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The Year in Review

By Dr. Russom Mesfun

We will always remember Lampedusa as the turning point in post-independence Eritrea, a human catastrophe and a wake-up even to the most dedicated supporters of the PFDJ. It feels like it has been a long time since we’ve heard good news, having acclimated ourselves to hear the worst. Before fully recuperating from one tragedy, our people are bludgeoned with yet another one.

Our youth have been the most victimized. These new generation of Eritreans know full well that life might not get better for those who manage to escape. They also know that, in many instances, it might even get worse. They reason, however, that it cannot be worse than being under one of the most repressive governments on earth.

Fortunate are those that can afford to pay their way out through a well-connected trafficker at high levels. But the real desperados are those that are willing to gamble for anything to leave the country. Should they be lucky enough to survive the shoot-to-kill policy, they would still have to embark on yet another treacherous journey, a deadly passage through a no-man’s land where organ harvesters run wild. Oftentimes, it is a choice between two evils: your organ or your life. It would be too painful to discuss the plight of the Eritrean women, as they have horrific tales that they wouldn’t dare repeat even to themselves.

Indeed, it’s been one tragedy after another. While most of the world was getting ready for the New Year, Eritreans received yet another confirmation that their country is run by warlords within a one-man dictatorship.  In a shocking development, a former fighter who had arranged for a trafficker to transport his three daughters was informed that all three were dead. But the truth was much more complicated. The father--who happens to be handicapped due to injuries in the liberation war--had scoured the entire area to locate his girls. Only when he could not find them did he decide to seek assistance.

If you are a warlord, you can smell an opportunity to make a buck a mile away. Here was a distraught father who could easily be milked for money in exchange for his three teens. Yes, employees of the Eritrean government asked a former fighter to pay up in exchange for the safe return of his daughters. If only he was lucky. No sooner had he paid the money than he was informed that the kids that he kissed goodbye in September had died along with ten others, their bodies decayed beyond recognition.

Needless to say, the three girls and the ten other youth were already dead when the father was asked to pay up. Since Eritrea is divided into several fiefdoms, one warlord does not necessary know what the other is doing.

Eritrea’s government owned TV did not bother to comfort a community in grief. No front cover story in the paper, nor any reports from the scene of the brutal massacre. There was not even a make-believe press conference to express indignation and call for an investigation to reassure the public. That most of the dead youth belonged to former fighters or senior ranking officers did not matter one bit.  

Eritrea attained its independence after a bloody 30-year war costing the lives of more than 100,000 brave men and women, with tens of thousands injured. Most of us are part of the half-million refugees who left the country during the war. Yet we have in the current regime an outlaw of a system that is draining the nation of its people, the very people it needs to recover from a series of wars and a revolting rule that the regime perpetrated on our nation. When not declaring wars, it is terrorizing the very people that ululated when he showed up in the beloved city of Asmara, a city that has become symbol of desperation, darkness and decay. After all the sacrifice in blood and broken limbs, never have Eritreans been more willing to leave home.

Which explains why former fighters are choosing to live abroad. Although we have suspected all along that some officials were sending their immediate family members through the borders, this would be the first time more than a dozen kids of current or former PFDJ had attempted to leave at the same time. It should be no surprise that even senior members of the regime have lost confidence. Today, we received word that one of the sixteen kids who attempted to escape from Eritrea was the son of a PFDJ general. We have not received confirmation whether the youth is one of the three survivors or the thirteen killed.

While the heartbreaking deaths was still fresh in our minds, yet another tragedy struck the besieged Eritrean people. This time it was at the refugee camp in Shagarab. The image we have is of drowning from overcrowded rickety boats, bloated dead bodies in the seas; scared Eritreans being chased and kidnapped, injured and harassed, confiscated of personal property and every shred of dignity. Let word go forth to the murderous thugs of the desert that the Eritrean people will seek justice--come hell or high water.

In 2014 Eritreans left their country at record levels. Europe saw a three-fold increase in the number of asylum seekers in the first ten months of the year. With thousands seeking shelter in the Sudan, almost 6,000 others crossed into Ethiopia in the month of October alone, most fleeing the much dreaded national service.

Here at Face The Erespora, an interview with a remarkable seventeen-year-old, Meaza Petros Solomon touched our hearts. Without a faint of anger or bitterness, she recounted a childhood stolen by the PFDJ which has deprived her of the love and affectation of her mother and father. She is the first Eritrean to forgive a president who continues to incarcerate them, even as we speak.

We also heard from two other youth, Vanessa Berhe and Veronica Almedom. Both taught us that love of country could be infectious not just in your immediate surroundings but across a wider spectrum.

