By Desale Okubamichael
dessu81 (AT) gmail (DOT) com
During our long and tortuous history, our attitude made us win, and it made us lose. We feel both the successes and the losses deep in our hearts.
The achievement of independence in 1991 was a miracle. All the heroism and determination that went into winning caused an awesome feeling. The joy and the celebration are printed in my memory. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Most Eritreans had great hope for the future at that time. We trusted the EPLF fighters as our gods. I thought they would turn Eritrea into a peaceful and prosperous country. I thought Eritreans would be equally rich.
But I had no understanding of democracy, diplomatic relationships, or economic policies — I had no clue about the external world. I thought everybody was an enemy of Eritrea and everyone was either a past or a potential coloniser. The one thing I was sure of was that Eritrea’s time had come and Eritreans would be free forever and own their future.
The fighters were so exciting to watch: wearing simple shorts and shirts, strapping on their web belts, cleaning their guns with skill, and dutifully following instructions from their commanders. Members from all of Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups looked the same in those uniforms and seemed to be in harmony with each other: men, women, Muslims, Christians, the educated and the uneducated ready to give their best and die for their people if needed. The freedom feeling and the song “Wesede Ayay B’al Sere” are still fresh in my memory.
What could go wrong under these fighters and their leadership?
I thought these remarkable Eritrean fighters were a reflection of high standards among the top leadership—people who sacrificed their lives for the oppressed people of Eritrean and shared unconditional love with fighters and led the nation with great vision. Eritreans hugged and kissed any fighter they met with great pleasure and love during the first days of independence. Everything the fighters did was just amazing, even the way they ate, so fast and a mouthful portion.
At the beginning, it was difficult not to trust these fighters; they were just beyond doubt, and all their stories were believed and miraculous. If I think of it now, what a brainwash that was.
They were the heroes who defeated the Ethiopian Derg with all the resources it had and the large Ethiopian population. Everyone loved to watch the stories of the war on TV, this was not possible during the Derg’s era. The houses that owned TVs had to put them in their yards or on their windows so that many people could watch.
Dawning of reality
Eritreans did not learn quickly to doubt and rationalize the fighters. Many fighters were aware of the imperfection of the struggle for independence, but they could not challenge the leadership at that time. Some were desperate for independence and shut their mouth till the war was over. But to break the silence after independence was even more challenging because of the complexity of the change from a guerrilla organization to a transitional government. But slowly, slowly we began to detect contradictions between our hopes and dreams and the reality in front of us.
Many events went horribly wrong in Eritrea after independence, and I am going to highlight some of them. The first was a fighters’ protest for salary in April 1993. The leadership insisted that fighters should continue without a pay for few more years and the fighters disagreed and protested in the streets of Asmara.
Fighters were not hidden anymore in the battleground. They had parents and kids who needed their immediate support. They could not afford to visit their homes empty-handed anymore after fighting for that long. Now they could not even offer their families a loaf of bread. Their protest met with humiliation and harsh punishment. Many fighters were put in prison for years without due processes, many others were suspended forever from their positions.
The second one was the most shocking: In 1993, war-disabled fighters were gunned down as they started a march from Mayhabar (a camp in Eritrea where war-disabled fighters used to live) to the road that leads to Asmara. No one asked who was responsible and why it could not be handled differently. They were treated as criminals and the leadership’s answer to their plea was a mocking of great ignorance.
Then came national service, which was a disaster that had no end.
It was a proclamation of slavery for all Eritreans, though at the beginning Eritreans did not know what contract they were signing. In 1994, the Eritrean leadership imposed national service without proper debate and awareness. It was difficult to imagine why such big military was required in this modern era of technology. Technology and innovation should strive in small countries like Eritrea, not the military. Sawa really sucks.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first Eritreans who rejected and refused to participate in the Eritrean national service because of their faith. This was with dire consequence. A year before the national service was announced, Jehovah’s witnesses had already been targeted for refusing to participate in Eritrean referendum. Following the referendum, they were immediately fired from any government employment, their business licenses revoked, and removed from any government houses. They were left with no rights. Now, young Jehovah’s witnesses who failed to go to Sawa were put in prison–indefinitely.
