Correspondence with an Anthropologist

Dr Maximilian Forte recently wrote on why he thinks Sophia Tesfamariam‘s recent blog post is so important. His essay posted on starts with,

…in light of the controversy that erupted with the publication of Sophia Tesfamariam’s outline and condemnation of western anthropologists working to support regime change in her native Eritrea…

Dr Maximilian Forte is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University, Canada.

Given these circumstances, I decided on a quick read of Sophia Tesfamariam’s publication. In her most recent post, Sophia uncovers information on the identity of funding agencies that support the work of several Western scholars that write on Eritrea. To the readers’ surprise she discovered that Western agencies are the major funding sources of Western scholars. Previously this information was only available by accessing the scholars’ academic CV or LinkedIn profile.

As an example, Sophia gives the names and brief outline of nine distinguished scholars: Tricia Redeker Hepner, Dan Connell, Frank Smyth, David Bozzini, Victoria Bernal, Maryan Van Reisen, Jennifer Riggan, Sara Dorman, Kjetil Tronvoll.


Dr. Maximilian C. Forte

Dr. Maximilian C. Forte

As a matter of principle I do not engage with government sympathizers. I believe that anyone unable to comprehend the suffering of Eritrean people until now probably does not deserve my time.

An exception to the rule, I decided to confront Dr Forte. Following is the “correspondence” that ensued in the comment section of his posting and continued on Zero Anthropology Facebook page (switched to Facebook after my last comment on the website did not appear):

Me: Claiming a controversy erupting (of all, in academic circles) as a result of a blog publication by Sophia Tesfamariam simply gives legitimacy to work that does not deserve a serious consideration.

Sophia believes that those that disagree and oppose the government of her second citizenship are a collection of “pedophiles” and “rapists”, this by itself should indicate to anyone that Sophia’s blog publications are not worthy of an academic discussion (let alone a controversy).

If there is any controversy (which there isn’t) it is not in the interpretation of facts but in the facts themselves. Sophia’s side of the “controversy” only accepts government version of events, hence they deny all atrocities done by their government including that Eritrean conscription is indefinite (life time) and without pay (did you just compare that to Sweden).

Unless one is willing to entertain the idea that all non-Eritrean government sources are lies and part of a grand conspiracy, and the only source to be trusted is that of the government, Sophia’s arguments are nonsense.

*Switzerland not Sweden

Dr. Maximilian Forte: You have an “interesting” idea about what constitutes and what merits “academic discussion”. Sophia Tesfamariam is a member of the public and is a prominent political representative for her country–yes, an Eritrean who defends the Eritrean government. Any anthropologist who restricts discussion to fellow academics alone, and does not bother consulting people like Tesfamariam and the many others like her who are speaking up, is no anthropologist and therefore there would be no basis for an academic discussion. You seem to instead dedicate yourself to criticizing the critic in a tu quoque and ad hominem set of responses, that rather expose your own weaknesses. As for non-Eritrean sources, having had the experience of interacting with David Bozzini, I would recommend the strongest of caution, especially when concerning a state that is highlighted by the greatest military power on earth as an adversary. There is otherwise nothing at all in your comment that sways me; my only impression is that Tesfamariam makes you growl. So what?

“did you just compare that to Sweden [Switzerland]“

If you had read and understood this article, or even just the basic thrust of ZA, then surely you would not be asking such a question.

On a related issue: I find it curious that the Eritrean “regime” has distributed arms to the masses…something one normally would be ill-advised to do if you distrusted your people’s sentiments. So no, no comparison with either Sweden or Switzerland.

Me: 1. I critique Sophia Tesfamariam’s work based on “content”. Sophia Tesfamariam’s blogs (and other works) are not worthy of creating any academic controversy as you claimed because they are mere propaganda lacking credible facts worthy of an academic consideration.

On the other hand, listening to and understanding Sophia Tesfamariam (and other pro-government viewpoints) is a worthwhile and necessary exercise to understanding current Eritrea.

2. You recommended “strongest of caution on non-Eritrean [government] sources,” saying this is significantly different from completely and arbitrarily discounting all non-Eritrean-government sources as lies and part of a grand conspiracy (as I claimed Sophia Tesfamariam and similar pro-Eritrean-government people routinely do).

