He is no guest in Asmara, and neither is he a stranger to the country’s affairs. Ulrich Coppel, a journalist and a musician, has for long been interested in Eritrea and its people. He has written articles and given interviews tackling political and regional issues relevant to Eritrea in the global context. Meet Ulrich Coppel.
- Hello and thank you for your time. Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I am Ulrich Coppel. Professionally, I am a classical guitarist; I have worked, for 25 years, as an instrumental-pedagogue, musician and music-manager. However, I am also a journalist. Here, I specialize in classical music and cultural politics in the feuilleton section. As a political journalist, I have specialized in the fields of East Africa / Eritrea, migration and human rights. I am very interested in the field of medicine and bioethics, and especially in organ transplantation. I did a lot of research and published some things.
- Music has also made you active in Eritrea with young Eritrean music students. How did it start?
On the occasion of the Independence Day of 2015, I was on the concert tour of the Leipzig Philharmonic as a sound manager. Later on, for the 25th anniversary of independence, I was a guest with a rock band. For some time now I’ve been teaching classical guitar at the Asmara Music School.
- The journalist you are, how did you start writing about Eritrea? And why?
Up until a while ago I was deputy director of a small cultural association in Münster, the city where I live in Germany. In late autumn 2014, there was a lecture evening by the then young NGO, Archemed, which provides medical help for children in Eritrea. In his lecture, Archemed’s co-founder Dr. Peter Schwidtal described a completely different Eritrea than I knew from the reporting of numerous German and Western media. Not “North Korea of Africa”, but a young, self-building state, whose people had to fight hard for the independence of their country for a long time. That made me very curious about this country. A short time later I came to Eritrea with a very renowned German documentary filmmaker and a cameraman for my first research trip.
- Back in Germany, you’ve published a number of articles depicting a different side of the Eritrean account, tackling several issues that the Western media normally tells shabbily. Can you please give my readers a brief description about the articles you have so far written about Eritrea? What areas are you interested in and why? What do you aim to achieve by doing so?
In spring 2015, I reported for WESTFÄLISCHE NACHRICHTEN about the activities and projects of the then relatively young NGO, Archemed, after I visited the pediatric clinic at the Orotta Hospital in Asmara, and two more in Keren and Barentu followed by a visit in Dorok near Keren where I met a lot of children in a primary school. My report was also based on a visit I paid to Tokombia along with Archemed. There we witnessed an anti-FGM project. A very short time after the publication of my Archemed-Eritrea reportage, the human rights officer of our federal government at the time, Christoph Strässer, contacted me.
Later on, I had also organized the “Münster against PEGIDA” demonstrations. We wanted to set an example against racism and xenophobia. The Münsterers succeeded impressively with the two largest demonstrations ever seen in our place. Christoph Strässer, who I originally met after he saw my reports on Archemed-Eritrea, gave a speech in Münsterers. Back then, my Archemed-Eritrea reportage and the shared “Münster against PEGIDA” experience gave Christoph Strässer a reason to inquire about my Eritrean experiences. And that, in turn, was how I met documentary filmmaker, Prof. John Kantara, and we worked together in Eritrea.
Soon after, in June 2015, an investigative report on the human rights situation in Eritrea, a three-person commission, mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council, led by Miss Sheila Keetharuth, was published. This charged the small country with very numerous serious human rights violations, even crimes against humanity. Diaspora Eritreans from around the world demonstrated on the day of publication in Geneva, Switzerland, where the World Human Rights Council is based.
In Germany and the EU, above all, this and a number of other similar publications led application of undue pressure on the Eritrean government. For example, just a few days later, a question time took place in the German Bundestag, the German parliament, on the occasion of the publication of the investigation report. Without exception, all parties represented at that time in the Bundestag poured out their pitch-barrel over Eritrea. But none of the speakers ever seemed to have stepped on Eritrean soil with their own feet.
I wrote a number of questions to the UN Special Rapporteur, Miss Keetharuth. “What criteria did the commission follow in the process of choosing the respondents? Was anyone who claimed to be a victim of human rights violations in Eritrea interviewed, or were there reasons to exclude questioning? If so, what were the reasons for exclusion, and how many potential interview partners were excluded from questioning? Were there individuals among the respondents who gave contradictory statements concerning the same human rights violation, or were all respondents in unison regarding the details, such as the method of torture used? Were there any accounts from the interviewees, which the commission considered implausible?”
