one day, won’t be needed any longer as a development assistant but in terms of cultural exchange between the peoples of Eritrea and Switzerland.
An important milestone has been reached in 40 years and SUKE continues to work tirelessly with the motto of solidarity and friendship. The efforts are paying off as the Swiss Federal Council, through its Switzerland Cooperation Development Office, has decided to renew its support and cooperation with Eritrea after having withdrawn from the country more than ten years ago and SUKE will surely have an important part to play.