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To The Silent Majority – For How Long Can You Keep Your Silence?

A priest asked a dying Spanish Statesman and General who ruled his country in the late 18th century: ‘’Does your Excellency forgive all your enemies?’’ ‘’I do not have to forgive my enemies,’’ the ruler replies, ‘’I have had them all killed.’’

In Eritrea, today, every kind of available weapon is being unleashed: education, mass media, preaching, temporal power, cultural drama, popular cult, revolutionary mystique…have all become contraptions, weapons used to preserve an illusion. An illusion of a nation at peace with itself and neighbours, an island of serenity in the war and hunger-torn zone of the Horn of Africa, a nation firmly set on the road to Development and Democracy, a nation where every citizen enjoys unbounded freedom of all forms, a cohesive unit regardless of ethnic or religious colours, a nation having a flawless judicial system to redress injustices, and where its citizens can elect its representatives to an assembly.

1And, the sad and tragic fact is, some of us (or the majority?) still believe, or at least, want to believe this illusion. Despite the mountains of evidence pointing to the contrary, we still want to cling, at times pathetically, to this mirage being hawked by a syndicate.

Brinkmanship in diplomacy with near and afar countries, blithely taken domestic policies and actions, impunity for a select privileged few, religious intolerance, total crackdown on the free press, and stubborn objection to institutionalizing constitutional governance would not even convince the die-hards among us that the government just might be amiss. So many vivid scenes when our government looked like a fragile and illegitimate regime which has to justify itself, come what may, by uninterrupted successes had resulted in many debacles. Many sensible political solutions have been rejected out of hand. And so many plans by enlightened and wise reformers from within and without have been dismissed.

Back in Eritrea, in the year 2001, I had attended a meeting at the Cinema House in Dekemhare, a meeting that was called for to denounce the so called G-15, a group of former top echelons who had run into bad times. A top PFDJ official was the main speaker at the meeting, and Mr Haile W/Tensae (I would have used his favoured nick name if I knew how to spell it) was specially criticized for uttering the word ‘tetelakina’ ( literal translation: wetted our pants) in a speech he gave to a gathering of Eritreans in Europe when referring to the latest turn of events in the border war with Ethiopia. As so many in the hall, I remember being angry at his choice of words. It was only after crossing into Ethiopia five years later, and when I had got the opportunity to get hold of the whole cassette covering the aforementioned event, that I learned that his words have unfairly and brutally been taken out of context. The full speech that the then Foreign Minister gave was timely, mature, wise and audacious. I didn’t hear an iota of surrender in the words or the gestures of the grizzled old warrior. To the contrary, after having signed the Algiers Peace Agreement that brought an end to the border war with Ethiopia-in no small part due to his own effort, he intimated in his speech his readiness for another fight that the Eritrean people as a whole would have loved, a fight to bring constitutional democracy in Eritrea. I would have loved to enumerate what he said. May be I will do that some other time. Now, back to the matter at hand.

And, yet, despite the facts, many who should have known better persist in seeing only the canvas containing the soiled images painted by the government, a picture of surrender, defection and treason.

Starting from the toddler years of our newly independent nation, many draconian scenes were enacted in our midst again and again, scenes, that we fallible humans that we are, chose to ignore. Let me recount a few of these scenes:

– Early on, in the joyful early independence years, disabled war veterans were shot down, and many died, when they were protesting on the road from Mai-Habar to Nefasit. Shot at while protesting on their wheelchairs! Those of us who heard of the news simply chose to ignore it. How could this possibly happen in Eritrea? No way!

– When followers of the Jehovah’s Witness chose to abstain from voting in the Referendum in 1993, citing religious reasons, they didn’t know that this simple decision of theirs would be the last they will make in Eritrean soil. Ironically, they were to lose their Eritrean Nationality on the same day that Eritrea gained formal Independence: a dark episode that will continue to mar this glorious day.

– In the mid 1990’s, a number of Muslim Eritreans were hunted down and arrested in a series of night-time raids that occurred across  villages, towns, and cities of Eritrea. Incidentally, one of them was a friend of mine from my freshman years at the Addis-Ababa University. They were never heard from again. As they say, they vanished into thin air. Just like that.

– Well intentioned former ex-fighters in the ranks of the military and civil service started to be ‘frozen’ and imprisoned, and a new Tigrigna lexicon-‘medeskal’-came to take its rightful place in our vocabulary. Their numbers kept increasing over the years. Nobody cared as long as he or she was allowed to reap the benefits of the times.

