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25 Years of Disappearance, a Tragedy of a Man or a Nation?

 

May 1991 was an extraordinary year for all Eritreans. It was the year in which Asmara was liberated and Mengistu’s army was routed. Eritreans were ecstatic, they saw the fruition of their 30 years of struggle and the fulfillment of their dream. Discussions were abound among Eritreans in diaspora about going back home, rebuilding the country and making Eritrea a model nation, the “Singapore” of Africa. I was on a visit to Saudi Arabia in the year of liberation, I met a couple who were squabbling among themselves. They have been living in Jeddah for thirty years. Both were excited and both were tearfully talking about going back home and rebuilding their lives. The husband wanted to leave right away, he said I am dying to see my country and I want to leave with the first flight available. The wife was equally eager to leave, but she was telling her husband, let us wait for few months until we settle everything here. The passion I felt in their presence as they argued back and forth was electrifying. The referendum of 1993 further added to the excitement. One foreign observer noted that the people of Eritrea have set a democratic precedent at the inception of their nation, no one will be able to divert them away from this path of democracy. Like many others, I was excited as well, but I felt some of the excitements were overblown and the expectations were too high.

The unravelling of the dream

Given the 3 decades long history of struggle, it was clear that Eritrea had surmountable challenges in the future. The early excitement of 1991 didn’t last long. Three years later, things started to change. Stories of heavy-handed measures against opponents and stories of disappearances were emerging. I wasn’t sure what to make out of these stories, I didn’t want to believe them. I said they could be false rumors, may be unintended mistakes, may be challenges of learning that will be remedied soon. But in October 14, 1994 the “may be” became a shocking reality for me. My maternal half brother, Sheikh Mohamed Omar Ismael, was kidnapped from the streets of Asmara. He has been living in diaspora for decades. After independence, he traveled to Asmara to visit his mother. Two weeks after his arrival, he was abducted from the street and completely disappeared. This year marks the 25th anniversary since his disappearance, no one knows if he is still alive or dead. The disappearance of Sheikh Mohammed was difficult to digest, not because he was related to me, but also because it brought back to memory the dark days of Mengistu, which I thought were history. As a youth living in Asmara, I witnessed the atrocities of Mengistu’s terror squad, commonly known as “Afan” –ዓፋኝ-. They mostly drove Volkswagen vans and drove in groups of 3 or more. They abducted people from the streets, schools, cafes and work places. I was realistic of my expectations of the post independence era, I new there will be some challenges, but I never thought that in a country that came after 30 years of struggle, the “Afan” will come back with a different name and Eritreans will be abducted again from the street. I searched for every sensible reason to explain and justify this sad news, but the sad reality was starkly in front of my eyes. As more stories of disappearances kept on becoming public, the sad dark reality became the norm.

Who was Sheik Mohamed Omer Ismael?

Sh. Mohamed Omar was born around 1950 in the valley of “Wasana”, near the town of “Arafale”. He left Eritrea in mid 1960s in pursuit of higher education. After spending some time in Sudan, he arrived in Egypt and was enrolled in the prestigious University of Al-Azhar. He graduated from Al-Azhar with a degree from the Faculty of Law and Shariah. Typical graduates of this faculty work in academia or serve as judges, lawyers, teachers and sometimes Imams. Despite his academic credentials, Sh. Mohamed had a mind set of an activist; he enjoyed working with the people and sharing his knowledge. After graduation, he spent most of his time in Cairo, mentoring, teaching, assisting new comers and helping those in need of help and direction. His friend, Dr. Bayan, an Ethiopian scholar, described him as “the emissary of goodness”. Sh. Mohamed was well recognized within the scholarly community in Egypt. He was friend and student of prominent figures such as Dr. Mohamed El-Bahi, Dr. Anwar Al-Jundi, Al-Baqouri, Al-Ghazali, Al-Sharawi and many others. Sh. Mohamed willingly provided his assistance and readily shared his knowledge. He was a well rounded and well read intellectual. The best gift he offered to his friends was a book. I was beneficiary of the multitude of books he sent to me from Cairo. Through the books he sent me, I was introduced to the writings of Egyptian authors, such as Al-Aqad, Al-Manfaluti, Al-Ghazali, Shaltoot and others. He was a fine writer in Arabic. His letters to me were lengthy and they went beyond personal matters to discuss intellectual and academic issues. Despite many opportunities to settle in one of the oil rich countries, Sh. Mohamed chose to stay in Cairo and live a simple life. He was a devout, soft spoken, polite, humble and considerate person. He passionately worked for the cause he dedicated himself for, serving and mentoring others. The seeds of his work still remains in the memories and minds of the hundreds who were inspired by his example and his good work. I am not privy to Sh. Mohamed’s political activities and associations, but I know he was a genuine Eritrean who deeply cared about his people and his country.

