English om

Gold rush with obstacles

Eritrea – a country desperate for positive publicity and investment, found new hope in the Bisha copper mine. Everything seemed great, until three former mine workers sued the company for slave labor practices and human rights violations in a Canadian court.

A short wave radio crackles and blinks green. The sun has finally climbed up from behind the massive mountains and outside the windows the contours of an arid desert landscape presents itself. We are in eastern Eritrea, near the border of Sudan.

“Welcome to Bisha, put on your seatbelt,” says Bereket Semere, turning around from the driver’s seat to make sure I do as he says. A white mining helmet sits by my feet and the Eritrean copper mine logo is affixed to Semere’s chest. His job is to provide the villages surrounding the mine with water and electricity.

A cluster of camels weighed down with baggage and the small desert town disappear in the rearview mirror. Goat-herding children wearing plastic sandals line the sides of the road. We are 150 kilometers west of Eritrea’s capitol city, Asmara, and seeing people’s clothing, buildings and goods for sale is a telltale sign that we are getting closer to the Sudanese border.

After a while we slow down in front of a thin blue rope, crossing the wheel tracks in the sand. A group of soldiers are relaxing in the shade of a palm tree. It is the third roadblock since Asmara. The respect for the military here is so great that a thin rope is all that it takes to stop traffic, accumulating a long line of trucks that come to a halt in a cloud of sand and dust.

A month of rumors: protests in the capital, insurrection in the military, but on the surface everything appears to be a-okay. One of the soldiers waves us through and we make the turn which will lead us to the mine, passing village after village bathing in the warm morning sun.

The Bisha mine is a jewel in the Eritrean crown. There are reports that neighboring Ethiopia tried to sabotage the mine and in 2015, a grease separator was damaged in a way that led authorities to suspect sabotage.

In 2017, 10,087 Eritreans kept going straight, with their eyes set on the Sudanese border while aiming for further via Libya and the Mediterranean coast. The motives vary. Some flee for their lives, others for a different future.

We pass a shot-up abandoned Soviet-manufactured tank, which is slowly rusting apart. It’s not from the last war, the one against Ethiopia that ended without solutions in 2000, but from the three-decade long Eritrean war of independence. Other wartime scrap litters the side of the road, pieces of what was once the largest Army in Africa—which the Eritrean people defeated.

Bereket Semere slows down again, this time pointing at a few palm trees growing next to a dried up river, the trees used for both food and roofs. He passionately tells me about the history of this area, the names of rivers and birds. And, how there was once a large banana plantation in this region, during the short time Eritrea was an Italian colony (from 1890 to 1947.)

“For every tree that’s cut down, it’s the responsibility of us working for the mine to plant five new ones, and that’s how it has been since the very beginning,” he says.

It is Bereket Semere’s sixth year as a Bisha employee. The extraction of gold began in 2011 and he has watched both the mine and villages develop and change since then.

“Everything here is of top quality,” he says and turns onto a short stretch of asphalt, that runs parallel to another dried up creek. “The gold, the copper, the security and the organization.”

The hot air makes the horizon look like a mirage in a distance and Bereket Semere drives slow and carefully even though we are the only car on this road. The speed limit is 60 kilometers per hour, but we never pass 50.

“I will drive you back tonight, we are all going back home to our families, that’s the foundation for all that we do in here,” he says as we pass large dams where the poisonous spill is purified, then pull up to the mine corporation’s headquarters.

Milena Bereket, Head of PR, sits in an air-conditioned room with a cup of coffee, studying a busy calendar.

First on the agenda is a security briefing. Raised in Israel and with a background with the World Bank and different UN agencies, she knows the medial logic like the back of her hand.

“Welcome to Bisha. You are here because you’ve heard about the enslaved, and tortured, workers we keep chained down in the mine,” she says, flashing a big smile. “We’ll show you everything.”

Eritrea’s geographical location sits right on top of what geologists call the Nubian Shield, an area rich in copper, zinc and gold.

It all started ten years ago. At the end of 2007, President Isaias Afwerki reported that the potential for gold mining in Eritrea was very good. The nation was ready to open up to foreign mining corporations and begin extracting the ore which has been untouched since the 1970s.

