In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 9 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in May 2002)
The Complicated and Sophisticated Nature of Eritreans Living in Eritrea
When the “staunch supporters” of PFDJ visit Eritrea from abroad, upon their return, they might inundate you with volumes of reports that favor the PFDJ. They might report meeting many happy and cheering people who could not stop telling them about the accomplishments of PFDJ. Well, in all fairness, you need to believe them because it could be true that they met happy and cheering people who expressed their true love for Issayas and told them they were better off now than before PFDJ came into their lives. But having said that, you should never take the report as describing the reality in Eritrea; never take it in, even with a pinch of salt.
No one can fully grasp what Eritreans want. You can’t discern what Eritreans want very easily, even if you are an Eritrean raised among them unless you can read deep into their comments and thoughts. When traveling to different parts of the country and meeting with Eritrean people, educated and uneducated alike, you will find out that all of them have one thing in common – they will discover about you before you can learn about them and tell you only what you want to hear.
But why and how did Eritreans acquire such skills of “deception”? Well, I don’t think this social skill is limited to Eritreans alone; rather, it might be something any people under colonists and dictators possess because researchers who visited Cuba also describe the behavior of the Cuban people in no different way from that of Eritreans. It is also the same with all people who live under totalitarian regimes.
But there is a good reason why oppressed people possess such skills: colonists and dictators live in fear; therefore, in their efforts to learn what the people think of them, they constantly send spies in disguise into the people. Aware of the oppressors’ efforts, the people resort to treating all strangers with suspicion. They presume all strangers guilty (enemies) until proven innocent (friends).
In light of these realities of Eritreans, therefore, even with all their sophisticated efforts, in the past, the rulers of Eritrea were never let into the hearts of the Eritrean people. In Eritrea, for example, the biggest problem for Ethiopian soldiers was that they could never figure out what was happening behind the scene, behind their backs, in every Eritrean home and every community. For example, the wives of Tegadelti who lived in towns and villages controlled by Ethiopia would visit their husbands, become pregnant, deliver their babies right in Ethiopia-controlled hospitals, and bring up their babies right in the neighborhood where the Ethiopian garrisons are located. Still, the Ethiopian soldiers would never find out about it.
But Eritreans would not hide the secret from the Ethiopian officials alone, but also from other civilian Ethiopians in the neighborhood. And if the secret were ever to leak out, Eritreans from every corner of town would find a way to cover it up and save the mother and her child by either sweet-talking with or bribing the Ethiopian officials. And if the Ethiopians discovered the truth and apprehended them, they pleaded ignorance or even acted deliberately stupid.
What’s more, they always accommodated the views of the Officials to the extent that the officials get deceived into thinking that the people were on their side, thus causing the officials to trust the people completely.
Similarly, at this time, Eritreans who visit Eritrea from abroad are categorized as strangers, even by their relatives; therefore, the hosts use many methods to discover the actual thoughts of their guests so that they can accommodate their views accordingly. Here are some of the methods the hosts use to identify their guests:
- The visitor might nonstop lecture the people about the accomplishment of Issayas without even first attempting to hear from the hosts, which tells the hosts that the visitor is irredeemably crazy about Issayas, and should be accommodated accordingly.
- The visitor might impress the hosts with how the newly constructed five-star hotel is so beautiful, which tells the hosts that the visitor is superficial and ignorant. Because, to the hosts, to the poor, to the disabled Liberation War veterans, to the Tegadelti who had volunteered to fight for the nation but have now been forsaken by their comrades, to the parents who lost all their children in the Struggle, the five-star hotel is nothing of value. These unfortunate people cannot even pass by the building without feeling insignificant. In addition, they know the hotel only rewards those who deserted the Revolution. Moreover, they simply don’t want to hear how much the visitor spent in the hotel while they know, though they might look happy, some of them wearing clean clothes, that their stomach is empty. They know if it were up to them, they would use the millions of dollars squandered on the hotel to build many industries and create thousands of jobs that could train people with modern skills. Therefore, even from an investment perspective, they know squandering millions of dollars on the hotel was irresponsible and imprudent.
(The hotel was constructed for PFDJ during the Badme War while the Clique asked the soldiers to live on bare sorghum, sometimes bare sorghum without salt. See part 6 of 24 of this series)
- The visitors might feel uncomfortable with the hosts if they speak of their plights, which tells the hosts that the visitors know the horrible experience of the people but do not want to hear about it. The visitors are there to have fun; thus, hearing horrific stories spoil their fun or makes them feel guilty.
- The visitors might tune the people out, which tells the host that the visitors are snobs; the visitors think they are better than the hosts; the visitors are not there to learn from the people but to “teach” them.
- The visitors argue with the hosts and insist on convincing the hosts that the hosts’ views on the government are wrong; the visitors tell the hosts that they know the government; know the Officials of the government; met with the Officials of the government; have many friends among the Officials; therefore, they know about the government better than the hosts do. These visitors will persistently lecture the hosts until the hosts give in or until the visitors are convinced of having convinced the hosts why they are better off under PFDJ, but, still, the visitors may never have a clue as to how badly the hosts have graded them, and how the hosts have deceived them.
