Eritrea is in one dark corner. While the level and pattern of our experiences might be unique to us, the consequences (the pain and loss) are virtually the same. We have had our fair share of colonial subjugation, occupation, and segregation. At the same time, as in many other societies, we have had unrelenting internal contradictions and conflicts, ranging from a bloody civil war, economic marginalisation, social discrimination, and the worst forms of indignation and abuses. We have been and are oppressed and victimised. The Eritrean story (the experience) has become a story of struggle, loss, pain, triumph, and betrayal. Like any African country, Eritrea was conceived accidentally (as they say, for better or for worse) which established the initial collective experience of colonial subjugation (oppression). Our forbears accepted the reality of accidentally as a fait accompli and forged a strong solidarity towards a common destiny- an imagined nation-state if you are a fan of Benedict Anderson (1983). Thus, one could argue Eritrea is a destiny born out of a fate.
In order to shape this common destiny, though, it required a struggle to shake off subjugation and oppression and attain independence. The pursuit for nationhood, however, demanded life, blood, and treasure, and as such was laced with loss and pain. Indeed, the war of independence was a total disruption of life in Eritrea. In this remarkable odyssey to attain nationhood, extraordinary fortitude and valour was demonstrated. And indeed, 1991 was a culmination of the long journey which started in 1940s, gathered momentum in 1950s, and burst in 1961. We should always respect and salute the generations of Eritreans who answered the call of duty to liberate us all from subjugation (all while we can analyse and critique their role or the very struggle itself). This traumatic experience affected individuals, households, communities, and the nation at large, and it left permanent scars on multiple levels. And scars are sensitive- they should not be injured again for if they do they won’t heal that easily. Beyond, the pain, loss, and physical scars however, it left a mental stain in our minds and the national psyche, setting us on a vicious self-destruction course.
What is essential to note here is that intrinsic and latent in the quest for national liberation were the ideals of freedom, justice, liberty, dignity, equality, peace and prosperity. Indeed, subjugation and oppression trample these ideals and so the struggle was waged to simultaneously realise these aspirations where dreams can be realised and life itself could be lived in its fullness. Once Eritrea became an independent state, it was supposed to usher in a new dispensation- that of healing, reconciliation, and building new bridges and fixing damaged ones (both literally and metaphorically). Unfortunately, hypnotised by the euphoria of liberation and deceived by our solemn ‘moment of silence’ (which extended to a quarter of a century) to rightly honour the fallen, the nation was hijacked, and our aspirations were betrayed and sabotaged.The old wounds (literal and metaphorical) were opened deeper and the pain is far greater…the mothers of Eritrea lost their ሕሳስ ልደ (youngest) in self-preservation and cock-a-hoop wars before they mourned enough for their ቦኽሪ (eldest). Many households were rendered ጻንታ (bereft). Many children grow up deprived of their fathers who were kidnapped, disappeared, and extrajudicially executed. It is an era of ናይ ሓደራ እሱራት(trustee detainees) under which many innocent citizens rot in random jails around the country after being picked up by random security agents. The youth are deprived of their childhood and their prime age, and their dreams to become anything in life. Today, the Eritrean people are denied of any rights and are effectively owned by a ‘master’ bred from within. They are turned into de facto slaves and refugees whose bodies are either emaciated in forced labour camps as conscripts or floating in the Mediterranean Sea or mutilated in the Sinai and Sahara deserts. And some are driven into the hands of nihilistic terrorist groups like ISIS and go through the grotesque experience of having their heads chopped off or their organs harvested. Each story of an individual, a household, or a community can attest to the perpetual loss and pain. Perhaps Prof. Bereket H. Selassie (2011) has summed up our collective story by accurately describing us as a ‘Wounded Nation’. How woefully a true indictment of a once hopeful nation! This is our current experience. Instead of charting a new and independent we have fallen back to the trap of victim mentality, whining and blaming everyone and everyone for our challenges.