Arhe Hamednaca, an Eritrean-Swedish MP was a gracious guest. It seems that in the new Sweden, kindness, service to community and a keen ability to get acclimated to a new culture could earn you a senior government position on consecutive elections. While hate-filled supporters of the PFDJ shouted from the sidelines, and even attempted to sabotage his campaign, Arhe run all the way to the championship, making history as the first and only Eritrean refugee to elevate himself to top levels of government.

Sadly, the year also saw the departure of a much beloved grandfather, Dr. Tewolde Tesfamariam, fondly known as Wedi Vaccaro, a man who knew that he had limited time on his hands and was going to use it wisely. By the time we called him for an interview, he was on his deathbed. Imperfect as he was, he earned a soft spot in Eritrean hearts. We will always cherish him because before he bade us farewell, he said he was sorry, a forbidden word that none of the current or past leaders have had not the courage to say. Thank you, Dr. Tewolde Tesfamariam, May you rest in peace.

Omar Jabir, who also departed recently, is another Eritrean hero who is known for his lengthy advocacy for Eritrea's democratic cause. Whether he was a student at the University of Khartoum, a leader in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) or an opposition leader in Australia, he tirelessly fought for justice for all Eritreans. May you rest in peace.

The interview that generated much discussion was the appearance of Ambassador Andebrhan Weldegiorgis, a man who spent decades in service of country in a remarkable background that includes brief stints as president of the University of Asmara and governor of the National Bank of Eritrea. His assertions that President Isaias Afwerki was responsible for most of the nation’s ills had listeners responding that he, too, was party to the dysfunction and that he should have apologized.

Face The Erespora has a different perspective. The Ambassador’s greatest failure was the same paralysis that afflicts all current and former chiefs of the PFDJ. As Isaias Afwerki continued to run roughshod over the entire establishment, everyone seemed to accept his fate, failing to fight back even when being physically stricken by the president.

As a veteran fighter and one of the most educated, his country expected more from the Ambassador, who in a rare admission, told us: “[I] do not consider myself a leader.” That was exactly the root of the problem: who, Mr. Ambassador, should have shown leadership when a domineering know-it-all was wreaking havoc over the fate of a liberation movement and, subsequently, a sovereign nation?

Who but a man of such sterling credentials should have shown leadership when Eritrean's unsuspecting youth were being imprisoned and murdered on a binge of homicide that seemingly went on and on, emptying the nation and perhaps the continent of gifted leaders who could have spared us the wars and the mayhem, the Lampedusas and the endless stream of refugees? Like his colleagues, Ambassador Anderbrhan failed a country that desperately wished he considered himself a leader.

Still, it would not be fair to heap the blame on the Ambassador alone. We have yet to hear from the rest of the ex-PFDJ crowd that has either stayed silent or melted away out of fear of the regime. A note of thanks is in order to the courageous few who dared tell the machinations of the horror show.

The noose is tightening around the neck of the PFDJ. The establishment of an independent investigation into human rights violations with unprecedented speed is indicative of the growing awareness of the international community and a huge step that must be scaring the bejesus out of the president and his acolytes. When all is said and done, Eritreans should not be surprised that the Isaias regime has engaged in egregious, willful and systemic crimes against Eritreans.

At times, it seemed as if the  government was cornered on all sides. In a serious indictment of the regime, four Eritrean Catholic bishops decried the current social, political and economic crisis, cataloguing their deep concerns in a 38-page letter aimed to coincide with the nations 23rd independence anniversary.

Titled "Where is Your Brother," the letter painstakingly outlined the  unbearable and oppressive living conditions that are forcing the youth to abandon the country, placing themselves at great risk in quest of peace, freedom and justice.

In other developments, three Eritrean nationals sued Nevsun, a Canada Based firm, for alleged human rights violations including cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Eritreans at its BISHA mines. During the second half of the year, the Swedish government asked a PFDJ diplomat to leave within 48 hours. Recently, 41 British MPs called for an end to forced labor in Eritrea. And in what must have caused considerable consternation in PFDJ land, the UN decided to continue the sanctions indefinitely.

On this side of the political arena, several civic organizations and community groups came into existence in cities and towns. Eritreans kept hope alive by using the Internet to connect with each other, deftly using Facebook, Twitter, Paltalk and Skype.

With a new energy and gusto, Eritreans from Boston to the Bay Area to Seattle to New York on to European and Canadian capitals went on the offensive. To the dejected supporters of the PFDJ, it was the year to run and hide for cover.

But the greatest hope that was injected into our veins was the confident voices of Arbi Harnet. While many ex-PFDJ members cowered in fear thousands of miles away, we heard from a gutsy bunch of fighters from the belly of the beast. With their eyes on the prize, they did not know what to make of Eritreans in the diaspora whose festivals and dances help create a false image of popular support to domestic audiences.