In the mine’s beginnings, many turned to the small country on the horn of Africa. But there were concerns. Eritrea had not held an election since 1993, they ranked lower than North Korea in terms of the freedom of the press and in report after report, the country was described as a totalitarian controlled society. On top of that, there were the occasional conflicts flaring up at the Ethiopian border. Was it even possible to extract minerals and run a large-scale corporation in such a political climate? And how would it be perceived if Eritrea opened up for foreign investors but closed its borders for human rights organizations?

Critics warned about what could happen with union rights in the mine and what would happen if the national treasury received an influx of hard currency. The risk, as they saw it, was the fear of revenue from the mine being used for weapons or support for groups like Al-Shabaab, which caused, among other things, the UN Security Council to place sanctions on Eritrea.

The story isn’t new, and there is no shortage of foreign actors entering new or fragile countries arguing that they are bringing peace and prosperity. This debate was intense and during the exploration phase, a British geologist was shot to death in a protest against the outside world becoming bedfellows with Eritrea.

One of the darkest clouds looming on the horizon was the fact that the mine corporation would use forced labor, something that Human Rights Watch, among others, reacted strongly to.

“Mining in Eritrea is like wandering straight into a beehive of human rights violations,” a spokesperson for the organization said in one public statement.

Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war. Bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, it occupies a strategic area in the Horn of Africa.

Ruth Negash, head of the corporation’s internal training, walks with booted determined steps across the gravel parking lot. She has never regretted the decision to return to the country her parents once fled. We pass newly constructed classrooms, health clinics and mineworkers’ housing. She points out a gym, a bar, a laundry facility and the various offices. In front of the buildings there are newly planted flowerbeds.

“We are like one big family,” she says.

As of 2011, this became a miniature town of sorts, and over the past few years, the training facilities have expanded so quickly that large shipping containers have been outfitted with air conditioning, as temporary housing. About 1,200 people live and work around the mine.

We walk through a classroom where those who have been accepted in Bisha’s trainee program learn how to operate heavy equipment. In a nation where independence from the outside world is crucial, they want to be able to do all their own repairs and not be dependent, even on parts. Along the facility’s roads, cables hang among disassembled engines.



Maps of the mine are displayed on the walls of the classroom. Ruth Negash walks up front and fires up a PowerPoint. While she’s struggling to switch it over to the right language, she tells me how she grew up in the United States, but ended up here, in Western Eritrea. Language adjusted, then she starts the PowerPoint.

“I was completely enchanted, realizing that right here in Gashbarka is a mini-USA, complete with air conditioning, managers, and everything. The food here is so good that I can only eat once a day. All of us working here grow, not taller but wider,” she says and laughs.

Ruth was born in Eritrea but her parents fled during the war for independence and she grew up in the US. After getting a university degree she began teaching, but something didn’t feel right.

“Finally I realized that I was sick and tired of the US, tired of the routines and the westerner type of life which completely lacked excitement. I educated a bunch of people who wouldn’t really make a difference for their country.”

The idea to return to Eritrea took root and at first the plan was to live there and work for one semester as a teacher for the mine corporation. Four years later, she’s still there.

“To teach here feels like adding sugar to a cup of tea; in the US it felt like pouring sugar into the ocean.”

Right now there are about 60 students from different parts of Eritrea, learning about the different aspects of mining. The idea is to carry over the knowledge of modern excavation to the next generation. “Soon we can run this mine ourselves,” one of the students says.

The fact that many of Ruth Negash’s students are young women, the first in their families to earn an income, also weighed in to her decision. And even more encouraging, the women she educates become mineworkers, wearing orange work overalls and black boots, a challenge to the idea of a patriarchal and traditional work environment. Her friends back in the US thinks she’s crazy. Every time Ruth Negash visits America everyone thinks she’s going to stay.

“’People flee Eritrea, why in the world would you go back there?’ They ask me that all the time.

Now, four years into her new career and life, Ruth Negash has an answer.

“For me it’s about stopping some of these people from fleeing the country,” she says. “To give them an education that can generate an income.”

To date, Ruth Negash has educated 100 students.

“None of which have crossed the border into Sudan, like all my [American] friends said they would. They are still here and they have developed tremendously,” she says, turning off the light so we can see the PowerPoint better.