In our case it is a ‘double jeopardy’ of victimisation from the old and the new experiences. On one (old) side, we feed into and refresh the old grievances of Ethiopian occupation, Western conspiracies, Soviet ‘miscalculation’, Arab suspicion, and many ‘unknown knowns’. Our past ghost characters such as ጃንሆይ ( Emperor H.S), Bevin-Sforza, Derg and the like continue to play active roles in our ‘un’reality-show. We are constantly reminded of the old enemies and their atrocities. This is an effective mechanism to invoke the painful memories and create a siege mentality. In this zone Eritrea is not liberated and is fighting many terrestrial and extraterrestrial enemies- remember the ‘external conspiracies’! Many victims of such unabating stream of overdose are still fighting the Derg(ኢሠፓ) in the Sahel mountains and in case they wake up from it Ethiopia has been reformed to its old enemy status (literally), thus constructing new trenches (physical and mental). In this way if you disregard the Southern trenches you are taken to Northern ones, swinging between nasty reality and a nightmare. The conflicts with Sudan, Yemen, and Djibouti proved to be ephemeral, and the far flung ones such as the DRC and Somalia are hampered by obscurity unless one has binoculars! According to this narrative, it is the fault of these ghosts far and near that Eritrea is eating its children, shredded its constitution, destroyed its institutions, ejecting its youth, starving its poor population, and more. Their spell is making it to act and behave in a crazed and unhinged manner- hence it is not responsible for its actions. The nation, for all intents and purposes, has turned sducidal, homocidal and medieval.
Victimhood is often communicated through official channels to the group members (citizens) all in order to maintain the twisted world outlook. It is officially communicated to the nation via the national tv, newspapers, websites, class rooms, military camps, offices, the endless and cyclical seminars spew old smoke of burning villages, trenches, and towns at a scale that can only be described an obsession. These channels churn 24 hours to construct a twisted and lame outlook by an illusion of hanging clouds over the Eritrean skies and a mirage of the future. This is the macro and micro level imagination of Eritrea and Eritreans, respectively, today. The narrative is designed to establish a perpetual insecurity. More importantly, it is used as an escape from self-imposed present active oppression. In recent years in Hadas Ertra I read a serialised article titled (my translation) “Sahel as in Asmara and EPLF as a government”. It is clear the objective of the writer was to glorify the EPLF’s achievements in Sahel. One doesn’t require analytical skills to discern from the rationale and content of the article in which its writer attempts to take his reader back to 1970s and to Sahel trenches which were then under siege. To my amusement however, the writer, though inadvertently, exposed the nakedness of the rulers in Eritrea and Asmara (the political and the material). Unable to defend PFDJ and Asmara, he offers us to wander and wonder in an oppressed place and era. It reminds me of a comedy which goes…ጸሓይ ቀደም ነይራ….perhaps the writer is saying from the blacked out capital city, ኣስመራ ቀደም ነይራ….መንግስቲ ቀደም ነይራ… All manners of cultural production are geared to construct and maintain an oppressed state of mind. The old lyrics and chords torment the ears and entrench the minds of many today, persistently RE-minding (constructing) us of our oppressed us. I remember right after independence there was a Tigrigna song which I found then very incongruous, it goes “ጸሚዩና’ሎም እምባ ምስ ኩርባ ቦምባ ለሚዶም ናይ ሓጺን ዳርባ”…..How ominous! It was such a contradiction to me then as it is now…I remember how the elderly had prayed day and night for that war madness of “ሁሉም ነገር ወደ ጦር ግንባር” and “ሎሚ ዘይከተተ ብደዉ ከምዝሞተ” to end. Perhaps this was a prelude to what followed soon after, devastating wars with our neighbours. How tragic and telling it is that we are now talking of “መኸተ”! In fact the nation cheered when its was told on 24th May in September 1 Square, that its value systems are ‘ኣይግዛእን ኣይጸዓድን’‘ኣይዋረድን፡ ምባል ምክብባርን ምትሕልላይን፡ ሓድነትን ስኒትን ውህደትን፡ ትብዓትን ተወፋይነትን ሓርበኛነትን መስዋእትነትን፡ ስራሕን ዓያይነትን ኣፍራዪነትን ተባላሓትነትን፡ ጽንዓት’. The message is enemies are everywhere and do not trust anyone which is a clear example of how an oppressed mind entrenched (in the past and uncertain future). It is like the proverbial monkey which couldn’t sleep a wink fearing the sky might fall on it. Of course, these values are not bad values per se but they are deployed in our country at the expense of the fundamental values of Dignity, Freedom, Liberty, Equality, Human Rights, Rule of Law, Fairness, Tolerance, Peace, and Prosperity. We are being conditioned!
