A Congress By The Hawassa Lake

What is in a name? Awasa is a name many considered correct. I found out that it is a corrupted form of Hawassa, which is how its natives call it: Awasa is probably some corruption of the name by some “neftegna” based on the convenience of another language; and it is the capital city of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region of Ethiopia, which according to Ato Sheferaw Shugutie, its president, is home to 52 nations and nationalities, the largest of whom numbers over three-million people, and the smallest is, well, 400-something souls strong. This was represented in the colorful scarves which represent all groups, that the region’s officials gifted the attendants, and which became a topic for wild speculations by the you-know-who website. I have a bright red scarf with silver and black lines. Beautiful!

How does the region manage its diversity and live in peace? A large poster in the center of the city answers that: Our Beauty Is Our Diversity, Our Diversity Is Our Unity. This is no meaningless slogan that is mouthed by deceiving hard-core chauvinists: here is a nation of 15 million people, composed of 52 groups and yet lives in harmony, and is a marvel of growth and development!

I never been to Awassa, I mean Hawassa, before, but I heard enough about the sleepy town of 60,000 people twenty years ago which now is home to around 250,000 people. Uncountable number of rickshaw taxis sneak in and out of the streets and move tens of thousands of people: workers, students, tourists and families. That in itself is the most significant proof of a moving, living and developing economy. One can measure development in terms of construction, which is evidently booming; agriculture, that is evident by the availability of food in the stalls and affordability of their prices, hills of onions and tomatoes on the road; or even by the traffic in the streets and the façade of its commercial places. It is obvious that all sectors of the economy are doing great: the high real-estate prices tell a fantastic story. Indeed, cost of living could match that of Addis Ababa, or is getting there fast. This could widen the gap between the poor and the rich; but this also could be checked and adjusted with proper economic, financial and other policies. The federal, as well as the regional government need to do that to avoid watering down and diluting the success they have registered so far. In short, Hawassa is an impressive lake city with lovable citizens.

Take Home Lesson

Why am I telling you a story about Hawassa when I was there to attend the largest ever Eritrean gathering?

Simple. First, I want Eritreans who saw the region, and the city, to contemplate and aspire to be as tolerant as the peoples of that colorful region. Second, I want them to see beyond the decent streets, lavish landscape and breathtaking view of the Haile Resort (where the congress was held) and its surrounding, beyond the lake Hawassa view and the huge ancient sycamore trees that offered pleasant shades and enjoyable ambience. I want them to see the liberty, the freedom, and the humbleness of the citizens of Hawassa. Freedom makes people governable; it makes their lives stable; and it encourages them to ignite and explode their creative powers to aspire for more. That is how civilizations are created, or recreated. Suppression kills creativity. It kills kindness and plants aggressive behaviors in societies. It injects the oppressors and their cliques with doses of arrogance and injects feeling of damaging humiliation in the psyche of the oppressed—it is the deadliest combination for any country. Unfortunately, that is what we are having in Eritrea. And that is why I chose to tell you a little bit about Hawassa, a city that would serve as a favorable contrast.

Generous  Hospitality

I also wanted to tell you some more:

Our hosts went to great length to make our stay as comfortable and as safe as possible. Comfort started from the buses that carried the attendants from Addis Ababa to Hawassa—clean, comfortable ‘class-A’ tourist transportation buses. Attendants lodged at the best hotels that Hawassa could offer, though hosting 600 people without hiccups, like shortage of hot water, is unavoidable given the fact that the entire residents of a hotel would take shower at the same time, six to seven o’clock in the morning. It is an exaggeration to even call it a hiccup. Food was too lavish and too varied that I began to skip meals altogether—I assume many have gained a few more kilos on the belly. Security was so tight around the city, and where we stayed in different hotels, that at times it felt a security detail was keeping his shadow on each of us. No mishap, no mugging, no personal injury not a single security complain at all. Six hundred people in a city for almost two-weeks with no incident is an amazing accomplishment and the security details of Hawassa, both the local and federal police who were brought in for the event, must be congratulated for a well planned efficient job.

So much for Hawassa; let’s see what happened in Hawassa?

“Civil Societies and Youth”

I have a complaint. That complaint is not directed at our hosts but at our bickering so-called civil-societies who killed so much time unnecessarily and didn’t spare us a break to visit the city and know more about it. See! Unlike Addis Ababa, Hawassa goes to bed at 10 PM. Our bickering congress attendants always kept talking and repeating themselves until late at night. Discussion that should have been finished in two-hours took six or seven-hours. They stopped when their energy was consumed and after they sapped the energy of those who were bored to death. By the time the talking stopped, it was ten or eleven at night, and Hawassa had already gone to bed. You do not visit a sleeping city. Besides, there are many stray dogs roaming the streets at night, something I think Hawassa needs to attend to.

