There has recently been a spate of articles about the recent rare phenomena that occurred at Forto Baldisera, the building that houses the Ministry of Information of the current ruling class, the PFDJ.
The stories are varied and many and variously categorize the incident as an “attempted coup d’etat”, “A putsch”, “a supplication to the ruling junta” for some kind of redress and a “conspiracy by the powers that be.” You take your pick.
There were those who praised it and those who upbraided it. I have not read it but among those who cheer-led it, according to Yosief G. Hewit, was Saleh Younis who was awed by the ‘clarity and economy’ of its message. I have no reason to doubt Yosief but I can’t seem to grasp the fact that Younis will write such a thing. I don’t know him that well but he seemed a person of a fairly average intelligence to me although I could be mistaken, and I would stand corrected.
If Younis said that, then this statement will go down as one of the most quotable quotes of this century worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature. It will stand enshrined in any hall of fame along with some memorable quotes say as that of George Bush who in unguarded moment of candor was heard telling the Deputy Head of FEMA, Michael Brown, “Hang in there Brownie. You are doing a heck of a job” or, even better, side by side with that of former CIA director George Tenet who, responding to George Bush’s question on Sadam Hussein’s WMD: ‘George how confident are you?’ and, Tenet, in his enthusiasm to please his boss says: ‘Don’t worry, it’s a slam-dunk’. At least Mr. Younis can take heart in knowing that he walks and dreams in the company of great men. But that is besides the point.
Most of the articles I read were in Awate, that website dedicated to what the bandit Mengistu H Mariam referentially once called Idris Awate, well a bandit. I guess it takes one to know one. But to my chagrin the only one worth reading I found was the one in Asmarino by that venerable Yosief Gebrehiwet.
Yosief has written a postmortem article on what is now referred to as the Forto 2013 and, because of his article, Yosief has come under a lot of flak from Eritreans not used to the truth.
Ismail Omer Ali (writing under the ridiculous title of ‘Operation Forto: a prelude to a final showdown’ had even the temerity to call Yosief’s article the most outlandish and to accuse him of always trying to confuse, sow doubts and a diversion from the task at hand. Yosief, a non conformist in the land of conformism, is unwittingly compared by Mr. Ismail to what he calls some ‘unscrupulous lawyers who defend known murderers’. I don’t know which murderers Yosief defended but just for the record Mr. Ismail doesn’t even seem to understand that in a democratic society murderers are entitled to their day in court. ‘Silence’ Mr. Ismail furthers preaches to us ‘is the most eloquent response to ignorance’. But his problem is he refuses to be eloquent.
What tasks at hand he has for us Mr. Ismail doesn’t say. But he tells us the Forto 2013 was a close call for the regime. I don’t know about that but was it really? He continues in his writing “Our people have been itching for something or someone to relieve them of their misery that they would have jumped at the chance.” Alas they didn’t, Mr. Ismail. Maybe they are waiting for you. The tragedy with Yosief is that he has this penchant to always call a spade a spade. And that shatters the shell into which the likes of Mr. Ismail have crawled into. As the old adage has it, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth will always hurt’.
A group of young Eritreans (probably two or three) who call themselves ‘Eritreans for Democracy, Justice and Equality’ (sound familiar? We must have had hundreds of these epithets in the last twenty years or so) have also written an article (Perspective on Forto 2013) and praised the uprising as they believe it was. But these are people who believe that what Eritrea needs is more associations and institutions who can inspire Awate readers to action, else being young and full of vigor, why are they writing in Awate instead of demonstrating on the streets of Asmara or Keren or Massawa or even in the border areas for that matter. Believe me, we have no lack of inspiration of Awate readers only of committed revolutionaries.
Another one is by Mr. Mohammed Ahmed. The title, —‘Forte 2013 : The Covert Angle—. To make his point, Mr. Ahmed goes back to memory lane, to a so called skirmish named Togoruba. Here, he tries to inspire us by reliving this heroic past as being ‘a history of an un-wavering struggle by and of a people who would stop at nothing to be independent and most of all-to be free no matter what the cost’. He doesn’t exactly tell us what has been the cost. But the outcome is supposed to say it all.
We Eritreans, of course, love hyperbole and we love to live in a world of illusions. We are a unique people. Unlike other people in the world, we create our own realty.
We live in a world of illusions because that is the only thing we ever had. And reality is too harsh to face.
We talk about abstract concepts such as independence and freedom and equality and justice. For me, it has always been about inclusiveness, about movement, about civic and human rights, but above all, about citizenship.
Our descent into the world of dreams all started when we were made to believe that we had to fight for our independence because we were being repressed by the Ethiopian regime. Tell that to a people who have spent well nigh over sixty years under brutal European colonialism and who have never known what freedom is and you have a recipe for slaughter.
