In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 14 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
During the Armed Struggle, it was a source of pride for an Eritrean to be in Ethiopian prisons as a political prisoner. But during those years, and especially during Haile Selassie’s rule, all Eritrean political prisoners, including those caught red-handedly attacking Ethiopia, were given due process to defend themselves in the court of law, and although the investigation was harsh, once sentenced, they were almost free inside Ethiopian prisons. Many Eritreans who ended up in Ethiopian prisons as political prisoners were allowed to continue their education through correspondence schooling, and as such, some Eritreans did.
After treating prisoners harshly in its early years, even the Dergue learned from its mistakes; thus, it dramatically improved how it treated political prisoners in the Eighties.Nevertheless, we, Eritreans, and anyone who advocated for respecting human rights were still critical of how Haile Selassie and the Dergue mistreated Eritrean political prisoners. Therefore, as Eritreans, we expected the EPLF to treat prisoners much better than the colonists did, if not in its early age, starting in the mid-1970s. But most of all, we did not expect Eritrea to imprison people because of their political views once Eritrea became independent. But contrary to our dreams or fantasies, we are witnessing when the Issayas regime is turning the country literally into an incarceration camp. We are witnessing Eritreans dumped into detention camps like no other time in the country’s entire history. Never has Eritrea had these many prisons and detention camps in its entire history, and never have Eritreans been subjected to extreme abuse as prisoners as they are now.
Issayas Afeworki Has the Worst and One-of-its-kind Prison System.
Here are some rules that govern EPLF’s prison system and the way the EPLF dealt with its many political prisoners before entering Asmara in 1991:
- Prisoners must lie on the ground day and night and only on their backs.
- Prisoners must stare at the sky, or the ceiling, for as long as they have been in prison. Some have been doing this for several years.
- Prisoners cannot jerk or make slight movements while lying down, no matter how uncomfortable or fatigued.
- Prisoners are prohibited from scratching any part of their bodies.
- Prisoners are not allowed to glance left or right; they are not allowed to make any eye contact with prison guards. They are not allowed to make eye contact with inmates, even when they are at a lunch or dinner table (Ma’adi). They are not allowed to tell apart who they are with.
- Prisoners are assigned unique identification numbers, thereby preventing them from recognizing the names of their inmates in the event and if they are released.
- Prisoners are prohibited from making any contact with their loved ones.
- Prison guards are prevented from talking about any prisoners.
The EPLF/PFDJ continues to apply the same rules after entering Asmara, extending them to the families of prisoners and Amnesty International, such as:
- Families are explicitly prohibited or systematically prevented from visiting their imprisoned loved ones.
- Amnesty International is explicitly or systematically prevented from contacting prisoners. Prevented explicitly or systematically from discovering what charges the prisoners are in prison; expressly prevented or systematically from discovering the whereabouts of prisoners; prevented explicitly from locating the locations of prisons and knowing the number of political prisoners.
Suppose anyone is wondering who these prisoners are (even now as I write this article). In that case, some of you might’ve guessed it right, yes, they are Eritrean Tegadelti, patriotic Eritreans who voluntarily left their comfortable homes and families to liberate Eritrea.
But the mistreatment of prisoners is only one part of the story because worse than the mistreatment is that, although some of the prisoners might not consider it worse, it’s been told that the execution of prisoners was typical in EPLF’s prisons.
According to Teklay Aden, the former chief of EPLF’s prison system, by 1978, Issayas had executed nearly 3000 Tegadelti. For a good reason, one might downplay, saying, what do you expect from Teklay Aden? But many others have also supported his claims many times; thus, the claims and rumors cannot simply be dismissed as speculations and allegations, although one can admit that there obviously is so much exaggeration in the reports.
Some of the victims were accused of plotting to overthrow the system (Issayas), others were accused on the bases that someday in the future they might become a threat to the system (Issayas), and others were accused on the grounds that someday they could be persuaded by someone else to rise against the system (Issayas). The majority of the victims are Christians.
