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)

Most Eritreans depend on the land for their survival. How land is owned is of great interest to them, in addition to survival and economics, land ownership also carries special social and political meaning to Eritreans.

Over 60% of Eritrean land is under agricultural use and agriculture is said to employ some 70 to 80% of the population. That would qualify Eritrean society to be an agrarian society (although this “70 or 80%” is most likely an outdated figure—literatures have been quoting the same figure for the past half century without citing current and original source).

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

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Are Eritrean refugees legit?

This is a legitimate question given the polar opposite answers out there. “There are two sides to a story” the saying goes, but in the case of Eritrea it is more appropriate to say “There are two stories,” period.

On one side, the Eritrean government and the Iranian State television (Press TV) tell us that Eritreans choose to leave their country for economic reasons. For better jobs, bigger salaries, etc. On the other side, many nations, many more humanitarian agencies, and the immigrants themselves tell us that Eritreans are forced to flee their country because of extreme government oppression. Continue reading

What’s Freedom anyway?

You would probably expect people that sacrifice an entire generation fighting for freedom and another generation guarding it should have a deeper understanding of what freedom means.

Considering that Eritreans have hands-on experience on the struggle for freedom but almost zero experience of freedom. It makes sense that we have a better understanding of the cost than understanding of the freedom itself.

In my experience many Eritreans, especially ex-fighters, understand freedom to mean freedom from a foreign government.

According to this very narrow understanding, freedom equals liberation and the requirements of freedom are satisfied as long as the government can show how detached it is from foreign elements.

Following this line of thinking, hostility to foreign governments is a plus. It assures that the government really is detached and hence there is absolute freedom.

Sadly, the many that subscribe to such a definition of freedom are totally blind to see oppression and tyranny all around them being committed by their own government. Even when the government is shooting down its own war-disabled comrades for daring to ask questions—that is not a gross violation of freedom, it’s just a glitch in the system.

I have lived my entire life in Eritrea. From my experience, it would be more appropriate to dismiss any acts of freedom by government as a glitch-in-the-system than the other way round.

So what is freedom?

Freedom is indeed a broad term and often blur at the edges, nevertheless it is not all edges! It might be unclear where exactly the huge mountain ends and the valley begins, but that does not make the mountain less real. Similarly, the blurring at the edges of the definition of freedom do not challenge the obvious ‘mountain’ meaning of freedom.

I find that most people understand freedom better when you first explain to them what freedom is NOT: You don’t have freedom if you are living in a prison. You don’t have freedom if you cannot quit your job—even with a 5 year notice. You don’t have freedom if you cannot choose how and where to live. You don’t have freedom if you cannot practice your religion. You don’t have freedom if you need government permission to see your wife. You don’t have freedom if you don’t own your farm product. You are not free if you are afraid to disagree with the government. You don’t have freedom if you don’t know what could get you arrested. You certainly don’t have freedom if you are shot at when trying to leave.

If any of the above describe you life for the past few years,  very likely you may not be free.

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Mute and without opinion – Eritrean churches

[Article published at Awate.com with few edits]

“The church must be the guide and the critic of the State and never its tool.” writes Dr Martin Luther King Jr, outraged by the silence of many churches regarding racial injustice of his time. The church, or any religious institution for that matter, should not hope to earn favours or avert scorn from government by such means as self-censoring on issues that the government labels “politics”. Not when the issues are well within the domain of the church’s teachings. Dr King, in continuation, warns unless the church recaptures its position in society as a guide and critic of the state “…it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”1

No other institutions or organizations can claim as much influence on our language, customs and laws than our religious institutions. Almost every major node of the Eritrean life is influenced and marked by our religious belief; from birth to death and anything in between. Marriage, family, divorce, loss of a loved one, all are shaped by religious convictions and involvement of religious leaders and followers. The role of our religious institutions also extend to issues of global interest such the as spread of diseases, drought, famine, human rights issues, war and issues of environmental degradations to mention a few.

