Virgil, Dante, Sartre, Milton and James Joyce all took turns describing hell. But it took an Eritrean, Mulugeta, to surpass them all. It is just what we Eritreans do, we are special. This is what hell is like:
“Mulugeta said if he wanted to see his daughters, the traffickers would bring the girls to him and rape them in front of him. There was nothing he could do. They cried for him, but he was forced to watch as they screamed and were violated, stripped and beaten.”
This was reported by Deutsche Welle on June 11, 2013 about yet another Eritrean victim of “human trafficking.” Now, if you—particularly if you are a parent—were to describe hell, can you envision something worse than what Mulugeta went through? I can’t. He was quoted saying this, through an interpreter, in Israel; that is: after going through hell, Mulugeta has to depend on the kindness of strangers to help him deal with the hangover of his daily hell.
After I read the article, I packed my bags, headed to the airport and twelve hours later, I was in a Cairo cab headed towards Sinai to rendezvous with the soldiers of fortune I had recruited. Most are Americans, veterans of the Iraq and Afghansitan wars, but the man in charge was an Eritrean: I can’t tell you his name, let’s just say he was in charge of EPLF’s 1984 “kiya 18 dekayk” commando operation that blew up the Ethiopian birds of destruction at the Asmara airport. My only job was to give him the money and one instruction: make it painful, make it loud, make it so that henceforth everybody in the world knows that there is a price that will be paid if you mess with Eritreans…
Well, of course not. Nothing of that sort happened. I did what Eritreans do nowadays: I took it. I seethed, I cursed, my blood boiled, my heart raced, but nothing else happened. I waited for life’s banality to wash over me and for that to happen all I had to do was check what other headlines were competing with Mulugeta’s hell. The shockingly tragic (“the traffickers would bring the girls to him and rape them in front of him.”) is just an event crammed between the mundane (“Confucius Institute opens in Asmara”) and the depressingly commonplace. (“They were detained on Saturday around Kassala town, said a leader of the Eritrean Islamic Reform Movement, who asked not to be named.”) There is a strange quality to our lives: it is like being on bus tour and the guide says, to your right is hell, to your left is the absurd, and straight ahead is the surreal world where an opposition leader is asking not to have his name publicized.
It was not always so.
I had a vision of a loud booming man who died in 2009 (RIP) and my mind reeled back to 1995. We (six of us) are at a friend’s house and he, the man with the booming voice, an Eritrean government official, was doing most of the talking. He is loud, in-your-face, brutally honest and addicted to insulting and shocking people. And those were not his only great qualities. This was: “Henceforth!” he declared, “no blood will be shed in Eritrea. We have bled enough. If we ever have to bleed, it will be south of Tigray.”
He was saying: whatever doubts we had about his government’s commitment to democracy, civil liberties, or the free enterprise system–and we did, and the discussion was us pointing out the failings of his government and him dismissing us as know-nothings–we can always count on his government about one thing: it will aggressively protect Eritreans, particularly innocent Eritreans, because Eritrea will never be a war zone. That we definitely believed.
What happened to us?
Our New Culture of Victimhood And Voyeurism
One of the worst things the Isaias Afwerki regime has committed against Eritreans is to condition them into emphasizing the status of a victim. I make an effort to understand the thinking process of the Eritrean government on any given topic (a riddle, most of the time) so I read a letter Isaias Afwerki sent the UN Secretary General earlier this year (of course nobody proofread the letter and it had grammatical errors.) In the letter calling for an investigation, President Isaias Afwerki said that human trafficking “was unleashed in tandem with the decision to block the implementation of the “final and binding” arbitral decision of the border dispute, and, is part and parcel of the war declared against the country.”
