Sunday, June 18, 2017

Eritrean Graffiti - A Tale of Life Under Tyranny

By Ahmed Raji
Originally published on on September 6, 2003

Eritrean Graffiti - A Tale of Life Under Tyranny
By Events Monitor - Asmara
Sep 6, 2003, 21:57 PST

I look in the mirror and see a bunch of gray hair emerging – uninvited. A few months later it takes the form of a full-scale invasion. I am rather taken aback, for, even though I knew it would make its inevitable advent one day, I didn’t expect it that soon; certainly not with such ferocity!

Of late, I am starting to notice that things are changing fast around me. This is a paradoxical phenomenon in the land of the gobiye (the fabled tortoise[1]), where events normally proceed in a leisurely tempo. I look around me and see my office mate has developed a few fresh wrinkles around her eyes, my neighbor has suddenly acquired a stooped posture, and the old vintage suits donned by the men in my favorite cafe look even more worn-out.

In the Eritrea of today, where the burden of one crisis after another is mercilessly weighing down on people, the rapid deterioration in the material and emotional wellbeing of our society cannot escape the eye. The sudden increase in the number of beggars, the women in the late hours of the night – their infant babies sleeping on their backs – struggling to sell their meager merchandise of cigarettes, chewing gum and boiled eggs; the skinny boys you pass by on the country road, the villages that are devoid of any able-bodied men, the fields that remain unattended ...

As the turtle continues its excruciatingly slow journey, the wagon of misery has gained momentum. While demobilization is put off indefinitely, leaving a whole generation of young men and women desperately counting the days in the wilderness, the entire population is aging in fast-forward, and standards of living have taken a nose dive. So, after all, not everything is slow in Eritrea. Is this, in some strange way, supposed to be consoling?

It is a time of conflicting desires, where a mother one moment wishes the clock would tick faster so her conscripted husband may return home, and in the next she dreads the very passage of time for it reminds her of the looming prospect of her only remaining child reaching conscription age. Oh, that ominous certainty!  Come sit inside, you lanky, good-for-nothing,” shouts my sister, cursing the ill-timed, undesirably long-legged physique of my nephew. Although just 13, he was caught up in the round-ups of last summer before being released when the authorities grudgingly accepted proof of his real age, in the form of a birth certificate which his mother had produced. It is a sad irony that we have lived to witness a time when one curses, rather than rejoices at, the spectacle of watching one’s own child grow! How many of us are familiar with the fact that these days families deliberately tell their children to do poorly in the school exams to avoid progressing to the next grade, and thereby delay, as long as possible, their dreaded disappearance into Sawa’s dark recesses? A fact that every Eritrean knows, but, nonetheless, mysteriously escapes the attention of the engineers of the so-called education policy!

These unlucky youngsters cannot escape the watchful eyes of the party vigilante, either, who zealously monitor the comings and goings of the neighborhood youth and duly report to their bosses any ‘suspicious’ situation. One such zealot (the mother of a popular female singer) is terrorizing Geza Banda. She is known for making the rounds of the neighborhood houses in search of some incriminating evidence. And wo unto the family that is caught still sheltering a son or a daughter ... “ናይ ድሓን ድዪ ደኣ እዚ ቆልዓ ክሳብ ሕጂ ጸኒሑ? ዕረፍቲ ኣይወደአን ድዩ?”

* * *
Many of you in the Diaspora must be wondering how, indeed, fellow Eritreans back home are able to cope with the hellish situation in which they find themselves. How do they carry on with everyday life? How do they survive life under tyranny? What makes them persist? Is it possible to be encountering, on a daily basis, every imaginable adversity – harassment, abuse, imprisonment, pain, loss of loved ones, economic hardship, uncertainty – and yet go on with daily life as usual? Is it really possible to live in a state of constant subjection to terror and intimidation without losing one’s sanity? (Surely enough, for many the pressure has been too much to bear. You only need to sit in a sidewalk cafe in Asmara and watch the world pass by, to realize the ever increasing number of such anguished souls roaming the streets). How is it possible to overcome or restrain the deep anger one feels because of injustice, without being able to openly express one’s indignation? Could it be that Eritreans have become masters of compartmentalized thinking?

Naturally, under such circumstances, people resort to various kinds of survival mechanisms (physical as well as psychological), and Eritreans are no exception. One such mechanism is humor. It is not surprising, hence, that political satire is flourishing in Eritrea. Some of the jokes are really sharp and imaginative. Consider, for example, the following:

A delegation of Eritrean elders (shimaglle) was sent to meet God to plead for rain. At the gates of heaven, the delegation addresses God. They report that for the preceding couple of years the rains had not visited their country and the harvest had failed that year too. God looked into his books and then reached for a map and asked the delegation where on the map their country was. The envoys pointed to Eritreas location on the map. Here, a sign of astonishment appeared on Gods face. He said rather perplexedly: “but I see green all over the place; your country appears to be lush with crops!”  “Oh Almighty God”, said the emissaries, “what you see is not crop fields; these are our children in green military uniform.”

In another witty line, a young man dies after an exceptionally arduous life in the military service. At his funeral, the commander of his unit loudly reads his obituary: “ስዉእ ብጻይ ብዝሓደሮ ሕማም ...” (Martyr comrade, due to illness ...) starts the commander, when the departed suddenly raises his head and interjects: “ሓንሳብ ኣብዚኣ መአረምታ፡ ብዘሕደርናሉ ሕማም ደኣ በል!” (Oh, wait. You should rather say: due to the illness we gave him). 

