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“It Is Better To Die A Thousand Times, Than Live Without Dignity….”

The young defendant was barely 20 years old. He is accused of killing a fellow friend and a neighborhood buddy for a mere five dollars. Five dollars? It might seem an outright cruelty and even barbarity, to take the life of a person for such trivial matter. But wait, there is a lot for the story and stay tight before you give your full verdict on the matter.

Human beings all over the world, aspire to live a life of honor, respect, principles and above all dignity. People, from the prisoner on death row, to the simple fruit seller lady in the villages want to live and die with their reputations and dignity intact, not only for themselves, but for their children and their children’s, children. The long and quite complicated story of mankind is full of fights, immense sacrifices, unbelievable amount of courage and dedications in  the face of colossal adversaries and danger to life, just to maintain pride, self respect and above all  dignity. The word dignity has a special meaning and value in many languages and cultures. The closest word in Tigrinya, Kibri, used to have a powerful meaning and resonance, not quite a long ago. Tens of thousands of Eritreans of all ethnic groups and background were ready to pay anything, including their dear life, not for the sake of it or because they were violent people or were addicted to mayhem, but for their long denied rights, honor, stateliness and above all national dignity( Hagerawi Kibri). A nation, people and even a person without dignity, is not that much better than a goat in the field or cows in the slaughterhouse. The exact opposite of dignity, dishonor  wurdet in Tigrinya, used to be a  much more hated word quite a while ago. Not anymore. More on that later on.

One of my favorite journalist  and  a good friend in the short and brutally quashed free press era in Eritrea was Mister Seyoum Tsehaye (Seaalay–photographer). A veteran EPLF fighter and a seasoned photographer and media personality in Eritrea, Seyoum was, one of the much loved and respected journalists in Eritrea. I don’t want to go into detail about the struggles and achievements of brother Seyoum Tsehaye at this time. Many writers including this one, have written a lot about Seyoum’s life and sacrifice in many occasions and different websites and venues. I brought up Seyoum, because it reminds me of one of his favorite saying and maxims. Seyoum wedi Asmara, used to say that he and many others joined the liberation struggle not because they have nowhere else to go or because they were destitute or in some kind of desperation. On the contrary, Seyoum Teshaye was from a rich affluent and well known families in Asmara. He was well to do financially even in the early seventies. Even now, you will find very few French speaking and French educated Eritreans. Seyoum was a French language teacher in the seventies! But he left it all and went to the field and unknown journey of suffering, sacrifice and even death. Why? According to Seyoum “Nkhbrinan kibri hagernan ilna imber zseanayo ko yelen”. Roughly translated- We did all these for the sake of ours and our  nation’s dignity. Other than that, there was nothing we lacked. Seyoum used to say also, that the EPLF cadres and the EPLF core principle was to fight till death for your rights that was taken by force and conspiratorially by different colonizers. In the same token, that is what we are doing now, that is, fighting for rights and dignity ,taken away by the morphed PFDJ, the new colonizers or Tigrinya speaking conquistadores. Seyoum Tsehaye, was one of the few surviving dignified, honorable  men of principles Eritreans I happen to know.

Many of us watch the unforgettable events unfolding in the North African nation of Tunisia. Millions of people rose up against a tyrannical regime in a sudden outburst of anger, seething rage, desperation and living without dignity. As one of the reporters told the BBC news service, “We are fed up of being fed up all the time……” These young Tunisians rose up, not because their nation and government was one of the worst or living conditions were awful. Tunisia is way rich and living standard is much better than many African or  third world countries. Honestly, the former regime of President Zin abedine Ben Ali, was not a tyrant  in the same category as  the Mugabes and the Issias Afewerkis of the world. By all standards and measures, it was a mild and not so vicious kind of dictatorship. For people like myself and millions of my fellow Eritreans, to say the regime of Ben Ali was tyrannical is laughable to say the least. As the Tigrinya proverb put it correctly, nitemen zeyreaayes bilihtsi tedahle….. But tyranny is tyranny, whether you call it soft, mild or benevolent, when compared with others, of course. It has to be remembered also that only Eritreans are capable of tolerating the enormous abuse and gigantic violations of rights that takes place in Eritrea at this time. It is a sad but true irony of our situation. No other race, tribe, people, ethnic or religious groups will endure such disgusting abuse for so long like the Eritreans of this very  21st century. From the simple Bedouin in the desert, to the urban intelligentsias of the third world, in accepting fascism meekly and even loving it, we are a unique people indeed. The slogan Fluy hizbi is not far from the reality. 

