An Interview With Mr. Seyoum Ogbamichael
An Interview conducted with Seyoum O. Michael by Saleh Younis
San Jose, California, June 21, 2001 [published June 29, 2001]
Editor’s Note: His name is Seyoum O. Michael but everyone within ELF knew him as Seyoum Harestai (Seyoum the Farmer.) The “Harestai” monicker is due to the fact that he was the organizer of the Eritrean Peasant Association within the ELF and he was (and still is) passionate about all things agricultural: land, farming and the politics that links both. Seyoum is one of the pioneers of the Eritrean student movement that played a vital role in “urbanizing” the Eritrean Liberation Front which was, at the time, predominantly rural-based. Among his recruits is the current president of Eritrea, Mr. Isaias Afwerki and many of the luminaries of the Eritrean armed struggle. Awate.com seeks to introduce and re-introduce these historical giants to its readers and, in the process, asks background information about them: their education, their contribution, etc. Seyoum was resistant to the notion of talking about personal issues (which he feels is irrelevant when one writes about public figures): but we persisted and we were able to get information that has never been published before.
In subsequent parts of the interview [Ed: the interview was orignially serialized, but this copy is a consolidation], you will read about his arrest and the daring prison raid by the ELF to free him and his colleagues from the Adi Khuala prison, ELF-RC, the Alliance, their role in the Eritrea-Ethiopia War, why they won’t renounce violence, his views on the reform movement within PFDJ and the allegations that ELF-RC (and the Alliance) have committed treason. But in this part, we introduce you to Seyoum O. Michael.
Ato Seyoum O. Michael, welcome.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Would you tell us how your participation in the struggle started and when you started to develop nationalist sentiments and the general situation in that period?
According to my experience, sentiments of nationalism do not start in a specific time. It is a process. A process that began, let’s say, based on my experience, in the elementary school days. Because, it is a process. It was in the early days of the elementary school days, when I started to be aware of, and showed interest in, the issues. I remember in the early days, in the elementary school of the Setaweyan, Scoula San Bernardo as it was called. I was young, but I saw movements around me; movements of students who were ahead of us. A movement of specific demands, a movement [of students] addressing the situation of their education or problems they faced in the schools. But, quickly, it [the issue] developed to an opposition of the federal arrangement that Eritrea entered to [the Eritrea-Ethiopia Federation.]
There were movements. I remember, for example, at the high schools, the secondary schools, they were demonstrating. The demonstration expanded to our surroundings. Schools were closed and opened [because of the demonstrations]. Our school was an elementary school but the older students demanded that it be closed. We asked what the problems and the reasons were [for the closure.] This way, [we learned of] the situation our country was in, and to what degree the demands of the students addressed the situation our country was in.
I can describe is as a ray. We saw rays as children. Later on, (by the way, I attended an Italian school up until ninth grade), later on when we moved to middle school, I went to Scoula Alessandro Volta, commonly known as Principe. When I was there, I had brought with me memories of my childhood: the Eritrean Flag. Our school was directly behind the Eritrean Assembly Building, and coming or going to and from school, we always saw the Eritrean and Ethiopian Flags hoisted side by side–because they were hoisted on the parliament building. That was the first thing we saw on our way. One day, the Eritrean Flag was taken down and the Ethiopian Flag was hoisted unaccompanied. First, we hadn’t noticed but then I saw a crowd looking towards the building and, out of curiosity, I looked to find out what was happening; and that is when I discovered that the Eritrean flag was not there. We were used to seeing both flags and now the Ethiopian Flag had occupied the [single] post. We found out that something strange had happened.
I remember we were saying repeatedly to each other as we went in [to school], “Oramai, Le Eritrea Perduta.” To this day, I remember the feeling and I hear [echoes] of “Oremai, Le Eritrea Perdutta”. Eritrea is lost. We were depressed as we entered our classrooms. The whole discussion, the topic was that. All our teachers were Italians with the exception of our Amharic teacher and they all were talking about the same thing [the Flag] in groups; the teachers would not teach because they were talking about it. I remember all what went on that day and what we talked about. What we felt then, on the one hand, was dejection and, on the other hand, anger. Because the flag, the Eritrean Flag is what was recognizable and we were always drawing it with all its details. We were affected. Later in the city, there was widespread talk about the removal of the Eritrean Flag. It became the talk of the people. The worry of the people and the demoralization of the people was witnessed and, at the time, our people were depressed. Student movements followed that. This is the beginning of how my feelings and consciousness about my country was developed.
When was that, what year?
It was around 1958, as I remember. After that we became more involved emotionally. I cannot say we were practically involved at the time because we were young; but, emotionally, [we felt] that a big incident had occurred; a big measure had been taken against our people and country. Therefore, one way or another, our people should oppose it and we had a sense of urgency. Then, when we entered secondary school, the work of political opposition involved us as much as our schooling and education. Our emotions spill over; and our knowledge of militancy was enhanced. This is about the time I left the Italian school and attended a public school where everybody else was going: Leul Mekonen Secondary School. That’s when we initiated a practical activity of opposition. Before that, it was only emotions and gestures of opposition. Around this time and place, we met many others who were interested in the struggle and with whom we raised the political issues. Among them, I remember Weldeyesus Ammar, Naizghi, Michael Gaber, Woo…
WeldeDawit was in the school but we hadn’t met yet. But there was Zaccarias, I don’t remember his second name, and Azieb, I am not that good at remembering names, but this was the time when we started to organize peacefully and we were at the forefront of the student movement. By agitating for demonstrations and airing opposition, we highlighted the struggle of the student movement against occupation to an extent that we were being frequently detained–though the period of detention was short, two or three days at a time.
We started to spiral the movement by carrying out our activities to other secondary schools. We met others who had a similar outlook as ours and we started to get organized. We first got organized in the form of committees and then we chose a coordinating committee to harmonize the activities among the schools. As students, the unique nature of our political appeal was, on the one hand, to use the school as a starting point to oppose the occupation and, on the other hand, to organize our movement to support the Armed struggle started by the ELF around that time.
When Hamid Idris Awate began the armed struggle, the echoes of that shot had reached all corners of Eritrea but we wanted to spread it more among students and workers and propagate the message more: how opposition works, the importance of armed struggles and legitimacy. Therefore, political struggle on one side and the armed struggle that had just started on the other, had to be propagated. The reasons for propagating the armed struggle were, first, we believed in it and because we saw it as the only way out from occupation and secondly, to neutralize the Ethiopian campaign of divide and rule, the campaign of defamation of the armed struggle of the Eritrean Liberation Front that was being led by Hamid Idris Awate which they [the Ethiopians] were presenting as an Islamic opposition and an opposition of a specific Eritrean region or an opposition of seceding and division. Since that was how they were presenting the case, we, in opposition to that, had to explain and propagate that it [the struggle] was a national opposition that had advanced to an armed level and one which concerns all the country and that it was something in which the whole country should participate.
That was the tough part of our movement. Though we were getting limited materials, there were not enough written materials in the early days of the ELF. We started preparing or own. I remember, we were handwriting copies (we didn’t have duplicators). Every one of us spent nights handwriting about fifty copies – and that is done in hiding – and we were distributing the manually- duplicated materials. We were duplicating and spreading it. We drew the Eritrean Flag. I liked to draw the Eritrean flag very much; to this day, some of my friends remember me for my passion in drawing the flag. I wrote poems about national opposition. Another thing is the bulletin board in the school, which was designed for [school-related] announcement purposes. We used it to post our writings calling for national uprising and upholding the armed struggle. The school administration would take off what we posted and we would post another and so on again and again. We wrote graffiti and slogans on the walls with chalks; we wrote letters to individuals who were standing against the opposition in order to win them on our side. There were no resources then, everything was done manually and that is how we tried to influence, and within the student circle, we were able to create a very influential movement.
The [student movement] also had an organizing role on the workers – there were many industries in Asmara then – and we tried very hard to make inroads to that because we feared that the movement would be limited to a student movement and so we tried hard to get them involved. We even thought of provoking a clash with the police force, they later spread to the Tor Seraweet [Ethiopian Army]- and we asked: if we engaged them in a violent and bloody confrontation, would the people be involved? And we wanted the workers to be involved so that the movement would have its right form. By nature, the relation of the occupier and the people is antagonistic so we were striving to give it its natural form and, since we believed that the two should clash, we even agitated towards a clash.
The workers movement was strong and, at one point, especially around the time the Eritrean flag was lowered, had had bloody confrontations with Ethiopia. But it wasn’t duplicated again. The challenge was in trying to recreate it. On our part, we were calling and inviting the workers to not to stop with one confrontation; however, the struggle to enlarge the circle of the opposition was a challenge. Some workers did join the movement although severe steps were taken against them. However, they joined not as a union, but as individuals. There were also teachers who encouraged the movement. But this is now becoming “hikaya” [idle chat].what was your question [laughs]…’how did you start to have a nationalistic sentiment?’ that was your question…. this is how it started. Until it reached its climax when we were finishing secondary school, the student movement reached from the lowest level to it highest level and engulfed all the regions and secondary schools and high schools. We can say that our national consciousness evolved until it reached a stage of face-to-face confrontation with the occupational power of Ethiopia.
We are still in the High School years. Then what?
Later on, when we entered the eleventh and twelfth grade, other nationalist became involved in the student movement. Among the nationalists who started the struggle then were, for example, today’s Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki; Martyr Welde-Dawit Temesgen; Hailemariam Weldetensae, who is now known as Dru’E; Mussie Tesfamichael, an interesting fighter who was later with the EPLF, Zeccarias, Berekhet, a Berekhet Gebretensae, who, until recently, was in France, these are among those whom I remember. At least at the level of the School Committee. At the coordinating level, among the members of the committee who coordinated activities between different schools, I remember from Leul Mokennen school, Weldeyesus Ammar, who, along with me, was delegated to coordinate with other schools. From other schools there are names that I cannot remember, though as strugglers I clearly remember them. I remember, Tekhle Ezaz, Girmai Yosef, and, Michael Gaber. there were many but those are the ones that I remember who are today active in one political organization or another, or in the present Eritrean Government or the opposition. From those who were a grade or two behind us in school and took over the movement after we left, I remember, for example, Abdella Hassen, Gerezghier Tewelde.
When and how did you transition from student activist to ELF members?
When our movement escalated, especially in 1965, we were able to organize a huge demonstration. It was a large demonstration that included all schools in Asmara and other cities. The Asmara demonstration was the most prominent. It was a well-conducted and successful demonstration. It was a demonstration that exposed the Ethiopian occupational presence and confronted it. It was a demonstration that caused the first and biggest mass-arrest of students when thousands of students were detained at Sembel.
Since we were the organizers of that demonstration, we were well known to the government. When the government started to pick the, instigators, and leaders of the demonstrations, we became targeted for the crackdown. It was difficult to imprison thousands of students so they released all the students; then, they started to pick those they considered ringleaders. It was natural that those who were seen agitating or giving a speech etc, would be targeted and we thought that we were too vulnerable to continue in the movement. We couldn’t hide and when we tried to hide, we saw that the venues were exhausted. Thus, we decided to continue our activities at the level of the Liberation Army. And the advice of the ELF was also similar: they said that we could not continue in the student movement and that we should go out to join [the Liberation Army].
