The Eritrean Scream
This was going to be the second installment of the Eritrean Spring, of events from ten years ago, but comes now a horrific story in the here and now, an Eritrean Scream. We Eritreans have the capacity to be shocked still, which was a shock to me: Over 200, nearly 400 Eritreans died as their boat, which they boarded in Libya, was sinking on its way to Lampedusa. We can be shocked, but it appears we do not shock others: even the number of our dead is unknown, and this information, which would have been headline news for a whole month in any normal country, is a non-event in Eritrea’s official media. And this Eritrean Scream of 2011 is connected to the chocking of the Eritrean Spring of 2001.
Now we have heard this story, how many times a year, for the past ten years? All you have to do is take a subject and a predicate:
A boat with hundreds of Eritreans
A pickup truck loaded with twenty Eritreans
A bus full of Eritrean passengers
A plane including 110 Eritreans
was bombed last Thursday
overturned last night
was hijacked today
Mix and match and the result is always, well, not always, but at first, and then at last, unbearably painful. I say at first and then at last because, ten years ago ,at first and at the scene, the news was unbearably painful and shocking. Then the same news occurred again, and then again, again and again, over time. Whereas the first time our reaction was a primal scream, over time, it became a shout, then a screech, then a whine, then…no! We will not allow the whine to be a yawn. No! Because refusing to go from a whine, the victim’s weak cry, to a yawn, the bored expression of the privileged few (the Privileged Few, the PF), is what helps us maintain our last shred of humanity. Better to cry with the weak, than to snark with the powerful–because power is transient, but character remains.
And we won’t go from whine to yawn because there are some people, some women, some wonderful Eritrean women, who refuse, absolutely refuse, to allow themselves to go from scream to shout. And they won’t stop screaming. Elsa Chyrum, a remarkable woman, certainly has not, for over ten years. They refused to stop being shocked. And we are shamed, because all our concerns, and polite conversations, seem so embarrassingly trivial now.We claim it is not trivial,–it is deep–, because it is a discussion of the hypothetical, of the uncertainty of the future, where speculation is the official language, and thus its revered philosophy. But don’t you see, the pain of the uncertain future is more bearable than the pain of the here and now. Because, if you have more faith in the deterioration of your nemesis than you do in the ability of your statue figures and figurines to come to life, you fix your gaze on your nemesis.
Now news: THAT reporter for Eri-TV, the one who is modeling her career on Diane Sawyer, the one who acts like she is flirting with everyone, will probably interview HIM, and the extensive interview will be an extensive avoidance therapy. He will be sitting in a hall full of red elephants and swinging but well-mannered monkeys, of confettis and a three-dimensional M.C. Escher Escalator Illusion, and a wedding cake, and the number 20 cast in wrought iron… And you, a fine reporter with powerful tools of observation, and even more powerful tools of avoidance therapy, will not ask anything about the obvious, for where to start? Do you ask first about the red elephant, or the wedding cake? So you ask neither, because if you did, what would his answer be: “This is home? Mon habitat!” And, don’t you know, when you are a guest, it is not polite to comment on people’s furniture, unless it is to express admiration?
So you make polite talk. Actually, there is a danger of accidentally stumbling into truth, terra incognita, if you are just making polite conversation. So, you have to have a script. And in this script a list of questions. You, a fine reporter in the mold of Diane Sawyer, but without the freedom to confront the powerful, will say it is not really a script, it is not a script because, they are my own list of questions! Nobody censored me! @#!*% , I am a professional! izi smEtawi zereba iyu:: Yes, but your questions are all in the mold of Stephen Colbert’s famous questions to guests who hate George W. Bush: “George W. Bush: a great president or the greatest president?” Your version is: “the Eritrean government: the greatest in Africa, the Third World, or the World?” And “Eritrea’s president: a prophet, or the greatest prophet ever?” And “Weyane: an enemy or the vilest enemy?”