The first slide that illuminates the wall show’s Bisha’s mission: “You should behave as if you owned the mine, act cleverly and efficiently, be a team player and deliver results.” In a rapid fire, Ruth Negash describes the routines and rules, like slowing down if you see a bird on the road, for example.

“Respect the animals you see, foxes, birds, cows, stop and let them pass before you keep on driving.”

She tells me, seriously, that I always have to stay 20 meters away from the mine walls, and, if I am lifting something, I have to use my legs, bending my knees. The intensive and mandatory security training for visitors also highlights ethical questions.

“If you bribe someone, expose them to sexual harassment, or steal something, you’re out. And if there is a fight, both parties are kicked out. It can seem harsh, but we practice zero-tolerance here,” Ruth Negash explains.

When she finishes the 30-minute long presentation I ask her if they’ve had many injuries in the mine.

“That’s something you have to ask those responsible for workplace security, they have all the statistics.”

A moment later that classroom fills up with students. Right now there are about 60 of them from different parts of Eritrea, learning about the different aspects of mining. The idea is to carry over the knowledge of modern excavation to the next generation.

“Soon we can run this mine ourselves,” one of the students says.

They all feel chosen.

Those who have been accepted in Bisha’s trainee program learn how to operate heavy equipment and run all aspects of the mine.

“Getting accepted here is like a dream,” another says proudly and adds that even if this mine will not be open forever, new ones will open.

I am supplied with a white mine helmet and reflector vest and walk along with the students out to the parking lot. I decline being photographed and try to make myself less visible, but understand there is a plan behind the request—they want to show off how they allow journalists in the mine.

It is an ethical dilemma to write reportage like this. On one hand, you gain access to closed off places, but on the other hand it’s a strategic move on a company’s part to ban independent human rights organizations while allowing a journalist to visit every now and then for a few hours.

Next to the training facility I see the designated smoking area from the security briefing.

“Nobody is allowed farther than two meters from the ashtray with a lit cigarette,” Ruth Negash warns. “It is an international requirement.”

Between 1998 and 2000 Eritrea and Ethiopia engaged in a full-scale war in which 70,000 people are thought to have been killed.

A young man turns his back toward the camera. His shoulders are slightly raised; hands are clasped in his lap. Mihretab Yemane is one of 165,000 refugees who live, spread out, in camps around Ethiopia. Every month, more Eritreans arrive. The mine has managed to do a pretty good job in smoothing over the critique of human rights organizations. Until, a few years ago Mihretab Yemane along with Gize Yebeyo Araya and Kesete Tekle Fshazion decided to sue the mine in court.

“The Canadian corporation should have demanded better conditions but chose not to do so and that’s why I am suing them,” Mihretab Yemane said in a Canadian television interview.

In contrast to many others, he and his two co-plaintiffs don’t want to show their faces or share any details about their situation. According to them, there are spies in the Ethiopian refugee camps, acting as eyes for the Eritrean security police.

“I think I am dead if my identity is revealed,” Mihretab Yemane told the Canadian TV-reporter who recently visited the refugee camp.

He also told the reporter that he was ordered to work in the mine, despite the fact he was an active soldier.

“The job was to wrap chemical waste in large plastic tarps. The heat was excruciating and I got severe burns from the sun and still have scars in my face as a permanent reminder. I was also told not to share with anyone that I was a soldier.”

He also tells the reporter how the mine employees worked day and night and many tried to flee. “I saw those who tried to escape at night getting punished by the military.”

The second plaintiff, Kesete Tekle Fshazion, shared with the Canadian television reporter that he was on leave from the army, but it felt like he would be prosecuted if he refused to work in the mine. “I was forced to work against my will [in the mine] so I fled to Ethiopia.”

When lawyers with the Nevsun mining corporation were informed of the testimonies, they said there was no substantial evidence and they also didn’t buy it had been an open secret, that several of the workers were soldiers on leave.

The Nevsun lawyers blew off the accusations as “unreliable” and maintained that the mine had held operations to the highest standards in terms of health and security. They also insisted that if there were breaches, those should be tried in an Eritrean court of law. It was hearsay.

