Lampedusa and the Eritrean Journey for Dignity

After much criticism, the YPFDJ,  the youth satellite of Eritrea’s ruling party, PFDJ, visited Lampedusa, a south Italian island whose shores were visited by victims of a shipwreck: 154 barely alive, and 359 dead Eritreans.   YPFDJ’s statement begins with this:  “The Y-PFDJ team has been in Lampedusa for almost 24 hours and the facts and situation on the ground is nowhere near hyped hysteria and propaganda depicted in the media since the unfortunate tragedy unfolded.”  This is what happens to people whose loyalty to a man and party trumps their humanity: protecting the party, protecting its image is priority one; everything else is delegated to a secondary position.   Let’s see if we can help them, and others who think like them, to understand why Eritreans are in a state of hysteria, overwhelming grief, rage, and righteous indignation.  Let’s see if we can help others see that the Eritrean journey has always been for dignity and when it is denied the path has always been the same: fight or flight.

On December 1, 1970, the Haile Selasse regime assaulted the village of Ona in retaliation for the assassination of an Ethiopian general by the Eritrean Liberation Front. Its residents–men, women, children–were cordoned in their huts; then the huts were torched.  625 Eritreans died.  The incident was such a wound to our collective hearts that to the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), martyr’s day became December 1 (it still is) because it was a date that commemorated the highest number of civilians killed at one spot by Ethiopian officials to punish them for supporting the Eritrean revolution.

On May 12, 1988, the Mengistu Hailemariam regime assaulted the township of She’eb, in retaliation for its huge loss (liberation of Afabet: Operation Nadew.)  Its residents, mostly women and children, were crushed by tanks.  About 400 Eritreans died.  The incident was such a jolt to the collective hearts of Eritreans that even those who had forgotten about the revolution, and considered it a lost cause, returned back to the fold to support the Eritrean revolution.

Lampedusa is seen within this context.  359 people is the largest number of Eritrean civilians killed at one spot since 1988. (that we know of: who knows how many the Isaias Afwerki regime has killed.) And while there was some strange logic to Ona and She’eb (and Besik Dira, Hazemo, Weki Dba, Msyam…) because one could at least say cruel things happen in wartime; and, whereas, one could find some strange comfort that the victims of Ona and She-eb took their last breath in their hometown perhaps in the company of their loved ones, what makes Lampedusa heartbreaking is that the victims–mostly in their 20s–died far from home, far from their loved ones, and having taking unimaginable risks and having paid large sums of money to run as far away from home as possible– in search for human dignity.   That is what October 3, 2013 signifies to normal Eritreans and the hysteria is not “hyped.”

The Normal and Abnormal Eritreans

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction is to cry.  The abnormal reaction is to be quiet.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction is to ask why.  The abnormal reaction is to shut off inquiries.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction is to mourn.  The abnormal reaction is to spend the night dancing–as the PFDJ did in Atlanta and Riyadh.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction is to do everything one can to stop it from happening again.  The abnormal reaction is to accept as a foregone conclusion that it will continue to happen.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction of the head of state is to console his people.  The abnormal reaction is to pretend it didn’t happen and to hide.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction of a government is to visit the site of the tragedy as soon as possible, to investigate, to share facts–of the living and the dead.  The abnormal reaction is to drag your feet, to hide the facts, to focus on “information management.”

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, the normal reaction of a government is to do all it can to bring the dead home.  The abnormal reaction is to think of how will such action impact my grip on power.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes a religious people, the normal reaction is to pray, and, for religious leaders to comfort the faithful.  The abnormal reaction is to have religious leaders who have nothing to say.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes a people, writers write; artists are moved;  journalists report; activist agitate; leaders lead; the faithful pray; the religious testify; mothers are inconsolable; and the people are reduced to tears.  This is normal reaction and it has been witnessed in the Eritrean opposition camp and among those not aligned with the opposition or the regime.  The abnormal reaction is to minimize the loss, to ignore it, to focus on “damage control”, to pass a “business as usual” messages; to deflect attention away for its root causes (America!), to deny families the right to grieve and to have religious leaders–who are dragged out for any occasion to sing praises to the government–to be totally silent.  This abnormal reaction is what we have witnessed from the regime and its supporters.

EVERYTHING the regime has done thus far is political and designed for a single purpose: elongating its power monopoly.  Will sharing the news with the people strengthen or weaken my hold on power? Will showing empathy strengthen or weaken my hold on power?  Will acting quickly or more slowly strengthen or weaken my hold on power? Will treating this as exceptionally tragic or just another tragedy strengthen or weaken my hold on power? Will refusal to acknowledge all factors that contributed to it strengthen or weaken my power monopoly?  It is the regime and its supporters who have “politicized” the issue.

Disrespecting The Dead and The Grieving

Everything the Eritrean regime does is for political consumption.  And, for years, the Italians have had a reputation for having a messy government.  These two factors have conspired to deny grieving Eritrean families to get what they want most: to have the dead interned in their final resting place in their home, Eritrea.

The Italian government’s position is this: family members, preferably parents of the deceased, should provide their DNA to Italian officials; they must identify the deceased in person, in Lampedusa, and they must provide photos of the deceased, and submit an official request to have the body flown to Eritrea.  This fact-finding and investigation has been done by Abba Mussye and representatives of EYSC in Italy and they have shared their finding with the public.

