Commentary: I am a jealous person, but it is not what you are thinking. I am jealous as in “zeyqen’e ay’yweled”, jealous as in, “I am a jealous God.” Both are positive attributes. The Eritrean adage challenges us to seek higher accomplishments by emulating others without malice, and God’s jealousy springs from giving something that rightly belongs to him to others: worshiping the idols gods. As an Eritrean I was jealous for lacking an inspiring, timely, and timeless speech and for being robbed of what is righty and inalienably mine—liberty and justice.
And so I envied the Americans and Tigrayans. The Americans for their Gettysburg speech and the Ethiopians for their Mekele speech. I even envied the South Africans for Mandela’s speech from the dock at his trial in 1962: “…It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In the Gettysburg Speech President Lincoln said that no one will remember the words spoken there. He was wrong. Americans remember the Gettysburg speech for its vigour, its brevity, and its penetrating message. In the Mekele speech, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi paid tribute to his people and heralded a new dawn in Ethiopia. People will remember that speech for the following: “enqau endamtkum aykonna. Ezen trriewon zelekum helicoperat bomba zdribay leykonas, setti semhar Lnsnssa eyen.” [glad we are from you, these helicopters will not spray bombs, but lush grass].
Then came the “The Honest speech.” In it, Haile DeruE warned that we must pay attention, “hissabna nigber”, that Eritreans should not rest on their laurels before accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. Constitutional governance and justice are our business to begin with, but they also have the dual function to please the world, he said, and to that end we need to move “bquarta knkedid alenna”–fast. It was mostly allusions, but he paid non-condescending, genuine tribute to the people of Eritrea and criticized the leadership of the war. He was immediately demoted and later when he became a founding member of the G-15, he, along with his colleagues and long-time comrades, was made to disappear.
Hurrah, No more jealous! We now have our own timeless speech: The “Adi Mengonti” speech. Bitweded Abraha; after spending seventy-four months in a solitary confinement he paid homage to the thousands who perished by calling for reconciliation, forgiveness, and emphasizing non-violence and rejecting revenge against those who inflicted suffering on him. He addressed both the “Stones” and the stones. The “Stones” later stoned him by ratting on him, while the stones and their kin and kith, the rocks and pebble waited for their chance to bury the mortal man who spoke the immortal words.
The speech was impressive on many levels and so was its use of the Tigrinya language. Bitweded’s use of Tigrinya seceded from the literal to embrace the natural, from rudeness to reclaim deference, from turgidity to harken on humility. He said he was released on the day of “Kidane Mihret”, the 16th of the month in the Geez calendar. He invoked the traditional rule of law, “Hgi enda Aba”. Blood relatives, follow villagers, and PFDJ spies alike listened on. The women ululated when he invoked forgiveness to start the New Year with a new spirit and new constitution. A “Stone” even yelled, “Sah”, Arabic for “RIGHT”.
The speech and the advice it offered in the fight against our monstrous captures has been proved to be impotent under regimes like PFDJ, but it is a speech that we must cherish and heed nonetheless. It is a speech that we must imitate both for its tenor and equanimity, it is a speech that me must include as an extra arrow in our quiver to triumph over the challenges that lie ahead on the wake of PFDJ’s inevitable demise. It is a speech that we must enshrine in the museums of our hearts. It is a speech that we must use to erase all past and future PFDJ speeches.
It is also a speech that PFDJ wants us is to emulate, albeit for a different reason. It wants us to emulate the spirit of this speech when we fight against it, it wants us to give the other cheek as if we own endless supplies of cheeks; the PFDJ wants us to fight it with our bare hands while they avail to themselves tanks and missiles.
Translation of Bitweded’s Speech From Tigrinya:
First allow me to thank all of you: my fathers, older brothers, sisters, all of you collectively.
You have availed to me deference, may deference be bestowed upon you! I am not deserving of all these accolades and respect, what little I may have contributed is my duty. Most importantly we have paid dearly with the lives of young jewels, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, under twenty years’ olds. Thousands of them have died in sacrifice for our independence, justice and freedom, but I am still alive.
Although the injustice that was committed on me after independence was disappointing, is not a big deal, it is minuscule problem. I do not dwell on the past, I look forward to the future, this is a fraction of the lengthy, collective struggle we must wage for human liberty, before it was for independence and country, now the struggle is for human liberty, so fellow-man would not exploit and abuse us, to be free, to be governed by law, like our fore-bearers did with “hgi endaba”: the laws of our fathers. Under the strong “hgi endaba” a judge presided, devoid of guns, of prisons and of police. Even the bandits abided by the law, everyone did, the rich, the strong, the poor and the gun owner. The Eritrean people rejected outlaws, we are law and justice loving.
