In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 15 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in June 2002)
The Using and Disposing of Habit of the EPLF (Issayas)
Over the years, EPLF used and discarded the ELF, TPLF, Sudan, Osman Salih Sabe, and “G15”. Moreover, it has discarded countless Eritrean individuals – some were executed, some remain in prisons and detention centers, and some have been sidelined.
When in 1975 – 1976, the EPLF was asked why it broke up with Osman Saleh Sabe after praising him as a hero for many years, it responded by saying: “We did not have anything to do with him. We were simply using him.”
Many years ago, I was discussing Eritrean politics with a former member of EPLF who joined it in the early 1970s. In the discussion, I expressed my view of how Shaebia used and discarded individuals and speculated whether someday Shaebia might discard the Eritrean people and say it was simply using them, the person agreed with me, but he also went further. He said: Shaebia chews you like chewing gum, then spits you off. Also, years ago, I heard another Eritrean describing Shaebia this way: Shaebia smokes you like a cigarette, then tosses you like the butt of the cigarette, then stamps you out.
Issayas Afeworki, Shaebia’s boss, first victims, due to their close proximity to Sahel, where the EPLF was stationed, were the people of Karneshim. At first, Issayas swept the Karneshim people off their feet, then drained them of their human resources; thus, by the late Seventies, he emptied every village of its adult or teenager. But later, when the people of Karneshim could not provide him with any children, he felt sorry for himself and not for them. He had no sympathy for the mother, who he knew had lost 2-3-4 of her children; he felt no guilt or remorse whatsoever but lied to her that her children were alive and well in the Sahel region and to move on. Then he went to other parts of Eritrea and used the exact same approach with each one of them.
Nevertheless, in the 1980s, when the Karneshim people discovered that they were lied to by Issayas, they protested against him, albeit when it was too late. Therefore Issayas knew that someday every Eritrean would discover his true nature and turn against him. Thus, like all communist dictators, he has been plotting schemes to destroy the moral fabric of Eritreans, the moral fabric which is deeply rooted in their family values, their religions, and their culture, by regimenting the society to talk alike, move alike, think alike, sing alike, dance alike, etc.
The Installation of a Choreographed Culture
For all practical purposes, Eritreans have become the least religious people on earth, only second to China. And for all practical purposes, Issayas has become the god of too many Eritreans. Asked to contribute any amount of money to their churches or mosques, Eritreans would give all kinds of excuses. Still, when they hear Issayas is coming to town, they stampede like a dashing herd into the hall, and when in the hall, eat up all his words, and finally, they thrust their hands deep into their pockets in competition to say “here are my offerings to thee my god!.” Afterward, they keep licking his words and imitating his rhetoric for several weeks until he reappears and throws them another few verses. Then they accept his next message as truth no matter how antagonistic it might be to the one he had told them previously. Those Eritreans are not allowed to remember his previous statements because when he updates them with newer information, he does not simply update them but instead flash-updates their memory.
(flash-update is a term from the computer industry, and it refers to the process of upgrading firmware, for example, for flash memory such chips as EPROM ( erasable programmable read-only memory), by first flashing (erasing), using, for example, ultraviolet light, or higher than standard electrical voltage. Newer flash memory chips use different methods.)
(Having said that, I gotta hand it to Issayas. You have to give some credit to all cult leaders like Issayas, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Herff Applewhite, and many others for the power they have over the minds of their followers. How do they do that? Many cult worshipers have higher education, and some do not realize that they are worshiping a cult leader until they reach their old age.)