Regardless of many challenges throughout time, our religious institutions continue to render their services. They continue to be the source of inspiration, wisdom, hope and comfort to many. Unfortunately in the last two decades, manipulations of religious affairs by the current tyranny—I dare to say ‘internal threat to our religious institutions’—has tried to demolish all the above mentioned blessings and the positive images of our faiths consequently leaving many unsheltered.

The Church has opinions on what is right and what is wrong.

Almost half a century of Marxist style oppression has left religious institutions in Eritrean voiceless on a lot of issues that face our society today. Our religious institutions today have become silent and don’t seem to have an opinion, even on common-sense social and moral issues, especially if those issues are the sort that make the ruling party uncomfortable. I am particularly concerned with those smaller evangelical denominations. In my opinion these being the most persecuted by the government are yet the most silent in this regard.

There are of course situations where the silence of churches is understandable. The church may refrain from opinions simply because it is not well informed of the facts. It would be reckless of a church to base its understanding on information gathered from the news or social media. Other times the church may not respond simply because the issues are too trivial or irrelevant to its doctrines.

But there are plenty of other issues that are neither trivial nor irrelevant for the church to keep silent. Would you feel comfortable with a church deciding to keep its voice down in the midst of a genocide because the Rwandan authorities find it bad to their reputation? Would you find it appropriate of a Church to keep silent during the holocaust so as not to offend the Nazis? Do you think it is OK then for Eritrean churches to keep silent in the midst of arbitrary arrest, torture and murder of ordinary citizens.

I don’t believe the Church or church leaders should ‘spearhead’ freedom moments or even endorse any political organization, but it is only natural to expect the Church to spearhead on calling people towards honesty, justice, love and fear of God. These calls should be directed at the citizens, and equally at the leaders of the country.

How our country is administered should not only be left to non-believers.

The lack of sincere opinions on the part of Eritrean churches regarding the current government has left many practising Christians confused as to how to participate in Eritrean affairs. Many are not sure if they can reconcile activism with their faith. As a result of such confusion many of the devout have decided to stay clear of Eritrean ‘politics’. Many choose to focus only on short-term, ‘practical’ and politically ‘neutral’ activities. I am referring to activities that would directly affect themselves or their immediate families and friends only. I don’t know how one would square such a philosophy with the teachings of Christianity. Any activity we do to help even our immediate families can’t be politically neutral anyway. Not in the current Eritrea. In being practical to help our friends and family back home, we inevitably have to break Eritrean ‘government laws’—be it in smuggling in of currency, smuggling out of our loved ones, bribing Eritrean officials/prison guards, bribing Sudanese or Kenyan official to get papers, seeking asylum; the list is endless. If such actions are not considered dissidence and defiance to the Eritrean government, I don’t know what is.

I am not saying that Eritrean congregations lack sympathy to the suffering our people. I am just saying that many are unacceptably quiet about it. My concern is that many Christians are comfortable to restrict their activity only the spiritual side. They think that as men and women of faith, they should separate themselves from all the “dirty-politics” and just focus on spiritual activities such as prayer for Eritrea. There is nothing wrong with that,  just as there is nothing wrong with praying for the sick or the needy. But just as praying for the sick does not mean one forfeits the responsibility to actually help the sick, by the same measure, praying for Eritrea does not mean one forfeits the responsibility to actually take part in bringing about the change they are praying for. Prayer is never a reason for inaction.

Many Christian fellowships seem  to discourage  activism or involvement in opposition and dissident movements. But surely, works and prayer are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact both cannot be separated. If you ask someone to pray for the good of Eritrea, then they must also go about to do something for the good of Eritrea. No one has to be less of a Christian to be more of a citizen. Quite the contrary, the Christian faith demands responsible citizenship. An obedient Christian can be expected to be active in social, economic and political aspects of daily life and even join such associations. If a person has not learned to respect, tolerate and work with people of all faiths, he/she is not a good Christian after all.

Our confusion

A lot of such “confused” devout are comfortable with signing petitions to ask governments of Malta or Egypt or Israel, pleading on behalf of Eritrean refugees. Most find it acceptable to write sworn testimonies to friends seeking asylum, telling the host country of the credible threat to the life of their friend. Yet the same people are often very uncomfortable signing petition asking PFDJ to stop violence against Eritreans. Being silent about injustice is far from being neutral. We are responsible not only for what we say but also for what we do not say.