Lingering questions  

The disappearance of Sh. Mohamed and many others like him raises many lingering questions:

  • Why were they kidnapped from the street? Why they were not arrested from their homes with an arrest warrant?
  • Why were they kept in secret prisons? Why not public prisons?
  • Why were they denied visitations from their relatives?
  • Why were they not sent to court and allowed to have a lawyer?
  • If they were true criminals, why are their cases still kept under secrecy?

The way Sh. Mohamed and many other political and intellectual figures disappeared is deeply disturbing. No human, no matter what their crime is, would deserve to be treated in such in-humane and brutal way. If Mengistu Hailemariam, with all the crimes he committed was to be captured in Eritrea, the values Eritreans fought for should compel them to treat him humanely, within the bounds of the rule of law and international human rights conventions. This dark legacy of secret disappearances will remain a dark stain in Eritrea’s post independence era.

Truth and reconciliation

I am not an advocate of Sh. Mohamed nor am I interested in pointing fingers or engaging in partisan politics or seeking revenge. I am simply a concerned Eritrean who saw his dreams of free, just and humane Eritrea vanishing. From the time of my childhood the love of “Huria”– حرية  freedom was drilled in my head. During Mengistu’s terror, an elderly teacher, Ustaz Ahmeddin, said to a group of us, “you are the lucky generation. “Huria” is coming soon, you will live your whole life under “Huria”. There will be no “Afan”, no fear, no prisons, no wars…”. That was the dream of all Eritreans. It is beyond any doubt that a dark cloud is lingering on Eritrea today. No socially conscious Eritrean, no matter what their affiliations are, can justify and tolerate the kidnapping and the disappearances that have been taken place. It is time for all, including the perpetrators of these violations, to take a pause and see the deep hole that our nation has fallen into.

At the risk of sounding naïve, I would propose that our nation takes the South African model of “Truth and Reconciliation” to close this dark chapter once and for all. Similar to the South African experience, this could take the following shape:

  • Appoint a body of respected elders and wise persons to oversee this process.
  • Publicize the fate of all who disappeared and explain what happened to them.
  • Close all secret prisons and free all prisoners of conscience.
  • Allow the surviving victims to publicly share their stories and their painful experiences.
  • Allow perpetrators of these violations a chance to confess and seek forgiveness from the people they victimized.
  • Make a solemn national pledge that kidnapping, secret prisons, torture will not be allowed or tolerated any more.

The world is rapidly changing, the status quo is unsustainable. Rather than waiting for the inevitable change to come explosively, it would be in the interest of all to proactively initiate incremental reforms. A lot of damage has been done, but it is always better to take responsibility for past failures and making a U turn towards the right direction.

As for my brother, his whereabout remains still a secret. Twenty-five years have gone, and I don’t know whether I should make for him the prayer of the deceased or the prayer of the living. In the meantime, until I know his fate, my prayer will be: “O God, if he is still alive give him solace and comfort, but if he is dead, have your mercy and blessings upon him”!

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Note: the Arabic version of this article will be published in one of the Arabic Eritrean websites.

About Ismael Ibraheem Al-Mukhtar

Ismael Al-Mukhtar is a scholar, a mentor, and and Eritrean writer. He lives in Canada

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  • Selamat Ismael Ibrahim Mukhtar,

    Thank you for brining to my attention and making me know the Eritrean Prisoner of Conscience, and your brother, Shiek Mohamed Omer Ismael. The sad tragedy of his kidnapping and disapearance by the dark and blood stained hand of those who hijacked and monopolized power in Eritrea is the fact that Sheikh Mohamed Omer Ismael is a graduate of Al_Azhar and the field of study being law and sharia law. At a time after the regime did their due diligence of Sheikh Mohamed, the regime should have put forth invitations to the law scholar to participate and be part of Eritrea’s Constitution draft committee if not lead it altogether. Here was an asset and a national treasure rather than harnessing and utilizing the power to advance the cause of justice and Huria those who have hijacked Eritrea’s true destination of a just nation did the exact opposite.