I think it was in early February 1999 that my family received an invitation from the Enda Selassie Tewahdo church in Metropolitan, D.C., for a fund-raiser to build a church in Metro DC. When I read the invitation, I was under the impression that maybe the war of Badme was a blessing in disguise; perhaps the war would bring some religion and humility into our lives, so I went to the invitation with my family without hesitation. But it did not take me too long to learn that the whole setup was controlled by Shaebia, from the announcer who was telling the audience how we should hate the Ethiopians, screaming how a church of our own was required so that the Ethiopian churches would not benefit from the offerings by Eritreans who go to Ethiopian churches – his message was clear that a church was needed not because we needed to pray to God for wisdom and repentance, but to offset the “financial gains” of the Ethiopian church – to the singers who were typical victims of conditioning of Shaebia, whose lyrics were full of violence and bloodshed. Imagine again the gathering was for a fund-raiser for a church. Disgusted, I forced my family to walk out but still felt sorry for the invited poor priest who had sunken into his chair from shame and sorrow.
That day, I told myself that Eritrean Muslims should consider themselves luckier than the Christians because Issayas could not fully control their religion as much as he could control all Christian dominations. Christian denominations have been manipulated and undermined by his politics and put under his thumb. Nonetheless, I also believe all Eritrean religions, all Christian denominations, and Islam have been polluted by politics and reduced to rubble.
What is worse is generations of Eritrean children are growing up without religions. The only lesson they have learned from their parents and the ungodly, so-called Adetat is that dreaded phrase, Awet nHafash. Their parents, mostly in their forties and fifties, have been brainwashed to worship Issayas as their god. How else could one justify when women in their 50s and 60s praise Issayas much more than you see them praising their God? According to our culture, you would expect the women and the ungodly, so-called Adetat who agitated violence in the London conference invited by Mesfun Hagos last year to intercede in and mediate family feuds and not to behave like teenage bullies.
And I do not doubt that Issayas is happy with how he has regimented the Eritrean society to become submissive to him. What is apparent is that Issayas does not want Eritreans to serve another god. He does not wish any god to share all the praises he believes he deserves from all Eritreans. Let’s face it; we Eritreans have no religion anymore.
Even during the most trying times, when tens of thousands of Eritreans were dying in the Badme War, you would not hear Issayas or members of his staff mentioning God’s name, not even once. In their code of ethics, it is unethical for the leaders of PFDJ, not just for Issayas, to mention God and seek his guidance. It is a sign of weakness, maybe even a testimony of treason, for the leaders of Shaebia to look to God for wisdom.
(When the most powerful leaders in the world look to God for guidance when in distress, and in the case of the US, when its slogan has been “God Bless America,” PFDJ’s slogan remains that dreaded Awet nHafash, which is nothing than looking down on God.)
When the broadcast news reported about April 13, 2002, as the date the verdict was to be rendered by the Hague Committee, one might expect Eritreans to go to their temples and praise God and make that day the day of atonement. Still, instead, during the holy month of Tseome arba’A, a flamboyant party was scheduled by the followers of Issayas worldwide long before that date, which can only mean, “eat your heart out, God.” No wonder the country goes from one disappointment to another disappointment.
Atheism started in the early 1970s as a phase in the Eritrean fronts when the leaders were very young, but also when some of their leaders and cadres believed in their hearts that the only way to avoid religious polarization was to renounce the religions altogether. But after over thirty years, it seems these leaders have only aged but refused to grow up or seek God’s guidance. Without God’s grace, sure enough, the vile leadership has been heading from failure to failure in all its endeavors.
The Persecution of Religions
The anti-religion culture did not start now, but it started more than thirty years ago, although not to a more considerable extent. After the mid-1970s, many members of the fronts, both ELF and EPLF, were against practicing religion. But what is disturbing now is that the PFDJ has refused to reform itself, even a decade after communism has died.
For the past thirty years, our clergymen have been looked down upon; they have been booed at, ridiculed, shushed, and gagged by the new generation that believed religions were against social development. Hence for the past thirty years, our clergy members have been too intimidated to say anything to the secular (Alem). Our religions have been strangled by the weeds of politics and or reduced to rubble.