I have my favorite one too, which goes like this: Three men, an Eritrean, an American and a German were chatting over a cup of tea. The German says “medical surgery in my country is so advanced the things that are happening are really amazing. We had this crippled child who underwent a groundbreaking surgery and a few years later he was jumping like a horse. And you know what, he has become a famous sprinter and Olympic medalist!”  Wow! said the American, thats quite a story! Actually, I know about a similar case in the US, which is not less startling. A child was born without hands. The doctors took bones and muscle tissue from his legs and gave him a pair of wonderful hands. And whats his condition now? He is the middleweight boxing champion.” Incredible! said everybody in amazement. Then the two turned to the Eritrean and asked: what about your country; do you have a story to share?
You will not believe what I will tell you began the Eritrean with evident enthusiasm to show off the marvels of medical technology in his country. A child was born without a head. Our doctors were puzzled as to what to do about him. One ingenious doctor finally suggested that a piece of Akkat” should be transplanted in place of the missing head. Miraculously the trick worked and the boy survived. He grew up and went to school like all children. And how is he doing now? Is he still alive? asked the startled listeners. He is well and sound. He is actually doing so well that he has become President of our nation, replied the Eritrean with a sheepish smile. [By the way, the last one is believed to have been hatched by high school students during last years summer campaign].

And how can I forget what has become a masterpiece of all contemporary political satire in Eritrea – the unenviable task, assigned to Eritrean families, of incessantly manufacturing new children for the ever-hungry Sawa! But ‘Nehmya’ has said it all, and I can only refer you to his brilliantly hilarious cartoons.

The absurdity of Government officials as they give confused and sometimes laughable statements to the media or in meetings, presents a rich source of political humor. Consider for example when the Minister of Education, Osman Saleh, called on foreign nationals to send their children to be schooled in Sawa, or Weddi Kasas lecture to Government employees as he compared patriotism in Eritrea to that in the United States. “ንሕና’ኮ ብልጫታት ኣለና። ኣመሪካውያን ካብ ፈቀዶ ዓለም ዝተኣኻኸቡ እዮም፡ ንሕና ኤርትራውያን ግን ምስ መሬትና ዘለና ምትእስሳር ካብ ጥንቲ ዝጸነሐ ስለ ዝኾነ: ሃገራውነትና ፍሉይ'ዩ።” In a seminar to party members, Zemehret classified most of the external world into two categories: those who envy us (ቀናኣት), and those who wish to control us! Such entertaining statements are abundant thanks to our politicians, which greatly facilitates the job of satirists.

Recently, a fresh impetus has been added to the Eritrean satirical scene from a source no other than Geometra Issayas. Yes, this is a title that Il Presidente has acquired lately by virtue of his well-publicized escapades in Massawa. A hat-clad Issayas, giving orders for demolishing houses, is by now a well-recognized fixture in the Massawa landscape. Not only that. The man is an authority in everything from road construction to horticulture, and from tourism to football. He is constantly seen dispensing his expert advice all over the place. An amiche friend of mine told me it reminds him of Mengstu’s last days, when things got mixed up in his head and started roaming the country in a helicopter, personally administering agricultural policy. He would land at some expansive plain and instruct his entourage: ከዚህ ወደዛ ማዶ ጣፍ ዝሩት፤ ከዛ ወደ ሰሜን ያለው ደሞ ስንዴ (plant teff from here all the way to the horizon, and from there northwards, cultivate wheat), and would quickly board his chopper heading for another unfortunate part of the country.

Not surprisingly, the most popular PFDJ slogan has received its fair share of sarcasm. The Hade hzbi, hade lbbi! (one people, one heart!) motto has now various extensions, one of which is: Hade hzbi, Hade lbbi, Hanti gazetta!, (one people, one heart, one newspaper!) in reference to the boringly desolate media scene, with the one and only newspaper reporting seminars, announcements of court cases and obituaries. Why would we need more than one paper anyway? Aren’t we one hzbi?

And no one has articulated the resentment that Eritreans feel for the PFDJ better than wed Jabr[1] who, as he roamed the streets of Barentu, used to exclaim: adig motu eb mendef, wo addam motu eb hgdef (donkeys die of food poisoning and people die because of PFDJ).

Remember the clenched fist, pointed skyward, which used to appear in the posters and pamphlets of the liberation struggle era? This fist has recently taken on monumental dimensions. In one recent poster, it is portrayed as a huge monster cracking through the ground – soviet-art style. Now there is a massive sculpture too, which Zemehret and his studious disciples always make sure that, every time there is a festival or an official celebration, it is dutifully placed in the most well-frequented of public places. Imagine a monstrous, clenched fist, complete with bloated veins, towering over your head as you take your usual stroll in kombushtato. Now, officially, this heroic fist is supposed to symbolize awet nHafash (victory to the masses) or bQltsimna (with our own muscle), or something to that effect. To the ordinary Eritrean, however, it’s just another tasteless and arrogant symbol of the PFDJ. Actually, folks give it their own sarcastic interpretations. This is one of them: አዚኣ አንታይ ምዃና ትፈልጡ ዲኹም? (Do you know what this symbolizes?) asks the now-famous line: ትኾርምየኒ ከየጣይሰኩም! ማለ (you'll never be demobilized! Not under my watch!).

While we are on it, the long-awaited and elusive miTiyas (demobilization) has naturally inspired many cracks. ምጥያስን መንግስተ ሰማያትን ሚዕናሎም እምበር ርእይናዮም አይንፈልጥን (demobilization, like heaven, is only heard of, not seen), has now become a household maxim.

If demobilization was the ultimate illusion, social security has been a straight taboo for the last 12 years. By now, the fact that Eritrea is probably the only country in the entire planet without a system of social security is common knowledge. The subject has been mysteriously ignored by this government to the dismay of all salaried Eritreans both aged and young. Of late, the government started talking about studies (mexnaeti) that are underway to establish a pension scheme for public employees. “Aha, now that they are approaching retirement age, it suddenly dawned on them that there is such a thing as pension!” joked a friend of mine, when he was told about this.