To institute societal justice we will need to commit ourselves, if after paying dearly in thousand lives and I am scared, I can be promoted, I can benefit and be decorated, but it would be at the expense of the nation. I will never do that.
I am innocent and I have committed no crime except to stand against the selling my country, if anyone, from the top to the bottom echelon has proof to the contrary, he can come forward, if he is a man.
I was in solitary confinement for seventy-four months, but now I am free and victorious man. What I have said sx years ago, they are saying it now. I have said it six years prior.
What I said was, we should not sell out and compromise our ports to our killers and murders, that is what I said and I am duty bound to do so, as it is my honour and your honour. I have to commit and advocate for my national and public interest.
Esteemed guests, allow me to share with you a secret: I pledge that I have no grudges because of the wrongs that was done to me and the suffering I have endured. I have chosen reconciliation and peace. I will seek neither revenge on those who wronged me nor punishment against them. I have forgiven them all. In this occasion, in the presence of my fathers, brothers and sisters, I express my readiness to seek no revenge and punishment against those who wronged me. Also I will not accept any monetary restitution, I told them to open schools and educate poor kids with it. I refuse any restitution, to the sons of “Adkeme Milligga” receiving compensation is an insult. I have trusted this [pointing to his collar] when I struggled and I will live trusting it.
With a rejuvenated spirit, in the new year, from the date of birth, meaning the date of my release: the 16th in our calendar, Saint “Kidane Mhret”, the 24th of December, 1997 in the “Ferenji” (Gregorian), I am ready to start with this spirit. Even those who wronged me are my friends. Grudges, revenge are useless, they are harmful. Infighting, acrimony and destruction only lead to turmoil.
Always, in the democratic process between brethren of the same country we must chose to live together in harmony. It will require, tolerance, mutual respect, acceptance, debate, understanding, trust, consensus and compromise on divergent views. We must endure. He who exudes, patience and tenacity with time will roam the streets in freedom. If they lock you for seventy four months, so be it, just endure, the Eritrean people will free you. I am confident that people will raise their hands to ask the where about of Bitweded and am here freed, amongst you.
To set an example for others, I have forgiven from the bottom of my heart, because forgiveness, peace and reconciliation are superior to everything else. All humans need forgiveness, present company included, it takes courage to forgive. Let us forgive and we shall receive forgiveness. It takes determination, courage and bravery to do so, yet it is not easy. A wronged person harbors bad feelings, yet forgiveness, peace and reconciliation can be found even in a wounded heart. You should not abandon the right way because you have been wounded. I have been wounded, damaged for seventy four months, as a human being I have been alienated and locked in solitary confinement in a dark room, but with my wounded heart, on December 24, 1997 in the Gregorian calendar, and the 16th in our calendar, I have intimated my readiness for forgiveness and reconciliation in my letter to the defence minister and president of Eritrea. Before they uttered anything, I have given them forgiveness, choosing reconciliation and peace so that you can rejoice and know.
There will always be conflicts and divergent views and fights, but the best solution is to sit around the table, like we are doing right now, in peace, and in a legal manner, with a democratic dialogue to solve it. It is not weakness, it is the least costly with bigger gains for victory for peace, a price for peace. Prisons, muzzling and alienation are illegal and therefore wrong means to solve conflicts. They will never lead to a solution. Let us make my case a teaching moment, lest we repeat these kinds of history in an independent Eritrea. You should not lock someone just because he opposed you, instead you have to seat down and seek a solution. Settling divergent views with due process and in a peaceful manner will yield peace that has lasting power, but it has some small price, for example as in my case, I was wronged, but it has bigger gains. Compromising, and solving conflict amicably is not a loss. Do not think that I lost because I forgave, I am not expecting anything in return, no one should deny me what I deserve but I also do not want special treatments. I am speaking by standing on the graves of martyrs, 65, 000 of them have died, and who commanded them? Bitweded. But I am alive. It is the fact that I made it alive is what I considered a weakness. I consider forgiving those who wronged me and my enemies a triumph, so do not think I lost. Some people think that going to the jungle with a gun to fight and kill people is a victory. If you kill your brother, you are hurting yourself. Or if you want to take revenge also you are hurting yourselves. I reject this.
To genuinely believe in forgiveness, trust me I will not be a prisoner of past grudges, acrimony. With a fresh thinking, in the New Year, 1998 and with a new spirit and constitution, I am embarking on this journey. For the sake of peace and reconciliation I have given full forgiveness. It best to think for the long term. Let us think about our children and grandchildren, the long trek to human liberty, to preserve and shepherded peace, justice, democracy. Let us think how we would preserve and shepherded the peace we have, let us not squander it. There are the fools who will take up arms because they were wronged, but the wise will reject such endeavours as bad choice and instead will elect to be wronged for the sake of the country and people. Let us shepherded this peace. Let us learn from our neighbours. The ideals of modernity, development, prosperity, peace, and justice were our goals, our vision and our dreams. I have chosen to focus on them. It is a long journey.