I would like to end with a quote from the book of Esther, where Mordecai senses hesitation of the queen—Esther—to plead with the king to stop the murder of her people throughout the Persian empire. Mordecai writes back to the queen starting with these words, “For if you keep silent at this time…”. He continues to warn her that her silence will be to the destruction of her household as well. I feel Eritrean churches (especially in diaspora) are also in a situation similar to the queen’s. For Eritrean churches to keep silent at a time like this is unacceptable.

I hope our churches will consider it their responsibility and speak-up with love and wisdom to abate the violence of our government to its own people. I also hope individuals will consider it their responsibility to be good citizens and fight for peace and justice. I left Eritrea two years ago and I remember many congregations there praying for an honest and God-fearing government. I hope that each of us will take it upon ourselves to be an answer to their desperate cry and invest our talent, time and money to ensure that evil does not continue to triumph in our land.

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References:
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 1963)
(2) Book of Esther, (14:14 ESV)

ውዲት ‘ተቓወምቲን’–ንቕሓት መንግስትናን

ገለገለ ኤርትራውያን ነቲ መለለይ ፖለቲካዊ ባህልና ዝኾነ: “ተወፋይነት”: “ሓቦ”: “ኒሕ” ዝብል ቃላት ገዲፎም: መሰል ዋላ ዴሞክራሲ ክብሉ አዝዩ ዘሕዝን’ዩ:: መንግስትና ነዚ ውዲት ምዃኑ ብኣግኡ ስለዝተረድኦ: ነዚ “መሰል” ዝበሃል አብ ሃገርና ከስገድድዎ ዝፍትኑ ዘለዉ ኣምር ንምእላይ ክሳዕ ሕጂ ዝምጎስ ተበግሶ ክገብር ጸኒሑን ይገብር አሎን::

ሓደ ኣባል እዘን ተቓወምቲ-ጉጅለታት ዝኾነ ኤርትራዊ: “ዴሞክራሲ ኣብ ኤርትራ ይተግበር:” ኢሉ ይጭድር ይኸውን: ነዚ ተቓዋማይ መልስና ሓጺር’ዩ: “ስለምንታይ አሜሪካ ሎሚ ብዛዕባ ዴሞክራሲ አብ ኤርትራ ተገዲሳ:” እዩ:: እዚ ንናጽነትን ንዴሞክራሲን ኢሉ ኣዝዩ ነዊሕ ዓመታት (ማለት 30 ዓመታት) ዝተቓለሰ መንግስቲ: ብዛዕባ ጉዳይ ዴሞክራሲን መሰል ወዲ ሰብን ንዓለም ምመሃረ እንበር: በንጻሩ ክንምህረካ ኣይምተባህለን::

መብዛሕትኦም እዞም ‘ተቓወምቲ’ ኢና ዝብሉ ኤርትራውያን: ብ ዘይኤርትራዊ አተሓሳስባን ባህልን ስለ ዝተበገሱ:-

(ሀ) መብዛሕትኡ ጥርዓን እዞም ‘ንቃወም ኢና’ ዝብሉ:- “አብ ሃገርና ቅዋም ይተግበር”: “አብ ሃገርና ዴሞክራሲን ፍትሕን ንደሊ”: “ናይ ሃይማኖታት መሰል ይተሓሎ”: “ናይ ምዝራብን ምጽሓፍን መሰልና ይተሓሎ”: “እሱራት ይፈትሑ” ወዘተ. ዝብል: እንተተግቢሩ አዝዩ ሓደገኛን ንህላወ ሃገርና ኣብ ሓደጋ ዘእቱን ሕልምታት እዩ:: ብመሰረቱ:

(ለ) “ዴሞክራሲ”: “ሰብኣዊ መሰላት”: ወዘተ ዝዓይነቱ ስነ-ሓሳባት አብ ሃገርና ከስርሕ ዘይክእል (አረ ናብ ቋንቋና ክትርጎም’ኳ ዝኸብድ): ምስቲ ክቡር ባህልናን ንቡር አሰራርሓን መንግስትና ዘይከይድ ባዕዲ ዝኾነ ምዕራባዊ ኣምር (Western concept) እዩ::