* * *
Another tool Eritreans are using to release some of their frustrations is graffiti. Wall writings appear from time to time in different parts of Asmara, but are instantly removed by the police. An inscription in big letters with the words ይአኽለካ ውረድ! (y'aKleka wred! Enough! Step down!) and አይመረጽናካን! (aymerexnakan! we never voted for you!) was in sight long enough to be read by thousands of Settanta Otto residents before being whitewashed by the Security. Since then (and of course the bombing incidents against PFDJ premises), night patrols have been increased to cover virtually every street corner in the city.

Folks, however, still find avenues for writing their inspired captions. One handy venue is in the bathrooms of cafes and bars. A few months ago, I stumbled across one of them. It read like this: ኣንቱም መንግስትና ትብሉ ዘለኹም፡ ንዓና በሊዑ ምስ ወደአ፡ ናባኹም ስለዝኾነ፡ ኣይትዓሽዉ!  (Those of you foolishly cheering  "our government", don't forget that once they are done devouring us, they will turn on you). From there on, I made it a habit to look for new inscriptions hidden in unexpected places, and I found lots of them. Here is a sampling:

    ዋርሳይ ዋርሳይ አይትበሉና፡ ጥራይ አጣይሱና (Don’t call us Warsai, just give us our release papers)
    ምዓስ ኣዩ እቲ ሩፍታ?!  (when will we find peace at last?)
    ስቃይ ይደምደም! (Let suffering end!)
    ጸማም መንግስቲ! (Deaf government)
    ህግደፍ = ኢሰፓ (PFDJ = EWP, the latter being the ruling party of the Ethiopian Derg);

My best moments (which I used to call my little window of free speech), were those rare occasions when I took a ride in the same bus as a very exceptional old man, I will refer to here as Abboy Hdru. The late hour bus journeys bound for the various outlying neighborhoods of Asmara are, indeed, fun to be on board. These are buses full of working men, who, after a long, exhausting day, would make the journey home in an entertainingly sarcastic ambiance. A vaguely flirtatious banter is going on between a group of boisterous men on one side and the ticket lady, cheered by two women passengers, on the other. The theme is the changing gender relations. ኣንታ ናይ ለምዘበን ሰብኡትሲ፡ ኣውደኣመት ምድሪ ዋላ ደርሆ’ኳ ሒዝኩም ከይተኣትዉሲ: ጥራሕ ኢድኩም?! ኣኽእሎ ጥራይ ይሃበን ኣንስትኹም!  teases the conductor in response to a verbal punch hurled by one of her adversaries.  ወይ ዘረባ! replies the man: ደርሆ ሎሚ ትልከፍ እንተ ኾይና፡ እስኪ ባዕልኺ ፈትንያ፡፡

Obviously, some of these men had made a quick stop at one of the local liquor houses before taking the last available bus, which adds to the hilarity (and, of course, boldness) of their banter. Abboy Hdru was one of those. He looked in his late sixties/early seventies, a man burning with anger, yet hilariously witty. I gleaned from his various monologues that he had lost a son to the liberation struggle and had at the time several children in the front, some of whom he had not heard from.

ፍትሒ ዘይፈልጡ፡ ኣራዊት!  (They never understand justice. Wild beasts!) he would burst out. Now all passengers listen attentively, and despite the guarded, silent postures, cultivated by long years of state-administered terror, you can see a glow of approval in the eyes of everybody. It is as if Abboy Hdru is speaking for everyone; as if, in his rant, all the passengers have found their lost voice.
ሎምስ፡ ካብኦም ዝገድድ ጨካን ኣረሜን ረኺብዎም፡፡ ኣድግስ ካብ ምሟቱ ምጉታቱ! he would exclaim.

ትማሊ ኣብ ዝተኻየደ ሰሚናር፡ ህዝቢ ንኡስ ዞባ ሓመልማሎ ... starts the news presenter of dmxi Haffash (the omnipresent, mandatory entertainment on all buses), when Abboy Hdru quickly butts in: ሓሰውቲ! … መታለልቲ!  

The last time I saw Abboy Hdru was about a year ago. I never saw him since, and the 9:30 journey to Sembel has never been the same! I don’t know what happened to Abboy Hdru. Did the dawn visitors finally caught up with him, or did he fall under the burden of his own bitter sorrow? .. .. Abboy Hdru, Where are you?

[1] Our tyrant is fond of reminding us time and again that ours is a long journey full of sacrifices; we maybe proceeding at a pace akin to that of a tortoise, but our eventual glory is certain! (The tortoise is now securely placed in the pantheon of PFDJ mythical beings).

Friday, April 7, 2017

‘When they brought us here, my son was 9 years old,’ said the middle-aged man in a distinct Barka accent. ‘Now, he is 18.’ The fellow inmate listening didn’t know what to say. He simply stared at the ground for a long time. He then slowly shifted his eyes to a thin, lanky young man leaning against the wall in a corner of the crowded courtyard. ‘He missed his mother a lot in the beginning,’ continued the man from Barka. ‘He missed his animals — the goats, his camel’s calf; he was almost inconsolable. But, with time, he realized neither tears nor protests could bring him back those things; and day by day, he grew more silent and withdrawn.’ …

This conversation took place in Karsheli* prison in Asmara during the weekly interlude in which inmates are briefly allowed out of their cells. The time was around late 2002 or early 2003. The person who related this story reckoned that the man from Barka and his son were brought to the prison approximately in 1993 or 1994. But, what was the crime for which these two had already, thus far, each paid 9 years of their lives? Nobody could tell. All our man knew was that one morning, as he tended with his 9-year-old son a small herd of camels and goats outside his village, he was apprehended by a group of armed soldiers, put on a car and brought to this place (Karsheli). He didn’t even know where he was being held until several months later when other inmates started talking to him. Since the day he was brought to Karshelli nobody explained to him why he was there. So, 9 years on, he was still as ignorant about the reason for his incarceration or the possibility of his release as he was the day of his arrest.