The worst in Eritrean politics is that people think by talking too much, they are exercising democracy, and enjoying their rights. One has the right to go around naked, but you do not do that simply because you have the right to do so. You do not keep talking simply because you have the right to do so, and when you are going to bore the hell out of everyone listening. Someone stands up and blurts: I have nothing to add to what was already said. But then goes on to say mumbo-jumbo for ten minutes. Understandably that is the nature of congresses, specially Eritrean congresses, but it has to change. It is time it did. My appeal and the appeal of many others to put time limits to discussion topics went unheeded—first by the commission, then by the secretariat and then by everybody else. My hope is that all those who attended have said enough to last them for years and hopefully the next time around, they would have less to say. I am just hoping.

In short, according to my estimation, the entire congress would have been wrapped up in a third of the time it lasted. I believe a maximum of four days would have been enough. Basically, a third of the time was wasted repeating what all Eritrean around the world debated for a year. The second third of the time was wasted to satiate power-hungry elements, some of whom threatened with dire consequences, and bloodshed in one instance, if not elected. Someone also suggested creating, “our own separate FRONT to confront those who are trying to control the outcome.” It was a suggestion to split right there and then! Though the EDA representation was drastically diminished, the man considered everyone he disagreed with as “ezom EDA!” Talk about prejudice. At times it went so ugly I regretted attending, but then I remembered how much I would have missed, a lifetime lesson. But that is the nature of congresses and that is the process of democracy; and as a nation, Eritreans have taken a significant step in the right direction. In short, it was a congress that rightly earned the overused term “B’awet tezazimu.”

Did I tell you enough about the civil society associations, and the youth?

Quoting Mesfin Hagos

Well. I agree with Mesfin Hagos’ take on the nature of our so-called civil associations. He said that people in the West are using the “civil society” associations as a hiding place, mehekelli. Probably that is the only quotable quote I heard from Mesfin and I give him credit for that.

The youth from the West? Well. A Kuwaiti comedian had a play called Murahik fil Khemsin, meaning adolescent at 50. It is a play about men who start to act as adolescents after they hit fifty. I wish our “youth” especially those who are middle aged, would stop insisting on being called youth and understand that they have to identify themselves as fully grown up people so that they can be treated seriously as grown ups, not as some underage activists.

The real youth, those between 20 and 30 were so humble you would mistake them for middle aged men because of their humbleness and wisdom. But the adolescent youth, the 40 and above, acted as, well… acted as a delinquent youth would act. Immature. I met youth from South Africa, I felt they didn’t like to be called youth, and I wished I had more time to spend with them. Mind you, these are the ones who were “expelled” by their colleagues at one Mehekelli outfit simply because they attended the Hawassa congress.

I also met so many young people from the Kunama and Afar organizations to the extent that I threw a joke to both Harun and Qernellios: have you started gffa like the PFDJ? It is amazing how young and literate these organizations have become. I met young members of those organizations who graduated from Sudan, Yemen and Ethiopia. I met down-to-earth youth who came from Europe, the Middle East and other places, including from the refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. Energetic, respectful and realistic. I also attended a side presentation by a “youth military wing.”

A man named Hagerey Negash introduced us to an armed wing that he leads. He said that his force is gaining momentum inside Eritrea and he motivated his listeners. Someone from among the attendants spoke on his behalf and claimed that many young people from Europe and America are preparing to join the armed wing! Though it needs a pinch of salt, I hope that is true. Unfortunately, I noticed similarities between this “military” organization and the one that was formed for Semere Kesete some nine years ago. I hope the new military organization is not casted from the same mold that created Semere’s “military force.”

My skepticism was further triggered when someone announced at the congress hall that 21-members of the PFDJ military forces surrendered to the military organization. My doubt stems from the fact that a PFDJ soldier escaping through the border has first to meet the Ethiopian security forces, be disarmed, interrogated and debriefed before he meets anyone else or joins an armed resistance wing. That process could take at least a couple of weeks after which the escapee would choose where to go. But the news was presented as if the above mentioned military organization controls Eritrean territories (just like the EPLF and ELF did during the struggle era) where someone who escapes through the Eritrean countryside would immediately find squads and surrender to them. Don’t blame me: La yuldeq al mer’ou min aljuhri mereten. Once bitten, twice shy! Being the first one who interviewd Semere Kesete after he escaped to Ethiopia, I still vividly remember his “organization” and its sad ending.