Kbur President, she will begin. And that phrase, “Kbur President,” still sets me off. I imagine her saying:
“Kbur President if you don’t mind, I have composed a little patriotic song in your honor:
be Amlakish hayl:
aynekam keto netSanetsh…
Brtu natchew terarechush
dl adragiw ngusachin
It is the imperial Ethiopia’s national anthem, modified for the Eritrean king. Think: it took Haileselasse a great deal of wily diplomacy, victimization by a clownish fascist, a heavy dose of myth-making, an obsessive attention to appearances, style, decorum, class, and mystery to become and remain a powerful king. How did Isaias Afwerki achieve royalty while still holding on to his boorishness, his crassness, his crudeness and his classlessness?
And what if the interviewer were to ask:
“Kbur president, this month, Eritreans throughout the world, and every Eritrean neighborhood, have heard terrible, zeskaHkiH, news about their children, their grandchildren, theirs brothers and sisters, drowning in the Mediterranean. There are reports of mothers drowning with their children. Kbur President, which one do you think is more painful: a mother watching her children drown, or children watching their mother dying? And do you, kbur president, feel any guilt, any remorse, goddammitt do you feel ANYTHING?
And as he is sitting there, exhaling deeply, frowning, flaring his nostrils, looking for something to hit, rubbing his hands like he is ridding them of the germs of guilt, turning right to the pink elephants and thoughtful monkeys, to signal to them that he is being taken, against his will, to terra incognita, and if they value their careers, their lives, they should end it now, because k’gwaseT aydelyin iye, maybe the interviewer can say:
“kbur president, I have a follow up question. Our armed struggle was 30 years long, and the first 10 years, 1961-1971 were weak but targeted attacks by us against Haile Selasse, and overwhelming and crushing overreaction by Haile Selasse. We killed a general, and Haile Selasse burned down a village with women and children. Do you feel like Haile Selasse? And if so, do you sense the military plotting against you? If you don’t, is it because it doesn’t exist or is it because, like Haileselasse, and Qaddaffi, and Assad, and Ali Abdella Saleh, you were clueless to the gathering storm?
Well, there is one difference between Isaias Afwerki and Haile Selasse I: the interviewer will never be allowed to become a martyr under Isaias Afwerki. She will not be sentenced to death, killed in front of a firing squad. She will just go home. Some security officer will knock on the door and say, softly, “we need you for just a while, you will be right back” and she would disappear. Rot and die in prison.
Even the most powerful dictators are not all-powerful: they can never say what is on their mind. So after rubbing his hands, Isaias must pause, reflect, calculate, and when the brain has arranged the words so that truth is sorted to the bottom pile, and what sifts up are self-cloning words revealing nothing but clichés and put-downs, then the brain shall order the two sides of the mouth: gentlemen, start your engines! And out comes clichés and put-downs, all exhaled with an air of dogmatic certainty befitting an arrogant tyrant. But, if he were allowed to say anything and everything he wanted, he would saywords to these effect:
Yes! Yes of course I know about the nearly 400 Eritreans who drowned in the Mediterranean. Even more, I know everything there is to know about their families: their parents, their siblings, their second cousins and nephews. And where they live. And their net worth.
I know because it is my business to know. I know because I am a workaholic. I never stop working. Now here is the difference between why I am in power and my enemies are not. It is what I will do with the knowledge, that is the difference. I will have my men visit each family to demand that they pay 50,000 Nakfas or to go to jail because their dearly departed family member who drowned in the Mediterranean left the country illegally. And I will do it now, not when they have had their moment of grief, because, in this country, grief is expensive. And before they spend all that money buying sheep and renting tents to grieve, I want to claim a stake to that money which they will have to get from their Diaspora children.
What you really want to know is how am I in power still? It is because I am action-oriented, it is because there is no line I won’t cross, and it is because experience is the great educator, and what it has taught me is that there is no new problem, it is the same problem taking different shapes. There is no substitute for the confidence one gets from experience, pregnant with the knowledge that you are a winner. There will always, always, always be an abundant supply of people who admire winners, and treat those who complain about how the winner won, as whiners. And because of them, there is no line I won’t cross.