The first time I heard about the ‘child prisoner’ in Karsheli and his father was back in 1999. Since then, more than one person, including one former prisoner that I personally met, had either seen or heard from other former inmates about their story. Some had seen or heard about the father-and-son inmates in the mid 1990s, others in late that decade, and still others as late as 2003. The last time I had knowledge of their presence in Karsheli was 2003. I have no further information if they are still languishing there or what, otherwise, has become of them.

Even though I could not establish the names of either the father or the son, I was told that they come from Barka La'al (upper Barka), not far from Mansura. The exact reason for their arrest and continued imprisonment is not known. However, it is believed that it came as part of a campaign of ‘pacification’ that the PFDJ government had been conducting particularly in Barka in the 1990s. In response to armed opposition activities in the area, the government was pursuing a policy of collective punishment, subjecting the region’s civilian population to harsh punitive measures. For example, villages and communities who happened to be in the vicinity of a landmine explosion were forced to pay the cost of damaged vehicles, and arrests were made among young men. The forced villagization policy, which the government continues to pursue with the pretext of facilitating service provision, is also part of this larger strategy of intimidation. It was not uncommon in those years for the government’s security agents to grab any person from the remote villages of Barka and throw them in prison. As we all know, in later years, this practice only intensified and expanded to all parts of the country. This sad episode, therefore, is not unique. It is one of thousands of tragedies that have befallen innocent Eritreans. What makes it so curious, however, is the story of the little boy who found himself become a man in the dungeons of PFDJ.

What is it like to grow up in prison?  when spending the days and nights within four cold, hard walls becomes the only life a child knows? What is it like for a little boy to be suddenly uprooted from his normal surroundings and be thrust into an unfamiliar, merciless life of physical confinement?  For someone’s innocent childhood to come to such an abrupt and cruel end?  Such captivity seems all the more brutal for a boy who had spent his early childhood in the vast prairies of upper Barka. A kid who was used to roaming those seemingly endless grasslands; meandering in the serene arkokebay-lined riverbanks; watching the night stars in the clear Barkan sky; … a boy whose imagination must have known no limits. What a cynical leap, from the boundless horizons of the Mansura Plain to a nameless cell in Karsheli!

So, here he was, in a situation he hardly understood, reduced to a mere ‘number’, counting the days, … weeks, months, years …

When his childhood buddies were playfully wrestling in the sands of the dry riverbed, here he was in Karsheli, standing in front of a stone-faced jailer; when those old playmates were enjoying their tantalizing porridge, he was being handed a dry piece of bread and some watery lentil dish; as some of those friends attended school, he had to be contented with whatever wisdom his fellow-prisoner father might share with him. Years later, when those old playmates were discovering their budding manhood, the ‘child-prisoner’ was lying in his disintegrating blanket, staring at a blank stone wall; and when they were busy competing for the attentions of their first sweethearts around the village well, he had only his imagination to rely on. … … If only he could briefly escape his confinement and be with those old pals as they gathered around the bonfire and shared stories and quizzes!

The more I think about it, the more unfathomable the life of the child-prisoner seems to me? I can’t help but think about what thoughts might have gone through his mind over the years. How did his thinking develop? How did his personality evolve? And what about changes to his body? How did he handle adolescence? How did he react, as a child prisoner, to the inevitable transformation in his physiology? Was his father giving him the necessary advice as the little boy of yesterday entered manhood in that most unforgiving environment? And what did he and his father talk about all those years?

Today, wherever he might be, that boy would be 24 years old.

[And today, he would be 32. April 2017]

*Karsheli (a corruption of the Italian 'carcere') is a notorious prison in Asmara, Eritrea



Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Master Dodger (or Mr. Issayas' latest escapade in Sawa)

by Ahmed Raji
[Originally published by on October 23, 2003]

The Master Dodger (or Mr. Issayas' latest escapade in Sawa)
By Events Monitor (From Eritrea)
Oct 23, 2003, 3:58pm

It was Saturday, 12 July 2003, graduation day at the University of Asmara. As, in the early hours of the day, students and their families prepared for the special moment, a westbound convoy of land cruisers was scrambling out of town.

One more time, for the 12th year in a row, Mr. Issayas had managed to evade graduation day. (Awate Team, you need to update your statistics :) ). And where did he end up? .. Where else, but in his favorite retreat – Sawa the beloved! Each year, come graduation day, Mr. Issayas must find an excuse to dodge the event. It seems that, this year, the man didn't realize his most dreaded day was approaching and was rather caught off guard. That's why he had to hurriedly head for Sawa, apparently without any clear plans. Well, having ended up there, he had to do something. A meeting was hastily organized and thousands of Sawa conscripts found themselves face to face with an extra-grouchy capo.

He started ranting at the national service corps accusing them of being spoiled brats. In spite of its limited resources and other pressing demands, he said, the government had equipped Sawa with adequate facilities for their comfort; but they keep complaining!

Although the man is known for his acid-tongued talk, the extreme grumpiness (even by his standards) and outburst of foul speech stunned the audience, some of whom started whispering in amazement whether the guy was suffering a nasty hangover following a raucous night at the Officer's Club (or maybe at Ritta's).

Continuing his tirade he told the gathering to cast off any illusions they might have that the United States was built by way of normal or peaceful methods but through 'highly disciplined, regimented and sometimes coercive campaigns'. "ኣመሪካ ብበትሪ እያ ተሰሪሓ። እዚ ኹሉ ኢንዱስትሪን ጽርግያታትን ኮፍ ኢልካ ኣራጢጥካ ወይ ድማ ተማህሊልካ ዝተሃንጸ ኣይኮነን።" [America was built "with the stick". All the roads and industries that America prides itself on today were not achieved by sitting idly, or with prayers]. This was all the more confounding to his audience who couldn't help but wonder whether their esteemed President was entertaining the idea of re-introducing slavery. (Well, he has already done exactly that, some of you might say).