This story could have ended with three young Eritrean refugees in a camp somewhere in northern Ethiopia. But in November 2017, a Canadian court took the allegations seriously and decided to prosecute the case. One of the reasons for this, Canadian prosecutors argued, was that it was unlikely for a trial to take place in Eritrea.

“I conclude that the plaintiffs would not get a fair trial in Eritrea, mainly due to the fact that we are considering accusations against a corporation which is a main financier of one of the world’s poorest countries,” a judge explained.

The Canadian court also cited a report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and its findings in June 2016. The commission was denied to enter the country, but based their report on the glaring absence of democratic elections and a compilation of interviews with hundreds of people who had fled Eritrea and testified to the fact that the country continues to violate human rights in several areas.

The investigators established that the widespread mandatory military service could be considered a form of forced labor, considering the fact that the time for the military service was indefinite.

According to the indictment, there was substantial evidence that the Canadian corporation was an accessory to one of the subcontractors, the construction company Segen which is favored by the ruling party in Eritrea, in their practices of using soldiers as labor in the Bisha Mine.

Prosecution of modern day slavery is unique in itself, prosecuting a Canadian corporation operating on foreign soil is a precedent-setting case. Many other foreign-based Canadian actors watched the case unfold in a mix of horror and self-interest.

From one perspective, Eritrea is a country in desperate need of positive publicity, and has, with Bisha, found a positive story—a shining example for the future. On the flip side of the coin, Bisha is under the looking glass of a Canadian court, which is investigating human rights violations.

The looming trial casts a dark shadow over the arguments that the mine would have a positive impact on the country and its economy. And even if the situation is different now, who is guilty of what needs to be sorted out, according to Joe Fiorante, one of the Canadian attorney’s representing the three Eritreans.

He told The Guardian in an interview that Nevsun now seems to have a system in place where they make sure that all workers are free, but it’s hard to take it seriously because they deny the mood as a problem that never existed.

In addition to the three plaintiffs, Mihretab Yemane, Gize Yebeyo Araya and Kesete Tekle Fshazion, the Canadian court will call about 60 people to the witness stand.

According to The Guardian, Fiorante and his clients hope they [Nevsun] will be held responsible for the suffering they have caused, not only for these three plaintiffs, but for all of whom have been forced to work in the Bisha mine.

In that same Guardian article, one of the witnesses, a former security guard, described the open-pit mine as a large prison camp, but would only agree to an interview on condition that he’d remain anonymous. He is worried about the safety of his family who are all still in Eritrea. He also said they were treated like objects in the hands of the government and foreign corporations, whom could do what ever they wanted.

The office of Eritrea’s Ministry of Energy and Mines brushed off the prosecution as no big deal. The only issue concerning Minister Sebhat Efrem was the fact that potential investors could be scared off by all “the noise”.

Instead, Minister Efrem wanted to highlight the mine’s uniqueness.

“In many African countries we’ve seen how everything that is left in the wake of foreign mining corporations is a polluted hole in the ground,” he says. “So how could we do it differently? We were curious if a cooperation between the Eritrean government and a foreign actor mining minerals was possible.”

The result was a project with long-term plans that would benefit all parties. The foreign mining corporation would train Eritreans to become highly skilled mineworkers who could take over operations. Now that Bisha is up and running, and, according to the Eritrean state, a success, three more mines are underway. The revenues are intended to boost the country’s economy.

Eritrea’s geographical location sits right on top of what geologists call the Nubian Shield, an area rich in copper, zinc and gold. The goal is to promote a picture of Eritrea as a nation open for foreign capital, though it looks like it will be a challenge.

On the question of whether Energy and Mine Minister Sebhat Efrem has read the reports in which the Bisha mine management is accused of slave labor, he nods.

“I read all reports, just like all of us in government do. But what do you do with such a report if you are in charge of a country that has gone through hell and high water? If the country is under threat of war? I wish we didn’t have to have a mandatory military system, but we have no choice,” he says. “As far as this report, I wish those who wrote it had tried to come here and understand Eritrea. If they had, they would have seen how we manage very well.”

The full case against Nevsun was filed in 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing on the edge of the enormous open-pit is exhilarating. At my feet there is a nearly vertical wall, a spiral road that drills itself into it in smaller and smaller circles reaching the lowest point of the mine. The dark patches are ore, and different markers are staked everywhere. If they move, a detector sends out an alarm about the collapse risk.

