This year, 2017, the first wave of Eritrean refugees who fled en-masse to the Sudan, have been living in refugee camps for fifty years, and they’re still counting. Since 1967, the numbers of the first wave of refugees, including the second and third generation refugees born in the camps, has surged to the hundreds of thousands, all condemned to stay indefinitely outside Eritrea. In 1967, the refugees were driven out of their homes by Haile Selassie’s forces who launched a scorched earth campaign in the countryside to quell the Eritrean revolution. Worse, a quarter of a century after the land was liberated, the present rulers of Eritrea, liberators-turned-oppressors, still ignore the refugees’ right to return to their ancestral lands, and neglect their plight; 25 years after Eritrea was liberated, the refugees are still languishing in desolate camps. On the fiftieth anniversary of the man-made human catastrophe, I present to you chapter 7 of my book, “Miriam Was Here”, as a reminder of the most shameful page in the history of Eritrea, and the record of the Eritrean regime.
The Forgotten First Wave Refugees (Chapter 7)
As if meditating, they mostly sat facing East, maybe contemplating the distance, and wondering if the trails that brought them to the desolate camp can take them back to their ancestral villages. They know most of their homes were gone, razed to the ground decades earlier, but they dreamed of living in their own old pits instead of being a guest in someone else’s pit.
A frail old man who dons a dagger stuck on his belt is one of the few remaining references on life back home before the long exodus; he spends most of his day at the teashop. Whenever someone asks him a question, he tries to remember names of people and places. Sometimes he mixes them up or mentions them randomly, forgetting the names and the actual location of villages and places them tens of miles away. He excuses his lapses, “It is all the same: they are all burned out ruins.” Then he explains the reason for his forgetfulness, “It was long time ago, and I am getting old, so many seasons have passed.”
Indeed, seasons have passed; they were made to pass and no one wanted the passage of the seasons to stop. Everyone wanted the memories of names, dates and features, to be blown away with the dust. Even the colors should fade, like the colors of the charity shirts that the children wore. Yet, the children felt very happy knowing a shirt whose color they cannot tell covered their backs. They kicked soiled balls made of bundled rags and thought that was the pinnacle of entertainment. They never minded the fact that they didn’t have anything to replenish their energy with once they returned to the shack their parents called home for decades.
This is the camp of the dispossessed Eritreans, and the grandchildren of the first generation of refugees. Ethiopian troops had chased them away from their homes almost fifty years ago; raids by American supplied F-5 plans made the job easier. Now the Eritrean government owns their homes, their farms and their pastureland. The liberators of Eritrea confiscated the properties of the refugees with no amends; they didn’t even give them a receipt for it.
Twenty years had passed since Eritrea became independent, but the refugees stayed there, as if the liberation of their country was for no reason.
Sometimes it felt like time stopped in the camps. Actually, it might not have stopped, only no one could tell if it moved forward, backward or sideways. The sun has never betrayed the camp; it visited regularly, stayed until it burned everything, and left. The moon didn’t betray the camp; it always came on time and reflected its shy reflection. Only the stars betrayed the camps, they stopped visiting; very few people claimed to have had a fleeting glimpse of the morning star, and dim twinkling of others.
Grandpa insisted the stars were there and blamed the dust, “It is blocking the view, we can’t even see the stars, the only consolation for living in this dark refugee camp?” He missed the stars, “They are there only dust is blocking them.”
Not even the stars themselves would make that excuse in their own defense. But who is holding a court to try heavenly creatures. Here, even mortals are not tried. Anyone makes their own laws; many have made laws for themselves. That is why in the middle of the night, an armed person walks to the camp, snatches one or two fearful refugees and disappears in the dark.
Human smugglers and human organ traffickers had made a law for themselves, a law that allows them to scavenge a live body for parts to sell to the highest bidder. It is an alternative economy that depends on victims who are exported out of Eritrea, through the Sudan, on to Sinai where their remains are buried or eaten by wild animals. It is the trade whose goods are human beings, it is a trade that had originated in Eritrea; perfected in Sudan; executed in Sinai; and sustained by the wealthy countries.
The old man finished his tea; someone ordered a new cup for him. He thanked the man for his generosity and grinned, exposing his empty gums.
Someone from the crowd teased him, “Grandpa, would you remember the way back to Ad Ibrhim?”
The Village of Ad Ibrhim had been wiped out by the Ethiopians army over four-decades earlier, and most of the survivors of the massacre, including Grandpa, had been living in the refugee camp in Sudan since then. Hardly a day passed without him mentioning his village.
