Disowning Eritrea: Owning the Regal Disease

(II - Kebessa Eritrea’s Suicide Mission)

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet

April 30, 2014

How is it possible for an entire people – and I have Kebessa Eritreans, in particular, in mind – to fail to see that they are heading to the edge of existential disaster, as they die in their tens of thousands in one war after another; as they perish in their thousands in the Arab Passage, in the Sahara Desert, in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Mediterranean Sea; as their women are singularly targeted for fighters and fighter-incubators, with all kinds of demographic consequences that these two entail; as their villages, towns and cities are being emptied of their most productive population group in epic proportions; as their youth are made to flee their country in their hundreds of thousands; etc? How is it possible for an entire people to blissfully march for half a century towards mass suicide, even as the tell-tale signs were there from the very beginning, given the alien nature of the mission that their elite had embarked?

Lately, there have been five pull factors that have colluded to open the floodgates even wider than ever before for Eritrean refugees to flee their country and head north to Europe in mass exodus:

(a)    The fact that tens of thousands of the youth have already made it to safe destinations in Europe, especially the Nordic nations, so quickly has been a huge incentive to those who have been stranded in refugee camps for years in despair and destitution and to those inside Eritrea planning such risky undertakings to escape the trappings of national service.

(b)   The fact that almost all of those who have made it to Europe, unlike the Israeli case, are guaranteed asylum is another huge incentive. It has to be remembered that the Israeli option, where more than 35,000 Eritrean refugees find themselves in a legal limbo, became attractive to Eritreans only after the Libyan route became unpromising under Kaddafi and, in the aftermath of his fall, virtually impossible.

(c)    In a land where utter destitution reigns everywhere, the little remittance money the new refugees quickly send back home is making an instant and visible difference in the lives of their families. This too has been a huge driving force for many who have been despairing about the “emergency” condition of their families to leave the country as soon as they could, and provide the vital lifeline.

(d)   The extremely weakened, militia-controlled Libya so far has been unable to contain this huge flow of African and Middle Eastern refugees through its land; that is, unlike the Kaddafi government which was successful in clamping on such cross-migrations in a special agreement made with Italy. A relatively quicker, easier and safer route through Libya is causing many to stampede before anything happens to make it riskier or even to shut off.

(e)    In addition, in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy, the Italian navy and coastguards have been vigilantly supervising one rescue after another, making the Mediterranean passage safer than it used to be before, even for the most dingy and unreliable boats. This almost guaranteed safety of the Mediterranean corridor is also another great incentive for refugees to try it now, before any changes in this policy take place.

The result of all these “incentives”, added to all the internal factors that are pushing the youth outside the country (the biggest of which is the national service), is that the mass exodus from Eritrea has accelerated to an alarming level never witnessed before. In addition, two new factors have emerged in the region that are facilitating this mass exodus: the fact that the thoroughly hollowed out and utterly demoralized Eritrean army is no more capable of controlling the outflow has resulted into “virtually no border control in Eritrea” [1]; and the fact the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan are serving as facilitating stopovers, rather than enduring camps, in emptying the land. At the receiving end, Italy has been sounding the alarm as its navy keeps rescuing thousands of African refugees within days, and is expecting more of the same soon to follow with the calming of the waters. Already tens of thousands have been rescued this year, and “up to 600,000 migrants from Africa and Middle East were ready to set off from Libyan shores” [2] On the other side, the picture is equally grim. In a news report from Addis Ababa on Eritreans who are headed north to Europe to take advantage of the calm waters, [3] some alarming numbers are provided: “’There are 13,000 Eritreans ready to cross the Mediterranean as soon as the waters calm down,’ says Tsegay, an Eritrean smuggler who allowed me to interview him.” “During 2013 and into 2014, refugee arrivals increased so rapidly – up to 1,000 people a week came during February 2014 – that Ethiopian authorities had to open a new camp, Hitsats, around 60 miles north of Adi Harush.” If this trend continues, we are looking at a 50,000 a year figure for refugees that cross to Ethiopia only. If we add a similar flow of refugees to Sudan, we have roughly a 100,000 refugees flow within the span of just one year. And this number takes account of only those who register with the UNHCR. Dan Connell comes up with more alarming numbers that takes account of the unregistered refugees too: given that the 300,000 refugees counted by the UNHCR make up only a portion of all that have left the country, he puts the figure around one million. [4] But even if we take the most conservative estimate and cut the number of the unregistered into half of that, the total would be about 650,000. For a tiny nation like Eritrea, with a population of less than 4 million, this amounts to a demographic collapse in the making. And for Kebessa Eritrea, whose entire youth population is on the move, it is nothing short of a holocaust.

If there is any doubt that Kebessa Eritrea is on its way to a demographic collapse and, consequently, that Eritrea is at a looming risk of disintegration, the above numbers make it crystal clear. Yet, the delusional Eritrean elite that time and again have failed to read the writing on the wall keep obliviously discussing “nationalist” side issues that have little to do with their people’s existential predicament: democracy and constitutionality, the type of government they want to install post-Isaias (federalism or centralized), the alien national language they want to impose on the masses, the wishful revolution that never came to be (the Forto event), the disrespect shown to  the shifta Awate, ghedli and all its paraphernalia, a wistful “unity” (hadnetna) that never existed, the proliferation of “political parties” in the middle of nowhere, etc – most of these subjects being the trademark of all the bayto meetings in Addis Ababa. They detachedly talk about establishing “civic society” in post-Isaias Eritrea, in a place where the entire middle class is being wiped out. They nonchalantly talk about the kind of democracy they want to see in the aftermath, while the entire educated section that could sustain such a culture is being irretrievably decimated. They passionately talk about quam, confusing life and death existential issues haunting the nation for democratic deprivations. It seems as if they are afflicted with a “spatial dissonance”, always confusing diaspora Eritrea with mainland Eritrea in their task assignments; they act as if all the variables to bring change in Eritrea are still there. Characteristic of the Eritrean malady, confusing the land for the nation, they fail to see that with the mass exodus of the youth, it is “Eritrea” that is “moving out”, leaving the land empty.

But if we are to identify the most important side issue that never fails to galvanize the Eritrean elite, in general, and the Kebessa elite, in particular, it is identity. Any perceived threat to the “Eritrean identity” they want to preserve not only attracts an undivided attention, but is also met with vigorous resistance. In the last bayto meeting, with the questioning of Awate legacy, the Muslim elite felt such a threat to their version of “Eritrean identity” that they had to shelve off or suppress any talk about existential issues that the nation was facing. While they kept debating the Awate controversy for four days in a row, virtually nothing was said regarding the refugee crisis, the mass exodus, the Sinai atrocity, the totalitarian horror inside the country or regime change. Similarly, when the inconsequential Demhit incident took place in Asmara, it happened to cause a huge uproar among the Kebessa elite, even though the roundups for national service have been a staple in the Eritrean landscape for years. What riled them up were not the roundups themselves but who did those roundups. It is very telling of the urban elite that, even though it is the national service that is at the root of their people’s existential predicament, they felt more threatened when they perceived a foreign element in it; that is, death and destruction under the hands of their own kind always gets minimal attention. That is why even when few of them dare to address the mass exodus problem extensively, it is always by carefully factoring out the Kebessa component, lest it threatens the elusive “Eritrean identity” they want to preserve. If so, the elite’s motto seems to be: identity over existence!
It seems to me that if certain people have to go extinct, a necessary precondition is that they shouldn’t be aware that they are on their way to extinction. If so, blinkered with the identity malady, the Kebessa elite happen to fulfill that requirement par excellence. The trick is rather simple: having themselves attired in alien identity, they fail to recognize their real selves as they march to the edge of existential disaster. If so, it boils down to a trivial case of mistaken identity; it is only that the mistaken identity and the one who does the mistaking are one and the same: as one watches his real self go over the cliff, he mistakes it for someone else, simply because the alien self he has acquired doesn’t want to identify with it!