At individual level, as mentioned above losing on all fronts we may feel duty-bound to defend the legacy of our martyrs but what we are made to forget is that the very legacy is supposed to be a better present and the best future. Our martyrs did not pay a full measure just to earn martyrdom but a nation that feeds the hungers and quenches the thirst of its people and above all a nation that guarantees the dignity of its citizens! Their legacy is secured only through the people who shine (aspirations fulfilled) for posterity- that is the eternal flame which can truly honour their sacrifices. Today’s Eritrea is ejecting and rejecting (ተሓሲማቶም) its children- how can this be a legacy of our revered martyrs?
The ongoing tragic experience of oppression and repression (our new experience) is also having its own impact both on the nation and individuals. Eritrea has robbed the lives, hopes, and dreams of its own people. It has inflicted untold pain and loss as mentioned above. So, it is absolutely right that we express our outrage and even respond not only to defend ourselves but also to change the situation. Ironically, the frustration (the puzzle) is that the response is not yet robust or proportional to the agony we continue to suffer. At the same time, the worrying bit in our response is the emerging signs of victim mentality driven self-destructing behaviour and actions where victims turn on each other, instead of supporting each other. When we see individuals and organisations acting and behaving in a manner which undermines each other and their respective causes, then it is a cause for worry. Unless we tame the internal ghosts and summon our courage to rise above the ashes, things might fall apart- setting us into perpetual decline.
The oppressed mind (victimhood) is a lethal state of mind/psyche (condition). Today, the loss and pain sustained by Eritreans is profound, except of course few (whatever their number). This is worsened by the fact that they are unrelenting which dashes our hopes and render us helpless. Our inability to build a nation worth of our sacrifices and a nation at peace with itself and the world haunts us. Sadness, anger, and fear characterise us as people. Often our conversations tell that we are dumfounded, frustrated, and pessimism runs deep through all sections of our society. We are sad and angry. Individuals are consumed by their own victim mentality induced anger on top of the loss they sustained at the hands of some dark forces that operate in broad day light and anger turns you into a loose canons (we shoot aimlessly) and at many levels we are exercising self-destruction as a result. Both our discourse and politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game. The irresponsibility, recklessness, and immaturity we see today are symptomatic of an oppressed mind and victim mentality. When we don’t see and engage issues with a degree of rationality, objectivity, and civility we know we are clouded by anger which attacks the mind’s reasoning ability. As a result, our judgments take the wrong turn and instead of questioning the very judgments we question each others motives which is futile if not dangerous. Fear also grips our thinking processes. The prevalent mistrust, suspicion, and perceptions are linked to the visceral fear from each other and a fear from the future. Trust and confidence are eroded. The worst our oppressors would do is to set us on the course of self-replicating self-destructive habits. As a result instead of finding common ground we find to seek refuge in the cracks of fringe politics which achieves little, to our dismay. Wittingly or otherwise we act and behave like our oppressors and in the process we surrender the morale high ground. And some of us show inertia and prefer to hide in dark corners to the point we become totally lame as if we are outsiders to our own crisis – running away from responsibility, not a smart option. All this has left us an apprehensive nation- ambivalent to the notion of change all in the face of such a scale of calamity. Half a century (25 years) after our liberation, we have regressed farther and faster into the the past. For all intents and purposes, the Eritrean nation has crumbled under its own weight and has trapped its people in the rubble.
How to turn it around?