Didn’t I prove it with Mahmoud Sherifo?
Looking back, it may be hard for some to remember, but looking back, Mahmoud Sherifo was considered the absolute number 2 in Eritrea. My vice president. That’s how close he was considered to me, besides being my childhood friend. He was so close that when that Weyane website, awate.com, reported the news that he had been fired from his job, my loyalists began to feel that the ground was shifting–Mahmoud Sherifo? Fired? Unthinkable! And their fray emotions could take it no more when the Weyane’s Gedab News was confirmed by the Western media.
Now, note my self-discipline. I know with 100% certainty awate.com is not a Weyane website. But the fact that I know the accusation is false is not remotely as important as the fact that thousands, maybe millions, of Eritreans will believe it to be true if I say it is. This is just weighing of two facts and choosing the one most advantageous. It is politics 101. And if people don’t know Politics 101, they have no business being in politics.
But you have to remember, back then, months after the so-called Eritrean Spring started, I said nothing. And that is the second lesson: what you say is not as important as when you say it. This is high politics, and I really don’t blame the beginners not knowing this. And so their wailing became: if it is true, why would awate.com know about it before WE do? And they went crying to their “community centers” and relayed their unhappiness—which crawled up the PFDJ hierarchy as “hzbi yemarer alo!”—which gave me the perfect political cover—by the time it got to my office, the complaint became, “the people are demanding and end to this chaos and to enforce discipline.” Oh, don’t be confused: my Diaspora die-hards were not outraged by the arrest of Sheriffo; they were disgusted that they had to hear it from awate.com You know the rest. I talked, I acted, and in my action, I displayed power, and in winning, I put in line those who were straying.
Winning is everything, and everything else is whining.
But to my die-hard fans, the uncertainty and “chaos” of the Eritrean Spring was unbearable—they pledged their allegiance to me again, but they wanted absolute predictability. They will follow, they will always follow, but could you, kbur president, they asked, could you make our ant line a bit more isolated from the intrusion of this thing called reality?
Well, then, I had to reinstitute the cadre schools, re-open the dormant “re-education” centers: the cocoon of ideology is immune to the intrusions of life. You conduct endless “seminars” to provide an alternate reality to the disturbing one outside. But seminars and cadre schools alone won’t do it: you need spies in astonishing multiples of their former size, from the “unpredictable” days. The ant line requires it. This is only fair: if your supporters want to know about what you are doing, you should know what they are doing too. It is the only way to build a harmonious and perfectly symmetrical—“Nsu Nehna, Nehna Nsu”- relationship.
And that’s what happened. And that’s what’s happening.
The so called Eritrean Spring of 2000-2001 failed for many reasons and topping the list is the absolute moral decay of the Diaspora Eritreans. Do you marvel at the failure of the intellectual class in the 1970s during the E.Na.Sa.E. (Eritrean Students in North America), days? How young Eritreans—remember the E.Na. Sa. E guys were in their 20s—saw wrong in the field and, instead of correcting it, were ultimately co-opted by me? Marvel no more: In the spring and fall of 2001, there were much older, presumably wiser, folk whose lives were much more stable than the E.Na.Sa.E students, but who refused to see wrong and to condemn it as I started my wave of arrests. I had them sign petitions encouraging me to keep arresting. “Nation comes first,” they said as I emptied the country of their younger brothers and sisters.
Even the bravest among the Diaspora intellectuals were calling for total neutrality: take no sides they said. But, complained the whiners, when you see a young man beating up an old lady, do you take no sides? My people accused the whiners of equating their opposition with old ladies.
And all I asked for is patience and faith. All I asked for was time, and for belief that what they don’t see is actually there, and what they do see, is actually not there.
And those are the second and third rules of politics, but now we are in Advanced Politics. Rule 1 is Self Discipline. Rule 2 is Timing. Rule 3 is Faith.