Thereafter, the Pentecostal faith was also labelled as anti-nationalists and their religious right was denied and their churches closed. They could not pray in groups, preach and carry their bible in public space. Some of their leaders are still in prison counting their days. Eritreans were silent and in fact some participated in harassing Jehovah’s witnesses and Pentecostals.
In a short time, the EPLF destroyed Eritreans culture of care, trust, generosity and dialogue. They installed a new culture of ignorance and fear. The obedient culture of Eritrea was abused for greed and power. Saying “No” to any government plan has become a “crime”. “Yes” saves any trouble and becomes the only option to exist in Eritrea.
Incommunicado prisons mushroomed everywhere in Eritrea. This was a very weird cultural change brought by Shabia (EPLF) because to visit a prisoner and offer sympathy and encouragement has always been a daily duty and our cultural comfort and part of our daily prayer. Where were the fighters who claimed they are heroes of all time when their heroes and commanders were put in prison forever? Had they lost their braveness and boldness after independence? I expected fighters to show us the way and link us to the future, but they did not.
The second war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 was a disaster. I believe it was more than a border and a Badme issue. It was caused by many things: a conflict over economics, politics, identity, betrayal of past promises and historical relationships, change of currency, dollar use and trade, port service payments, commodity and export trade. There could also be a personal interest and institutional undermining characters, and showing a power and dominance and influence that played a role to take the war to a different level as well. But whatever its complicated causes, it resulted in a political crisis within Eritrea from which we have yet to recover.
In 2001, 15 top government leaders (so-called G-15) issued a demand for leadership change and institutional change, using the private local newspapers of the time to communicate this to the population. The cabinet ministers and other officials who signed the protests and the journalists who printed them got imprisoned immediately. No official response from government has been given so far, and it’s not known whether they dead or alive.
The critics were accused of selling the country to the enemy, but why should Eritreans believe this? The criminal is the one who puts a suspect in jail for decades without justice.
What we learned from this was that the unresolved border demarcation served as an excuse for all the sins and heinous crime of the leadership of Eritrea, especially its refusal to meet our need for democratic process, for elections and the implementation of our Constitution.
Shattering of dreams
After 2001, all progress toward democracy and freedom was crushed and the control of Eritreans has taken a different dimension with an absolute cruelty and dictatorship. Whoever had a potential to support change was harassed. For example, in 2001 university students objected to a government directive for a low pay summer work, where the students were supposed to work in a census of war damage. This resulted in the government immediately rounding up all university students and imprisoning them in We’a and Ge’lalo. While there, students asked their leaders hard questions, but the reaction indicated their jailers were not interested in listening.
After this, many university students gave up on Shabia, and the EPLF gave up on them. Thereafter, educated Eritreans were labelled as useless and anti-national, and Eritrea’s only institution of higher learning, the University of Asmara, was closed and replaced by a dispersed network of substandard colleges that are army-controlled, far apart from each other, and many of them located outside cities.
The Eritrean youth could not tolerate the Sawa slavery any longer and could not have any hope in Eritrea. Shoot-to-kill orders were issued against those who tried to flee the country and many were gunned down. When high school students started to fail to go to Sawa after writing their final exams, the government made them do the final year of high school and then take the national exam to enter university in Sawa as part of their military service, trapping us in an evil circle in which our only option was to become a refugee.
Today, with so many Eritreans leaving, many the countries are fed up with us and want to close their doors in our face. But we were not born to be refugees; our parents love us and never dreamed for us to leave our homes.
Who thought Isaias Afwerki was going to turn into this horrible person? Or was he a devil who tricked us into thinking he was an angel? Isaias used Eritrean intellectuals to draft the constitution and put it in a dustbin after all their efforts. Smiling in their presence while at the back of his mind he was thinking differently.
Eritrea has become lawless. An entire generation has grown up without the rule of law or a working constitution. It is not surprising that we cannot unite anymore. We never had a chance to experience the power of law and constitution to dare do well as a unified people.
But it is not enough to complain. We need to do something about it, and the change that is required has to come from us. We have to reawaken the attitude that brought our nation independence, and take charge of our own destiny.
We did it once—we can do it again if we believe in ourselves.