We discussed the decision with a limited number of our colleagues. There were also others who were being hunted down but they travelled and went in hiding in other places. The police had targeted us: they had distributed our pictures and concentrated their traps at checkpoints, particularly in the towns of the Western Lowland, since they assumed we would head towards that area. And so, we chose to head to the less likely area and carry it from there. In addition, we were of the opinion that going without leaving something behind, someone to carry the movement forward, is useless. Maybe in Eritrea, in the field, the student movement was finished but we wanted to continue our organizational activities. And so, we decided to campaign among the Eritreans living in Ethiopia. Because just simply going out without organizing the struggle would limit our chances when we want to rebuild it at a later time. Moreover, we knew that once we left, it would not be easy to come back. The choice, then, was to organize Eritrean workers and students in Ethiopia before we leave to join the Liberation Army.
The Activities in Ethiopia
Welde-Dawit and I left [Asmara] for Gonder, Ethiopia and headed to a Medical College in Gonder– I don’t know if it is still there now. The school had a concentration of Eritreans. We were able to make contacts with the Eritreans there and formed cells. We contacted and organized some workers in whom we found very encouraging views and a sense of interest in their country. That facilitated our activities. When we left, we were penniless with the exception of the cost of the first leg of our trip. Those we organized would pay the next leg of the trip. That, by the way, is how we reached all the way to Addis Ababa. Today, I wonder how we were able to do that; because of our young age and bravado, we never considered the risks involved. Are you sure this is not just idle chat?
It is part of history. Our readers want to know. Please go ahead.
We camped in at the universities. First, it was in Telecommunication, where we slept in the student dorms and organized them. Then we went to another faculty and stayed with the students at their dormitory and so on to other faculties. We then headed to Jimma and Dire Dawa and formed cells. In Dire Dawa, we formed a wide cell network because there was a large secondary school. Then on to Harar, in many towns where there were Eritreans, we formed cells of students and workers. A helpful situation was that when the Workers Union of Eritrea was hit, many workers left for neighbouring countries and many left for Ethiopia. Some of them were quite encouraging and we had a limited organization of workers. Wherever we were, we stayed in touch with our colleagues in Asmara via different codes. We wrote updating them of what we were doing and they followed our journey closely.
At long last, we had to leave Ethiopia and we had two options; either through Gonder to Sudan or through the desert of Harar to Somalia. We had already tried through Djibouti and we had been apprehended for trying to cross boundaries illegally and were returned to Ethiopia. Then we tried to cross through a place called Aisha Dewelle (spelling?), in Ogaden where we were arrested. In that incident we had materials that could have incriminated us, but luckily, they didn’t search our bags; they only asked us where we were from. My passion for the flag almost got us in trouble: I had a flag in my bag and if they had found it, it would have been the end right there. I buried it in the sand floor of the office, and when they searched [my person], they found nothing. In addition, the Colonel in charge of that place had been to Eritrea and said that he had fond memories of Eritrea. When he asked why we were there, we told him that all we wanted to do was to see our country as tourists. They paid our fare and returned us to Dire Dawa. Once in Dire Dawa, after our plans to cross were hindered, we had to find another crossing option.
We headed to Gonder. Our arrest was actually a blessing in disguise because, on our way back to Gonder, we had the chance to meet all the cells that we organized and see their developments. We met with our cells in Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, we couldn’t meet with Jimma Cells- and finally Gonder, we were able to meet again with all whom we organized. As usual, the cells would pay the next leg of our trip and cover our expenses.
The Gonder-Metemma Route
To cross from Gonder to the Sudan required a lot of information. At the time, there was no means of transportation from Gonder to Mettema. We heard that there was a vehicle that crossed once every six-months, on a tough trek that took ten days each leg through mud and forest. It transported army and police personnel who went to Mettema to relieve those who had been there; months at a time. We had to find the vehicle that went to Mettema secretly because we feared being uncovered. When we finally found the driver of the Ethiopian lorry, a Sudanese national, we presented ourselves as cadet officers from the Ethiopian Academy who had been assigned to Metemma and, since we wanted to see the countryside, we would like to travel on his lorry. He warned us of the risks of the trip but we told him that we had decided to go travel in his lorry.
It took us ten days clearing the road, which was very dangerous. While we were in the middle of our journey, the fasting season of tSom ArbaA (lent) began and we, being young students, ignored it. We went to the forest, hunted an animal and ate it. In Ethiopia, where everybody observes tSom arbaA, Naturally, the passengers who were travelling with us were very suspicious of us. Once we reached Mettema, since all the travellers considered us Ethiopian officers, when the lorry entered the police station, they went and told the officers that they have two newly assigned officers. We left our luggage with two Tigrayan travellers who had grown close to us during the trip and sneaked out before we could land in trouble. We had a problem, later, trying to locate the two Tigrayans who, incidentally, were looking for a brother they hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. Lucky for all involved, they found him and he had, by then, become to be a very wealthy man.
After a long search when we found the men. We explained our situation to their brother, and they sympathized with us. So the issue of crossing the border became a topic of discussion between all of us. The issue of money was solved because the man offered to pay for us, to pay for the trip. Now, do we continue with the same vehicle or what? When we asked about the crossing to Sudan (by the way, Mettema is almost Sudan but it is too risky to try to cross it on foot), we were told that the safest way is to cross,[on a truck]. After a lengthy investigation, we found out that the same vehicle that brought us to Mettema was going to cross over to Sudan. What do we do? We had fled from the station and they might have noticed? Anyway, we finally found the owner of the vehicle and told him that we wanted to cross. He was angry and told us: you have an issue, because they [the police] are looking for you; you left the station in a strange way, you simply evaporated from the station. He said that he doesnt want to be in trouble and refused to take us. Then the wealthy man approached him and, after offering him twice the trip fare, he tells him that he only has to carry us across the border. And that was what happened.
We crossed over and came to a place called Basonda in the Sudan. Fortunately, that was about the time when Sudanese General Aboud was toppled and a transitional government led by an ex dean of a university, Ser Alkhatem Khaleifa had taken over. The transitional government of the Sudan had announced its solidarity with the struggle of the Congo and Eritrean people. That position was the position of the October revolution; so, not only was it the position of the transitional government but also had become a popular position. Therefore, when we entered the Sudan, we were received as Heroes! In Basonda, the governor met us and hosted us as important guests. He explained the Sudanese revolution to us and we briefed him about our situation. Then he offered to arrange a trip to Gedaref on the next available transportation, but we preferred to continue with the same vehicle because it was continuing on to Gedaref. Then something else happened.
We left our guesthouse to see the whereabouts of the people who came with us on the trip. They were Ethiopian workers who come to Sudan seeking migrant labor. Looking for them, we were asking too many questions; and so we were arrested. The people who arrested us reported to the governor (who was our host) and told him that they have arrested Ethiopian spies. When he came he found us and laughed at them. He explained that we were his guests and we were given our things back and released.
Then we went to Gedaref. I remember Welde-Dawit was very sick on the journey and was suffering and coughing severely. When we reached Gedaref, it coincided with a big meeting that the ELF was conducting. Mohammed Ali Omaro [now Eritrean Ambassador to Kenya], and Mulu Ghiorgis (who would later be the cause for our arrest) were leading the meeting. When we arrived, they stopped the meeting and gave us the stage, and we gave a speech about the situation in Eritrea, the situation of the student movement and about the support of the ELF [inside Eritrea.] The program of the meeting was changed. The people became very emotional and gave us a very warm welcome. People were crying and overwhelmed with emotions. This was how our arrival to the Sudan was celebrated. Then, the journey is long but this is how the struggle in the student movement became linked with the armed struggle. We had had a few meetings in Gedaref and we went to Kessela. Then that was followed by a different phase.
PART 2 (2 of 5)
You have given us biographical detail until you joined the Armed Struggle. Could you tell us what positions you held after you joined the armed struggle?
Within the armed wing of the organization, which I joined in 1965, my first assignment was in the Information and Propaganda Department. Later on, after some [military] training, in 1966-67; it was short-lived–I was part of the Eritrean Liberation Army, in the Western Region, when it was still divided into four divisions. I was in the meeting that delineated Eritrea into four divisions; I was given the responsibility of Political Commissioner of the Third Division; martyr Abdulkerim was the military commissioner and martyr Welde-Dawit handled information and propaganda
Linking The Student’s Movement With The Armed Struggle
We [Welde-Dawit and I] devised a joint program: to reorganize and organize ELF’s underground political movement. Because we came from the student movement, we always felt responsible and always saw what needed to be done with the students. And we were interested to link the student movement with the political wing of the ELF. And we felt that the linkage between the student movement and the ELF couldn’t be done by anyone else. Nobody could do it better than us because we had been part of the leadership of the movement. Our aim was to get them directly involved in the armed struggle; they were already involved in support of the movement but we wanted them to get directly linked.
The program we prepared in Eritrea was, on the one hand, to get the force [student movement] linked with the ELF and secondly to get the other functioning ELF cells in other Eritrean cities organized and linked with the main force. This was needed because the Third Division was moving into the Highlands and operating in a region away from the Kessela, Sudan. Because the lifeline of the Third Division’s army would be too distant and alienated [from Kessela], we wanted to establish links with the towns and villages of Eritrea. This meant that the Army had to move closer to where civilian organizations were so that they could get intelligence. The army should not be left alone in the open where there was no organizational support and where there were no cells. And so, it was a big program: on the one hand it was reorganization of the existing cells and on the other hand it was involving the others in the form of student union or workers union. I was the political commissioner and I started executing my responsibilities.
Towards this end, we sent Welday Kahsay–maybe you know him–we sent him with letters to different people in Agordat. But he was not successful and his cover was blown and he returned back. We had planned for him to conduct the preparatory work for our arrival. He didn’t succeed because Welday was a new recruit and this was his first assignment. So we went to Agordat, disguised as priests and deacons, and from there, we boarded the train heading to Asmara. When we boarded the train, we were surprised to discover that the passengers were mostly Tor Serawit [Ethiopian Army]. So we went to Asmara, for our clandestine operation, chatting with the Tor Serawit all the way.
I should mention here that when Weldai Kahsay’s trip was aborted, we had sent Berhan Blatta [now a signatory to the Open Letter To PFDJ Members] as his substitute to Asmara. Actually, we embarked together from Kessela: myself, Welde-Dawit and Berhan Blatta, But when we reached Agordat, we sent Berhan Blatta ahead of us to Asmara to organize our activities there. He was aware of the internal ELF cells inside Asmara.