At the end of his speech, he opened the floor for questions, but nobody in the stunned audience ventured to speak. A few moments of uneasy silence followed. Then: "ሕቶ የለን?" … Silence! .. "ሕራይ: ... ክንረአ ኢና።” ["no questions?"... silence. ..."all right, ... we will see about that".], after which Mr. Issayas left the place hurriedly followed by the startled officials of the Camp.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Remembering the voices of freedom

As part of a major crackdown on all voices of dissent, the government of Isaias Afwerki on September 19, 2001 shut down all private newspapers and started arresting journalists. Five of those jailed, Yohannes Fessehaye (Joshua), Yousif Mohammed Ali, Matewos Habte'ab, Saeed Abdulqadir and Medhanie Haile, are reported dead. 12 years on, the whereabouts of the remaining journalists are still unknown.

Following is a piece I wrote in 2006 in remembrance of one of the jailed journalists, my old friend Yousif Mohammed Ali.

Five Years on: Tribute to a Pioneer Journalist  
Sept 22, 2006   (

Eritreans who lived in Port Sudan in the late 1970s and early 80s, especially those who attended Comboni School in that city, would remember Yousif Mohammed Ali. Slightly shy and serious looking, of medium height and fairly black complexion, Yousif was recognizable by his big afro and a distinctive grin. He was also known for his football virtuosity. He was one of a number brilliant footballers in the school including Mohammed Ibrahim, Abraha zaid, the late Ibrahim Idris and Ibrahim Yassin.

Raised in Asmara, Yousif had, as a teenager, joined the tens of thousands of Eritreans who trekked to Sudan. He ended up in Port Sudan where he immediately took to national politics by joining the General Union of Eritrean Students (GUES), affiliated to the ELF. In 1978, he was elected to the leadership of the Port Sudan chapter of GUES of which he became the chairman the following year.

I remember him presiding over our weekly general meetings - his fingers unconsciously working his afro into little knots as he addressed the student body in his calm, rather deliberate, style. Yousif was an embodiment of the dedicated student activist, wholly absorbed in the national cause, that was emblematic of the era. The student movement in those days was a major platform for young Eritreans to embrace the national struggle. Thousands (from both the ELF and EPLF blocs) eventually went to the ‘field’ and many paid the ultimate price.

Naturally the student movement had its share of diverging views and disagreements on political or organizational matters. But, whether one agreed with Yousif’s views and leadership style or had differing views, one fact always remained indisputable: his decency and dedication to the national cause. Yousif was that kind of person who was incapable of staying indifferent when it came to public matters. He always cared.

And it was this predisposition to engaging in public affairs and commitment to the welfare of the Eritrean people that led him, after years of exile, to return to Eritrea in the mid-90s and embrace the then nascent independent press. He joined the editorial board of Tsigenai (which included Gebrehiwet Keleta, another disappeared journalist, and Zemenfes Haile), and soon became its chief editor. I visited him occasionally in his tea-shop, a place he had rented in the Tabba area of Asmara that also doubled as the editorial offices of Tsigenai and a meeting place for many of the young reporters and editors of the fledgling independent press – journalists full of creative energy and optimism but too poorly resourced to afford their own offices.

Given his deep conviction that a free press had a crucial role to play, it didn’t take Yousif long to assert the paper’s independence and test the Regime’s fragile façade of tolerance. When the Government’s censorship bureau (in the Ministry of Information) called to a meeting to give orders requiring advance submission of press-ready manuscripts for approval, Yousif was one of those who voiced their strong objection. He emphasized the concept of responsibility on the part the journalist as opposed to censorship by a higher authority. This is a translation (courtesy Awate Team) of a statement in one of Tsigenai’s editorials that captures the principled stand of its editors:

“The private press is governed by the press law and is, thus, operating legally. The government has responsibility for their existence. In addition, they have expectations of the government. To ensure that they fulfill their national responsibility, not only should the government co-operate with them, it should defend them as well. Eying them with suspicion because they are critical of the government not only is counterproductive but is the equivalent of the government working against the Press Law it passed.”

Tsigenai’s major journalistic breakthrough, a significant milestone in the brief history of the independent press of 1998-2001, came when it published the first interview with one of the leaders of the reform movement, the G-15. The interview with Mahmoud Sherifo opened the doors of the private media to the reformers and gave them a much-needed outlet to address the Eritrean public. More interviews followed: Mesfin Hagos, Hamid Himid, Petros Solomon ...

And ..., well, the rest is history.

Five years on, I pay tribute to all the pioneers who gave us a taste of what it is to be free in that luminous, albeit brief, spring of Eritrean freedom. I salute the editors, reporters and writers of Mestyat, Keste Debena, Setit, Tsigenai, Admas, Meqalh, Zemen, and Wintana.

Last month I read the disturbing (though unconfirmed) news of the death of some of the prominent political prisoners, including some members of the G-15 as well as some journalists, among which the name of Yousif was listed.  I don’t rule out the possibility of such gruesome act from a vicious, sadistic and corrupt system. I just hope it is not true.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A nation of perpetual sacrifices

First published November 5, 2005 on

Clinging to the past, romantically invoking a supposedly perfect bygone era every time one is faced with real-life challenges, is a well-known syndrome. Confronted with complex present-day realities and a less-than-certain future, political parties, religious groups, or individuals occasionally resort to past glory as their hoped-for saviour. The past’s alleged virtues are quixotically appealed to as the panacea for today’s ills.

Our past can no doubt provide many useful lessons. It can be a source of inspiration and wisdom. However, expecting the ‘past’ to be our guiding light and cure-all answer is a malady. It is a malady symptomatic of ailing, hopelessly out of date minds and institutions.

The fact that the terminally archaic PFDJ has caught the disease, therefore, does not come as a surprise. It has been some years now since the onset of the illness that continues to afflict PFDJ’s crumbling body and haunt its troubled soul. In the state of delirium triggered by this deadly disorder, all contemporary challenges are conveniently explained away as consequences of ‘our deviation from the values of old-day Shaebia. Our economic woes are a direct result of our compromise on the principle of self-reliance (or the Spartan version of self-reliance, anyway) and allowing private businesses even the narrowest of margins in the economy; none of the political and diplomatic flops of recent years would have been possible had we not trusted the international community; our military failures are caused by the erosion of discipline and the spirit of selflessness among the young. If only we could stick to the puritan values of Sahel! If only we could reincarnate the discipline, the spirit of sacrifice, the total commitment! If only the good old days would return!