3. In reference to Eritrean government distributing arms to its citizens (creating a “civilian-militia”). I am surprised you brought this fact to show the popular support Eritrean government enjoys. Arms distribution to population hardly qualifies as an index of popular support. Part of the argument with “indefinite conscription” in Eritrea is that citizens (of age) are armed, adding the elderly and few remaining “civilians” in cities to the conscription list only increases the severity of “indefinite conscription”. Perhaps a better index of popular support would be if the approximately 4,000 refugees fleeing Eritrea every month were to decide NOT to flee Eritrea.

Dr. Maximilian Forte: 1. “they are mere propaganda lacking credible facts worthy of an academic consideration”–and yet, this sounds exactly like mere propaganda, and since you do not appear to be an academic, you are presuming a lot in instructing us on what we should consider.

2. “You recommended “strongest of caution on non-Eritrean [government] sources,” saying this is significantly different from…”–I know what I said, why are you repeating it?

3. You have not proven any of the “facts” here, you merely assert them, along with the dubious label of “indefinite conscription,” which makes utterly no sense at all unless you are implying that the whole population is in a barracks and nobody is growing food or going to school.

There is “no grand conspiracy”–that is very loose and foolish talk, usually employed by the ignorant, by those in denial, and by reactionaries.

The point is that I linked to that article to begin with, so that others could study it further. In the case of Bozzini, as I learned on my own, Tesfamariam could have added even more. This represents the start of a research process, and not the end of it. Otherwise, I am really not interested in these time-wasting affairs where one throws around terms like “propaganda” and “conspiracy” in such a lazy manner. So don’t expect any further discussion if this how you intend to continue.

Open letter to Jehovah’s Witnesses

Date: September 1, 2014

Jehovah’s Witnesses
25 Columbia Heights
Brooklyn NY 11201-2483

Deeply ashamed by the cruel and inhumane treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my country, I am writing you this letter to express my solidarity with the persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea. This September it will be 20 years since Isaac Mogos, Negede Teklemariam and Paulos Eyassu were imprisoned on Saturday, September 24, 1994. The first members of your congregation to suffer extended imprisonment and torture in Eritrea.

Since becoming an independent country in 1993, my country consistently harasses, imprisons, and tortures Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I have lived all my life in Eritrean capital, Asmara. A small city that was once upon a time the home town of Isaac Mogos, Negede Teklemariam, Paulos Eyassu, and many other imprisoned members of your congregation. Asmara has not been my home since I fled my country recently. I am not a Jehovah’s Witness but my family and I have friends who are; I am a witness to the integrity and high moral standards that members of your faith have.

Although I (and the Eritrean society in general) have very little to do with the actions of my government, it is never the less my pain when innocent members of my society are subjected to such inhumane torture and imprisonment, and it is my responsibility to at least stand in solidarity and be vocal when such atrocities are being committed in my home country.

The right for everyone to choose their own religion and to practice it is a God given right. It is also a basic human right stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No human being has the right to torture another human being. No one has the right to take away the freedom of others and to force them to change their religion.


Signed: Samuel N.


Left to right: Paulos Eyassu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam; in-chains for their faith since September 24 1994. Photo taken sometime 1996 (photo from

Left to right: Paulos Eyassu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam; in-chains for their faith since September 24 1994. Photo taken sometime 1996 (photo source here )

List of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrean prisons: 20 years in prison without being charged or sentenced

Take the pledge to show your support and solidarity with the persecuted Jehovah’s witnesses in Eritrea.

Click image to show your solidarity.

Click image to show your solidarity.

List of Jehovah’s Witnesses currently in prison in Eritrea

(None have been charged or sentenced. Data retrieved from on September 2014. Download list in PDF here: List of JW in Eritrea.) Continue reading

Unity in Diversity: a lesson for Eritreans

A theology professor, keen to teach his pupils on unity and love, once gave his students a simple assignment. He gave his students a blank sheet of white paper with nothing but a small black dot in one end and asked them to turn in a written description of the paper.

Eager to impress their professor the students wrote in length addressing every imaginable aspect of their assignment, some of the titles included: “shape and symmetry of the dot” another wrote, “Investigating placement of the dot and its relative location”. A student who majored college in Chemistry wrote “predicting the quality and type of ink”. Those with background in the humanities and social sciences chose to address even deeper aspects: “negative effects of the dot on paper aesthetics”, “impact of a black dot on the price of paper”. The most promising student (and the professor’s favorite) titled his essay, “Can it be removed?”.

After grading all of his students work the professor told them how, predictably, they all missed the most prominent and most important aspect.