The whole trip was successful. In that trip we organized many of the prominent players of today, be it on the opposition or elsewhere, including President Isaias himself. As I mentioned before, those who were visible at our school, Leul Mokenen, or at other Asmara secondary schools or other places, were the ones we targeted and we organized them in ELF cells. And, simply because they are prominent today, I can mention, Hailemariam Weldetensae, known as DruE.(I just can’t get used to Haile because I am used to calling him Hailemariam), Isaias Afwerki, Gerezghier Tewelde, Abdella Hassen, Weldeyesus Ammar, Michael Gaber (Michael was killed in an accident [in Kessela]). Many others including Tesfai Gebresselassie, who, I think, is now Minister of Energy. These individuals were organized in ELF cells.
When was that, 1965?
We divided the students in two groups. Those who were in the secondary school were organized in one cell–because they will remain in Eritrea–and those who were matriculated were organized in another, because they would go to Addis Ababa. We also reorganized the existing ELF cells. We can say that the reorganizing activities helped bring about the needed Eritrean form.
The mutual suspicion among Eritrean elements was eliminated. In addition, we organized workers, teachers, and women. By workers, I mean workers who were active in Haraka. We explained the goals of the armed struggle and recruited them to the ELF. The largest number of the workers were Haraka members who were convinced to join the ELF armed struggle and be part of its cells. So there are three parts to it: first, the student movement was organized to ELF cells; second, reorganization the already veteran ELF member; and, thirdly, organizing the Haraka members. It was organization and reorganization; and recruitment when we found some who were not involved. That way when we were about to finish our work. in fact we introduced a new mode of operation: instead of planning on [Field-based] ELF guerrillas or fedaeyeen infiltrating the city to carry out an operation (which was high-risk, and required complicated resources and logistics) we decided to organize an urban guerrilla.
Some of the elements from the membership of the ELF were formed in such groups by giving them limited training on selected arms. And when they received directives, they were to carry out an operation against the enemy. This was also done. This was a big operation and to this date I am very proud of that work. It helped many to join the armed struggles and helped the ELF urban cells to get involved directly in the armed struggle. But then came betrayal.
Betrayal & Luck:The Mulu Ghiorghis and Isaias Afwerki Incident
A certain Mulu Ghiorghis, a member of the Revolutionary Committee and an ELF cadre, surrendered in Tessenei. They brought him to Asmara. He knew all the plans and knew who was working with us in Asmara. He fingered a person who was transporting us. The person was jailed. It was obvious that we were at risk. We made a mistake: when we heard about his surrender (the underground intelligence in Asmara had informed us; the ELF intelligence network was very organized), we should have left. But we were eager to accomplish what we came for. Then they detained the man who was hosting us while we were waiting for him, surprised that he was late. We discovered, too late, that the house where we were in was surrounded by Tor Serawit. The guy who surrendered to Ethiopia [Mulu Ghiorghis] was later said to have been an implant.
You were careless?
Not carelessness. We had to finish what we came for. It was kind of a challenge– though it was a misplaced challenge. Now, in hindsight, we should have left. but then as I said before, we were not worried of what might befall us but on what we should accomplish, that was our goal and that hurt us. When you see it from the ELF point of view, the ambitions and programs and the important projects that were awaiting us. Many things were destroyed because we were detained. By the way, at the moment we were detained,[President] Isaias could have been detained: right about the time we were being escorted out of the house, Isaias came to the compound, riding a bicycle. But the Tor Serawit, didn’t suspect that he might have any involvement with us.
He entered the house?
He and Gerezghier Weldu were riding on a bicycle and they almost came face to face with us as they were entering the house from which we were taken by the Tor Serawit. Other than telling them to stay away, they didn’t ask them who they were. That was good luck. I am glad he [Isaias] was not detained with us because he played a good role. He followed us and spread the news of our detention because, then, the people knew where we were. They played a positive role and offered some kind of protection. Otherwise, if you are jailed by the Tor Serawit, you are taken not to a police station but the Tor Serawit camp, Villagio Junio. Once there, they interrogate you, take the information they need and tell you, Dig! and you dig a hole, big enough to be a grave, where they kill you and bury you. This is how so many precious lives were lost. But in our case, the news spread fast so they interrogated us and demanded that we renounce our cause and aim. When we resisted that, they had no choice but to take us to court.
There was a third person that was jailed with us, Memher Seyoum, who, if my memory serves me right, was the Headmaster of Hebret School. We pleaded with him and tried to convince him to put all the blame us so that he can get out. Memher Seyoum, he was later ran over by a car: they killed him.
The Ethiopians killed him?
Yes. Meanwhile, our main task became how to get him [Memher Seyoum] out of prison. We asked him to tell the Ethiopians that we tried to recruit him and that he rejected us and that we all stick to this story. But there is that Eritrean thing: he was a truly patriotic Eritrean, and despirte our efforts, he told us that everyone should get his share [of the suffering]. He said that his conscience would not permit him to blame everything on us and be freed and that he would rather share imprisonment or death with us. We pleaded with him saying that we were caught red-handed and him blaming it on us will not add anything more to what we were already accused of. But it was futile. Moreover, talking with him was not easy because we were put in different cells and we were communicating through one of our guards, an Eritrean, whom we recruited later on to an ELF cell. He was passing messages from us Memher Seyoum. We persisted and kept pressuring and, finally, he [Memher Seyoum] accepted [the plan]. He was released after he told them that we tried to recruit him and that he had declined our offer. They released him and told him that he would have to come to court to testify as a witness. He accepted and it was done.
Demand To Renounce The Cause
The guard who had helped us got carried away and started to smuggle food and other things. He was soon found and jailed. Apart from the camp labor, the prison situation was not bad.
Then they asked us to renounce our cause. They gave us a statement to sign and the statement said that our goal were wrong and that we recant it. We told them that they are the ones who have to recant what they were doing. We told them: you occupied Eritrea illegally and announced that it was part of Ethiopia violating all international laws, and violated the right of self determination and violated the federation charter of the United Nations. And we told them that they had to withdraw from our country. At the time, we didn’t see the risks in what we were doing. They were planning to get us to renounce our cause so that they can publish it in Newspapers to be used as a ropaganda for the youth and others, but we denied them that opportunity. They finally gave up and presented us to court. By the way, the house where we were apprehended was the house of Martyr Siraj Ahmed, a very important person in Eritrean history. He, at a later stage joined the [the armed struggle] and was martyred in 78-79.
A Very Important Person in Eritrean History
Who was he?
He was a tailor in Asmara and one of our prominent ELF members then. The recruitment for the Asmara-born leaders of Eritrea’s armed struggle was done at his house. Earlier, I had mentioned Ghirmai Yousief who was part of the student movement. When he was jailed he was forced to lead them [to the cells] and he led them to the tailor shop of Siraj. And so on.
Ghirmai was not a collaborator. It was the case [commonly agreed] that when someone is jailed he denies that he knows anything and stalls for about three days–by then all the suspects would flee, hide or move to other places. After the expiration of the three-day grace period, it was acceptable to provide token information to save your life. That is what Ghirmai did. Incidentally, we didn’t use the three days of grace period and that was why we were caught.
Trial: A Bench and A Platform
So we were presented to court, and the trial started. In court, well, it is a long story, but we were sentenced to a ten year jail term. The prosecutor was asking for the death penalty, but the judge gave us a sentence of ten years. Since the case an open and shut case, our defense was to claim that an Ethiopian court has no jurisdiction and no right to try us, the trial became very controversial. We were using the trial for mobilization purposes and the deliberations were being leaked to the outside by soldiers and the rest. We used the court as a platform for mobilization. After we were sentenced, the prosecutor appealed the ruling, but that was not your question. Your question was about the positions I held.
What positions did you hold after you became the political commissioner of the Third Division?
Yes, yes, that was the answer. After I was the political commissioner, I was assigned to jail.[laughter]
The prosecutor was Amanuel Andemichael [an Eritrean] who was the Attorney General and there was someone else with him, I can’t remember his name but sounds like Kelkel. The prosecutors were appealing out ten-year-sentence and get us the death penalty.
Who was you attorney?
Tseggai. Tseggai Melles. Tseggai went through a lot of problems with us. He was trying to argue with us to try a different defense. Anyway, they appealed. The Judge, Tekola, was sympathetic to us. During the deliberations, he became quite sympathetic towards us.
Was he Eritrean?
He is an Amhara, I mean Ethiopian. He was not happy with what the prosecutors were doing trying to push for the death penalty. We felt that he didn’t want to go beyond ten years [jail term] He said that we should be given a chance. But after the prosecutors appeal, it was clear that we were going to the death penalty. Then the ELF took a pre-emptive action.
You Will Die Before They Do
The action was an announcement by the ELF to the prosecutors, telling them that if we were sentenced to die, they assured them: you will die before they do. All of a sudden they withdrew their appeal. In fact, the proceedings stopped and we were sentenced to ten years. Of course, we knew why but we could not tell [our attorney] tSeggai Melles. He asked us, surprised, why they would withdraw their appeal after so enthusiastically pushing for the death penalty. He told us that we were lucky; we told him ten years is not lucky.
The Raid of Adi Kuala and Sembel
In 1975, after so many failed attempts to break out of the prison, it finally happened. The famous operations at Adi Kuala and Sembel [the ELF raid of the prisons and freeing the prisoners.] What people don’t know is that there had been fourteen failed attempts before the success. There were some that were planned to be executed jointly with the ELF military wings and that failed for different reasons; others that were uncovered before they were even attempted; others that we the prisoners planned. The fifteenth attempt was successful. The Adi Khuala operation was planned by me inside the prison. I planned everything from within the prison walls and the role of the ELA was to execute.
Who Did You Co-ordinate With, Outside The Walls of Prison?
On the other side, beyond the walls, was Martyr Saeed Saleh. That is a daring operation that should be covered in detail on another occasion.
Anyway, after we were freed from the prison, I was assigned to the political office [of the ELF] in a provisional status and shortly after that, the congress [second national congress of the ELF 1975] was held and I participated in it. After that, I was assigned as the Political Commissioner of Administrative region No 10 (AkeleGuzai) and I was also the General Administrator of the region. This continued until 1977. And in 1977 for a short period of time I worked in the ELF/EPLF dialogue committee, before the dialogue was aborted. Then I was assigned Administrator of the Political School of Cadres. And for a short period, I was a member of the Administration of the political office and Administrator of Political School of Cadres and then in the Preparatory Committee for the formation of the Eritrean Peasants’ Union.
I served for one year in that capacity. It was from 1977 to 1978. In 1978 we held the founding congress of the general Union of Eritrean Peasants in Medefera wher peasants from all over Eritrea were represented; there has never been a congress of its kind before it or after it. Not a single “wereda” or “Adi” was left from the representation in the general union of Eritrean Peasants. Even the people who were around the EPLF camps, in Sahel, elected representative and participated; it was a really national peasants’ congress. In that congress, I was elected charman of the general union of the Eritrean peasants.
What were your main tasks?
At the time, I was leading [administering] land reformation and distribution, formation of joint activities, cooperatives in all corners of Eritrea until the new developments in the Eritrean field was created [the Weyane/EPLF attack and the subsequent military defeat of the ELF]. By the way, I consider myself, legally, the President of the Eritrean Peasants Union simply because there was no congress that ended my mandate (zewredeni guba’e sle zeyelo) .
