In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 4 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in April 2002)
I believe the US sincerely tried to avert the war and the killings of both Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples. The US could not benefit a penny from the deaths of the two people. And that is why, after the war broke out, it quickly devised, along with Rwanda, Issayas’s new friend at that moment, the fairest ever formula for peace.
However, Issayas did not see it that way. After all, he was being congratulated by all Eritreans like no other time in his entire life. The cheerleading from his people had intoxicated him; therefore, when the US did not cheer on him along with his people, he felt insulted.
Issayas claimed that he was the victim, but at the same time, he claimed that he had the power to penetrate deep into Ethiopia and destabilize the country. At that time, the US, the UN, the OAU, and the EU disagreed with his first claim because they knew he was the aggressor and that Ethiopia was the victim. But also, they all, including Ethiopia, agreed with his latter claim that he had a powerful army that he had been building up tirelessly, which was strong enough to wreak havoc upon Ethiopia.
(Worth remembering here is, during the first months of the war, until February 1999, PFDJ’s commissars’ favorite rhetoric was, “We brought the Woyanes to power, and we can bring them down. We will not withdraw from Badme because giving up Badme would be tantamount to the surrender of Woyane’s demands.”)
The Placatory Approach of the US Toward Issayas Backfired
Though the Clinton Administration knew Issayas was the aggressor, it was not in Clinton’s nature to play tough. He could not tell Issayas to “get out or else.” Instead, he spent a tremendous amount of time talking with him on the phone and placating. Therefore, Issayas, as would all dictators feel when treated with nicety, felt even stronger at having had his strength “recognized and feared” by the Superpower. He dismissed the US as looking for a “quick fix.” At some point, he even touted as the war was about pride for Eritreans, as WWII was for the Germans.
When two nations with tens of thousands of soldiers are in a military showdown, common sense should tell you that a quick fix is what you need the most. Any talk of a fundamental problem or solution must be pushed to the back burner. Furthermore, spilling blood can only exacerbate the problem and cannot bring you a better solution than if a quick-fix solution, a temporary solution, had not preceded the process. You do not have to spill blood to make your point heard. And that was also the message the US and other nations were trying to convey to Eritreans and their government. But of course, Issayas’s answer to the “quick-fix” solution was, “I will not withdraw even if it means a new day will not dawn on Eritrea.” He preferred bloodshed to a “temporary solution.” He believed the only way to get to a long-lasting solution was by first squandering 19,000 Eritrean lives.
Issayas Retaliated Against the US
Issayas got so furious at the US and its “quick-fix” proposal that he attempted to bully Clinton if he did not take his side. He mistook the placating of the US for a weakness, and he wanted to further blackmail it by hitting it where it hurt most. In a deliberate showdown to dare it, he turned to Ghaddafi, America’s arch-enemy. After securing financial and military support from Ghaddafi, he felt no one could get in his way. He felt as though he was superior to the Superpowers. Afterward, he rebuffed and intimidated every mediator who approached him, and every time Eritrean scholars congratulated him for that, he felt even more potent.
Weak US Stance Hurt the Eritrean and Ethiopian People Most
It was understood, having failed in Somalia, Clinton was not in any position to make a threat that he could not accompany with force.
Nevertheless, it appeared that the Clinton Administration, the EU, and the OAU wanted to let Ethiopia do the job of evicting Issayas from the territories it had administered before the war broke out. So until it could build up its army, they planned to restrain Issayas from doing what he told them he could – destabilize Ethiopia.
Since Eritrea and Ethiopia had not marked their borders, the mediators had no way of knowing whether Badme belonged to Ethiopia or Eritrea. But they soon confirmed through their research that Badme had been under Ethiopia before the start of the war. Now, that alone should make Issayas an aggressor; it would not matter whether or not Badme belonged to Eritrea legally.
When the OAU/US asked every foe to return to its previous location, thus asking Issayas to withdraw from Badme, the US and OAU made the right decision. Still, by not denouncing him as an aggressor, they sent the wrong message to the Eritrean people. Had they labeled Issayas as an aggressor, they could have done a great service to Eritreans who believed Issayas was blameless, including Eritrean scholars who bought into his war effort. By labeling him an aggressor, they could have stopped Eritreans from contributing to his war of aggression. They could have saved tens of thousands of innocent Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers from death. Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers did not have to die crossing over Eritrea through land mines at Badme. And thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians did not have to die in the ensuing battles.