In (I) Kebessa Eritrea’s Suicide Mission from Sahel to Lampedusa: The Other War, I tried to describe how the Tigrigna ethnic group has put itself in the eye of the storm of the Ghedli Cyclone, despite the fact that each and every time it left nothing but death and destruction behind it. What is surprising is the consistency with which the Kebessa elite have been responding every time such cataclysmic disaster strikes their society: they have come to cherish and glamorize the pain of their ethnic group in a way that perpetuates that very pain indefinitely. Even though ghedli, in general, and Shaebia, in particular, has been stocking the Tigrigna ethnic group for decades like a pest that never goes away, the more victimized the Tigrignas get, the more their elite want to own the ghedli legacy and its gruesome culture of martyrdom. But since there is no way that one could glamorize the pain of one’s own people without at the same time disowning those very people, what explains this strange correlation?

Let me invoke a metaphor to help me explain this disconcerting correlation. In my article of a few years back, The Regal Disease: a Tigrigna Malady, I gave a shorter version of the following metaphor to describe how Eritreans, in general, and the Tigrignas, in particular, have come to fall in love with an epidemic that has brought nothing but havoc to their society for the last 50 years, simply because the virus that caused the epidemic comes with a nationalist name attached to it – let’s call it then the Eritreanism Virus. And here is how the extended version of that story goes:

The Regal Disease

Rahta and Mahta, the twin sisters that had been gone for five long years, working as chambermaids to the Queen (by the way, the highest honor that any woman could ever hope for in that land), were now back in their hometown for good. Understandably, the townspeople were excited to have their two most famous citizens back in their humble town. They felt proud and honored by their presence, even though there was a certain ambivalence that went with it all. This was because there was something about the way the twin sisters carried themselves, something aloof and distant and somewhat puzzling, that many of the down-to-earth townspeople found disconcerting, to say the least.

Some hastily concluded that living in the royal court for so long had turned the twins into snobs. What is it that has made them forget their humble upbringing, they kept wondering. Do they have to be so standoffish and arrogant, they complained in whispers – of course, all said and done with a tinge of jealousy. Others, on the other hand, openly displayed their envy; they even tried to imitate the way they carried themselves “regally” – as they loved to put it. There were also those who kept a mysterious silence, often accompanied with an all-knowing smile, whenever the subject matter came up, as if they were in the know about the whole matter but didn’t want to say. And then there were those who honestly professed they couldn’t understand it at all but who nevertheless vehemently asserted that the sisters must have a good reason for what they were doing (We have to have faith in them, they kept doggedly reiterating).

But there was one thing that all the supporters and detractors held in common: that this object of speculation – this object of wonder, hatred, derision, envy, praise, emulation or pure puzzlement – was to be located in none other than the twin sisters’ slender arms. It is the unique and strange way the twins carried their arms that kept the town fascinated and buzzing in speculation: the way they kept their arms akimbo most of the time when they walked around or stood still, as if in perpetual self-defiance to, and never-ending quarrel with, everybody around in sight; the way they sometimes kept projecting – or should we say, floating – their arms forward as if they were carrying something fragile; the way they waved their hands woodenly, as if they could not manipulate the hand independent of the arm, and the fingers independent of the hand; the way they used their index finger to summon someone by moving the whole arm back and forth, as if they were pulling an invisible string … An observant clown, who doubled as a  ventriloquist, noted that whatever it was that they kept doing with their arms, they seemed to hardly touch their bodies, as if they had set out to prove that the arms had their own lives, independent of the body. And in a clever imitation, as the clown moved in slow motion with his arms suspended in the air, he would make his arms cry “Ouch!” every time the arms came in contact with the body – to the onlookers’ hooting delight. Whatever it is, the citizens of the town whispered among themselves in unusual concurrence, the object of the twins’ pride must be in none other than their arms. But that was as far as their claim would go, for the enigma was that the twins were never seen in the town without their long fashionable white gloves that covered them all the way to their upper arms.

Given the above facts, that the brain-racking question that was in every citizen’s lip should be the following is only understandable: what indeed lies behind those mysterious gloves? Obviously, various speculations were made, many tailor-made to fit the various opinions they had already made up about the sisters. Some said that some noblemen in the royal court must have proposed to them, and what were beneath those enigmatic gloves must be exotic diamond rings of engagement. No, others disagreed vehemently, they must be the famous diamond-studded bracelets that the Queen awarded to few of its most trusted subjects, no doubt as tokens of appreciation for their years of excellent service in the court. But then there were the skeptics (“the spoilers,” as most of the townspeople called them) who devastatingly argued that if this was the case, the twins would have absolutely no reason to hide them (The show-offs that they are, some of the malicious ones added in private, they would have made sure that everybody takes notice of them). Rather, they mysteriously added, those must be some kind of esoteric insignia or emblem indelibly tattooed in their skins, one that identifies them as members of some mystic organization that had a lot of influence in the royal court (That explains the mysterious covering up, they added self-satisfactorily, or an imposter with a good eye would be able to copy it. Some even dared to go so far as to claim the Queen herself must be a member of such an organization). And some others with fundamentalist streak, who obviously wanted to claim the influential sisters as their own, emphatically claimed that, by covering up their arms, they were setting a prudent example to “our hedonist society.” Others uproariously laughed at this suggestion, hilariously pointing to one fact that nobody could deny: the sisters were often seen in miniskirts, often without any stockings to cover up their slender legs (After that, they even mockingly referred to the members of this group as “upper-body fundamentalists”). And so the speculations and counter-speculations went on until …

… Well, until two gentlemen, who were head over heels in love with Rahta and Mahta, decided to bring matters to an end.  For obvious reasons, the suspense was killing them more than anybody else in the town. What they found most unbearable was the rumors of their engagement to some “pretentious noblemen” – as they frequently put it – in the royal court. This cannot be, they kept lamenting … that was, until they finally decided to do something about it, come what may …

In one pitch dark night, the love-stricken gentlemen stealthily made their way to the twin’s compound, and courageously climbed up two balconies before they reached the front window of the twins’ bedroom. There, crouching beneath a table left in the balcony, hiding themselves behind the tablecloth, they waited patiently until the two sisters came into the bedroom. They held their breath in suspense as the twins began to take off their gloves. The suspense though was soon to turn into a nightmare of horror, for what they were about to discover was totally unexpected: the twins’ arms, all the way from their fingertips to their upper arms, were covered with some kind of a horrible disease! The sight was totally revolting; purple, swollen rushes of some kind had taken all over the skin. And as the sisters began to scratch their arms ferociously, blood began to trickle here and there and puss began to ooze all over … until the pain and suffering twisted the twins’ faces into ugly contortions that scared the hell out of the gentlemen …

Despite all this though, the two gentlemen could still detect a tone of unmistakable pride, tinged with envy and frustration, as Rahta exclaimed, “Oh, my dear and adorable Mahta, how I envy you! Your Regal Disease leaves no skin uncovered all the way to the very tip of your fingers. Look at mine. It is so patchy; you could still detect some healthy skin here and there. I can hardly wait for those beautiful purple rushes to take all over. Oh, how wretched I am!”

Mahta, although beaming with pride that she cannot hide, made a feeble attempt to comfort her sister, “Patience! Patience, my dear sister! You know perfectly well how mine used to look exactly like yours at the beginning. Remember that it was me who first contracted the disease from the Queen. No wonder there, for it was me who spent most of the time taking care of Her Highness. Besides, it took a lot of hard work, a lot of squeezing and scratching, however painful it was … Sister dear, we have to suffer, don’t we, to see the fruits of our struggle? But in time, look how it has handsomely paid off; it has blossomed beautifully!” Then she couldn’t resist adding maliciously, “It is as if spring has arrived too early to my arms! Don’t you think that now it more or less looks like our beloved Queen’s?”

Upon which note Rahta burst into tears; she could no more control herself, as her bosom heaved up and down in anger and frustration. “Oh, to have a disease just like the Queen’s!” she kept lamenting loudly, rocking her body back and forth in despair. But soon she collected herself, stopped her gyrations and put a determined face, and said, “I am off to work, off to work …” and started scratching her arms with such ferocity that our gentlemen could take it no more. They left as quietly and as stealthily as they had come, although totally shaken and devastated by the horrors they had just witnessed.