I still feel responsible for all Eritrean Peasants in regards to their needs and aspirations. And I am genuinely and actively concerned about Land Issue. There after, every body was assigned to the defense of the ELF though this cannot be considered an assignment- because all the organization and the supporters of the organization (ELF) were involved. In the last capacity, [as chairman of the Eritrean Peasants Union], I visited many countries. In preparing the congress, and then to establish relations for the Eritrean Peasants’ Union with the cooperative movements of the world, with World Peasant Movements, with different mass organizations and workers unions, I traveled to Europe, the Middle East and participated in many international conferences. Later, when we were all involved in the defense of the ELF, in the 1984 organizational conference of the ELF, I was elected member of the revolutionary council of the organization (ELF-RC). And later, in 1991, I was elected member of the Executive Committee [of the ELF-RC]. In 1993, I became member of the Executive Committee, as Head of the International relations office and I continued in that capacity after the fourth congress.
Part 3 (3 of 5)
You said that one of the issues that you are interested in with passion is land law. Now, what difference of opinion do you have with the existing land laws and policies?
The difference is not only a ‘difference of opinion’ but it can be seen from the prospective of difference in organizational constitution [ELF-RC vs PFDJ]. The existing PFDJ policy is a policy of plunder and that is how we see it. Basically, the use of a veneer that says, land is the property of the government, is a ploy to own and to distribute land selectively and on whim; to enforce your power interest until you solidify your financial capability. To seize land as you wish; to offer land in the marketplace in exchange for hard currency, is to undermine the basic asset of our people that they used for ages. In short, it is undermining and pulling the carpet from under their legs. Because of that, we consider the policy that the government is following, as a policy of plunder; it is a policy of looting. It is unpopular, illegal and undemocratic.
The land policy that we stood for earlier and defend today is a policy originating from the people and one that can only be identified by the interest of the people. Though in different zones of Eritrea there were different methods of usage and ownership of land, generally speaking, land is owned by the people, and administered through a basic organizational level of our people counties, communities, etc. It was strictly administered under the authority of the people and used for the benefit of the people. Land laws respect the right of every citizen under the law. This is how it was. That was the system of the people and it was egalitarian in nature.
In our country, when we say a citizen, it is not something hanging between the sky and the ground. A citizen is something in relation to its land, its place dwelling space and its interests related to land. When we say a citizen we mean land and the rights associated with it. We don’t see a citizen divorced from land and divorced from the rights associated with it. That is not something that can work. What is being tried now is just that. Land [is] the root of every citizen and his basis; for today and for the future. Land is the continuity of generations and it is so for every citizen. To undermine this system and declare land as the property of the government, and to dispose off land on the basis of whims and relations can’t be anything but plunder and it is being witnessed in reality.
As we witness today, land is being taken from poor peasants and villages that should use it and on which their basic existence depends (when we say “Adi” it means the people and the land) and being sold to various hard-currency- paying foreigners and hard currency owning Eritreans. This has caused our people to be go from poor to poorer. It is uprooting the citizen and it is undermining citizenship.
Fundamentally, the people own land. When we say land of the people, it is also the land of the country. However, it is not possible to look into land issues outside the ownership and interest of the people. Yes, we are a country and we are a government, if it is a popular government. It is possible to have some limited land that is of strategic value, one so determined by law, which can be utilized for the benefit of the whole country and people. However, this, the use of land, cannot be done without the consent, outside the interests and will of the villages and regions. Even a government cannot [use land] by undermining the interests of the people and their foundations. Even the limited use of land for infrastructure development becomes plunder, unless it is done in accordance with the need and consent of the regions and in which they can share the benefits.
Therefore, we oppose strongly the actions that are taken by the government and its agents on the land of the people, their identity and foundation. To begin with, the ELF-RC, has very clear basis and goals and specific initiatives and calls that we have repeatedly announced to the people on this issue. The initiative is based on a principle that includes our people. Moreover, our land policy cannot be seen from an organization’s standpoint only; it is a popular call because the Eritrean people have participated in its formation and construction, be it at the level of the Eritrean Peasants Movement or the Eritrean General Peasants Union or in the level of the ELF-RC. Beyond that, this policy was the call of all political movements of our people, even before the creation of the ELF or other national movements. Our principled stand cannot be dismissed just by labelling it an organizational policy: it is a popular policy, a revolutionary policy and national policy. Even if the [PFDJ] government overruns the policy, it will remain a popular and solid policy and we shall stand by it.
In general, this is our land policy.
Now, if you ask the representatives of the Government of Eritrea, they say, land belongs to the people, and we represent the people, we administer and develop it on the behalf of the people. You are saying that the land issue should be decided locally by people closest to the land. They are saying, we want a uniform land policy that can be administered centrally for the development of the country.
The land policy is not something that should be seen only from top going to the bottom but should be seen from bottom up. First, basically what is referred to as the citizen, the citizen (wedi Adi, zega) is not something you see in alienation to the land. We say a citizen, in Eritrea, living in a city or the countryside, regardless: we see it from the viewpoint of land domocile (Tsha). Therefore, it [land ] cannot be administered by policy that is imposed from the top to the bottom, outside the circle of the authority of the people. So, when we say government, what is the relation of that government to us? A government of the village? Or is it the government of the Zone? Or the government of the Region? Or it is a only a central government? When we say government according to our views, it has many levels, there is even a government of a commune and a county government, something that is not authorized from the top but one whose authority emanates from the people. Therefore, the mechanism of administrating land, in our view should go from bottom to the top zonal and regional- where basic views are established and one that is seen from the interest of different localities. Therefore, when we say Government, we will ask, which government? Because we will also say that the “Adi” has its own government.
Two questions, 1) you said that a citizen is seen from the angle of land. By this definition, doesn’t it mean that one who doesn’t own a land is not a citizen? 2) In ancient times, a citizen would be born, grow up, get married and die in the same plot of land. But now, with the freedom of movement that is guaranteed by the constitution (all constitutions) what happens when one moves from place to place in the same country?
What we said is that we cannot differentiate a citizen from land and land from a citizen and that is the Eritrean reality. We believe that every Eritrean is entitled to a land.in principle. Every Eritrean is entitled to land for living (Tsha), in principle and by law. But when we come to implementing, in practice, it becomes an administrative issue. For example, if someone, a person who doesn’t live in an agricultural community is given an agricultural area, will he be able to use it or not? could be open to questioning, but this is answered administratively. One who lives in Adi, depends solely on land –to what extent should his right to use and own land be protected; is land his main source income or he has another source is an administrative issue.
When we formulated our policies, we believed that every Eritrean is entitled to land for Tsha. To have a land in their country as their roots and also to have a place to live in is agreed upon in principle but when it comes to putting it in practice, because there are questions of administrative nature so it remains an administrative question. Even when we carried out the land distribution and reformation in 1978-79, we put the above into consideration. When I say, we, there is no land policy that we brought from the top and imposed on the people. Each community (Adi) participated in the decision and was involved in its [the policy’s] execution with full consent and participation. And that is why it was successful. Had it been an imposed [policy], it wouldn’t have been successful. It is a matter of principle and it is a matter of rights. It is a matter of entitlement as far as the citizen is concerned; but implementing that principle, its utilization, becomes an administrative issue. Now, we cannot go into details: it is something that can be seen in light of distribution and use. That is why we cannot see a citizen separated from its rights and entitlements. When we define a citizen, it is not someone who is uprooted, someone who does not have a root in the Eritrean land or someone without an entitlement to land.
A final question on your passion: land policies. The difficulty is not in agreeing about principles but its utilization. For example there are regions like the Kebbessa (Highland) with diminishing size of land: Population increases but land doesn’t. One generation has a bigger allotment of land than the next. Then other places of Eritrea (lowlands) have disproportionately smaller population compared to the land. How do you address this? Do you fear mismanagement of land policy would make Eritrea another blighted Africa with shantytowns in its cities?
First, I have to confirm one truth because we have to base our conversation on that: In Eritrea, there is not a compact entity [land] that is not owned by the people; there is no piece of land that is not territorially delineated and that can not be identified by a people, regardless of the number of the people. There is no land that is outside the control or ownership of a segment of the people. There is no commune or county that cannot be identified with the people. The people own the land; they are identified by the land; they are identified with the land; and their livelihood life is based on that land. They can use the land for grazing, settlement, farming and whatever: it is their identity, their roots and their base. Therefore, whether in one place there are more people and less land, or less people and more land, regardless, it is delineated and all of us Eritreans have to accept this fact. Once we accept this fact, the administrative.
When you say Demarcated, do you mean as Hamassien, Seraye etc (provincial), or Adi Kusto Adi Kusto (at the commune level?)
First, it has to be seen from the ‘Adi’ level. For example, even land that is identified by a clan is also delineated. Even a tribe’s identifiable land is known. Its use is a different issue. Maybe it is not used for farming and its owner might not have trespassing objections, especially the land that the Italians allotted as Domaniale, (State Land) and later was distributed to [Italian] nationals for exploitation, regardless of that we cannot identify the land as such simply because that was how [The Italians] allotted it. If we go down to our people, they know the boundaries of the people and the boundaries of the land. And we, the ELF-RC, know and can identify [the boundaries] properly. When we come to the utilization [of land], then it becomes an administrative issue.
When we come to the introduction of land reforms, how does the Eritrean citizen use land in different corners of Eritrea?– there are reforms to be introduced. If there is something new we want to introduce, the source has to be the people. We don’t believe that the prevalent culture among our people in regards to the organization of land, from ownership to utilization, is without flaws. There could be flaws specially when development takes place, concentration of people from one place to another can be observed and mistakes can be observed. But this is not a policy that we impose but something that the people should participate in by having a role in making decisions in its regard. [It is something] that [the people] should willingly accept as a fact and move on; and then, such reforms could be introduced.
But, we don’t mean that the utilization of land and its boundaries is a rigid and unchangeable reality. As we go on there could be [policies] that should be introduced in relations to the use and administration [of land] and that could be needed objectively. But here, nothing, concerning the land should be imposed from the top; we do not support or accept this approach; we oppose it. Reforms on land ownership and utilization can only be introduced after the people, at the grassroots level consciously observe realities and after they are debated by the people on a national level on national conferences and after carrying our national studies where the people are directly involved. In this regard, our people are quite conscious. No reform policy should be imposed [on our people], under the pretext of modernization, outside the will and the participation of the people , or under the pretext of equalization.
Moreover, an agricultural area should not remain an agricultural area indefinitely. There is a possibility that an agricultural area might develop to become an industrial area. If you cannot use your land for agricultural area and you were entering the stage of industrialization, yield of land is not limited to grain only; you can use it for many things. Development is not limited to dividing of land only, because it will also involve the transition from one mode of production to another mode of production, we say there should be an overall view of the developments that might ensue. All this will be witnessed in development. There is no such thing as: once an agricultural [land] always an agricultural [land]. In our world today, we see places that were purely agricultural lands that have become centres of industrial development. We cannot see the developments now, but with any forthcoming development, there are reforms regarding the use of land that could be introduced, in one zone or another. Land reform should be [an exercise] that involves the people directly, not a law that snatches land from the people; thus it should not be a law of plunder under the pretext of government or another.
