The Unsung Tragedy of Eritrea’s Children: Past, Present, and Future

Children can help. In a world of diversity and disparity, children are a unifying force capable of bringing people to common ethical grounds. Children’s needs and aspirations cut across all ideologies and cultures. The needs of all children are the same: nutritious food, adequate health care, a decent education, shelter and a secure loving family. Children are both our reason to struggle to eliminate the worst aspects of warfare, and our best hope for succeeding at it. (Excerpts from a speech delivered by Graca Machel to the UN General Assembly in Nov. 1989, during the adoption of The International Convention on the Rights of the Child)

A gloomy joke from a similar gloomy era, empire, and system long gone by goes like this: ‘’what does a Soviet optimist say?’’ ‘’It can’t get any worse.’’ Not so in Eritrea, apparently. Twenty three years (and counting) after our Independence, things are just getting from bad to worse…and worst. And, still, the proverbial ‘last straw’ has proven elusive for the hardy (but weary and sagging) backbone of the Eritrean ‘camel’.

It will be tedious to go through the long list of atrocities and deprivations that our countrymen and women are going through. This is a well trodden path of anguish and misery of a promising young country whose dream was stolen by a handful of home-born scoundrels. What’s more, insistent recounting of these atrocities have so far succeeded only in making banal and tolerated what is morally repugnant and deplorable.

But the current spectacle is utterly pathetic.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has just once more extended for another eighteen months its sanctions against the regime in Eritrea, but despite these punitive measures the forces of violence and repression continue unabated at home. An already anemic and depopulated country continues to hemorrhage, shedding its vital human capital across its borders. The National Commission for Democratic Change (NCDC), an institutional body on which so many had invested so much upon, is unraveling, embroiled by infighting. One or two political organizations are heaving with the familiar spasms of an impending fission. Unperturbed, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) is preparing for yet another annual conference in exile, in Germany, where another opposition organization had held a similar event a few weeks back. The youth associations are slugging it out in the cyberspace and seem hell-bent on erecting yet more artificial barriers over non-issues and polemics.

God forbid! But, in all likelihood, the latest round of UNSC’s sanctions may once again expire before the current impasse is overcome.

What has become unmistakably manifest though is that there is a disturbing but familiar pattern in the ongoing chaotic and damaging political developments. A cursory political audit of just the last decade reveals a series of marriages of convenience with a fleeting honeymoon period that eventually ended in disastrous divorces. A closer look will uncover an atmosphere rife with suspicion, mistrust and intolerance; and an unwillingness or lack for rationality and reasonableness. A systematic appraisal will also show a deficient organizational edifice, flagrant disregard for organizational procedures, ethics and norms, and lack of accountability and transparency. In this kind of atmosphere it becomes almost impossible to reach an enduring consensus for building a reliable, stable and mutually assured framework for a fruitful political interaction and discourse.

The underlying causes may be traced back to our turbulent past of the pre- and post-independence period, and the generations that came of age in those different but just the same uneasy times of political, social and economic upheavals. Both these two groups – dwindling grizzled and nascent youthful population, despite the generational gap, share a disturbing, ill-judged and short-sighted zealous obsession with the recent past, and reckless disregard for the future. Biological age aside, the deafening discourse of both groups is severely disjointed from reality, replete with rhetoric, exaggeration of trivial events, and aggrandizement of artificial ethno-linguistic, religious and regional barriers. Both also shun serious engagement and try to hide behind the unconvincing and flimsy masks of blame game, conspiracy, and the tactic and strategy for bringing about change in Eritrea.

In this article I am going to argue that some explanations might be available if we take a closer look into the past. But not with the current misdirected and zealous fixation that has turned the past into an apparition with psychotic dimensions, a discourse that has become the cause of an arrested development, a retro version, where the past and present have colluded and are conspiring to destroy the future.

No! I do not want to redig and undig anymore graves than already dug. I am asking you, dear readers, that we go and revisit an entirely different past of the Eritrean child. A forgotten past that hides the unsung tragedy of generations of Eritrea’s children. Because by doing so, and acknowledging and appreciating the injustices done to the child, we may-just- be able to emphasize with the child that has now become an adult. And, more importantly, this process might-just- help us all to break our inertia by recognizing the urgency of saving an all important future.

Frederick Douglas said ‘’ it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’’ And he should know. He was a self made black man who rose from slavery to become a mammoth figure in the struggle of black Americans for their human rights.

