There are things that we wish we would never know about because knowing can sometimes be the worst enemy of hope. How would a sailor in the middle of the ocean feel if he found out that, that tiny piece of ice heading towards his ship in a head-on collision is actually the tip of an iceberg? That hidden iceberg that most Eritreans had wished never to know about until it dissolves with the end the PFDJ’s rule and fades from our history for good without us having to talk and embarrass one another with, was what the Eritrean Covenant brought to the open. “Haba’e Quslu – Haba’e Fewsu” as our Tigrigna brothers say, however, “Thank You” to all the honorable members of Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar for producing such a well written and well substantiated historic document that will for a long time to come serve as the guiding framework for our national debates.
I do not intend to discuss the Eritrean Covenant directly in this particular article but I would like to make a few comments in passing. I have no doubt that, given the potential risks to “National Unity” inherent in the emerging orientations in Eritrean politics; the model implied by the Eritrean Covenant is arguably the only way out (as was the RabiTa Al Islamiya in saving a “United Nation” in the 1940s). In spite of the Covenant’s unprecedented detail, documentation and articulation of the grievances of Eritrean Muslims under the PFDJ (for which the Mejlis deserves a Gold Medal), however, I am not a big fan of the Muslim-Christian categorization of the conflict. I believe, the most compatible tool to fight a determined “ethnocratic regime” (to borrow the Mejlis’ own words) is through an “ethnocratic alternative” (to rephrase the Tigrigna Vs non-Tigrigna framework). The reason is simple: it is much easier to prove that a certain Land Grabber has trespassed into your property than it is to prove that your uncle was murdered because he was a Muslim. For a living example of how this magic works, read Dr. Berekhet Habteselassie’s latest piece on Awate. Note how the Honourable Professor trashes the Mejlis’ (well founded) claims of religious persecution by arguing that the reason has more to do with competition between Wahabies and Sufis (based on Awate’s report on Gedab News) than with any religious bias in the PFDJ. And then note how the same Professor in the same article admits to committing a “constitutional” mistake by declaring “land belongs to the State” that enabled the Land Grabbers and essentially condemns his own “Ratified Constitution” (Thank You!) becoming the eldest New Born Eritrean (in probation)!
I will come back to a more elaborate discussion of the great Eritrean Covenant some other time. Let us now start this article by acknowledging a gesture from “Gudam Adi Zawl”.
“If only a Tigrigna Pastor would open his mouth to say the truth that he preaches!” has for years been the prayer of every Eritrean Muslim and Lowlander. This time, Eritrea Profile (February 20, 2010) reveals what looks like a fairy tale, “A Small Gesture” that would have emancipated the hundreds of Muslim teachers, clerics, elders and ordinary citizens who were hunted down by the PFDJ’s ethnic Shifta and disappeared into thin air, many of them for building a Mosque and all of them for believing it was OK to be a Muslim or a non-Tigrigna in a country that boasts a rainbow for identity. It unveils a simple trick that could have saved those who were executed by the death squads of the Neo-Nazi regime and dumped into mass graves without a trace. It confirms the belief of thousands of Eritrean Muslims and Lowlanders that someday some Tigrigna somewhere will notice a missing landmark, a closed Mosque, a humiliated neighbour, a fatherless child and a stolen piece of land, or at least a fading mosaic and a broken nation.
If you are one of us: Voila! Your dream has finally come true. God Bless him – Pastor Russom representing Christians (as implied by the tale) and Sheikh Beyan Bin Saied (representing Muslims) play Romeo and Juliet in a dramatic tale that revealed what the writer intended to hide: the sad truth in the Eritrean Covenant. The story begins when (out of the blue) the good Pastor receives a revelation that his village (tiny Zawl) was missing a critical component of its long heritage: a Mosque. “Hallelujah” is all I can say! The tale is a must read (if you are a fan of “Camera Caché”) but the twist of the story lies in the writer’s courage in admitting (in an official PFDJ publication) the unparalleled powers that even a simple Tigrigna Pastor from the tiny village of Zawl posses over an ordinary Eritrean Muslim in playing god with matters of life and death. You will be surprised at how one single trip to a unit commander in the Eritrean army was all it took this particular Aboy Keshi to relieve (from compulsory indefinite military service) not just any Sawa conscript but Sheikh Beyan (according to the tale the son of a notorious Sheikh who was being hunted by Andinet Shiftas); not for any lame personal excuse but to open and preach in a Mosque; and not in the Lowlands where inaugurating a Mosque is not news but in a purely Christian Tewhado community in the Highlands. Isn’t that amazing?!? No wonder Pastor Russom himself wasn’t in the army along with his “beloved” Sheikh Beyan pleading for help to open his Church.
