A date with history: The Bologna Summit: Part 2
By Petros Tesfagiorgis
The Bologna congress turned into festival was more than a festival. It is a mass assertion of the Eritreans in Diaspora to commit themselves to the struggle for justice and freedom.
They provided manpower, material and diplomatic support to the liberation movements. At the same time they represented the voices of the people exposing Ethiopian atrocities to the outside world. To mention some is the massacres of Ona in Keren, Sheeb in Sahel and the bombardment of civilians by internationally forbidden weapons such as napalm and cluster bombs. The list of crime is long.
The Congresses was also a form of get together for Eritreans dispersed throughout the world. In Bologna families, friends and school mates separated by the cruel war get reconnected and enjoy each other’s company. The Congress/festival became a shrine a pilgrimage of the Eritrean exiles and a moral uplifting as they danced to the patriotic and traditional Eritrean music till late
The core objectives of the congress.
However, the primary objective of Bologna congresses was to evaluate the achievements and failures of previous year activities and draw an improved action plan; in the areas of mass mobilization, foreign relations and the building of institutions. Some of the institutions were association of women, youth, students, Association of Doctors and support committees.
The congresses used to conclude by passing resolutions condemning Ethiopian aggression and calling upon peace and justice loving people the world over to support the right of the people of Eritrea to determine their future. Solidarity messages were also read by International supporters such as “Steel Workers Union of Italy” and many others.
Needless to say the most dynamic and successful institution was the Eritrean Relief Association the head office of which was based in Khartoum, Sudan. It had many branches in different parts of the world.
The mass associations in the UK were active in participating in ERA activities particularly in mobilizing people for street collections. In one day in the City of London alone there were times when £8000.00 is being collected. (See photo: collection in the city of London – and the distribution of thousands of leaflet on the victims of Ethiopian air raids targeting civilians). Today such collections are not being done although it could be done
As the conventional wisdom goes, “not only it has to be done but it has to be seen to be done.” Mass associations have not been only a talking shop and cyber revolutionaries but they were action oriented and they delivered in a big way. The Eritrean struggle was very advanced by world standard. London is a fascinating city. There was no third world liberation movement which has no office or representative in London. The Eritrean one was an inspiration. I remember there were 15 Tamil organisations and were approaching us to learn how the Eritreans were united. Tamil was so divided among themselves it reminds me of Eritrean opposition today. Eventually Tamil Tigers met with total defeat.
In 1981 the highest body of the labour party the “National Executive committee” passed a resolution to support the right of the Eritrean People to Self-determination and the EPLF. The decision was reached after several meetings with the mass association leaders and following their activities. The Labour Party commissioned Basil Davidson, an authority of African history, to present a paper on Eritrea. Basil gave interviews to BBC from the field after the fall of the largest Ethiopian Army Garrison in Afabet in 1987 He labelled the victory as “The Dien Bien Phu” of Africa – where the Vietminh defeated the French Army in March 13, 1954.
The PFDJ not only subjected the people of Eritrea to extreme repression but also robbed them of such glorious histories.
The mass association were very successful in the work of Foreign Relations.