- Sometimes the visitors are relatives of the hosts, but not only that, but they are also the cash cow of the hosts, or the hosts might expect some favor from the visitors. In this case, the hosts know they must carefully handle the visitors’ views. Therefore the hosts want to know the visitors’ thoughts before they let them in on their thoughts.
- If the visitors (the relative) let their views known first, the hosts are relieved; they simply have to accommodate the visitors’ views.
- If the visitors insist on hearing the hosts’ views first, then the hosts have to give the visitors many conflicting and half-baked hints, which do not reveal the hosts’ thoughts fully; the hosts keep doing so until the hosts discover the absolute political conviction of the visitors.
- The final one: the visitors are very sophisticated and complicated themselves; thus hard to identify what their fundamental political convictions are or what they want to hear from the hosts. This time, it’s time for the hosts to use their secret weapon. They might call it luck, but it is not. It was born with them; it is in their DNA; they have inherited it from their ancestors, who also required such a weapon. That secret weapon never let their ancestors down. It is called instinct – the hosts invoke their instincts.
But there are also two more types of visitors, whom I prefer to call politicians and entrepreneurs: both spend their time sucking up to, making acquaintances themselves with, and spending their money on government officials.
For instance, the entrepreneur’s goal is all about preparing a conducive environment for investing and making money in the country; they only look at everything from a business point of view. They allow themselves to be used by the government, thinking that, in the end, they will outsmart the government and use it even more for their benefit.
Similarly, politicians are individuals overtaken by the love for power, and nothing matters to them but power. They neither have the time nor the will to meet with ordinary citizens. Now, these kinds of visitors are usually feared and shied away from by the hosts unless they can be of some service to them, like introducing them to powerful government officials; in that case, the hosts accommodate the visitors’ views.
All of the “devoted” lovers of Issayas have one thing in common. They never make any real interaction with common Eritreans. Some of them only get out of Asmara when visiting Massawa. Some may not have poor relatives, or at least they pretend that way or don’t want to know they have poor relatives.
Some of them paid their first visit in 2001, one year after the war officially ended, only when it became safe to visit after living abroad for over 30 years. They did not see the country seven years before the border war broke out, nor did they have the guts to visit it during the two-year border war. During the war, they feared visiting the country because of a slim chance that they might be stranded for a couple more days “in the country they love” and with the president they adore.
Eritreans Under the PFDJ vis-a vis Eritreans Under Colonialism
Though Eritreans had the skills to deceive colonists and visitors, these days, they have discovered that their old skill is no math for PFDJ’s power of divide and rule. The PFDJ has penetrated deep into families. It plays off family members one against the other. It has installed its agents in every community and every village.
For example, in 1995, when the people of Bet MeKa’a, on the coast of Asmara, one of the first victims of PFDJ, gathered to discuss their community matters, the PFDJ dispatched some heavily armed soldiers and rounded up the gathering (Baito). The meeting was not about debating the PFDJ, but the people later learned that someone from among them, who swore to put the interest of the PFDJ before his family, panicked and misinformed the PFDJ. People can no longer discuss their internal matters without being watched over their shoulders or being eavesdropped on by the PFDJ, something Eritreans had never experienced in their entire history.
Never in the history of Eritrea have family members treated each other with suspicion. We all have many stories of family members fighting over politics to the extent that family members or friends were asked to leave, including a funeral gathering by other family members, who happen to be Issayas’ lovers, and who happen to believe anyone who does not follow Issayas blindly should be excommunicated. I will stop here because I know many readers have such endless and horrible stories.
The Dark Sides of Eritreans:
Sometimes the word courageous describes the Eritrean people; however, that is not all that describes them; they also have an ugly and dark side; they like to suck up to a winner. They died for Italian colonists fighting against their flesh, the Ethiopians and Somalis. They also celebrated the Britons. They, and especially the Highlanders and some Lowlanders from the Red Sea and Barka, celebrated Haile Selassie more than his own people celebrated him. They would have done the same with Mengistu, too, had he not gotten off to a bad start by massacring the Highlanders. Moreover, recently, before the Badme War broke out, they celebrated and congratulated Melles Zenawi far more than any of his people celebrated him. And now they have been engaged in a fierce contest of I-love-Issayas-more-than-you-do among themselves.
(Many of the holier-than-thou Eritreans, who are now lecturing about Issayas and patriotism, during the 1980s, when Eritrea was lonely and needed them most, were identifying themselves as Ethiopians, and some of them were identifying themselves as Ethiopians until 1998. Now they have the right to change their minds, but they cannot lecture us about the Eritrean people and Eritrea.)
I can safely say then if Issayas were to be toppled today, what concerned Eritreans worry most about should not be that his successor might not garner enough support from Eritreans. But, the same people sucking up to Issayas, the Awet nHfash-nuts, once they realize that the new leader is in control, might follow him blindly, no matter how much worse he will treat Issayas, their dear leader, and his clique.