Hold your breath – that is not all! Across the nation and the Diaspora, countless heart wrenching stories are being narrated to almost every conceivable gathering of Eritreans by the most eloquent Griots of the Neo-Nazi establishment in what might be confused for preservation of the oral tradition of the “National Unity” heritage. Fairy tales similar to Eritrea Profile’s “Small Gesture” are being pushed by smooth talking touts stressing that the likes of Sheikh Beyan remain gratefully bowed to pranksters such as Pastor Russom. “Or else,” we are being told “our National Unity is under threat”. Thousands of stinky Land Grabbers and Exclusionists erase our identity and steal the ground from under our feet and with a straight face. “Shut Up!” they tell us “or our National Unity is history”. Like termites they swarm every aspect of state power and every conceivable orifice of national wealth to cleanse our very being from a nation that countless heroes paid dearly so that we may one day call home along with others. “Be patient for pigs to fly” we are told. Contrary to what was alleged to Pastor Russom: “Any evidence?” is the standard question “Or do you not care for National Unity?”
Should we care?!
When we know “National Unity” without limits is the Trojan Horse of thieves, the Rosetta Stone of Exclusionists, the Holy Grail of our own damnation?
Well wishing citizens who are not familiar with the working culture of the Neo-Nazi regime might ask: “What is wrong with preaching National Unity and reminding Eritreans that it is at risk?” I can’t agree more, except for a little monster that few Eritreans seem to pay attention to: the Neo-Nazi Decoding Machine. By the time this seemingly innocent reminders of “The Threat” to national unity reaches Grandma’s kitchen, Cheguardanga’s foxholes in the frontlines, ordinary people in their homes, unsuspecting grassroots in their workplaces, the clueless riffraff in coffee shops it is a whole different story. The naked message (bizey kntit bizey shfan) isn’t delivered by trained cadres familiar with the ethics and public relations need for the non-specific and non-committal “National Unity is under threat” which does not say anything about either the source of the “threat” or about what the audience is being asked to do about the “threat”. Taking the message from “amtelom” (give them the general clues or imply to them) and transforming it into “derguHalom” (tell them the naked truth) is the work of a powerful network of fanatics (the “agar serawit” of the Neo-Nazi machine) entrusted with the task of making “House Calls”. Their job is to give flesh and blood to the skeletal messages received in interviews, seminars, festivals and speeches by visiting officials. When the “intended audience” receives the naked truth, the skeleton message (of “National Unity is under threat”) that had already started to worry all Eritreans grows into a walking and talking entity decoded as the horrific nightmare of “aslam keTfi’una ybgesu alewu” (Muslims are rising to eradicate us).
Traces of this fantastic decoding mechanism were everywhere in the history of the armed struggle. You might not have realized but the footprints of this monster were in every instance that any group of Muslims and Lowlanders had to deal with Tigrigna intellectuals and politicians (from a wedding party to a national conference). Try an experiment (just for fun) to see if what I am saying is true. Print a copy of the Eritrean Covenant and its attachments and check what your best Tigrigna friends have to say about the Truth and see for yourself how few those who honestly share your pain are. In most cases, you will see if this Neo-Nazi Decoder is not behind the funny expressions in their faces and the stutter in their voices. Don’t get me wrong: NOT because your Tigrigna friends are inherently bad people but because few of them realise the extent to which they are being remotely programmed by this hypnotic decoder operated by a gang that hijacked their cultural strings. It was this same decoder that helped galvanize arguably a whole ethnic group (with few exceptions) to rally around the Andinet against their own interests in an otherwise independent nation and to cheer the Shiftas that were murdering and brutalizing their fellow countrymen. It was the exact decoder that was unleashed in the 1970s to mobilize the bulk of the same ethnic group (with some exceptions) into staining their own conscience with an infamous document that any right minded (newri behalay) Tigrigna would feel embarrassed to support under normal conditions. It is this same machine that is at work today. Were you surprised when tens of thousands of them shamelessly took to the streets in Switzerland and the US to cheer the torturers and murderers in Asmara and to save an era that is long gone?
