The passing of Omar Jabir is like the disappearance of a bright star from the Eritrean Revolutionary Firmament. As I have had occasion to declare in a posting in Awate a few years ago, Omar represents the soft side of the Eritrean character, a side that owns and uses empathy in his dealings with people.
The first time I met Omar was in Bagdad in 1975. I was impressed by his gentle charisma and sense of decency. The following is what I wrote about Omar on April 10, 2012
I have decided to include in this concluding segment a response to the piece written about me by Ustaz Omar Jabir under the intriguing title, “Dr. Bereket Habteselassie: From the Unknown to the Uncertain” (Awate, Mar 07, 2010).
The relevance of Omar’s piece to the subject at hand will be clear later. When I read Omar Jabir’s piece, at first I thought that some unkind person had misinformed him about my departure to the “Great Unknown” from which no one returns. That kind of title usually refers to the “dearly departed” and God knows that there are a few types who wish me a hasty departure, especially among the ungodly crowd in Asmara and their mindless agents in the Diaspora.
Reading the piece further on, however, I realized that my first thought was misplaced: that the gentle Omar was paying me a compliment, putting some parts of my past life and service in perspective covering a period of over thirty-five years. He gives a rough outline of aspects of my life and role in some historical events. The reality is more complex; but rather than write correction here, I prefer to send him a book of my memoirs with my compliments—care of Awate. Omar also raises a few questions concerning my views on a couple of issues, which makes his piece relevant to the subject about which I am writing and which I need to answer; but before I respond to the questions he raises, I thought it might be relevant to give a brief review of the historical circumstances of our meeting. After all, this article is part of excerpts of my memoirs
My Journey from Sahel to the Middle East
It was in the spring of 1975. I was on a mission—part humanitarian and part political. Having spent some time in the highland areas of the “Field,” helping in the popular efforts to stop the “civil war” between the ELF and the EPLF, I had traveled to Sahel and thence abroad, with a mandate to mobilize relief supplies for Eritrean refugees and displaced persons whose number had increased exponentially after the Ethiopian military offensive in early 1975.
I journeyed from Sahel on board a small boat captained by an EPLF fighter, an Afar named Vasco, crossing the Red Sea on the way to Aden in what was then the Democratic Republic of Yemen. We had traveled together with some wounded fighters in the company of Romodan Mohamed Nur and Woldenkiel Gebremariam. The late Osman Saleh Sabbe came from Beirut to meet us in Aden. He made all the travel arrangements for us to travel to Beirut for a meeting of the Foreign Mission of the EPLF, which he headed. After that meeting he arranged for me and my companion, Redazghi Gebremedhin, to tour the Middle East, including Iraq.
When we discussed things to do and not to do—people to meet and places to visit—with Romodan and Woldenkiel, I remember Woldenkiel telling me not to meet the Eritrean group in Iraq who belonged to GUES Baghdad. He told me in no uncertain terms to avoid them like the plague (KeytQerbom!). Woldenkiel was the EPLF representative in Aden, and Romodan was a member of the EPLF provisional leadership. It was a time of bitter division; hence Weldenkiel’s counsel, which sounds strange to an uninformed listener. Eritrean politics was poisoned by factional fights exacerbated by the deadly “civil war;” and one of the reasons for my tour was to help put an end to this sad condition, promote unity as well as to mobilize relief. The mandate for mobilizing relief from abroad was given at a joint meeting of the ELF-EPLF leadership, held in Deqetros, attended by Isaias Afwerki representing the EPLF and Ibrahim Totil on behalf of the ELF. To that end, we later created the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) of which I was the founding chairman, and Redazghi Gebremedhin was secretary.
I did not heed the counsel of Woldenkiel to avoid the GUES; on the contrary, I told him that as an Eritrean elder working to promote unity of the two fronts and seeking relief for the distressed, I was duty-bound to meet any and every Eritrean who came my way. And when I met Osman Sabbe in Beirut, I told him that I wanted to meet all Eritreans whichever Front they supported. Sabbe raised no objections; indeed, he made several arrangements for meetings throughout much of the Middle East.