Part 4 (4 of 5)
Let me ask you about the ELF-RC’s relationship with other organizations in The Alliance of Eritrean Opposition Forces. Is the ELF-RC a junior partner or a senior partner?
Our relationship, which was agreed to by all, is identified by minimum agreements of common ground and is governed by a National Charter. At the political level, the minimum agreement focuses on the immediate tasks of our people. And that is: getting rid of the dictatorship in Eritrea; opening a political platform for all Eritreans; and to move to a democratic system through a National Transitional unity government. Towards this end, we held a conference of all national organization in 1999 and we formed a minimum agreement charter that we pledged to work on hand in hand. Therefore, our relation with [the other organizations] is governed by that [the Charter]. As for our partnership, let’s characterize it as the leading democratic opposition in Eritrea. It [this kind of organization] is a new type of organizing. Perhaps it is the first of its kind in the Eritrean political experience. If there was an experience like that which we can compare it to, maybe it is The Independence Bloc of the 1940s but in a more developed manner of organizing. This is a more developed organization seen in the Eritrean arena be it at the level of the national charter or at the level of the joint leadership.
When we come to relations, this [ELF RC] is the leading democratic opposition and naturally it is expected to play a high role in the strengthening of the National Alliance of Eritrea. However, in our relations with all Eritrean organization, we meet on equal basis. Just because we are the leading organization doesn’t mean we impose ourselves on the member organizations of the Alliance. We don’t impose ourselves based on our size and weight; on the contrary, because of our weight and our size, we believe that we have to carry more of the burden. This [sense of responsibility] is of our own will and not due to some sort of imposition. The type of relation we have is on the basis of equality: one organization one vote. We abide by and defend this because there has to be a trust among the organizations. After we build confidence in one another, then we can look into studies on our operations and other realities. But before confidence is built, we don’t find it constructive to impose [our organization] to have more say in decisions, etc. simply because we are bigger and heavier. We didn’t find it constructive to impose; especially in this primary stage of development.
We are interested in (1) fostering confidence among the members of the organization; ( 2) how to push towards achieving the goals regardless of the size [of the organization] and ( 3) when it reaches the stages of maturity, based on the realities of its formation, to maybe look into the minimum points of agreement and upgrading the national charter. We might look into it once we build confidence among the organization and we would have a chance to do that but right now it is not something one can talk about. It is too early to say that.
Since you mentioned the Independence Bloc of the 1940s– it is claimed that the Independence Bloc was not formed to protect Eritrean interests but was formed by foreign powers to advance foreign interests. And now, since the formation of the Alliance Forces was in 1999, when the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was raging on, the accusers say that this Alliance was hatched and put together by Ethiopia. To what extent is this true? Especially given that during that time, the language of the representatives of the Alliance was identical to that of the Ethiopian government media.
Such talks have been there. And who is behind these talks? It is the dictatorial system of Eritrea. Let’s see what the dictatorial system of Eritrea used to say about the opposition before the Alliance was formed. Before the beginning of the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict and before the formation of the Alliance, the regime and its followers were saying what they are saying now, nothing different. It is always the habit of all dictatorial systems to design a broadcasting program to alienate the opposition and instill hate for the opposition in the people.
Even before the start of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the creation of the Alliance, it was saying that [the opposition] are tools of foreign powers and fifth columnists (Hamshai mesrE), etc, etc. After the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict started and the formation of the Alliance of Eritrean Forces, the accusation was only amplified but didn’t change its nature. In the past, the accusation was tools of foreign power, and now it is the same; in the past, the accusation was fifth columnists and so it is now. As far as we are concerned, the accusation leveled against the opposition forces is different only in its intensity. In regards to the accusation, we know and are confident of what we did and where we went; we are not concerned. There might be elements that could be misled, but we are confident that even the misled, once the truth is cleared, will be swayed by the truth. And the First Truth is: the Alliance of Eritrean forces is involved in Eritrean activities and not an Ethiopian activity or a Sudanese activity or any other activity.
The efforts, dialogues and communications to form the Alliance didn’t come about with the beginning of the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict. Efforts were being made towards that end, especially to get the opposition forces to get their activities together and push in unison, to be heard and to have impact. And there was extensive communication among the organizations reflecting the popular expectation of Eritreans for that. Though it might not be among all the members, some member organizations of the Alliance had carried out activities of coalition building. The contacts continued after that and well before the start of the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict. Hence, the formation of the Alliance of the Eritrean Opposition Forces in 1999 is a continuation and evolution of the previous movements towards unity and not something that took place the way the dictatorial system explains it. Our people know this and have been following it. If the claim is: since [the Alliance organizations] were not united in 1997, they shouldn’t unite in 1999, then this logic is not understandable. We didn’t have appointments with the year 1998 neither did we have an appointment with the year 1999. What we had were efforts and to bring out efforts to fruition, we had to undertake the journey. Thus, the task was an Eritrean task, the dialogue was an Eritrean dialogue; and the need for the Alliance was a task demanded and anticipated by the Eritrean people.
It was a task of unity; a task where we unite our word, where we unite our muscle, and hit the dictatorial system on the political and other aspects and removes the system from the backs of our people. That was the task that we carried out. The stage clearly demanded the formation of an Eritrean Alliance. If an opposition is to have an impact at the national level and be heard internationally, it will result in victory in a short period of time. It was an objective necessity. Therefore, the formation of the Alliance was a big success and victory. The formation of the Alliance threatened it [the Eritrean government]; and the primary goal of the Alliance was to prepare the ground for unity and encircle the dictatorship with intensify, both through popular and international circle; to open a free Eritrean political stage and remove the oppressive system off the back of the people and open a new era of democracy, unity and stability in Eritrea. It is natural that the regime would be threatened. Because it was threatened, it campaigned heavily against it at once claiming that the Alliance was formed by Ethiopia and at other times that it was formed by Sudan. The goal was to ensure that the Alliance was alienated and hated by the people. So, these accusations are not new. Basically, however, the task was an Eritrean task and its results are Eritrean benefits. And we are confident that in the end, it will be an Eritrean fruit. Since we know what we did and why we did what we did, the campaigns of baseless accusations and lies would not hinder our journey in any form and will not embarrass us.
The Alliance of Eritrean opposition Forces is repairing, maintaining and salvaging the damage inflicted by the oppressive regime in our people’s relations with their neighbors. We are rebuilding the damaged relations with Sudan with a new foundation; as well as the relations that the regime damaged with Yemen. And the relation with Ethiopia, that was very damaged; we are rebuilding it on a new basis and a smooth basis so that it can serve future generations. So [for the Eritrean government] to say when I am damaging, you should join in the damage and if you are found in a country that I am quarreling with, you are tools of foreigners cannot be acceptable by any standard. And we believe our people have discarded this message. We are in our strongest position. Its efforts to distance us from neighboring countries, and then to distance us from our people, be it via liquidation or defamation campaigns has all failed and the system itself is found in a narrow corner and the rope that it prepared to put on our necks is today found around the neck of the oppressive system. This is the truth.
In the last three years of war, you, as an opposition, had to tell the people about the mistakes that you believe the Eritrean government was committing. But, at the same time, why didn’t you speak out about the mistakes of the Ethiopian government and condemn it with the same vigor? Was there an interest, tactically or strategically, for not doing so?
It’s true, that in the last three years of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, there were mistakes from both warring sides. But, we focused on the issue of the origin and the cause of the conflict and the very risky cause that exposed our people to risks and put the whole region on fire. Therefore, our political and informational tasks concentrated on pointing to the dangers and the futility of the war exposing the arrogant war policy of the oppressive regime of Eritrea that bore this war; the losses, from Eritrea and Ethiopia in terms of human and material resources; lost development opportunities and the risk to the relations that should continue between the two people. This was what we were pointing at, and by doing that we called on our people and the international community to exert pressure: that was what we gave importance to. But during the war, consistent with our view and conviction, using different communiques, we condemned and exposed with the strongest words possible the acts of imprisonment and deportation that befell the civilian Eritreans and Ethiopians alike, who were not supposed to be part of the war. Not only this, we called on the concerned governments and we appealed to the international community to stop these practices. Since we were in discussions with the Ethiopian government, we asked them to stop the deportations and we used our limited pressures. But, since the war was between the two governments, to what extent our pressure could influence the stopping of the war is understandable to anyone.
But our stand was there and was explained openly in our communique and when we were discussing with the Ethiopians we pressured from the start till the end of the war. We can confidently say that, with our limited influence and pressure, we managed to decrease the actions and decreased the fear and terror and we played an important role in saving a big number of Eritreans from deportation. Those living far away from the hub of the activities might think otherwise but Eritreans living in Ethiopia know and praise our task and we can ascertain that our efforts will make us proud for a long time. But regarding the war between the two governments and the actions and counter-actions and the issue that was difficult even to the international community, it is clear that we cannot be fully successful in it. Apart from that, there wasn’t any communique of the Executive Committee and Revolutionary Council, which we didn’t mention, condemn and not call for it to stop. Anyone who has read our communiques properly and read our position papers properly could see that. But we don’t give much weight to the ears that didn’t want to listen and have decided not to listen whatever we announce and whatever we condemn. However, we have been knocking.
It is inevitable that there are always elements that understand things only after reality sets, that understand things only the hard way. This process has exposed many truths. Today, it is known that the stand that the Eritrean Liberation Front, Revolutionary Council has taken on different basic issues that concern our country and people has been a courageous stand–not as seen from afar, but from inside Ethiopia. By any measure, it was a stand that we explained with pride and one we are confident of.
We will withstand, with self-confidence, whatever campaign of defamation is directed against us. We have discharged our responsibility and moved for the sovereign interests of Eritrea and for the sovereign national interests of Eritrea, the sovereign basic interests of our people. We will confront any accusation from any corner, with self-confidence. It is a certainty that Eritreans who followed our movements and steps in all corners of the world, especially those in Ethiopia,( since they know this more than others) will stand on our side and reflect the truth. The war and its dangers, one that we warned of repeatedly since its outset, has materialized, word for word today, in the manner we warned of in our periodic statements. And this is now being discussed by our people.
Since the release we issued in May 1998, and until the time the peace agreement was signed [between Eritrea and Ethiopia], we had notified all of the risks and the consequences of the war. We had warned that it would damage the basic interest of our country and endanger its existence; that it will expose our people to destruction, hunger and death; we have warned of the consequences of the war since the beginning and called for stopping it. This is what we see now and had our call been accepted then, instead of defaming us and trying to alienate us from the people with false accusations, had our calls been heard and had our warnings been take into considerations, Eritrea would not haven been found in the deep political and economic chaos, international alienation and the image of our country and our people would not have been so sullied. I will not say that we made a prophecy, but we saw the risks and warned about it. Maybe the Eritrean Regime, wanted us to beat war drums and join in dancing to the beat of the war drums with it, but the responsibility we have from our people and our vision is not of war and destruction; we stand for the stability and the well being of our people. We don’t have a minimum level of regret for our stand regarding our handling and views on Eritrean interests.