Another huge historical figure, John F Kennedy, remarked: Children are the world’s most precious resources and its best hope for the future. But our current adult discourse is heedlessly ruining this precious human resource.
On a recent visit (June 4-5/2013) to the Adi Harish refugee camp for Eritreans in Tigray region, Ethiopia, I saw 306 of these precious children in a pre-school compound, a fenced off bare compound with just an overhang tent for sun protection, a place more fit for cattle than little children. And according to Mr Ghirmay (Gandhi Foundation’s country director in Ethiopia) there are 400 such children at the nearby Mai Ayni refugee camp.
In the remaining part of this article I will try to give you a brief and updated scientific description of the early childhood period and its importance for adult acquisition and behavior; and, with this premise in mind, go on to discuss the local context.

The Early Childhood Period

The newborn child enters the world with a limited range of skills and abilities. And the period from birth up to eight years of age has come to be recognized as the most important phase in life, critical to the complete and healthy cognitive, emotional and physical growth of children. The newborn baby has around 100 billion neurons (brain cells), and although formation of these is complete at birth, brain maturation and important neural pathways and connections are progressively developed after birth in the early childhood period. The brain reaches half its mature weight by six months and 90% of its final weight by age eight.

Previously it was thought that the growth of a brain is largely determined by inheritance (genes), and a baby’s brain was assumed to be much less active than that of a high-school or university student with a linear growth that peaks in adulthood, with earlier life experience having a little impact on later development. But accumulated empiric evidence and an explosion of scientific research in the relevant fields have shown that that brain development and growth is much more vulnerable to environmental influences than previously thought. And exposure to adverse environmental stressors during this critical period can lead to permanent deficits which are very difficult for the brain to revive later in life.

There are a whole range of different parameters that are used to measure a child’s growth and development, such as language skill and motor development (e.g. sitting, crawling, or walking). But psychosocial development (behavior, emotion, cognition, etc.) is not easily amenable for assessment as it evolves subtly with little or minimal measurable physical signs. Some investigators use self-expression skills (a child’s attempt to express himself using arts, crafts, music, dance, etc.), social skills (sharing, cooperating, and emphasizing with other children; learning to respect and listen to adults; etc), and language skills to assess for attainment of social skills. But these have not been accepted as universal methods of measurement.

Therefore, stunting (low height for age) is commonly used as a proxy indicator for early childhood development. And the results of a mega-research project released by Save The Children on May 27 of this year shows that not having a nutritious diet can severely impair a child’s ability to read and write a simple sentence and answer basic math questions correctly. ‘’It is well known that malnutrition is an underlying cause of mortality in children under five. What’s less known is the chronic impact of malnutrition. Poor nutrition is a leading driver of the literacy and numeracy crisis in developing countries’’ said Patricia Erb, President of the organization that released this report.

The research found out that stunted children are 12.5 percent more likely to make a mistake writing a simple sentence and do 7 percent worse answering simple math questions like ‘’what is 8 minus 5’’ than they would have been expected to do had they not been stunted.

But this above study does not even begin to address the numerous other direct and indirect environmental factors that can negatively impact on a child’s growth and development, including maternal health during pregnancy and delivery, diseases, sanitation, schooling, home and community environment,…etc. Besides these multitudes of factors, their vulnerability and helplessness makes children the most numerous victims of socio-political and economic upheaval.

The increasing recognition of the external environment on this critical period of life has led to a paradigm shift with the early childhood period now being seen as more of a social than biologic designation. Implicit in this break with old thinking is the acknowledgment that children are morally and politically shaped by the attitudes, yearnings, frustrations, stereotypes, prejudices, and tensions of the adult world around them. And the lives, thoughts, and actions of children-though subtle-can tell us much about the societies in which they live in, and they can also foretell about what kind of adults they will become.

A psychologist by the name of Niel Postman says it better: Children are the living message we send to a time we will not see.

The Pre-Independence Child Generation

The typical Eritrean child had never known a normal life for the better part of the last century. The combined forces of political and socio-economic conditions, sometimes colluding with the vagaries of climate, have all connived to seal its fate, even before it had the chance to breath-in its first volume of fresh air on its own. A vicious cycle of destruction and multi-deprivations have throughout the decades conspired to deal it a huge disadvantage, blighted with recurring sickness, malnutrition, poverty, illiteracy… or, in short, a womb-to-tomb infirmity.

Thus had been the fate of the children of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, a long and tragic national journey that left its ugly scar across an entire generation. It is a human story of wanton destruction, burning villages, indiscriminate killings, pillage, rape, and destitution that shattered whole communities and homes resulting in wide-ranging and far-flung repercussions that are still reverberating to these days.

Many of these children were brutally uprooted from their communities and ties to their past, forced to flee, leaving behind child friends, familiar playgrounds and surroundings. Most were either born or grew up as refugees or displaced children, in wreaked households, with missing or incomplete family, or in orphan hood; their experience leaving a lasting imprint, an emotional and physical stigmata on their life.