Would They Retract Their Accusations?

At the congress I noticed (and I can painfully confirm to you) that all those who kept accusing the traditional resistance of wasting time bickering, as being sectarian, as being prone to fragmentation, and as being power hungry, proved to all that they love bickering, love power to death and are sectarian to the bone—worse than those they kept accusing for years. Mostly products of yesteryears, people whose history is full of troublemaking adventures, at the first clash of views, they would shed their calm skin and be aggressive and irresponsible. They would cool down when everyone around gave them dirty looks. It is like an unfortunate statment by someone who declared the congress a total failure only on the third day! That one cooled down after he discovered his prejudice was so open for all to see—though his statement could have been uttered in a moment of anger.

But all of that is insignificant to what might follow. I still expect a few people to come out with ‘Open Letters’ and ‘Closed Letters’ on and its sister websites. Ql’eti Debdabe! It wouldn’t be fun without such hypocrisy…so expect some side-shows. And I would be pleasantly surprised if that doesn’t happen in the next three-months. For now, just let us move on and celebrate the baby-step that was achieved at the congress. And work harder. (See! As I was writing this, there are already a bunch of  sophomoric statements against the congress at, where else, the usual websites. Though they are not sure what they are objecting to, it seems they have an excellent opportunity to bicker and start a fight.)

What Did The Congress Achieve?

I would summarize the achievements of the congress as follows:

  1. It made the resistance camp much broader, many folds its previous size; it created a broader front.
  2. It attracted bystanders and disengaged Eritreans who will definitely be actively involved in the next stages of combined resistance.
  3. After successfully leading the resistance to a congress, the EDA gave up a lot of its power and thus paved the way for wider participation and democratization of the resistance camp.
  4. It offered the resistance documents and roadmaps that would help it focus on defeating the tyranny in Eritrea and it equipped it with tools to deal with any eventuality inside Eritrea.
  5. It offered an opportunity for 600 Eritrean activists to meet, see and know each other better and build better inter-personal and organizational networks.
  6. It broke for good the anti-Ethiopia vitriol which is meant to deny the resistance a refuge and launching pad.

The Hawassa congress was also a confirmation of the strong Will of Eritreans and a continuation of their spirit of defiance and patience. It would be difficult to describe all the 127 members here, let alone the 590 attendants, but mentioning a few of them would give you a profile of the attendants. Here are a few:

In the 1960s, Ali was a small child when the Ethiopian forces burned Ad-Ibrahim and killed its inhabitants, he was rescued from there and taken to the refugee camps in the Sudan where he grew up and has been part of the anti-tyranny struggle for many years. He was one of the congress attendants. Also attending were two sons of the late hero, the martyr Omer Ezaz, a sign of continuation; a child saved from the massacre of Ona in 1971 was also attending; a young girl born amid the civil war in Beirut where her father was positioned during the struggle years captivated the congress with her courtesy; colleagues of the erstwhile Eritrean freedom fighters of the early sixties attended, and on the sidelines, they held a poster-show celebrating the veterans of the armed struggle; so many humble and intelligent people from South Africa  also attended and I became very close with them; I learned a lot from Nasser Biniam, Nessrddin, Yassin, Mohammed Nur and many others who live in Ethiopia and Sudan and I admired their articulation of their demands; the SWAT team from Australia, that included childhood friends, a respected teacher and even relatives and acquaintances, was great and responsible. I really enjoyed talking to delegates from the Middle East and Europe—the USA delegation, well, was exemplary with the exception of some rotten potatoes.

The congress was a far cry in quality and quantity compared to the congresses of the past. It was graced by the attendance of a significant number of women, young people, elders like aboy Habtemariam and Abba Athenathius, Jaafer Assad, Abbir and Omar Haj Idris. Veterans like Hayoti, Gedem, Jemjam and many, many others. It was also graced with the mature temperament of the likes of Adhanom, Ahmed Nasser, Hussien Khelifa, Khelil and scores of other leaders. It was fun like always to chat with Herui on a host of topics. I even sat with some friends who brought bundles of grass, they called it chat, and chewed on it while the secretariat of the congress and different representatives were deliberating and negotiating on structural issues. When my friends finished the chat, I suggested they eat the grass of the lawn on which we sat, they wouldn’t as if it is any different than the leaves they were chewing a while ago. There was beer on the resort, but macchiato and tea were the bosses of the event, no tipsy attendants ever showed at the congress; and on every prayer time, the believers assembled by the lawn and preformed the Salat ritual.