In 1994, the security units of the Eritrean and the Ethiopian government rounded up the members of the ELF-RC in Ethiopia and deported them. The relation between Ethiopia and the ELF-RC was at its worst. Since then, what happened? How was it possible that the relations were mended? How was it that the contacts and relations started during the beginning of the war and what kind of relation did you have until then?
It is true, in 1991, when the land of Eritrea was liberated and when the oppressive Mengistu regime was defeated and the EPRDF came to power, we had a dialogue with the EPRDF and, based on the understanding that we reached, we struggled to bring our movement within our people who live in Ethiopia. But after two years, in 1994, twenty-six ELF cadres including the organization’s leadership were detained by the Ethiopian authorities; after sometime, we made efforts and made arrangements for them to go to different countries. This was a negative experience on the understanding that we had with the EPRDF and it reflected negatively on the development of our relations. It was also something that created unfortunate incidents. But, regardless of the incidents, neither the relation of the ELF with EPRDF nor its ability to continue moving in Ethiopia could remain limited to those incidents because the question is not EPRDF and ELF; it is the relations of the Eritrean and Ethiopian people.
We did not choose the Ethiopians to be our neighbors and we couldn’t choose; we don’t have that chance. Also, they didn’t choose us to be their neighbors and can’t do that; they do not have that chance. This was determined by nature, we are neighbors and we will be neighbors. We can only have one choice: do we live in peace as neighbors or with intense and bad relations? On this matter, we have a choice. We as ELF-RC want to live in peace with those whose status of neighborliness cannot change, be it Ethiopia or Sudan.
In 1994, then the relations deteriorated, it didn’t mean that our neighborliness was gone. Based on this, we moved to rectify the issue. We asked for explanations from the Ethiopian authorities, we had talks with their representatives from all corners in 1996 and again in 1997. When we, ELF-RC, saw positive signs of correction in 1997, we decided to establish our presence in Ethiopia.
In 1997 there was nothing called Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. We drew plans for our presence in Ethiopia and to move among our people in Ethiopia and we reached an understanding to advance our strategy of struggle in the Ethiopia side. This was what we implemented. We cannot say whether the conflict that appeared in 1998 had an influence, or a decisive role in the renewal of our relations. It only had a catalyzing effect. It hastened it but didn’t create it because we had already taken the decision of re-establishing ourselves in Ethiopia and we had reached a mutual understanding. Thus, the answer to the question: were there new developments that made the renewal of the relations possible?’ is, ‘ Yes, there was.’ There was a communication and, in fact, there were positive understandings. The understanding was regarding the incidents of 1994 that we both saw from a critical appraisal perspective. Even if there was no [Eritrea-Ethiopia] conflict, the road to our return to Ethiopia was already cleared and decisions taken. But I cannot say that it [the conflict] didn’t hasten our return to Ethiopia, that would be hiding reality and truth and giving wrong indications, because the main reason that they decided to end our presence [ELF-RC] from Ethiopia was because their strong relations with the Popular Front. At that time, they had to choose between the Eritrean government and us. At that stage, for reasons they knew, they chose the Popular Front. Therefore in 1998, the new thing was that that factor [strong relationship with the Eritrean Government] was not there. Even if there was no conflict, we would have gone ahead because, to us, Ethiopia is important as a neighbor because we are banned from Eritrea and our movement is underground. We can only reach Eritrea from Sudan, from Ethiopia and neighboring countries and for us Ethiopia is a convenient strategy, it is where about half a million Eritreans live and it has a very long boundary with Eritrea. As a strategy of struggle, in the level of people and suitability of place, it is very important for us. We mean it is important for the Eritrean people. When we went to Ethiopia, we didn’t go to Ethiopians, we went to Eritreans-those who were in Eritrea and those who were in Ethiopia. We spread our ties to the relations that we have with our people and not for organizational interest because we as ELF-RC we don’t see our organizational interest separately from the interest of our people.
One of the things that we hear is that in May 2000, when the Ethiopian Army penetrated into Eritrean territories, the Alliance forces, whatever their number, followed the Ethiopian Army and came to the occupied territories to take power and administer the country, in Senafe, Barentu or Geluj. What do you say about this as a member of ELF-RC or as a member of the Alliance forces?
This accusation is leveled by the oppressive regime of Eritrea against the opposition forces. It is part of the defamation and the effort to alienate [opposition forces]. But in this interview, since I am talking in my capacity as head of the foreign relations office of the ELF-RC, I am strictly speaking about the ELF-RC. The ELF-RC didn’t participate in any form in any military operation in any battlefront during the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Not only did it not participate, but that is something that cannot cross its thoughts. Why? Because, the understanding that we had reached with the Ethiopian government was the non-interference on each other’s cases; respecting each other’s sovereignty; and to solve differences that appear between the two countries in peaceful and legal means. Not only this, there was no occasion that passed without us pressuring and mentioning the need to try all peaceful means and to spare no effort to compromise in order not to escalate the conflict for the sake of the two peoples. We don’t remember a day where we didn’t put pressures and didn’t issue reminders. Therefore, it is known that we cannot participate in a war that shouldn’t have started anyway and one that we condemned believing that it shouldn’t have started, and one we said should be solved peacefully.
The ELF-RC is governed by firm, principled stands. We are not moved by interests that can be termed as temporary. We are prepared to sacrifice temporary organizational interests for the sake of our people’s well being at the national level. We don’t sway to achieve temporary interest at the expense of our major principles. Therefore, the claim that the ELF-RC participated in the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict alongside the Ethiopian Army is unthinkable and impossible given the principle that we believe in. And, in fact, it didn’t happen.
On the contrary, when the Ethiopians pushed inside Eritrean territories, we asked them to pull out of the undisputed Eritrean lands. We explained this by means of a communiqué in a transparent manner that was witnessed by friends and foes alike. While they were in the middle of the war, we asked them to pull out of the undisputed areas that were not and should not be battlegrounds by any logic of warfare related to sovereignty. This was expressed in their media and the interviews that we conducted. We also aired this in our own radio and magazines. This stand has also strained our relations with Ethiopia. They have responded to us and said that outside the disputed areas, they had no claim on Eritrea, even one pebble (SeSer); that their entering into Eritrea was not because they wanted Eritrean lands and Eritrean people but that it was a military operation; that the tactical decision on whether to attack the Eritrean Army from the front or from the rear was their decision; and that they want the ELF-RC to understand this. They also stated that once they finish their military operation, they were sure that they would pull out of Eritrea and that this [operation] would not violate Eritrea’s sovereignty and that it was only related to maneuverability of military operations. This was the reply that we got.
Would a force standing alongside the Ethiopian army ask them [the Ethiopians] to pull out? Can it also say to [the Ethiopians] that they were violating sovereignty and have crossed into Eritrean territories? Impossible. Therefore, their accusation is cunning, with an aim to defame and alienate us from the people. To defame the very opposition that struggles to save [the] people from the vanguard organization; it is an accusation without any truth to it. It is ridiculous. Our stand is its opposite as explained in our communiqués and in our communications with them [the Ethiopians].
The Alliance is composed of many forces. Here, there could be a blur about who is who. Regardless, though, there must be some kind of minimum coordination between the members of the Alliance. We have seen pictures distributed by some forces that they have been to Eritrea behind the Ethiopian Army. As a member of the Alliance, do you support that? Does it embarrass you? Do you oppose it? What do you say in such a situation? If you are saying it is not you (ELF-RC) and you are not accepting the role of an organization that is part of you, at least within the Alliance, which presumably has some sort of coordination within its membership, how do you explain that?
Here I think we have to differentiate issues. Siding with the Ethiopian Army and fighting against the Eritrean Army is one thing; but after the war stops and cease-fire is signed, to know the situation of people–it is, after all, our land, our people–is another. With regards to the first question, the accusation by the Eritrean government that the ELF-RC and all the opposition were siding with the Ethiopian Army and fighting alongside it, here I choose to explain the stand of the ELF-RC.
When the war was finished, cease-fire was established and our people entered a phase of displacement and suffering. Nothing can stop us, as an opposition movement, from knowing the situation of our people: we have an obligation to know of their situation. If we didn’t inquire about the situation of our people, it would mean that we were shying away from our responsibilities. At the time, it was a must that any organization from the opposition forces had to enter the field to know the situation of the people and meet with the people. It was a must to stabilize the people and clear the situations. Participating in the war is one thing, moving in after the cease-fire was signed and the bloodshed stopped in order to know the situation of your people is another. Here we see a clear delineation. Even then, it was only unarmed forces from the ELF-RC, cadres, who moved in to assess the situation of the people and meet with the people. This is an obligation and the reaction of our people was very positive because they were meeting with the ELF after many years. I can’t explain to you the reaction of the people, I am talking about the ELF-RC.
Let me give you an example: during the Vietnam War, the [American] actress Jane Fonda visited Vietnam. To this day [30 years later] she is hated just because she visited Vietnam. So, during the war, when sentiments were pitch high and there was news that the ELF-RC went this way or that way and you were being interviewed in Radio Ethiopia and Radio Mekkele, were you not sensing that this might cause hate? Why didn’t you try to disassociate yourself from the Alliance? The language of the Alliance was almost identical to the Ethiopian media, was that tactical?
The Alliance was formed by independent organizations. The Alliance bears responsibility in our operations in the name, vision and coordination of the Alliance. Be it credit or blame. The organizations are independent in their movement and the steps that they take and they bear responsibility for that. For example, I am now talking and my organization [ELF-RC] takes responsibility for that [what I am saying.] We have to remember that the Alliance is an alliance of independents and they bear responsibility for the steps that they take. Therefore, I can only talk of the political and informational language that the ELF-RC used during the Eritrea-Ethiopian conflict. The political and informational language that we used is a nationalist language. It was a call of peace, peaceful and legal settlement and could not be an Ethiopian language. Why?
The war was characterized as a border dispute; it was characterized as a bitter war. Their relationship [The Eritrean and Ethiopian governments] had continued until it reached an impasse and a breakdown in their partnership. The war was started by the arrogance of the Eritrean oppressive system. Now, the issues that caused the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia have to be addressed and be solved. That is one thing. What we are struggling for is something different. Now, there can be convergence in the language we and the Ethiopians use in removing the oppressive Eritrean system. Ethiopians might see an interest in the removal of the existing system because it presented itself as an aggressive enemy. We [on the other hand] are interested in reclaiming the rights of the Eritrean people, for the Eritrean people. Removing the oppressive system is our main goal and we moved for that. They [Ethiopians] might have their own political and informational operations to remove the dictatorial system of Eritrea; and we can have our own political and information operations. Here, it is possible to see areas of convergence.