Thus a disagreement about the referendum articles of association and a financial spat over port levy, morphed into this belief and into an exercise in wish fulfillment in no time at all. Later on, we were told that the union with Ethiopia was annulled by the Emperor unilaterally. No such thing happened but we love fairy tales or tsewtstwais in our own parlance. The Union was formally dissolved by the Eritrean Parliament. Was there political coercion, was there arm twisting, was there political pressure to vote for unity? Of course there was. But that was to be expected. But there was no story of an Eritrean Parliamentarian who in the tradition of the American revolutionary Patrick Henry stood up and said. “Give me Eritrean independence or give me death.” I was not there but I can assure you, my fellow Eritreans, no Eritrean died on that fateful day.
No, we like to write our own stories and, after endless and repeated telling and retelling, we are satisfied that this is our story.
When I was young, my uncle, who had actually served in the Italian colonial army in Libya—to liberate Libya not Eritrea, for those too young to remember— told me that the Italians never advanced Eritreans in rank. The reason, he said, was we Eritreans respect authority too much hence our role as cannon fodder was taken for granted.
I once asked a friend of mine a ‘tegadalai’ why he left the ELF and joined the EPLF. He said he loved the ELF and always will have great admiration for the movement. But he added ‘the leadership was rotten.’ I persisted what made the leadership rotten? He ticked off a number of points such as they were sectarian, ethnic, islamo–centric, and, as a Christian, he had to make choices. But then I asked him, how was it possible for them to organize such, —as in his own words– an admirable entity, when they were all that bad. He did not want to discuss it further and I would never know. But there is always the fallback position of saying Isaias made us say that or even better the culture of silence.
I also asked him why so many Eritreans perished simply because they had a different strategy on how the struggle should commence and why no one to this day specially in the Diaspora raised a possibility of an inquiry into such a massacre as that of the so called Menqa. Again, he preferred silence and told me these are not issues for discussion.. This is probably what my uncle and Yosief called the lack of guts to question authority or to question the very idea of an armed liberation itself.
Eritreans, as Zekere Lubona has many times written at Awate, did not, as is often told, march singing, fighting and falling and telling their comrades to continue the struggle inspite of their demise. They did not march with enthusiasm willing to pay any price for freedom as Mr. Ahmed would have us believe. Unlike the city elite (who most falsely claim they were in the thick and thin of it) it was the poor gebars who were forcefully recruited from their villages (the culture of giffa) poorly trained, poorly equipped and sent to the front lines as cannon fodder. They were not martyred, or sacrificed. They were killed and died an ordinary death. We never raised these issues because that would be smearing the very movement itself. And even if we did, ‘The nature of smear‘ as the author and poet James Lasdun writes ‘is that it survives formal cleansing.’
How many died? We don’t even have a number. We didn’t question because we didn’t have the guts to question. Everyone had to conform and march lockstep with the ruling elites. To even entertain the idea was anathema to the brain. We were the first ones who deployed child soldiers. We called them some kind of flowers. We never said, but this is wrong, these are children who belong with their parents, how can we do that?
Yes we like heroes and we like to invent stories with happy endings. Isaias who was once venerated as a demigod and the lion of Nacfa, has now been referred to by Mr. Mohammed Ahmed as a cowardly dictator. I don’t have a definition or a clue of what a cowardly dictator is or what a not so cowardly dictator is. But we Eritreans as (again pardon the repetition) Yosief has so eloquently put it will be waiting till the next century cheering and hoping the old men and women left behind will one day rise up to depose this ‘cowardly dictator’, and to give us our own Tahrir Square. In the mean time, we will continue to tell our history as invented by us. Its nobility, its absurdity and cruelty, in Awate because that is what we are good at doing.
But there is a ray of hope for us. The regime will have, as was manifested twice in the last two decades, its malcontents in its ranks. And one day some of these malcontents may transition themselves from supplicants to power hungry competitors. And as is the ardent hope of another Awate writer Mr. Semere Teclemariam, we may be able then to reconcile with our new rulers and live happily ever after. Come home everyone, all is forgiven!! As one Awate writer has put it just lets have faith in our longevity, for change is inevitable. That was a brilliant discovery that I learned in the last few days in Awate. Change as growing old, meaning, Mr. Isaias may one day also grow old and die of old age too.
Even more, we can even be forgiven for dreaming that impossible dream that Mr. Semere hopes for. With a new leadership reconciled to our partial demands, we may even be able to shake off our mantle of being subjects in our own country and may attain that elusive concept of citizenship. A citizen, a person who fully and unconditionally participates in the political, civic and social life of his country. Lets hope because hope is eternal.