The mass associations and ERA were the bridge between the people inside Eritrea and the International community. They were the ambassadors. Many foreigners had rendered diplomatic, material and political support to EPLF/, the Mass Associations and ERA. They came to know and understand the just cause of the people and loved to work with them. They even form an independent committee (lobby committee) known as support committees. The highest lobby group was composed of Mary Dines, Lord Eric Avebury (Honorary chairman of ERA-UK.), Abdurrahman Babu, A leading African Statesman and ex-cabinet minister of Tanzania under Julies Nyrere, Dr Stuart Holland, Labour MP who co-authored, the book – Never Kneel down, Ushi Aid – a member of the German Green party. Needless to say PFDJ has squandered all the support and sympathy the people of Eritrea had from the international community. To add injury to the insult the PFDJ after independence – started a campaign of trivializing the enormous material, diplomatic and political support EPLF had from the outside world and boasted that all the successes were because of its policy and practice of self-reliance. It is far from the truth. Is a disinformation ploy. It was a justification to kick out NGOs. It was time when the people of Eritrea needed a massive international help. Eritrea is not even self-sufficient in food. PFDJ exaggerated the usefulness of self-reliance out of proportion just for ulterior political motive
Whole fleet of new Mercedes Lorries (nick named Adetat (mothers) transporting food from Port Sudan to Eritrea, Factories such as the pharmaceutical factory, ran by the amazing head of Central Pharmacy Senai Kiflesus – the workaholic person who turned into a successful industrialist by transforming his family Nora production in Adi Keyih into a marble making industry. At present he is rotting in one of PFDJ illegal prisons; the sandal factory, the food making machine for children, machine tools for garages and food for internally displaced people (IDPs) mostly got from Norway Church Aid who had an office in Khartoum run by Ariel Jacobson: In mid eighties there was a severe shortage of water in the liberated areas. ERA put a request for water rig to be bought. The purchase of the water drilling rig was taken by a consortium of NGO’s led by War on Want in London. Here is an example of using a national resource. The type of a rig to fit in the hilly terrain of Sahel was recommended by an Eritrean volunteer expert Kibreab (Olio) who was working in Iran and Yemen in the oil exploring work. In a meeting with the donors in London, Kibreab managed to convince the donors not to use a trailer but a rig fitted into a lorry for easy mobility. Ermias Debesai (Papaya) the then head of EPLF European desk brought the head of transport, Michael Fessehaye in order the to have a say in the discussion. The rig was bought for 1 million US $ (dollars). The late Michael Fessehasie was the best technician the EPLF had he was one of those responsible for fitting captured Tank T-54 clutch with Italian Fiat N3 to fit the Sahel Terrain and called it Vodka-Cola. Michael had a big family hotel to run in Decamare but he did not have the opportunity to run it because of the war. He soon dies of illness. All these would not have been possible without external help.
The slogan Eritrea by Eritreans:
The slogan Eritrea by Eritreans is legitimate It is the Eritreans that should define the destiny of Eritrea. They can seek help but they are the once to be on the steering wheel. To use it as a starter to assert themselves during the first Bologna Summit was okay but to do it again for the second time implies chauvinism and it may be taken as “we are better than the other opposition movements”. This would widen the gap with the other youth movements. Not only that, it does not reflect the core mission of why the people want change. Isn’t it to bring democratic change in Eritrea? Change of leaders and not the oppressive system. The slogan such as “We vow to work for justice and democracy in Eritrea”, would have been more appropriate.
Also we are in the Diaspora our slogan must have a message to the international community. “We vow to stand for justice and democracy” would have expressed the broader mission of justice and democracy which is the obligation of the international community to give their support as well.
The people of Eritrea are members of the community of nations. The gross human rights violations perpetuated by PFDJ against the people of Eritrea concerns the international community too.
There is another point, the second congress being advertised in Meskerem.net a website that tries to give a humane face to PFDJ by not exposing the gross human rights violations in Eritrea. Also entertains an anti-peace with Ethiopia articles raises fundamental questions. Does the youth share the values of Meskerem.Net? Do Eritrean have to embrace culture of hatred and war instead culture of peace and reconciliation? They may feel that Ethiopia is patronizing the Eritrean opposition groups based there. This is a legitimate concern but there is a better option of a fundamental significance. The Eritrean opposition could adopt a policy of constructive engagement with Ethiopia along win-win options.
In this issue Medrek has come out very clear. They said we like to have a relationship with Ethiopia on the basis of mutual benefit and equality. It is a sign of maturity although Medrek being knew I can cannot say more about it.
There is a precedence in Citizens for Peace in Eritrea (CPE) operating in the middle of the senseless war between Ethiopia and Eritrea CPE was exposing the human rights violation of Eritreans by Ethiopia during their deportation, at the same time it was working very hard advocating peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. (Photo: tents in Mendefera housing thousands of homeless Eritreans uprooted from Ethiopia).
Besides there is a long history of relationship between Eritrean and Ethiopia and it is worth to look at it briefly.
Relations with Ethiopia:
When the EPLF declared that it was not fighting against the people of Ethiopia but against the repressive feudal regime the relationship between Ethiopians and Eritreans changed fundamentally. Justice and freedom loving Ethiopians started to sympathise with the struggle in Eritrea and even those who were inspired to start armed struggle got the confidence to seek training in Sahel.