In focusing on the peculiar problem, the dot, none of them did justice to the 99% of the page which was bleached white and flawless. Instead, they decided to focus on the problem, they addressed the page as, “the page with a black dot.” The moral of the story is that social groups and organizations (in the professor’s case, church denominations) focus on what is wrong and almost completely ignore the overwhelming aspects that unite them.

The things that divide a lot of Eritrean deleiti-fithi organizations are often few minor points—few and minor when compared to the grand causes that these organizations claim they stand for.

It is not uncommon to see Eritrean civic, humanitarian or political movements (needless to say, all in diaspora) miscommunicate, be-intolerant, engage in loud quarrels and once in a while have bitter divisions. What divides these organizations are often minor points—minor when compared to the grand and noble causes most of these organizations stand for.

Divisions are not necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes divisions are un-avoidable. For example if two organizations have different priorities and/or objectives, such as aid focused organizations vs. organizations aiming to bring political change. Organizations may divide based on incompatible strategies for example non-violent resistance vs. armed insurgency. But what is a bad thing is when these organizations refuse to “agree to disagree” peacefully or they refuse to respect each other’s integrity. Instead many decide to sabotage each other’s work.

One particularly troubling attitude I notice on arguments among Eritrean activists is: many times, people allege ‘hidden’ bad intentions on the person (or group) they are disagreeing with. Why? Because, they claim, because it is impossible to have the opinion their opponent is holding unless one has bad intentions and/or is deliberately refusing to see things their way.


Who actually owns the land?—Land tenure systems of Eritrea

‘The resources of the land are neither inexhaustible nor indestructible, as many men and countries have already found to their cost’ (Dale and McLaughlin 1990)

How land is owned is of great concern in Eritrea since majority of the people depend directly on the land for their survival. In addition to economics, land ownership also has significant social and political meaning for Eritreans.

Over 60% of Eritrean land is under agricultural use and agriculture is said to employ 70 to 80% of the population. Eritrean society can be said to be an agrarian society although this “70 or 80%” is likely outdated figure—the number has not changed for the past half century and none seem to cite current and original reference.


Land use categories in Eritrea (data from Kayouli, Tesfai et al. 2006)

Continue reading

ዝተመላኽዐ ዛንታ ገድሊ– (ዮሴፍ ገብሪሂወት)

እዚ ትርጉም ናይቲ ብዮሴፍ ገብሪሂወት፡ ኣብ ኣስማሪኖ ዳት ኮም ብዕለት 12 መጋቢት 2008Romanticizing Ghedli (I)”  ብዝብል ኣርእስቲ ዝተዘርግሐ ጽሑፍ እዩ።  ናብ ቛንቛ ትግርኛ ብ ኣዳለውቲ ጋዜጣ መሰለይ ተተርጉሙ: ምቅንጃው ገድሊ” ብዝብል ኣርእስቲ  ኣብ 2008ዝተዘርገሐ ጽሑፍ እዩ።


ሓደ ካብቲ ቀንዲ ንህዝብና ኣጋጢምዎ ዘሎ ጸገማት፡ እዚ ተቐናጅዩ [ካብ መጠን ንላዕሊ ተመላኺዑ] ዝቐርብ ዛንታ ገድሊ ኤርትራ እዩ፥ መብዝሕትኡ ህዝቢ ኤርትራ ነዚ ተጋኒኑን ተመላኺዑን ዝቐረበ ዛንታ ክርሕርሖ ፍቓደኛ ኣይኮነን። ምቕንጃው [ብሓሶት ዝተመላኽዐ ታሪኽ] ንሃገር ክቀትል ይኽእል’ዩ እንተ ኢልና፡ ከምዚ ናይ ኤርትራ እዩ። እዚ ሎሚ አብ ጉዳይ ሃገርና ንዕዘቦ ዘሎና ሓንቲ ሃገር ንሓደ ስነ-ሓሳብ ከተጥፍኦ እንከላ ኣይኮነን (ከምዚ እንተዝኸውን ምሓሸ ኔሩ)፥ እንታይ ደኣ ሓደ ስነ-ሓሳብ ንሓንቲ ሃገር ከጥፍኣ እንከሎ እዩ።

