20 Years of indignity: Recklessly Gambling With Eritrean Lives
A government’s first responsibility is to protect the safety and security of the citizens. Everything else—literacy rates, mortality rates, progress, prosperity, roads paved and dams constructed—are a distant second: without safety and security, they are all infrastructures built on sand. A government which spares the people senseless wars—or goes to war reluctantly and only with the consent of the governed—is a good government. A government which is quick to the draw—reaching for its gun at the slightest provocation—is a disastrous one. Twenty years, four wars, battles and skirmishes later, with tens of thousands of Eritreans killed, maimed, displaced, made destitute, and exiled, the Eritrean regime has a well-earned reputation for recklessness: that it has failed in the first priority of any government: protecting the people and their land. And because it blames everybody else for its own failures—Ethiopia, Eritrean opposition, the CIA, the European Union, the United States, the United Nations, the African Union, assorted NGOs, “special interests”—it will never learn from its mistakes. And as long as the PFDJ is in power, the Eritrean people will continue to die, to be maimed, to be displaced by the tens of thousands. In short, if the PFDJ stays in power, the next 20 years will look exactly like the last 20 years.
A Brief Chronicle Of PFDJ’s Wars
Eritrea’s ruling regime had only been in charge of the country for only 3 years when its president told the world that his patience was wearing thin with Sudan and he would do whatever it takes to overthrow the Bashir-Turabi regime of Sudan.
That was in 1994. A year later, in 1995, the Eritrean regime had started a border war with Yemen over the Hanish Islands. While the fate of the Hanish Islands was being arbitrated at The Hague (Eritrea lost most of the islands in dispute), the Eritrean regime had one more surprise: it went down a slippery slope into a full-fledged war with Ethiopia in 1998, a war which took the lives of tens of thousands of Eritrea’s youth, displaced hundreds of thousands, destroyed property worth millions of dollars, diverted meager resources, and was the casus beli to reduce the country into a claustrophobic police state under the command of brutal and corrupt military officers. And, as if to mark the 10 year anniversary of this senseless war, the Eritrean regime initiated yet another conflict in 2008, this time with Djibouti, over another border flashpoint.
And these are just the direct conflicts. There have also been “proxy-wars”: proxy wars to help the Eastern Sudanese in their fight with Khartoum; proxy wars in Darfur in their fight with Khartoum; proxy wars to help South Sudan in its fight with Khartoum. Proxy wars against Ethiopia, by helping the Ethiopian opposition. Proxy wars against Ethiopia in Somalia, by allying Eritrea with extremist terrorists and sullying its good name. The regime was even in Congo to support the late Laurent Kabila, to help him gain a footing in Congo’s civil war.
Bearing the brunt of the regime’s recklessness have been Eritrea’s youth and, of course, their family. That is, the entire population of Eritrea.
The reckless and trigger-happy behavior of the PFDJ does not register to many people because the regime keeps all information secret. Eritrea, 20 years after it rid itself of Ethiopian occupation, does not offer information as basic as a census, which is, along with the Constitution, the Land Reform study, buried deep in the President’s drawer. In 2006, awate.com received a copy of a classified PFDJ document which shows that, as of a 1997 census, the Eritrean population (that is, Eritreans who reside in Eritrea) was 2,634,985. You can find the link to this report at our archives website here. The breakdown of the population was as follows:
|Southern Red Sea||184,454|
|Northern Red Sea||373,784|
There may be as many as a million Eritreans in the Diaspora, or even more, but for the purpose of war, it is important to focus on Eritreans in Eritrea because for all their wooden-Klashnikov wielding bravado, and their Isaias-T-shirts with Nsu=Nehna slogans, the YPFDJ, and the other assorted party-any-time Eritrean Diaspora who claim to support the PFDJ, are never required or willing to bleed or to be maimed for Eritrea. Just to show up for PFDJ parties to dance, and to pretend that that constitutes the ultimate show of patriotism.
