“If our people 50 years ago in 1946 could form political parties of varying ideologies and policies and manage to hold a dialogue with each other, and after 50 years the EPLF says that we are not matured politically to do the same today! This is nonsense. The reason is that the EPLF wants to dominate everything in Eritrea: politics, economy, society-everything.” The late Taha Mohammed Nur.
Around three weeks back, an accident that occurred at a mine somewhere in the Chilean desert and had for weeks the whole world awaiting in breathless anticipation, came to a happy ending. With millions of people around the world watching in their TV screen, and with more than one thousand journalists and correspondents in attendance at the rescue operation, the 35 miners, who had for weeks been entrapped around one kilometre deep in the earth, started to come out one by one, amid cries of jubilation and happiness. Viewers from afar and near watched as the miners came into the waiting arms of their wives, sons, daughters, friends (and mistresses).
But, in another corner of the world, in the horn of Africa, in a tiny nation called Eritrea, from 10,000 – 30, 000 ‘miners’ of a different sort continue to languish in their cells, with no hope of an end to their ordeal in site. Some have been held thus for almost two decades, and others ranging from few years to months, and weeks and days. Unlike the happy Chilean miners, the Eritreans are not entrapped by a boulder, but by an evil and brutal regime and its extensive mushrooming prison netwrok distributed all over Eritrea, east to west, and south to north. Some of these prisons and their location are kept in secret, others only fearfully whispered about, and many more well known to the public. Like the Gulag Archipelago of Stalinist era Soviet Union, which Alexander Solzhenitsyn vividly described in his books, the ‘Gulags’ of Eritrea also vary, starting from labour camps, purpose built detention centres, converted store houses, metal shipping containers, to underground dug-out cells and dungeon like structures. Likewise, their inmates are also different, representing people from all walks of life: nomads, peasants, fishers, students, conscripts, religious leaders, journalists, government critics, and liberation fighters. No group or individual is deemed unfit or spared; sick and healthy, men and women, young and old, rural and urban, literate and illiterate, fighter and conscript, Christian, Muslim and animist, all are candidates for the ‘Gulags’.
Some of the prisons had been used by the Italians as holding places for Eritrean nationalists who dared to confront the Fascists agenda. These are the Wi’a and Dahlak Kebir detention centres located in Eritrea’s (and also the worlds’) notoriously hot climate zones. Located in no less inhospitable areas are the Eiraero secret prison around Gahtelay, the Mitire military detention centre near Assab, Ala Bazit prison camp deep in the orange fields of Ala, and the sprouting chains of detentions around Sawa. There are also several prisons in and around Asmara: Sembel, Tseserat, ‘Track B’, Karchele, Mai Temany, and Adi Abeto prisons. There are also the prisons at Mai Dima, Mai Edaga, Adi-Quala, Adi Keyih, Assab, Keren, Barentu…The list is simply endless!
Many of these prisoners are ordinary men and women, leading before their arrest an unenviable ordinary life of toil and exertion, day in and day out, to make ends meet in order to have a bread on the table. They were picked up from their homes, schools, worship houses, buses, offices, cafes, bars, and night clubs. Some were caught while tilling their lands or herding their cows, goats and sheep; and yet others while fleeing Eritrea.
And, like the Chilean miners, there are those special ones’, who were arrested while digging and unearthing something precious and forbidden; but unlike the former, they were not looking for precious stones and minerals. Nor were they after money, fame or glory. In a decadent society where an individuals’ worth and contribution is measured by the amount of power and wealth he or she accumulates, these ‘miners’ were looking for an entirely different prize. In a materialistic society where a persons’ standing is measured by the Villa and vehicle he or she owns, these ‘miners’ were digging deep into their conscience in order not to become dysfunctional human beings, as so many of us have become.
While excavating and digging around in their conscience, these ‘miners’ discovered what so many of us have also found, and yet decided not to see. They saw a society wanting in many things, ruled by fear, where injustice reins supreme, freedom of every conceivable kind is trampled ruthlessly, and any form of opposition not tolerated. They saw a cowed citizenry that has ceased to think, even in the subconscious, for fear that that very act might be interpreted as subversion by the security apparatus of the state. They witnessed an evil system of governance that doesn’t have the word ‘decency’ in its vocabulary, uprooting, dismantling and destroying thousands of years old traditions, norms and culture. They saw too a whole society, starting from the lowest to the highest level, wallowing in corruption of every kind. They also saw many of the unsavoury facts of daily life in Eritrea.
But, unlike so many of us, these inhabitants of the ‘Gulags’ of Eritrea never decided to flee their homeland by crossing the borders, swimming the seas, or taking opportunity of a rare official trip abroad to seek asylum there. They didn’t want their life to end in the closed alleyways of exile politics; and, they didn’t also want to sit it out in Eritrea and lead the life of a zombie, the only avenue left for Eritreans living in the homeland.