An Encounter with GUES Baghdad
Baghdad was our last stop. We first met Abu Ala, a Syrian-born official of Iraq’s Baath party and head of the party’s department dealing with Africa. Having completed our “official” visits, I asked to see Eritrean students who were grouped around GUES Baghdad. Our tour guides informed us that there was a death in the family of one of the students, and most of them were sitting in mourning. Could we wait until the mourning period was over? I said: I would like to visit the place where the mourning was being held; and we did go there. A couple of days later, having duly expressed our condolences, we attended a meeting of a few dozen Eritrean students. I believe it was there that I first met Omar Jabir at the end of the meeting.
The meeting began calmly. Naturally, everyone was curious to know who I was and why I had come to Iraq. Speaking in Tigrigna with an interpreter sitting by my side at the table translating my remarks, I started my speech with warm greetings before I delved into the topic at hand. Before I could continue some members of the audience voiced protests. There followed a period of shouting, and a general atmosphere of riot—Igrgr! It all took me by surprise (at that point, I remembered Woldenkiel’s counsel—keitQerbom!). Turning to the interpreter, I asked him what was happening; he told me that they were protesting against my speaking in Tigrigna! I told him to let them know that I was capable of making the speech in English if need be. He did, and some voiced approval while others objected. The igrgr continued.
At that point, a distinguished-looking man, who appeared to be more mature in years than the average members of the audience, got up to address the meeting. When he spoke people became quiet and listened to him with rapt attention. At the end of his speech when he sat down, my interpreter told me that I could speak in Tigrigna. I whispered to him, Alhamdlilahi, I can speak in my own language! Some of those sitting in front heard what I said and laughed at the irony of the point in my remark. I also asked my interpreter in a whisper who was the distinguished man who calmed down the riot. He whispered back, “His name is Omar Jabir.”
I gave the gathering a summary of the nature of our mission, and also briefly described the ongoing mediation efforts aimed at creating a national unity with the reconciliation of the two Fronts as a crucial element. At the end of my speech, there was a polite applause, a politeness eclipsed by what followed during the question and answer session. I was mercilessly attacked by a few outspoken members of GUES Baghdad for what they were convinced I was—an emissary of the thawra mudadda (Arabic for counter-revolutionary), which was what ELF cadres called the EPLF. There were, of course a few questions that were relevant to the topic of my speech. In the end, exhausted and disappointed, I sat down to lick my wounds and to wonder whether Woldenkiel was right in warning me against meeting the Baghdad group. Was I a fool in search of a hopeless cause of unity? I thought not, and I doggedly set forth in pursuit of that noble cause, and was pleasantly surprised to find a kindred spirit in Omar Jabir, a wise and gentle soul who encouraged me to continue the cause of unity which he shared wholeheartedly.
In the concluding part of his piece, Ustaz Omar Jabir wrote:
“…I would like to pass to Dr. Bereket some remarks that I heard from some observers who follow (his) contributions (mainly Muslims): I hope he will consider the following in the struggle for a new Eritrea (Haddas Ertra)…”
1) Some say that you are concerned about the post Independence influx of Eritrean Refuges, that is natural and appreciated, but you should equally be concerned about the “original” refugees—more than a quarter of a million—who should have returned home by now and settled in their liberated land.
2) Some believe that you are a strong advocate for democracy and against dictatorship—something that is highly appreciated; but you do not go far enough to call for the dismantlement of the structure and composition of the present state that is dominated by one ethnic group. And those observers ask:
- If the composition of the state—its departments, channels and personnel are all from one ethnic group—how can we have justice and equality?
- How can we guarantee justice and equality if one ethnic group owns the wealth, resources, assets and everything else in Eritrea?
