This is a speech delivered at the Third Annual Ethiopian & Eritrean Friendship Conference in San Jose, California, on Saturday March 26, 2011.
As a board member of the Ethiopian Eritrean Friendship Forum (EEFF), I would like to extend my personal welcome and appreciation to our distinguished speakers, panelists, and to all of you who have gathered here honoring our invitation. I also thank the Board for giving me the opportunity to share my views on the subject with you.
The theme of this year’s Conference - Healing past wounds and building Strong People-to-People Relationships - is a clear expression of the organization’s mission. Our aim is to create a conducive atmosphere, where peace-loving Eritreans and Ethiopians can congregate and discuss openly on any subject that would help improve relations between our peoples. I do not need to stress the fact that all of this has to be done without animosity or bitterness but, with a spirit of mutual respect and, whenever possible, brotherly love.
Again as a member of this Forum, let me from the outset confirm to all concerned that EEFF is a Non-Political repeat Non-Political, Non Ethnic, Non Religious and purely independent organization. It has no hidden agenda. Our aspirations are simple and unassuming but nevertheless sacred and noble. We also understand the sensitivities, peer pressure, and fears prevalent in our Diaspora communities regarding meetings between Ethiopians and Eritreans for open discussion on matters of common interest.
We are thus grateful to the good people of San Jose in general and in particular the founders of EEFF. In starting the Forum, these gentlemen were far-sighted and daring enough to have broken the shackles of the non-mixing taboo that existed between the two communities. This is truly a noble feat and I salute all of them.
At this juncture I would also like to recognize one of the founding members my good friend the late Ato Fecadu Lijam who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. Fecadu, for those who do not know him was an Eritrean and a prominent resident of San Jose. He was a simple and immensely popular gentleman. Fecadu was a friend to all be they Eritrean, Ethiopian, young or old. Fecadu wore so many hats in his work life in the Bay Area. His last job was as a DMV officer. In all his jobs he was ready to help anybody who approached him, without prejudice. He was particularly helpful to new immigrants in the Bay area and was always available to them to facilitate and support their individual problems and needs. Fecadu was one of the first Eritreans to be inducted into this Forum when many Eritreans were timid to join it openly. We at the Forum are proud to say that he was one of us and we will continue with the mission he helped found.
There is an appropriate saying in Tigrinya: “Kuslu zHabiE fewsu yiHabiE”, which means that whoever hides his wound will not be able to get treatment.
At this stage though I do not think that it is wise to dwell on the past and try to detail on how the wound was created. For in trying to diagnose the wound, it is possible that good people will have different perspectives and may even quarrel on what, how, and why things happened the way they did. They may definitely disagree on the magnitude of hurt such interactions caused on the different peoples of the region. This takes place because we rely mostly on perceptions and not on facts. This is because we do not have a good record of the facts official or not.
In the long run, I believe, hiding or sweeping our countries’ past experiences under rugs is in no way beneficial to the future of our children. The naked truth has to be identified and at the same time told without distortion. No doubt knowing the unbiased truth would be valuable for healing the wounds and it will also serve as a learning process so that the future generations will not repeat the same mistakes.
Albert Einstein said.... Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!!
I believe I have the answer as to who could help us correct this factual information deficiency. It is well known that Ethiopia and Eritrea have so many scholars, professionals, diplomats, historians, lawyers trained and practicing in a multitude of fields and who assumed high ranks in international organizations and corporations. Sadly though, many of these privileged individuals have been largely disengaged in the affairs of the countries which had initially invested their meager resources in their education and training. I challenge that these same individuals now, even in their retirement age, to consider repaying their debt and help their mother countries move in the right direction. Who else do you think could be better than a panel formed by Ethiopian and Eritrean volunteers from such a distinguished group.
An example of the actions that would help this cause could be in the form of these folks setting up Truth & Fact Finding, Peace &Reconciliation committees. They could also help in research and documentation where information - based on facts rather than fiction and bias about the events and experiences of our countries over the last 60 years. Such data needs to be collected, analyzed and published for public use. If any of them could indicate an interest and contact our Forum, I have no doubt that EEFF would extend its welcome and full support
Meanwhile, until such things are done the overall picture we have in our minds is that many battles were fought and sadly lots of atrocities were committed. The damage and destruction was too huge and far reaching. It is also to be expected that the psychological and physical wounds especially of those directly affected may still be fresh in their bodies and minds. For these people, it may not yet be easy to let go. I know it is easier said than done. But, because no one has the power to change the past, I see there is no better alternative than to try to forgive. It is only if we forgive that we can also have space and time to dream of a better and brighter future if not for us, at least for our heirs. In fact as President Obama said in his Cairo speech in June 2009 quote ” If we choose to be bound by the past we’ll never be able to go forward” end quote.
