Beyond Politics: The Psychological Impact Of Our Suffering

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

Eritreans are so much consumed by and addicted to politics that sometimes we forget we are human beings who breathe, live, love, hate, get sick, feel sad, happy and die. Politics reflects on our every day lives. My first article beyond politics was ‘To be human’.  I had planned to write more of that but I was too much infected with politics to do so.

From time to time we need to take a break from politics and reflect on other things. We all act like politicians as if politics and seeking power will be our career, and many of us want to be leaders of different organizations.

If people disagree with your opinion, they accuse you of opportunism, chasing a leadership position – it is all about power, nothing else matters. This is not to deny that history is full of opportunists who come at the last hour to steal what has been achieved. We seldom speak about our failures, our weaknesses and our mistakes. If you try to be honest and admit mistakes then that is used against you as if you are the only erring person, and that discourages honesty. We always want to appear strong; we grow up throwing stones and bullying defenseless stray dogs in the streets!

Eritrea’s highland culture is agrarian and more disciplined, centralized, pragmatic, proud of its identity and interest focused; while the Lowland culture is pastoralist and  more diffused, decentralized, and theoretical–spending more time on arguments rather than action. It is like no one is better than another, if you can have an organization, so can I. Yet we have many good things in our culture that the regime is eroding fast. Just like other developing countries, we are obsessed with the use of the title Dr. If you have such a prefix, then you get more recognition and more status. There are some of us who get angry if you do not refer to them with that prefix. Once I was sitting with one such Dr. who got angry when someone didn’t use the Dr. title when addressing him. He stated, ‘Serihe ‘ko eye amtisee’eyo’- I have worked hard to earn it.


Mental illness is a taboo. We are either healthy or crazy; it is either black or white with no shades of grey in between. The crazy are considered objects of entertainment. Each town had it own characters. In Agordat, there was Balamat, Osman Boon (coffee), Abrehet… even one known as Galileo for behaving like a scientist. Yet, there were cases during the liberation war where security agents posed as crazy people to collect information.

There is a variation in a population that health parameters, such as normal values for heart beat or blood pressure, are given in a range. Even having handicapped children or elderly in a family is regarded by some as shameful. I have a colleague who has a seriously handicapped daughter. He loves her so much and keeps stating that if there is heaven then she is his gateway. Such should be our attitude.

We are a wounded nation that has suffered so much. We belong to a volatile and unstable region and we went through wars for the last 100 years. We are a country whose population needs of psychological counseling.


Most of our veteran freedom fighters have not been able to see their country even after independence. They die one after the other in abject poverty in Sudan. It is only when they die that they receive recognition mostly in terms of obituaries. In our culture we respect the dead more than the living, so much so that cars and pedestrians stop when they encounter a funeral procession. Some veterans are still struggling against the dictatorship despite their old age while others are languishing in prisons. We even do not have a dignified pension system for them. Parents are left alone in their old age when they need help and care either because they lost their children during the liberation war or afterwards or all their children have left the country. Some of the elderly, particularly mothers, live in constant sorrow and anxiety as they do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones.


We have produced three generations of refugees, possibly more: My parents were refugees, I was a refugee and my children are presently refugees. Some live in developing countries with no rights at all; Eritreans who live and work in the Arab countries are a good example. Their freedom of movement limited and depends on the good will of their sponsors. They live under constant threat of being thrown out at any time. Their children have difficulties in getting basic access education and health services and they are constantly reminded that they are inferior to the citizens. They live under constant stress that drains them. Haji jabir, an Eritrean journalist with Aljazeera Arabic touches on such issues in his recent award winning novel سمراويت ‘Samrawit’.

Women workers in the Middle East suffer most. Some are subjected to sexual abuse which is a taboo in itself to speak about so they live in shame. They work for many hours without rest.

If some make it as a refugee to the western countries, they and their children have to struggle with issues of identity, cultural differences and home sickness. They may find that they were at least something in their country, but they may end up feeling nothing, isolated and empty.

Even the YPFDJ who dance in PFDJ festivals are somehow victims. They think they can remedy the identity crisis they face in their host countries by being part of a larger group. Participating in the PFDJ festivals and visiting Eritrea gives them a sense of belonging. Even

But the youth at home suffer the most. Children as young as 15 and 16 year olds are made to leave their home to participate in the so-called summer community activities. 12th grade students are taken away from home to study in military camps. At this time, even the colleges are run as military camps. The young are robbed of their youth for ever and are treated as slaves in endless national service programs. Young women who were taken to military training in the first rounds developed a syndrome of going backwards (stress/anxiety induced psychomotor disorder). The youth are subjected to extreme forms of physical and psychological torture for the smallest reasons. What you hear at the ‘speak out’ program at the Smerr paltalk is appalling. Let alone experience their stories, hear about it makes one depressed. I believe there needs to be a warning that children should not be allowed to listen to it. One can not believe that there is so much suffering, so much cruelty and so much misery in our country.