Soon the word got out. The whole town was abuzz about the infectious Regal Disease that the twins got from none other than the Queen herself. The reason why Rahta and Mahta had been covering their arms in the first place – even as they were terribly proud of their Regal Disease – was because they had been afraid that the ignorant townspeople would misunderstand the nature of their disease and stigmatize them. But their fear was totally unfounded, as they were soon to find out to their pleasant surprise; they had underestimated how the masses could get enlightened so quickly under the proper inspiration. And inspiration, they were willing to give in abundance.

After the initial shock subsided, it soon dawned to the townspeople that they had hit upon a treasure throve. Soon, everyone was devising impossible ways to contract this prestigious disease. In anticipation of good days to come, everyone was imitating the twins in every gesture and movement. As if the whole town was in some kind of a ghost movie rehearsal, the townspeople walked strangely as in a dream, with their arms positioned in the oddest ways that one could possibly imagine. The “arms akimbo” became the favorite among women, some of whom perfected it to a point of spontaneity. Some of the men tried it too, even as they resembled huge awkward birds flapping with broken wings. The more adventurous ones came up with improvised “manly” ones, one of which was named the “march,” with arms energetically swinging up and down, but without touching the body. And those with Christian religious bent, not to be outdone by the “secularists”, quickly invented the “cross,” moving with their arms outstretched sideways in imitation of the cross. Their Muslim counterparts instantly came up with the “crescent”, with one hand bent in crescent-ish way, as if they were holding a child with it, while the other arm kept moving in unpredictable ways as if in attendance to the need of that child. Hilarious as all this may seem, this was no laughing matter for the townspeople; they were taking it all with utmost seriousness. And the fashionable glove soon found its way in every household, with some going as far as falsely insinuating they had already got it (the disease was soon mysteriously dubbed as “it” - Nsa).

All of this was jealously noted by the two lovers, who had been almost falling out of love after the horrifying scene they had witnessed on that fateful night. But as soon as they saw how the townspeople reacted, they fell in love all over again – head over heels. They didn’t lose any time in courting the sisters, in the hope that they would be privileged enough to be the first in the town to contract this prestigious disease …

At first, Rahta and Mahta were reluctant to show themselves in public without their gloves. But the public demand for exposure was reaching a hysterical level. In the end, they gave in (for the sake of the masses, as they patriotically put it). On the Day of Exposure, a day the townspeople will remember forever (akin to what Eritreans reverently call the First Shot in Mount Adal), the whole town was there to marvel at the sight and, if possible, to touch it. But all that the crowd could do was watch from afar, as those in the VIP seats were given the handshake. In the next day, although most of the commentators in the media were extremely favorable, one fiery leftist columnist caustically wrote, “Are the masses to be denied the Regal Disease? Is it always the upper class that gets the best treat? Isn’t it the patriotic duty of the most famous daughters of this humble town to mingle with the masses and shake their hands too?” This did it; the next day the twins were out there in the streets unreservedly shaking the hands of the masses, as if they were running for the highest office in the country.

Most charmingly, the twins were often seen kissing children that were handed over by emotionally overwhelmed adetatat – a scene which, by the way, understandably provided the cover pictures of all the newspapers next day. No one could hold the enthusiasm of the mothers; not even the police, who were occasionally using the baton to hold the screaming and shoving crowd in check. In between the beatings and the shoving, the screaming and the shouting, many mothers miraculously found a way to reach close to their idol. After the crowd dispersed, one could easily identify those successful mothers who had had their children kissed by the beaming glow that never left their faces for long after the momentous event.

The testimony that the Rahta and Mahta did indeed an exemplary work of their patriotic duty is that the epidemic moved fast and furious both in rich and poor areas, sparing nobody along its glorious path. People who had it spent no time before they started showing it off to neighbors and friends. Even though the weather was kind of chilly at that time, the men who had it were seen walking up and down the streets with their shirts off. And the beaches became overcrowded, especially with women who had it – the only public place where they could take off their clothes. As it was with Rahta, one could see envious eyes wandering over the fortunate ones whose skins bloomed in a spring rash. Indeed, the spring fever, both as onlookers and looked-at, took possession of the entire town …

Soon, with everyone diligently fulfilling his/her patriotic duty, the epidemic turned into a pandemic, as people began to drop dead like flies – regally dead! Initially, when the deaths were a few over here and a few over there (all of them children), “the little martyrs” – as the townsfolk used to call them reverently – were given Regal Burials in the Martyr’s Grave unseen before in the humble town, with elaborate processions, marches and bands accompanying the flowers-bedecked little coffins. And lest anyone should confuse the cause of the little ones’ death with any other plebeian disease, a crown similar to the Queen’s was painted or engraved on the sides of the coffins to show the regality of their deaths. And those few who could afford it had little crowns made for the little heads of their little martyrs, proudly exhibited during the “viewing”, just before the burial procession started. And as for the white glove, it was a must for every dead child, from poor or rich family, to wear. The well to do families made sure that no poor family’s son or daughter be buried without those fashionable gloves; the White Glove Foundation was precisely founded for that, and only that, noble cause. But this story would remain incomplete if I fail to mention “the White Glove Scandal” that infuriated the whole town, a scandal that tested the townspeople patriotism as never before.

When one of the richest families in the town had their only infant child dead, as expected an elaborate funeral that all the dignitaries of the town attended was conducted. The coffin was not only griddled with the crown engravings embossed with silver, the dead infant’s head was covered with a real silver crown. All of this didn’t go well even with the well-to-do families, let alone with the poor families that wouldn’t be able to afford such extravagance. But a poor woman who had already lost seven children to the epidemic, and who was absolutely furious that a one-child-dead family was getting so much attention, had other sinister doubts in her head. Uncharacteristic of all those families privileged enough to have contracted the Regal Disease, this particular rich family had never let anyone know about the illness of their now deceased child. This struck her as peculiar, given the unbridled manner they displayed their child’s death. In a rather bold move on her side, one that kept the townspeople talking for weeks, as she lingered beside the coffin looking at the angelic face in grief (which the townspeople thought appropriate, given her loss to the epidemic) during the viewing, she suddenly and furiously pulled off the white gloves from the dead child, to the gasp of the onlookers. The gasp turned to horror when they found out that the arms of the child were “as smooth as baby bottom”, as the saying goes, with not the slightest bit of the purple rashes symptomatic of the disease. With the funeral abandoned in the chaos that followed, the corpse was swiftly taken to the town morgue for autopsy. The townspeople held their breath for three long days as the autopsy of the dead infant was conducted. And the old no-nonsense doctor didn’t disappoint them: infanticide! And the scandal was by that much scandalous because the patriarch of that scandalized rich family was none other than the president and founder of the White Glove Foundation!

Anyways, the attention to details that was given to those funerals at the early stage of the epidemic was soon to be abandoned. Even though the scandal had to do something with it in the beginning, there was a more pragmatic reason why it stayed that way for a long time to come: as the epidemic gained further momentum and reached every household, sparing neither young nor old, it was not long before people began to dig mass graves to bury their dead.

Through the entire course of the epidemic, the townspeople never lost their determination and pride – regal dignity and pride, that is! Not at all! To the contrary, they glamorized death as they had done with the disease itself. And, most admirably, they seemed to catch up with the ever raging epidemic, as it grew in leaps and bounds, with new innovative ways of dealing with it. Those families that had the biggest number of deaths were given a special honor; as they walked through the town with their heads up, passers bye stood still and bowed their heads in awe and respect. The Mayor, who had always had his finger on the public pulse, soon came up with an official version of this “awe and respect”. In the one-year commemoration of the epidemic conducted in the town hall, a mother who had lost seven children to the epidemic was showcased as the “Ultimate Citizen” and honored with the Golden Martyrs’ Certificate – one that instantly made her the envy of the town. In his speech, the Mayor didn’t fail to mention the patriotic role the mother played in exposing the White Glove Scandal (you guessed it, it is the same mother). As the face of this beaming mother, with her two clenched hands held high up in patriotic zeal, standing side by side with none other than the Mayor, made it to all the media outlets, many mothers began to look resentfully at those children of theirs who either were late in catching the disease or were hanging on to life long after infection. The eyes of these patriotically impatient and irritated mothers unmistakably said, “Go! Go join the martyrs! Awet N’hafash!” They did everything short of infanticide – God forbid, the town wouldn’t survive another scandal! – to expedite martyrdom.