“ገድሊ”ን እቲ ምስኡ ተተሓሒዙ ዝኸይድ ናውትን ሓዊስካ፡ ነቲ ንነዊሕ እዋን ኣብ እንግድዑ ጾይርዎ ዝጸንሐ ህዝቢ ከቢዱዎስ፡ ኣብ ክጻወሮ ዘይክእል ደረጃ በጺሑ ይርከብ። እዚ ባዕልና ዝፈጠርናዮ እኩይ ፍጥረት፡ ሃርጋፍ ሸውሃት ስለዘማዕበለ፡ ንምርዋዩን ቀጻልነቱ ንምርግጋጽን ነባሪ ዝኾነ ናይ “ምስዋእ” ባህሊ ክፍጠር ኣለዎ። ንሓደ ዘይተነጸረ፣ ደብዛዝን ኣካራኻርን ሕልሚ ንምውሓስ፡ በዚ ጸይቀ-ግኑን ፍጥረት’ዚ ሓደ ወለዶ ድሕሪ እቲ ሓደ ክብልዑን ክሃልቑን ኣለዎም። ሎሚ ኣብዚ ናይ መወዳእታ ዕምሩ ድማ፡ ንመላእ ሃገር ንኸጽንት ኣብ ምውጥዋጥ ይርከብ። ሻዕብያ ክመውት እንተኾይኑ፡ ሃገር ድማ ምስኡ ከም እትመውት ኣቀዲሙ ወሲኑ’ዩ። ግና’ኸ፡ ዛጊት ብዙሓት ኤርትራውያን (ብፍቕሪ ሰውራ ሰኺሮም)፡ ክንዲ ነቲ ሱር ሕማሞም ኮይኑ ዘሎ “ገድሊ” ምምራር፡ ገድሊ ድኣ ኣይኩን እምበር ንዝኾነ ካልእ ነገር ምጥቃን እዮም ዝመርጹ።

እቲ ኣዝዩ ዝገርም ነገር፡ ኣብ ዝኾነ ይኹን ጉዳይ ሃገር ቅንጣብ እኳ ክሰማምዑ ዘይክእሉ፡ ኣብ ተቓራኒ ጥርዚታት ዝርከቡ ወገናት ከይተረፈ፡ ሓደ ዘሰማምዖም ነገር እንተሎ፡ እቲ ተመላኺዑ ዘሎ ዛንታ ገድሊ እዩ። ንገድሊ ጸጽቡቑ ካብ መጠን ንላዕሊ ምግናን፥ ነቲ ገግናዩ ከኣ ከምዘይነበረ ምኽሓድን ምቑንጻብን። Continue reading

Eritrea: Map of Terror

When was the last time someone beat you violently?
Do you remember yourself screaming at the top of your lung, begging for mercy?

Most Eritreans can answer these questions with an exact date. And it probably happened in one of these ‘prisons’. Click on the image to be directed to an interactive map.

Click image to be directed to the interactive map.

Click image to be directed to the interactive map.

Eritrea: Definitions you have to know

Majority of Eritrean dissidents prefer to write in English. It can be painful to follow Eritrean news and political works if you don’t know certain acronyms and popular non-English phrases. The following list should be useful to those not too familiar with Eritrean political writings.

ELF Eritrean Liberation Front (popularly called Jebha). A nationalist insurgency. The ELF started armed resistance against Ethiopian government in 1961, a year after it was founded. The ELF was the strongest nationalist group until it divided into competing groups in the 1970’s and was finally defeated and pushed out of the country in 1981 by EPLF (the strongest of its splinters).

EPLF Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (popularly called Shaebia) is a nationalist movement that started forming in the late 1960’s early 1970’s and officially formed in 1977. The EPLF defeated Ethiopian army and won Eritrean independence in 1991 . The EPLF renamed itself PFDJ in 1993.

G-15 A group of 15 prominent politicians within the PFDJ party that published an “open letter to the PFDJ” in May 2001. The open letter criticized President Isaias Afewerki. All were accused of treason and 11 members of the group were made to disappear on September 18, 2001, the remaining four were out of the country at the time and still remain abroad.

Ghedli Refers to the revolution and the armed insurgency for independence (1960’s—1991). The word is also used to refer to the era of the insurgency. Tigrinya [ገድሊ]: ‘struggle’.

Giffa The practice of raiding villages or neighborhoods (often at night) to recruit new conscripts and arrest suspected deserters. Giffa was a common practice of the Eritrean insurgencies (1960—1991), and is still a routine practice in Eritrea today. Tigrinya [ግፋ]: ‘to gather’

Halewa Sewra Shield of the Revolution. The internal security service of the EPLF. Tigrinya [ሓለዋ ሰውራ]: ‘guards of the revolution’

Hidri Suwuat Dream of the martyrs. Tigrinya [ሕድሪ ስውኣት]: ‘what our martyrs have entrusted us with’.

