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Eritrea 20th Birthday: Time For Reflection!

“Those languishing in prison, those just out of prison, and the relatively free…”

-A ‘’deranged’’ lady’s demographic classification of the Eritrean population into three groups.   (Adi-Keih, 2005)

A profoundly dismayed, sad, outraged, and silently suffering society with in Eritrea is in a state of what might be called ‘’cerebral cortex shut down’’, a trance-like self-preserving instinct that numbs the senses, turns a human being into a form, a form without opinion and privilege, a sort of robot that responds only to the command words coercion and absolute authority, a human form that lives in a state of perpetual fear and terror. It is a society waiting in suspense, drinking thirstily the hours of relative freedom, blessing the ‘’powers above’’ when it sees the sun rising on another day. Nobody can tell when that slack leash might become taut; and, the stress is so intolerable for some that they break the acceptable routine of proscribed norms and behavior to end up in the innumerable dungeons in Eritrea; and, very few have the courage (…or money) to flee from this suffocating oppression.

It was in Adi-Keih, in 2005. I don’t remember the exact date. I was passing through the normally busy, bustling and noisy bus station of that town, and I couldn’t help but feel the surreal silence hanging over the mid-day air, the sort of silence that rules over grave yards. The only voice penetrating through this thick blanket of silence was coming from the mouth of an unkempt old familiar figure in rags. Anybody who had been to Adi—Keih would immediately recognize this ubiquitous old lady, notorious for accosting strangers and townspeople, and subjecting them to listen to her never ending  stories, mostly quite crazy, sometime mirthful, and rarely very bold and incisive. This time she was ‘’lecturing’’ a largely listless crowd on how the entire population of our country can simply be classified into three: those languishing in prison, those just out of prison, and the relatively free, living in trepidation, uncertain and guarded, not sure what the future holds for them.

The townsfolk of Adi-Keih were in a state of shock at the time. Hundreds of people from the town itself and surrounding villages were being rounded up. These were the fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters, or any living close relatives of Eritrean youth who had fled from the country, either to avoid the draft or  deserting from a never ending national service; and, these hundreds of people were being ‘corralled’ into grain storehouses, sport fields, or any huge space that can double up as prison. The usually available jails, comprising of purpose built detention centers, villas, or metallic shipping containers could not accommodate this seasonal tide of ’criminals’, who were arrested to answer …or pay, for the ‘crimes’ their family members committed. Crime by biological relationship.

The irony of the story is that while mainstream sane society is in a numbed state, the only ‘sane’ people walking and breathing freedom in our country are the ones living on the fringes, those with psychiatric disabilities, the non-violent schizophrenics that society largely tolerates. You can find them in every town and city in Eritrea, wandering aimlessly in the streets, alleyways, and markets; and usually they are to be found giving speeches on a wide range of topics. Mostly their message is incoherent, and explained away as the vocal expression of a tormented psyche; but, now and then, like that old adorable lady at Adi-Keih, they come up with an insightful and cruelly witty remark that rudely reawakens mainstream society from its slumber. And, their words are respectfully acknowledged and passed around in undertones and whispers among a close circle of trusted friends. The line between sanity and insanity is very delicate, indeed!

Today, the paradoxical fact is that Eritrea’s liberators may have outdone our prior fascist colonizers in at least one dismal area. Across the whole expanse of Eritrea the elegant decorated architectural edifice of colonial era buildings is fading, peeling, cracking, and crumbling for want of attention; and, yet, the other dark vestiges of colonialism – the prisons of Nakura, Wi’a, Karchele, etc…-are enjoying too much attention, and accommodating a ‘bumper harvest’ of humanity that even their crude fascist architects could not have imagined.

Twenty years ago, on that memorable Friday, amidst the intoxicating atmosphere of euphoria and jubilation, all of us expected that these torture chambers had finally seen their last victim and their last day. And the general expectation was that these hated relics of our past, evoking memories of the heinous crimes perpetrated by fascists, would be turned into museums that school children, historians, researchers, and the curious tourist may visit to get a guided tour of our tumultuous and painful past. The widowed and orphaned, families of the hundreds who perished within their walls, also expected to visit these places some day, take off their shoes at the gates, and walk barefoot through the empty corridors, torture chambers, and cells; and then they thought  they will kneel on the cleaned floor, light a candle, close their eyes, and try to imagine the full shock of horror their loved departed ones had experienced in their last days and hours of life; they thought also of the words they are going to say. Above all they desperately hoped and wished to tell the departed’s restless  spirit that their sacrifice had not been in vain, and that thanks to them Eritrea’s tormentors have left in shame,  and that we are now free. Free at last, thanks to them.

After 30 days we will be celebrating our 20th Anniversary of Independence. Twenty years! The days of Italian fascism have been left far, far, behind. And so too have the years of Haile Selassie and Mengistu been left far, far, behind; those harsh days when terror was reigning and fire raining all over our country. But did the violence stop, or even abate? Did the prisons the colonizers endowed us with remain vacant? Arbitrary arrest, disappearance, and torture cease? Fear and terror disappear?

