Early seventies Eritrea—a tumultuous time of great peril and apprehension.
The place: a mid-town teachers’ clubhouse in a Western metahit town.
The scene: a group of teachers seated around a table in a typical late afternoon after-school gathering, sipping mint-flavoured tea and having mundane conversations. And yes, chit-chatting on politics too, if you could ever call Eritrean politics mundane that is.
All of the teachers in the group were Muslims/Lowlanders except for Memhir G. (name withheld) who happened to be an ethnic Tigrigna Christian.
An elderly lady, a street beggar, approaches the group slowly, dragging her almost bare feet, which were tucked in an old cut-up pair of shoes whose straps were knotted several times, so that they could hold. She could hardly lift her feet, she had to drag them. Her emaciated body covered with worn-out clothes, her gaunt face looking so ever tired and subdued.
As she drew closer, “wilad sab” (gentlemen) she said, “rabi’lahbakum” (may Allah reward you). That was a typical line used by many destitute people who were unfortunate enough to end up begging for survival.
But it didn’t stop there, the elderly woman went on “ella habash rabi labdiya; rabi ekit edeha lahaba; kama gena ekit la’ar’et rabi ekit lar’eya…..” (May Allah destroy the habesh, may He befall ill on them just as they did ill to us).
Most of the Muslim teachers were visibly embarrassed, thinking that their colleague, memhir G. would be offended by the old woman’s curses. The words habesh or hebshtai were clear references to ethnic Tigrigna Christians among most of the Tigre populations then, as I am sure is still the case nowadays.
One of the teachers tried to cut-off the old woman in an effort to have her change the subject, but memhir G. was quick to intervene—“gdeffa nai L‘ba tizareb”(let her speak her mind) said memhir G., who was the first to reach for his pockets, adding ” hezbna lewah’yu. ente zei e‘mmets’si suq ilu ayTer’en’eyu” (our people are good-natured, they don’t complain for nothing, unless they are really violated).
And sure enough, the old woman had a story to tell—and a sad one at that. She was from the village of Aad Ibrihim, a matriarch of an extended family, who led a simple but dignified life. She was surrounded by her children and grandchildren—and her voice breaks up as she remembers them all. Theirs was a life of abundance, a life where everyone was cared for and no one had to beg for survival.
She proudly remembers her family’s large livestock, referring to her cows affectionately as hamaletat. She remembers her tranquil village life, the howling winds dwindling into beautiful afternoon breezes. Kids playing in the open fields, the smell of fresh coffee and incense in the air and the sweet melodies of a flute (ender) played by one of her children—all spoke of a beautiful life full love and warmth.
But all that was to disappear in a flash the day the Tigrigna speaking “kommandis” or “habash” as she referred to them descended to her village. It was the day her life changed forever. There was death and destruction everywhere. Her village was razed to the ground; its defenceless inhabitants butchered and hacked to death. She lost every member of her family, as she happened to be the only one badly injured and left for dead. They didn’t even spare the children.
She couldn’t tell if any of her family members managed to flee with their lives; as some of the dead bodies were burnt beyond recognition, it was hard to tell. But there was one thing she was dead sure of, as sure could ever be. The life she has come to know for generations stopped that day, and all she was left with was haunting memories of what seemed to be distant dreams. “min a’mat Aad Ibrihim, edenya marat – kar’kar en’ebl ela elaye’ta” she said (since the year Aad Ibrihim was destroyed, life has become a drag—it hurts to live).
When memhir G. insisted that the woman be allowed to speak her mind, he wasn’t acting on intuitive hunches nor was he a mind-reader to tell what drove the woman to utter those words, or curses to be exact. But as a decent human being, he was acting on one very simple premise—caring to listen. When a fellow human being was agonizing and complaining, the least the respectable memhir thought he could do was to listen.
He never took the poor woman’s lamentations as an affront to the dignity of his ethnic group or that of his religion. He was, and still is, I might add (may he enjoy good health) what you might call a chew-zebele Akele-Guzetai of a Tewahdo faith. He didn’t need lectures from anyone on how and when to defend his culture or his faith.
Unlike some umutat (blind) chauvinists these days who are hell bent on preaching the N’hnan Elamanan version of Eritrean history, memhir G. didn’t come out swinging at the very mention of his ethnic group—because he knew all too well, that just as there were decent and patriotic Tigrignas who were bleeding for their country, there were also those bigoted ones, the zer’ie shefatu, who were brutally and systematically exterminating the Metahit populations in a bloody campaign of terror.
It is unfortunate that these days, those who pretend to be the defenders of the nation’s unity lack such discerning eyes and far-sightedness. To them, when the aggrieved complain about being ostracized, expropriated and marginalized in their own country for which they paid dearly in blood and tears, these complaints amount to nothing but a guise for a “power ambition”.
According to a certain Semere Tesfai that is a big taboo, because power is the domain to which only the ethnic Tigrignas are entitled. According to him, the Tigrignas constitute 50% of the Eritrean population, therefore their inherent right to rule the country is fully justified. The other 50% of the population, the so-called minorities, should kill their ambitions for power, lest they want to drag the nation into yet more bloodshed. And by the way, no one dare ask how 50% could be a minority, or a majority for that matter – wela t’nfer tiel’ya (typical hgdef logic).