And now it is Ambassador Girma Asmerom’s turn, an envoy who is at his best when he looks at the camera and asks you to believe him instead of your own eyes. That’s what happened when he was recently asked why all the youth were fleeing in the tens of thousands. It is a fact that conscription is the greatest cause of youth hemorrhaging from Eritrea. But if you are representing the current system, it is your duty to insult and to lecture, to patronize and to misinform.

Eritreans have seen many a times the president himself engaged in interviews that no one should endure. Girma Asmerom has learned from the best. Indeed, encounters between the PFDJ and foreign reporters are so embarrassing that it is easy to wish that we were represented by the reporters instead of the rude guests. We should not despair. Once they’re out of the way, we will get leaders who will concern themselves with the welfare of our citizens.

Which brings us to the one-man show in our country. Eritrea’s self-appointed president lectured us in glib language for two hours. The only thing people wanted to hear was about when he was planning to leave power. Whatever happened to that constitution thing, that contract between the leaders and the people? To the most important question, he was the most dismissive. Though in a rare admission, he said that the constitution was “dead.” He did not really say who killed it, but he didn’t have to. We have a pretty good idea who did.

Which is why, ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult subject to breach. Please allow me to convey a special message to President Isaias Afwerki.

Mr. President, as we all know – and you alluded to this in your interview – that over the last few years, we saw several peoples rise against oppression, from Tunisia to Yemen to Egypt. Even the land of your best friend, Muammar Gaddafi was not spared. You do recall that he had told the world that his people loved him. Of course, we now know that that was not the true. In other words, the late Libyan leader lied to his own people, a people that we all saw devour their own leader in one of the most barbaric and shocking episodes in recent political history.

Over the last few years, we Eritreans have learned more about you than at any time since you joined the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1966. As you well know, many of your comrades are still in hiding or have chosen to remain silent. At least one of them lives in the West under an assumed name. Still, a few brave souls have shared with us horror stories.

All the leaders and former fighters we have heard from are men and women who, like you, joined the struggle to help liberate their country. Upon leaving a nation they helped create, all are now living as far away from you and your regime as possible. Although these former leaders have not been strategic enough to forge a united front, all say the same things about your leadership.

They shared with us that you are a menace to the Eritrean people; that you have placed our nation in great danger; that you are a vindictive and ruthless tyrant who brooks no opposition to his rule; and that you’re willing to perpetuate your power at any price, no matter how many people are jailed, killed, or drowned in faraway oceans.

Mr. President:

        i.            You have callously discarded our constitution

      ii.            You have enslaved our youth and compromised their future

    iii.            You have declared wars without our consent

    iv.            You have shown egregious disregard for the safety of Eritreans

      v.            You have trained and deployed a foreign army to harass our people

    vi.            You have intentionally divided the Eritrean people, and created tension and suspicion among us

  vii.            You have denied the right of our people to practice their religion

viii.            You have isolated our country, tarnished its reputation and undermined its security

    ix.            You have taxed us without representation

      x.            You have destroyed our free press and poisoned our conversations by methodically planting hired hands and misguide worshipers

    xi.            You have decimated our institutions and destroyed our educational system

  xii.            You have failed to create a structure of governance in par with contemporary standards

xiii.            You have failed to establish an independent system of justice

xiv.            You have misused our funds and resources while our neighbors compete and flourish in a highly competitive market place

  xv.            You have broken families, separated sons and daughters from their parents and parents from their children

xvi.            You have mistreated our gallant fighters and maimed our handicapped war heroes.

xvii.            You have insulted, humiliated and physically assaulted our leaders

xviii.            You have placed the highest members of government, journalists and other citizens in jail without a fair trial

xix.            You have deprived Eritreans of their right to be buried at home

  xx.            You have lied to and mislead the Eritrean people and systemically fabricated gossip.

We Eritreans are anxious to live in harmony with each other, with our neighbors and join the world community of nations.

During your recent TV interview you talked about the wind, the sun, water and infrastructure. You said, among other things, that you have grandiose plans for 2015. Mr. President, I would like to, humbly and with utmost respect, suggest that the only plan we would like to hear is your plans to resign from your position as president, a position we did not elect you to in the first place.

Without a constitutional mandate, you subjected our people to a reign of terror for more than two decades that even our worst enemies could have never conceived. As it has been a nightmarish experience for us, we would like to try a different set of leaders.

But first and foremost, you should not for a single more minute keep in jail any political prisoners including the surviving eleven former senior members of your administration. Nor any of the journalists, other leaders and citizens. Since you have kept them in jail illegally, all should be released immediately and without delay.

To ensure an orderly and safe transfer of power, it is paramount that a third party is invited to facilitate the engagement of the opposition fronts, relevant civic groups, community elders and religious leaders.

Mr. President, having spent almost your entire adult life in struggle, the best gift you can now give the long suffering Eritrean people is your resignation. Thank you and Happy New Year.

Russom Mesfun