When we raise major issues, we focus on internal Eritrean issues and calls for changing the system. They [the Ethiopians] focus on the conflict and its causes while believing that as long as the system is in place, the situation and causes of war would not change.
The organizations had their own different languages and each organization bears responsibility for the language it used. Be it praise or criticism. With respect to the language that bears the name of the Eritrean Alliance, the Alliance bears responsibility. What I want to clarify here is that our language was focused towards national issues. With regards to the war; it focused on peace and peaceful resolution of the war. As for exposing the oppressive system, it is a regime that started a conflict that pushed the Eritrean people to dangers and it should be exposed: it is our responsibility to expose it. Our people have to know how they unwittingly went to war. They should face their direction towards the existing enemy and not in the direction where there is no enemy. Finally, if we don’t differentiate the actions taken by the Alliance as a group (and for which the Alliance bears responsibility), and the free movements that were done at the level of the independent organizations, we are making a mistake.
Part 5 of 5
NEXT AND FINAL PART:
Until recently, a year or two, the ELF-RC was distancing itself from violence to the extent that some members of the Alliance accused the ELF-RC as hindering the Alliance’s efforts to push for an Armed Struggle and form a united military wing, what do you say?
Firstly, I am surprised. Because, to start from what you just said, I can only express surprise. But I will come to this later and I will explain this.
Even now, armed confrontation, violence, is not a choice. If the question is one of choice, arms are never a choice. An armed conflict in the Eritrean society can only bring bloodshed, destruction and perishing- even if this will help you achieve your goal. To our understanding, if we have to choose, we will not choose arms. To us, the choice of arms is not a task of choice, but a necessary evil. It starts from the right of self-defense. For the last ten years, we have passed through persecution, liquidations and mass imprisonments. Our members who are persecuted and are behind bars are many; those who were killed are many; ELF people who are living in terror are vast this is a situation that we went through and are living in.
In Eritrea, we have been denied the right as citizens, and the right to exist and move freely as a political power. We were banned from expressing ourselves democratically and freely; but we never rushed to raising arms. We [chose to] pursue [our goals] via political, democratic and popular methods to explain and clarify our goals to the Eritrean people because we know that this is less costly to our people. And we see our actions in light to our people’s interests.
When we say that, we know that our right to defend ourselves is a natural and legal right. But when the persecutions, liquidations, imprisonments and terrorist acts of the system are intensified and escalated, the need to protect ourselves becomes equally greater. Therefore, we say that we have to exercise our right to defend ourselves; and we have to exercise our duty to protect our people, because we don’t see ourselves in isolation of our people. We have to confront the terrorist acts of the system. This is a legal right. Therefore, we see it from the angle of self-defense and not an angle of choice. Even if we raise arms, it doesn’t mean we chose arms. Our choice is for the existing oppressive system to know that it is an illegal system and that it should observe the stands that are being expressed by the people, and move out [of power] and open a free stage for the people.
We will use all available means of struggle to remove this system. The political means that we pursued so far has reached its zenith. And the escalation by the system has reached an even higher point. As terrorism by the system has escalated, we have decided to remove the system by all means.
To go back to your comments, regarding mutual accusation and defamations, what I considered surprising is this:
The agenda of forming one national army is our (ELF-RC) agenda and still is. Let alone now, when we are on the verge of change, to enter into Eritrea with different militia forces was never our choice. We want to go to the people of Eritrea with solution and not problems. We believe in political pluralism; we do not believe in military pluralism. Military pluralism is dangerous. Therefore, the organizations that are identified by their different programs, and whose vision of future Eritrea might differ, those forces who are within the Alliance [of Eritrean Opposition Forces], will embrace political pluralism on the basis that the choices of the different programs are to be decided by the Eritrean people and nobody else. We don’t believe in military pluralism and that is why we insist on the formation of a unified army that will be ruled by a national charter. That is our agenda. As far as the Alliance is concerned, this agenda is on the table, and we push for a process that starts from cooperation that will lead to unification. That is why I said [in the beginning] that I am surprised by your question.
A friend, a disgruntled PFDJ supporter said this to me: The Eritrean people are fed up with the current Eritrean system. But if there is something that in my opinion the people despise even more, and gets them running to the safe laps of Isaias, it is the opposition forces. She believes that the opposition propagates violence and violence means more bloodshed and more destruction. She believes that people are tired of the constant rehashing of ELF vs EPLF history. So, why can’t the ELF-RC denounce the use of violence altogether? What is your response to her?
Let’s consider her views, what you presented as a view of an individual, as the view of some circles. It is true the view is valid and it reflects the anxiety of the Eritrean people. Why I said it is a valid view is because all Eritreans have the right to express their opinion. However, this opinion is based on a given assessment. That assessment could be right or wrong. But what is important is that as long as terrorism is carried out against the opposition and as long as terrorism is carried out on the Eritrean people, and as long as it is escalated under any circumstance, our right to self-defense cannot be ruled out. We can only change our method of struggle when we reach to a stage where our self-defense becomes unnecessary and the exercise becomes irrelevant. [When that happens] we will not wait until one group or another tells us to change. This cycle won’t end until we arrive at a stage where we can advance our political program freely. Therefore, before we are asked to renounce the right to defend ourselves and our people, we want the system to renounce terrorism, armed liquidation, holding power by force. As long as there is holding to power by force, then we will not renounce our right to self-defense.
So, to present this as a means to keep the people of Eritrea in the laps of Isaias. The people are not in the laps of Isaias and they know that they get nothing by staying in the laps of Isaias except war, perishing, disablement, orphaning and hunger. Since the people know this by experience, we don’t see why they should go to the laps of Isaias for more. The reality is quite the opposite. People are waiting and demanding for change. The voice of change is becoming more and more vocal. The present system is encircled by popular opinion. On the contrary, based on our assessment, people are expecting us to push for more. The people want the opposition to use its right to self-defense, to enter into the fields of Eritrea, to improve its performance, and to remove the oppressive system. Our people are waiting for salvation: salvation from a system that has exposed them to destruction.
If you are a member of the ELF, the Alliance or Shaebia, and you hear nothing but the propaganda of your organization, then you tend to underestimate your adversary. Assuming you have no other choice but to take arms, the obvious question is: facing Shaebia, with its power, its armaments, its size, and its mobilization power, how do you envision to remove it by force without engaging it in a long protracted war?
We don’t envision a long war; it will not happen. The system is encircled by a popular opposition. We also see the army as part of the people. When we say we have an influence on the people, we put into consideration that it includes the people who are conscripted into the military that is now known as the army of the oppressive system. When we speak of influence, we mean we have penetrated into all segments of our people. As far as our assessment is concerned, it will not be a long drawn-out war; it will be a very short war in which the people will be involved and the army will be involved on our side.
What do you mean short war? Our past history tells otherwise, doesn’t it?
It would be a long drawn war, if it were a conventional liberation movement, the type we saw, thirty years, I mean the need for change is very clear. When we say this, it includes the army. Specially this army because it is rounded up and forced to carry arms. Also, at this a time, when the system is divided into two and is facing each other: confrontation among the dictatorial group and the reformers. Because, the past thirty-year [liberation war] was not totally military: it included rallying, agitating and mobilizing the Eritrean people and eroding the power of the huge external force. That is why it was a long war. But this is a system that has already been wakened and encircled. In fact, it has reached a stage where you can’t see the army as an army of the system or the dictatorship. When I say our influence has spread among the people, I mean it has spread among the army. This, we believe, will shorten the process of change.
We have chronic problems that arise every few years. We have a problem of chauvinism and extremism. The political dimensions indicate that we are headed towards polarization. Is there a risk of a civil war? What do you think is the solution?
The risk is there. According to us, if there will be a civil war, it will be due to the intransigent and irresponsible position of the oppressive system. Because this oppressive system has blocked the economic, social and political stages for everyone else and is controlling it for its own interest. The Eritrean citizen, in reality and perception, is alienated. It is a people whose natural, legal, political, cultural and human rights are denied. And it is a people that should exercise its right because it will not be considered human with out those rights. What should the people do?
Two choices here: one is for the Eritrean people to resign their humanity and believe that, in fact, they are no more than a block of flesh and blood and only live eating grass like an animal, if there is grass. Or, to assert their humanity and demand their political, human and cultural rights. in total including their cultural rights and existence. [If they choose the latter], they will engage in a course of collusion with the system because the system has confiscated all their rights. It is natural that in order to claim back their rights, the people have to rise and clash with the system. This is because the oppressive system is not opening any path to get out of this collusion course. Do the Eritrean people have to give up their right? Give up their identity? Citizenship rights, human rights or political right? Impossible. The oppressive system doesn’t want to give up its power, the illegal power, and the Eritrean people cannot give up their rights. Therefore, naturally this leads to a collusion course.
There arises a question: whose demands are legitimate? The peoples’ demands are the legitimate ones. The country is of the people and doesn’t belong to one man. The actions of the oppressive system are illegitimate. Therefore, the uprising of our people and their clashes is the legitimate uprising, be it political or military. Therefore, to exercise their rights, the people should deal a blow to the illegitimate power and interests. People should be able to come on top of the illegitimate system and ascertain their sovereignty.
When people and a system meet on a collision course, the system uses its oppressive security establishments, its oppressive and terrorist establishments to prevail over the people. The people will resist and that is civil war. There is another factor: the government is divided into two, the dictatorial group and the reformers. It seems the reformers want to democratize the EPLF. That will mean creating means towards spreading the process of democratization for the whole country because it was in the EPLF that dictatorship developed and was able to spread to the whole of Eritrea. The one-man dictatorship dictated within the EPLF before establishing its dictatorship in Eritrea and later tried to expand its dictatorship to the whole region.
On the one hand, the two sides of the system are in a confrontation. On the other, the whole people with the opposition forces are on a collusion course against the system. In this situation, where the system is engaged against three overlapping forces, the fear for a civil war is natural. This is because the oppressive system is going with intransigent and irresponsible gestures. Therefore, there is a big possibility that we might slip into a civil war. But we see a way out: the dictatorial wing of the system should hand over power. The people do not have power and don’t have anything to hand over. The opposition forces do not have any power to hand over. Neither the opposition nor the people can resign their rights. The illegitimate system should hand over power to the people.
The way out is for the system to move out and open the stage for all the people. All political forces in Eritrea should establish a unity transitional government. This transitional unity government will take our country to democratization. We believe that the transition to democratization is based on national reconciliation. This is a way out. If there should be a workable process of democratization, it should be based on a broad base of reconciliation; if not, it could not be workable and cannot escape the risk of civil war. The existing political forces should form a transitional unity government, which should be based on a solid charter, a transitional charter.
Do you think the existing constitution can take us there?
As far as the ELF-RC is concerned, and we believe as far as the Eritrean people are concerned, there is no national constitution in Eritrea. The constitution of national consensus, the constitution of the making of the Eritrean people, the making of different political forces in Eritrea, will have to be drafted in union in the transitional period. A transitional authority, based on a national reconciliation, should write and adapt a constitution out of a constitutional convention. The constitution that they have now is a constitution that has been drawn by the dictatorship and it is a constitution that comes and goes with the dictatorship. There is no constitution that each and every Eritrean considers his.
