Our attitude determines the destination: an Eritrean cry

By Desale Okubamichael
dessu81 (AT) gmail (DOT) com

The euphoria

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? Continue reading

Leaked document show government estimates over half a million will sign petition denouncing UN human rights report on Eritrea

An Eritrean whistleblower that goes by the name Samuel has recently started publishing leaked government documents through a Facebook page: SACTISM: Classified documents of the dwindling PFDJ.

On April 20, SACTISM posted a seven-page document, in Tigrinya language, of a letter by Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs detailing a government plan to collect over 300,000 signatures from Eritreans for a petition that denounces the UN Commission of Inquiry and its ‘fabricated’ reports.

The letter, dated 12th of April 2016, is addressed to “All Eritrean missions” and to “Eritrean consulates in Canada and Australia” with copies to “(1) Coordinating committee; (2) Coordinator of Action Europe, Ambassador Fisehatsion Petros; and (3) Eritrean permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Ghirma Asmerom

The letter urges the responsible to collect signatures starting from 16th of April until 27th of May 2016 and fulfill their respective country’s “quota“. The document lists 25 countries including the Scandinavia region and sets the target number of signatures for the petition.

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Target numbers of signatures to collect from Eritrean citizens residing abroad from the leaked government letter.

These numbers are perhaps indicative of the number of Eritreans in those countries (most of them as refugees or political asylees), and the level of influence and leverage the government believes it has on its citizens residing in each country.

The document details that this ‘drive’ is overseen by a certain “Global Eritrean Action for Justice” and all reports and copies of petitions are to be sent to it via email (eritreanglobalmekete@gmail.com). The letter also indicates that a peaceful rally will be held in relation to this petition sometime between 21st and 23rd of June.

Perhaps an interesting point is when the letter explains how the ‘drive’ will be mobilized. It indicates that “every citizen will take the petition form and collect signatures from their neighbors, friends, workmates and so on.” furthermore it indicates that during this mobilization, citizens will be “helped by groups, organizations and unions who will be leading the action.” It will be curious to know who those groups, organizations and unions are since most government organizations claim they are mere civic organizations with no political affiliation to Eritrean regime. In fact, in a recent well-publicized case, a member of one such Eritrean organization sued a Dutch professor for defamation because she claimed he has association with the Eritrean government (details of the incident here and here).

This also suggests that the signatures will be collected in a similar manner the 2% ‘diaspora tax’ is collected and Eritrean refugees are forced to sign a ‘letter of regret’ at Eritrean embassies and consulates. That is, through extortion.

The petition form reads:

“We, the undersigned reject the fabricated Reports of the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights situation in Eritrea and request immediate nullification of the Reports and termination of their mandates, and instead promote constructive engagement!”

petition

The petition form. Appendix 2 of the leaked document

 

A copy of the leaked document, which is written in Tigrinya language, can be downloaded here: Government_Petition2016_leak

Is Eritrea a tiny country?

Eritrea is not quite a tiny country. In terms of land area (excluding water bodies) there are just as much smaller countries in the world as there are larger ones. Although far below the mean, Eritrea covers an area slightly larger than the median.

Eritrea’s estimated population of 6 million is  far below the mean (33 million), but this is because few countries have extremely huge population. By population size Eritrea lies almost at the median of all countries. This means if you were to line up all the approximately 200 countries by their population size, starting from China all the way to Tuvalu, Eritrea would rank 100–give or take a few.

With an area of 101,000 sq. Km (39,000 sq miles), Eritrea lies just above the median of all countries. (Data from World Bank Database).

With an area of 101,000 sq. Km (39,000 sq miles), Eritrea lies just above the median of all countries as shown in this histogram. (Data from World Bank Database).

The 2013 estimated population of Eritrea is 6 million. Just about half of wold countries have population below that. (Data from Wold Bank Database)

The 2013 estimated population of Eritrea is 6 million, just about half of wold countries have population below that. (Data from Wold Bank Database).

 

The perceived ‘smallness’ of Eritrea that many assume is, I believe, mainly because of its insignificance in world stage (politics, economy, trade, etc.). And not so much because of mere size.

Considering the amount of world news headlines Eritrea is  making (refugees tragedies, kidnappings, organ harvesting, etc.) and the nuisance we have become to far away countries (from Israel in the Middle East to the European Union and UK in the West),  it might not be long before our country’s size is realized. Ironic that we should achieve our dream of world recognition in this way.

By the same standards, Eritrea’s ‘smallness’ is not quite the excuse for the many hardships and conflicts we continue to face throughout our history.

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.

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).

Sophia’s interview with Australian radio vs. common sense

SBS with Sofiti - Copy

Sofia Tesfamariam at SBS’s studio

In a recent interview with Australian SBS radio,Sophia Tesfamariam introduced herself as the Director of US foundation for the Horn of Africa, a non governmental organization based in the US. But if you are curious about her political affiliation, I strongly suggest a visit to her personal blog (at stesfamariam.com) and search for “pedophile“. Read a couple of paragraph of the search result for an insight on the Director’s opinions about those of us not very enthusiastic about Eritrean government.