Soon, with everyone giving a helping had to the Regal Epidemic, the town came to a glorious end – may I dare say, a regal extinction! The Martyrs’ Grave that started in a small corner of the town kept sprawling so rapidly that it was not long before it swallowed up the whole town. Today, one can still see a large sign, “MARTYRS’ GRAVE”, engraved at the top of the gate of the now totally emptied ghost town.

The gentleman who related to me this tragedy, the only survivor from this mass extinction, had tears rolling down his cheeks as he came to the end of his story. Very much touched by the tragedy that befell the humble town, I tried my best to console him, “What a tragedy! What a misfortune! I can understand how you feel with all your dear ones, all those you have grown up with, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, parishioners, having perished …”

He didn’t let me finish my sentence. He looked at me with a puzzled and incredulous look, as his lips pouched in contempt, “Misfortune? Tragedy? No! No! You don’t seem to get it,” he went on shouting angrily as he pounded the table, “All those who have been martyred in this noble Cause have done their patriotic duty – those are the happy ones. It is the wretched me that I am crying for … Whatever I did, I was unable to catch the disease! Believe me, I tried … oh, how I tried hard. Don’t you see, I was more than willing to be martyred, but sadly it was not meant to be. I even seriously contemplated suicide, but I realized that no one would consider that as martyrdom …” The Last Man of this gloriously extinct town was inconsolable …

Then the Last Man abruptly stood up, stoically shook my hands, and walked away with all the “pride and dignity” that his townspeople were known for. As he disappeared through the door, it occurred to me that I had failed to ask the name of that historic town. Alarmed, I scrambled out of my seat and rushed to the door, shouting, “Hey you! Hey you!”

Reading my mind, he shouted back at me without turning his head, “Ereye-Erena!” and disappeared around the corner, never to be seen again.

As if by divine intervention, suddenly the radio in the bar was turned loud with the song “Ereye Erena, ketematat koynu measkerna” as I was making my way back to my table. Ladies and gentlemen, I couldn’t resist the infectious beat and lyrics of this most patriotic music and kept dancing furiously as if possessed, with my shoulders shaking uncontrollably and my feet outdoing each other in a stepping frenzy, with the amused look of the onlookers following me round and round. A reserved fellow that I am, as soon as I sat, I wondered where the hell I had gotten the courage to do all that. I hastily paid the bill, and rushed out of the bar to avoid the eyes of the onlookers.

Later, back at home, I wondered whether the handshake of the Last Man had to do with it all. Scared, I rose up and went to the bathroom and kept scrubbing and washing my hands over and over again … It used to be said, “Shewa’na shinfila tatbo ayteram” No more; now it is, “Ghedli’na shinfila tatbo ayteram”. After countless scrubbings and washings, I still sense remnants of that handshake lurking between my fingers …

Disowning one’s own

Eritreans, in general, and the Kebessa elite, in particular, happen to be a people that are extremely proud of the Eritreanism Virus that has caused havoc in their land for fifty years. This virus was hatched up in the urban elite’s head as a reflection of their colonial aspirations, entirely inspired as it was by the “modern” legacy of Italian colonization. So far as these elite remained ensconced in their urban areas, the “modernity” virus remained superfluous but harmless throughout its incubation years. The moment this aspiration found its enactment at mieda, it mutated into its lethal type. After independence, with the attempt to spread temekro mieda throughout Eritrea, it turned into a rampant epidemic. Thus, if we are to map out the life trajectory of this Eritreanism Virus, first we have the Colonial Virus hatching up in the heads of the urban elite; then we have it in its mutated form as the Ghedli Virus, causing havoc for 30 revolutionary years in the land; and, in the end, we have it mutated into the National Service Virus in its epidemic form, one that has been the cause for all the ills the nation has been facing since independence.

Although it is the same nationalist virus that has been mutating to meet the demands of the ever-changing context, Eritreans’ unabashed romance with ghedli is done by denying the life trajectory that the virus has undergone: not only are they adamant not to connect the revolution with its colonial roots, they also refuse to associate it with what is currently taking place in Eritrea. Once they have isolated it by this double severance at its two critical ends, it becomes easy for them to romanticize it. That is why Eritreans are famous not only for discounting, but also of glamorizing, all the ills that have befallen them under the brutal hands of ghedli.

And in this task, the Tigrigna elite happen to outdo all the rest, even though ghedli, in general, and Shaebia, in particular, has been preying on their ethnic group disproportionately for decades, as is seen in: (a)  the Tigrigna’s hugely disproportionate share of the martyred and maimed; (b) the relentless giffas (forced roundups) that have disproportionately targeted the Tigrigna areas since the days of the struggle; (c) the indiscriminate conscriptions and round ups of both sexes, solely applied to Tigrigna areas; (d) the huge number of spinsters, orphans, illegitimate children, women-headed families that giffa, wars, indefinite service and mass exodus generated; (e) the prisons all over Eritrea bursting with mainly Tigrigna prisoners (army deserters, conscription evaders, Evangelical groups, etc); (f) the mass exodus of Warsai, the overwhelming majority of whom are Tigrignas; (g) the disgraceful sexual abuse of the Tigrigna woman, starting from Sawa all the way to the trench and beyond; (h) the persecution of Evangelical Christians (almost all of them Tigrignas), unparalleled in its scope and severity; (i) the relentless interference in the Tewahdo Church, one that goes all the way to its fundamental structure; (j) the destitution of the urban areas, mainly populated by the Tigrignas, all as a result of PFDJ’s policies; etc.

The sad and ironic fact about the Tigrignas is not only that they keep discounting every misfortune that has visited upon them under ghedli, but that they keep romanticizing these very misfortunes under various patriotic names. They thrive in the horror culture of martyrdom that glorifies sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake. They call all those murdered by ghedli – rounded up peasants, child soldiers, women-soldiers, various dissenters (Falul, Menqa, Yemin, etc), all kinds of unjustified suspects, etc – “martyrs” instead of “victims”, thereby exculpating ghedli by a semantic fiat of all the crimes it had committed. They closely identify themselves with ghedli “virtues” – valor, fortitude, independence, perseverance, sacrifice, martyrdom, self-reliance, etc – without ever asking what those “virtues” were used for. That is, they want to own the means independent of the colonial cause that determined it and the alien goal that it was meant to achieve. Simply because the occupation force in Asmara is identified by them as “ours”, every brutality that takes place over them is miraculously turned into a point of pride. What, indeed, is this Tigrigna malady?  The reason is obvious: if the Kebessa elite are to be proud owners of the ghedli legay, they will have to thoroughly sanitize it first. But this sanitization is not simply a benign semantic exercise, but has real time horrendous consequences on the ground; for it requires that one continuously disown one part after another of what makes his/her true self.

In the above story, no one wants to identify the disease by its medical attributes; that is, by what it does to the body in its physical sense. Its most defining characteristic is: who had it? It was because all thought the disease “emanated” from the Queen that they wanted to have it. This identification by association happens also to be a defining characteristic of the Eritrean revolution: “If deqina had it, then we want to have it too.” Even the fathers who had seen through the futility of the ghedli enterprise from the vey beginning had to give in at the end simply because it involved their children. As for the elite, anything that is associated with ghedli and teghadelti is what they want to own, all the hardships (of course, referred to by their romanticized names) leading that list. And true to this spirit of ownership of the deprivations of the past, the more the virus attacks their people, the more proud they are of it, and the more they claim it as their legacy. Indeed, the Kebessa elite have become a masochistic group that relishes its people’s pain, one that has become terribly proud of its Regal Disease.

At the introduction of this essay, I claimed that there is no way that one could glamorize the pain of one’s own people without at the same time disowning those very people. And the entire history of the revolution, both before and after independence, can be chronicled as the ghedli generation’s tireless effort to disown not only their fathers’ heritage but also any population group associated with it so as to be the proud owners of the Regal Disease. This, in turn, requires that Eritreanism be measured not by its native but by its alien components – a prime example of that would be Jebha and its undertakings.