Self discipline in everything, specially in language. You must define yourself and your enemies using precise and identical language. You must be precise even in your imprecision. By this I mean even as you accuse your enemies with imprecise crimes (meaning: without reference to specific citation or specific ordinance, statute or law, based on a specific legal document with specific legitimacy), you must be very precise about the accusatory words you use (“kedemti”, “defeatist”, “disloyal”, “corrupt”, “regionalist”, “sectarian”). You, and your followers, cannot have perfectly harmonious relationship unless you are using identical language. And the best way for the follower to ensure that he has not stepped out of order is to follow the leader. When my word of the year is “corruption”, we will all talk about the danger of corruption as if the nation is in imminent danger due to “blshwina.” When we want to switch to “Somalia”, and how what happens in Somalia is of premier national interest, we all drop yesterday’s word and adopt today’s mortal threat: Somalia. Waiting to express what you think until I tell you what to say is a reasonable price to pay to ensure the predictability of the ant line. After all, I am not controlling what you think, I am just suggesting to you what to do about what you think. Izi hzbi keybelkayo zgeber ewn ente khone: mzkh’kharn mtb’baEn hagerawi Halfnet ykewn::
Rule 2: Time and timing is everything. And now, for another deal Nehna and Nsu made: only I am the time keeper. You are a reasonable person: follow me. You know that the best decisions are informed decisions. You agree that you cannot make informed decisions, unless you have information. You do not have the information that I have because you empowered me to keep it to myself, remember? Remember when your so-called National Assembly met on February 2, 2002 (my birthday, thank you for your well wishes) expressed “full support for the patience and self-restraint with which the government has handled the matter” of G-15? Remember when you signed the petition giving me authority “to treat the issue appropriately and bring it to conclusion.” Well, I did. Did you ask me to provide due process, in accordance with law, and independent judiciary…. No! you said “bring it to conclusion” and I did!
That is timing. Now about the power of time. In time, I knew you would forget that the same resolution of your so-called National Assembly , (link available at shaebia.org and NOT the Weyane owned awate.com) also directed me to make my report against the G-15 and the journalists. The report, said the so-called National Assembly, “should be made public so that the people will be able to have a full picture of the issue.” I will do nothing of the sort. I knew also that you would forget that “The National Assembly appointed a committee that would make the necessary preparations that would enable the press to enter a new positive phase.” This, the press that you see now, is the new positive phase. You are welcome. I knew you would forget that “In accordance with the ratified Electoral Law, the National Assembly established an independent Electoral Commission whose mandate is to organize free and fair national elections.” You know my feeling about this–if you don’t, well, you haven’t seen any of my interviews and I am not pleased. It is a mandate without a deadline. As well, I knew you would forget, but I absolutely would not, that the The National Assembly “resolved that the issue of the law of political parties and organizations should be resolved in the coming political process.” And what does “coming political process” mean? It means exactly whatever I want it to mean. Because you will forget, in time, that there was such a thing as a National Assembly and that it hasn’t met in 9 years.
Rule 3 is Faith. You gotta have faith. Faith makes you believe an unseen and all-powerful God, with invisible angels hovering and recording every virtue and every vice, so you may spend eternal bliss in heaven or eternal torment in hellfire. This is faith—faith in the justness of God. But there is also secular faith, faith in the wisdom of political leaders. Both require a leap. You have to have faith that there is goodness and purpose to what I do: it may appear that it is cruel to publicly not even acknowledge the tragedy of hundreds drowned, while, privately, you go to their families to extract money, but that is because you don’t have the information to really understand the purpose behind the act. But, at minimum, you do see the goodness and egalitarianism in the uniform application of the law. Which one is better: the uniform application of an arbitrary order or the irregular application of constitutional law? Which one is fairer: an unjust law, uniformly applied or a just law, but applied with bias? Yes, Mr. Frog, you have jumped into the cold water, and the water is getting increasingly warm, but rather than listening to the alarmists warning you that you will boil to death, can’t you see that I am simply bathing you in my glow?