Our people, especially the younger generation, the graduates of Sawa, have been desperately craving spiritual guidance and are looking for anybody who can provide them with that. And now, when some Christian denominations started providing Eritreans with spiritual nourishment, many Christians, especially from the members of Tewahdo, started flocking into those denominations at an alarmingly faster rate, which has also alarmed Issayas because the spirituality began getting in the way of his politics.
Toward that end, Issayas decided to shut down some Christian denominations he believed were getting in the way of his politics by making his decision appear as though he was doing a favor to the denominations he had decided to spare for now.
What Issayas is doing is deplorable, but those who want to blame the clergy members for not speaking up against Issayas are wrong. Our clergy members are as good as dead; we all know that, and we, the new generation, are to blame for that. Therefore it is the sole responsibility of the secular new generation to help emancipate our clergy members and our religions.
It torments me to see my religion Tewahdo reduced to rubble. Still, I know Issayas does not hate the Christian denominations, which he has chosen now to assault, more than he hates any other religion in Eritrea, including the Tewahdo religion. As usual, at this time, he has chosen his battle against the Christian denominations that he believes he can win easily. Also, he knows that those denominations he decided not to fight against have been reduced to rubbles anyway; thus, he knows they cannot get in the way of his politics, at least not for now.
Be that as it may, the members of the Tewahdo, the Roman Catholics, and the Lutherans should not believe that Issayas is doing them favor and that their denomination will revive with the help of Issayas. They should know it is only a matter of time before he turns against them. Moreover, they should understand that their denominations can revive only by the grace of God, which will remain hidden from them until they turn their backs on the devil-incarnate, Issayas.
The Humane Culture of Eritreans
For thousands of years, the human value was precious in Eritrea, and the death of every human being was mourned by the survivors, one dead at a time, and in some cases, for many years. Here is how Eritreans honored and remembered the dead and also how they comforted the survivors of the deceased:
- The dead would be mourned by everyone who knew and did not know them.
- An official funeral would be held for the dead.
- Sometimes, if there were not enough time to inform all the loved ones during the funeral, a second funeral would be held for the dead.
- The survivors of the dead would be comforted and surrounded by relatives and friends day and night for at least twelve days.
- Depending on their age, the deceased person would be remembered ceremoniously after two weeks (Asur), after 40 days, after six months, and every year for many years, and on top of that, by one big tribute called Tezkar.
Though the Tewahdo Christians mainly observe the above-described ceremonies, all Eritrean religions and religious denominations observe the deceased in the same fashion, and most of all, the respect for all human beings, dead or alive, is inherent in Islam and all Christian denominations alike.
Any culture that respects the life of a human being when it is alive and after it dies has to be a civilized culture, and its founders must have been way ahead of their time. And that is why then our ancestors would have handled the border war with Ethiopia differently. They would have taken the body of every dead they had to bury and mourn, and the survivor of every dead they had to comfort, into consideration, before rushing into war because the dead would not be just a figure to them as has been to Issayas.
By the same token, had Eritrea had a leader who had respected this humane culture, he would’ve gauged before he leaped. He would’ve walked a mile in the shoes of every father, mother, child, sibling, relative, and friend of the person whose loved ones he was about to send to war and die. And most of all, he would have grieved with the mourners.
Installing the Culture of Death and Indifference
Issayas Afeworki’s pattern of leadership has already caused countless families and villages to become extinct. Issayas has become a merciless god of a tribe that the villagers have to perennially make an offering with their children or else bear his wrath.
What is more disturbing about this is that he believes that it is the duty of every mother to give birth, raise the child, then surrender the child to him for his pleasure until she runs out of children.
Even colonists, such as Italians, gave value to Eritrean lives. When Italians drafted Eritreans into their Army, they did not do it arbitrarily. Many times, they refrained from drafting all children of a household. They used to leave some children to tend the house and sometimes compensated the families in many ways.
Issayas did not follow this common sense. I know a woman who lost her only three sons during the Armed Struggle and was left with only one surviving Tegadalit child; nonetheless, Issayas did not attempt to spare the remaining child. After the independence of Eritrea, he dispatched the surviving child to dangerous places of combat, such as the onslaught on the Mujaheddin that he was pursuing in the 1990s.