On the contrary, Eritrea’s home born rulers have come up with a new system, a sinister system that has turned on itself, a regime that mushroomed into something that not even the most morbid imagination could have foreseen. The enormity of our current situation is incomprehensible. The whole thing has gone out of control. The horror chambers the fascists left behind are bloated and new ones are being opened at an astonishing speed to accommodate the ever increasing number of innocent victims. Our country has been turned into what some have called ‘’a gulag archipelago of prisons’’. Networks of prisons, concentration camps, and labor camps have mushroomed all over our country. The orange fields of Ala Bazit, wheat fields of Adi Abeto, cattle land of Mai Dima, north east mountain ranges of Eira-ero and Maitire, the baking hot deserts of Denkel, the rolling flat lands of Barka …you name it! Low land or high land, habitable or inhabitable, there is not a landscape that the dirty tentacles of the system has not besmirched.

Question it no more; this heart rending fact is there, all over. The fear, terror, indiscriminate mass arrest. It is real! And no outside force can be blamed for it, neither the ‘’weyane’’ nor the western powers, forces always being vilified as the cause of our misfortune. No! This curse is a totally indigenous one; and all this is happening in a closed environment of the system’s own making, imposed by no outside force, its own design, being sustained and fed by its own forces.

This system has crashed the dreams of the children of Independence. It has doomed the infants and toddlers of Independence to the hell of slavery, to burn in the horror chambers along with their parents and grandparents. The total number of prisoners keeps constantly changing. It is in tens of thousands. The regime neither cares nor knows (…frankly!) how many. Everybody and anybody – police, military, security, cadre…,can arrest anyone.  The only ones’ keeping tally of the numbers are the families, relatives, and friends of the ‘disappeared’, who continue to live with horror and grief gnawing the deeper regions of their minds.

Both natural law and universal reason have been crashed or distorted to sustain this arbitrary system that decides willfully questions of life and death. Whatever and whoever benefits the regime is good, true, and just. To preserve the system every sort of crime – corruption, smuggling, and human trafficking…, has been justified. This system shows very little consideration for the dignity of the individual and his critical faculties. It shows no respect for tradition, culture, or accepted norms. In order to reconcile its crimes with a nationalist mania, it harbors a war-like tendency at all times in order to create a siege mentality on its subjects. Toughen the nation’s youth! Build bridges! Roads! Grid lines! To accomplish this everybody must submit to its absolute authority, with absolute obedience. Coercion and terror are its persuasive means. It is a drill book written in hell!

Sometimes I try to imagine of the logistics, the chains of demand and supply needed to sustain the gulags, the basic necessities needed to sustain a human life. In a society where even those living in relative freedom are finding it very hard to eke out a living, how is the system managing to feed and clothe its prisoners? Are they eating at least one dry bread a day (…forget the three warm meals!)? Are they getting a daily cup of water to moisten their parched throats (…forget teas and showers!)? Do they get a roof over their sleeping body during a rainy night (…again forget the comfort of mattresses, sheets, and blankets!)? Are they getting aspirin to soothe an aching tooth (…again forget a proper medical attention!)?  What is their daily life like? How are they managing? Are they still alive?

Let’s take a brief time out for reflection. And let’s use this brief moment in time to just for a little while pause our daily activities and to fly in space, and visit the gulags of Eritrea. In this imaginary expedition, see if you can recognize a face, any face, among the tens of thousands of the inmates.

Whenever I depart on this kind of forays, which is not that frequent, usually four haggard faces pop up in the visual part of my cerebral cortex. These individuals are: a teacher named Hassen, a journalist called Joshua, and two physician colleagues by the name of Teckle’ab and Fitsum. Four of them have now been in prison (…if they are still alive) for a period ranging from 16 to 6 years.

What about you? Did you see any familiar face out there? Maybe a former patriarch, a ‘disgraced’ former freedom fighter, a former Minister, a general, a journalist…? These are the easily remembered faces, faces of famous inmates. What about the thousands of ‘unknowns’?  The common people, peasants, laborers, merchants, nomads, fishers, believers…

Did you notice the local muezzin whose voice your ears still remember fondly? The priest who never made it to the last six annual ‘’ngdet nay Medhanie-Alem’’? Or maybe you saw the willful Kunama who took you on your first adventure around Barentu, and would not live you without tasting ‘daga’?  Or, you saw maybe that chain-smoking Afar fisherman, whom you met on the shores of Assab, always reminiscing about the good old days, those daredevil adventures on the high waters of the Red-sea, running all sorts of errands for the EPLF? Or that veteran Tigre song writer and singer? Or your Saho friend, who invited you home one memorable Eid to share the culinary pleasures of ‘ge’ezm’? Or your friend who never made it to continental Europe. You left him in Libya, but learned later of his deportation back into Eritrea. Or you saw maybe that beautiful girl of your dreams. Despite all the years you have never forgotten her fearless face as she was taken in for ‘questioning’. That was the last time you saw her. Her protestant faith had vanished her to the gulags.  Whose face did you see?