If one assumes that Eritrea’s population grew at the average sub-Saharan African annual rate of 2%, Eritrea’s population (again, Eritreans who live in Eritrea) was 2.8 million in 2000, at the height of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war.
The Eritrean regime may hide Eritrea’s census, such as the age breakdown, but it can be extrapolated from other sources. The US Census Bureau has an international database which reports, among other things, that in 2000, Eritrean males aged 20-29 –were 8.7% of the total population1. We focus on this age group because they bore the brunt of the war: 98% of those killed were male; and 84% of the males killed were between the ages of 20-29. Now, consider this: the Eritrean population in the year 2000 was 2.8 million. 8.7% of the total Eritrea-residing population of 2.8 million yields 244,866 Eritrean males between the ages of 20-29.
In other words, in 2000, Eritrea’s entire population aged 20-29 was totally conscripted. And of this age group, 7 % perished in the senseless war!! Many more were maimed and have crossed borders in the last 11 years to die in distant deserts and seas or to live destitute lives in refugee camps, separated from their lived ones. One has to go back to Pol Pot’s Cambodia to arrive at conscription rates that are this disproportionate—and the Khmer Rouge mercifully lasted only 4 years (1975-79) whereas our tyrant has been in power for 20 years now!
Another shocking statistics that emerges from the database which the PFDJ regime tried so hard to hide is that even in times where there was no announced war (1993-1997) an average of 100 Eritreans per year were dying—and, most probably, are still dying—as a consequence of the regime’s decision to enlist the youth in endless conscription and militarize the entire society. (Refer to the list at the end of this article.)
The Price of PFDJ’s Recklessness
Please pay attention to the information above, on Eritrea’s population, when you consider how the price of PFDJ’s recklessness is being carried by Eritrea’s youth. The small size of our population also means that we Eritreans are, in way or another, connected to one another—by blood, by kinship, by marriage, by friendship—and it makes every tragic story a personal story.
In 2006, we published a list of names of those killed in the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war. But we omitted most of the details for many emotional, security and familial reasons. Again, because we are a small country, the names are not just names—but family. Now, after more than five years, we will share with you some of the data that was not published then. When we find the proper mechanism and forum to release the information. we will, because the information belongs to the people. For now, we will be talking numbers.
Between 1998 and 2002, a total of 340 Eritreans who were serving in the conscripted army, committed suicide, many of them in gruesome ways.
Let’s put this in proper context: the US Army (the regular army, national guard and army reserve) is 1.1 million strong. In 2009, when the US was in the middle of two big wars, and it was reported that 160 American soldiers committed suicide, the highest ever, (that is 0.01%) it was the subject of various studies, congressional hearings, and corrective measures. In Eritrea, the death of those who committed suicide (2% of the total killed) was announced the same way that everybody else’s was: parents were called to a hall, names were announced, and parents cried over the “martyrs.” The regime arrested a VOA reporter, Aklilu Solomon, for daring to report that the parents cried, because according to the government media, the parents greeted the announcement of the death of their loved ones with ululations.
Everybody was a martyr, according to the brutal PFDJ regime. Those it shot mercilessly as they tried to cross the border were martyrs. Those who drowned while swimming, those who drowned while crossing a river, those who drowned in lakes created by all the dams, those who drowned in a well, those who drowned in a water container—and there were 125 people who drowned!—are all “martyrs.” It is a cynical insult to the memory of those who were protesting its ruthless policies, to present them as avatars of its recklessness policies.
So are the 289 that were killed accidentally reported as “martyrs.” The youth who died from malfunctioning guns and bombs going off, car accidents, friendly fires (54 lives), are all “martyrs.” The youth who died of sun strokes, snake bites, or of thirst are all martyrs whose names were announced to “ululating” mothers.