There are no easy fixes to the, unfortunately, depressing reality exposed above but one thing is clear- we need liberation once again- LIBERATION OF THE MIND! I know that our impulse is to dismiss this and call for the elusive shortcut- remove the “PFDJ” or its high priest and we will be happy ever after, didn’t we believe in that cliché before! This reaction of ours is natural, though, given our frustration with the unbearable situation we are in and at the same time it shows the conditioning we are framed by (our oppressed state of mind). If the claim of this article makes sense, then this is about the fundamentals of the Eritrean person, the society, and that of the state. In that case, if we argue that we need to stop the runaway train of ours which has lost its bearing, heading the wrong direction to the state of total collapse, then we need to first realise that our train is off the tracks and heading the wrong direction. In other words, this is about direction and the tracks. At the moment, we see two contradictory direction signposts, two arrows, one to the future and another to the past- ironically, we don’t even know where we are right now which makes it all the more trickier reading our map and compounding our confusion. So, let’s first locate ourselves as individuals, society, and the state, and clear our directions. Our parallel universe must end and our bubbles should be blown out. It requires reflection, objectivity, and honesty too because we need to accept the objective truth to admit our regression. What are the facts telling us? Do they constitute our truth (reality)? This is a two way conversation between the truth and ourselves (individuals and collectively). Let’s search our individual and collective souls and challenge ourselves. While it may not have captured the process of liberating oneself from the state of the oppressed mind quite succinctly, the title of the EMDHR’s manual, ብድሆ ኣንጻር ኣተሓሳሰባና (loosely translated Challenging Our Perceptions) illuminates it better. Perception has a life of its own, something like a bubble of ‘truth’ if you will, until it is blown out that is. It means we need to conquer the struggle in the battleground (mind) and reclaim our individual and collective agency. Already, we are half-way in the liberation process at this point, as this will lead us to taking stock of our predicaments and take responsibility. It means we will know the ‘known unknowns’ through our independent reasoning based on reliable evidence (proof) and bingo- we are liberated! I know I make it sound that easy and some will argue this is an oversimplification of what is a very complex state of affairs and we need more than that. True, we will need more than that but liberation (freedom) is a responsibility (opportunity) – to solve complex issues and shape one’s own destiny. Challenges and contradictions are facts of life and society, respectively but if the incredible innovative ability and resilience of the human spirit is harnessed we can confront it and make tomorrow better than today and certainly much better than yesterday- it is possible. Many nations and societies such as South Africa, France, Chile, South Korea, Japan, Germany, and many other countries were able to deal with their past demons and come out of such a quagmire successfully.
Our country slipped away from our hands in 1940s before its reappeared in the form of a glass-half-empty in 1950s, and then got away again until it emerged with force in 1991 when we dropped the ball ourselves. Yet, I am optimistic that Eritrea can bounce back from the abyss we have dragged ourselves down and that is why I make the case for the liberation of the oppressed mind/psyche and the rebirth of the Eritrean nation. The magnanimity and generosity of spirit of our people have not totally deserted us. It is this social capital that our early nationalist leaders were able to to harness and we need to reclaim and rediscover it in order to reimagine the ‘Eritrean Dream’ independent of its experiences. While we may carry to bear the scars of oppression, we can chose to break away from victim-hood and shape our own destiny as a generation and as people. We can restore the fundamental values of Dignity, Freedom, Liberty, Equality, Human Rights, Rule of Law, Fairness, Tolerance, Peace, and Prosperity. It is our choice to be guided by our hopes and not by our past negative experiences and it is in this way that our forbears forged solidarity and shaped a common destiny. As Mandela once said, ‘it is in [our hands]’ or shall I say it is in our minds. Let’s take a leaf from the 19th century English poet, William Ernest Henley, who, despite his afflictions, defiantly declared ’I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul’.
Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
Bereket, H. S. (2011) Wounded Nation: How a Once Promising Eritrea was Betrayed and Its Future Compromised, Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.
Daniel Bar-Tal, Lily Chernyak-Hai, Noa Schori and Ayelet Gundar (2009) “A sense of self- perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts”, https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc-874-bartal-chernyakhai-schori-gundar.pdf
Munroe, M. (2004) The Burden of Freedom: Discover the Key to your individual and national freedom. Miami: F1.
Saleh Younis (2013) “Our New Culture of Victimhood and Voyeurism”, http://awate.com/our-new-culture-of-victimhood-and-voyeurism/