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The Ghion Hotel Metting: A Refugee’s Perspective

The legacy of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. K. Marx

Saliha must have been dozing when the accident happened. When she came to her senses she could see an overturned Toyota pick-up land cruiser and human bodies strewn all around it. A baby was crying near her, and it took her a while before she can recollect that the baby had been travelling with his mother on the back of the now overturned vehicle. Miraculously, the baby had survived the accident unscathed. Saliha picked up the tear soaked baby and went in search of his mother.

Saliha was originally from the town of Adi-Keih, in Eritrea. She was the eldest in a family of nine, and when she left her home and family in July 2010 to head for the Shegerab refugee camp in the Sudan her dream was to reach Israel and help out financially the family she left behind. In her neighborhood she had witnessed a remarkable improvement in the life style of families who have relatives in Israel. She spent almost three months in the refugee camp looking for a reliable trafficker who can arrange the dangerous trip northwards into Israel. Towards the end of October she finally contacted what she thought would be a trustworthy Eritrean man, who acted as a liaison with the Bedouin human traffickers who monopolize the routes across the desert. The price tag for the trip was 3000 USD, paid by her relatives living abroad with the understanding that she would repay the debt once she started working in Israel. And Saliha and a small convoy of four pickup trucks, each carrying around 14 refugees, were somewhere near the southern Egyptian border when the above accident happened.

I met Saliha in Addis-Ababa on July 7, 2011. She had just been deported from Egypt a week back. It was almost one year since Saliha left her family and home, and in these few months she had been through, what are at times unbelievable, sad, harrowing, and terrifying real time experiences that would make even the robust-hearted faint. And when she was calmly recounting her stupefying experiences to me I couldn’t but marvel at this stoic young lady.

Saliha had survived the accident in the middle of the desert only to be ‘sold’ to another notorious Bedouin outfit on reaching the Sinai, in what has become almost a routine and devilish money extortion scheme, and another horrifying ordeal for refugees crossing the Sinai. Refugees are held as hostages and subjected to innumerable inhumane atrocities (–torture, rape, organ harvesting…) till ransom money is settled. Saliha was confined to a 4 x 4 structure of corrugated iron sheets for almost three months, and all the time she had to spend her days and nights cuffed and chained at her ankles to 23 other girls. Conditions of her captivity were nauseating, horrendous, savage, and brutal. Listening to her story, I just couldn’t fathom this dark aspect of a humanity that seems to flourish by meting out wanton savagery on its helpless victims. There were many Eritrean collaborators, as well, many going by aliases.

And it was only after her relatives managed to come up with the USD 10,000 ransom money requested by her captors that Saliha won her freedom and was allowed to proceed to the Israeli border. But, again, fate was against her and she was caught by Egyptian border patrol before she could cross the border into Israel. It was little comfort to Saliha that a few in her group, mostly men folk, did make it across the border and into Israel. Instead, Saliha was forced to spend the next few months languishing in a series of harsh Egyptian police stations and prisons-Arish, Rafah, Nekel-Sina, Bilel-Abid, and Romana- before she was finally deported to Ethiopia, thanks to the efforts of Dr Alganesh and very few other Samaritans.

When I interviewed Saliha there were also five other young girl deportees with her. One of them-Mihret, was happily suckling a five month old baby which she delivered while in an Egyptian prison. She didn’t know that she was pregnant when she crossed the border into the Sudan around one year back. Another one-‘Yordanos’, was withdrawn and visibly depressed. She had been repeatedly raped while being held hostage in the Sinai, and had miscarried a five month old fetus in the Bilel-Abid prison.

Back in July, when I met these girls, the number of Eritreans deported from Egypt to Ethiopia has reached 3000. These are mostly young men, but all had passed through an almost same kind of heart-rending experience. The Ethiopian government was not only kind enough to accept the deportees (…when so many countries have refused), but to treat them humanely and with dignity befitting a human being.

Currently there are five refugee camps in Ethiopia hosting around 60,000 Eritreans. Preparations are also underway to open a sixth camp in order to accommodate the ever increasing flow of refugees into this country. And the above cited figure doesn’t include the thousands of Eritrean refugees who transit through the camps and those resettled in the west by the UN refugee agency.

Selection of urgent and crucial issues high on the Eritrean political agenda is, naturally, a subjective process. But if we are to take a close and honest look at the mirror, a daunting task for some, we should have little difficulty in recognizing that the refugee situation is a top priority, as is the fate of the thousands of prisoners of conscience and politics in Eritrea, and also that of a whole nation held in bondage and fear by a brutal system.

