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You are here: Home Articles The Eritrean Revolution and Its Child Soldiers

The Eritrean Revolution and Its Child Soldiers

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There is a lot of chatter these times, to borrow Semere Tesfay’s famous phrase, about many types of constitutions for Eritrea; particularly at the Awate.com website. It has attracted the attention of several internet writers and lively debates had then followed it, quite unlike the atmosphere that was around the Eritrean regime’s orchestrated show 15 years back. Even so, the rush to spawn some type of constitution has exposed our moral insensitivity in a big way, and the article Harmonized Constitution at the same website proves the point. This document has unabashedly proposed the infamous National Service once the regime is removed. Any endeavor to revive the notorious National Service is tantamount to repeating the nightmarish experience of the already traumatized youth. When nations and communities undergo some traumatic experience as a result of some policy, they either revoke it or temporarily shelf it until a better climate. Furthermore, the sudden jump from the culture of letting a violent military organization all the mandate it wants in the past to legalism is a treacherous one. Is it not a little bit dishonest or deceitful to get into a constitutional frenzy while at the same time frown on or disapprove any discourse about the dark stains in our history?

This type of behavior which is still manifested among some of our people will not dissuade the EPLF/PFDJ from continuing to gloat about their nonexistent virtues, what they often incessantly call tsegatat ghedli. Famous and memorable constitutions are only those which without equivocation identify tyranny in all its totality. The additional benefit from it is the less likelihood of relapsing into the same again. In light of this background, thinkers and jurists are thus advised to deliberate on what a friend called “the lived experience”, among the other equally felt pains. This article though will limit itself to a particular EPLF/PFDJ vice, a great stain in our history: its child soldier doctrine.

After the demise of the Soviet Union and with the world left with the U.S. as the only superpower, many African politicians and writers were worried about the fate of the African continent. They said, now that the rivalry has stopped between the old superpowers, bilateral development aid and military assistance that were available for many years would simply evaporate. They lamented that Africa would remain an orphan for the long haul. China was not in the picture yet.

It was not totally bleak, however. For around the same period, several armed political groups which for over a decade were fighting the old regimes of Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda won the war and achieved power to the delight of many who were weary from the ravages. The West, and particularly the Clinton administration, fell in love with these new leaders and unashamedly labeled them as the princes of the “African Renaissance.”

Generous economic and military aid ensued soon. Since then, the political honeymoon with the likes of Isaias of Eritrea, and to a lesser extent with the others, has been going downhill. But why this infatuation with these regimes in the first place, and were they really better than the Big Brother type regimes they overthrew? In many instances, they were even worse, as the Eritrean case clearly shows.

True, the Big Brother type regimes that were everywhere in the continent were autocratic, corrupt and insensitive to public grievances for a long time. A slight rumor of rebellion often provoked them to ruthlessly crush it, and very often with the help of mercenary soldiers from the West. The Congo Kinshasa under Mobutu was a particular example. Africa remained the favorite assignment for many soldiers of fortune. Lured with a lot of bounty, and with the connivance of the old colonial regimes, many soldiers of fortune helped prop up dinosaur-type regimes in Africa. Together with the embattled host regimes, these hordes raised havoc and mayhem in many nations. Their notoriety notwithstanding, some people in Europe and North America were enthralled by them. Their undeserved fame and alleged military feats got a lot of publicity, resulting in the movie hit the Wild Geese, which remained inscribed in the memory of many in the West.

In some instances, the mercenaries were also employed by the non state actor armed groups, such as the Biafra secession movement in Nigeria and the Ayanya in south Sudan. But this liaison with the mercenaries did not last long. They were not only very expensive, but very often too unruly for the Big Brother regimes. After their brief stint in the bushes and some spat with their employers, they often flew back to the metropolis with their faces covered under some shirt or jacket, desperately trying to sneak out from the airport incognito.

How about the “self-reliant” revolutions of Africa that eschewed all kinds of mercenary armies among them?

Renaissance princes with child soldiers

These dogs of War have largely remained forgotten since then to be replaced with far more horrible and long enduring violent entrepreneurs. If the dallying of the Big Brothers with the soldiers of fortune was shameful and dreadful, the practices of the emerging violent entrepreneurs were even more heinous. These violent creatures broke the taboo of employing juvenile soldiers, a practice that was largely respected by all types of civilizations a few millennia ago. In brief, these “princes” became the pioneers of this abominable practice. Their child soldier employment practice preceded the now infamous Lord Resistance Army‘s which has made the most of it.