– For some at the top, the ‘benefits of the time’ came to an end one day at early dawn in 2001 when they had decided to speak their minds. This was also the time of the end of Free Press in Eritrea, with so many brave young journalists thrown behind jails for daring to print the voice of the dissenters. Dozens more were to flee over the ensuing years. I was lucky enough to meet some of them (including my favourite, Amanuel Sahle) at the National Conference for Democratic Change held in Addis-Ababa just a month back.

– Crackdown on all sects of Protestantism, except for the lucky Lutheran Church, soon followed with the state declaring any form of proselytizing illegal. This decree was issued so that the four state condoned religions could be sanitized from the unhealthy presence of other beliefs. The Orthodox Church was not also spared. Two physicians and a priest from Medhane Alem Church were arrested; and, soon after this, Orthodox Christianity in Eritrea had its head chopped off with the arrest of its Patriarch. But the bells still continue to peal meekly and melancholically from Monasteries and Churches across Eritrea, biding for their time.

– As if having to have ‘permits’ to travel from one location to another within the country was not enough, by around 2004 it has also became illegal to carry certain merchandise across regional boundaries; and, a farmer from around Adi-Quala found in the possession of 25 Kgs of ‘taf’ when entering the gates of Asmara could be jailed and his produce confiscated for breaking the law that says he could only sell his grain to the government at down the market price.

– Around this time, also, a grisly decree was issued allowing ‘law’ enforcement agencies to arrest parents of draft dodgers and deserters. A 50,000 Nakfa had to be paid to get a ticket to freedom for the ones’ who ended at the wrong end of the bar, and the unlucky poor ( with no reach relatives or family members in the Diaspora to bail them out) were sentenced to hard labour. How many septuagenarians  and octogenarians  didn’t make it back to their homes? The rich neighbours know, but chose to ignore it. How else could they live with the facts? But by this blithe measure, the government had driven a deep wedge into centuries old harmonious existence among the poor and rich in our society.

The final straw for me was the last scene. I knew then I was just biding my time, and will have to change venue sooner or later.

These above scenes, and many more that can fill volumes, have opened a big, offensive and sore wound in our National psyche, and this wound is still being handled indiscriminately and brutally with no regard for remorse and healing. It will take a great deal of soul searching to remedy the damage that has already been done, but there exists an intricate fabric in any society that mere mortals can not throw asunder, and this will always remain there for an eventual foundation and platform for the process of wound healing. Will this healing be a total resolution of the wound with no scars, or a healing full of scars? It will depend a lot on the way we respond to our continuing affliction.

When the overriding tenet of the fighting spirit during the long years of struggle for independence, the tenet that says ‘’one must pass so the other may endure’’ has largely been forgotten, when Eritrean socio-economic-political scene has become a community to which one either belongs or not, and our diversity and syncretism as a society is under threat, what could be that keeps us silent and impassive? Could this hesitation and reservation be, partly, explained away because some of us still believe in our hearts and minds that it is tantamount to blasphemy to tamper in any way with the myth of the revolution, heroic legends, full of miracles, performed by demigods and ‘giants’ all over the battle scarred fields of Eritrea? If this is our concern and fear, let’s just take a closer look, and we will find that many of our ‘giants’ are in gaol, demoted and destroyed; some are deep in the ground in unmarked graves; and, a few of the lucky ones’ live in exile, tarnished by their ordeal.

But there are still some among us who maintain that the pressures of events have led us to events we had not thought of. These kind of supporters bring up lots of instances to justify their claims, like the ‘’no-peace no-war’’ situation with Ethiopia and conspiracy theories regarding the unhealthy intentions of the West, and they still believe ‘’in the image of our President on a horseback’’ for deliverance into good times. I say to these, your arguments doesn’t hold water, coming in the face of the multitudes of aberrations I tried to recite earlier.

As always it is difficult to disentangle cause and effect, but, I think, what keeps us mute and silent is the time honoured, all too contagious, and selfish malady: let us enjoy the benefits of the time while we can.

For those of us who want the wound to heal without too many scars, the time to act is now. And the way to start is by ‘demystifying’ the ‘revolutionary mystique’. A real revolution is always against a contemporary government or state, and not against a foreign one. This is an important difference, and this kind of revolution comes from within, with a view to reforming the sordid state of affairs that we are in.

About Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

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