“Eheee, of course. But I am not sure if there would be any markers left.” He was silent for a moment. Then he added, “The graves might be gone. They say the rivers and wells dried up, but the mountains are still there. I am sure they will be there.”
“There are no graves or mountains Grandpa, they are gone. Instead there are cranes and huge equipment that tell you how close you are to Ad Ibrhim; I mean what used to be.”
The old man was confused, “What cranes and equipment? They replaced the mountains with cranes?”
“Grandpa, it seems no one has been informing you. They are digging for gold, probably right where your cottage was! You were sleeping over gold and you didn’t know it.”
“You don’t tell me! Gold!”
Someone seconded the information, “He is right, Grandpa, they say at noon the land glitters and if you have a pick, you just cut the gold rocks and carry as much as you can. Pack animals would even be better”
The old man became serious and scratched his head, “Is that why the planes chased us away? Now I know.”
Many of the customers, most of them second-generation refugees, laughed. One of them stared at the old man, shock evident in his eyes, “Maybe you are right grandpa. That could be the reason they chased the people out, what else could it be? You are absolutely right grandpa.”
In the camps where authorities feed the refugees all kinds of deceitful hopes, explanations, and promises that never proved their worth, eyewitness reports could be treated as wild speculation and conspiracy theories could be treated as unquestionable facts. Truth has been lost in the confusion, gossip rules, and if anyone took it for what it is worth, they soon became disappointed. The camp has known nothing but heartbreaks and elusive hopes.
The old man had an idea, “Why doesn’t the government stop the Ethiopians from taking the gold? It is not right. They should give it to us. It is our land!”
“Grandpa, it is not the Ethiopians taking it, the Eritrean government is mining the gold.”
“Yah, yah, yah! Then they must be rich!”
“As rich as the Saudis, Grandpa. Maybe richer. Maybe as rich as the Saudis and Kuwaitis combined.”
“Then at least they should rebuild our burned houses for us. They have gold!”
“No, Grandpa, the government says you lost a shack in Eritrea and now you have a shack in this camp. You lost nothing and you gained nothing. You are even; they don’t owe you anything. Not even an old mat like the one we are sitting on.”
“Ehheee, it is our land! My grandson Ukud is there, maybe he can claim ownership of some gold. ”
“Grandpa, pray Ukud comes out alive, forget gold.”
“Aiwaaaa! Now you are right. I am worried about Ukud. We haven’t heard from him for a year. Poor boy, he lost sleep insisting on visiting his ancestral village. Ad Ibrhim, Ad Ibrhim, he nagged us.”
“He must have known of the gold Grandpa, why would he go to Eritrea when people his age are escaping from it!”
“He wanted to be a doctor, you know. But he wouldn’t go to university before he visits his ancestral land… it is fate.”
Ukud had left Sudan to visit Ad Ibrhim but the army snatched him the moment he set his feet at the bus station in Tessenei, a two-hour drive from the refugee camps. They made him a soldier.
Grandpa lamented, “Now you say there is gold in Ad Ibrhim and we can’t smell it! All the waiting, for years was for nothing? The independence?”
“No one told you to expect anything; it is your own imagination Grandpa.”
The refugees had seen enough indifference from their own, the liberators whose betrayals rendered them skeptical and paranoid.
A limping man came to the teashop and immediately changed the subject, “Did you hear the scandal?” His facial expression reflected his feeling of shame, “Last night Rashaida gangs stalked two people and kidnapped them.”
The men looked surprised. One asked, “Who are the victims?”
The limping man explained, “I don’t know, they say they were from Asmara, their fate brought them here a few weeks ago.”
The teashop owner interjected, “If anything good comes from this place we would have seen it,” He reached for his moist tobacco can and rolled a large portion and inserted it between his gum and lower lips. “Why travel all the way from Asmara to this Godforsaken place!”
The limping man picked his stick and tried to explain by drawing lines on the dirt, he drew a circle, “The government keeps them in hard labor, here.” His eyes popped out, for emphasis, “Without pay.” He put a dot inside the circle, and then drew a line from the dot breaking the circles and going out. “They decide to escape the abuse.” He then drew another circle and connected it to the line. “And they end up here.” He moved his index finger in an imaginary circle around the camp, “All the same, another prison.”
A young man didn’t agree with the explanation, “You act like a general drawing attack lines; don’t forget many come here on their way to join their relatives abroad.”
