Every September, We will Remember

I saw Isaias Afwerki in person only on two occasions. The first one was in the summer of 1999 when he visited the United States and joined the Eritrean festival at an arena in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.  The place was packed by as many as ten thousand people, and the mood was that of jubilation, euphoria and ecstasy. The border war with Ethiopia had started a year earlier; tens of thousands of people had been deported from Ethiopia; major battles had been fought; but the worst of the war was yet to come. One thing was for sure though; almost all of us were convinced that Eritrea has the right man at the helm. We were not mature enough to consider the ramifications of deferring responsibility to one person. Leave it to him, trust him, he will lead the way and do the right thing.

When it came time for Isaias to join the public at the dance floor, the entire audience seemed to descend down from its seat and join in; much to the bewilderment of the poor Secret Service agents, who had the responsibility of guarding his life. They tugged and shoved and shouted orders but we couldn’t care. We would be damned, if we missed a chance to dance with the great leader!  Moments later, as I was heading back to my seat feeling really good, I run into a dear friend – a more mature and knowledgeable friend – with whom I have spent countless hours in the past debating whether Isaias Afwerki is trustworthy or not. I decided to rub it on his face and ask him what he thought about what just happened.  “You just turned him into a full blown dictator!” he replied, disapprovingly.

The second time of my encounter was on a much somber occasion; not to mention a sober one. It was only a few days after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 in New York and D.C. and Isaias and his entourage were staying at the Gurgusum Beach Hotel in Massawa. There was a semblance of democratic activities that year in Eritrea, at least compared to today. Independently owned newspapers were publishing daily and people openly debated the printed content, especially the tit-for-tat open letters among the leadership of the PFDJ. By the summer of 2001, the clamp down had already started; Asmara University students were summarily detained and taken to Wia after protesting the arrest of their student union president; the independent media were being threatened; and one can sense the situation was not sustainable and something was about to give way.  And for those of us who had any doubt about the personality, style and ideology of Isaias Afwerki, it became pretty clear he was about to live his reputation.  His letters to the would be reformers were also being published and they boiled down to: I have been warning you; my patience is running out. He never directly addressed their detailed grievances or event attempted to sound like a national leader; just thinly veiled threats like a mafia boss to his consiglieres who had fallen out of favor.

Sunday, September 16, 2001

It was early in the morning and there was hardly anyone up at that hour.  I happen to be shooting home videos of the beautiful scenery, enjoying the morning waves and trying to capture the sun rising over the horizon. Like an amateur filmmaker, I was zooming in and zooming out when suddenly a face appeared in the viewfinder of my camera, a face non-other than that of our self-appointed president, Isaias Afwerki. He was far enough to even notice me and he seemed to be simply looking toward the sea.  Apart from getting a little intimidated – or may be star-struck – all I can think at that moment was: what could he be thinking. The country was emerging from a disastrous war; his colleagues were openly criticizing his leadership; 2 university students of the as many as 300 who were detained at Wia have died of heat-stroke and the news reported by the independent media; and even the courts were starting to flex their muscles. To top all these, a few days earlier, the world just witnessed a major event in America that was sure to have great consequences.

What a weight on any shoulder. What a responsibility for one man. A moment like this probably separates bigger than life gifted leaders from the rest of us mere mortals. But here we were on this fateful morning, my former hero of the revolution who was perhaps contemplating something that will affect millions of his people for years to come, and me whose only grave responsibility is to make sure my cheap video camera doesn’t slip from my sweaty palms and drown in the Red Sea.

Who was it that said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”?  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was going to tangle himself and exacerbate the country’s problems or if he was going to show us the way out of the maze.  Whatever he was going to do, I felt guilty for applauding him and dancing with him and for not heeding to my wise friend’s advice.  Too late now, he was about to turn in to a “full blown dictator”.

Two days later, on Tuesday September 18, 2001, Eritrea’s “date which will live in infamy”, our liberator-turned-dictator made his move to stifle freedom, rule of law and democratization.  The rest, as they say, is history. That day many notable citizens, journalists and military and political leaders that contributed greatly to Eritrea’s independence were made to disappear and never to be heard from again.  Since then, every year in September, I wonder if their fate was indeed sealed the weekend prior to their arrest at that resort hotel.

It is clear that Isaias Afwerki acted to preserve his power and choke alternative voices. By acting expeditiously and using his political base to lie to and deceive the Eritrean public, he may have actually won that round, albeit in a cowardly manner. But as equal stake holders, we all would be damned if we let him get away with it. It’s not about him, or those poor defenseless individuals whose reputations he attempted to tarnish, it is about our collective soul and our definition of what it means to be responsible citizens.  It’s not about one individual, as Yemane Gebreab tried to spin it when asked the whereabouts of journalist Dawit Isaak;  it’s a about Eritrea and Eritreans and what we all stand for.