The urbane and relatively speaking well to do Tunisians, were not ready to take more suffering and dishonor from the seemingly “gentle” dictatorship of their regime. There are people, who can’t tolerate even the simplest form of violations or infractions of rights. Tunisians, it seems, are one of those kind of people. As I tried to state or explain it plainly, what takes place in Tunisia all these years and what they call a  dictatorship, is inconsequential when compared with what is going on in my land and many other different unfortunate peoples and societies all over the world. The maligned and the  hated former Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, is a monk in  contrast  to my country’s tormenter and many other bestial wicked leaders all over the globe. But the proud Tunisians were not ready to take more years of injustice or pain, in whatever form or amount. If you relate people to minerals, I will say Tunisians are like water. They boiled at 100 Degree centigrade of heat and pressure. Eritreans it seems are like Iron ore. They need  tens of thousands of degree centigrade heat to boil. But that doesn’t express it well even. At around 50 thousand degree centigrade of  heat and raging fire of repression, Eritreans are not even warmed up yet. So my comparison with Iron ore is not working. Maybe we are made up of some yet to be found mineral in the far away planets. Because with the heat of extremely high temperature and harsh pressure that takes place in our land, any society would have boiled up beyond recognition long time ago!

By all accounts, Mohammed Bouazizi was an assuming quiet young man. He lived all his life in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid with his family. Jobs are scare in Sidi Bouzid and all over Tunisia for that matter. Young men like Bouazizi have few prospects of decent job and livelihood in their land. Most emigrate to Europe. Some stay and struggle just to feed and provide for their family. Young Mohammed Bouazizi was one of the millions of young Tunisians living a dull and boring existence in that fateful morning of Dec 17 2010. Three municipal workers including  a woman inspector tried to confiscate his fruit and vegetable selling stall. Mohammed refused to leave his stall, the only source of livelihood. A fight and a scuffle ensued. Then, one unthinkable thing happened. The woman inspector, an unmarried 45 years old cadre named Faida Hamidy, slapped Mohammed Bouazizi on the face in front of everyone. You see, in the Arab and Muslim world, it is better to kill a person than slap him on the face. A slap on the face for an Arab man is a slap on his dignity, his pride and his very manliness. A person who is slapped on the face will not die from his injuries. Usually it results in red or swollen face and that is it. But the injury and pain it inflicted on the soul is worse than any kind of disease. The shame, guilt, anguish and tumult in one’s soul and dignity will never be the same after one is slapped on the face–and by a woman of all people. Despite all the hoopla and huba huba of feminism and men and women are equal and the same nonsense, a man is still a man and way different in many ways than a woman. The almighty created us in different ways. I am not saying one is good or better, as we all are God’s creation. But we are different. Call me old school, conservative, right wing, macho or whatever name, but that is what I believe and I know my roots and what I am saying. I don’t really like the so-called political correctness craze of our time, another name for a sweet lie. I prefer calling a spade a spade  and telling it as it is.

Our man Bouazizi, was not the same person after the slapping on the face and the beating by the municipal police the following days. He went to the police station to try to get back his fruit scale and some other merchandize. He was trampled and insulted again. He tried in vain to appeal to the governor. He was  left with only two stark choices. Live a life of a dog and life long ridicule and shame or die like man and erase the humiliation and dishonor from your family and history. In short die with your dignity and pride intact or exist and die like a rat. Bouazizi the fruit vendor, preferred the former. According his sister, Samia Bouazizi, her brother couldn’t take it no more. The fact is he was slapped in broad day light while everyone was watching, was too much to bear and endure and he stopped living literally, from that day on according to his sister, some family members and his friends in the town.  In a normal society and under ordinary conditions, you can only push a man so far. He became a totally changed man from then on, beyond recognition, even for his mother. Mohammed Bouazizi’s mother, Mannoubia Bouazizi (Umm Sidi), told reporters, that the usually cheerful and mild tempered Bouazizi, changed into an angry man engulfed with seething rage and hatred for the system. He decided to take action, cleanse his name and reputation and the rest is as they say, history. There are millions of people who prefer to live like a dog, with their pride taken, their manliness mangled, their very essence trashed and their souls knifed almost every day relentlessly. Are you going to call such people men? How can you use the same word, man, to equally denote  such cowards and heroes like Bouazizi? I don’t have enough answers.