No: These prisoners of conscience are entirely different from the lot of us for the simple and obvious fact that they decided to speak out. They are different because they heeded their consciences’ ‘clarion call’ to act, and said to themselves ‘life is not a show, and we the audience.’ They stopped being spectators, and took upon themselves the responsibility for change, and by sacrificing themselves starkly demonstrated how change must begin within each of us. They nobly faded from our midst seeking the fulfilment of all that is good and decent within us, trying to awaken latent possibilities and potentials inside us, and travelled the saintly path towards self-actualization, self-realization, and self-knowledge, attaining thus higher peaks of ethical, moral and spiritual maturity..
When they started to fish deep in the troubled waters of Eritrea they understood fully the dangers that awaited them. They knew that where they are going they may not have those warm three meals in a day. They also expected that the cosy nights in the embrace of their loved ones’ are numbered, and that they might never see their families ever again. They were also ready to give up on the many trivial, but nonetheless essential amenities of a ‘free’ life, like reading the morning newspaper, watching TV, sipping espresso or macchiato, leisurely strolling the streets …etc. They understood perfectly what awaits them in the dark subterranean world of the ‘Gulags’ of Eritrea; and, yet, unlike so many of us, they decided to give their inner aspirations wings to fly, and hoped that their brave actions may lead us to a higher and nobler destiny. They acted upon the fundamental reflections of the appeals of their conscience and questioned the very bases of the evil system of governance, and in so doing became a much greater threat to the government and earned themselves the enmity of those in power and also a place in the ‘Gulags’.
Every one of us knows the price that these ‘giants’ of conscience paid for their noble, unselfish and brave actions. Each of us also can fathom the heavy price that the families and loved ones of the victims are paying as they continue to spend worried days and miserable sleepless nights as they await for the never coming news of their dear ones’.
But, unlike the tragedy of their Chilean counterparts, their ordeal has not drawn the attention of their country men and women, let alone the world. Except in the annual reports of some governments interested in the human right record of countries around the globe, and in the periodic updates form organizations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and some Eritrean opposition web sites, the fate of these ‘miners’ of conscience remains largely unnoticed. And what dismays and hurts is the continuing somnolence, cynicism and apathy of Eritreans leaving in the relative comfort of the Western Democracies. These communities, enjoying as they do all the liberty and freedom of their adopted countries, still remain deeply divided in their response to the ongoing plight of the thousands of prisoners of conscience in Eritrea. While Eritrea is haemorrhaging and writhing in death throes, opposition politics remains dislocated, disjointed and disillusioned as ever; and, in some communities it is becoming common practice to see regionalism being spewed with religious fervour, adding yet another stumbling block in an already ethnically and religiously divided society. Instead of focusing on main issues and addressing the urgency for change, all parties and individuals seem intent on searching for trivial differences and agendas that are better left for the future to be decided through democratic means.
One example of the division that exists in the Eritrean Diaspora occurred recently in the USA capital, in Washington DC, on Saturday October 24th, 2010: At the modest hall of the Turgot Marshall Centre around four dozen Eritreans were gathered to hear the deliberations of the NCDC from those who attended the meeting in Addis-Ababa. This was a decent gathering of Eritrean political activists, civic society leaders, and individuals who have shrugged off the restraining arms of indifference and silence and decided to come together and work for an overdue change. And, in another part of the city, at the expensive conference hall of the Marriott Hotel, a sizable number of Eritreans were present to hear the usual propaganda, lies and chicanery (and, of course ,mention must have been made of the recent record harvest that is showing fruits of the Warsay-Yekaalo Project) of the government representative to the USA.
(I say to the latter: don’t you even have the decency to abstain yourselves from such meetings? Living as you do in the land of liberty, freedom and opportunity, how can you be so willing as to be seen in the company of a representative of a government that continues faithfully and doggedly to thrash and trample the very freedoms you are enjoying in the USA? Does this mean you have double standards that you don as it befits your dual citizenship?)
So, as I wrote at the beginning, the ordeal of the Chilean miners is now over, and now, as a result of their underground experience, they have fallen upon good times, and some of them may not even return to their old life style as royalties from film rights start to pour in.
But the ordeal of the ‘miners’ of conscience of Eritrea still continues, with their life still hanging delicately in the balance. The number of older inmates is dwindling fast. The owner of the excerpt written at the beginning of this article had been confirmed dead while in prison, and others are following suit, succumbing to the harsh conditions under which they are being held: daily torture, suffocating and burning ‘hot oven’ climate minus the cooling effect of an AC, voluntary and enforced hunger, malnutrition, poor or totally nonexistent sanitation facilities, inadequate or total lack of medical care, depression and suicide, and wanton killing.
If we want, we can make a difference and give hope to them and their waiting, silently suffering families. Yes: if we really want, we can make our lives sublime and leave behind us something of worth in the sands of time, by picking up the strewn pieces the prisoners of conscience have left behind. We can make a change if we can broaden our relationship and friendship, living our lives engaged ( and not disengaged) with people from different tribal, racial, ethnic, religious and political background, seeking for fulfilment of all that is noble inside us and never resting or tiring as long as there is injustice or inequality in our society.
Are we up to the challenge? Thousands of inmates in the ‘Gulags’ of Eritrea, their loved ones’, and millions more living in terror and fear are awaiting anxiously for our response.