In 1974 some Hailesellasie 1 University students were on their way to get military training in Sahel but chose to do it by hijacking the Ethiopian Airlines in order to make their journey sensational enough to inspire more students to join. But they met a tragic end; they were killed by Ethiopian security forces on board the airplane. The one who came from EPLF base area to arrange training was Amanuel Yohannes the brother of Zemhret Yohannes. He flew to Addis Ababa from abroad disguised as a business man. The other Eritreans were Martha Mebtrahtu a medical student – nick named Angela Davis- an American civil rights activists associated with Black Panther movement and Soledad brothers. Her father was a general in the Ethiopian armed forces under Hailesellasie and Yohannes Fekadu who was buried in Asmara attended by thousands of high school and Asmara university students. The Ethiopians were Walelege Mekonen – famous for his paper - the right of self-determination of the oppressed people in Ethiopia up and including secession. His writing encouraged Eritreans to come out in the open and talk about the struggle ragging in Eritrea. The other Ethiopians were Getachew Habte, Tesfaye Birega and Tadelech Kidanemariam the only one wounded but survival. She was the girl friend of Berhane Meskel Reda, a left wing outspoken student leader and the first commander of EPLA (Ethiopian people’s liberation army) he got his training in EPLF areas as well.
It is profoundly significant to acknowledge that sharing the same values of justice and freedom acts as glue which binds the liberation fronts, the civilian patriots and foreign supporters together and insures that they pull in the same direction towards the long journey of liberation. Eritreans who studied in Ethiopia understood it and influenced the EPLF and ELF to take that strategy on board.
It is this same value of justice and freedom that brought together the Eritrean and Ethiopian freedom fighters to get rid of the brutal military dictatorship of Mengustu Hailemariam.
It is incredible to witness some Eritreans writers trivialize the Eritrean revolution as if there was no just cause for the people of Eritrea accorded to the Oromos, Somalis, and Tigreyans etc. Interestingly they keep their writings out of historical contexts. They did not do it innocently. It will expose their wrong arguments. The most outspoken is the author of Romanticizing Ghedli, Yosief Ghebrihiwet and Zekere lebnon who label the Eritrean revolution [the infamous “sewra” of the past].
They never mention the fact that it is because of the joint military victory of EPLF and TPLF – which Ethiopia today is marching to words Africa’s emerging economy and a regional power. Gone are the days when Ethiopia exemplified famine globally.
These intellectuals have to understand that Eritrea is left behind simply because it has won the war but not the peace. We have seen the finding of the independent commission that it is Eritrea who started the war with Ethiopia. And PFDJ has accepted the verdict but the Eritrean people were kept in the dark. They were not told.
PFDJ ‘s gross human rights violations and its mismanagement of the (society and) economy had led directly to the decimation of the well-educated more or less secular middle and professional classes who should have been empowered to rebuild Eritrea.
This amazing and constructive cooperation between the liberation movements of Eritrea and Ethiopia had ushered hope for the people of the Horn of Africa after the demise of Mengustu. It had been noticed and welcomed by the then US president Clinton who labelled President Isaias, PM Meles Zenawi and President Museveni of Uganda the renaissance of Africa. Unfortunately Isaias turned into a brutal dictator who perpetuated the pains and sufferings of the people.
These competent writers would have served the Eritrean people better if they live in the present and wake up to the challenge of today and contribute to the unity of the fragmented opposition not to the disunity.
At the same time there is the issue of undermining the benefits of self-reliance- they actually attack self-reliance. They seem not to understand its significance to the situation of poor third world countries. Self-reliance is an aspect of people’s self-development that avoids promoting their dependence solely on foreign help. Its aim is the mobilization of national resources mainly human resources through skill training and education in order to master technologies transferred from the developed countries. But that does not write off aid and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) because they fill a very important economic gap. The authentic concept of self-reliance is also trivialized by Zekre Lebona labelling it “as the farce of self-reliance.” Both PFDJ and its opponents have politicized self-reliance to serve their interest in a quite antagonistic way.