Mahatma Gandhi said
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
Some others say “the wise forgive but do not forget”
This means that we have the ability to get out of the web of resentment and hate. Which means that to hate or to forgive, ultimately it is our personal choice. To forgive and, if possible, to extend the hand of friendship is a sign of an individual’s wisdom and strength. It is never a sign of weakness. Furthermore, as geography cannot be changed, Ethiopians and Eritreans will always remain neighbors. Though more than that the peoples of the two countries and the region have unique relationships between them. These special relationships have originated from their common heritage and they have been molded and formed over the course of this region’s history. Our forefathers accepted and highly valued this common ancestry. Thus, the role of EEFF and others like us is to empower the citizens of our nations who already appreciate the value of their affiliation, and whenever possible to help them to rebuild and upgrade it.
Nowadays it is obvious that more and more self respecting Ethiopians and Eritreans have not accepted the no-war no-peace situation that exists between our countries as being either natural or tenable. In any case, even if our governments are foolish or obstinate enough not to be on talking or peaceful terms, does it mean that Ato Abebe Gelagay over there, a proud Ethiopian, and I, Berhane a proud Eritrean, cannot be friends because our governments are not? We know that we have more things in common than what some misguided hate mongers and chauvinists from both sides disseminate or would like us to believe. More citizens of the two countries are now coming to appreciate that to be an Eritrean and be good friends with Ethiopia or Ethiopians and vice versa is not mutually exclusive.
SIGNS OF HOPE - YOUTH
In fact, in keeping with my last point, it is important that we take note of some of the developments that have been taking place between the peoples of the two countries in the last few years.
1-Thousands of young Eritreans are crossing the border into Ethiopia as refugees.
2- Many Eritrean asylum seekers in Europe and North Africa faced with deportation orders request to be sent to Ethiopia instead to Eritrea. And fortunately for them the Ethiopian governments receives them without much difficulty.
Of course this phenomenon is taking place primarily out of forced necessity and in search of sanctuary. Naturally, there are many downsides to any nation’s youth becoming refugees at such an early life. Wasting their lives away in holding camps, instead of becoming productive citizens and helping develop their own nation is a tragedy. The fact that contrary to the daily vilification by the official media of both countries these young refugees do not consider Ethiopia as an enemy is something unusual but encouraging. What is more important to them is that Ethiopia has proven to be a reliable sanctuary in their critical hour of need.
3- The fact that government and people of Ethiopia have been sympathetic and generous enough in accepting and accommodating the refugees is praiseworthy. In some cases, allowing them to study in Ethiopian Colleges and Universities is also a very good indication of the Ethiopians’ capacity for forgiveness. Leaving politics aside and considering only on humanitarian grounds, as an Eritrean I feel the way Ethiopia treats my compatriot refugees, is indeed a commendable act. I also believe it augurs well for healing the wound and laying a positive ground for building a future of peaceful coexistence.
4- Many of the ‘Expelled’ Eritreans are going back to Ethiopia and that in some instances properties that were confiscated by the Ethiopian government during the Border war of 1998/2000 have been returned to their original owners. At the same time, it is encouraging to observe the yearly increasing number of Eritreans visiting Ethiopia as tourists or to see their families.
6-Again leaving politics aside, many of the Eritrean Opposition parties have their head offices or branch offices in Addis and do regularly use Addis as their venue for their congresses and meetings. I tend to believe that this too could contribute to a better understanding between our two countries whether this parties form a government or remain as regular opposition party inside a future democratic Eritrea.
7-Last but not least, we hear that many groups are trying to form Forums like ours in many different cities in the US and Europe. This is also a potentially a very positive development.
These changes seen between our countries support our premise that, given the chance, our people - especially the younger generation which makes 50/60% of the population - look to peace and friendship rather than to hate, revenge, and conflict. Eritreans and Ethiopians are exhausted with conflicts and want to live in peace, for themselves and their children. They want to lead decent lives, to have adequate food and shelter, and for justice to reign in their midst. Those of us in Diaspora, Ethiopians and Eritreans alike, who escaped from wars and devastation in search of peace and opportunity are now enjoying with our families the fruits of peace and progress in our adopted countries. Thus, unless one is a downright hypocrite, one should never advocate or support any action that is inimical to peace and reconciliation between our peoples.
Therefore, our vision for our people should focus on how we can quickly clean the debris of the past. We need to do our level best to help and empower the youth of our countries to prepare themselves to compete in the new global environment.
Thomas Friedman, in his book, “The World is Flat”, states that “ the world is flat and it is getting flatter”. As members of the global society we are being left far behind. The countries in the Horn in general, and Ethiopia and Eritrea in particular, are nowhere to be seen in the competition map of the world. Sadly, things are getting worse by the day, and we are firmly positioned in the poverty map. Some 40 years ago India and China were not far from us on the list. We know now where we all are. Friedman says that if the world were like a big city, the third world countries in Africa would be located in the dark corners of the slums. Do we really want our countries to be bogged down in those notorious corners forever? The way I see it, amongst the main causes of underdevelopment for our region are the man-made political and administrative deficiencies characterized by the constant internal and external conflicts, violence, lawlessness, lack of peace, lack of justice, and an utter disregard for human rights. Thus, peace, reconciliation, and friendship between and within the nations will definitely go a long way to mitigate the developmental retrogression of our countries.