Jebha and its alien components

Think about how the Eritrean sewra started: a number of Muslim elite congregated in Cairo, the hotbed of pan-Arabism, Islamism and Gamalism at that time, and decided to start a revolution inspired by these alien -isms. Then they assigned the task to a notorious former shifta, who not only had fought hard to reinstate Fascist Italy long after the Italian army surrendered, [5] but also had been assaulting native Eritreans for years after that. What is more, those elites initially provided Awate with a fighting force almost entirely composed of Sudanese police/soldiers with transnational identities. And to make matters worse, the Muslim elite declared that Arabic would be the national language of the country; of course, at the expense of their mother tongues.

And in its course of its 20-years long mieda life, predictably Jebha’s inspiration came entirely from the Arab world. It starts from the very term, “sewra”, one that was originally created in the Arab world to be applied within the context of Arab nationalism only, where the revolution conducted had to necessarily be against a non-Arab occupier. [6] And when Jebha became socialist-oriented, it had to come in its Arab grab as Baathism; and at its pluralistic best, it had to seek guidance from the “Algerian experience” to flirt with “regional autonomy” of the mieda type when it briefly divided itself into five regional fighting forces. That is, for Jebha, it was impossible to imagine anything outside the Arab world; its world view was entirely informed by Arabism. That is why even the internationalist elements that inspired many third-world revolutions during that era had to be Arabized first before they could be digested by Jebha Arabists.

If so, why is it that none of the nationalists (hagerawyan) ever added up all this Arab elements and then seriously doubted the “Eritrean identity” of Jebha? This is, indeed, very strange given that Eritrean nationalists have prided themselves with the fact that theirs is a genuine self-reliant revolution conducted by dekebat. What explains this odd phenomenon?

There is a simple answer to the above raised question: the measure of “Eritrean identity” has always been how much one is willing to renounce (or “sacrifice”) one’s own, both in terms of one’s own heritage and one’s own people, for the sake of the elite’s “Eritrea”. Notice that this is a strange kind of sacrifice, for it asks one to sacrifice nothing less than the real Eritrea for an alien one that the elite wanted to construct. When pushed to its logical end, this would mean that at its sacrificial most, one has to be willing to “sacrifice” one’s identity for the sake of that alien “Eritrea”!

To grasp the severity of this disowning phenomenon, try to imagine this impossible scenario: a Tigre-speaking Muslim elite loudly entertaining of having Tigre (alongside Tigrigna) as a national language. He would be immediately branded as a traitor to the Eritrean cause, as the Muslim elite saw it then and see it now, for it would derail their colonial aspiration (under its Arab grab). That means that he had to disown his mother tongue if he was to be accepted as a true Eritrean by his fellow elite. Or, if we put it in the language of the culture of martyrdom, he had to be willing to “sacrifice” his mother tongue if he wanted to see the kind of alien “Eritrean identity” that the Muslim elite wanted to construct come into fruition.

In fact, there is a vivid example from Jebha’s past that depicts how far the Muslim elite were willing to disown their own in order to embrace the “Arab heritage”: they burned all books written in Tigre at mieda! If this evokes the image of the medieval world where books of “heresy” were burned, it is because the very idea of writing books in Tigre was taken as heretic to the Arab project! The fear was that if Tigre-speaking masses began to read and write in their language, they might not be willing to give it up for an alien language, thus derailing the Arab colonial aspiration of their elite. Even the idea of Tigre as a written language coexisting with Arabic was too threatening to the Arabists; they thought that this coexistence would only come at the expense of the hegemony of Arabic. According to them, talking in their mother tongues won’t take them far enough from the habesha world they wanted to distance themselves from; that is, languages like Tigre (for the Tigre-speaking Muslim elite) and Tigrigna (for the Tigrigna-speaking Muslims) were and still are too close for comfort. That this linguistic disowning also afflicts the Kebessa elite can be seen from asking this question: why is it seeking such blatantly alien language as Arabic is not seen as un-Eritrean, while a Tigrigna spoken with an accent becomes an immediate suspect amongst them?

Now, to this linguistic distancing, if we include all the Arab elements mentioned above, we can see why Jebha’s authenticity as a genuine Eritrean movement was never put into doubt. To the contrary, the more it sought its colonial “Arab heritage”, the more Eritrean it became, simply because by doing that it was traversing the longest distance possible from the dreaded point of departure.

Given that the heritage that everyone wanted to distance from – be it the colonial modernists of the Kebessa type or the Arabists – was the habesha one, it is no wonder that the Tigrignas had to work doubly hard to prove their Eritreanism, and hence the Regal Disease becomes by that much pronounced in them. For the Kebessa elite, the Regal Disease started early when they disowned their fathers, and everything those fathers represented; that is, after having branded them as andnet traitors. Ever since, their Eritreanism has been measured by how much they could distance themselves from the legacy of their fathers. Moreover, in the process of claiming the Italian colonial legacy as their own, they had to erase all the suffering and pain their fathers had gone through in that colonial era. Once this disowning becomes the measure of who is genuine Eritrean, nothing was left sacred: language, history, culture, tradition, religion, education, society, family, etc. As they renounced their rich habesha heritage, they felt they were coming closer and closer to the “authentic” Eritrean identity they wanted to build ex nihilo. That is to say, this nationalist quest to identify themselves as “Eritrean”, to intimately identify themselves with the Regal Disease, has made the Tigrignas look inside themselves for enemies of the nation. Thus, not only were they disowning the social riches of the past associated with their fathers, but also actual flesh-and-blood population groups of their own kind: the peasants, the women, the youth, etc.

Let me start by focusing on the “jasus” (informer) factor that prevailed throughout the ghedli era to address this “disowning” phenomenon: how the Kebessa elite, in the process of purging the “habesha” in them, uniquely applied this witch hunt to their own kind only.

The jasus phenomenon

The quintessential enemy of “sewra” is the informer, or as it was known throughout the ghedli era then: jasus. There was a possibility that a captured enemy soldier could be forgiven, but never a jasus. An informer is the ultimate traitor of the revolution, so there cannot be any extenuating circumstances that would save him. And here is the crucial point: he always had a Tigrigna face. And the more habesha characteristics he happened to display – being a peasant, belonging to the clergy, having formerly belonged to a militia or Police Abbay, etc – the more likely he will be suspected of committing this cardinal transgression.

Let me start with the jasus teghadalay. This accusation was applied almost entirely to Kebessa teghadelti, and almost all of the times unwarranted. In the early years, any highlander joining Jebha was a potential suspect as jasus, and many were those who lost their lives thereof. The witch hunt against Christians in the ’60s was conducted precisely because they were taken as too habesha to be trusted. But even later, when such blanket accusation became impossible with the huge inflow of the students in the 70s, whenever this suspicion surfaced periodically and targeted to groups or individuals, it was singularly applied to the Kebessa type. Here is what I have heard from some former Jebha teghadelti that throws light on this phenomenon: that it was easy for a lowlander to leave Jebha, live in Sudan for some years and go back to his village – all without bringing any suspicion or punishment upon him from the ghedli authorities. But if a Tigrigna teghadalay abandoned Jebha and was captured while crossing the border or going back to his village, he would face all kinds of difficulties, branding him as jasus being one of them. And many have lost their lives as a result. But this is not something that only a lowlander would do to Kebessa, the testimony to this being the countless Tigrignas that perished in Shaebia after having been falsely branded as jasus or traitors of the revolution.

The recurring witch-hunt that remained to be the defining characteristic of Shaebia throughout its duration at mieda started earlier than the purging of the Menqa movement that the opposition elite want to make their starting point of Shaebia’s purges. It started during the siege years of early 70s, when Jebha was following Shaebia in hot pursuit all the way to Sudan. With the onset of paranoia in Shaebia in those early siege years, many of those who came to join the Front during those difficult years became immediate suspects, and more than 50 of them, all of them from Kebessa, were massacred (when the entire force was composed of few hundreds only). It was only later, already too late for those massacred, that the Menqa followers aired some kind of mild protest in regard to this kind of killings. Of course, you won’t find this history written by the opposition elite, mainly because it is taboo to air concern regarding jasus, even if all there was to it was only suspicion. To my knowledge, the only two persons that mentioned these massacres are Zekre Lebona and Tesfay Temenwo, even though the latter seems to somewhat buy into the jasus story.