Also, the so-called minorities are not allowed to form a block either, lest they create a grid-lock or an impasse in the parliament of a future Tigrigna-ruled “democratic” Ertra.
There are many surrogates who will see to it that this doesn’t happen. The Semere Tesfais, G.Andes, Desbeles, Michael Abrahas, the Meskerems and many other surrogates embedded within the entire Eritrean political landscape will fight tooth and nail, in an attempt that coalitions like Tadamun, Metahit organizations or Muslim organizations do not become a reality in Eritrea.
Their campaigns may take different forms or shapes—like some of them claiming that they would not allow “Swat Valleys “in the country, or others campaigning against the adoption of Arabic as an official language due to its uniting factor among the Muslims, or worse yet, as the thug Girma Asmerom claimed the other day, limiting the number of Madrassas in the country and so on and so forth.
At the end of the day though, all these campaigns mean the same thing, and more or less confluence around one core premise – curtailing the freedom of association of all non-Tigrigna ethnic groups. (kei bel’Unas fah kiblu’lewom)
The Tigrignas on the other hand, can coalesce into one block (call them anything you like but wegenawiyan) and they also get to keep the Jeberties in the block, and mind you, not as equals, but rather as side-kicks used to prop up the numbers (history is a witness).
This way, the threshold of 50% is reached and in the Dominion of Tigrignaland as proposed by the Semere Tesfais among us, that ratio somehow amounts to a majority (just don’t ask how) – and by extension, an absolute entitlement to power.
You see, many of us have been around for a while—we’ve seen zer’ie shefatu’s arrogant displays of chauvinism in many forms, but I must admit, this is the most blatant form of racism, pure and simple, that I have ever seen or heard of in years. And guess what? It is being advocated by those who claim to be defending, yes if you can believe it or not—defending the Tigrigna community against Ali Salim’s alleged attacks on their community.
It is true, Ali Salim may have blown a lot of steam when he brought the plight of his aggrieved people to the fore. But this much is also true—he single-handedly raised some pertinent issues, which many preferred to defer till after the eventual removal of the dictator. But deferring those burning issues would have been like asking your children to tip-toe through a minefield, hoping that they would make it to safety. Only fools would take that chance.
Many decent and patriotic Tigrigna folks looked right through the anger in Ali’s messages and addressed the issues very amicably in their postings. Just as Memhir G. has been doing all his life, they cared to listen—because at the end of the day, the issues at hand were far more important than the steam which surrounded them.
On the contrary, the Semere Tesfais’ gibberish was nothing but the same chauvinist propaganda which has been parroted verbatim by many bigots over the last fifty or sixty years. It has even been documented in the dictator’s notorious manifesto, which we are all familiar with.
Semere Tesfai may have been the front person, but the sheer contradictions in the absurdly long posting, the paradoxes and the inconsistencies both in tone and in verbiage—all indicate that the posting was a collaborative effort of a cabal of bigoted writers.
But again, that’s beside the point. What is more appalling about the piece is that, the condescending assumptions of the writers, which they have amply displayed throughout the posting, that their readers are naïve targets without any discerning eyes. Just see how they deliberately twist and re-arrange the arguments on this posting Bigoted “Ertra” and then judge for yourself.
See how their front man, Semere Tesfai tells you “since I don’t know the specifics and the exact numbers in the current government, I don’t want to argue based on assumption or gut feeling.” This, for an official data which is readily available on HGDEF’s websites and is only a click away—and then on the same breath, hear him say emphatically “But these are the facts of our ethnic make-up. In a perfect ethnic representation of 1000 Eritreans 820 or close will be ethnic Tigres and Tigrignas, about 180 will be the other seven ethnics between 20-30 representatives each.” And this “factual” analysis for a data which has never been attributed to any official census except hearsay. How amazing!
The feigned ignorance in the first case is a clear act of a deliberate omission, intended to downplay the hegemony of the chauvinists, which incidentally happens to be the main source of Eritrea’s bloody misery of the past twenty years. This is nothing but hypocrisy at its best.
Likewise, the absurd claim of presenting unsubstantiated statistical data as “facts of our ethnic make-up” and not even as mere guesstimates, is nothing but pure fabrication intended to bolster the chauvinist cause. Many thought that this was HGDEF’s exclusive area of expertise, but it is quite amazing to see how its surrogates permeated through every conceivable crevice in the land.
Where do they want to go with all this, you ask? Well, for starters they want you to swallow this:
“Therefore, I don’t care how you slice it, ethnic Tigrignas are the dominant ethnic group in Eritrea and due to their sheer numbers ethnic Tigrignas right to govern should be honored in order to have a stable and prosperous Eritrea otherwise Eritrea will be unstable country.” Semere Tesfai.