Isaias Afewerki President of Eritrea since 1993 and leader of the EPLF since 1975. Referring to persons with first name is proper in Eritrean culture and it is not common to refer the president by his last name.

Jebha Popular name of the ELF. Arabic [جبهة]: ‘Front’.

Menqa Dissident political grouping of mostly university students within the EPLF that started around 1973-74. The Menqa group allegedly accused the EPLF leadership of undemocratic behavior, all were made to disappear by the EPLF. Tigrinya [መንካዕ]: the animal bat.

Mieda Referring to the Ghedli revolution. Tigrinya [ሜዳ]: ‘Field’.

PFDJ People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Formerly EPLF, it is the only party in Eritrea.

Shaebia Popular name of the EPLF and PFDJ. Arabic [شعبي]: ‘Popular’.

Tegadalay A common way of referring the Ghedli era soldiers of the insurgency (Feminine Tegadalit). Tigrinya [ተጋዳላይ]:  ‘Fighter’.

TPLF Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Ethiopian insurgency that overthrew the previous administration and assumed power in 1991. TPLF was a partner of the EPLF during the insurgency and an ally of PFDJ until the 1998—2000  Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict.

Warsai A common name referring to the new generation national service conscripts. In contrast to the older generation of revolutionary fighters. Tigrinya [ዋርሳይ]: ‘One who inherits’.

Warsay-Yikealo the Warsay-Yikealo Development Campaign (WYDC) which was implemented in Eritrea two years after the end of 1998—2000 border conflict with Ethiopia. The campaign extended the 18-month compulsory National Service indefinitely. Under WYDC Campaign, conscripts are assigned work (military or civilian work) without salary except a nominal pocket money of 145 to 500 Nakfa. Conscripts who refuse to work are treated as military deserters and punished. Tigrinya phrase [ዋርሳይ ይከኣሎ] can be translated as: ‘The inheritor is all-capable’. (see Warsai and Yikealo)

Woyane A common name referring to the TPLF. Tigrinya [ወያኔ]: ‘revolution’.

Yikealo A less common name referring to the Ghedli generation of fighters (Tegadalay is more common), as opposed to the new generation of conscripts Warsai. Tigrinya [ይከኣሎ]: ‘all capable’ or ‘almighty’. (The traditional Tigrinya male name Yikealo is in reference to God, not insurgency fighters).

Eritrea’s Covert Government

In Eritrea becoming a government official is simply a ceremonial post. The entire visible government structure of Eritrea is fake and the real government structure is underground—entirely hidden.

Corrupt governments often employ ‘puppet’ officials and yes-men but the Eritrean government system is a step ahead. Eritrean government officials (Ministers and army Officers) don’t even qualify as ‘puppets’ of the authoritarian regime. A ‘puppet’ would imply that the position they occupy actually is part of the system. In your traditional corrupt governance, the ‘puppet master’ may have power over the puppets’ function, but the post (be it a Minister or an army General) does exist.

For example a ‘puppet’ army General orders his army in accordance to the whims of his master. In other words the puppet master controls the army through the puppet. Here the post of General is part of the system. In the Eritrean case, the post of General is not necessary since the army is not organized in a way that they take orders from a General. The traditional army structure where army rank may exist up to a Platoon or maybe up to a Battalion, anything higher is underground and the official army ranks above that mean very little.

The same structure exists in the ‘civilian’ posts such as the government Ministries or the Courts. The value of official posts changes from real to ceremonial as you climb up a ladder of any government Ministry.

The Eritrean governance system is covert and in this sense Eritrean regime is very “organic”. The visible administration structure is just for show. The true administrative structure is underground. It is occupied with people that represent the government. This is very convenient for the dictator and has many advantages, for example: It is easy for the government to dodge  accountability for actions, the dictator is not threatened by his subordinates which have zero public visibility let alone support, it is harder for the dictator’s enemies to challenge a power structure they cannot see, etc.

Eritrean government structure is best understood by comparing it to other non-traditional kinds of administration. Many characteristics of the Eritrean government structure resemble the urban gang structure. In a gang there is no standard structure or official positions. However every body in the gang and the neighborhood knows everything they need to know. Everyone knows who calls the shots and who calls the ‘real’ shots. There are no official channels and information is spread by rumors. Everyone know who does what in the gang, they know who is whose rival. Everybody knows what actions have what consequences and Most importantly, it works!  Very similar to the Eritrean government and society.