The suffering and unbelievably mammoth amount of humiliation and degradation that takes place in Eritrea and to Eritreans has few parallels in history. You have to be the smartest man on the planet to explain the rational behind Eritrean’s continuous and un-abating existence of  such dishonor and disgrace for quite so long. You have to be a psychologist, psychiatrist, sociologist, therapist, historian and a witch, all at once, to explain what is going in the land of the Eritreans. We all don’t have answers or clue on why we let such a disgusting despotism and sheer barbarity to kill us and our nation, albeit slowly and painfully.

In my job as journalist and a curious citizen, I have talked and interviewed countless freedom fighters (tegadeliti), seasoned EPLF fighters, officials in different capacities, military commanders and simple rank and file. I am always impressed by their gallantry and heroism in fighting and the sacrifice they paid in the arduous and long liberation struggle. But the same guys, who were selfless and courageous enough in standing and fighting in the  face of  a hugely armed enemy and imminent mortal danger, were changed into a meek sheep and docile takers of abuse, misuse and violence, in some ways much worse than the previous ones. An entire nation and a whole generation of Eritreans is being turned into zombies and mummies, indifferent, apathetic and unresponsive even uncaring to almost anything in their land. A new generation or breed of selfish, dull, terrified and traumatized Eritreans is coming of age in the otherwise land of numerous patriots and countless acts of selfless bravery and supreme gallantry. The Eritrean landscape that produced the likes of Ibrahim Afa and wedi Flansa, is becoming barren (devoid) of heroes and heroines, that we are witnessing a new kind of people who are trembling with fear even to use their own name and speak what they feel while living in full fledged democracies and thousands of miles away from hell!!

The EPLF fighters whose deeds and valor was being compared with the struggles of the people of Palestine, Vietnam, Algeria or Namibia by many well respected and reputed historians and writers, are now only the shadow of their former selves. The great Russian poet Yevginy Yevtushenko, once asked himself, “How can lions be turned into rabbits?”  He didn’t have the answer, neither do I. Why do we allow ourselves to be in this predicament? Why did people with guns and bullets tolerate being abused and even slapped by a mere man and  a gun toting tegadalay like themselves? How can you stand up like a man and live or face your peers, after some one slapped your face and spit on you? How is it that such kind of abuse is being tolerated for quite so long by people who professed to fight for the liberation of their land? How can you profess to  fight for   emancipation or independence without being free yourself? What amount of cruelty will be sufficient to make you say enough is enough?

I am a simple journalist from a  humble beginning with a little education and life  experience. So, I don’t have the answer. But I keep on asking myself and really tormenting my soul with such questions, endlessly. I struggled to this day, to find an answer and to quench my thirst and to know the  secret, the mystery and the enigma of the Eritrean tragedy, unfolding in front of our eyes. Are Eritreans destined to a life of abuse and ill treatment? Do Eritreans really feel the pain of tyranny and the pang of fascism? Are some Eritrean men and women addicted to being ill-treated and oppressed ceaselessly? Who are we as a people?  Are we, in fact Arabs, Africans, Asians, black, white, Mestizo, Latino or what? With whom do we actually identify and classify? To say the truth, (bzeyqelalem nmbzrab) the Habesha is a really confusing and perplexing  kind of race of people in this God’s green earth.