And if you happened to be a peasant, you would definitely attract more unwarranted suspicion as “informer”. The peasants who perished as jasus in Jebha and Shaebia controlled areas are countless. I remember a case of a peasant from the border area (in Seraye) who went to Rama (in Tigray) to sell/buy in the market in the mid 70s. When he came back, he was stopped by kifli tseta (security department) of Jebha, and a piece of paper with Dergi’s stamp on it was found on him. It was either some kind of receipt for a transaction or a pass to the market/town. If someone was an informer, the last thing he would do is walk around with such blatant evidence that would incriminate him there and then; that alone should have alerted the ghedli vigilantes of the innocence of the suspected. But the kifli tsetita decided that he was an informer and was executed soon thereafter. The villagers talked about this event for a long time to come with anger and sadness. Many were the peasants who were made to “disappear” in such a way by ghedli. For instance, in the mid ’70s, Jebha used t hang peasants in the marketplace of Areza, unsupported by evidence but nevertheless carried out with the primary aim of striking terror among the peasant population.

Another similar event that took place in mid ’70s, in Shaebia-occupied Keren, is that of a group of retired policemen (from Police Abbay), respected citizens of the city, who were taken by halewa sewra based on suspicion only, simply because they used to go to Asmara to collect their monthly retirement salaries (as everyone else did), and were summarily executed. All of them were harmless abotat in their retirement years, and no doubt by that time had been bought into the Eritrean cause. Some of them had their sons already in ghedli, which makes the case by that much tragic.

Another massive wave of killings of “peasant informants” was conducted after the ’78 retreat. When Shaebia was cordoned off in Sahel, and with the paranoia that such encirclement triggered, its kifli hizbi (people’s department) was conducting a reign of terror in dehri mesmer (beyond the trench lines) among the peasants to regain its footing in the areas it used to control before the retreat. Impossible for its armed forces to move in large numbers in these areas, it had these execution squads swiftly combing through the rural landscape, undertaking sewrawi fithi (revolutionary justice) on the poor peasants. Many were the peasants who lost their lives for no particular reason: for having been seen to talk or associate with soldiers, for visiting too many times the market and for various other unconfirmed rumors. But the biggest reason that brought the wrath of kifli hizbi on the peasants was the failure of collaboration. After the retreat, with the heavy presence of Ethiopian troops and militia sirnay in their areas, many peasants refused to collaborate with Shaebia. For instance, when the entire Hamasien plateau became off limits to Shaebia, in one gruesome wave of killings many peasants were assassinated simply because they refused to collaborate with it. Notice that the refusal to be an informer of Shaebia is all that was needed for one to be branded as “informer” of Ethiopia – true to the revolutionary credo, “you are either with us or against us”.

The other massive wave of jasus-killings took place throughout the 80s, when almost all the recruits were results of giffa; the atmosphere of suspicion was so high that the death squads of Shaebia were working overtime in killing peasants suspected of spying or planning to flee the round ups, which amounted to the same thing to them. That was especially so if the peasants happened to be former militias (militia sirnay). Armed by Ethiopia, the peasant militias primarily remained confined to the vicinity of their villages. When Shaebia raided or occupied their areas, many of them surrendered without much resistance. Any militia with rank, even the smallest one, was most of the time killed on the spot. The rest of rank and file militias were forced to march all the way to Sahel for “rehabilitation” before they were forcibly made to join the Front. In the course of rehabilitation, anything that they said or did – a misspeaking, an attitude of discontent, an act of fear in a battle, any move that could be taken as an attempt to flee – that attracted suspicion from rank-and-file informers or authorities could easily land a peasant in the dreaded halewa sewra; and if branded jasus, as it often happened, he/she would end up in front of the execution squad. And as for those peasants who were captured while attempting a real escape, there was no mercy shown at all. And, unlike the urban escapees who most of the time headed to Sudan, many of peasant escapees knew no other world than their villages, an area susceptible to sudden roundups and kifli hizbi infiltrations; many were the peasants who were relentlessly pursued back to their villages and killed on the spot. If you can imagine of tens of thousands of wedo-geba and other escapees in that era, you can also easily imagine the thousands who perished attempting it.

[let me digress a bit at this point to attract the attention of readers to the interview of Keysi at Radio Medrek, broadcasted on April 22, 2014. It is to be known, that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the ghedli romantics have been consistently and dogmatically asserting that the Eritrean revolution had been voluntary in participation from the beginning to the end. The greatest proponent of this myth is Saleh Younis, who until very recently has been openly denying that giffa ever existed, let alone that it existed at a massive scale. It has been a while since some of us have been trying to demystify this myth, but it is probably the first time it is coming from the mouth of the horse, Keysi being one of the old guards among Shaebia leadership. Keysi makes it crystal clear not only that giffa did exist, but also that it existed at massive scale throughout the 80s; so much so that it entirely changed the demography of Shaebia from one mainly composed of students in the ’70s into one mainly composed of forcefully conscripted peasants in the ’80s. Typical of the elite mentality though, Keysi was revealing these facts not in sympathy of the plight of the peasants, but to back up his elitist narrative: that it was because of this drastic demographic shift that ghedli entered Asmara without any program or vision.]

But for being falsely branded as the quintessential jasus, the greatest honor went to bahtawi (the hermit). In the days of sewra, one of the recurrent lies that used to circulate was that of a certain “Agame” captured while poisoning the well of a certain village. And many believed these stories without there being the slightest bit of evidence or rationale behind those lies, that “certain village” being always other than their own and most conveniently located far from their village. Another infamous lie was that of a certain bahtawi that, when searched, a gun or other incrementing evidence was found on him. The environment became so hostile to the hermit that it didn’t take long before he totally disappeared from the Kebessa scene; and I don’t think he ever made it back even after independence. Thus, with the uninvited appearance of the urban elite (in the form of teghadelti) in the rural scene, it was rendered unsafe for any hermit to walk through a habesha landscape dotted with age-old monasteries familiar to him for hundreds of years. True to their alien aspiration, wherever the urban elite tread, they had to dislodge the original inhabitants. The extinction of bahtawi from the Kebessa landscape is a telling metaphor of the ugly legacy of the ghedli generation: the most precious symbol of the Tewahdo Church was denigrated as jasus and rendered extinct by this clueless generation, who were willing to go to unheard of lengths to renounce their own kind just to meet the demands of an elusive ghedli/Eritrean identity.

Throughout these witch hunts, Shaebia’s principle had been: when in doubt, kill. They always preferred to err on the killing side; to them, it would be unforgivable to find out that someone who had slipped through their justice system turned out to be a spy. But it is forgivable to find out that someone that they had executed turned out to be innocent. According to this totalitarian logic, the revolution can afford the latter but not the former. And here is the crux of the matter: the Kebessa elite had their suspicion raised to a murderous level only when they encountered faces of their own kind. Notice that the peasant, the hermit and the Police Abbay became the immediate suspects of the revolution because they reminded the ghedli generation of their habesha roots – they were too habesha for them to be trusted. That is, the ghedli generation had to renounce what was closest to them – the abotatat, the hagereseb, the Tewahdo Church, their history, their tradition, etc. – for them to feel secure in their newly acquired ghedli/Eritrean identity; that is, in their Regal Disease.

Thus, in hindsight, we can say that the extinction of Kebessa started with the extinction of the hermit. Indeed, killing the prophet doesn’t amount to killing the prophecy; hence the apocalyptic scene in today’s Eritrea.

Disowning entire population groups

This disowning phenomenon that uniquely identifies the Regal Disease as exhibited among the Tigrigna elite is at its most virulent when it is applied to entire population groups: the peasants, the women, the youth, the ghebar, the martyred, etc. Again, the Kebessa elite are doubly hard on their own to prove their Eritreanism; they don’t even spare each other, as the witch hunt for zeytsiruy Eritreawi is at its fiercest among themselves, as they keep pointing their fingers at one another for being not “pure enough” to be an Eritrean.