“fetikhum tselie’kum abzi adi z’merih mengsti hezbawi gnbar’yu” – remember that line? Does it ring a bell, when the dictator arrogantly declared that the nation had no free will? The mostly Tigrigna audience gave him a standing ovation. Do you notice a striking pattern here? A confluence of ideas? I will leave that to you, you be the judges.And the Semere Tesfais also want you to swallow this too – “Many people Muslims and Christians including me are not opposing Islamic Law because it is Islamic Law. We are opposing it because it is Unfair, Cruel and Unjust Law.” Semere Tesfai.
In other words, bigotry and prejudice as practiced by the crusaders of the yesteryears are now literally the new rallying cries. According to these arguments, Muslims should take notice that their religion preaches unfair, cruel and unjust laws—and as such, even the dualities in jurisprudence such as those concerning family laws, which existed for over a millennia in the country and transcended different colonial rules including Haile Selassie’s and the Dergue’s, will now be vehemently opposed in the new Dominion of Tigrignaland.
While at it, Muslims should also take further notice that, the number of madrassas will be limited ( a precursor to an outright ban) and that “Swat Valleys” (code name for local rule/governance) will not be allowed—just a strong central rule of hade hzbi hade libi. (this, when even chimps in the wild respect each other’s territorial integrity—let alone humans with presumably more developed brains)
And mind you, all this is coming from people who say that they don’t want religious/sectarian wars in the country, and who also say that they are against polarizing the country on ethnic or religious grounds.
Also as I mentioned before, these are the folks who pretend to be defending ALL ethnic Tigrignas against the perceived attacks by Ali Salim, even after Ali Salim clearly defined his target group as the hopelessly bigoted section of the Tigrigna community and not necessarily as the entire ethnic group.
The aim of the bigots here is clear—very clear. By implicating the wider Tigrigna community, which is made up of decent and selfless folks who are concerned about the fate of their country—by implicating it in a constant state of warfare with the rest of the ethnic groups, the bigots think that they could use it as a conduit for their chauvinist agenda.
Fear-mongering directed at the wider Tigrigna community is their preferred weapon of choice. When the aggrieved and the marginalized want to assert their basic rights, the bigots say Muslims/Lowlanders are polarizing society along regional and religious lines.
When the ostracized and those illegally expropriated ask to be returned to their ancestral lands, the bigots say Muslims/Lowlanders want to quarantine the Tigrigna Christians in their Highland enclaves.
And when those tired of centralized chauvinist hegemony ask for the establishment of local governance—a political system which has worked very well throughout the civilized and democratic World, the bigots go berserk—how could they lose the power to tell an Imam in Basikdira or in Aad Ibrihim what to say on his Friday Khutba, Sermon? How could they lose the power to tell the Kunamas or the Afars how to run their lives? How could they lose the power to tell the Jeberties what to call their ethnic group? And the list just goes on and on.
Unfortunately for these bigots though, the wider Tigrigna community has long abandoned the chauvinist political farce known as HGDEF. We have enough Memhir Gs in the community who can easily fish out the bigots from amongst the folk and tell them h’mm belu. The fact that no decent Tigrigna worth his salt came out in support of the Semere Tesfais’ flawed arguments is a clear testament to that.
Besides, it is important that we all ponder this question, if we are ever to understand each other:
Are the Muslims/Lowlanders the aggressors or the victims anyways?
Their record tells it all—
When Muslims/Lowlanders were singled out and targeted for a bloody campaign of extermination, they never armed themselves to retaliate against the Christian Highlanders, despite the fact that many of them were willing participant of the bloody campaigns.
Despite the bone-chilling horrific massacres and complete destructions which took place in Aad Ibrihim, Imberami, Basikdira, Ona, Rora bet Gabru, Shetal, Abranguaka, She’ib and so many other villages and towns throughout the Metahit region, not a single Kebessa village or town was ever attacked by say a Tigre or a Bilen group as an act of retaliation.
Even when the Muslims/Lowlanders armed themselves and started an armed struggle to liberate Eritrea, they targeted only the Ethiopian occupation and they never targeted the Christians/Highlanders as an act of revenge. If anything, they wooed them to join the revolution against the occupation and they succeeded.
For over sixty years now, Muslims/Lowlanders have endured waves of despicable crimes and abuse for no reason other than who they were. The murders and the pillaging by the shefatu of the forties and fifties; the assassinations, intimidation, harassment and property destruction by Andnet thugs of the fifties; the despicable bloody campaigns of extermination carried out by the kommandis and other Tigrigna militias in conjunction with the occupation forces in the sixties and seventies; the onslaught against Eritrean freedom fighters by a joint EPLF/TPLF or Tigrai-Tigrigna coalition in the eighties; and then—twenty years of sheer hell on earth, which culminated in the completion of HGDEF’s chauvinist project, where the Muslims/Lowlanders lost not only their land and other properties, but also their history, their heritage and above all, their human dignity.
Yet, throughout decades upon decades of sheer misery—Muslims/Lowlanders never looked at their fellow countrymen, the Christian/Highlanders as their enemies—cause if they did, they would have acted on it the same way they acted against Ethiopian occupation.
As we embark on yet another decade, it is important that we listen to each other.
Happy New Year