People who are subjected to physical and psychological trauma react differently. We do not have statistics but it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of prisoners whose whereabouts is unknown; and each one of them has a family that suffers. Some would immediately have a mental breakdown, other experience that after a much longer period of time while still others are affected to a lesser extent. These breakdowns can be treated easily and quickly if one gets medical or psychological help in time, but such facilities are not only unavailable, but the regime is not willing to address the problem. Youth with mental health problems or those who have become handicapped due to mistreatment during military service are regarded as a burden and returned to their families. This is done without any compensation and without the slightest moral responsibility. Such is the cruelty of the regime. Imagine the impact of this on the poor parents who have to take care of the young who were supposed to help them in their old age. How will such parents feel when they see Diaspora Eritreans demonstrating and dancing in support of the evil Eritrean regime? For instance, the Kunama are being subjected to extermination and mass punishment, and unfortunately very little is spoken about; they rightly feel the opposition is not highlighting their plight. We have a moral duty to protect the rights of our minorities.

In Eritrea, females experience the worst suffering. They are sexually abused by the military officers and face unwanted pregnancy that might lead to risky abortions. And since it is not accepted culturally, they can not speak about it. The stigma that goes with it is so demeaning that some commit suicide or live with the shame for the rest of their lives.

Anxiety and stress

The youth and their families face anxiety and stress when they leave their country to the unknown and that is where the psychological pressure starts. Many start the difficult journey to the west through Ethiopia or Sudan, some are caught while escaping and others are killed while crossing the border. A few years ago my daughter left Eritrea clandestinely. She was supposed to cross the border within two days but it took her 10 days because she took a long route. It was a very difficult period, yet I knew some will never make it. In Sudan, those who do not speak Arabic and those who do not have relatives abroad suffer the most. Refugees are subject to other forms of ‘gffa’ …something they thought happened only in Eritrea. Those who are caught are made to pay heavy fines and some are deported back to Eritrea.

In an endless suffering, many start the dangerous journey by crossing the Sahara through the Libyan Desert or through the Egyptian border to Sinai (either willingly or kidnapped). A few days ago Affar youth died while crossing the desert between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many others have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea or in the Sinai desert which have been covered widely. Behind each person lost is a tragic story of grief and psychological suffering of the witnesses and of the families of the deceased or those whose whereabouts are unknown. There are few dedicated Eritreans such as Meron Estifanos and Elsa Chyrum who try to help the asylum seekers. The psychological pressure that one faces dealing with horror cases regularly must be huge. I think they can contribute more if they are not affiliated to any political organization, humanitarian work is needs to be separated from politics. Sultan Omer, the director of Ethar is another hero who is trying his best to help the neglected refugees in Sudan, while Dr. Alganesh Fesseha helps refugees in Ethiopia. They all deserve our recognition and support. All those traumas predispose us to different forms and different degrees of mental illness such as depression or other forms.

Modernism—better material life and better health services—has not brought much satisfaction in the western world. In his recent book, ‘satisfaction not guaranteed’ Peter Stearns touches on those issues. Many of those who live in safe, stable, Western countries have also their share of mental illness due to totally different reasons from our own. Global depression statistics show that 15% of the population from high-income countries (compared to 11% for low/middle-income countries) were likely to get depression over their lifetime. Some of us who make it to safe countries and who had previously experienced many hardships can get forms of mental illness here.


Mental illness, such as depression is not a shameful…it is similar to having diabetes or cancer. Just like physical illness it affects all spectra of people, from ordinary people to famous writers, artists and statesmen. One is not less worth as a person than others who do not have mental illness. When some one has a mental sickness it is absolutely important to talk to a medical doctor or a psychologist. It is also important to talk to those who are close to you. The earlier you address those issues the easier it is to get help and treatment.

When you have a mental illness such as depression, things can be tough. Depression is like get into a room, locking it up from the inside and afterwards you do not know how to get out. Your sleep mechanism can be switched off. You feel helpless; you do not see light at the end of the tunnel. Life becomes boring and nothing becomes interesting. You may consider taking your life away. It is also important that people around you understand what is happening to you and show support and encouragement. Particularly in young people, taking psychiatric medicines can increase thoughts for suicide. For a long term treatment and to avoid relapses, it is important to seek psychologist help. Mechanisms such as cognitive therapy can be very helpful. There are also online interactive programs that can be useful.

There is no doubt that the current regime in Eritrea is responsible in causing so much suffering in our country at present and whose consequences we will feel for many years to come. I guess we will need many psychologists after liberation and there are many people who need help. I hope those who have studied psychology can come together and form at least a network where they can provide advice and guidance to persons who need such help, particularly to the youth. I hope we give more focus to the psychological impact of our suffering. There is more to life than just politics.


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