In 1941 when WelWel was talking about independence, he only had a handful supporters, but in 1991 after fifty years, the people rallied around independence and they hoisted their flag triumphant and jubilant. And that is what I am saying, we can attain the remaining journey peacefully. We should not seek short cuts. It took fifty years for independence and social justice will take another fifty. If Bitweded and others are locked for seventy four months or ten years, it is a token. To bring change we need to commit, we should not fear, we should be brave. Do not fear a human being, fear the law and God. Man will put you in a trap if you fear him, but if you stand up to him he will be under you, this requires courage and commitment. If they put me in the dungeons today, the people will ascend me to the throne tomorrow. It is the people who have the ultimate say. But I have to endure, I should not give up, I should not despair and be frustrated. I have to use my time, I have to work inside the prison.
Living together in peace is a fruit of forgiveness, reconciliation and wisdom. The yard stick of a brave politician and wise leader of a nation in our present times is the maturity of the mind: one who converts enemies to allies and friends, one who expands his circle of friends, one who brings the divided closer and one who invites the gun totting from the jungle to come and compete with him, one who compensates those who were wronged, one who admits his mistakes and openly asks for forgiveness with humility, not with arrogance of “we have brought independence”. One who believes, it is the people who brought independence and seeks their counsel and advice and direction to avert mistakes. It is not how many you have killed but how many you have forgiven. We are witnessing it in South Africa and others, we are learning and let us do the same. I am only one, there are thousands of prisoners, let us demand that they are bought to the court of law, I will also say the same. Fear not. If they put us in prison, so be it. If they come after me the second time, I am willing to be imprisoned, until justice reigns, I hope they are wiser now and will not repeat it, the point is that we should not be silenced.
You are my follow villagers, I was in Assab only for two months, Omar Hakitto is from Afar and a former member of the parliament of Eritrea, from the day I was imprisoned he was always inquiring about me, to the minister of justice and the president, they did not tell him that I opposed them, how would they, but he was never arrested because he was brave. I am mentioning him in thanks not say that he was the only one who asked and advocated for me, lots of people did, friends, relatives and acquaintances alike. Many have also been arrested because of me. People inquired about me vouching that I was innocent but I am just saying we should not stop. Let us point them out when we witness unfairness. Fesseha Bahta, you are a member of the parliament, you should speak up, people have delegated you, come back to your village to report back that you have spoken on their behalf, if you do that they will not touch you, if you do not, they will chase you. Nothing will happen to you, the power is on the hands of the people. So am reiterating commitment for the advancement of national interest, the rule of law and justice. It is a collective responsibility, a lone person will not go far, but I am willing to start it.
I am telling, peace is superior to everything, the most important gift of grace to human being is living in peace. Let us preserve and shepherd the peace we have as we will hand it down to our children and grandchildren tomorrow. We can only give what we have, so let us pass the peace we have to our children, so they can pass it to their children. If we squander the peace we have, it will cost us heavily to recreate the peace. Do not heed those who tell you they will bring justice with guns, they are liars, tell them to bring change through imprisonment peacefully. Peace can only be attained with peace.
Let us learn from Angola and Mozambique, the decimated lives, the destroyed economy during their civil war is several folds of what they paid when fighting the European occupation. Mozambique’s civil war lasted for sixteen years and cost 150,000 lives, Bitweded is not foolish, will not follow such means, and I will continue with due process and peacefully. Let us choose this process.
There are some irresponsible generals and political leaders who commit mistakes, the wrong means of solving conflicts that will not bring durable peace. We will pay heavy price to recreate peace tomorrow, we need to be very careful. I am looking at it from this perspective.
I have effectively used and enjoyed my seventy four months of incarceration. I have used my time to write my books and pursue my studies. It was not in vain, you will see the fruits of my labour in the future. I was also working from inside the prison. Do not think for a minute that I lost, I gained more respect, to be a man one must be tested and after he is freed he will be a man. I came out tested but not broken, so you should not have regrets about that. Rejoice my fathers, older brothers and sisters. Be proud as you have made me proud. You gave me your collective reverence. The respect from the people is superior to that of a general, a minster and president. The honor you have bestowed on me now and before is a testament to the respect you have for me.
Eternal glory to our martyrs!
Victory to the masses!
Thank you again!
May your blessing and prayers fall me