Eritrea is literally hemorrhaging across its porous borders. So many have written on the demographic and otherwise composition of these fleeing human tides, and suffice it here to say that these represent Eritrea’s future. Twenty years after our territorial independence, our martyrs would have been appalled were they able to see our present predicament. The recognition of the above facts and figures should have been deeply troubling to those of us alive and kicking, and to those who care (…or purport to care) about Eritrea and its future.

In the meantime, the system ruling in our country is still confounding pundits, enemies, sympathizers and supporters alike by its doggedly reckless and suicidal behavior. Twenty years after the guns and cannons of Independence have died down, the ruling regime is still reliving the past, gurgling down old glories in an orgy-like manner, in what amounts to a fetish practice. The recent colorful and spectacular events associated with the 20th Independence day commemoration is yet another indication that this regime will keep on regurgitating its old glories and successes till ‘’thy kingdom come’’.

The ruling elite in Eritrea has no inclination at all for instituting the modern world’s preeminent model of organization, that of a democratic and participatory government. The country has become a sort of syndicate which is run by a select few who have wrested an almost total control of state machinery and the entire population by the instruments of force and fear. State affairs are run in an erratic manner, and the managerial style amounts to ‘’administrative chaos’’, with so many gray lines blurring the line between ministries, agencies, and institutions. The ubiquitous PFDJ offices throughout the nation have become the nerve centers of administration with the local party bosses and cadres increasingly usurping the role of managing daily affairs, from the complex to the mundane. Before I left Eritrea a few years back, it has become common practice to see party officialdoms measuring bushels of grain to the public at ‘’down the market’’ price. A sinister means to control the mouth of the population!    

Moreover, there is this fervent allergy to the spirit of entrepreneurship, material wealth, and improvements that has seen Eritrean capital fleeing as well into neighboring countries (Ethiopia alone has in the last few years absorbed 187 Eritrean investors!).  And coupled with the disastrous economic policy that relies on ‘’voluntary labor’’ and increasingly tightening state control, the economic health of the country is in shambles.

And despite the latest flurry of activities on the diplomatic front, the regime has this proclivity for viewing itself as beyond the reach of regional and international bodies. In more than one occasion the regime was guilty of emotional tantrums attended by political brinkmanship and military adventurism, reckless adventures that were dearly costly to the nation and its less than five million people. As I write this article Eritrea’s tormentor is sitting at the UN conference in NY, and this return to the International body shouldn’t signify a change of behavior. It just shows that the regime is feeling beleaguered, and is pulling the last card out of its sleeve to ward off the threat of yet more sanctions following the damning UN monitoring group report.

I was bemused when I saw participants at the Ghion Hotel meeting having a difficult time finding a perfect word that characterizes this regime that rules in our country. What befits such a system of governance: Dictatorship? Authoritarianism? Totalitarianism? Chauvinist? Or vogue terms like ‘’outlaw’’ or ‘’failed’’ state? Some wouldn’t even settle for these descriptive words, trying vainly to come up with worse adjectives that befit the peculiarities of the system. But personally, and semantics aside, this government has miserably failed to nurture, protect, and educate its subjects. Simply put: it has utterly failed its people! Period!

 

But a discussion on the Eritrean political edifice will not be complete without including opposition and Diaspora politics. And, here too, honesty demands that these two segments have so far, knowingly or unknowingly, neglected to appreciate the dynamism and the salient features of the Eritrean political scene, the tragic realities which I tried to raise before. Instead, they too have been wallowing in the murky waters of our not-so-distant past by groveling before traditional, religious, and ethnic identity, slinging back and forth venomous and dirty words, pricking old scars and regurgitating real and imagined misfortunes. This arena, with its not-so-few unreconstructed political actors, is also guilty of using ethnic-religious cleavages for its selfish and temporary political gains. And, while this callous disregard for universal and liberal democratic principles should have been out rightly condemned by those who know better, any of these political actors has also its ‘army’ of intellectuals ready to defend and justify the political blunders of their respective camps.

Two latest incidents in New-York give us a big and shocking reminder of an increasingly fractious and disillusioned Eritrean Diaspora. The fact that thousands of Eritreans living, procreating, and prospering in one of the greatest democracies in the world can still flock in their thousands hankering for the words of a despot is simply incomprehensible to me; and, on the other extreme of the spectrum, the words used by the brave young men chasing away the PFDJ strong man leaves much to be desired for. Frankly, the words used nauseated me. There should have been a much better and respectable way of humiliating the man.