After several years in operation, the pit is 470 meters deep and a couple of kilometers wide. If they dig any deeper, they put the mine at great risk of collapsing; the walls will cave in.

“If we drill deeper, the whole mine has to be widened, but that’s expensive, so expensive it could become more costly than the value of the precious metals extracted,” says mining engineer Serge Smolongov while glancing at his watch. “Our management is preoccupied with those calculations right now.

At the bottom of the pit, are yellow cones, beneath which explosive charges are placed. In a few hours an alarm will ring, first with short intervals and then a long siren. And while most of the work in the Bisha mine happens behind a computer screen, the principal is the same as it always has been in mining—drill, blast and dig.

“We are in phase seven and there are only two years left here, after that the production will begin to decline,” Serge Smolongov says and jumps into a car for me to follow.

My visit is planned meticulously, down to every detail. Our next stop is the part of the plant where the actual extraction of the precious metals from the iron ore takes place.

“Don’t forget your helmet and the protective eye wear,” he says.

During our drive, he tells me about the first years in Bisha, years everyone remembers with great joy. In just a couple of years, the mine had extracted some 31 unfathomable tons of gold. The gold financed the mining for copper and zinc, which was the backup for when and if the mine would go dry.

“Gold was literally pouring from the faucet, and at low prices, it was magical,” says Serge Smolongov, getting a dreamy look in his eyes.

As of the last twelve months, the zinc price has spiked, which has made Bisha’s management prioritize that metal over gold.

“A major zinc mine in Australia shut down last year and that has resulted in a price jump of 70 percent,” he says, and his walkie-talkie lets out some static.

The Bisha mine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and everyone is on 12-hour rotations.

“If you look, you can tell there is no dust on these roads,” Serge Smolongov says and stops at a gate. “We sprinkle the roads with molasses to avoid getting organic material in the engines.”

Around the mine there are still gates and locks from the time when they produced gold bars. But now the chains hang over the gates unlocked.

Sierra Alam had just turned 20 when he started his first job at Bisha. “To see it unfold and grow like this has been the adventure of my life,” he says.

On the other side of the gate we are met by site manager Sierra Alam, standing at the bottom of a long stairwell. He wears black sunglasses and is dressed in protective gear over jeans, a walkie-talkie clipped onto his belt. He is in charge of the 125-person staff that takes care of the extracted metals. He climbs the 100-some stairs to the top of the mine. Far below, two grey millstones operate at a furious speed, delivering the metal into a large water-filled container where the zinc is separated from the copper.

The view is spectacular, the landscape spreading out for miles and miles in all geographical directions. I feel the scorching sun on my neck.

“From here you see everything.”

Sierra Alam has to yell in order to be heard over the excavation equipment. He wipes sweat from his forehead with a gesture that reveals how long he’s been at the mine. Looking out over the vast mine area, the contrast between now versus when he started in 2010 is grand.

“When I first came here this place was just woods, mountains and underbrush. Some remnants from the war, old tanks, otherwise—nothing,” Sierra Alam remembers.

He had just turned 20 when he started his first job at Bisha.

“To see it unfold and grow like this has been the adventure of my life,” he says. “Following the development from tough desert life to watching the gold bars solidify, and today experiencing how copper is loaded onto huge container ships to travel across oceans and out in the world. It’s remarkable to have been part of that journey.”

His initial dream as a young mineworker was learning everything in order to mine precious metals from the ore. Today he’s almost reached that goal. He can run the whole mine from the screens in the control center.

“There are certain chemical processes in the minerals extracted here and some industry secrets around zinc that I have yet to manage, but soon,” he says.

Beneath where Sierra Alam stands, a mass of something viscous pours out of a pipe. Every morning when he hears the sound of the work trucks and see his countrymen go to work, his heart skips a beat.

“You know, every night when I go to bed, just before I fall asleep, I think ‘I’ve done a good job.’”

Eritrea is the only African country to have no privately-owned news media. But the internet is not censored and foreign news broadcasts are easily accessible.