Although, eventually, the US, EU, and OAU made Issayas pay the price, they pinned him down, but in actuality, the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea paid the price.
Who Is to Blame on the Eritrean Side?
History will assert over and over again that the war had nothing to do with Badme but also that it could have been avoided or stopped right after it broke out had both leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia not been bent on destroying each other.
It takes two to tango; in this case, either party had the power to end the war unilaterally by walking out. But since this discussion is about Eritrea, my points will focus only on why the Eritrean party did not choose to walk out.
It is true all Eritreans were entirely behind Issayas in this war; then again, it should not matter whether the ordinary citizens were behind him. In any war, citizens always rally around the flag and give their leaders unequivocal support. Issayas never told anyone how many soldiers were dying and never notified families of the deaths of their children. The ordinary citizens never knew how to calculate the cost of the war.
Eritreans were not allowed to bury or mourn their loved ones. Had they known that the war would cost them 19,000 soldiers, as has been admitted by Issayas, they would not have followed him blindly. They had no way of knowing. They had no alternative sources of information to verify his claims about anything.
Notwithstanding, the fact remains that Issayas knew the cost of the war fully all along; he was being updated from the war front hour-by-hour, but he nonetheless chose to lie to Eritrean families through his media and his commissars, inside the country and abroad, by claiming only Ethiopian soldiers were dying. He strived to justify the means by the end, as he did in 1991, when he made public the enormous casualties of the Liberation War, to justify the high cost of the war by coming out as a winner.
Nevertheless, in 2000, after all the huffing and puffing, not only did he agree to withdraw from the pockets of lands Ethiopia had administered, pockets of lands he should have withdrawn from in 1998 long before causing Eritrean and Ethiopian children needlessly to vanish, but also agreed to withdraw from a sizable Eritrean territory, and only after the Ethiopian soldiers closed in on him, only after he realized his own life was in danger. On the other hand, the only sin of ordinary Eritreans is that they chose to put blind trust in him. They trusted him when he lied and told them only Ethiopian soldiers were dying in the war.
Many Eritreans did not know where Badme was or the story behind it. And almost all of them believed they were fulfilling their patriotic duties when they supported him. The storm of the war took over all Eritreans. They thought that they were helping the average soldier or the average mother in Eritrea. They did not realize their cheering on Issayas was counterproductive. They did not realize that he was taking them for fools. They did not even realize he was toying with their children. But most of all, they did not realize that by their blind loyalty, they were causing him to become more stubborn in the face of the mediators’ begging.
Having said that, ordinary Eritreans are not totally free of blame because though Issayas is naturally an evil person with no respect for human lives, however in this war, like all leaders, he was being led by the polls. Had he not been encouraged by the results of polls to pursue the war, he would probably have exited gracefully, of course, by blaming the commander who led the first operation, but regardless, that might have been better for Eritrea and its children.
But also, I think during the Armed Struggle, many Eritreans never believed that Eritrea would defeat the Dergue. Therefore, many Eritreans who nosily supported the last war either supported the Armed Struggle half-heartedly or refused to associate themselves with it. And since Eritrea became independent, many have been suffering from some guilty feelings for their wrong calculation, for not standing by the Revolution. Hence after the Badme War broke out, they did not want to be wrong again. This time, they want to get on the “prospective winner’s” bandwagon; thus, they chose to “contribute to the nation” in the hope that they would feel good about themselves afterward.
But also, many Eritreans were forced to join Issayas in this war by the Woyane. Undoubtedly, the Woyanes gave Issayas a new, fresh, naive, and very large constituency by expelling Eritreans from Ethiopia.
Should Educated Eritreans Share the Blame?
Issayas alone cannot be responsible for what Eritrea is in now. Though Issayas and his inner circle take the lion’s share of the blame, educated Eritreans cannot be spared from taking the blame. Educated Eritreans chose to retail his lies to the public without verifying; they agreed with all his claims and encouraged him to do all the wrong things. They went out of their way to discredit the only fair proposal of the U.S. and Rwanda as hasty and fit only for a quick fix; they denounced the honorable and intelligent Susan Rice, U.S. an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, as too young and unfit for the job. In fact, by praising him as the most intelligent leader in the world, they conditioned him into believing that he could outsmart the brains of the State Department, the U.N., and the E.U. combined and get away with it unpunished. As a result, after visiting the U.S. and meeting with the State Department, he actually believed his delusion and started singing them out loud, “anafra KoKaH zeifelTs aihdanain,” ኣናፍራ ቆቋሕ ዘይፈልጥስ ኣይሃዳናይን,” which meant nobody could outsmart him.