As I tried to state, there are all kinds of people in this world when it comes to honor, pride, moral principles and dignity. I like the word dignity more than anything else. It expresses fully what I am trying to say and what I candidly feel deep inside me. Anyone can have his dignity. Even a career criminal or a prostitute can have their dignity unbroken. There are dignified prostitutes and villains with full pride and dignity and poise. There are also coward university teachers and highly educated people who are more than willing to lick the boots of tyranny and utter totalitarianism, not only for free but in the  case of some Eritreans, they even pay for it. Yes some (or not some), Eritreans paid to be mistreated, misused  and abused time and time over by a deranged, unstable and heartless atheist blood-sucker and a  nation (generation) killer. They pay in Dollars, Euros, Kronors, Swiss Francs, Riyals and Dinars to sell their souls, God given dignity  and human demeanor to a universally condemned and a  leading torturer and murderer of their own  brothers and sisters. This looks like a chapter out of a horror or a heartbreaking storybook. But it  is a fact and it happens every day. What a shameful existence!

In the real life story of my introductions, I brought up the young chap who was accused of murdering another young man for a mere five dollars. It seems an outright brutality and nastiness to take a life for five dollars. But the defendant, Donte Washington, a 20 year old native of Raleigh, North Carolina, has a reason, a good one according to him, for the seemingly senseless killing. He told the court and the crowd at the courthouse, that the deceased, after taking or borrowing five dollars from him, not only refused to pay  it back, he started cursing and threatening the defendant on several occasions. According to Donte, the dead  young man, started spreading rumors that Donte was a sissy, not man enough, and a cry baby  for  just five dollars. Some people even begun to call Donte Mister 5 dollar. The prosecutor asked the defendant Donte, “….. is this all? Is that why you kill him?” To this, Donte replied: “I  cant take it no more, I am from the hoods and in my hoods (neighborhoods) once you are ridiculed and messed up with, you either have to stand up like a man and  take actions or leave the area all together.” To this, the prosecutor asked Donte, “Why don’t you leave then?” The young defendant Donte Washington replied, “I can’t your honor, I can’t leave my place and runaway just like that, my father taught me to stand up for my rights. It is about dignity and the  principles sir,……hell no, I wont  run……”

 Esteemed readers, I brought this not to justify a murder or killing of a human being in such a vain  and sad way. No, I am not condoning murder and the taking of life in such a  fashion and absurd and ridiculous manner. But I brought up this story, to show even criminals, murderers, assassins, what ever you call them, give a special value and place to their honor and dignity. There are people who prefer to spend a lifetime in jail than live like an alley cat  in the outside. Donte Washington was one of them. The other day, One of the Tunisian hero Mohammed Bouazizi’s friends was taking to a journalist from Aljezeera TV.  To the question from the journalist, “Do you think Bouazizi did the right thing in immolating himself…and taking his life in such a way?” The young Tunisian friend of Mohammed Bouazizi, named Sidiq Ben Maaroufi, replied the following: “It is better to die one thousand times over than to live without dignity……” I have nothing  more to say.

About Milkias Mehreteab Yohannes

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  • Thanks Milkias, Senay and Saleh
    It is a very critical summary of the current situation in Tunisia and the attempt of comparing it with the dictatorship in Eritrea. As far I, a political scientist and active member of the Eritrean Diaspora opposition, am concerned, we have every chance of changing this rotting clique. What really matters is the level of dissatisfaction and a triggering situation that could help ignite the whole uncertainty. Many members of the Diaspora opposition group argue that the government has built a massive military and political apparatus that would protect him. I totally disagree. Believe it or not, the government is the weakest of all dictators and with the constant changing of alliances (to protect his own position) with in the pfdj personnel, it has created a even huge amount of dissatisfaction among its ranks and file. A friend of mine told me that couple of months ago that one of the Ministers was complaining about the current problem of immigration office and he told an officer that “niskum entay gerkum nihna baelina zemsaenayo sebeb eyu ezi- we have brought this situation to our self.

    Despair and advising others to be realistic is rather destructive. I hate to be realistic… those brothers, sisters and fathers of us who left their homes, children, studies and prosperous futures to join the liberation movement were by no means realistic. But they had achieved the unbelievable.

    So, like Saleh, I strongly believe that our time is coming!!!