I can see your point: Ethnic Tigrignas did come back in the 1970s and offer tens of thousands of their best men and women to rectify the “Original Sin” committed by their forefathers in the 1940s and 50s. I don’t blame the forefathers either because they might have been taken by surprise before they could fully comprehend the sinister designs of the King’s men. Besides, those Muslim and Lowland leaders (including Sheikh Ibrahim SulTan and the great Abdulgadir Awate) who tried to persuade them not to follow the Evil Empire possessed nothing more than weak and contestable theoretical arguments about unsubstantiated distant future injustices under Amhara occupation simply because the Amharas were never in Eritrea before to torture people and to leave evidence. They had no document like the attachments of the Covenant to convince ethnic Tigrignas that the fears of Muslims and Lowlanders were well founded. If any smart Tigrigna (and they were many that I elect not to name) had asked them “Do you have any evidence?” like the President did to the Al Jazeera journalist a few weeks ago, they had nothing to show apart from isolated anecdotes similar to Shifta Gebre’s expeditions in the Lowlands. Today, they have a choice to either jump in (sooner than latter) and review the abundant evidence and to reverse the traps and vulnerabilities in their antique political culture or to wait (not for too long) to repeat history again to offer the second batch of tens of thousands of their men and women to rectify Part II of the Original Sin.
Many of the Tigrigna intellectuals and politicians of the 1940s were decent and naïve citizens who fell into the traps without realizing what had actually happened and a few did change their mind and did listen to the calls of their conscience, most notable among them was the Honorable Woldeab Woldemariam. In those times, not many ethnic Tigrignas had travelled outside their villages or shared a living with the communities in Ahmed Raji’s Rainbow. When the wicked of Abeyti Adi came to their villages and told them that “Aliens called Muslims and Arabs” were out to get them, they had to make choices under difficult circumstances and they had no way of telling if the elders were lying. Today, decades after sharing frontlines where they lived and died together with every conceivable combination of Eritrean cultures in the heart of the Lowlands as well as in refugee camps and cities in the Diaspora, you would think their realization of the rainbow nation would be enough to persuade them that the 21st century is a different time zone. Not at all! In fact, the worst amongst their supremacists are specifically those who were sharing your mother’s meal in your own home in the Lowlands and were ready to die for what we all thought was “National Liberation” and were in charge of almost every heroic operation in the last decade of the armed struggle.
While you continued to fascinate at the beauty of the Eritrean Rainbow and the strength of our “National Unity”, the decoders of the Neo-Nazi tradition were busy deciphering the right messages to “the intended audience”. And “the intended audience” hypnotized responded with force and with exceptional commitment and selfless sacrifice that culminated in the crushing defeat of Ethiopian occupation. Jela Jelalu as my grandma would say! What kind of a devilish mind would even entertain the probability that someone who was lined up to sacrifice his very soul to save the nation would turn into a cheap Land Grabber and a disgusting Exclusionist raping our dignity and destroying his own glory in the process for peanuts? Who has ever imagined that the legendary tegadalay would end into a thief, a thug and a tramp? Who has ever thought that the hero that led the offensive of hizbawi serawit (People’s Army) into Nadew in Afabet and Fenkil in Massawa would also lead the offensive of thieves and Land Grabbers into our ancestral land? None that I know of!
Take it Easy!
Marvel at how generalized messages from officials and elders of the Neo-Nazi establishment and those associated with them go through the decoding process of the regime to deliver the “intended message” to the “intended audience” to transform angels into monsters. Watch for yourself how (with few exceptions) nearly all Tigrigna intellectuals and politicians (who have most probably been targeted for “House Calls”) reacted to progress in this critical national debate: in one voice and identical rhythm. As an example of a generalized message, I have chosen a quote from President Isaias (Interview, Eritrea Profile January 31, 2010) responding to how the Sudanese government should deal with their own ethno-regional conflicts. Irrelevant sections of the quotation have been omitted to leave just enough for what I think is the “amtelom” business (Emphasis is mine):
“It is good to be flexible. But at the end, if your flexibility in regard with dealing with matters only results in a zero sum game, from engaging in which you have no tangible gain, it is not worth it. … They [Sudanese] are a civilized people and they are the ones who practiced politics before anybody else. It is disappointing to have to address issues of tribe, nationality and clans in today’s world. … But today as a result of what has been taking place in different parts of the country such as Darfur, South and North Sudan, the country is on the verge of turmoil. … As I have previously mentioned, trying to resolve those issues through being flexible leads to a dangerous perception of the whole affair.”