Museveni and Laurent Kabila had a core of several thousand child soldiers in their bush years, and it was not a widely held secret. Laurent Kabila had even kept child soldiers, or Kadagos, as his body guards and was later to die tragically with the bullet fired from one of them. The rest of the princes such as Isaias of Eritrea were equally recruiting and drafting child soldiers during most of their guerrilla years. They were more secretive and sly about it, however.

The EPLF’s ideology, its populist political platform and its origin from the often opaque and insulated culture of the land may have shielded it from both the prying eyes of the curious and believers likewise. It had reputedly a female fighting force bordering thirty five percent. It was an “achievement” they frequently boasted about. What they get fiercely defensive and irate on is, however, about any assertion of the substantial number of child soldiers in their midst during the long armed struggle. The public in this case, as in many other instances, is equally culpable.

In the late 70s, and 80s, a few hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have stayed in the Sudan as the first refuge place before leaving for the West. Ask a few thousands of them if they recall the commissarios, the omnipresent pursers of the boxis in Khartoum, Sudan, who were not only cheap to hire but mostly travel without any seating accommodation. These were mostly underage laborers, and were critical to the profitable transport business. The large majority of the refugees would likely reply in the positive, and some with feelings of affection. Dare to ask them, however, about the thousands of adolescent soldiers with the guerrillas in Eritrea, some of whom were their nieces or cousins and others their classmates and neighbors, chances are you would be disappointed. Discomfort may follow the query, and memory may also get selective. They seem to have chosen to live in a world of denial.

Given the inscrutability of the regime and the amnesia of the public, what other evidences then remain. Like in the hermetic nation of North Korea, the search for any valuable information in Eritrea necessitated the recourse to abnormal methods. For close to eight years, the public was demanding the whereabouts of thousands of dissenters in Eritrea but to no avail. The regime religiously denied the existence of any politically imprisoned people or their place of incarceration. The few the state admitted keeping were only “traitorous criminals.” After years of painstaking work though, the location of the secret prison for the senior political officers of the regime was discovered with the help of a satellite. It was a happy moment for many decent citizens and human rights organizations abroad. And yet, this was only one of the country’s Gulag Archipelagos. Data on the former child soldiers both living and dead has largely remained unobtainable. When the ruling regime disappears from the scene and there is the political will, however, a major anthropological dig is recommendable. It will certainly uncover the remains of the countless dead underage soldiers, and thereby the vices of the EPLF.

“Teenagers in shorts”

Like Jesus, as the Bible recounts, Eritrean guerrilla leaders were also for the policy of “Let the children come to me.” The innocence that Jesus identified in children was for the guerrilla operatives a characteristic ideal for indoctrination, for fanaticism and, not least, for loyalty. Narrations of this type are, however, unorthodox. Foot soldiers of the Eritrean regime are nowadays quick to point out some exceptions, when the ELF and the EPLF desisted temporarily from the act of child recruitment. There were indeed occasions when they had sent back teenagers back home after telling them “to come back after feeding themselves with two or three quintals.” This is, however, not from some lofty principle about child rights. It has to do mainly with the ordinary factors of resource and logistical constraints. Both fronts harbored shelters for displaced women, children and the elderly close to their strongholds, and both maintained child soldiers for many years. They got away with it thanks to the favorable political climate of the Cold War, the sympathetic NGOs and, unfortunately, the conformity of the public. Remarkably, quick to exploit films for their propaganda work in the outside world, the armed organizations had produced many films both authentic and staged for the sympathetic public abroad. The thing is the credulous world, including Eritreans in Diaspora, was kept fascinated with the productions while completely blind to the inadvertently filmed child soldiers.

Thus, throughout the armed struggle, the front leaders did not shy away from either actively indoctrinating children and the adolescents, or forcefully drafting them. Nor, is the report about the undisclosed number of underage soldiers to the battle theater during the final phase of the rekindled war with Ethiopia a deviation. In the late 70s, according to French journalist Chris Kutschera, What happened to the demobilised Eritrean women, [which was published inThe Middle East magazine, June 1997; Jeune Afrique Ecomonomie, 15 April 1996; and Le Nouveau Quotidien, 11 March 1996] the EPLF’s army was composed of a significant percentage of “teenagers in shorts,” and also women. His report unabashedly glorified these child soldiers for their heroic, and gallant fighting spirit in the Denden area of the Sahel, subsequent to the critical period of EPLF’s retreat in the late 70s. For our purpose, this report was very remarkable.