If the government in Asmara is to suddenly collapse tomorrow it will be no-thanks to anybody except for the regime itself. Like many post-revolutionary governments, our ruling political elite have failed to take their history lessons seriously and easily succumbed to the selfish and disastrous ways of innumerable previous dictators. For 20 years no attempt has been made to secure popular legitimization from the Eritrean people and blatant disregard for human rights and political liberty coupled with ruthless crackdown on any form of dissent has turned the nation into a virtual prison. The ruling regime is tittering on the brink of disaster because of a mixture of ego-centric dogmatism, arrogance, and ignorance associated with a series of disastrous internal and foreign policies, all compounded by the eccentric ways of the ruler himself. This regime is desperate and is using a life support machine to prolong its life, and the irony is that this machine is also being fed by the continuing imbroglio within the thirty or so opposition parties and their lack of a common front, and also by the dislocated political discourse in the Diaspora which has so far failed to mobilize an indecisive silent majority.

It was in this context that I was invited to attend a meeting of Eritreans which was held at the aging, but still elegant, Ghion Hotel in the centre of down town Addis-Ababa from Sept. 6-10, 2011. Millions of Eritreans in the homeland and tens of thousands in the Diaspora continue to wait apprehensively for a much needed change. Those who have lost hope are seeking it across the border, and the daily flow of refugees continues ceaselessly, draining our homeland of its much needed human resource. But hope is increasingly becoming elusive in our contemporary harsh world beset by multiple ailments, and the tens of thousands of refugees in Africa and outside Africa keep glancing back towards Eritrea, for signs of change and for a beckoning horizon. But the prospects are grim, the atmosphere restive, and the horizon dark and threatening.

How is change to be realized in our homeland? The ideal most share, I believe, is that of a peaceful transition to democracy and that of a system of governance that preserves our integrity and security as a sovereign entity while at the same time making real the aspirations for equality and mutual respect that our diverse society hungers for, and which 20 years of Independence and PFDJ rule have so utterly failed to realize. But this may turn out to be only a wishful thinking.

The Ghion Hotel meetings brought under one roof an increasingly extent and graying species of veteran opposition leaders and a few young and rising politicians. There were around 80 people representing the numerous opposition groups within and outside the EDA umbrella group, representatives of various civic societies in the Diaspora, intellectuals, journalists, and a sprinkling of refugees (I belong to the latter group). 

For five intense days participants discussed many sensitive issues regarding the complex Eritrean political situation. Emotions especially tended to flare up when ethno-religious subjects were raised, and a few were guilty of demagogy and unreason by trying to sideline core issues by appealing to narrower sectarian or partisan cleavages. Discussions continued as well deep into the night with smaller groups sitting in the hotel lobby or walking the beautiful and expansive gardens within the premises of the hotel. These smaller groups also mostly tended to congregate across ethno-religious lines, another uncomfortable reminder of the uneasy undercurrent in opposition politics.

Such a gathering of few people for a few days cannot possibly be expected to exhaustively address all the contentious issues regarding our past, present, and future. And this meeting was obviously being held to ratchet up momentum for the oncoming and much awaited Congress which is to be held in a few weeks time. But the spirit under which the meeting was held and the honest and free flow of ideas gives one a much needed hope and reassurance that our differences are not insurmountable if we can develop the habit and the patience to sit together and talk out our grievances without resorting to the instruments of hate and violence.  I especially admired the bold and candid self critical summary of the opposition camp read out at the gathering by their representative. These report was a consensus summary of a meeting the various opposition groups had had one week earlier. It was a remarkable and commendable effort and such self critical evaluations are needed on a much broader scale if the momentum for change is to make huge strides.

The formal communiqué of the 5 day meeting has already been posted in many sites; and, the purpose of this article is not to clarify or add on the deliberations of the meeting. The following is being written to remind our politicians that their future challenge lays not only in replacing one totalitarian system by a democratic one. The biggest challenge is to answer the aspirations of our diverse society by making democracy work while at the same time protecting the heterogeneity of our society without succumbing to narrower sectarian or traditional divisive politics. And, in this respect, I would like to raise the following four issues before I finish with this article.

First and foremost, an intelligent political leadership must have the wisdom to understand that human societies have been evolving through all sorts of conflicts since pre-historic times, and for all intents some of these conflicts will definitely continue for decade, if not centuries, into our future. And, here, intelligence means the foresight to see that some of the remedies being offered as solution do not cause the seeds of violence and hatred to spread. Politicians should be wary of solutions that may succeed only in destroying forms of existence that have endured for centuries.

There must not be a monopoly of ideas. The whole modern world and its travails should be sifted and scanned, and experiences of near and far countries with experiences similar to ours should be dissected and viewed in detail. A winning strategy and philosophy that fits our contemporary world demands this. It also demands a commitment to the principles of liberal democracy and principles of universal human rights, and avoidance, at all costs, of any sort of conflict or entanglements from which there are no easy exits.

The refugee situation will be the second issue I want to raise. So far this huge population, mostly in the Sudan and Ethiopia, has not been properly tapped. Besides there is this tendency in certain circles to view the refugee as a problem, rather than as part of the solution, only fit for handouts now and then. And the derogatory terms used by some to describe the fleeing youth population will only help in further alienating the refugee from an active participation in the politics of his country.