I will leave it for you to double check and see if traces of the President’s instructions to the herd (using the Sudan as an example) found their way into the articles of the familiar Tigrigna names in our debate in Awate and elsewhere (or in the footnotes of Dr. Berekhet’s chapter published in Awate). What matters, as far as this article is concerned, is your own conclusion that as far as messages like that one are going through the assembly line transforming “amtelom” into “derguHalom”, there is no chance in hell that a Tigrigna intellectual will come out and tell you that the evidence of excluded and executed Muslims and Lowlanders is evidence beyond reasonable doubt. Everyone of them (with some exceptions) will play deaf and dead or compose the baby-face to stare into the lists (attached to the Covenant) that contain 5 uncles, 3 aunties, 11 brothers, 27 ayay, and 1 abishay with tearful bewilderment and extreme fascination not at the names but at the format of the table frames on the paper. “Gedima wo Shuf qerha!” should be your answer.
The Context of the Solution
Although our debates in Awate have greatly contributes to a substantial shift towards more practical transparent exchange of ideas on the core national issues, we have not been able to come up with workable breakthroughs on any of the issues that we raised. Part of the reason for this stalemate was discussed in this article. Here is an example of the possible solutions that can come out of a frank and open debate:
On January 27, 2010 Brother Ali Afa (one of my special heroes) wrote a brilliant article calling the ESF (Tadamun) for action and asking them: “Where is our dignity?” referring to the horrors that some Rashaida thugs and smugglers were inflicting on Eritrean youngsters crossing the Eritrean-Sudanese border, by raping the women and enslaving the men. Ali Afa’s idea was to resort to an old and tried wisdom: whenever a crime takes place, approach the tribal Chiefs respectfully and directly and let them chose between taking action to stop their own criminals on the one hand and getting ready for retaliatory action from the victims on the other hand. Brother Ali Afa’s proposal (read the article on Alnahda) for stopping the horrors was not only simple and straight forward but firmly planted in our history and culture (as demonstrated by his own personal experience). This same tradition is an indispensable part of the cultural heritage of the Tigrigna themselves.
On February 05, 2010 Al Ustaz Hussein Khalifa, Chairman of the ELF, did the exact advice that came in Ali Afa’s article (I have no idea if that was mere coincidence or if Khalifa was aware of the article). Bravo in either case! He led a delegation of the ELF to meet the Rashaida Nazir (Chief) I guess in Kassala, Sudan. He told the Chief that members of his tribe were victimizing our children and that there will be serious consequences if he (the Chief) did not stop them immediately. The Chief issued a statement accepting responsibility and dispatched his tribal infrastructure and no such incidents of torture and rape were reported again. You can rest assured that if it (the crime) does happen again, it will be for reasons beyond the Rashaida Chief’s powers and in that case he will come back (probably to Khalifa himself) to ask for help.
To extrapolate the “Ali Afa Model” to simplify the conflict in layman’s terms, Lowlanders and Muslims urgently need to reach consensus on key issues. I am well aware of the possible arguments against grossly simplifying a complex national conflict into narrow intertribal frameworks. These arguments, however, are irrelevant to our debate as this macro level interaction that we are having (the whole national debate on ethno-regional injustice) will sooner or later come down to handshakes between individuals at the micro level (and that is what we are trying to avoid) as long as Tigrigna intellectuals and politicians are reluctant to take the concerns of the victims seriously. For the Ali Afa Model to work within the scope of this debate, Muslims and Lowlanders, need to take the following facts (among others) for granted:
1. The conflict has nothing to do with political programs and differences of opinion as no two organizations in the last 20 years have ever contended on anything remotely attributed to their respective program items. We have all seen how the EPDP group easily dumped their big-talk programs in a moment’s notice. I dare say that no opposition politician (except those who authored it) has even ever read the “PFDJ’s charter” or the “1997 Constitutions.” Where that is the case, however, and a contention arises on whether we (Eritreans) should have a parliamentary system or a presidential one, or whether we should allow Awate style freedom or Shabait style control, we are all Eritreans and we can talk freely irrespective of ethno-regional delimitations.