Today, 40 percent of the High Grade Bisha Copper-Zinc Mine is owned by the Eritrean state (ENAMCO) and Canadian Nevsun controls the other 60 percent. At first the ownership split was 90 to ten, in favor of the Canadian mining corporation, but in the contract Eritrea was granted the opportunity to buy another 30 percent, which was executed in 2017. But most of the Eritrean profits disappeared in payments and interests for the loan they had to take out in order to buy a larger part of the joint venture. It was a solution forced on Eritrea since they didn’t have the funds or access to international capitalistic markets.

Not until next year’s annual report is due will the exact amounts of actual cash the mine has yielded for the country be known (the gross, anyway, not accounting for information and equipment).

The Canadian mining corporation Nevsun was one of the first to establish itself in Eritrea. They were on the scene already in 2000. The executive director of Bisha, Edward Mounsey, says their mine is an excellent example of success, something for others to copy.

“It’s a new type of mine in a virgin-type of landscape, made for mining. In a country where the local workforce and expertise work together and deliver great results,” he says and sits down on a black swivel chair at the head of a large conference table.

Minimum wage at Bisha is about 3,500 Nakfa per month (about $230 US Dollars or 195 Euro.) An Eritrean monthly salary runs about 2,700 Nakfa, so the mineworkers make better money than high/ranking officials, which makes it a very attractive job, Milena Bereket, the PR-person says.

People say that what Edward Mounsey, or Ed as he’s called by everyone, does not know about running a mine is not worth knowing. After a long and successful career amongst mines in Zambia and Congo, he’s been in charge of operations in Bisha since 2014.

“There are few industries that can change a country the way mining can,” he says.

Edward Mounsey arrived in Zambia for the first time in 1972, and he’s watched what the iron ore mining from the deposit of gold and copper, reaching all the way from there to the Congo, has done for the national economy.

“Mining, in both Congo and Zambia, began right after independence,” he says. “Here in Eritrea nothing happened, which resulted in that we see today with many foreigner hires and we have to train the local work force.”

In a PowerPoint, Edward Mounsey highlights that the tax incentives have been the same since the very start, and that the mineworkers are productive workers who speak English.

Politically, Eritrea is considered stable, a one-party state.

“The good news is also that Eritrea’s government has lived up to every letter in the contract with us. So the framework for the administration and rules are all in place.”

The challenge, Edward Mounsey says, is maintenance reliability. All material has to be supplied from Saudi Arabia. Every year, the corporation spends about 10 million dollars in search for new deposits and he believes in opening new mines and the possibility of working with precious metal extraction in Eritrea for another 20 years.

The model they use, where the government owns the mine and the property, but gives out licenses to partnering mining companies who get a share in the profits, is, according to Edward Mounsey, a well-functioning partnership, beneficial to all.

“There are 40 mines in Zambia and here we only have one or two. If we could start ten more mines, it would be very valuable for the Eritrean economy.”

Doesn’t that require more foreign investors, who may be hesitant due to how it impacts human rights?

“Well,” Edward Mounsey says, not at all surprised at the question, “for those who worry about that, I think it would be wise to come here and take a look. The story told in media differs from reality.”

In the mine, the joke goes something like this: witnesses have told UN investigators that they were forced to work, “under ground” mining gold.

Bisha has always been an open-pit mine.

Edward Mounsey doesn’t take lightly the lawsuit the three former mineworkers filed against Nevsun in Canada, though he does point out it happened before his time.

People say that what Edward Mounsey, or Ed as he’s called by everyone, does not know about running a mine is not worth knowing. After a long and successful career amongst mines in Zambia and Congo, he’s been in charge of operations in Bisha since 2014.

“I am aware of the case from media reports but the only thing I can say is what it looks like here now: everyone working is here based on free will. They are free to work here, and they are free to resign whenever they want to,” he says. “I don’t want to comment on what happened here during the construction phase, or maybe I should say: I’m assuming that this mine operated then like now, but these individuals have brought it to the courts and I don’t want to comment on that.”

So during the construction phase, soldiers, or those doing their mandatory military training, could have been part of building the mine?

“According to my information the answer is ‘No!’ But I decline to discuss it since they have taken the matter to court. We used, and are still using a company called Segen to do work for the mine. They are very good and natural partner when a mine needs to be built,” Edward Mounsey says and adds, again, “What happened before 2014, when I arrived, I can’t comment on.”