In response to the mail with my questions, I also received quite a remarkable answer from the office of the special rapporteur: “Dear Sir, Your email has been conveyed to the COI secretariat SR support“
At that time, I believe the then UN Special Rapporteur for Eritrea, Miss Sheila Keetharuth, was also the chairperson of the 3-member UN Commission of Inquiry. So she wrote to herself and used this email to not only reach me, but also the UN Human Rights Council and the Foreign Office, including the forwarding of my question email, in the open CC.
I found the fact even strange that Miss Keetharuth was correct in a discussion panel broadcast by Al Jazeera on June 16, 2015 of a participant close to the government, at whose objection hundreds of letters with testimony from diaspora Eritreans investigators’ report had not been recorded. […] “I have checked with the commission of inquiries staff in terms of whether the secretariat received any letters from the diaspora, asking to speak to the commission; No – there were no letters to the commission of inquiry. They were letters to the special rapporteur, and one needs to make the difference. That was a separate situation, and these are two different mechanisms.”
After this exposing experience about the methodology of the investigative commission, I decided to do a double interview with presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab and Christoph Strässer on the then and still now relevant topics. They both liked the idea. It seemed to both that it would be a lot better to talk to each other before you talk about each other. Their interviews were published in August 2015.
Among other things, in the said UN-Human rights council investigation report, it is said that there was forced labor and tortures in the mines.
But, in 2015, I went to Bisha and saw that there is a medical center. The equipment corresponds to modern western standards, as German doctors have assured me, to whom I have shown my photos from there. There is a large sports facility in which workers trained under floodlights in their free time, several air-conditioned canteens with fresh, healthy food and salad buffets and a pub with a huge flat screen, in which a Champions League game was being broadcast live, which was Eritrean, and looked at workers from other countries. I hardly believe that you can dismantle such Potemkin villages as soon as the German journalist has left. I saw one of the Eritrean workers from the pub in Bisha by chance a week later in a restaurant in Asmara. Then he explained to me that the wages paid for work in Bisha were much higher than the wages for Asmara workers. Why should he say this to me if that wasn´t true? All of these are measures that promote the health and motivation of Bisha workers. With torture you do the opposite. In my eyes, that doesn’t match. I also wonder why the UN-Investigators didn´t ask foreign guest workers as witnesses. They come from all over the world and work in large numbers there. I met a British manager there who said he had previously worked in a mine in the Congo.
For one thing, he could certainly say something about the instructions given there by the superiors because he was one of the highest of them. Secondly, he could describe the working conditions in Bisha, which he is responsible for, among other things, and thirdly, make comparisons with working conditions in other countries in which he said he had worked.
But I also met guest workers from other countries who do simple work in Bisha. For example, in the departure lounge at Asmara airport, when they started their trip on vacation to New Zealand, I can hardly imagine that these should be forced laborers. Why aren’t such people interviewed by the UNHRC-Commission of Inquiry?
Either way, at that time, I preferred to present my observations to German politicians and then publish them.
A delegation of parliamentarians of different parties from the German Bundestag was also a guest in Eritrea during the concert tour on the occasion of the 25th independence anniversary in May 2016. Among them was Christoph Strässer, a Social Democrat. I still remember how we spent a long evening together on the beach in Gurgusum and exchanged our impressions in Eritrea with the then German ambassador. At the farewell reception in his residence, MP Anita Schäfer, a Christ Democrat, explained in a short speech: “We have to rethink a lot of what we thought we knew about Eritrea.”
In September 2018, I wrote a long article on the upcoming trip to Africa by the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dr. Gerd Müller. That was shortly after Eritrea’s historic peace with Ethiopia. “The peace process is irreversible,” explained the coordinator of the UN in Asmara, Susan Ngongi-Namondo. I write what I see.
- Okay, finally, what remarks do you want to stress on?
History is made by people. It important for me to note that migration and, therefore, cultural change has occurred and is occurring all over the world. Anyone who defines culture and languages as static phenomena within national borders has not understood how people think and feel all over the world. Our Western culture has many roots in East Africa. In Eritrea and Ethiopia there were Jews, Christians and Muslims much earlier than in Europe. Musical instruments that have been firmly in the European inventory for hundreds of years have their origin in Eritrea or Ethiopia. Since globalization, the world has become a village; anyone who describes development policy with “We” and “They” does certainly not understand that.
- Thank you!