What eventually became the fate of this pre-independence generation of children can only be surmised. Some were snatched away by death in their very early years, leaving without trace, except in the minds and memories of their close and loved ones; thousands were swept-up by the revolutionary tide (child pupils of the revolutionary schools, cultural troupes such as the ‘red flowers’, child soldiers or ‘fet’awrari’, fighters, politicians, etc.); through sheer perseverance and determination, a few managed to build couriers and become successful professionals, merchants, or artisans ; and many more have simply drifted away, like chaff in the wind.

The dwindled down present-day survivors of that era’s child generation have now become grayed, weathered, and stooped; the younger ones are now in their fifties and the few lucky (…or unlucky) ones are frail septuagenarians and octogenarians, many still living as exiles. Unlike physical aging, memory remains relatively stable throughout human life, remarkably durable and impervious to the abrasive effects of time. And their uneasy childhood period and its distinctive influence can be discerned in the uncouth and arrogant behavior of the ‘victors’, the sour gripes of the exiled ‘losers’, and a perturbed politics fraught with the seeds of hate, mistrust and intolerance.

A Stunted Post-Independence Generation

Eritreans thirty plus years of struggle for liberation and Independence and the heavy sacrifice that this exacted was supposed to have been a worthy moral cause for a better future. But more than two decades after Independence a regime of perverse criminals rules that ‘’uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than illumination.’’

Let me hold myself here. I want first to share my modest experience in the health sector in Eritrea and then show you some data before proceeding to satisfy what has become a persistent urge to condemn and denounce.
In the spring of 1992, I was part of a small mobile health team sent from Adi Ugri hospital to the Zyda-Akelom area around Areza. An outbreak of measles had been reported from the area; and we set off late in the night from Areza , with our supplies strapped to a donkey’s back. It had dawned when we reached the first village in our way-Etan Zer’ee. We found most of the villagers near the church, gathered around the cemetery. That night the virus had claimed another victim and they were burying the dead child. I remembered counting fourteen fresh and small mounds of earth.

By the time we arrived the measles virus had already exhausted its destructive sweep across a whole swathe of villages in the area extending down south and west into the Qola Meraguz and Dembelas regions. We went from house to house in each village dispersing our supplies of oral antibiotics, eye ointments, and other medications. Those who survived were rudely vaccinated by natural means (the virus itself!), but they still have to grapple with severe upper and lower respiratory tract and eye infections and their severe lifelong stigmata, including blindness and recurrent lung infections.

Eight years later, at the turn of the millennium, Eritrea was almost free of this scourge. Another virus with debilitating paralyzing sequel was soon to be declared eradicated.

This was a huge feat and a remarkable achievement for a young country which started from scratches, with the barest minimum of health infrastructure. The job required a total political commitment and a crucial financial and technical support from the international community. But, above all, this mammoth task would not have been achieved without the all-important support of Eritrea’s rural community. This part of Eritrea had witnessed, helplessly and from close range, as a series of viral epidemics and outbreaks decimated generations of children across the years. They wanted so desperately a better future for their children, and no prodding or persuasion was needed for their total participation in the campaigns against these lethal microbes.

In 2002 I was working in Senafe. One eventful night I was woken by a call from the nurse midwife on duty. She needed my assistance. A lady had just been brought in on a stretcher from the village of Kesh’aat near Tsorena. One after another, we helped the poor mother deliver a triplet, two girls and a boy. But the mother was in such a poor state that she managed only one glimpse at her babies before she died.

The newborns spent almost one month in our facility. Finally we sent word through the village administrator for the father to come and collect his babies. A one legged (right above knee amputee) veteran of Eritrea’s liberation struggle came one day to my office. He had three children in tow, the youngest around two years and the eldest around six. He told me he was the father. He had left three more back in the village, older ones that can support themselves, he told me. He had come to ask the Subzonal government authorities to either help him support raise his children or to find somebody, humanitarian agency, organization or anybody to take care of the three ones with him. I didn’t utter a single word. Neither did he wait for me to do so. He didn’t ask to see the triplet and left without seeing them.

We managed to ‘kill’ the two baby girls within the following two months. The good Catholic nuns at Hebo heard of our plight and reconsidered their earlier refusal to accept the triplet. Their small orphanage was so crowded. I drove the surviving baby boy to the orphanage at Hebo, near Tsegeneyti.