  • Hey Milkias,
    Well said!!! while reading your letter you made me feel like I am speaking to myself. I have the same queries in my mind … what is really happening to us…. why we are cowards… is this really who we are and we don’t know ? I can’t bear to be this… where are those bed time hero stories we use to hear… sometimes when I see Eritreans in Riyadh embassy… I feel so ashamed of my identity … they couldn’t even fight for a very tiny of their rights… to be humiliated by few disgusting staff’s is really intolerable … no one have the guts to speak … we pay what they have decided for us to pay… very poor we are … sometimes I wished I was someone else… like Bouazizi for me is a hero of the 21st century.
    But, Eritreans’ will remain the same for decades the coward & terrified nation in the world … as long as there are a lot out there defending the regime after all these humiliations !!!!

  • Saleh AA Younis


    Love reading your articles.

    About 15 years ago, I read a letter written by Abdulkader Kebire to a friend who was living in Somalia. The letter symbolized humility and boldness. In the letter, Kebire says that he is volunteering for the task of representing the cause of Eritrean independence to the UN simply because more capable people are not available. Then, to explain why he is doing it, he quotes an Italian proverb “meglio un giorno da leone che 100 da pecora”–better to live as a lion for 1 day than a sheep for 100. (I don’t speak Italian, had to have it translated.) In his book “Aynefelale”, Alemseghed cites the letter as a footnote.

    If I recall correctly, the letter was written a year before he was assassinated. The brave Tunisian you are quoting is expressing the same sentiment. Which is to say: most traits are universal and our time is coming. Don’t despair.


  • Selam Melkias,

    Very well said.

    You have summarized beautifully the sentiments of many Eritreans. The Tunisian event has become a guiding torch and a shining example to those freedom loving citizen across the world.

    But we have to show some cautious in our tone. We have to understand that, no two events are the same. Please imagine this scenario if you may: What do you thing would happen, if the act taken by that brave Tunisian young man took place in Sawa or in any metropolitan Eritrean city? The fact is nothing.

    The reason is, let alone people to revolt encouraged by the selfless act, no one would even hear about it. Let alone people to protest, there wouldn’t even be a mention of it. The reason the Tunisian event took a speedy turn is, not only the public outrage reaches it limit but also other external events. what fueled the event was, the act was caught in an image and what followed after that was also covered by local, national, and international media unfolding live that grabbed the attention of everyone. Tunisian people were lucky to have a government that gives them a little bit of wiggle room to vent their anger and an independent media to operate freely.

    Such event would never take place in Eritrea. Remember the May-habar event? No body even dared to say anything about it. The cruelty of PFDJ government is not a secret to all of us and they preemptively made sure that nothing the likes of Tunisia event would ever take place or get recorded. They closed the only university and dispersed the students all over Eritrea in some remote areas that they control, they turned high-school into a boot-camp, and made every able body made a permanent slave. So in such condition, if anyone get a small wiggle room, his/her first action is not to start an up-rise but to save his/her life. So, pfdj thought of every thing way in advance and acted on it preemptively as a deterrent measure.

    PFDJ cruelty is no stranger to you and it would be unfair of me to tell you about it. PFDJ whole-mart is death, torture, disappearance, jail, slavery, humiliation, ….. This is a government, that depletes families for its own use and jail parents for ransom for children run away from its control. This is a system that jails arbitrarily and makes people disappear and expect you to look the other way and be grateful. So, if such cruelty doesn’t cause a revolt, then what does?

    But let’s assume that a public anger reaches its peak and an uprise takes place in one city or town. Do you think PFDJ thugs would blink their eyes to mow down every one until no one is standing? And good luck such gruesome act to be reported on Eri-TV or Hadas Ertra. Yes, people would hear about it but only through rumors and whispers. An uprise or revolution usually requires two things; people to gather and publicity, which both of them are illegal in Eritrea. Such is an Eritrean life style.

    That is why I said, no two events are the same. We can learn from the Tunisia event and assess our situation but we have to understand that it can not be replicated in Eritrea. Eritrea case is unique and it only requires an Eritrean solution. I don’t know what it is but I have an idea. And it would not be appropriate to say it here. But what I would like to caution in a brotherly advice is, we need to tone down our bravado speeches and we need to apply the golden rule “ do not ask others to do what you can not do yourself”. We need to be realistic.

    I always enjoy reading your articles. Keep up the good fight.