Patience. Eira Eiro loves patience. She loves quiet and still, and that’s good. Because the only thing bad about killing your enemies is that they let out a cry, and that noise is disturbing to the passerby, even one who is struggling mightily to mute his conscience. Because, as Gandhi said, “The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience.”
Eira Eiro likes time. Eira Eiro loves the silence of those with eternal faith. Yes, there was a time when Mahmoud Sheriffo was a powerful man. And the power-worshippers were drawn to him. And when he lost his power, he was just a man.
I could direct you to the last interview Mahmoud Sheriffo gave Tsigenai on April 16, 2001— five months before his arrest. But you won’t read it, that is old news: that interview is from a decade ago this month! That is soooo last decade. Both Mahmoud Sheriffo and the editor of Tsigenai died in June 2003. At Eira Eiro. Sheriffo died June 6, 2003 and the editor of Tsigenai, Yusuf Mohammed Ali died a week later on June 13, 2003. You told me to “bring it to conclusion” and I did. And you are most welcome.
But my people would not read that! To read it at awate.com, which everybody knows is a Weyane website, would be to empower the enemy! To ask for indulgences like evidence, court of law, justice now while our country faces dire straits would be to have an inadequate appreciation for timing. Slow and deliberate (gobye) is better than rash and impulsive (rabbit). And above all to ask questions, to probe, to inquire, is to lack faith. Your enemies say your compatriots died a cruel death. Isn’t it cruel and irresponsible of them to talk about their death without evidence? To dance on their grave? I am exercising mercy: I could bring them to a court of law, and have the court pass a death sentence on them, but I would rather, in an act of profound mercy, let them rot to death and be forgotten. To this day, “do you think you care more about Eritreans than the Eritrean government?” is what my followers use, as a, in their mind, an iron-clad rebuttal to those who accuse my government of abusing Eritreans. Because, at the core of their belief system, is the belief that I, the PF, actually care about the Eritrean people a great deal. That’s faith. It is hilarious to me because, actually, a cannibalistic New Guinea tribe cares more about the Eritrean people than I do, which is to say that the New Guinea tribe, which has never heard of Eritreans, doesn’t spend every waking moment plotting of ways of making more Eritrean families miserable. But my followers have the faith required to see what isn’t there, and to be blind to what is in front of their nose.
Now, even now, there will be, still, some “journalists” who will ask me: “whatever happened to so and so and such and such?” And I will deal with it, my own way. Consider this exchange (which happened less than six months ago). It is with a foreign journalist (of course) because an Eritrean journalist could never ask it without getting the knock, and the soft request, “you are needed. It will be just a while…no need to take your jacket, you will be right back”):
Interviewer: But I have a very frank question and I hope not be sensitive to it, therefore, can I ask openly about G-15 who are accused in Eritrea with the so-called national treason. What is their fate? Will they be tried?
(The president’s face was irritated a little, his minister was resentful, and the other officials wrinkled, a moment of silence prevailed that was only disturbed by the voice of the president saying):
Isaias Afwerki: By God, I do not know about this issue. This issue can be considered forgotten!
Interviewer: (Interrupting) And we remind you of it. Yes, we remind you of it!
Isaias Afwerki: God willing, after you remind me I will, ah…ah…ah I check, ah, my memory and I will see (he smiles a little) and I see, and tell you what…
And that’s why my die-hard supporters are so ill-equipped to deal with things that happen outside the PFDJ cocoon. Truth is what I, the PFDJ tribe leader, says it is. And when I don’t speak (rule #2: timing is everything), they lose their mouth and their pens and their keyboards.
That’s what Isaias would say, if he could say everything he wanted to say. But absolute power has a price. But, if you are a PF supporter, a fan of the Privileged Few, the ‘”People’s Front”, the pattern is unmistakable.
I had a correspondent from Eritrea (now part of the disappeared youth) who, every time Isaias was scheduled to give an “extensive interview”, which was every New Year’s Eve, would tell me that Isaias is about to “pardon political prisoners” and “demobilize Eritrean youth.” And I would say, “how can he pardon those who, according to him, don’t exist: political prisoners? How would he demobilize those who are responsible for ‘building the nation?'” The “extensive interview” would come and go and “the national address” would come and go, and there would, of course, be no change.