In his quest to find the status of the women fighters in post independence Eritrea, the reporter wrote about six former tegadelti in Asmera, among whom five were directly interviewed. All six of them joined the EPLF before the age of eighteen! The data about the age from this sample of women fighters clearly supports the assertion that child soldiers were a common presence. Kutschera, like many others, completely missed the abhorrence of deploying children in a war setting for any purpose, let alone for active battle duties. Kutchera’s commentary may be forgivable but the narration of Alemseged Tesfai, who is recognized by some as the modern Eritrean historian, is completely unpardonable.

Among Alemseged’s several books is Kilte Qene ab Dife’at, which was published in Tigrigna about 15 years back. The author, described battle events that followed the rapid counter offensives of the Derg, which after recapturing the towns of Tessenei, and Barentu, was threatening the long held guerrilla base in the Sahel. Alemseged, who was serving in some obscure position in the infamous Bet Temhirti Sewra, (a warehouse for child soldiers) and a few squads had to comply with a hasty decision to defend the degen or guerrilla headquarter under siege. The then aging historian, the story goes, had not only to duck from the murderous bullets of the enemy but also to negotiate the equally treacherous mountain paths. The small contingent then sustained some dead and wounded among its adolescent fighters.

We hear the author admiring their bravery, commitment to the “political, and national cause”, and with equal measures lamenting about the sacrifice of their precious youth years. It gets poignant and important for the purpose of our story when having met him some of his former child soldiers say this to the elder guerrilla: embear dekeqa ketqeber mesie’ ka (so you have come to bury your children.) For all intent and purpose, this small part of the dialogue is more telling about the moral emptiness of the EPLF. The elder rebel chronicler, loyal that he is to his organization, chooses a bright brush to depict this tragic and mournful episode, and stealthily puts it down as if it was a singular phenomenon.

And yet, he still refused to describe them as child soldiers. In the above heart rending quote it was the children, and not him, who were the historians. It seems the child fighters were directly speaking to us. The employment, maiming and death of child soldiers was not anecdotal. Maybe not proportional but close to the size of the female fighters, the EPLF was also composed of underage soldiers. It is quite possible that a sizable number of the minors may have died at various other locations in the theater of war that endured for many years.

A monument to soldiers with small sandals

When the regime falls, and if there is a conducive atmosphere for a frank rendering of the Ghedli’s history, a major project to both survey and dig the numerous battle sites may uncover the grand secret of the liberation era. Unlike the thousands of the Terra Cotta Army of the Chinese Emperor who were adult soldiers in battle formations, the child soldiers to be disinterred and identified by many forensics may likely be discovered in myriad, separate and hastily made graves across the Eritrean landscape. The plastic sandals have famously helped the EPLF wage war on the cheap. Its child soldiers had equally served the purpose.

The PFDJ dedicated a monument in Asmera to the bizarre plastic sandals but has understandably deprived the nation of a monument for child soldiers. But even within this bizarre world, there are no proportionately smaller sandals to be seen representing the martyred child soldiers. It is inconceivable in Eritrea‘s political landscape to tarnish the “sacrosanct” image of ghedli. Anything that attempts to do that has to be denied, proscribed and buried under for ever, and at any cost.

Ghedli, and the nation of Eritrea, has earned the reputation of mobilizing its citizenry: the teenagers, the women and the old in its long and “revered wars.” .In order to do this, a favorable climate was also present. P. W. Singer, the expert on child soldiers stated this once: the large pool of pauperized and orphaned children, the appearance of ruthless and violent political actors who feel no scruples employing child soldiers, and the rapid proliferation of small arms, and particularly the Russian automatic gun, were the enabling factors behind the rise of the new violent organizations. As a prototype, the ghedli of Eritrea neatly fits his structure.

Many writers have lambasted both the PFDJ’s and ghedli’s self reliance claim in the past. The fact is, though not substantial, outside material support was available, while predatory practices on the rural populace complimented the gap. The hollow claims and boasting of the regime got the disproportionate attention of the writers, however; all at the expense of another atrocious policy. This policy is none other than the “self reliance,” a practice that permitted the fronts to prey on the vulnerable sectors of the population such as underage and women. The fronts easily substituted them for the expensive and troublesome mercenaries of the bygone era. They were indeed enterprising, though for evil purposes.