1- To me all refugees deserve our attention and support. When I helped establish ERA, I was only aware of the refugees in the highlands around Asmara whose villages the Ethiopian army had destroyed. Indeed the creation of ERA was begun in response to those events in early 1975, events that I personally witnessed. It was not until I went to Sahel that I started learning about the “original refugees” in other parts of Eritrea in the lowlands. I remember one particular song of Idris Mohamed Ali in Tigre in which he asks:
“Ayye gheset Kubuda?…….
…… Semsem gheset interrb…..Semesem gheset interrb.” Etc …etc.
I asked what the song was about and was told it was about the earlier Eritrean refugees driven by enemy attacks. And when we created ERA my companion Redazghi and I went to the refugee areas in Sudan to make assessment of needs. So I have been aware of, and had the same concerns for the “original” refugees as for the new ones. To me a refugee is a refugee. The preeminent consideration is motivated by a human concern, and should not have anything to do with the ethnicity or nationality of the refugee.
The claim that the original refugees have been denied their right of return has disturbed me ever since I heard it; and I made attempts to verify its veracity. That there are a huge number of refugees still in Sudan is beyond question though their exact number is disputed. Also disputed (by some) is the allegation that the Isaias government has denied and deliberately blocked their return. My comment on this last part has been twofold. First, we all have a duty to see to it that all Eritrean refugees are helped to return to their homeland and that the government has a solemn duty to do everything in its power toward that end. Second, I am on record for stating that if the allegation of deliberate blockage is well-founded, the government is liable to charges of crimes against humanity. I stand by that statement. (See my last posting in Awate.com Mar 1, 2010)
2- As to the question regarding my position on the “dismantlement of the structure and composition” of the present state, the point is that the current state is dominated by one ethnic group, the Tigrigna ethnic group. How can there be justice and equality under such a condition?
Concerning this question, I give the following threefold answers.
First of all, the domination of the Eritrean state by the Tigrigna ethnic group is beyond question. This is a fact, and only those suffering from self-delusion can deny it. The facts and figures marshaled by researchers like Ahmed Raji prove this to be the case beyond doubt.
Secondly, there are historical and other reasons to explain the fact of the Tigrigna domination of Eritrean political life. The ethnic question is connected to the religious question as I tried to describe and analyze in my previous posting referred to above. Comparatively more educational and other opportunities were available to the Christian (Tigrigna) highlanders. As I observed in the earlier posting, one of the effects of the abrogation of the UN-granted federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia was to diminish or downgrade the role of Muslims in the Eritrean government.
Thirdly, the question now is where do we go from here: what is to be done in order to redress the balance, to remedy the situation in the new Eritrea? In this respect, owning up to the facts of inequality and agreeing on the basic principles of democratic equality among all Eritreans is a first prerequisite. Democratic equality is guaranteed under the 1997 constitution, which the ruling regime has trashed. Eritreans who do not accept the constitution on the grounds that it was drafted under the aegis of the EPLF government should review chapter three of the constitution. Those who find fault for it on any other ground should be reminded that it has amendment provisions; it can be improved. One such amendment in addition to the ones mentioned in my previous posting may be the need to provide for more devolution of power from the center to the regions. This can be debated.
Let me be clear on one thing: anyone who expects me or members of my Commission to apologize illustrates what I called an antipathetic spirit. I will not apologize for taking a major role in drafting the constitution as some have demanded. On the contrary, with the exception of the part of the constitution which I agree may need amendment, it is my firm belief that the constitution can and should be taken as an important weapon in the struggle for democracy and justice. The tendency on the part of Eritreans opposed to the EPLF to condemn members of the EPLF and expect them to apologize for the part they played as members of the EPLF in various capacities, including being part of the constitution-making process, is not only wrong but damages the cause of a united struggle for democracy and justice. Granted that many evil deeds were performed by the EPLF leadership for which they should be answerable both in legal and historical terms. But does that mean that the EPLF members should apologize for liberating Eritrea from enemy occupation? By the same token, why should I be expected to apologize for helping write a constitution, which, despite some defects, has been hailed as exemplary by most observers?