The deeper the PFDJ regime sunk into the abyss of its own failure and irrelevance, the more frantic it has become in its attempt to latch on to the glory of the past. That’s how we came to witness, at the age of globalisation, these hysterical attempts to breathe life into such outdated ideas as a ‘cadre school’ for political indoctrination. That is why people like Ahferom Tewelde are burdened with the unenviable task of lecturing bored young audiences about the heroic exploits of life in Mieda. In the same vein come those most bizarre Independence-day shows and parades put up by Ibrahim Akla, Solomon Drar and their friends in Bahlawi Gudayat – full of dancing tortoises, wasps, bees and giant ants (the good guys), and weeping lizards and hyenas, all embellished with North Korean antics.

Kbrtatna yteAkeb’ (let’s preserve our values) proclaims the new slogan - masking a deep yearning for regressing to the past.

In the realm of religion, the belief in the absolute and inflexible interpretation of scripture, in the categorical applicability of every detail of ancient religious law to all times and circumstances, the conviction that one ought to live one’s life strictly according to how one’s religious forefathers lived their lives, is called fundamentalism. Fundamentalism may be quite harmless as long as it is practiced in the confines of the personal life of its adherents. Trying to impose those strict conventions on society at large is the problem.

At a certain metaphysical level, PFDJ’s diehard, backward-looking dogma is not unlike the above-described attitude of religious fundamentalists. Indeed, this is PFDJ’s own version of political fundamentalism. In its extreme form, this mentality manifests itself in the cynically ruthless resolve by PFDJ leaders to reduce Eritrea to a nation of perpetual sacrificial lambs – that each generation should be prepared to sacrifice itself. Indeed, this dogma has become a convenient pretext for justifying the government’s failure to fulfill many a legitimate demand by the population. Today, if you voice even the faintest complaint about the current shortages of basic consumer goods, you can be certain of being silenced with a barrage of admonishments with references to how our gallant fighters endured difficult times by sharing a cup of water among them. As if our gallant fighters did not endure what they endured so that future generations would not have to go through the same suffering! As if the whole Eritrean history is reduced to a series of endless sacrifices; each generation determined to outdo its predecessor in the art of sacrifice and enduring the worst; a vicious circle of pointless, surreal episodes recurring over and over. (And there is a nonstop stream of songs too celebrating this miserable state of existence that Eritreans are supposed to embrace as their own predestined fate. ‘Gidekha arkibu’ – your time has come - shrieks a singer, sadistically heralding it is ‘payback time’ for the new generation. Get ready for the sacrificial altar. The monster in the lake is demanding fresh young blood!)

The decision to revive the ‘cadre school’ came a couple of years ago amid this retrospective frenzy. The two first sessions of political indoctrination took place in 2004 in Sawa. Nomination to participate in one of these ‘political education’ classes sends mixed signals. Whereas, officially, it is supposed to signify some form of privilege, the real (unspoken) message implies ‘political re-education’ or ‘Tehadso’, the need to firm-up the candidate’s shaky loyalty to the PFDJ.

The syllabus is, by now, a well-known routine. Zemehret Yohannes sets the tone and provides the bulk of ‘theory’ and ‘analysis’: how the EPLF successfully, against all odds, fought ‘internal and external adversaries’, how it dealt with ‘reactionary’ and ‘anarchist’ forces, and so forth. He then uses this wonderfully constructed ‘analytic framework’ to examine current affairs: If only we could muster the patience to carefully scrutinize our present-day challenges in light of our history, then everything should be easily understandable. All pieces of the puzzle would beautifully and neatly fall in place. If only we possess the wisdom to put our trust in our seasoned leadership, it will, as it did in the past, steer us through current troubles to safety and deliver the promised economic prosperity.

Other presenters show up, each tediously reciting familiar discourses on ‘our internal unity’, foreign policy (as if there is one!), our military strategy (here, Sebhat Ephrem gives his favorite sermon of “David vs Goliath”); and, finally, it is time for Hagos Kisha to shine enumerating the economic miracles of yesteryear (before our march was maliciously interrupted by Weyane).

The discussion then touches on issues of the free press and how the good intentions of the government were abused by irresponsible journalists. This topic is particularly harped on as irrefutable evidence of the government’s wisdom in pursuing a ‘slow and cautious approach’ to nation building. Here several hands would rise in the audience, in an apparently staged performance, to question the very tents of a pluralistic political system. “Nmkhuanu, ezi zeben amSe’o flsfnnatat nai beHaqi neAna yTeqmena dyu?” [Do we really need these fashionable philosophies?], snaps one of the actor-participants, to be promptly echoed from the other corner: “kdmi Hji ze’ewetena tewefainetn, sraHn, wennani nSur ra’ey zkhone mkur meriHnetnan yu. Hji wn ezi Trai yu k’Ewitena zkh’el.” [The secret of our success, in the past, was our dedication, our hard work and our experienced, visionary leadership. This is what we need now more than ever.]  And the issue would be conveniently put to rest after taking due note of the ‘resounding wish of the participants’ (read Eritrean people) not to entertain any recourse to multi-party politics or any of the ‘untimely’ and ‘disruptive’ luxuries such as press freedom.

The last day of lecturing is always reserved for Issayas. Participants are invariably struck by his stern, unsmiling face and his grumpy, irritable mood, as if he had a quarrel with every single person in the audience., which selected Issayas as its December choice, uses charisma, danger, oppression, longevity, economics, notoriety, extremism, progressiveness to make its assessment.  Perhaps it should create a scale for addiction to long speeches, an affliction that Ceausescu, Menghistu and current record holder, Castro, also suffered from.

