Omissions & Biases: Mesfin Hagos’s Book
Mesfin Hagos’s English Book on Eritrea: Useful Facts Tainted by Omissions & Biases
This article about the book in English by compatriot Mesfin Hagos cannot claim to be a standard book review but is, primarily, a write-up to sincerely commend the author tohave published something, even belatedly. Secondly, the article aims to flag out what I see as flaws in it. The hope is to get a genuine review that would eventually includemissing parts of contentious but half-told stories in the book so that the upcoming Tigrigna/Arabic versions could be more complete to Eritrean readers like me. In fact, I would not have been tempted to write this piece if it were not to the assertion described on pages 99-101 under the subtitle: “Failed Ethiopian Campaign that Birthed the Derg.”
Forgetful of all the sacrifices our people paid in sweat and blood in previous decades and, in particular, between September 1961 and December 1973, the author (or should one say the authors?) dared to tell us that a single two-week battle fought in the second half of December 1973 between the then small units of the Popular Liberation Forces (PLF/ህዝባዊ ሓይልታት) and the occupation army gave birth to the 1974 mutiny and changes in Ethiopia. Brother Mesfin’s book also claims that the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which he said started almost all the armed hostilities in the field till its defeat, was bent at disrupting EPLF operations against the enemy, and that the ELF was not desirous of unity till 1981while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) always wanted unity.
Regrettably, and in spite of many interesting and useful facts in it, the book in many sections loses balance by injecting half-truths and harmful biases. One of the misleading wrong and negative messages in it, and especially for fresh or uninitiated readers is the following: –Eritrea had two archenemies called the ELF and Ethiopia, and both had to be gotten rid of at any material and human cost. (In actual fact, the so-called prophecy of Isaias that the ELF shall melt out (ጀብሃ ክትሓቅቕ እያ) existed a decade before the 1980-81 civil war that was started by a decision of EPLF leadership (or may be only by Isaias). Mesfin wrote that: “To win the big battle [against the first enemy, Ethiopia]… it was necessary to solve one problem at a time … and [we] decided to push the ELF out of Eritrea.” (See page 207).
Well, these and similar insinuations and allegations in the book cry for correction and comment, although more convincing responses may have disappeared with the key political leaders and military commanders of both fronts. Most of those figures are not around now to provide helpful rebuttals for our history records, in which case the ELF is a perpetual orphan – at least in the literature so far produced in the West by Eritreans and non-Eritreans alike.
Nonetheless, I must say I am pleased to see the usually unforthcoming Mesfin, whose excessive reticence is known to many, finally sharing pieces of little known facts and clarifying some vaguely heard events in our prolonged struggle. It is also great that he broke out of his old thinking that our history should not be written by individuals but be worked out as a joint project, which is difficult to do in our situation. Yet, those individuals who kindly take the pain to write down what they knew, asMesfin finally did, should try to tell both sides of a given event, good and bad, and not tell only the part that they wanted to tell, as brother Mesfin conceded to have done in his book while talking to Samuel ‘Aka-Aka’ of Dehay Eritrea not long ago.
In the paragraphs below, I am highlighting under a few subheadings some of the issues in the book that I found to be of interest to take note of.
Merits of Mesfin and His Book
What Mesfin told us about himself in the book is part ofour recent history. Many Eritreans of his generation did share the misery in absolute poverty that young Mesfin and his family went through. Post-World War II generations of Eritreans also had the unquenchable thirst for learning that Mesfin ran after. In other words, many Eritreans of the past 82 years can very well relate to Mesfin’s unfulfilled dream cut short because of multiple problems – problems that are still haunting younger generations.
The main author of the book and those who assisted himto include compassionate feelings in it, must be thanked for expressing the lingering pain in the author because of the fate of his mother who endured life-time struggle against poverty and finally, as Mesfin put it: “[she] did not live enough to see our victory, the singular reason [of her untimely death being that] I was not there for her.”
This sad and emotionally sharp expression is also part of our recent history and can be shared and replicated by so many Eritrean families and readers of the book, old and young. Yet, many of us forget that Mesfin’s mother and a huge number of her likes, women and men, were indeed also ‘martyrs’ of the prolonged and unfinished national struggle. But they were forgotten when the quality of martyrdom and the identity of martyrs was limited mostly to those who held guns.