The interview focused on issues close to every Eritreans’ heart: Eritrean politics, human rights, 2% diaspora ‘tax’ and the Eritrean refugee crisis.

In my recent article titled “the Authorized version of events” I had given examples of  typical Eritrean government responses to events in Eritrea. In that regard, Sophia Tesfamariam was not a disappointment.

STesfamariam.com

STesfamariam.com

The Covert Government

Ms Sophia Tesfamariam is an unofficial-official representative of the Eritrean government. Asked if she came to Australia on official capacity representing the Eritrean government, she explained… It happens she’s been declining invitations by the Australian-Eritrean community year after year, this time she could make it so she’s here. The program host seemed satisfied with her response. He did not press the issue further.

Even though she’s not officially a government representative, she carries her self as such.

Such is a typical standard operating procedure of the Eritrean regime. The Eritrean regime is very “organic”. The overt administration structure is just for show (even in the army). The real structure is underground. It is filled with people that represent the government one way, that is, the government works through them and everyone knows it but the government is not accountable for their actions.

Eritrean government structure is better understood by treating it like an urban gang structure. There are no official guidelines or official posts but every body in the gang (and the neighborhood) knows everything. Everyone knows who calls the shots, who does what, who is whose rival, what actions have what consequences…–very much like Eritrean society.

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(Minor edits 9/17/2014)

The dialogue with Elsa Chyrum

“Has God deliberately blinded us, or is it that we are callous because we have seen too much suffering.” Elsa Chyrum  challenged the Eritrean community, “We can’t continue living our daily lives as if nothing is happening.” She said our first objective should be “to remove this regime and to institute a system that respects human rights.”

Elsa Chyrum

Elsa Chyrum delivering her talk after a brief introduction by Almaz Negash (not in photo)

In addition to the talk by the respected Eritrean human rights activist Ms. Elsa Chyrum, the Conference titled “A Dialogue with Elsa Chyrum on the Global Crisis of Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers.” had three main speakers: Almaz Negash, Saleh Gadi Johar and Saleh Younis. The event was predominantly conducted in Tigrinya language and ‘live’ English translation was projected for non-native attendees.

Elsa was modest in her talk and hardly talked about her work and achievements. Saleh Younis pointed this out and asked that she explain the recent hunger strike she did in protest of the detentions of Eritrean refugees in Djibouti. She explained that she took the action out of desperation having exhausted all hope that the Djibouti authorities would ever take the matter seriously. She pleaded and begged Djibouti authorities, at some point even met with the current Prime Minister.  “I even pleaded that they at-least release the Eritreans to neighboring countries under police escort if need be,” she said. Elsa said after the hunger strike, the UNHCR now recognizes the Eritreans in Djibouti as refugees and she believes that the international community has now put pressure on Djibouti authorities to resolve the matter.

Throughout her talk, Elsa was very soft-spoken person. One can feel genuine concern for the pain of Eritreans in her speech. During a visit to Eritrean refugee camps in Ethiopia, Elsa said she was touched to see hundreds and hundreds of young children who left Eritrea without their parents. “Seeing these little children living alone in refugee camp, seeing the future generation of Eritrea in such sad state I felt ill immediately. I had stomach pain that lasted for almost six months after wards.” Elsa said.

When asked a question on what we the diaspora need to do, Elsa replied that  it is important we start with helping those in our surrounding, “Our actions have to start with helping Eritrea refugees locally. We can achieve most there.”

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Saleh Gadi Johar centered his talk on human trafficking, “Human trafficking is not unique to Eritrea, its a global phenomena. So what makes human trafficking in Eritrea different?” After briefly highlighting global human trafficking challenges, he said that we should try to tackle it at the organization level and we should focus less on the ‘foot soldiers’ committing the crimes.

In one instance he likened human trafficking to drug smuggling and how difficult it is even for the greatest nations to tackle, “we have become like fire fighters running around trying to put out fire here and there, let us ask bigger questions ‘Who benefits from human trafficking of Eritreans?’… lets research and try to catch the bigger fish.” He also expressed his disappointment that many don’t actively involve in fighting human trafficking, “In four years [of research] I only have two phone numbers that belong to kidnappers. So why are we not open about it. I can understand it is difficult to inform on kidnappers when your loved ones are in the hands of traffickers but we should actively try to expose the criminals once we get our loved ones freed.”

"Either you are an activist or you are not." -Saleh Gadi Johar

“Either you are an activist or you are not.” -Saleh Gadi Johar

Saleh Younis talked on issues of Eritrea refugees, “Both the pull factor and the push factors that drive Eritreans to flee have increased in the past years.” He said, “and those responsible for either side blame each other as the main cause. Those responsible for the ‘push’ factor blame that the West is making it too easy for Eritreans to be granted Asylum, those on the ‘pull’ side complain that the tyrant needn’t press his boot so hard on his population.”