It is not the half-Italian, the half-Arab or the half-Sudanese that the Kebessa elite put under the “purity” scrutiny; all of these are beyond reproach simply because the alien element that they want to purge is that of “habesha” only. Similarly, it is not the Afar of mixed heritage (from Eritrean and Ethiopian Afar) or the Tigre of mixed heritage (from Eritrean and Sudanese Tigre) that they put to test. This witch hunt is exclusively applied to those of Tigrigna stock, and mostly done by the Tigrignas themselves. Thus, the elusive search for a “genuine” Eritrean is a task that has been reserved for Kebessa Eritrean elite to be applied on their kind only.

There is no better place to look at this sickening phenomenon than among the Kebessa elite in diaspora, among whom that search for “tsuruy Eritrawi” goes on unabated. If they are regime supporters, it is used across the board to whomever they want to vilify. Those in the opposition are no better; their favorite pastime is to count the pints of alien blood (“Agame” or “Amhara”) that is found running in the veins of the who-is-who in Shaebia leadership – Isaias Afwerki, Yemane Monkey, Hagos Kisha, etc. Had this been at mieda, there is no doubt that these purists from both camps would have enthusiastically participated in the countless purges done on their own kind in the name of Eritreanism.

This disowning culture doesn’t even spare the dead. If there is anything that binds nationalists across the regime supporters’ and opposition camp’s divide, it would be the story of martyrs. But here is the problem: both are enamored in the story not as it actually occurred to the martyred but as they want to visualize it. Many of the discordant stories have to be smoothed out to fit their Eritreanism, in that the story has to be a single one: that of the heroic martyr fighting a just war of liberation. By lumping together the victim and the victimizer, the rebel and the enabler, the voluntarily conscripted and the rounded up, the adult soldier and the child soldier, the trench-shot and the executed, etc, they erase all the nuanced history that could have been told: the sectarian strife, the various uprisings, the trauma of child soldiers, the plight of the peasants, etc.

In the case of women fighters, whose images are often showcased to display the patriotism and exceptionalism of the Eritrean revolution, it is easy how this disowning would go [7]: “They keep flaunting that image of a woman fighter with shorts, Afro hairdo and sandals, with the AK 47 slang across her shoulder, without ever willing to face the horrendous life trajectory that brought that woman into that instant of photographic event. If they had done so, most often than not, they would have found out that she is probably a peasant woman forcibly conscripted in a round up in her teenage years, carted off to Sahel, subjected to all kinds of abuses.” That is, in order to own that that romanticized image of the “female warrior” that fits their Eritreanism, the elite are more than willing to suppress the true stories that happened to those women. One cannot hold those true accounts and the women fighters separate of one another without simultaneously disowning those very women; for the fabricated story that the ghedli romantics concoct can only belong to an imagined woman fighter that has no correspondence with the real one on the ground. Simply put, when this is extrapolated to include all Eritrea, in order to own an imagined Eritrea, and an alien one for that, the ghedli romantics had to disown the real Eritrea on the ground.

Once this disowning starts, there is no stopping to the slippery-slope road that the purification process takes. At its worst, it targets entire population groups. In Part I of Kebessa Eritrea’s Suicide Mission, we have seen how the disowning of the Tigrigna woman goes, as she was singularly targeted for all kinds of abuses in ghedli and independence eras. The Kebessa elite had to experiment on their women, as fighters and fighter-incubators, to prove their Eritreanism. Below, I will focus on the peasants and the youth only to elaborate on how the disowning of entire population groups goes.

Disowning the peasants

The same urbanites who refused to acknowledge the peasants’ presence while residing in their urban enclaves kept their world-distance from them throughout their ghedli sojourn. It is amazing to see how the peasants remained invisible to them even as they shared their world – from their humble cottages to the trenches [as the case of Keysi testifies]. Throughout their sojourn at mieda,  what the urban elite saw in a peasant was an indistinct lump of raw material that was no different than the next peasant beside him/her – to them, you had seen one peasant, you had seen them all! Thus, they saw nothing in the peasant population except as an inexhaustible source of supply for their guerrilla army, both in terms of human and material resources.

But what made this disowning of the peasants as the invisible Other, an alien population group that can easily be dispensed with, was the implicit collaboration of the larger urban population with the urban elite at mieda [8]:

“ … Most of the urbanites were oblivious that it [giffa] had ever taken place; many others who thought they knew didn’t realize the magnitude of the suffering; and many more others who knew either supported the policy or didn’t give a damn.  But what is shared by all is that, even now, they don’t want to dwell on the plight of peasants in ghedli era. To the urban public, it is as if it was something that happened to a people alien to themselves …

Given the striking similarities of the two giffas respectively conducted in ghedli and present day times – in their scope, duration and implementation – one would expect similar consequences as of today’s to have affected the rural areas that were subjected to it during the liberation era. If so … how do we account for these muted reactions as contrasted to the anger and sadness of the public over present day giffa?  There is a simple answer: then, the horror was confined to rural Eritrea only; now, it has come to include the urban area. So far as the cost of the revolution came at the expense of the peasants … the urbanites didn’t mind it.”

Look at how it came easy for the urban population, in general, and the urban elite at mieda, in particular, to disown the peasants; that is, it was a price they were willing to pay for the sake of “Eritrea”. It was difficult for the urban elite to imagine their “modern” Eritrea with the peasants’ full presence in it. As in the askari phenomenon, the peasant was not meant to own the colony that he fought for, but only to help the urban elite to own it. Of course, the urban population were deluding themselves if they thought that they would be spared from such kind of disowning. Soon after independence, with the term “ghebar” generously expanded to include them, and with the teghadalay-ghebar divide in the making, the ominous signs for such disowning were already there. But it took the border war, with the indefinite national service imposed on their children, for such disowning to be applied on them at a massive scale.

Disowning the youth

Above, I have noted that although it is the same nationalist virus that has been mutating to meet the demands of the ever-changing context, Eritreans’ romance with ghedli is attained by denying the virus’ life trajectory that connect it with its colonial roots and with what is currently taking place in Eritrea. But the story of the disowning of the Warsai generation makes it crystal clear how these connections go: not only is the national service the mirror image of ghedli to its minutest details, one can also clearly detect the aspiration for exclusive ownership of the colonial legacy that motivated the Yikealo generation to embark on such a cruel undertaking. Thus, in the Warsai project, we can easily track the totalitarian and colonial roots that motivated it.

The disowning of the youth generation in independent Eritrea ominiously starts with that Orwellian name given to them by the “liberators”: “Warsai”. No one in his right mind can possibly miss the cruel irony the name “Warsai” carries. As their “generously” given name indicates, the Warsai are indeed meant to be “inheritors,” a description that usually carries a positive connotation (one who inherits a debt can hardly be called an “inheritor”). But a closer look indicates that they are actually intended to inherit the worst: indefinite military service, one war after another, death in epic proportion, war disability, modern-day slavery, sexual abuse, educational deprivation, denial of family life, religious persecution, incarceration, internal exile, mass exodus and all the rest of oppression that the totalitarian leadership in Asmara offers. In other words, they are meant to be the proud inheritors of the Regal Disease, grandiosely baptized as “ghedli legacy” (hidri suwuatna).

Thus, the Warsai are not meant to inherit the fruits of the struggle (for there are none), but oddly enough, the struggle itself; or rather, all the hardships that the struggle offers. Given that the national service is designed to recreate all those ghedli hardships, with their blueprints derived directly from mieda, all the evils that have been stoking the Warsai have initially gained acceptability only when packaged under the ever-romanticized “struggle.” Once looked at through the lens of ghedli, one stops calling all the misery indexes mentioned above by their right names. Instead, they have tailor-made names, all taken out from old pages of mieda, that magically transform them into patriotic-sounding ones: martyrdom, sacrifice, fortitude, perseverance, challenge, steadfastness, courage, principle, iron-will, self-reliance, the can-do generation, the inheritors, legacy, etc. [meswaiti, bidho, tsina’t, bitsifrna, biqiltsmna, tetsewarnet, mekete, metkelna, ilamana, yikealo, warsai, hastinawi menfes, etc.] You can see how this yearning to possess the Regal Disease has made it impossible for many to see the farce that the name “Warsai” carries on timely basis, that being the precursor for all the horrors soon to follow.