Clas Lindström, a Swedish mining engineer who has also worked in mines on the African continent, reached out to Blankspot wanting to offer his perspective after reading some of this reportage in Swedish:

“I saw no signs of slave work,” he says,

He shares that he did see signs of poor work environment and safety issues, though.

“The company [Segen] lacked safety equipment, routines, protective clothing, everything. The machinery was in poor condition… some of them could drive around in the middle of night without headlights,” Lindström says.

Two of Lindström’s colleagues, who worked constructing the mine in its beginnings in 2010, protested so strongly to the Segen executives they were not allowed to return to Eritrea after taking a leave.

“Segen’s shortcomings in regards to safety were topics at every weekly meeting,” Lindström says. “We complained but nothing happened, all we could do was protest.”

Clas Lindström, a Swedish mining engineer at Bisha.

According to Lindström it wasn’t Nevsun that was the culprit, it was Segen, the state operated company that didn’t act as a mining corporation should. He says the three plaintiffs should have sued Segen and Eritrea’s government since the locally hired mine workers’ issues were appropriate safety gear, pre-shift security briefings, training by Western experts, adequate housing, food and the need for regular breaks.

“Segen’s personnel, on the other hand, we could see them sleeping in a hole in the ground,” he says. “In my opinion it’s Segen and Eritrea’s government who should be held responsible for how these people were treated.”

Lindström, who also worked in Zimbabwe, says the contrast between the two countries was huge.

“In Zimbabwe, the politicians travel under machine gun protection. In Eritrea, they move about in jeans and T-shirt. But just because Eritrea has won a war doesn’t mean they are fit to run a country,” he says.

Lindström emphasizes that he hasn’t witnessed everything. “Other people may have a different picture, but I wouldn’t call the work in Bisha forced labor.”

For years, Bereket Semere has worked to involve villagers living within a 30-kilometer radius of the mine.

Still wearing his reflector vest, Bereket Semere waits in the parking lot, next to his white Toyota. The shadows grow longer and we have a long way to drive. Everyone wants to make it home before dark. Leaving the mine, we see several specially outfitted trucks with gray containers, filled with copper and zinc, heading to the coast where the metals will be transported across the oceans.

From one perspective, Eritrea is a country in desperate need of positive publicity, and has, with Bisha, found a positive story—a shining example for the future. On the flip side of the coin, Bisha is under the looking glass of a Canadian court, which is investigating human rights violations.

Is it possible that both sides are overreacting to a very large hole in the ground, way out in the desert?

According to Nevsun’s latest annual report, in a best-case scenario, Eritrea will earn 19 million dollars per year from the mine over a two-year period, before production will ebb out. The question is: How large of an impact will the mine and its 19 millions have in saving a country with one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world?

Will there just be a polluted hole in the ground left after Bisha has served its purpose, as Minister of Energy and Mines Sebhat Efrem predicts? Or is this the jump-start Eritrea’s economy needs, a stimuli for investment and commerce?

Bereket Semere, my guide and driver, slows down as a cow slowly crosses the road. To him, his job with the mine is everything but large-scale political visions. Tomorrow he will continue to provide the villages with water and electricity, not an entirely easy job. When he sees the lights come on in the huts so the children can do their homework at night, or running water in the faucets, he knows that is something important to the people, beyond campaigns and goodwill.

For years, Bereket Semere has worked to involve villagers living within a 30-kilometer radius of the mine, and his efforts are starting to show. While the locals are supportive of the mine and the land, he makes it a point to tell me that the mine belongs to all of Eritrea.

“The fact that the mine is located here shouldn’t just benefit the villages immediately surrounding it. The revenue shall be divided evenly across the whole country,” he says.

I pull out the business card I got from the PR-person at Bisha and read the mission statement on the back: “You should behave as if you owned the mine, act cleverly and efficiently, be a team player and deliver results.”

“Next year this village is going to get water,” says Bereket Semere, making a sweeping gesture toward the clay huts. “And then the next village, and the next…”

 

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Read more:

”Eritrea: One country two realities”

”Leaving Eritrea was the biggest mistake of my life”

”Totalitarian Tourist Attraction”

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