NO COLLUSION OF TIGRINYA SPEAKERS
In line with this and with a view to lowering the temperature of tension and possible conflict I have a special message to share with my Ethiopian and indeed my Eritrean friends. I send this message as an Eritrean and as a Tigrinya speaker. For this I am going to seek the help and the wisdom of a great man who happens to be sitting here on this dais – Mr. Yosuf Yassin. Last year Mr.Yosuf was invited to speak at the Second Anniversary Conference of this Forum but, as he was unable to attend in person his paper was read by one of the Board members. I heard it and I was impressed by his message. It fits well into my thinking and belief. Without much ado allow me to read only the conclusion in his own words:
የኢትዮጵያና የኤርትራ ሕዝቦች ባንድ ሃገር ልጅነትም ሆነ በሁለት ሃገር ልጅነት ጎን ለጎን መኖር የጂዮግራፊና የታሪክ ግዴታቸው ነው። የሁለቱ ሃገር ሕዝቦች እነዚህ ሁለት አንድ ቋንቋ ተናጋሪ ሕዝብ ሳይነጋገርና ሳይቀራረብ ይቀራረባሉ ብሎ ማሰቡ የዋህነት ነው። እንዲያውም በእኔ እምነት ለሁለም መቀራረብ ጥረቶች ቅድመ ግዴታ ነው፤ የእነሱ መቀራረብ። አንድ የትግርኛ አባባል አለ ።እንቁጩን አላውቀውም እንጂ። የተጣሉ የአጎት ልጆች ወንድማማች ወላጆቻቸው ሳይነጋገሩ ልጆቻቸው ይነጋገራሉ፤ ይደራረሳሉ ብሎ ማሰብ ዘበት ነው የሚል ። ትክክል ነው። ባንዳንድ ሃገር ወዳዶች ለኢትዮጵያ ሕልውናና አንድነት ጠንቅ ሆኖ የሚታያቸውን የሁለት ትግርኛ ተናጋሪዎች እንደገና እንዲወዳጁና እንዲቀራረቡ ማድረግ ጸረ-ኢትዮጵያ ቃል ኪዳናቸውን እንዲያድሱ መርዳት የሚመስላቸው የፖልቲካ የወሃን አይታጡም። አሻግሮ መመልክት የተሳናቸው ናቸው። በተቃራኒው መቀራረቡና መነጋገሩ ወሳኝነት ያለው እርምጃ ነው፤ የሁለቱን ሃገሮች ሕዝቦች ለማቀራረብ። ዛሬ የዚህ የተሰበስብንበት ዋናው ዓላማ።”
It is common knowledge that our people in general are not worried or concerned by the peaceful and brotherly co-existence of the other ethnicities within our region. For instance, the Afars, and the Sahos, straddle both Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Afars also do with Djibouti and the Beni-Amers are in both Eritrea and The Sudan. Similarly we must explain to our people that they should not fear any potential good relationships between the Tigrinya speaking peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Indeed, as Mr.Yosuf has clearly explained in his paper, it is only when peace between these two brotherly peoples is secured that an enduring peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia can be assured. For those Eritreans and Ethiopians who want to understand the gravity of this matter, I strongly suggest they read Mr. Yossuf’s essay in its entirety. I have enough copies for you to take.
Finally, for every Eritrean and Ethiopian who finds forgiveness to be too hard to practice, I would like to recommend and read this outstanding book of a Palestinian, Dr.Izzeldin Abuelaish. The book’s title is “I Shall Not Hate”. It narrates the experiences of a medical doctor who practiced his profession in Israel proper and in Gaza, where he lived with his extended family. Already, Dr. Abueleish had a harrowing story to tell about his life experiences under the Israeli occupation. To add insult to injury, during the Gaza siege of January 2009 and in a bombardment of his apartment building, in front of his eyes his three teenage daughters and his niece were killed, another daughter and three members of his family were seriously wounded. It was a total carnage. Yet, it did not take him long after burying his daughters to choose “not to hate”, and to keep on working in earnest for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. This man is the embodiment of wisdom and spiritual strength. He is the definition of a hero! I do not wish any human to suffer the way he did but I recommend you to read his book and you will gain a lot of insight for human potential from his experience.
We at EEFF have chosen forgiveness and friendship in place of hate and revenge. Together we want to make a difference by building bridges between the peoples of the two countries. We would like as many Eritrean and Ethiopian to join us in this endeavor. Enough to hate! Every good-spirited person can help. Every little help is important in building the bridge leading towards peace and development for our youth and our countries..
Won’t you declare today that you shall not hate. Please do so.
Thank you for listening