These intellectuals are exploiting the low academic achievement of the youth who fled the country and have no opportunity to go to higher studies. By the way, one of the reasons why ERA became the darling of NGO’s was because the donors were satisfied that the aid is used properly. It was the Eritreans trained abroad and locally who run all hospitals, factories etc. Eritrean human resource, man power, was used properly this is one form of self-reliance. And those who say self-reliance did not help the Eritrean revolution are wrong. Anyway they are out of touch they did not live through the struggle..
After his visit to the field in October 1985 the leading African Statesman, Abdurrahman Babu wrote in a London based Africa magazine. “Eritrea: Where in Africa today would you see doctors, engineers, mechanics, and technicians, all of world standards? Inspired enough to flock back home enthusiastically from foreign universities and institutions of learning to serve their country without pay?
The Blunder of the Mass Associations and a lesson to learn from:
The Diaspora mass association by being part of EPLF were not aware of its, consequences. Looking at it in retrospect it was a conspiracy by EPLF top leaders to prevent it to grow into various formidable civil and political organisations which may demand or put pressure on EPLF to implement the constitution and commit itself into election process. After independence they were reduced to cash cow paying 2 % of their income instead of helping them to build their life in Eritrea.
Therefore the Diaspora civil societies must learn from such past mistakes and maintain their independence. However that does not prevent them to cooperate or work with the opposition political parties for a just cause in this case for democratic change.
To date some promising initiatives that empower people are taking place.
- Arbi Harnet by EYSC is the best action so far. It is raising the level of consciousness of the youth inside Eritrea. The inner light of consciousness becomes infused with a passion for action and it is nothing less than life changing – from the misery of fear- enslavement of the mind to liberating the mind. Arbi Harnet has become a powerful instrument in empowering the youth in Eritrea.
- Stop indefinite national service: Feruz Keisi “broke the news of the Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea Campaign (SNSSEC) on Asmarino.com on 1 January 2014. She goes, “ SNSSEC was launched today in Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, UK and Italy ” The campaign is handled professionally and have a solid business plan with 6 months limit that culminates in a demo in Geneva in June. It is also remarkable that the youth are taking turns to display their photograph on face book asking to stop the forced indefinite National Service without fear of repercussion.
- Demonstrations by African refugees mostly Eritrean in Israel. They demand that the Government of Israel observes the right of African Refugees. On 22 January the Eritrean Diaspora in Europe, USA protested outside the Israeli Embassies in support of their brothers and sisters in Israel It is in working together that the seeds of understanding, love, peace, joy and liberation need to be sown and watered constantly. Such things are beginning to take root among the Diaspora to day. However as long as the demonstration continues in Israel those living in the West have to organize permanent vigil outside the Israel embassy. UK must take the initiative. Because there is precedence during the anti-apartheid struggle, every day there was a vigil outside the South African Embassy of not more than 10 people with a placard “Free Mandela and stop apartheid,” they persists for years standing at the entrance. All that led to the all out UK wide demonstration where Eritreans also participated. (See photo). This Israel case is so serious there must be a centralized body to follow it and fed information to different Eritrean civil and political organizations. ERSA-UK has appealed to the Jews Council of Racial Equality and the Jews Chronicle to put pressure on the Israeli government. At first they seemed positive during our telephone conversation but then refused even to receive the letter which was edited and put on Migrant Voice Blog. (www.migrantvoice.org) titled distressed refugees in Israel are calling for help. This is because after some days they must have known that we don’t have powerful friends in the British Establishment as we used to do during the struggle. Fragmented the Eritrean Diaspora remains weak.
- The Vaccaro initiative: Tewolde Tesfamariam (Wedi Vaccaro) has managed to attract large number of listeners throughout the Western World. His talk is magical, his simplicity is amazing. He became so popular that he is the embodiment of unity in waiting. Nevertheless what he is accomplishing is half of the mission. The other half which is to build an institution that organises mass mobilization remains.This is an opportunity to be seized by the Diaspora to build the mass movement and make it workable.. The UK provisional committee has yet to call UK wide meeting to elect permanent management committee which has not done yet.