    There is evidence of softening attitudes and signs of a more cooperative Eritrean opposition an in some cases an outright submissive “give up resistance” Eritrean from opposition to pro regime these days due to the somewhat solidifying peace deals between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But how can one consider any kind of favorable attitude towards the regime, a regime that has committed such a heinous crime against someone’s brother or sister or father etc… kidnapping the for nearly three decades and a sadist regime that will not admit they have the kidnapped in their posession. In this case your disappeared brother since 1994. I will keep your brother Sheik Mohamed Omer Ismael in my thoughts and prayers along with Fesehaie JOSHUA! Yowhanes, Bitewoded, Seyum Tsehaye, Sheirfo, Aster yohanes, Keren’s Maranat……Sheikh Mohamed Omer Ismael…etc… very long list….

    Before I go maybe you could help me out since my google search was unsuccessful as of now. It is regarding Arafale and Wasana valley. I was born and brought, up until the war Huriet Teseney ’77, in Barka and since I did not recognize the town of Arafale or the valley Wasana I am taking an educated guess for these places to be in Denkel or 2nd choice somewhere between Semhar and Denkel. As of now I don’t know where in Eritrea is Arafale and Wasana Valley and I would like to know, hence the question to you.

    The other thing that confused me was though Mohamed returned to Eritrea to visit “his mother.” I though you would have said Sheikh Mohamed “returned to Eritrea to visit OUR mother.” Maybe not important other than I remain to be confused and also I too have “maternal” brothers,…unless I don’t have a correct understanding of the term “maternal”..

    Finally, You know you are doing right or resisting the regime in the right way when you cause the regime to send you directly and in some cases a public announcement veiled threats. Though it was expected the regime will satisfy its appetite by undergoing a major or minor purge drunk with its recent successes, one can’t help to feel the pain of yet another disappointment of the regime reverting to it’s old tricks of kidnappings and purges and of course staying the course for the true cause of the resistance while taking the appropriate cautionary measures. Some of us still recall those who left Wedi Ali and a handful hanging on their lonesome at forto when they retreated. Retreating has different form in my case.

    However, though I have no plans to go back to Teseney in the vert near future, a closer look at your brother Sheik Mohamed Omer from the story you told, i.e., the data I cab safely guess he was an ELF freedom fighter, Born in 1950, he would have joined ELF circa 1970 unless he was, and it is very likely, through and through a scholar and a gentleman. I must admit here that from foregoing employ and riches in the oil rich state to advocacy and activism in Cairo, it is possible that he may have beeb part of Ikhuann Al Muslimeens which would probably explain that paranoid regime’s brutal and unjust actions against Sheik Mohamed.

    In closing I will answer only one of the “why” questions.

    It is because Sheik Mohamed Omer Ismael is NOT a criminal and did NOT commit a crime against the state and people of Eritrea that the Isaias regime does NOT bring him to a court of law, does NOT admit of his detention and the whereabouts. They kidnapped him from the streets rather than his home to make it easier to deny they have and the rest follows. By 2001 the regime could kidnap you from you home in front of your wife and children and deny you justice and even murder you by execution a lie and say you have hung your self, like the case of Fesehaye Yohanes

    JOSHUA!

    GitSAtSE
    Solomon Haile G.Slasie

  • Brhan

    Salam Alikum Sheikh Ismail ,
    First of all thank you for the article.
    Your brother Mohamed a brother of all justice seeking Eritreans. I believe we have to continue telling about brothers and sisters who have languished in prisons without any trial for the past 28 years.
    One thing that the regime wants us to do is to forget them, but, no, we tell about them to every audience that we encounter.
    The regime’s single clear policy ( all of it policies are ambiguous) is to get rid of intellectuals. It fears them like a mouse fears from a cat. But as history has proved is that intellectualism never dies. To the contrary the more you use violence against it , the more it becomes more powerful. Also history has proved that those dictators who commit
    against humanity will be one day put on trial to be convicted on the crimes that they have
    committed. The ones who want to approve the opposite are the ones who will be also become the victims of the dictator. Our dictator considers them fools. And he is not afraid of fools but intellectuals.
    Personally, I met Sheik Mohamed Omer and the only thing that I can say about him is: a humane person!!
    I also join your prayers…Ameen Ya Rab!!