To Oppose Tyranny
Three years ago, after debating with myself whether I have anything worthy to add to our discourse, I decided to write my first article, audaciously titled: Unsolicited Advice to Mr. Isaias Afwerki. It was a quasi-satire, but naturally, I wanted it to be read and appreciated. The next step was to decide which of the many Eritrean websites to send it to. It was unthinkable to send anything that is critical of the Eritrean government to or even, though I seriously thought that is where the article belonged. Then, I came to grips with reality and emailed to the website that stood head and shoulders above the rest.  For me, not only represented the true mosaic and cross section of Eritrea, but also emanated professionalism and commitment to diversity of ideas. It was clear though; with that article I was entering the world of “subversion”, “opposition”, “teQuawenti”. Well, if the label fits…but wait.

Eritrea’s opposition camp is made up of a hodge-podge political, religious and civic organizations and even individuals.  At the end of the day, the vast majority of them just want a peaceful country that treats all its citizens fairly. Sadly, this rather basic desire borne out of love for their nation, culture, heritage and history is considered a selfish desire that is tantamount to betraying the country. In what stratosphere is this lopsided reality even possible?  And when did we exactly transpose the meaning of the words patriot and traitor?

For the next three years, I continued to share my humble opinions alongside many prolific and inspiring writers. I had the inkling that this website was very widely read, but I was quickly humbled by the quantity and variety of the mostly positive feedbacks.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of people who graciously took their time to encourage me, correct me and teach me. I am especially touched by those, who have profound things to say, but their inability to write in the English language keeps them on the sidelines. I am confident that their voices indeed find their way among the words those of us who are duty-bound and lucky enough to be able to string together. It’s all about those voices, and to choose to be a voice for the voiceless is a responsibility of all who are able and a blessing to all who are willing.

Ten years ago, the Awate Team took that responsibility and discharged it amicably; and in return they are blessed with the readership, respect and credibility that can only be attained by earning it through perseverance, consistency and living the stated mission. I am pretty sure it’s not all honky dory, and may even have created enemies along the way.  In the words of Winston Churchill, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

So, congratulations are in order to, and especially to Saheh Gadi and Saleh Younis who continue to be trailblazers. Yes; it ain’t bragging if it is true, but by all means, gentlemen, don’t let that get in to your head.

Enter the Flipside
Formally, since accepting the Awate Team’s invitation, this will be the first article being posted under the column, Flipside. My previously published articles will also be compiled, retroactively, in the same column. So, why the name Flipside?  It comes from a rather simple thought. If there are at least two sides to every issue, then we must be able to explore and consider both sides. I am especially interested in the flipside, the contrarian, the uncomfortable and the less popular side of things.  Hopefully, together we will flip our issues and turn everything we know to be true on its head. A good dose of counterintuitive politics should only elevate and refine our discussions

Love Thy Opponent
French philosopher Voltaire is often credited for coming up with a lot of witty and memorable expressions to illustrate his opinions and beliefs.  He was a prolific writer and outspoken defender of civil liberties whose thinking influenced a number of notable leaders of the day, including the framers of the US constitution.  This is what he wrote to someone with whom he apparently disagreed deeply. “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Voltaire used both polemics and satire to get his point across, which must have been very gratifying to do.  What better way than to make your point and make your opponent feel a little ashamed?

Ok now, what is the real point of quoting Voltaire? Two reasons. First, I was told that citing famous 18th century philosophers makes an article sound more interesting than it really is (I am crossing my fingers here); and the second reason is that I am actually hoping some of my friends who tend to choose very colorful words when sending me their angry emails would just cut and paste Voltaire’s less colorful but more effective sentence.

You be the judge, but isn’t the above more eloquent than “You are f#@5ing @$$#0 …….Agame…..@^%#$!t#@*…….sellout……..@#%^! …….zelalemawi zkri nswatna!!!!!!!”

Yeesh! All I am sayin’ is … just say it, don’t spray it.

It’s all about writing and voicing opinions, heated debates, and choosing to agree or disagree, but at the end of the day, the right to one’s beliefs and the freedom to express them is an inalienable human right. Dogmatic measures and harsh penalties were rendered against those who broke the strict censorship laws back when Voltaire was around, but it did not stop him and his fellow thinkers from advocating for more liberty and from criticizing the French establishment and the oligarchy. They opposed tyranny and prevailed.  They used their mighty pens to inspire others and change the course of human history; one fateful tributary of that history is the United States Bill of Rights whose first amendment is about freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition.