2. The conflict that is exclusively at stake in this debate and that is responsible for the clearly inevitable national disaster on the making is that which involves outright ethnic criminals disguised as politicians in what is nothing but ethno-religious “Organized Crime”.
3. Within this specific and strict definition of the core conflict, Muslims and Lowlanders must understand that the PFDJ’s torturers and murderers as well as the Land Grabbers and Exclusionists courting them from behind did not fall from the sky. They are indigenous ethnic Tigrignas with well known and established identities as well as tribal and religious leaders armed with the most elaborate customs and traditions in how to deal with local criminals operating across ethno-regional boundaries.
4. Tigrigna intellectuals and politicians, especially the elders amongst them, must stop arguing and realize that they will not be allowed to camouflage their ethnic and religious wars behind fancy political programs and deceitful public relations pranks. Not anymore!
5. All Eritreans have to realize that those who are torturing and murdering innocent people are somebody’s sons, cousins, uncles or fathers. Individually, that “somebody” has a civic responsibility to approach and persuade the criminal relative to stop. Within the scope of this debate, collectively those “somebodies” happen to be a well established and highly regarded ethno-religious group that has critical stakes in peaceful mutual coexistence. According to the traditions of our “National Unity” heritage as practiced by every sub-national group, the elders and leaders of this collective entity are responsible for the actions of the members of their communities.
6. Traditionally the responsibility of this “collective entity” entails one of three options: (a) to bring those responsible for the disappearance, torture and death of every victimized citizen to face justice in the eyes of the victims’ families; (b) to shut up and stay away from cheering the criminals so that the stakeholders may know who the culprits are and how to bring the criminals to bear for their actions; (c) to continue to cover up, defend and justify the actions of the criminals in a hand-glove relationship and be responsible for the consequences of the actions of their thugs and criminals.
The question that you are probably asking yourself is: who represents Tigrignas as an ethnic group? Or who among the Tigrigna elders’ system is powerful enough to bear the responsibility of either stopping these ethnic Shiftas in Asmara or preparing the nation to bear the consequences of their actions? I have no idea and it is a question that only Tigrigna elders can answer. Not our business at all! But reading Dr. Berekhet’s piece on Awate, I am very optimistic and proud that the Orthodox Church is being revolutionized with the injection of a new breed of learned men. My heart goes to Dr. Fithum and other proud warriors of the church (mentioned in Dr. Berekhet’s chapter) for what they are going through for a better nation for all. “Good Job!” to all our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Please pass this personal message for me:
“Dear Abune Antonios, We love you. Please be advised that the ball is in your court.
I am confident that this same institution that found a way of mobilizing the Andinet Shiftas and the Comandis to serve the King’s lust in an adventurous journey that cost us dearly, must also be capable of finding a way to influence the hearts and minds of the exact same constituency to stop today’s Shiftas in Asmara. We look forward to a new Orthodox Church.
We should all be proud that our debate is maturing and in the right direction faster than any of us has ever anticipated and slower than even the minimum required to stand up to seriously challenge the regime of Tigrigna ethnic supremacists in Asmara. The most powerful drag to the pace and the march forward is predictably coming from a cancerous organ and a dead weight composed of an isolated core of Muslim and Lowland opportunists (the New Comandis) and their established puppet masters in what Iman Bakri, an Egyptian poet, would describe as “aznabun leha zeylu” (satellites with a tail).
The New Comandis, typically themselves former victims of the worst manifestations the regime’s Neo-Nazi injustice, play an important role in the message decoding process. Their role is to disrupt the development of our own version of the Decoding Machine by making sure that we take the “messages” of Tigrigna intellectuals and politicians at face value away from trying to make sense of the inconsistency between the words and deeds of the regime and its satellites. I don’t think you need my advice on what to do with them as there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the fate of the Old Comandis. Good luck!