The limping man was angry, “You sheep! Why did you escape the country, then? Do you have relatives overseas and you wanted to join them? Why can’t they fly out of Eritrea? Don’t you know they have an airport in Asmara?” Then he looked at the young man, “Didn’t you come escaping in tattered uniform a year ago? You came to join your relatives here in this desolate camp, not abroad.”
They silenced the young man for a while; he looked down to the ground and ignored the talk that turned against him.
The teashop owner sympathized with the escapees, “They work like slaves, no pay and they treat them like slaves. What can the poor children do but flee to wherever their feet can take them!”
Grandpa didn’t like the way the conversation was going, “By God, forget your unnecessary talk.” He looked at the man who brought the news, “What has become of the gangs, kidnapping innocent people!”
The limping man blurted, “Grandpa, the question is, what has become of us. A few criminals kidnap people from amongst us and we do nothing! Don’t blame anyone, what could they do when we are also doing nothing? Let’s blame ourselves.”
Another man shook his head in sadness, “What are we to do? Everyone is watching and observing the situation like a weather-beaten cow. We just observe everything silently.”
A man who sat quietly until then, asked, “How about the opposition, can’t they do anything? Anything at all?”
The limping man looked helpless, “Poor Eritrea. The opposition is at the mercy of others,” he shook his head and his face portrayed his sadness, “Ehhhhh, opposition had its brave men in the past, now they are different, in name only, they just wail like us helpless refugees.”
Grandpa seemed to agree, “True, the old days are gone. In our time, men were real, they were feared. Now only God can help us. Everyone feared Adem. He was brave… like a lion.”
“Who is Adem Grandpa?”
“Adem? Who is Adem? Didn’t he die? He must be hiding somewhere. When did he die?”
“Is he dead or alive Grandpa?”
“Yasalaaaaam! If you see Adem you wouldn’t ask him these questions. He had fifty camels.” He raised the fingers of both hands and couldn’t find fifty fingers. Instead, he waved his hands five times, “Fifty. Then he sold five, maybe six.” He then looked around the place, “Was Adem not here a while ago?”
The patrons of the teashop realized Grandpa had slipped into his senile moment; they ignored him until he snapped out of it.
The young man who sat quietly after they silenced him put his cup on the ground, “What old days are you talking about? What happened in the old days? All I heard is defeat after defeat, since long before I was born in this dirty world.” He sipped from his cup and recited a verse from the Quraan, “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
A veteran of the armed struggle was inflamed, “We didn’t fail or get defeated! You animal. We struggled and sacrificed our youth when we had the energy. How about you, young man? Don’t forget you escaped to save your skin, now you are just sitting fattening yourself like a bull, feeding on leftovers in Kassala and Gedaref!”
The young man felt insulted, “Why are you picking on me? I had no choice.” He looked for support from the people his age who were there listening. “Many people my age born in this helpless camp are doing the same,” he became louder. “There are many like me fattening themselves like elephants all over the world. I might be a weak bull with no horns, but that is what being an Eritrean of my generation made me. I am resigning to my fate.”
The limping man was after him, “What about the quotes from Quraan you always rain on us? What happened to your sermon about changing one’s self? Why don’t you change yourself?”
Another young man recited a verse, “Iza raaytum munkren…”
The limping man interrupted him and burst, “Ohhh, that’s what your generation is good at. Using verses from Quraan as an easy way out. You feel absolved once you shoot a verse or two.” He shook his head, “We have arrived at a bad time where any argument is won by whoever can memorize more verses or quotes from the traditions. Sermon, upon sermons, upon sermon. Stop deafening people by quoting verses on every occasion.”
Grandpa had snapped back. “Did they get silver?”
“What silver Grandpa?”
“In Ad Ibrhim. Didn’t you say they found gold?” A wild laughter ensued.
The veteran teased him, “Grandpa, you are the only one who prefers silver to gold.”
“I always wanted a silver handle for my dagger.”
“And how would you use a dagger,”
“Eheee, do all those who have guns use them? It feels good to have an elegant silver dagger.” He murmured something inaudible then commented, “Gold is expensive. I cannot buy gold. Adem had a dagger with a silver handle. He had a beautiful dagger. Does he know about the gold in Ad Ibrhim? Where did he go anyway?”
Grandpa slipped back to his senile state quicker than they expected. Longing for his country and his village, which has now become a distant memory, made him miserable. He didn’t think he would see his country again before he dies.