For example, we saw the same people who were flocking to the conferences invited by the ex-ministers (now members of the G-15), receiving the ex-ministers with standing ovations, people who were talking non-stop about the ex-ministers now condemning them to death, without even hearing and analyzing the charges from both the plaintiff and the defendants, but only after making sure that Issayas was in total control of the situation, and only after making sure that the “G-15’s” were locked in prison for good.
Many Eritreans condemning the “G-15” did not make their position known on the “G-15” until after September 2001. But as far as the charges against them are concerned, they have been as vague since September 2001 as they were before September 2001.
However, I can say this with almost certainty, if Issayas and his clique were to be toppled by another dictator, and if that dictator were to mistreat the former dictators, the same Eritreans who have been genuinely advocating for the respect of human rights would also be defending for Issayas and his clique’s, because once a genuine fighter for justice and the rule of law, always a genuine fighter for justice and the rule of law, for all people.
Now, back to the dark side of Eritreans, I think they should not be ashamed of it because to be ashamed of it is to deny its existence, and denial won’t break the cycle. Eritreans need to acknowledge its existence and face it head-on until it shrinks; they need to address it openly now and in the future.
Nevertheless, I don’t dare to say this bad habit is unique to Eritreans. No, because this happens in many countries in the world, but also, the fact is that all countries with such a habit of people have been attracting one dictator after another.
The thing is that maybe one can understand why Eritreans in Eritrea want to try to get along with the totalitarian regime of Issayas. Still, there is no excuse for why Eritreans who live in Democracies should become lenient with it.
“We are in good hands” VS. “Znegese Negussna, ZbereKe TseHaina” (ዝነገሠ ንጉሥና ዝበረቀ ጸሓይና)
Last year, I attended a gathering of about 900 Eritreans in Washington, D.C., which Ambassador Girma Asmerom called. At the meeting, at first glance, I sensed about three-fourths of the audience favoring a peaceful solution to the impasse between the “G-15” and Eritrea’s strongman. And I also felt that most participants did not want to see the “G-15” be put to death.
But at the end of the gathering, someone from the audience got up and suggested that the “G-15” be executed. Afterward, in a carefully orchestrated scheme designed to win the unanimous support of the jury (the audience) through the application of a peer-pressure, a fast-talking petit commissar, appearing as a prosecutor, first gushed forth her pep-talk, then read her pre-prepared “closing argument,” and charged the “G-15” with committing the highest crime of treason and asked the jury (audience) to pass a verdict, so that the Clique could pass a severe punishment against them, by basing its sentence on the jury’s (the conference participants) verdict. She then literally commanded everyone in the audience to stand up and cast a vote against the “G-15” with an expression of applause.
To my bewilderment, I have seen all grown-ups in their 30s’, 40s’, and 50s giving in to peer pressure, which the commissar and the Ambassador masterminded. I looked all around me as far as my eyes could see, but everyone in the audience got up and voted for the disposal of the “G-15” by clapping hands, which felt to have lasted a one-full minute. Even those who were yawning and snoozing and probably did not understand what she was talking about voted in no different way from the joke about Haile Selassie’s Parliament we used to hear as kids, “Tesmamche Alehu!”
I felt defeated and immobilized on my chair, pondering whether it was I or those around me from another planet. I felt embarrassed for the participants and scared so much for the nation and how its people have become regimented and choreographed to conduct themselves by some conditioned reflexes. In this case, they reacted like Pavlov’s Dog at the snap of the fingers. I could not rationalize their behavior, and my only thought was: are they under some evil spell or hypnosis? The good thing was, I later learned that there were others, about 10-12 Eritreans, who did not stand up, but that was still out of about 900 people.
Back to that irresponsible Washington’s audience, did they have any idea that they had conducted a prejudgment in this directed verdict by the PFDJ’s commissar in favor of the plaintiff that they have sentenced the “G-15” to death, without even hearing the case of the defendant, and without holding any deliberation and without asking for the burden of proof from the plaintiff? Do they know that they can stand trial for wrongdoing in the future? Could all of them plead ignorance? Even if no one prosecutes them, do they all know they will have to live with guilt, knowing they have blood on their hands?
This generation of Eritreans is supposed to have been exposed to more knowledge than its ancestors; however, they have done something their uneducated ancestors had not done for hundreds of years – their ancestors never passed judgments without hearing the case from both the defendant and the plaintiff, because, we know, their motto was, “Zereba Hade SemiAka Aytfred.” (ዘረባ ሓደ ሰሚዕካ ኣይትፋረድ)
You know, when our ancestors uttered “Znegese Negussna, ZbereKe TseHaina,” it was a sign of lamentation, a sign of moaning, of cynicism, but the generation known for bashing the “Znegese Negussna, ZbereKe TseHaina,” expression is now screaming, “We are in good hands,” which is a sign of ignorance, a sign of voluntary enslavement.
Continued in part 10 of 24
Part 10 commemorates the disabled Tegadelti massacred by Issayas in May Habar.