With its somewhat misleading title of “An African Revolution Reclaimed,” Mesfin’s memoir about his experience and our ups and downs satisfactorily narratessome of the bold decisions and brave actions Mesfin took to keep the struggle going – come what – amidst extremely rough days. For instance, only Mesfin and Fissehaye Abraha”Karachi” returned to the field in June 1968 after their training in China while seven others (what Mesfin called highland/Kebessa Christians) refused to do so. Similarly in Dankalia in 1970, only Mesfin and Measho Embaye chose to stay with the new PLF while the rest of their Christian colleagues refused to stay.
As cited in my friend Semere Habtemariam’s articulate review of the book last July, Mesfin Hagos deserves accolades for being honest, and to be accepted as one,most of the time — but for sure not all the time. To his credit, Mesfin does not share the opinion of some of our compatriots who used to allege that Christian highlanders at that time, and while they were few, were excluded from leadership posts even as of August 1969 at Adobaha Conference. Mesfin retorts: “I do not believe there were enough Christian highlanders who were fit to become leaders, given our limited experience and duration in the struggle at the time.” He meant this was to the exception of Isaias Afwerki and Abera Mekonnen who were elected to the 38-member General Command/ቅያዳ ዓማ that was from its start demonized far beyond its awkwardly taken actions and shortcomings by those who still do not accept it was “a product of its time.”
Mesfin also boldly and honestly tells readers one of the harmful weaknesses of key ELF leaders of the time by putting it in these words: “The larger we, as Christian highlanders, grew in number within the ELF, the more we were made to feel we did not belong.” (See page 23). Very true, I agree. This was the same malady with multiple other factors that led to the decline and defeat of that once mighty and determined force, popularly called ሰራዊት ሓርነት/جيش التحرير (liberation army) by almost every Eritrean citizen till the 1981 debacle.
Also belatedly following in the footsteps of my old friend Mussie Tesfamichael and his Menka’e group of 1973, in whose condemnation to death he joined three others,
Mesfin’s Persistent Biases in the Book
In his own words, young Mesfin was “rebellious, sensitive and wallowing in self-pity.” The first two traits plus other positive and negative characteristics might have continued to be part of him, but the last one – self-pity/victimhood – was infectious and effectively transmitted to his friends, as Isaias did infected many in his organization by his own negative characteristics. In fact, Mesfin’s self-pity was well reflected in Nehnan Elamanan, a manifesto that he partly co-authored with Isaias to express an extremely exaggerated victimhood of a section of our people (the Christian Kebessa) in order to create an organization, unfortunately adding more fuel to the harmful “we” and “they” divide that we could not stop to this day. Mesfin still believes that, Nehnan Elamanan, while he calling it “a product of its time”, was perfect and well intended. He says it only aimed “to move us beyond our cultural differences and rally us around a national cause.” But, to my reading and to the understanding of a good part of the Eritrean society, that was not what the document did. However, I am not here to repeat the lasting venom in it.
While at it, let me add the following: Mesfin wrote (page 64): “Much has been said about Nehnan Elamanan,including that isaias had written it in Addis Ababa and took it with him to implement it in the field. This has been said even by those who claim to have been his classmates in Addis Ababa.” (Emphasis added). The writer in Mesfin’s mind can only be Yours Truly because Mesfin knows it, and because no other person but me from Isaias’s school group wrote criticizing that document. Yet, I never wrote saying that Isaias prepared the document in Addis Ababa. On the other hand, what I repeatedly said and wrote as of the late 1970s, including in a book published in 1992, was that in the spring of 1966, Isaias alleged in our ELF cell meeting in Addis Ababa that the ELF was conducting “Jihad” in Eritrea. Also as I repeatedly affirmed, the attendants of that meeting together with Isaias and me included today’s Ela-Ero prisoner Haile Weldetinsae/Deru’e; PFDJ cabinet minister Tesfay Ghebreselassie “China”, Bereket ‘Aket’ of Paris, and twin brothers Andom/Habtom Ghebremichael – all of them former EPLF members, and may be some of them still accessible for Mesfin to inquire. And was it necessary for Mesfin to address me as “those who claim” to being Isaias’s former classmates? And for what honor, brother Mesfin?
Mesfin’s Book About Isaias
I found the following sentence as one of the most fittingand powerful testimonies by Mesfin about his old colleague: “Power did not make Isaias Afwerki what he was not; it only unveiled him.” Very, very true! Through many parts of his book, Mesfin tells how resentful, greedy, intrusive and self-centered Isaias was with his “poisonous character” and consistent failings to consult those around him. To Mesfin, that coldhearted Isaias remained a “malady and incurable one at that.” Yet, many also blame Mesfin of sharing the characteristics of Isaias like resentfulness, ingratitude and a continuing, but sometimes unsuccessfully concealed, mistrust, hatred and contempt of everything (and everyone) associated with their former second archenemy called ELF/‘Jabha’.