Moreover, many also believe to whitewash the traces of his crimes, Issayas Afeworki had been executing the personnel that he made instrumental in carrying out the execution of the prisoners. Again, proving or disproving such allegations is hard, but categorizing and dismissing them as fabrications would be a mistake. Something unusual must have happened and must still be happening.
According to the internal rules of the EPLF of the mid-1970s and after that, anyone sentenced by the court-martial for execution could not be executed without the formal signature of the head of the Front. But at some point, according to Teclay Aden and other individuals, Issayas himself did not want to take responsibility; therefore, he would ignore the Court’s papers put on his desk by the Court for his signature. He would let the papers collect dust in his office forever, or if the Court inquired about the papers, he would, acting angrily, throw them at it. Therefore the Court was puzzled, not knowing whether it should release the prisoners and bear the wrath of Issayas afterward or execute the inmates without requiring his signature. Eventually, according to Teklay Aden and many other individuals, the Court devised a plan that would spare it from the scolding of Issayas; it started sending the “convicts” into combat raids as cannon fodders against Ethiopian garrisons, of course without hinting to the inmates that it had sentenced them to death. It would send them into combat over and over until they get killed in action, then it would list them as martyrs. Again these are allegations that could not be proved or disproved.
According to the reports from many individuals, although many ordinary “convicted” Tegadelti were executed in this method, members of the politburo or senior military or political commissars were usually executed by a firing squad. Still, the cause of each victim’s death was explained to the Tegadelti as the victim had committed suicide, except when Issayas saw a reason to capitalize on the victim’s good name, that is, if the victim’s name could be used as a bait to lure more recruits, then in such cases, the public and the Tegadelti were informed as the victim had been martyred heroically in combat. The latter method allowed Issayas to kill two birds with one stone: to eliminate his real or imaginary enemy and to entice the victim’s fans to cement their commitment to Issayas by following in the footstep of their martyred hero.
I ask the readers now to stop and think this: Should someone who portrayed himself as a high priest, the defender of Christians, someone who created a splinter group because he could not stand the “persecution of Christians at the hands of Moslems” be given carte blanche to kill as many Christians as he wanted?
The Formation of a Splinter Group by Issayas Afeworki
Was there a valid reason for Issayas to form a splinter group? Could the problem that Issayas had with Qiada al Ama have been resolved peacefully? Have Eritrean Christians benefitted from the Front that Issayas had claimed to have formed on their behalf? How and why did he become so popular among the Christians? Did Issayas form a splinter group to benefit the Christians or to quench his thirst for power?
When, in February of 1970, Issayas asked the leaders of ELF for permission to go to Ala, Akeleguzai, he did not disclose to them what his real intention was. He told them he would return to participate in the First National Congress, for which preparation was underway. The Congress was to discuss all the shortcomings of the Front and possibly devise a resolution about the concerns of many, including those of Issayas.
Then again, it soon became clear to everyone that Issayas was up to no good when, halfway into his journey, he excluded two Tegadelti, who happened to be Moslems, from the group of Tegadelti assigned to accompany him to return to Barka. Instead, he continued his journey to Ala with only the Christians he had chosen to accompany him.
Later on, he issued an official declaration under the title of “niHnan Alaman” and made it known to the public his intention to form his own splinter group and gave the following reasons why it was vital for him to create his own front:
- Two Christian Tegadelti, Wolday Gidey, and Kidane Kiflu, assigned to work in Kassala, Sudan, were executed by Kiada al Ama.
- More than 50 Christian peasants were murdered by ELF in Shimbare, in Upper Gash Region.
- In the mid-1960s, more than one hundred Christian Tegadelti were ordered to be killed by ELF.
- Again later, he broadened his reasons for forming his front by adding a fourth reason: Qiada al Ama executed more than 150 Christian students known by Seria Addis.
Were Christian Eritreans Persecuted Inside ELF?