But where were the Ethiopians who were supposedly steering the congress according to the suspect quarters? I briefly saw the soft-spoken Bereket Simon in the yard, he was gone in ten minutes. The other “culprit”, General Mesfin, was there to oversee if lodging and travel arrangements were all right. He came for a few minutes at a time, maybe three times or four. But reading at the suspect websites all sorts of accusations and defamations, I must conclude that there were Ethiopian ghosts telling the congress attendants what to do and how to vote. That is all possible when you live in a world of illusion.

Daniel Tewelde’s Predicament

Another hiccup engulfed the congress: Daniel Tewelde’s predicament. Daniel is a friend who some people tried to make the center of the congress just to exploit his predicament. Luckily, many attendants were wiser than that, and he is wiser than that as well. A committee of able people was tasked by the congress to investigate his case and it came up with its findings and announced it at the congress hall. Even before the investigation started, my position was that if anyone accused Daniel of being a PFDJ mole, that would mean I am one as well. His position on the regime is just crystal clear and beyond questioning. Though I have a different view on Daniel’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of the difference between confidentiality and transparency, accusing Daniel of being a mole would reflects more on the wisdom and fairness of whoever came with that grave accusation.

The fact that a few administrators could not contain the mishap and chose to explode it just a week before the congress, could have adversely effected, or even damaged the performance of the otherwise tireless team of commissioners who made the congress happen. That forced me to throw an unbecoming remark at the congress; my remark might have seemed as a general disrespect for the commission—luckily, many  do understand my anger at the inability of some commissioners to contain the crisis. But I acknowldge the combined effort of the EDA and the 53-member commission, the entities that made the congress a reality. It is a huge task for which all involved deserve gratitude and credit. However, a few commissioners whose heads were blown out of proportion have been perpetuating this saga for too long. They have been exasperating the friction between Daniel and a few commissioners for almost a year. Though they were supposed to contain the situation, they ignored calls for restraint since a year ago when the crisis first surfaced. Personality conflicts and character clashes should not have been left to fester until it developed into a damaging crisis. And that is what happened in the case of Daniel. The weakest link in the commission is to blame.

But both sides didn’t help the situation though luckily, now it is beyond us. The investigative committee had said its word and absolved Daniel of the irresponsible accusation. His banning from attending the congress is inexcusable but the sacrifice of his right served as a lesson from which we learned a bit on the issue of accountability. And we move on with open eyes looking to the future. Now I wish Daniel would call it victory, he is avenged, and move on to do what he does best, focus on the tyranny at home.

Who Funded The Congress?

I will start with who funded my trip. I thank all my friends and supporters of who funded my trip to Ethiopia, and some more. I thank friends from Sweden and many parts of the USA. Your support is well appreciated. I have dedicated my life to this struggle that I wage to satisfy my conscience and I need nothing more than to be able to do what I chose to do: fight the tyranny in Eritrea.

All atendants paid for their air-ticket or transportation costs. They paid also for their lodging in Addis Ababa or wherever they are in their way to and out of Ethiopia. Adding to that the lost income from work, and other opportunities, I estimate the contribution of Eritreans to be well over USA$1million. I have no idea how much the entire event costed but it is a lot.

As for the hosting of the congress, on behalf of all humble and appreciative Eritreans, I thank the Ethiopian Federal Government, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region for the warm welcome and the priceless experience. Only the callous do not have the ability to appreciate graceful deeds. We the attendants of the congress are custodians of the true Eritreans spirit, the unadulterated, uncorrupted Eritrean spirit, and we know how to say Thank You, with humility.

May God bless the Ethiopians with more resources so that they can offer substantial help to the Eritrean resistance. May all their regions blossom with hope, peace and development. May the virus that stung the despicable Sudanese government of Al-Bashir not come near them. May those who wish for Western NGO funds but see Ethiopian funds less worthy be blinded more—if they have any sight left. May the Eritrean political lepers muster the courage to join the PFDJ and give us a break—then we would know who is an enemy and who is an ally—instead of their obsession with being OTTO, an Opposition To The Opposition. May the PFDJ be persuaded to throw to them some morsels so that they can save us their bickering while they chew on the leftover bones. May we be able to pay back all those who stood by our side in our time of need. May the Eritrean people see the light of liberty and justice soon.

NB: Alem Seyoum of Colorado (on the picture above) is a dear friend who welcomed me when I first came to San Jose, in defiance of most of the PFDJ lot who wouldn’t even talk to me but gave me dirty looks. Only Alem and a few others became loyal friends. Tewelde Habtemichael of Nevada, now an assembly member, is on the background of the top picture. Important: all those who promised to send me pictures, please keep your promise!

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