After exhaustively explaining how Isaias sidelined him and Ibrahim ‘Afa from their military roles, Mesfin stated that Isaias always “treated the military as his private domain.” This testimony by Mesfin reminded me of what I also wrote in the January 1982 issue No. 45 of the Eritrean Newsletter under the title of “Profile of Adventurism in Eritrea” opining that the EPLF was already turned into “a private company…driven by the insatiable ambition to power of one person.” (Go back and read old ELF documents for similar conclusions recorded over a decade before 1991.)
On the EPLF side, at least one person, Mesfin, had known early on the wickedness of the man now destroying Eritrea, if he has not already finished that job. At one point in 1980s, Mesfin confesses to have contemplated of taking drastic action against Isaias –ያረድ ውዒልካያ….ክክክ! Yet, he did not go ahead doing that because he could not convince himself that the EPLF would find “a replacement half as good as [Isaias[.” And unfortunately for Eritrea and its people, this utterly wrong and dangerous belief in the capacities of one person lingered in the EPLF and still lingers in the hearts and minds of not very few Eritreans infected by the Old Thought.
More About the ELF in the Book
As they say, history is written by those who win because people can believe them very easily because they were winners – and of course serve and served as generals of a winning army, ministers, ambassadors and what have you. The book expressively describes battle-field successesand, when necessary, orderly withdrawals of the PLF/EPLF fighters. But, when it comes to the other front, you will read mostly about defeat after defeat and disorderly withdrawals of the ELF army. Well, if that was the case all the time, let the few surviving ELF army commanders and political commissioners say and comment for the sake of records for future researchers.Leaving things unclear did not help us in the past and cannot be helpful in the future. In short, the book is replete with selective narrations about the now defunct ELF which belongs to our common history. And to cite only a few of the half-told stories in the book:-
6. To an extremely sad episode in 1967 that Ibrahim Toteel called a “never healing wound” in the society, Mesfin’s book makes only a passing mention in asensitive phrase, “Christian farmers and herders whom ELF units had killed in the environs of Shlalo in western Eritrea.” As it is put, the phrase gives the impression that the killing was an outright rampage to kill Christians. That tragic occurrence at Shimbare near Shlalo was one of the sensitive topics that Self-Natsenet/EPLF used very effectively to build itself into an entity in the early 70s. Those 43 victims at Shimbare included 8 Moslems, and were given land and arms by the enemy to act as a militia resisting ELF activities in that region. Readers can assume Mesfin knew a lot more about such sad incidents but his book’s glossing over the issue without a little effort to say what that killing of “Christian farmers and herders” was about etc is not a helpful omission.
Etc etc are among the issues that still wait for balanced writings by telling all sides of every given story for the benefit of future researchers.
Nonetheless, aside from the omissions and apparent biases in the book, which are reflections of the author’s fierce defense of his ‘sacred legacies’ as EPLF, Mesfin’s book, I reiterate, can remain a rich source in furtherexposing some of the hidden truths about Isaias, about their joint winner front and government till the birth of the historic G-15 in which Mesfin again played a commendable role.
Mesfin on Diaspora Politics
The book summarizes the major hurdles facing the Eritrean opposition camp in exile. He now advises that the opposition must devise correct mechanisms of struggle. Mesfin also pledges to work towards forging an inclusive movement that would finally guarantee to do what the victors of 1991 failed to: creating in post-Isaias era an “inclusive, fair, equitable and rules based” system of governance. May that dream come true within Mesfin’s and his unlucky generation’s fading years.
Before concluding this piece, I must apologize to Dr. Awet Tewelde Weldemichael, because I presented Mesfin Hagos as the sole author while we are told that the writers were two. One can for sure see the huge contributions in the project of our young and promising history professor.Yet, readers like me can also expect Mesfin to take almost all the responsibility for possible mistakes, biases and omissions. Professor Awet may be blamed only for a few unnecessary repeat of already told stories and a repeat of at least one whole paragraph in the book. But responsibility for mistakes like writing Debri Sala (Monastery of Sala) instead of the correct Debr Sala (Mount Sala in Tigre) can only go back to Mesfin who knows the Tigre language better.
And finally, I thank you both Mesfin and Professor Awet forhaving produced the book to be part of the still poor Eritrean archives about the national liberation war.