In the Sixties, many Christians who joined the ELF felt mistreated by the Lowlanders. However, many of them also admitted that the mistreatment the Christians felt might have emanated from a cultural clash between the Lowlanders and the Highlanders in that many Moslems raised in the Highlands were also feeling the cultural clash that their Christian colleagues were experiencing, to some degree.
Still, there might have been mistreatments of the Christians by some Moslems because the Adobha conference in which Issayas was elected to be a member of the leadership (just a member, which could hardly quench his thirst for power), had also recognized the problems and thus had set out to investigate and find a rectification. Of course, no one should assume all the problems and concerns of the Moslems and Christians would be resolved by one conference alone. Still, given enough time, through many conferences and congresses, the leaders of that time might have outgrown their mistakes. Again if the Lowlanders were as harmful to all Highlanders as Issayas was describing them, then given enough time, I say no later than by the mid-1970s, they would’ve changed their positions toward the Christians because they, including the misguided members of ELF, would have realized that they could not liberate all of Eritrea without the participation of the Christian Highlanders, but also, if only Issayas had sought other methods to resolve the problem, and if only Issayas had not been so obsessed with becoming a leader.
Nevertheless, one could have justified Issayas’s actions, but only if he had formed a pristine organization. But that has not been the case; in fact, it did not take him too long not only to repeat the mistakes of Jabha but, by his deeds, to surpass, except in a more sophisticated way, the crimes which he had been claiming to be committed by Qiada al Ama.
Again there might have been some mistreatment of Christians by some Moslem Tegadelti. For example, Memhir Wolday Kahsay, the leader of Zone Five, defected to Ethiopia when he believed that there was mistreatment of Christians, but also when he thought he could not rectify it in his power. In hindsight, Memhir Wolday did the right thing. Furthermore, in retrospect, the Christians, the Revolution, and the nation as a whole would’ve been better off had Issayas followed in the footsteps of Memhir Woldai Kahsay and defected to Ethiopia. After all, during that time, Ethiopia was treating the Christians better than it was treating the Moslems, so it was not a matter of life and death that the Christians formed a liberation front of their own at that time. They could have stayed with Ethiopia until the problems that Issayas perceived were cleared. The mistreatment the Christians experienced by the few inexperienced and misguided Moslem Tegadelti could never have surpassed the sufferings that Issayas has inflicted upon the Christians, and the whole nation, over the years.
Because by forming his splinter group, Issayas destroyed the unity of Eritreans, caused civil war to prevail, sent the Revolution into a tailspin, and sent Ethiopia a message of hope that said Eritreans would someday self-destruct. And as far as the other two splinter groups founded by Osman Salih Sabe and the Oboleen, those factions could not succeed politically and militarily on their own unless they could dramatically change their programs. Even then, they could hardly contribute to Christian/Muslim religious polarization.
But let’s assume the Lowlander Tegadelti were persecuting the Christian Tegadelti or showing hostility against the Christians for whatever reason. If so, forming a splinter group was hardly a way to combat such prejudice because by running away from those he had believed prejudiced against him, Issayas also ran away from the problem.
But still, one also might explain the prejudice from the few misguided members of the ELF toward Christians. Firstly, every revolution movement makes mistakes during its early age. Secondly, the 1960s was when Ethiopia committed horrific atrocities exclusively against Moslem Eritreans. Thirdly, the 1960s was also when Ethiopia succeeded in its divide-and-rule plot in Eritrea. Thus, it recruited Christian Eritreans into its regular armies and militia to help fight against the liberation fronts and Eritrean Muslim civilians. Fourthly, in the 1960s, the ELF comprised few educated individuals; most members had no formal education or political or cultural consciousness.
Suppose one cannot explain the crimes committed by the very few uneducated and politically inexperienced individuals, whose parents were massacred and whose villages were leveled to the ground with the help of some Highlanders, but how could the blind followers of Issayas now justify the massacre of the heroic, disabled Liberation War veterans by Issayas in 1994.