The faces are different, but their crimes are almost the same. All are not the common off-the-mill stereotype criminals. Like the four individuals of my memory, all these inmates of the gulags are sober, God-fearing, disciplined, and respected individuals. Despite the regime’s claim that these people have slandered the nation and committed treason, the real reason behind their arrest is because they defied the system. Their crime is their opposition of the dark principles of gravity and inertia so prevalent in our decaying society. Their true crime is their opposition of the flow towards darkness, for being true functioning human beings while the rest of us have metamorphosed into nonentities, forms. They are being ‘tried’ for speaking out against the principles that are causing society’s disease and death, the ruling principles of perversity, corruption, lust, and disgrace. They were banished to the gulags for being true to their conscience, for being morally indignant and outspoken in their actions. They strived to set, by example, the highest law of morality, truth, and justice. Like our fallen heroes of Independence, these too are the falling heroes of Independence, our country’s most beautiful and our everlasting ornaments.

Hello?… Are you still there?… Maybe you are busy packing your luggage, or running to the nearest Mall to shop for a last essential item to take home, or just having one last king-size Berger before departing for yet another ‘pilgrimage’ to ancestral land.  And, well, the decaying façade has been revamped for your arrival, the last cosmetic touches, face-lifts are already over; and the speeches have started rolling. You are maybe in a hurry to be there when the red carpets are unrolled, pageantries in full swing, and the dancing and singing reaching their highest crescendo. You don’t want to miss out on the dining and wining, the partying and holidaying. So be it.

But, while you do so, imprint this on your mind: Tolerance became a crime when applied to evil. By being a voluntary party to a system that continues to deprive its subjects an economic, social, and political freedom and dignity, you too are slandering the three segments of society that the crazy lady in Adi-Keih spoke up for.

But, perhaps, it might not be too late for you to realize what a comical figure you cut out there amidst the crowd, a figure easily sticking out (…you know why!), a reminder of the outside free liberal world, a figure that everybody looks at with envy (…and, maybe, disdain?). Nothing is more painful than when our organic, animal, and selfish component prevents us from serving the causes of reason, truth, and justice. But, perhaps, it still remains within your intellectual capability to appreciate that certain effects can only be diminished only when one recognizes their cause and starts to negate them.

How could any conscionable, rational, and thoughtful Eritrean be anything other than furious at the condition his country men and women are living in? Or have we lost the capacity for anger and rage form our range of emotions? How could we be reduced to such pathetic and negligible human forms when it comes to addressing this serious daily abuses being meted out by a merciless system to a silently suffering society?

A catastrophe is staring at our face, and even the crazes of society are starting to speak out, and the situation is simply unsustainable! At this critical juncture in our history, an intoxicated system is ruling in our country, a system that rejects any sensible measures that might make is sober. It is continuing to use any feeble instinct that it possesses to maintain its doomed ways.  The ripe time to be angry is now. Now is the time for those of us who enjoy full freedom to march from the sidelines into the center, and start to reflect in our indignant voice the wishes and aspirations of our country men and women. Now is the time to tell our rulers that they have reached the limits instead of lamely continuing to mumble pious irrelevancies of interposition and nullification. The time to speak out clearly and boldly is now.

Enough has been said of the indictments. Do I have any sensible options besides my litany of invectives? Hmmm…I just do not know.  What I do know is that our future is hanging in the balance, and that our continuing silence is only helping the system while prolonging the suffering of millions of Eritreans. Obviously, this silence and the perennial infighting in the opposition camp indicate that there are some serious divisive issues; and, though these differences are sometimes blown out of proportion by some not-so-well meaning elites, there still remain some fundamental sectarian, political, ethnic, and regional issues that are driving a wedge between us. But by focusing myopically on these minor issues that divide us, we are all forgetting the all important issue of a whole society living precariously on the edge of life and death, an issue that a crazy old lady raised around 6 years back. God bless her for keeping her sanity (…in insanity). I do believe that we owe our silently suffering millions much more than our current crippled inaction.

The cause for the suffering in our society is the system itself; and, change would come one day ‘’if not on the feet of doves, then on the pinion of eagles’’. It is high time that we forget our minor differences, all of us, be it opposition parties, critics, discontents, sympathizers, or supporters of the regime; and start to work for the common good. Millions of suffering pairs of eyes are looking at us, waiting expectantly for a unified voice that reflects their reality. How could we be so uncaring? The ongoing infighting between our maddening silence vs. the forces of injustice, and our complacency vs. the forces of hatred and violence is creating yet more violence, imprisonment, and displacement. Three hundred…four hundred… (…does the figure matter?) Eritrean youth just turned into fish fodder in the Mediterranean Sea just a few days back. Maybe another prison, concentration camp is also being opened in Eritrea to host those who have lost their ‘relative freedom’. Another refugee camp also, either in the Sudan or Ethiopia. How long can this continue?

It is time we all understand that the system that rules our country is lying on its death bed. The only question remaining, and an imponderable one too, is how costly we will make the funeral by our continuing silence.

Dear readers, I leave off here…but not before sharing the Passion of Easter with you.

About Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

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