One of the biggest frustrations for any health worker involved in the care of children is treating severe malnutrition. It is a medical emergency that requires an intensive twenty-four hour a day care and usually with a fatality rate approaching more than 50 percent. For the effort to bear fruit it usually takes weeks of exhaustive work requiring patience, discipline and diligence of all staff members and parents. But the rewards of success are also enormous too. Nothing is as gratifying as the re-appearance of a smile on the face of a child that on admission had been wasted, shriveled and withered, a little child with the appearance of an old person.
But the smile usually doesn’t last that long. Once discharged, and in the absence of any meaningful supplementary feeding program, the relapse rates in these children are high. Some do return back to the health facility, usually in a much worse situation that on their earlier admissions. But, mostly, the mothers are too ashamed or exasperated, and they just give up. The poor mothers don’t understand that the basic problem is far too complex and lay far beyond their kitchen and meager possessions.

A conceptual framework on the causes of malnutrition developed by the UN child agency (UNICEF) classifies these causes broadly as immediate, underlying, and basic.

Lack of food intake (due to decrease in appetite) and disease are the immediate vicious causes, which feed into one another. And the three most important underlying causes are household food security (inadequate access or availability), limited access to health care and poor sanitation, and inadequate home and community environment (less child friendly). The basic causes originate at the national level, where policies and strategies that affect the allocation of resources (human, economic, political, and cultural) influence what happens at community level.

In Eritrea’s local context, all the three factors mentioned might, on the surface, look closely interwoven, all influencing each other in an additive manner; but the crucial driving factor for the vicious cycle lies at the political level. A series of misguided and disastrous government policies are to be blamed for wrecking the Eritrean household and community.

The regime and its supporters (i.e. if there are any left) usually flaunt a few statistical figures to emphasize the correctness of the national policies and strategies taken over the past two decades, and the ‘huge strides’ that were demonstrated in some sectors. For more than a decade now, and ad nauseam, we have heard how the government’s down-to-earth policies have succeeded in eliminating certain diseases and in realizing remarkable improvement in the life of the Eritrean child. There is no denying the fact that infant and under-five child mortality rates have been halved by almost 50 percent.

But the above health indicators don’t tell the whole story. These dry figures do not reflect the real experience of the Eritrean child, household, and whole communities. You cannot feed the malnourished child on statistics.

Two nationwide comprehensive health surveys were done in Eritrea, in 1995 and 2002. These were known as The Demographic Health Survey, Eritrea (DHS, Eritrea), and they were undertaken by the national Statistics Office with technical and financial help of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The figures in the 2002 DHS were damning and go a long way to point the disastrous policies of the regime. The ensuing government actions, taken under the guise of self-reliance (hah!), tell much more than the measures themselves. They were purposely done to restrict prying eyes from looking into the kitchens of Eritrea’s households. And, as a result, no such survey has been undertaken since then.

The regime didn’t have any qualms to manipulate the surveys. But the same two surveys, freely available online, also show a grave nationwide chronic malnutrition level, bordering on disastrous levels.

Prevalence of malnutrition in children aged six months up to five years is used as an important indicator for nutritional status of an entire population because this subgroup is more sensitive to nutritional stress.  And stunting (low height for age) is the preferred anthropometric measurement. The same proxy parameter used to assess for psycho-social development of the child.

The two surveys showed levels of stunting have not improved over the interim period of seven years, standing at 38.4% and 37.6%, respectively.  You can guess what a follow-up DHS survey might have shown.

Saving the Future

 Does anybody anyone give a damn about the future?  I don’t know.

 But, at least, if you persevere up to this…well, you must have some reason for doing so. And, I am sure you are not particularly impressed by my amateurish literary style. I take it then you must have some concern for the future of Eritrea’s children.

Saving the future requires nothing more elaborate than what the wife of Nelson Mandela, Gracha Machel, mentioned in that opening remark: food, health care, decent education, and a loving family and stable community.

It definitely doesn’t require more festivals, political parties, and associations. It also doesn’t need our chaotic social media discourse. It demands that we start to look deep into our conscience and acknowledge that we have become the unknowing or willing accomplices of the ongoing tragedy. It will require us to get out of our issue cocoons, to stop incubating, hatching, and scheming more plots and conspiracies than are already there.

Let us start by considering the following meaningful and proactive conscientious step: Donate for the future.

 There are already a few foundations active in this area. A school for children just re-opened a few weeks back in one of the old refugee camps in the Sudan (the director was bemoaning lack of funds, and his reliance on foreign humanitarian NGOs); and, there is Ghandi Foundation already active in some of the refugee camps in Ethiopia. They can use our help.

NB: 1. This article is not meant to be a scientific article. Its main intent and purpose is to highlight the plight of Eritrean the Eritrean child. 2. The promised third follow-up article on Eritrea’s Social Media is going to take me some more time.


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