The age of Kalashnikov

The search for appropriate technologies for the multitude of people in the Third World, who have been suffering from low agricultural productivity and its resulting famine has been dismal. And the exhibits for its failure, particularly in Africa, are everywhere. The rusting tractors and other faming implements from the industrial world from the short lived Green Revolution are good evidence. Conversely, the infamous Kalashnikov, its knockoffs and other small arms have been dirty cheap, efficient and lethal for all types of African regimes and other non state actors.

The AK-47 is small, light and easy to maintain. A friend once saw the collapsible type on the shoulders of a Dinka rebel in Eritrea and remarked its toy like appearance in his hands. Hand it instead to child soldiers or women, and it makes them look as regular soldiers. The heavy and maintenance prone guns of even the Second World War, which required the muscles of mature and the strong, were increasingly discarded and replaced by the AK-47. It got so much popular that some guerrilla groups adopted it in their emblems, and a few have even built a monument for it. In Eritrea, there is still a small replica of the gun around the museum building for the armed struggle in Asmera.

Music and war dances

People often complain and are disgusted with the culture of guayla and the PFDJ organized festivals that often crowd important social obligations and leisure time of Eritreans in the Diaspora. These same people forget that it was largely the child soldiers of the fronts, and particularly those in the EPLF, who played the indispensable role in the propaganda and indoctrination campaigns. Equally, those who are die-hard supporters of the regime often pride themselves for the “cultural revival” allegedly made by the EPLF. They forget that the new culture is not different from the often disparaged kerereto or war chants of traditional Ethiopian warriors, and ominously overlook the immorality of recruiting and employing child soldiers. This conformist behavior has since then enabled the current regime to do whatever it likes with tens of thousands of children in the nation.

The duty of these child fighters in the ghedli was neither less benign nor an infrequent case as those Little Drummer Boys who accompanied troops of Western armies during the 19 century. They were in fact instrumental in the forceful drafting campaigns often carried in the rural areas. For instance, EPLF troops would encircle a village, pressure and entice the youth to come to the gualyas sponsored by them. The crowd would then either be invited or intimidated to get into the middle of the gualya circle, which the military organization then interprets as volunteering to join their army. For the ELF, the popular singer Bereket Mengisteab served a similar role in some regions of Hamasien and Serae. If drugs had a major presence of the rebel armies of Sierra Leone and Liberia and were equally harmful, the cultural troupes of ghedli did not play a much less hallucinatory or intoxicating role among the multitude of teghadelti.

More ominously, the organization had also utilized them in its notorious Halewa Sewra as both torturers and executioners. As a result, many older fighters and the public frequently dreaded the sight and fate of falling into the hands of them. It earned them notoriety in Keren and Dekemhare towns. What this implies is that the phenomenon of children as both victims and victimizers, which had occurred in other tragic places, had also manifested in ghedli times. The manjus were not cherubic looking innocents as put forward by our some fellow countrymen; they were, in many instances, the torturers and executioners of the EPLF. In other words, they were not whiling out their time exclusively strumming kirars but were also efficient killers.

Shepherd soldiers

Many Autumns ago, this writer penned an article at Awate.com under the title of Foto: Shepherd, Hostage, and Martyr. Though cognizant of the magnitude of the presence of child soldiers in the EPLF, the writer deliberately narrowed the brief essay. In other words, it dwelt on the humane message and the draconian measure taken by the armed group. A brief profile about him may this time be useful. Foto had a brother, who after briefly joining the Isaias group defected with his gun to the authorities. The Isaias group in the Eastern escarpment reacted by confiscating the goats of the family and kidnapping the shepherd brother; one the first child soldiers in the EPLF. The boy grew up to be a fighter and later died in one of the numerous battles. Foto was a real person but he had his counterpart in the Tigrigna novel Hanti S’eat by Michael Berhe. In extremely repressed and closed communities, one occasionally finds valuable information in some obscure corners.

In Hanti S’eat a shepherd, after years of dreaming about them “volunteers”, joins the EPLF, goes the story. For the boy, the most precious object in the EPLF army is the wristwatch, usually seen only in the hands of party and military cadres among the allegedly egalitarian army. His obsession with the wristwatch soon leads into trouble when he obtains one from a soldier of the enemy. His punishment, according to the tegadalay novelist, was only a criticism, a much easy one than what the military organization is known for. Unlike Foto, however, the child fighter in the novel survived the war, but nonetheless dies from unknown causes on his way to his village. In both cases, fate led two innocent shepherds into the custody of the callous EPLF. Are these two child fighters singularly victims or “martyrs” as the regime and its followers call it? Or does one have to read Chomsky to be able to tell?