This time, in the Nakfa episode that is, Issayas told his audience “I don’t want to make lengthy speeches”, but, all the same, kept rambling on for over two hours.  This is another evidence of his improving score in the scale for Dictators with Extraordinary Ability of Making Long Speeches. Usually, the man is not lost for words, but according to participants this was one of the most bizarre speeches they saw Issayas give. The best part was his car analogy in describing the EPLF. Shaebia, he said was like a good old car – reliable, strong, durable. It may need some oiling, changing of a nut here and a bolt there; it may get a dead battery and need a little pushing from time to time.  But,” he declared, “it will never be replaced”. “WE WILL NEVER BUY A NEW CAR. As far as I am concerned, Shaebia is irreplaceable.” He concluded by reiterating a slogan that’s much in fashion these days: “Tmali Shaebia, lomi Shaebia, tsibah Shaebia!" [Shaebia yesterday, shaebia today, shaebia tomorrow]. Later, one participant joked there was no need for Issayas to interrupt his busy schedule and come all the way to Nakfa to deliver his famous line. He could have instead sent Khedija Ademmai to entertain the gathering with her hit number: malë Shaebia, wo yom Shaebia, wefejir Shaebia.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Two Nights in Adi Abeito
(an eye witness report)

Originally published Jun 9, 2003 on
On the evening of July 19, 2002, at about 8:30 pm, I was stopped on the way home and asked to show my menqesaqesi, or movement permit[1]. I showed a card that had been issued to me earlier, commonly known as shidda [so named for the watermark on the ID, a plastic sandal, shidda]. “Shidda is no longer valid; come with me, shouted the officer who stopped me, grabbing the card and pushing me to the sidewall. He then took me to another soldier - apparently lower in rank - and ordered him to escort me to the nearest local administration office (memHdar, aka kebele) used as one of dozens of primary gathering points all around Asmara at the peak of last summer's notorious round-ups.

The soldier, who was at least 15 years my junior, was evidently uneasy about the task he had just been given. This was clear from his unusual politeness and the fact that he avoided eye contact with me in the few minutes of our company en route to the kebele office. I casually asked him why they were stopping people holding valid IDs - to which he answered in a Saho-flavoured Tigrigna: “entai feliTna ilkanna, kullu me’alti Haddish memrHi yom zewtsuu. [How should we know? Every day, they come up with a new directive.]

This was followed by a brief silence that seemed like eternity. A moment so brief, yet so powerful in its expression of the tragedy of the Eritrean youth in these sad times; the tragedy of the youth trapped in a cruel system that forces them to humiliate their elder brothers, sisters and mothers – an abusive military regime in which their own survival depends on acting tough.

At the kebele (which was a few blocks from the Kagnew intersection where I was stopped), we were lined up, our papers taken and, when the officers deemed a truckload was ready, we were immediately whisked off to Adi Abeito, in the outskirts of Asmara.

Upon arrival at our destination, the giant gates of a gloomy, high-walled building opened and our truck jerked its way into the dark compound much like a hapless marine creature swallowed by a whale. As the doors slammed with a big bang behind us, I had a chilling sense of helplessness (a feeling akin to that recurring dream many of us have in which one tries to run from some kind of an approaching menace but our legs fail us).

As soon as we got off the truck, soldiers started herding us into one of several chambers, apparently built as warehouses, shouting at us and beating us indiscriminately with sticks. In a few moments we were all crammed into the big room and the heavy doors again were securely locked, leaving us in complete darkness.

The first distinct sensation that welcomed me into the room was the smell of urine. As my eyes gradually adapted to the darkness, I started discerning some of the features of the place. I soon realized that a pond had formed in an area of the floor close to the door, and it was nothing else but urine! Since, as a detainee, one is not allowed to go out to cater for the most basic of human needs (save for one brief outing at dawn), the only choice one is left with is simply releasing the contents of ones bladder on the floor! (There was no use attempting the sliced metal barrel a common feature in Eritrean jails - for it was already overflowing).

That night, truckload upon truckload kept coming and unloading their human cargo every half an hour or so. At about 1 a.m., the room was so packed with people those arriving in the latter batches had no place to stretch their legs let alone lie down. They had to spend the night and part of the next day standing.

How that night was survived is a chronicle of the human suffering that this wretched country is going through. Among the 700 or so souls packed in that room, there were those who kept coughing all the time (spending a few nights in that place, lying on a bare floor without proper clothing or blankets, is a sure way of catching the most horrible of ailments); those who were asthmatic and seemed on the verge of collapse; a man who was in great agony suffering under the pain of his kidney condition; one epileptic who had a sudden attack, and yes, a mentally ill young man who spent the whole night talking to himself. A whole panorama of human anguish!

When some inmates tried to plead with the guards outside to allow the person with the kidney problem to see a doctor, they received only threats that they would be severely punished if they didnt stop those pleas (“helicopter[2] ktessera ikhin!”). Several others never stopped cursing the perpetrators of this misery. Most of all, I cant put out of my mind the pale, exhausted face of a frail young man, clearly asthmatic, who kept murmuring between bouts of violent coughing aaH tetsawitomlna! [they pulled a fast one on us!] I couldnt help but think all night about what makes a government do all this to its own people; to lash out with such vengeful aggression, with such brutality, against the very ordinary citizens whose only crime was to submit to every demand it had been making! It was beyond any comprehension!

There were also those who took the lighter side of things and tried to entertain themselves and others by telling jokes about their own misery: Sima ske, overtime kihasbulna dyom? Waa’ keidekkesnako ina hadirna! [hey, will they pay us overtime for this? We didn't sleep all night!]

When dawn approached, writings etched or charcoal-scribbled on the walls, probably by former inmates, begun revealing themselves. kullu neger mejemmerta allewo, kullu kha meweddata allewo [everything has a beginning; everything has an end] read one graffiti. Esr bet yejegnoch sefer new [jail is the dwelling of the brave] read another apparently by an Eritrean amiche whose dreams of homecoming had turned sour.