You have mentioned the reformers earlier. What is you opinion about them? And how do you see this standoff ending?
As anyone can see, this is a confrontation between one side that wants to control power and continue subjugating and alienating and another side that wants to democratize its party [the ruling party]. Our research shows this fact. The opposition may have come a little bit late, baAd Kerab malTa [Arabic saying], but we believe, better late than never. Even if a voice comes on the eve of the demise of the dictatorship, we cannot question its late coming. We cannot also say that the opposition came as a result of individuals who were directly impacted by its injustice because we believe in change and development. Different people reach to a conviction at different times because, as human beings, we are different in our backgrounds and have had different experiences.
So far the Reformers have not been articulate enough. They have not yet said 1, 2, and 3 on the fundamental issues. So far, what has been said, their issues are centered on the democratization of the PFDJ; their messages are addressed to PFDJ; they are organizational issues. But, in some respects, what they have presented concerns the people and concerns the country. We say that they have not been articulating enough, because…though they might have taken that as a tactic of struggle, it is PFDJ affairs: how should the PFDJ be run; how should the Central Committee be run, things like that. But today, our people are thinking beyond how the PFDJ is administered. There are huge issues on the level of the country. They should face the public and articulate these issues. It is like a discussion of a semi-organizational affair going on between two wings of the PFDJ.
But from what is appearing, based on what was explained so far, we can observe, it seems the idea is to go to through the democratization of the PFDJ and then to some extent, open a national stage. This, seen from the perspective of the ELF-RC, we believe will play in the weakening of the dictatorship and maybe, to some extent, play a role in opening a national forum. Based on this, we see it as a positive development. Why? Because, [considering the fact] that it [PFDJ] was an “Amen” quarter, when this [reform movement] comes out from the same quarter, even though its only aim is for the democratization of the organization, we see it as a positive indicator. That is when you see it from a general point. As for fully opening the stages, this is a huge and wide [undertaking] that awaits the Alliance of the Eritrean Opposition Forces and the whole of the Eritrean people.
For a long time now, the Alliance of the Eritrean Opposition Forces has been training, sharpening, organizing, and debating the goal of opening up of the stage of Eritrea’s democratization process. This challenge awaits the broad Eritrean people and the National Alliance Of Eritrean Forces. We believe that the formation of transitional national united government based on national reconciliation is the only why out, from what you are fearful of and all us fear, civil war and others.
On the process of Transitional National Unity stage and process, we don’t like to see any rift. We can’t speak of national unity by excluding this or that organization. including PFDJ–reformed PFDJ, not PFDJ as it is now–should be able to participate in the wide based transition authority. Meaning, when power is handed to the people, when it is removed from power; after it dissolves all its oppressive and repressive structures; when it recognizes the democratic process as the only way of taking and handing over power, in short we see a democratized PFDJ to be included in the transition authority. Why? Because we don’t want to leave any wedge for any possibility for the destruction of national unity. We see reconciliation this wide.
We know the crimes of the PFDJ. According to our views, there are crimes committed against the Eritrean people. We can say that and we can accuse [the PFDJ] but we cannot judge it. We don’t have that right. We have the right to accuse; and they have the right to accuse. But the [role] of judging belongs to the Eritrean people. And the Eritrean people can judge only when it establishes democratic structures including free judiciary institutions.
Regarding participation in the political life, no political organization has the right to judge and ban another organization. We don’t give this right even to ourselves. Many crimes and treason have been committed against the Eritrean people. Fires that burned the Eritrean people were ignited. Senseless wars were ignited. Resources of the Eritreans people and their lives were cause to perish. Eritrea has become the country of the disabled and the orphans. We can accuse; but we don’t give ourselves the power to ban any political organization.
There are requirements for democracy; there are basics. If they fulfill the basics, they [reformed PFDJ] should be part of the transitional unity operations. We don’t give it or deny, it is there.
How do you think the movement of The Reformers will conclude? What do you think will unfold?
If we see the record of Isaias, and the oppressive system. Now, as you can see, he is undertaking a defamation campaign in order to alienate them from the people. Whether it has basis or not, he is conducting character assassination. He is [defaming the reformers as] being responsible for the failure of the war, corruption, lost resources, etc. After he creates this, he might liquidate them. The liquidation step is the second step: liquidation can come in many forms. He might arrest them or liquidate them or can present them to court and defame them. By doing that he would try to get out of the crisis; and elongate and strengthen his authority and add a few days to his power. This is the tradition of the dictatorial system; he has exercised it within his organization and he has done it with others outside his organization. He was doing it until now and he doesn’t know any other way, this is his way.
What is the way out?
The way out, the Eritrean people have to be more vocal and demand the removal of the dictatorial wing. The International community has to be more vocal and apply pressure for a way out, if the situations are diffused, self-appointed presence is a crisis. Therefore, popular pressure from Eritrea should be complimented by international pressure. The dictatorial wing should be encircled and chocked by popular and international pressure to leave the arena. It must leave the arena. That is the only way out. And the people must establish a transitional authority. We are well poised for that and that is what we are campaigning for. We are calling for this both in our campaign internationally and with the people. This is what we are campaigning for, especially to those who have relations with it.
One could say, I trust the Eritrean government, whether it be democratic or not. Now, what assurance do I have the Alliance is democratic? Reading this communiques and that release to know about the democratic nature of the Alliance is not good enough. What warranties do you have that you are democratic? How would you assure me that you are democratic?
First, the organizations can present their programs. The programs could be national and democratic programs. In relation to citizens, it is the organizations that have to give citizens the opportunity to verify the programs. As well, the citizens, as members, supporters or sympathizers, have to approach the organizations to verify their claims. This gives you a chance to identify the organizations and their aims, their programs and actions and to what extent there is a democratic relation in their political life. This is the yardstick.
A political organization safeguards democratic ideals. And the people will recognize this. The democratic process that an organization follows and abides by should be the means of identifying it. Now, one who has an opportunity to know the organization is one who reaches out to them or one who is reached out by them. But one who is detached from them and who doesn’t reach out or is reached [by the organizations] goes with a second hand information or experience. Therefore, the organizations should create these opportunities and citizens should give themselves the chance to know about the organizations because they have raised issues and have programs regarding the destiny of the citizen.
Since they are in the process of struggle, citizen should know whether the organizations represent their interests and benefits or not and whether they assert the ideals the [citizens] ideals or not. The organizations also should offer this opportunity. Organizations should open a platform between themselves and the people. But after all that, we can only say that the warrantees are the people.
The guarantee is when the people are handed power. It is only guaranteed when the people are able to wield their authority. A number of Eritrean opposition forces met based on the principles of democracy. They [met] and agreed to move towards the goal of opening a democratic forum. Here, the guarantee of the people is required. It is the people who can establish a guarantee for its rights and its democratic process by participation and movement. Therefore, on top of the democratization platform of the future Eritrea, the citizen should bear responsibility to assure this. The assertion of his sovereignty demands an active role of the people. Therefore, in the end, it is the people who are the guarantors of their democratic right. An organization, a political organization, cannot be the guarantor of the democratic process or of a democratic system in a country.
The government of Eritrea accuses of you of being welfare recipients and poor. It is obvious that your resources are nil. Have you gotten out of the opposition poverty line, financially speaking?
The better, the best thing to do is to pass this question [without commenting]
There is talk that is repeated quite often: there is an alternative and there are laws in Eritrea. Why can’t you change the system and execute your programs by using the available mechanism for change? If you reject the mechanism, it means that is because you are afraid you might not win, how do you….?
In this question there is a need to clarify the basic truth and I consider it important.
A democratic process and democratic choices can only be carried out under a free and liberated platform. The democratic process can only start when the rights of people to think freely and the right to organize and freedom of movement are acknowledged. This is what the people wait for: it is the due rights that the people should have.
Before we talk about organizations, lets talk about the Eritrean citizen. Basically, the democratic process in the level of establishing a system can only be assured when the political rights of people are acknowledged. This cannot happen under a dictatorial system, which wants to have exclusive power and to consolidate its narrow interest at the expense of the basic rights of the people. When such a system exists, basic rights of people to think and express their opinions organize and to move freely, cannot be there, it is incompatible. It is unthinkable.
Before the opposition organizations can ask to be elected, there has to be a ripe political environment. Now, there is no political environment: neither to elect nor be elected. Before all of that, a conducive free environment is needed. The citizens need this before the organizations. This cannot be ascertained under a dictatorship. Because, the grammar of the dictatorship is something and the preconditioned requirements for a democratic process is quite another.
To ascertain this conducive environment, a transitional national unity authority, not a dictatorship, is needed. Under such an authority the platform can be opened. Under such an authority, the rights of writing, thinking and freedom of movement can be acknowledged. Under such a situation, the Eritrean people can think freely and political forces can explain [their programs] in a free platform. Under the reality of dictatorship, this right cannot be genuinely acknowledged. Such an exercise can only be carried out under a transitional authority that believes in democratization on the place of the dictatorship. This should be participated by all political forces because the checks and balances of pluralism inside the transitional authority are the guarantee and acknowledgment of the basic democratic rights.
Isn’t this very idealistic?
Yes, we work with the ideal.
Don’t you see the problems?
In other words, we have nothing to do with and we shall never have anything to do with Election 2001 as organized by the dictatorship.
What I am saying is: what if this period is the transition to democracy? Why do you reject it if it will take you to the final goal, which is democracy? There are cases, for example in South America and the Philippines, where there was immediate transition from authoritarian to democratic system without intermediate transitions and unity governments. There just had an election. Isn’t your rejection of the election on the basis of your requirement for an idealistic environment? And what will you do if the new generation refuses to be involved in wars to help your bring about the needed pressure?
Well, it is not too idealistic to be realized. We are demanding, in the first place, for the Eritrean dictator to be removed. It is not too idealist.
Is it not idealist even….?
We are mounting all the pressure that we can summon in Eritrea. At the national level, to press him to a very narrow corner so that he might be forced to leave. This is not too idealistic; we are on the threshold of such a process. And forming a government of national unity of the kind we have been talking about is not too ideal to realized. We already have an alliance of Eritrean national forces well poised to take over and broaden their basis of authority and include other forces, so these [objectives] are not too ideal to be realized. We are very close to realizing that. The dictatorship has already been cornered. He already finds himself in a very tight corner from the part of the people and the part of the Army and the wing of the reformers that we have now. You have a widespread Eritrean national force, under the umbrella of the Eritrean national forces well poised to take over. These are not too idealistic to be realized. We are on the doorstep of such a change. So why would we want to give breathing space to the dictatorship? It will mean aborting this historical opportunity of the Eritrean people to open all the grounds to take the process of democratization into motion.
A final question: Is this you first visit to the USA or you have been here before?
This is my first time.
Are you invited by the State Department, because their relation with Eritrea is undergoing some changes?
Pass this one. Pass it. [With a big laugh]
But we can’t just pass it.