The 1,111 who died of illnesses—some of them preventable, no doubt—are all martyrs who deserve only ululation. The parents must not inquire about the circumstances that led to the death of their loved ones; and the citizens must not demand an end to endless wars, or to hold the officials responsible for the senseless ignition or escalation of the many wars in any way. And contrary to many horror accounts by eyewitnesses of conscripts executed by their commanders, the list shows only four executions. Of course, since there is no open investigation or accountability, the summary executions can be blamed on the many mysterious accidents. There will be wars, there will be “martyrs”, and their death will be announced when it is politically most useful to the PFDJ, and it will be greeted with ululation!
|Lost on Playing card game||1|
|Bseb Zteqetle (homicide)||38|
|Bseb Bzeyflat (manslaughter)||13|
|Mbraq (gun exploded)||19|
|Colpo di Sole (heat stroke)||62|
The Regime Must Go
If the first responsibility of a government is to safeguard the people, a responsibility that the Eritrean regime has shown no interest in and, indeed, disastrously failed in, then the citizens must exercise their first responsibility: to speak up on behalf of other citizens—to limit the power of a government out of control, and if it refuses to be limited, to remove it.
Of all the things that the muddled opposition is most confused about, the most offensive has to be its failure to realize that the regime has declared war on the Eritrean people for a long time. Talk of “peaceful struggle” when your opponent is heavily armed and shows no hesitation to deploy his arsenal should be described using its proper word: surrender.
This regime is not only intent on gambling with Eritrean lives but committed to dishonoring the name of Eritrea: by associating it with rogue elements, and by refusing honorable peace, only to beg for it in humiliating ways, as it did in 1999 and again in 2000.
In January of this year, a young Tunisian torched himself to protest against the rampant unemployment and corruption of the Zen Al Abdeen regime. That selfless symbol of protest ignited a far-reaching uprising across the Middle East and it is continuing unabated. Since then, free-spirited Eritreans have been asking themselves: what would ignite a popular uprising in Eritrea which is ruled by much worse regime than that of Bin Ali and Mubarek combined?
Our sister website, Asmarino, recently announced the names of all the Eritreans who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean. This announcement was, typically, withheld by the Eritrean regime, which doesn’t give a damn about any Eritrean, unless they are wearing Isaias t-shirts or paying ransom money they call “national dues.” But outside the view of the cameras, and youtube videos, Eritreans have been protesting: protesting by killing themselves; protesting by crossing borders and dying in the deserts of the Sahara and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Isn’t what the Eritrean youth are doing an equally brave act of protest? The truth is hundreds of Eritreans have done what the young Tunisian did–they have just been doing it without cameras and witnesses. And since the first duty of citizenship is to care for fellow citizens, we must speak up for them, proudly, angrily, and furiously.
We do not want of the regime to “implement the ratified constitution”, to “release political prisoners” and the usual litany people make even as they know that it will never do it and cannot do it–because, to do so will result in its officials hanging and spending a lifetime in jail. Such calls are made by people who want change, but are too squeamish in their means, and too unrealistic in their appraisal of the nature of the PFDJ. We want it to go—because only after it is gone will we have a country ruled by law. It has had 20 years to stop its war on the Eritrean people; it has refused; now the people must protect themselves and pursue one goal: remove the regime.
You already know of the thousands of Eritreans who died between 1998-2000. What follows is the number and the location of Eritreans who died during the “peace time” of 1993-1997. The point is: as long as the PFDJ is the ruling regime, Eritrea will be a military state, and its youth will die prematurely. The regime must go because it has failed the first duty of any government: treasure Eritrean lives. And if we are not doing everything we can to remove it, we are failing the first duty of citizenship: to protect a fellow citizen.
|PLACE OF DEATH (1993-1997)|
|Barentu (and environs)||28||6%|
|Agordat (and environs)||17||3%|
|Hospital Mekane Hiwet||17||3%|
|Massawa (and environs)||14||3%|
|Adi Ela (Esa?)||4||1%|
|Rora bet Gebru||2||0%|
1. You can find the US Census Bureau International Database here: http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/country.php)