- Stop trafficking in Sinai managed to lobby parliamentarians. This is the Chelsea Comboni Catholic prayer group in touch with Nurse Azezet in Israel.
I hope the new generation learns from the struggle waged in the past: There was no way any movement or political parties’ succeed without active support of the people. Let the young get inspiration from the good side of the EPLF and the Mass Association and the Bologna pilgrimages. Also learn from its dark side. Therefore it is good to claim its history but not recreate it.
EPLF’s amazing growth and quick military success is because it has convinced the population and shown it in action of its commitment, its skill, organisational discipline, and huge capacity of political manoeuvring which is absent in the opposition.
All this won EPLF the level of support needed to persist in the struggle long enough to win the war against one of the large army in Africa. The other significant reason is the friendly policy towards the people of Ethiopia. It will lead to peaceful coexistence with all the neighbouring countries. It is also a precondition to form Horn of Africa or East Africa common market.
Some names related to my article are those below, but they are just few among the many.
I hope Eritreans in different part of the world do some studies of their participation. They did so out of humanity, justice and freedom. I heard Gordon Troller the German who made a film titled “Women and Revolution in Eritrea” cried bitterly when he was not invited during the celebration of Eritrean independence. His film was one of the best. We the EPLF proved to be very ungrateful after independence to those who helped the Eritrean people during the struggle.
- Mary Dines: resigned from her top job as the Secretary of War on Want (WoW) and committed herself to work full time for ERA-UK. WoW was the first charity who decided to help Eritrea in a big way. Later on Glynes Kinnock the wife of the Labor Party leader became chairman of WoW and visited the field to asses needs and she came up with a book called “Eritrea Images of War and Peace”. Glynes has sent a letter imploring Isaias to release the jailed Government official whom she knew many of them particularly Ermias Debessai (Papaya) and the Editors of the private papers.
- Ushi Aid: was head of German Eritrean reintegration program whose office was based in Asmara, a programme to encourage investors and skilled German Eritreans to go back to Eritrea. The Government of Germany was keen to participate in developing the economy and society but they were systematically discouraged not to do so.
- Lord Eric Avebury: Was a liberal MP, Chairman of the parliamentarian committee on Human Rights. With the help of Mary Dines he became honorary chairman of ERA-UK. Because of him many charity doors were open to ERA.
- Dr. Stuart Holland: a bright economist he was an economic advisor to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He became fascinated on his visit to the EPLF liberated areas of Eritrea. After the defeat of the Labor leader in the Election he resigned from being Member of Parliament and left Britain and became economic adviser to Jack De Lore who was the European Union Chairman and he was partly teaching at Turin University in Italy. After independence he went to Eritrea with a project of twining between Italy and Eritrea and came out with a brief to study development needs. He was welcomed but when he went back to Europe he was just ignored. Vietnam and Eritrea were Dr. Holland favorite and he took the project to Vietnam and the twinning between Vietnam and Italy materialized and he went to live in Vietnam as an advisor.. Among his brief is to get EU aid to widen and continue the railway line from Massawa –Asmara-Keren up to Sudan and was optimist to get trains for free from Germany where lots of change was taking place because of the West-East German unity. He was also talking because Eritreans are in tune with Italian manufacturing to twin with Italy. His blue print was massive.
- After independence Ariel Jacobson lived in Eritrea and married an Eritrean. He has worked a lot for Eritrea and tried hard to participate in the economic rehabilitation of Eritrea. As we all know there was no conducive environment for private business in Eritrea and he left Eritrea after the war with Ethiopia. He miraculously survived the Ethiopian bombing of a market at Molki- a small town in the south where several civilians died. He is Norwegian-Eritrean patriot.
- There are others many others who played a key role in promoting the case of Eritrea in UK. Such as David Poor who wrote 2 books. Amrit Wilson the partner of Abdurrahman Babu wrote “The Challenge Road: Women in Eritrea”. Andy, Gregg, Martin Plaut, Paul Kleman and Paul Hinghfield who was a teacher in the field and worked for the ministry of Education after independence. There were doctors as well such as the Father of Andy Gregg who visited the field to help and were sending medical equipment and sharing their expertise with Eritrean doctors in the field.