Ghedli’s total war

Experts on child soldiers such as P. W. Singer and a few others underline that war on the cheap was instrumental in the appearance of non state actors in violent conflicts. Unlike status quo soldiers who are provided with many years of military training and who expect remuneration, armed entrepreneurs such as the EPLF and its like found it convenient to use vulnerable groups such as children and women to employ in their army, often for long periods and without any compensation. To state that the percentage of both the children and the women was more than twenty percent each may not be an overstatement. For a clue to their beliefs on a version of the new type of total war, slogans such as “our struggle is protracted” and “our victory is certain” would suffice.

Throughout its history, adolescent or underage soldiers were present in the EPLF. In the first part of the decade, the organization loved to call them manjus, but later found it convenient to simply drop it when large numbers either “volunteered” or were forcibly conscripted. For illustration, the sizable number of the cohort popularly known as Tsibah, who joined the front during the last moment of the conflict, are believed to be teenagers. Throughout its “sacred” resistance, it also relied on a sizable percentage of its army who spent their many years of adult and procreative age as almost eunuchs. Except for the leading cadres, and a few lucky others, let alone steady even intermittent relationship with the opposite sex was absent. The male fighters were the most deprived group.

The eunuchs of the emperors of China or of the Sultans of the Ottoman empire were largely restricted to the court and administrative sectors; the eunuch-like soldiers of the ELF and EPLF, however, were typical foot soldiers who took the brunt of the hardships and casualties of the long war. If the child soldiers were denied of their family environment, the adults fighters were likewise denied or discouraged from building their own. This regimen enabled ghedli to maintain an army not only loyal for the most part but also very cheap to keep. For additional witness, avail yourself with the brief material about soldiers in their teens established by Isaias in the article How About Then? by Aklilu Zere.

Since its establishment, the Lord Resistance Army had a cabal of only 200 adults to its 14,000 armed followers, Singer once remarked in his book Child Soldiers. The EPLF’s army did not achieve that notoriety, but had without doubt a significant percentage of child soldiers. If this would solace the conscience of its supporters, then it is still an indication of the moral abyss they have sunk in. Whereas Joseph Kony’s army disproportionably depended on one group of cheap resources, that is, the child soldiers, the EPLF had a diverse access to a sizable percentage of child soldiers, female fighters, and a substantial number of both male, and female combatants deprived of any opportunity to raise a family. They had, in essence, an army both inexhaustible and on the cheap.

The concept of the “total war“, as applied by the fronts is distinctly different from the one Clausewitz wrote. It is not access to industrial might, which is largely absent, but the propensity to go after all the hapless and vulnerable groups and the absence of any moral restraint in the conduct of war.

Child soldiering from Sahel to Sawa

The family has been under threat, cry many of our fellows these days, but not many of them are willing to look into its origins; that is, the practices of ghedli. No institution except its armed organization was deemed sacred for the EPLF during its years of armed duels against the successive regimes of Ethiopia. If it has not hesitated to induct teenagers from the phony Bet Temherti Sewra in its wombs, there was nothing to prevent it from violently snatching the same demographic group from countless villages and hamlets across the Eritrean landscape. The regime’s top lackeys such as Askalu Menkerios were purposely presented to foreign visitors and journalists in order to cover their flagrant habits of inducting children in battle fields. They were there to divert the attentions of the curious and insightful from exposing their ongoing child soldiers doctrine.

This ingrained practice was a precursor to Sawa, the glamorized boot camp for adolescents and other unfortunates, which was established in the western lowlands.

This same infamous child camp has been the bane and the terror for most of the adolescents, and particularly the countless female inductees. When the regime decreed that all high school students should complete their studies in the camp, it was for evil purposes. The regime famous for its white elephant projects had solid experience in army recruitment. Like an abattoir often built close to its supply location, the tens of thousands of high school students in Eritrea were situated in order to feed the gargantuan appetite for both soldiers and slave laborers.

Hence, an agitation about constitution without the strong will to address the harrowing and authentic experiences in our nation is without doubt an impotent exercise. Why the brouhahas for the rule of law when at the same time shying away from looking into the not too distant mirror of our ghedli’s past? This squeamish behavior of the public serves the incessant and false claims of the “virtues of the ghedli”, or tsegatat of mieda as the regime’s cabals often put it. Here is a lesson: in colleges, Law courses are often crammed with case studies. The concept of precedence is drilled into the student for a reason. It serves as well to examine what came before if we are to understand the present and chart the future.

   

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