The next day, I came to realize that there were people who had spent four or five nights in that place and many of them had started developing all kinds of conditions severe cold, back pain, joint and muscle aches, stomach problems.  Some had simply collapsed under the impact of the harsh conditions, starvation and stress, hopelessly lying on the bare floor as if waiting for the inevitable. (The only daily ration was one piece of bread, a cup of water, and sometimes a cup of tea at around five in the afternoon). That day I could also see the broad spectrum of age groups that my fellow inmates represented ranging from mere teenagers to middle aged men.

At dawn, we were escorted, one large group at a time, to the nearby field that served as an open air toilet. This business, which had to be attended to under the watchful eyes of the armed guards forming a tight cordon around us, and which began and ended on a signal from one of the guards, is one of the most demeaning experiences a detainee has to go through.

Around 9:00 a.m. that morning the big compound started humming with activity as relatives and employers poured into Adi Abeito. There was a great hustle and bustle as mothers, carrying their childrens school or medical certificates, pleaded with the commanding officers, and factory owners and managers, directors of ministries and other employers rushed in to secure the release of their employees. (Those days, all services in the city, as everywhere in the country, came almost to a standstill, as tens of thousands were rounded up or simply stayed home to avoid the round-ups. The campaign was so sweeping and indiscriminate not even off-duty policemen or government employees with so-called proper documents were spared).

Soon after, the door of our detention chamber was slightly opened and an officer began roll-calling some names. The same routine would be repeated from time to time during the day and each time a dozen or so detainees would be released.  In this way, the day slowly went on as thousands, in our own and the other chambers, desperately tried to draw the attention of an officer that they were either over the age limit (indeed there were hundreds of detainees who looked in their forties), or that they had medical conditions and had been declared unfit for military service, etc. Occasionally, an officer would lose his temper and start lashing out at the crowds. You would see young soldiers beating up men the age of their fathers, vulgar words hurled, and decent human beings exposed to extreme forms of humiliation. This was a spectacle that had been going on for days and was repeated the next day.

I spent another night in the same conditions. I was released on the third day after my employer intervened. Those who were not lucky enough were later sent to Metkel Abeit, in the northern reaches of Gahtelai plains, where they were kept for several weeks in harsh conditions before being transferred again to various incarceration and/or forced labor camps. Several deaths were reported in the first few days of detention in Gahtelai, mainly due to the extreme heat, exhaustion and lack of food and water.

[1] I have always been troubled, indeed tormented, by this strange notion that has become a rule in our country: in order to travel from one place to another within your own country, or even to move within the limits of the town in which you live, you need to have a PERMIT! The natural thing one would expect is for a citizen to have unrestricted freedom of movement unless one has committed an offence punishable by law that requires restricting ones mobility. In other words, freedom is the rule and restriction the exception. Whats most disturbing is that a whole new generation is being indoctrinated to the opposite, and the entire society coerced into accepting this inverted logic: Human beings are wicked, unreliable creatures who need to be constantly kept in check. They should be allowed the right of movement only by special permits! What a sickening idea!
[2] The so-called helicopter is a torture method used by PFDJs prison thugs that has left many Eritreans with paralyzed limbs.



Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Another classic case of Orwellian revisionism

First published May 28, 2003 on

In the last few weeks, Mr. Ali Abdu has been very busy performing his favorite role – idolizing Big Brother. This is a function that our ‘Minister of Truth’ has been perfecting for the last few years, reaching his peak performance during the week of Independence celebrations. ‘Qalaat bwerki qelem’ (words of gold) – archival video clips of Issayas speaking on various occasions – is the centerpiece of this parody. No other Eritrean leader, fighter, intellectual or ordinary citizen is ever smart enough to have uttered words of wisdom that qualify for this show of Ali Abdu’s. Here, praising the tegadalai[1] gives way to glamorizing the ‘Great Leader’. In a gradual and barely noticeable way history is being rewritten to fit the new PFDJ-crafted image of it. One can actually see how the threads of a false history are being woven around a single persona. It is a spectacle that’s amazing to watch.

Another favorite scene that is repeatedly shown on Eri-TV is that of Issayas dancing with young performers at Asmara Stadium to the rhythm of shamaye shama by Elsa Kidane and Abdu Yousuf – I gather on the occasion of the 1998 Independence celebrations. Now what really struck me this time was the fresh editing that has recently been done on this clip. At the end of the original video, as Issayas and his bodyguards return to the podium, while the music is doing the customary d’rrb beat, there are images of other dignitaries, including some that are now behind bars. Particularly notable was the scene of Haile Durrue playfully moving his shoulders and clapping to the tune. This clip was frequently being shown on Eritrean TV even after the jailing of the G-11[2], surely an irritating reminder of those comrades-in-arms of DIA[3] now in jail.

But not anymore! … The record has now been set straight – and this historical mistake is rectified! In the ‘corrected’ video clip the picture briefly fades into total darkness, then cuts back to the same dancing ‘Wedi Afom’[4]. In a skillful application of the surgical approach to history certain unwanted episodes have been expertly sliced out. A few problematic personalities wiped off the archives. There were no Sherifos or Durrue’s in the 1998 celebrations. In fact, those scenes are only a figment of the imagination of a few feeble souls (sympathizers of the ‘defeatists’!) whose patriotic credentials are questionable, or those who are not sophisticated enough to understand the dialectics of history. You said Petros Solomon? We never heard of him. Kekia who? We don’t know anybody by that name! ... [Pause] ... These people never existed, stupid!

[1] Freedom fighter
[2] The 11 senior government/PFDJ leaders jailed by Issayas (part of the group of 15, or G-15, that spearheaded the 2001 reform movement)
[3] DIA - Dictator Issayas Afwerki
[4] Issayas Afwerki