Ok. It could be true that there might have been some prejudice from some individual Moslem Tegadelti against the Christians. However, many of those who later studied the history of the 1960s could not find a trace of any organized conspiracy by Eritrean Muslims against the then-minority in number Christians in ELF.
Some of the reasons Issayas pointed out for his running away were true. Yes, some members of ELF murdered innocent peasants in the village of Shimbare, Upper Gash region. The ELF murdered Kidane and Wolday and executed students known as Seria Addis. The exact number of Shimbare’s victims always varied but was believed to be between 15 and 25. The ELF said that some vigilante off-duty Tegadeliti thinking of avenging after Ethiopian soldiers burned their village with the help of Bherawi, a local Ethiopian militia comprised of Eritrean Christians, committed those crimes. But no one has been able to validate the other allegations by Issayas.
If Issayas wanted to use the victims of Shimbare, Kidane, and Wolday, it is OK. Still, Issayas could not use the Christian students known by Seria Addis, who ELF murdered, as the reasons for his breaking away, as he was sometimes trying to do, because the ELF executed those poor souls after Issayas had publicly declared to split. In fact, his basis of discord with Solomon Woldemariam was that Solomon, who was responsible for organizing the clandestine groups and recruiting, contrary to Issayas’s long-term dreams, allowed Qiada al Ama to have access to those recruits and to transfer them from Ala to Senhit. He deprived Issayas of the opportunity to use the recruits for the new front he was about to form. Issayas had long decided to split and create his personal front long before the students had been executed and had already gone by the time they lost their lives. As far as Issayas was concerned, he had already split with Qiada al Ama in 1969, right after the Adobha Conference, and only Qiada al Ama did not take him seriously.
The exact number of the victims known by Seria Addis is not known. Still, believed that, at some time, up to 40 students were seen in prison at Debra Sala, thus the total number of the victims, in the worst-case scenario, could be 40, and most likely a lot less than 40, and not 200 or 250 as was sometimes being claimed to be by Issayas. Regardless of Issayas’s claim of the figure, no matter what the charges were, no Eritrean, and especially one who left his comfortable home to fight for his people, should have been extra-judicially executed by the ELF.
But still, some who studied the case believe, Issayas himself was partially to blame for their death. The reason is that after Issayas ran away and accused all Muslims as anti-Christians, he caused an atmosphere of polarization to prevail behind him in ELF; hence by the time the poor students completed their military training, tensions and suspicions had heightened between Christians and Muslims. The poor students became subjected to being in the wrong place and time. Still, no matter the circumstances, no Eritrean, and especially one who left his comfortable home to fight for his people, should have been extra-judicially executed by any member of the ELF.
Having said that, since the students were murdered after the Adobha Conference, Quid al Ama, ELF’s leadership of that time, failed to do a thorough investigation and get to the bottom of the students’ case and thus could not evade responsibility.
In any case, these victims’ deaths need further investigation in post-Issayas Eritrea, along with all the crimes believed to have been committed by Issayas after he formed his Front.
In conclusion, even though Moslems and Christians have been losers due to all the turns and twists the revolution had to go through because of the political and military fragmentation caused by Issayas, the Christians have by far lost the most; only they do not know it yet. Enchanted by his “passion for Christians,” the Christians overlooked his flaws and joined his Front in disproportionate a number; as a result, after Issayas eliminated the other Fronts, his Front took all of the burdens of military fighting against Ethiopia because of the 65,000 that have paid with their lives for independence during the armed struggle, about 58,000 – 59,000 could be from the EPLF alone.
Also, by October i1977, one thousand Tegadelti who were involved in a political uprising in ELF fled the ELF and took refuge in the EPLF. The overwhelming majority of them were Christians. It was told that within 12 months, by October 1978, Issayas systematically eliminated 80% of them after involving them in combats as cannon fodders against Ethiopian armies.
>> Part 15 of 24
Next, part 15 will discuss the systematic obliteration of all Eritrean religions, family values, and culture and the installation of a regimented culture.