But then again, educated Eritreans were on an equal par with their uneducated fellows. They, too, were as ignorant as ordinary Eritreans – years of propaganda and indoctrination by the EPLF had taken a disproportionate toll on their good judgments. They failed to contemplate that Eritrea could suffer at least one-half, one-third, or even one-tenth of Ethiopia’s losses. During the war, the PFDJ continually claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on Ethiopia’s army, claiming to kill tens, even hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers. But what was worse was, when at one time, the PFDJ reported that Ethiopia’s casualty was twice as high as Eritrea’s casualties, some highly educated Eritreans cheered on the news.
Then again, Eritrean scholars might not have been only the victims of PFDJ’s indoctrination. The small educated class of Eritrea is a part of the society of individuals who opted to stay home or to go abroad to study when their peers and fellow men or women were opting to join the armed struggle. Hence the tiny community of educated Eritreans was in no position to question the wisdom of Issayas; it did not believe it had any right to question him or had the leverage to criticize the “Liberator of Eritrea.” In fact, it has been feeling some guilt. Knowing this, Issayas, therefore, has constantly been reminding it of its “guilt” with his “Glory to our martyrs” and “We owe it to our martyrs” slogans. In reality, Issayas does not treasure the martyrs but knows how to capitalize on them. Regardless, Eritrean scholars, but especially those who advised him in private or publicly to pursue the catastrophic mission, bear the responsibility equally with Issayas and his clique because they failed to do their homework.
On the other hand, it was the loneliest time for those Eritreans opposed to the war. Many times I asked myself if my decision was correct. But I also believed that a nation and its people could go wrong. The German people did that during WWII. Moreover, having understood that the two fronts, the TPLF and EPLF, would apply the same military strategy, it was easy to predict that the war was going to be the bloodiest in recent world history, and I think, had every one of Eritreans listened to their inner-selves, they would have reached the same conclusion. But still, I cannot evade the blame because not doing enough to stop the war is equal to supporting it.
During the Badme War, after pondering why Eritreans were behaving the way they did, the only thing that kept me going was, comparing them with the Germans of WWII. No one could give you a clear explanation or justification as to why the Germans, who, even more than sixty years ago, were the most intelligent and advanced people on the planet, followed a bastard person blindly into their destruction. But if the civilized Germans, with their tens, if not hundreds of thousands of world-class scientists, could follow their bastard, maybe there could be some unexplainable reason why the least developed people would follow their bastard blindly into their deaths. The actions of the Germans and Eritreans are neither justifiable nor explainable but comparable.
Nevertheless, All Eritreans Collectively Shoulder the Blame.
Bad or good things happen due to our participation or lack of involvement in their happening somehow. Blaming others is the worst one can do to himself. If one refuses to accept one’s responsibility in making history, one is bound to repeat what one blamed on others. Hence I believe the only way Eritreans can avoid the recurrence of the same episode in the future is for all Eritreans, including this writer, to share some degree of blame equally.
What Other Circumstances Perpetuated the War?
Other forces also fueled the war: the war was with Tigray, a place from which a number of Eritreans immigrated, including many top members of the PFDJ’s leadership, and commissars are Tigrean-Eritreans. Therefore for these Eritreans, it was also a time to distance themselves from their kin, demonstrate their Eritreaness, and affirm their allegiance to their nation. Consequently, many of the noisy and insulting slurs hurled on Dehai.org’s posts against anyone opposed to the war, insults, such as Tigray, Agame, Qomal, woyane, and irda’aka, (ዓጋመ, ቆማል, እርድኣኻ) even although, innocent Eritreans could have innocently echoed them, the Tigrean-Eritreans might have initiated them.
(Still, Tigrean-Eritreans should not be used as scapegoats because Eritrea is in its present state only due to the failure of its entire population to distinguish right from wrong.)
Next, I will discuss some hypothetical arguments, such as:
Whether Issayas being a Tigrean-Eritrean and Melles having some Eritrean blood exasperated the conflict.
How would Christian Eritreans have reacted to the situation if Eritrea had a Moslem Eritrean as its leader during the Badme War?