(ሐ) መብዛሕትኡ ዘልዕልዎ ኣርእስቲ: ህዝቢ ንሃገር እንታይ ክገብረላ ይግበኦ ዘይኮነሲ: መንግስቲ ንሃገር ንታይ ክገብር ይግበኦ ጥራይ እዩ (ብርግጽ ተቓውሞኦም ንመንግስቲ እንበር ንህዝቢ ክሳዕ ዘይኮነ ንተግባራት መንግስቲ ጥራይ ኣተኩሮም ክዛረቡ ንቡር ክኸውን ይኽእል እዩ: ይኹን ደኣ እንበር እዚ እኹል ምኽንያት አይኮነን):: ብተወሳኺ:

(መ) ኩሉ ጥርዓናት ናይዞም ተቓወምቲ-ጉጅለታት ከምኡ ውን ተቓወምቲ-ውልቀሰባት በቲ ግቡእ መሳልል መንግስቲ (proper channels) ዘይኮነሲ: ብኣግባብ ዘይብሉ ጫውጫውታን ድፍረትን አብ ፈቐዶ ጎደናታት ወጻኢ ሃገራትን አብ ናይ ኢንተርነት መርበባትን እዩ:: “ሕቶን: ርእይቶን” አብ ባህሊ ውድብና ካብ ሜዳ አትሒዙ እንሰርሓሉ አገባብ እዩ:: ሕቶ ዘለዎ ብኣገባብ ንዝምልከቶም ጨንፈራት መንግስቲ ወይ ከኣ ንኤምባሲታትና ዘይውከል?

እዞም ንመንግስትና ክቃወሙ ዝፍትኑ ግና ብናይወልቆም ተበግሶ እዩ ኢልካ ምሕሳብ የዋህነት ኮይኑ ይስመዓኒ:: ብምዕራባውያን ሃገራት ተዘይ ተነጊርዎ: ሓደ ኤርትራዊ ሰብ ከመይ ጌሩ ባዕሉ “ናጽነት” ወይ “መሰል” ዝብል ኣመራት ከልዕል ይኽእል? ስለዚ ህዝቢ ኤርትራ: ኩሉ እዚ ዝግበር ዘሎ ናይ ባዕዳዊ ኣተሓሳስባ ጎስጓስ ብትሪ ክቃወም ሃገራዊ ግቡኡ እዩ::

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Religious Tolerance — the only way to ensure peace does not come at the expense of freedom

Asmara City

Asmara City

In Eritrea you can find Mosques which teach that “there is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet”  a few blocks away from Churches that  teach “no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ”. The fact that such mutually exclusive religions co-exist peacefully without any compromise speaks of a tolerant society.

Much like the concepts of racial equality or democracy, everybody is for religious tolerance these days. But the term is not well understood among many. It is not uncommon to hear people using the term religious tolerance synonymously with open-minded or liberal. Such use is utterly mistaken. Why would you need ‘tolerance’ if people are not so convinced about their own religion’s correctness? If you are already open minded about religion, or even appreciate the value of having a multi-religious society, then there is no need for tolerance.

A religious tolerant society is when a person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah can respect and befriend a person who is convinced that Jesus is not a Messiah. Tolerance is when  a person who believes Muhammad is the Prophet can respect and befriend another who says Muhammad is not a prophet.

Tolerance requires a rejection of the others’ religion and lifestyle while at the same time accepting and accommodating them in society.

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others. -John F. Kennedy

Since religious tolerance, or any kind of tolerance for that matter, does not exist among groups that don’t mind the others’ beliefs or lifestyle.  Religious tolerance exists only between people who are fully confident that that their religion is the correct and the others’ is incorrect. When people with such conviction choose not to impose their religion on each other, that is tolerance.

Religious tolerance is the only way to accommodate mutually incompatible faiths and ensure that peace and stability do not come at the expense of freedom and personal rights. Only in a society that respects and tolerates diversity can people truly make the choices they really want.