SalehY

“Decades of abuse have made the Eritrean pride dissolve away from Eritreans” -Saleh Younis

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An Eritrean Refugee, Stephanos Semere, who was a conscript of the Eritrean regime for nine years gave a testimony of his flight from Eritrea and the challenges he faced on his way to the USA.

The talks session was followed by a panel discussion with question and answer session.

Worried that I might miss my train, I had to leave early. According to the program flyer the conference ended with Closing Remarks  followed by Award of Appreciation presented to Elsa Chyrum on behalf of the Bay Area Eritrean Community.

flyer

Sponsors of the event from the flyer

7 Years a slave: story of a ‘National Service’ survivor

My name is Robel Tesfai and I was born in 1979,” A video message from the young Eritrean man starts. Rebel is a survivor of the Eritrean ‘National Service’.

Speaking in his native language of Tigrinya Robel says, “To me National Service is slavery.” And he should know, he spent seven years of his life in the ‘National Service’. Since the totalitarian dictatorship declared a mandatory 18 months-long military service in 1993, the government has been forcefully conscripting everyone between the ages of 18-ish and 50-ish.

Robel describes how he was forced to ‘serve’ without compensation and without hope of ever being released from ‘Service’. Robel confirms that conscripts are routinely made to work as laborers in farms and construction works, often for the benefit of army commanders and Party inner-members.

If the accounts of the thousands of young Eritreans leaving the country every month, such as Robel, is to be trusted; then the Eritrean government has effectively legalized slavery. 7yearsslaveEritrea’s “National Service” comes complete with all the paraphernalia associated with the practice of slavery: justification of economic importance, cultural superiority of the masters (the revolutionary culture– ‘temekuro mieda’), emphasis on the ignorance and unruliness of subjects if left to themselves, reiterating the importance of slavery for national security, etc.

Often army commanders (slave masters) are granted almost unlimited power over their subjects. Commanders routinely punish disobedient subjects  harshly through denial of annual leave and travel permits, denial of medical treatment, etc. Commanders are granted the freedom to  deliver all sorts of physical and mental torture they see fit to get the job done.

Robel concludes his video message with a touching message telling us why he decided to speak out, “I now live in Bologna, free and leading a peaceful life. I wish peaceful and free life to all compatriots who are still denied freedom. But I don’t wish that they flee their country and suffer the risks of Sinai or the Mediterranean like I did to be free. I wish to be their voice and express my desire for their misery to come to pass. I wish for the National Service to finally be for the benefit of our country. This is my hope.

The video was posted as part of “Stop Slavery in Eritrea” campaign. Over the past months the campaign has been active in facilitating survivors to make a statements by posting photos of themselves wearing the “Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea” T-shirt.

 

Globalization, Imitation, and Eritrean Refugees

The Africa Today journal devoted its recent volume to research papers on Post-liberation Eritrea. The first of the research papers in this special issue investigates “an important variable in explaining current and recent refugee movement from Eritrea and other countries in Africa.”

“Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea”

Considering the significance of the matter, this paper has chosen an excellent research topic. Every month up to 3,000 Eritreans flee their country across the heavily guarded, dangerous borders. Continue reading

Investigating Post-liberation Eritrea

The Africa Today journal  devoted it’s recent volume (vol. 60 no 2) to research papers on Post-liberation Eritrea. Of the five papers in this special issue, four dealt with Eritrean immigrants and refugees. This demonstrates how much emigration and refugees define Post-liberation Eritrea–or simply ‘Eritrea’.

An introduction to the volume was written by the editor Dr. Tekle M. Woldemikael. The introduction titled “Postliberation Eritrea” gives a background on Eritrea and briefly describes the five papers in the volume:

(1) Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea.
by Assefaw Bariagaber (Professor, Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, USA)
(2) Civil Society and Cyberspace: Reflections on Dehai, Asmarino, and Awate.
by Victoria Bernal (Professor, School of Social Sciences,  University of California at Irvine, USA)
(3) The Catch-22 of Resistance: Jokes and the Political Imagination of Eritrean Conscripts.
by David M. Bozzini (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Anthropology Institute, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland)
(4) Ransoms, Remittances, and Refugees: The Gatekeeper State in Eritrea
by Amanda Poole (Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, USA)
(5) Imagining Emigration: Debating National Duty in Eritrean Classrooms.
by Jennifer Riggan (Assistant Professor, Department of Historical and Political Studies, Arcadia University, USA)

In the coming posts, I’ll share my thoughts on each of these papers. First on the agenda is Dr. Assefaw Bariagaber’s “Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea” which I will post next weekend.

"You'll thank me later." ( Monk, the greatest detective in the universe)

“You’ll thank me later.” ( Mr. Monk, the greatest detective in the universe)