Help me out here, but I think the argument of the Eritrean regime goes something like this:
1. The Eritrea-Ethiopia border is not demarcated because they (US and its allies) don’t want it to;
2. This has forced the Eritrean government to maintain a large army indefinitely;
3. Frustrated with this, they (US and its allies) have aggressively courted Eritrean youth to leave their country so that Eritrea cannot defend itself;
5. But the Eritreans who leave their country remain loyal to their “country and government”;
6. This has frustrated them (US and its allies) even more: that’s why they are trying to deny them the ability to send remittances back home;
7. Many of these Eritreans are victimized by human traffickers;
8. Therefore, it is their (US and its allies) fault.
This line of reasoning makes Eritreans victims—victims of US/UN refusal to compel demarcation, victims of the West’s generous asylum process, victims of the US conspiracy to weaken and starve Eritreans. The larger the conspiracy, the easier it is to rationalize why you haven’t solved the problem. The new Eritrean breed may, based on causes blessed by the government, be inspired (or ordered) to rise up against some “injustice” identified by the government—border demarcation, sanction, freedom to send money—but is incapable of taking the initiative to rise up against injustice period.
Eritrea’s human trafficking problem via the Sahara desert goes back to at least 2006 when Eritreans began flocking to Libya en route to Lampedusa. The question then is: why did it take 7 years for Isaias Afwerki to write a letter to the Secretary General? Why did it take Independence Day 2013 for him to use his newly-minted phrase for human trafficking, “flset seb”? Wasn’t he downplaying the exodus by referring to it as a picnic? Why did it take the pro-government Eritreans 7 years to raise the issue? The answer is that the government (and its supporters) are raising the issue to defend themselves against accusations that they have a hand in it because their policies (which have created a hopeless country) are contributing to it or because some of their military officers are profiting from it. Their outrage is not that Eritreans are being victimized; their outrage is that the government is being accused.
The Eritrean government owns the lion’s share in the causes that contribute to the Eritrean exodus, and, as a government—whose first priority is to protect its citizens—has the responsibility to address the issue effectively. Addressing the issue should not be confused with rationalizing it or affixing blame for it but actually solving it. If Plan A—waiting for the US/UN/Ethiopia to demarcate the border so Eritrea can demobilize its soldiers and re-direct its budget from national defense to productive economy—didn’t work, what is Plan B? Waiting with more “spirit of rebuff”? Is seething and watching our blood boil now officially our national policy?
How about the rest of us? When we are not seething mad, we have developed this strange “tragedy voyeurism.” We read tragedies, we watch tragedies, we listen to tragedies. We pass around articles, and audio/video clips of terrible things happening to Eritreans. Then, we pass judgment on each other based not on our ability to plan solutions or execute them but on the volume of our tears and screams.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides is a story about five sisters—ages 13-17—who commit suicide. They don’t do it all at the same time—it is a slow suicide that happens in two phases over a year as the entire community is watching. It is a book about how mundane tragedy (even the most horrific) can be, how you can’t stop a person set on suicide and how there is, sometimes, no wisdom to be gleaned because, as the author says, “all wisdom ends in paradox.” There is a line in the book when the 13 year old first attempts suicide and the perplexed doctor says “you are not old enough to know how badlife is, why would you try suicide?” She says, ““Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl!” In Eritrea, when we are asked why are you, a nation only 22 years old, committing slow suicide, we tell the world, “obviously, you are not a young nation: you don’t understand the enemies arrayed against us including the unquo Hayal America.”
Here in the US, it is not uncommon to see people wearing a WWJD bracelet. It stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” and the bracelet is supposed to be a moral and ethical guide for people when they are confronted with a problem for which they have no easy answers. Ask yourself what would Jesus do, answer it, then do exactly that.
When we were stateless, we relied on the kindness of neighbors and people of goodwill—the people (never the government) of Sudan, the Catholic Charities and other religious institutions—for charity. But for justice (or vengeance, take your pick) against those who would victimize us, we didn’t beg NGOS: we counted on our liberation fronts. When we were struck with the massacres of Ona, Sh’eb, Weki Dba, Eritreans didn’t sit around and say, “Ewway, entai’mo kn’gebir? Eh! Edkum trkebkum!” We delivered justice.
I don’t know what exactly we should do; but I think one of the questions we should ask is What Would Tegadalai Do? It is a question worth asking because we have asked and failed to answer all the other questions.