Some of the veteran politicians at the meeting were bemoaning the disenchantment and apathy of the refugee when it comes to the politics of his country. I share their concerns. But the refugee and his/her precarious circumstances need special consideration, empathy, and deep understanding. This refugee has so many frustrations, and it has a deep emptiness inside which hungers to believe in something that he/she believes in. And, increasingly, the Eritrean refugee is finding it easy to fill this void with the teachings of religion, substances of abuse, or other means of recreation. These frustrations can be channeled into a national cause worth fighting for, but the refugee will need much more convincing ideas that fit its needs. In order to be mobilized the refugee will need leaders and activists that lead from the front (…not from behind), leaders that espouse progressive vision and message that fit the times. Here too attempts to mobilize the refugee across ethnic religious cleavages will not give the desired result.

One of the biggest puzzles for Eritreans living at home is why their relatively better educated and affluent Diaspora kinsmen and -women are so short sighted when it comes to the politics of their countries of origin. This is the third issue I want to discuss. As I have already mentioned above, this segment continues to be so dislocated, disillusioned, and fraught with so many divisions. I will just focus on one of many relevant issues.

It has been more than a decade since the ending of the disastrous border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and, left to their own means, the bottom illiterate peasants living across the border area are doing a superb job of diplomacy and rapprochement with their Ethiopian neighbors living right across the border. And, yet, these are also the people who gave everything for Eritrea, starting from their flesh and blood to their worldly possessions, and continue to be persecuted on a daily bases by a brutal system of governance. But the Diaspora community is not only abetting the daily excesses of the regime by its continuing silence, but adding more insult to injury by continuing to engage in obfuscating and obstructing proxy wars of regional politics and hysterics. This Diaspora bug also abounds amongst many of the Eritreans living here in Ethiopia and other not so affluent countries.

I have great admiration for the Diaspora representatives who attended the Ghion Hotel meeting. But change demands much more than free ride to conferences and declarations. One of the greatest tasks for the Diaspora would be to ‘’mop up its front door’’ by solving the seemingly deep, but mostly absurd, divisions that continue to paralyze it. If thousands can flock to hear the words of a dictator in New-York, then there must be something terribly wrong in the way you manage your politics. I am sure he will not have received the same kind of reception in the multitudes of refugee camps.

The Ghion Hotel meeting venue and the source of financing were the perfect blend needed for those prone to conspiracy theory to start thumping furiously at their keyboards and spin out all sorts of wild stories. This should be expected as any sort of Ethiopian involvement in Eritrean politics will always continue to be controversial, especially with so many unresolved issues from the recent border war. And this will be the final and fourth point I will try to discuss.

A high level government official present throughout the meeting gave clarifications on most of the outstanding issues with Eritrea. Despite his government’s awkward indecisiveness regarding the EEBC’s border ruling that handed the flash point village of Badme to Eritrea, he pledged that his government accepts the final and binding ruling of the Hague court. But he emphasized the need for much broader talks to resolve wide ranging issues besides this ‘insignificant’ piece of land. He also clarified the much publicized recent policy change of his government towards the regime in Asmara by stressing that this policy doesn’t in any way indicate direct interference in Eritrean politics. He repeatedly reiterated that regime change in Eritrea belongs to Eritreans and Eritreans alone. But he didn’t hide his government’s wariness with the Asmara regime, and he pledged full support to the opposition.

The Ethiopian government has so far shown a superb magnanimity and hospitality to Eritreans. This is a far cry from what happened in the early days of the 1998 border war. Government leaders have on so many occasions expressed their regrets for the ‘errors’ that resulted in tens of thousands of displacements. To this effect a special task force has been set up to oversee the return of property to Eritreans who are coming back to reclaim lost property, and so far 150 cases have been settled and around 400 are under process. In the past few years the government has started to award scholarships to Eritrean refugees in government owned higher institutions of learning. Around 1000 have benefited so far. A few years back it was like a taboo to visit Ethiopia, but now an increasing number of Eritreans are selecting is as their tourist destination. All this is as a result of pragmatic, bold, and wise policies that were instituted with a broader picture of the future.

 Why are then so many apprehensive when the name Ethiopia is mentioned in association with Eritrean politics? Inevitably the question arises from a genuine fear of the sort of military adventures the US government under Bush II was known for. And, our opposition politicians and policy makers in the Ethiopian government would be wary to remember that the solution that comes from this kind of interventions would be much more destructive than the problem itself.

Before I part, I want to extend my appreciation to the organizers of the recent conference and wish success to the fast approaching Congress.

About Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

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