And now what is the opinion of the PFDJ disciple? Let’s see the pattern: Eritrea accused of supporting Somali Shabab? I don’t know yet because…wait, my PFDJ tribe leader says “where is the evidence?” He is not saying yes, he is not saying no, he is just saying, “do you have proof?” So that is what I must say: “where is the evidence?” War between Djibouti and Eritrea? I don’t know because my fearless leader has not spo….wait a minute, he says it is a fabrication so I must use the word “fabrication.” A lot. But there was a Qatar-mediated peace agreement between Djibouti and Eritrea. How do I have one, a feud and a war, without the other, a resolution, and an exchange of prisoners of war? I have no opinion because it wasn’t discussed in Eri-TV. Revolution in North Africa? Well, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because the tribe elder has not spoken. When he does, I will let you know. I do know that my tribal leader has, in the past, spoken of the ills of imperialists, so it is safe for me to talk about those subjects. Eritreans, including children, died by the hundreds in the Mediterranean Sea? I don’t know what to think about it; I will not grieve, or be sad, for now. There are two competing facts here: the fact that people I know have lost family members; and the fact that my tribal leader has not spoken about it. Two facts, and I know which one to choose. And however my PFDJ tribe leader tells me to react, I will react. I may declare that day a Day of Mourning and cry louder, carry bigger flags, and light brighter candles than you. I may ask for “evidences” that these are Eritreans; I may say that the number is exaggerated; I may say that isn’t it so tragic how the human smugglers are taking advantage of poor Eritreans; I may say that saying at home and enduring a life without a future is preferable to taking risks for a life with a future. I don’t know yet, but when I do know, I will be rather loud about it.
From the Middle Eastern revolutions, different lessons. In some countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, there are political leaders who will, in the end, grudgingly, bitterly, give up power (are forced to give up power) rather than subject their country to a full-fledged civil wars. And in other countries, like Libya, Yemen, Syria, there are political leaders who will cling to power, and employ their full coercive powers—including spies and snipers and cluster bombs—to drag their country through a bloodbath.
And for those who were paying attention in 2001, the answer was clearly given: the Eritrean Spring will not bloom with the rays of sunlight and sprinkles of water. And those Cells of Fedayeen Isaias who, in 2001, were disrupting meetings by throwing punches and chairs, would not hesitate to climb rooftops and pull triggers. This doesn’t make them any less Eritrean than you; it just means they define patriotism very differently from the way you do.
And for all their horror, incidents like Eritreans, including Eritrean children, drowning in Lempedusa, are clarifying moments. Between those of us who remember when and where we heard this god-awful tragedy and those who have to say, as their leader did, “after you remind me I will, ah…ah…ah I check, ah, my memory and I will see (he smiles a little) and I see, and tell you what…” And anybody telling you not “to politicize this issue” or “don’t take sides” or “don’t make rash judgements” is in the same team as the people who told you to “wait”, “be patient” in 2001, when the Eritrean Spring first surfaced. Our Eritrean Spring was chocked but our time will come, and we will, as Bill Clinton said in his inaugural address 18 years ago, “we will force the spring.” Or closer to our hearts, the great Eritrean poet Yerhewo Amlak wrote recently:
gzie, bgzie teSebiyu y’rtaE:
Encheiti gereb: bHaKlu y’wQaE::
An imprecise translation would read:
Time prevails over time.
A tree is felled by the wood (of an axe)
And what 2001 didn’t have, and what 2011 has, is an abundance of young, free Eritreans. Writers, poets, organizers, protesters, artists: the core of a revolution. And many of those who drowned in the Mediterranean were more youth, yearning to be free. And this is why we are mourning not just Eritreans, but Eritrean freedom fighters. And this is why the PFDJ loyalists are pretending that these precious lives didn’t exist. And this is why the eternally confused “don’t take sides” side are mourning the victims while warning us not to mention their victimizer.