As a US based entity, and its writers and publishers are protected by that first amendment. Other Eritreans who are fortunate enough to reside in places where it is not considered a treasonous crime to read and write materials that does not mesh well with that of the Eritrean government’s are also free to express their thoughts without the fear of someone raiding their homes in the middle of the night and hauling them away to some godforsaken gulag. Sadly, almost 20 years after independence, almost 50 years after Hamid Idris Awate fired the first bullet at Mount Adal, tyranny and fear reigns free in today’s Eritrea.

When it comes to this blanket of fear, Eritreans are essentially divided into three camps.  There is a camp that actually perpetuates this fear and views it as a something necessary to keep “the territorial integrity” of the country or any other ever changing objectives.  There is also a camp that believes in the wisdom and art of keeping your eyes, ears and mouth shut; the camp of the fence-sitters who would rather wait and see which way the wind is blowing.

And then, there is the third camp.

This is the vocal camp. This camp has taken a stand and against injustice; believes in speaking truth to power; wants to see constitutional governance and rule of law; this camp marches slowly but surely toward equality, liberty, justice and reconciliation, aspires to return the power to govern to its rightful owners, the people. Yes, the downtrodden people who are terrorized by the camp that uses fear. It’s all about the people and the power. The Greeks call these two words the “demos” and the “kratos”. People’s power. Democracy – hardly a dirty word, is it?

Even as the other two camps are getting ready booking their air tickets to Asmara and  plan their 2011 summer vacations ostensibly to celebrate Eritrea’s 20th “independence” day, the opposition camp (I prefer the term “pro-democracy movement”), will never take a break from reminding them that it is simply wrong to ignore the suffering of their compatriots.  The pro-democracy camp, the section of our community that has chosen to speak up, write, protest, oppose, cry and appeal does not choose to do so just for the sake of opposing the PFDJ or Isaias Afwerki.  As a matter of fact, it would have been just as easy to either join the insidious crowd of clappers, appeasers and the regime’s apologists or at least keep silent and do nothing.  But, fortunately for the rest of us, this camp of the few and the proud has decided not to ignore its historic duty to stand for the truth, to be voice of the voiceless and all these at a tremendous cost to their safety and that of their loved ones.

The Free Press Isaias Couldn’t Stifle
If we leave it up to the dictator and his enablers, they wouldn’t blink twice before they would detain and even kill the webmasters, publishers, writers and editors of every Eritrean website that strives to bring about democracy in Eritrea. That is why, we should continue to lend a helping hand to those who are leading the way and congratulate them for keeping the torch alive. Setit, Keste Demena, Zemen, Meqaleh, Tsigenay and Wintana may have been silenced, but we still have Awate, Asmarino, Assena, Dimtsi Delina, Meskerem* and a plethora of others I may not be familiar with.

Each of our Eritrean websites in the political cyberspace have its unique character and the more of them we have the merrier.  On the pro-democracy side, Tes Meharnenna’s became the go to place for great interactive, audio and video content. Amanuel Eyasu’s radio interviews and the mellow voice of Feven Solomon (ain’t she great?) is worth every minute of listening. In the pro-dictatorship arena we have the government site which paints a picture of Eritrea that makes you wonder why we oppose such a utopia in the first place.  There are also satellite websites such as that solely exist to amplify what the Eritrean government says and does; or to beat the drums for its money raising.

And then of course, there is the grand old, which is now reduced to being a bulletin board for anti-capitalism, anti-American wackos and weird conspiracy theorists. By the way, what happened to this once promising listserv (that’s what we called it back in the 90’s, and I know, I am dating myself here)? I guess, same thing that ailed our Eritrea must have conflicted Dehai as well; utter betrayal of the very purpose of its founding by the very people who were supposed to lead it. But, I will always save a special place for the spirit of Dehai –if not for its message board.  Once in a while, I venture to that area and it is like flying over a training camp for insult laden messages of intolerance and mudslinging, and somehow the only word everyone knows how to spell is “Agame”.

Even pro-tyranny websites must have a space and those of us who claim to hold the ideals of democracy must be able to co-exist and compete with their ideas.  One day, I am pretty sure they too will learn to tolerate us.  In the meantime, we just to have to repeat Voltaire’s line and say to them. “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Who knows, maybe these websites are where our future political parties will sprout from after all. I for one would have no problem voting for the party that will be known as Dehai’s Unbelievable Message Board.  Just don’t ask me what the initials would be…


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