Question: what about Eritreans who are unable to physically visit Lampedusa? Can Eritrean family members visit an Italian embassy anywhere and provide DNA evidence and submit the request? What if there are two contradictory requests by family members: which takes precedence?  Is this the first time that such a tragedy has occurred in Italy? If not, how has Italy dealt with the issue in the past?

Meanwhile, the Eritrean regime has disclosed that it has begun (belatedly) discussions with the Italian government and is eagerly awaiting for the bodies to be returned home.  If that is the case, has it made arrangements for family members to provide DNA to the Italian embassy in Eritrea? Are those who have been informed of the death from the surviving members of the Lampedusa tragedy allowed to grieve the traditional way: by constructing tents and holding religious ceremonies? Since that will require a gathering of more than 7 people, will they require a special permit to have that kind of assembly? Which Eritrean government agency do Eritreans go to get information about their loved one? Who is in charge?

A heavy dose of skepticism is required when it comes to the ruling regime’s solemn pledges that it is working to facilitate the transfer of the bodies.  This is because (a) it was not respectful of them when they lived and that’s why they left the country to begin with; (b) it is not respectful of the dead and considers traditional expressions of grieving wasteful and backward; (c) it considers any spontaneous gathering of Eritreans–any assembly that is not micro-managed by it–as a potential for disorder and mutiny; (d) it has no history of mourning for the dead–except those who happen to have been in the good graces of the dictator just before they passed on.

Only three examples will suffice to drive this point home:

1. In June 2003, when the Eritrean regime finally disclosed the names of Eritreans who perished in the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, the state media reported that family members had accepted the news with cheers and ululations.  One reporter, Voice of America’s Aklilu Solomon, contradicted this manufactured news and reported that, no, in fact the families had cried and screamed and fainted.  The regime promptly arrested him and then said that his arrest had nothing to do with his report, it just so happened that it realized that he really should be in the National Service and he is serving his nation.  Eighteen months after “serving the nation” (in prison), he escaped to Ethiopia where he eventually became, in the words of PFDJ, a “victim of human traffickers.”

2. In February 2008, the family of Taha Mohammed Nur was summoned by government officials and told to collect his body: he had died in prison.  Here’s the significance: Taha Mohammed Nur was one of the founders of the Eritrean Liberation Front; later joining one of the splinter groups (ELF-PLF group led by Osman Saleh Sabbe.) After independence, he returned to Eritrea and served in a number of commissions  including the Referendum Commission and the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea, and had a paralegal/translation service/notary office.  None of his contribution to make Eritrea an independent state, nor to help in state-building, mattered when he died simply because months before he died he had run afoul of whatever laws the regime accused him of violating (of course, he was not charged with any crime, nor found guilty, nor sentenced: so nobody knows what that is.)

3. February 2012: Naizghi Kflu, a veteran of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a former minister and ambassador, died in London, England after a long bout with kidney failure.  His body was kept in a morgue for months as family members awaited for a positive response from the Isaias Afwerki regime.   Despite a personal appeal by one of his daughters, Isaias Afwerki rejected the family request to have him buried in his country– this, despite assurances the family was given by senior government officials including the “special advisor” to Isaias Afwerki, Yemane Gebreab.  He was buried in the United Kingdom, without the Eritrean state media even mentioning that he had died.

Is Lampedusa the Tipping Point?

Some observers think the Lampedusa tragedy is the tipping point as far as the regime is concerned.  It will certainly add pressure from its usual allies and supporters. Public condemnation has already started.

Until recently, there were only a handful religious leaders who aired their opposition to the regime’s policy; after the Lampedusa incident, religious leaders have played an important role in echoing the suffering of Eritreans and the destructive policies of the regime. The inspiring and soothing messages the religious leaders gave in places like Manchester, Atlanta to name a few, is in fact the herald that the tipping point may have been reached.

Another event is the fact that close associates of the regime have publicly disassociated from it and are airing their rejection of the Eritrean regime and its leader—the public statement of Tewelde “Wedi Vaccaro” Tesfamariam is a testimony to this development.

Such developments would certainly exert more pressure to the Eritrean army and the public servants to act in resolving the governance issue in Eritrea. It is obvious that something big might come out of the Lampedusa incident.

Judging from its panicked and unusual reaction to the news, it appears that the regime thinks Lampedusa could be the tipping point.  This is no time to be complacent, then; it is time to charge.   Do not be intimidated by its accusation that its opponents are “politicizing a tragedy”: in point of fact, it is: it is using it to strengthen its power monopoly; and it is right and justified that the tragedy be a rallying cry to rid Eritrea of a regime that does not deserve to govern it.

Nonetheless, Diaspora groups and elements are already busy positioning themselves to secure a prominent place in the anticipated change. Such hasty, ill-devised, exclusionary moves could throw Eritrea in worse turmoil. Remember, the Eritrean journey–whether against the Ethiopian occupiers or the Eritrean regime– has always been one in search of dignity.  Nothing less than one that honors the dignity of ALL Eritreans will have legitimacy.   The PFDJ is an illegal, criminal institution, and any attempt to resuscitate it, or reform it, would throw Eritrea to the unknown. Yes, Eritrea needs change; it doesn’t need the tails where the other side of the coin is the PFDJ head. A new coin is needed; a coin with no stains of the PFDJ.
inform. inspire. EMBOLDEN. reconcile.


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