From Antipathy to Empathy
There is a sense in which this heading should serve as the title of the concluding part of this article (Chapter). And by way of returning the compliment to Ustaz Omar Jabir for his kind remarks about me, I have called him an Empathetic Sage. I say this both on the basis of his behavior at the Baghdad meeting, which saved an occasion from turning into a disastrous encounter as well as on his writings. He strikes me as a man dedicated not only to democracy and justice, but also to decency and empathy to people holding views different from his own.
I chose the heading for this concluding part of my piece, “Beyond Antipathy” because I have come to the conclusion that we Eritreans are in dire need of empathy toward one another, as different ethnic and religious communities, if we are to survive as a united country. We are at the cross road; our people are going through a traumatic time, suffering under a tyrannical regime controlled by a ruthless narcissistic leader. Yet, tragically, the opponents of the regime remain divided, and the Hafash are confused and helpless—victims of a situation beyond their control. The country gained its independence, but the people are not free. The promise of freedom, equality and justice for all, for which our martyrs paid the supreme sacrifice, was betrayed. Moreover, vertical divisions, partly fostered by the regime, and in part manipulated by the inordinate ambition of some individuals, have plagued us and threaten to tear us apart.
Even as the regime is precariously hanging on to life, the members of the opposition camp are, for the most part, engaged in recriminations and endless squabbles, a condition that psychologists describe as group regression. This is a phenomenon in which a perceived leadership vacuum causes groups or teams to retreat to less adaptive modes of functioning, pointing fingers at one another instead of focusing on the true adversary. And amid the furious war of words waged among the ever-increasing number of fronts, political groups, civic society organizations and assorted individual voices, now amplified by the advent of the Internet, something seemed to be missing. Something vital has been lost—the original “founding myth” of the Eritrean story. That compelling story, which had fascinated the world, a world that had betrayed it and later dismissed it as a lost cause (do you remember?)—that story has inexplicably morphed into orphaned victimhood.
Today, the lions of yesteryear moan and groan. Of late, they have been fighting over turf—turf that is still the private domain, the hunting preserve of the Brute. Roaring frightfully, these proud guerillas of the Red Sea now mobilize their respective pride, growling at one another—highland versus lowland. This—as if they didn’t forge a national will for the common goal, shedding precious blood, sweat and tears together! To witness their “turf fight” is to be tempted to abandon hope and cry, “a pox on both their houses!” But for whose benefit? To whose advantage? Not to those of the people for whom the war of liberation was waged, and countless heroes paid the supreme sacrifice. Abandoning hope would dishonor the sacred blood of martyrs. It would deny the noble sentiment that flowed from the spark of human liberty, of universal freedom and brotherhood that was the source of the “founding myth.” That noble sentiment, that spark of liberty, constitutes the core value defining the essence of Eritrean identity. And it was that core value that launched our freedom fighters to wage a national war of liberation. Yes, we won liberation of the land, but not the freedom of the people, which was frustrated by the betrayal of a tyrannical regime.
A Paradigm Shift at Last?
The expression, “Turf war” used in the preceding paragraph may appear vague. So let me make it clearer using more familiar language to those who have been following the raging debate over the last year. A particularly bitter controversy of what I called turf fight concerns a region-based complaint that the highland Eritreans are taking over land belonging to the lowlanders. After months of seemingly endless debates, it appears that comparative calm has descended on Eritrean opposition cyber space. A major cause of the calm is the appearance, out of the blue, of an extraordinary piece of writing known as the Eritrean Covenant, which centers the grievance from region to religion, namely Islam. In the wake of the posting of this document many writers have approvingly hailed it as a historic document. I join those writers in welcoming the Eritrean Covenant. From now on, I hope and trust that the debate will take a more positive and constructive turn and create a basis for a united action against the common adversary—the tyrannical regime in Asmara.
My deeply felt condolences to the late Omar Jabir’s close family members. He will be missed by all who knew him and by those of us who are hi peers in age and temperament.
May his example shine, and May he rest in eternal peace.
Bereket Habte Selassie