When the colonists destroyed our villages and machine-gunned our people in places such as Una and Waki Duba, maybe in their rationale, they might have been able to justify their actions. They knew every Eritrean was a Tegadalai, and every citizen was fighting against them in their way. But more importantly, Eritreans did not seek any sympathy from them. But now, what did Eritreans do against the PFDJ to deserve this kind of battering?
I met another poor woman, a native of Godaif, who lost her only three sons in the Armed Struggle. The Dergue had “nationalized” her livelihood income – three small rooms; therefore, the woman was left with no one to care for her and thus could not even afford her afternoon coffee. Yet, the PFDJ, after having inherited those properties from the Dergue, keeps collecting rent selfishly from these rightfully the woman’s rooms by leasing them to a family whose six children were abroad. The PFDJ did not feel guilty or have sympathy for the destitute woman. The woman visits PFDJ’s offices daily and submits her plea to them, but to no avail. (the rooms were built in the family’s estate in Godaif, allotted to the family by the native committee (Shimagle Adi) of the village of Godaif as a dwelling estate (Tisha); therefore, there could not be any confusion as to whom the estate or the rooms belonged.) But the PFDJ has destroyed the Adi’s traditional egalitarian administration, replaced it with its own, and made the experienced Shimagle out of commission. Well, we all have countless horror stories like this.
We Eritreans are now worse off than we have ever been during all the colonists we always loved to lament over, such as the Turks, Italians, the British, and the Ethiopians. When we were lamenting the past colonists, we Eritreans never imagined, even in our rarest thoughts, that a homegrown tyrant, who, with his cruelty that surpassed all former colonists combined, would rule Eritrea. And I honestly believe we have willingly moved ourselves from a fire into an inferno this time.
A Selfish and an Indifferent Person
Issayas may not care about human values, but one fact is clear – he does care about himself and his family. During the Armed Struggle, when his mother fled the enemy with his adult brothers and sisters into Shaebia, Issayas immediately moved them to Sudan and then to the USA – they were too precious for him to be subjugated to suffering and death.
At the same time, when many spouses of Tegadelti fled the enemy with their kids into Shaebia, Issayas would use the wives of the Tegadelti as servants but would raise the kids to turn them into soldiers. I know a family of six that perished in Shaebia after the wife fled with her four little children to Shaebia, where her husband was, and none of the four children, nor the wife, nor the husband made it back into their homes.
During the armed struggle, the average survival year (the survival chance) of every Tegadelai was less than four years; many Tegadelti died or became injured several times within two years. During those years, whereas the Tegadelti always looked 10-20 years older than their actual age, Issayas always looked at least ten years younger than his actual age.
What is Awet nHafash, Anyway?
The EPLF adopted this term from the Tigrigna phrase Hamed Hafash. The EPLF truncated the first word, kept only the latter, the Hafash, and embraced it to mean masses. Hamed means dust or soil, and Hafash means shoveling. The phase could be translated as plenty. But its symbolic meaning used to be like the English word riffraff, common or second-class people, or people who do not deserve respect.
The EPLF wails this phrase after each time committing crimes against the people; thus, the term has become synonymous with the Amharic song, “Yefiyel Wotete,” which Mengistu Haile Marim played on his radio stations whenever he executed one of his officers. But in actual terms, with all his brutal acts and disdain for the public, Issayas has reduced Eritreans to the traditional meaning of Hamed Hafash, which is riffraff.
It is not always easy to predict the future, but I will stake on this phrase: in post-Issayas, and throughout the rest history of Eritrea, this phrase will be the most abhorred in the lexicon of Tigrigna. And my second prediction is that future-generation Eritreans will find this phrase, Awet nHafash, only in museums.
In part 16, I will discuss whether Eritreans will ever experience the joy of a fair and democratic election under the PFDJ.