Let me look at the above mentioned irony, that odd correlation, as applied to the most egregious crime that is now being committed against the youth generation – the mass exodus – and try to trace it to its totalitarian and colonial roots by asking this question: why are we not calling the mass exodus “genocide”?

Let me start with its totalitarian roots. There is one particular family resemblance that holds in between the Khmer Rouge and Shaebia in regard to genocide: as the Khmer evicted the entire urban population from Phnom Penh, so did Shaebia with the Warsai generation. The level of genocide in Eritrea has never reached that of the Khmer in type or in numbers. Even so, is there anything that we could call genocide going on in Eritrea right now to place Shaebia on the same trajectory? The Yikealo masters, who have found Eritrea to be with too few resources if they share it with the Warsai generation, and hence too crowded to be habitable, had to evict the young generation, first, out of urban centers and, thereafter, altogether out of the country, in order to feel secure in their hegemony. Already, hundreds of thousands of this generation has left the country for good. Now, if hundreds of thousands of the most potent part of a certain population group – say Saho, Bilen, Kunama or Afar – were to be singled out and driven out of the country, would that be considered as genocide or not? You bet your life it would. If the aim of genocide is the eventual extinction of an ethnic group, it matters little if the final solution came to materialize as a mass eviction or mass killings or both. If so, why is it that we are shying from calling the extinction of the Warsai generation from Eritrea as “genocide”?

The only reason why we are not calling the mass exodus as genocide is that we are still finding it hard to believe that an older generation (deqina), and for that the liberators, can commit a genocide on their younger generation, there being no difference of ethnicity in both generations. This is, indeed, what makes the Eritrean case unique among all other genocides – one that clearly damns the Eritrea revolution for the farce it has always been. While other genocides targeted other ethnic group for liquidation, in the Eritrean case, the liberators couldn't stand the idea of others following them as a next generation. If there is any new thing to be scrutinized here, it is the visceral hatred for continuity. The entire Eritrean revolution has been about discontinuity from the past – in economy, history, culture, administration, etc. When this discontinuity logic is pushed to its morbid end, it is carried over to the line of succession, as in discontinuity in bloodline. The liberators would rather see the nation disintegrate than another generation coming to inherit the real Eritrea. If so, we shouldn’t shy away from using the phrase “generational genocide” to describe the fate of the Warsai generation under the Yikealo generation.

The tendency to downplay crimes committed by ghedli because they are “ours” has been one of the main reasons why the Warsai generation has been unable to fight back. The ghedli narrative as being told and retold by ghedli romantics has rendered the Warsai harmless and impotent: they have become incapable of hating their victimizers. And in order to fight back, one has to see an enemy’s face on the other side. What the ghedli narrative has done is make it impossible for the Warsai to hate that alien ghedli face with the martyrs’ name tattooed all over it, even as it is that very face that has driven them out of their country.

We can also easily trace the colonial roots of such massive displacement, for Shaebia is at its colonial best when it emulates Fascist Italy in its displacement policy: as the new occupiers from Sahel came to be settled in Asmara, they eventually wanted the educated natives to move out of the city to make room for them. Not surprisingly, the line they wanted to draw in their return between them and ghebar was as stark as that in between the colonizer and the colonized. It was only that their apartheid system came in a generational form: Yikealo versus Warsai (the teghadalay-ghebar divide as put in its generational aspect). Whereas the Italians kept the undesirable natives at the periphery of Asmara in the shanty towns of Aba-Shawl, Hadish-Adi, Gheza-Berhanu, etc, the new colonizers decided to expel them - first, from the city, and then, altogether from the country. In this regard, they have even outperformed the Italian colonial masters that they love to emulate.

If the above makes sense, then the entire futility of the ghedli project can be grasped if we ask these questions: How is it possible for tens of thousands of liberators who had supposedly struggled for years to “liberate” the masses to show no qualms at all in evicting an entire generation – in their hundreds of thousands – out of the country? How did it come easy to them to disown an entire generation? To understand this, it would help to know that disowning one’s own has been part and parcel of the ghedli project from the very beginning, as we have seen above. It is no wonder then that for the liberators, who have been disowning the peasants and the womenfolk at mieda, it comes easy to disown the youth in independent Eritrea.


The Kebessa elite fought hard for the 30 years to secede from a larger habitat in which they were thriving, and out of which a viable nation could have been made, to create a claustrophobic and uninhabitable nation. The young generation, sensing that there is not even a semblance of nationhood in this Eritrea, have decided to “move out” in their hundreds of thousands in search of a new habitat. Thus, the Tigrigna elites’ foolishness can be summed up as a population group that has embarked on a difficult life time journey to create a toxic habit from which they wanted to move out instantly; that is, immediately after they “moved in”.

And the anesthesiologists are at it again, as usual numbing the Kebessa elite on their way to oblivion. Lately, as part of that numbing process, there has been this unabashed rooting for PFDJ from their quarters. These happen to be the very people who used to hate Shaebia at a gut level; so much so, they used to actively solicit anything anti-Shaebia in their website. Then, their single purpose was how to rehabilitate Jebha on the ashes of Shaebia. And within the opposition camp, they used to occupy the position of the hawks, admonishing those who advocated the peaceful way only. But it has been a while since they have been warming up to Shaebia/PFDJ. Since 2007 (the first U-turn), they have been actively subverting any sanctions that may harm it, of course all said and done in the nationalist lingo: “We have our pride and dignity!”, “We don’t believe in unilateral disarmament”, etc. As for the armed struggle against the PFDJ that they used to support, it has now whittled down to “democratic coup” (the second U-turn). At most then, nothing other than the PFDJ conducting a democratic coup against itself is acceptable to them now. What explains these U-turns?

There have been no U-turns at all, since they have been consistent in their goal, as they keep switching tactics to fit their grand strategy. It is not that these anesthesiologists have found a new love for Shaebia/PFDJ; they viscerally hated it then when they advocated its total destruction; they hate it now, and eventually want to see its total destruction. So what has changed? With the first U-turn, they decided that the primary enemy was Ethiopia, and not the PFDJ; and hence, they set out to protect PFDJ from Ethiopia. And at the time the toxic highlander-lowlander politics was dominating their website – that is, in their second U-turn – they decided that the primary enemy was Kebessa Eritrea, and not the PFDJ; and hence, they set out to protect PFDJ from Kebessa Eritrea.  This is because it has slowly dawned to them this important realization: the Isaias regime, by driving out the Kebessa youth out of the nation in epic proportions, is doing an excellent job of finishing off Kebessa. If so, their rationale goes, why stop it now? After all, if Kebessa collapses, so would Shaebia. The aim is for total victory. Blinded by their demographic calculations, they fail to see the most crucial factor: that if Kebessa goes, so would the rest of Eritrea

On the Ethiopian side, what is cooking remains an enigma. Meles Zenawi’s clear strategy of bringing matters to an end with regime change in Asmara within a reasonable range of time seems to have been abandoned. Instead, with its non-interference policy (or rather, “no peace no war” policy) coalescing, Ethiopia’s strategy seems to have inadvertently coincided with those of the anesthesiologists. But I don’t think it is a farsighted strategy. To reiterate the main point, if Kebessa goes, so does the rest of Eritrea. And the disintegration of Eritrea will come at a huge expense for Ethiopia, in general, and for its border territories, in particular.

With Egypt actively working in fostering anarchy in Somalia and South Sudan, it requires one more neighboring nation in anarchy in the North for the encirclement of Ethiopia to be complete. It would be pure naivety to assume that such an anarchy that stretches from the northern most Eritrean Red Sea coast to the southern most Somali Indian Ocean coast will spare any enclaves in between in peace and stability – and that includes Djibouti. So Egypt’s strategy is not to form allies with stable nations around Ethiopia, for once a nation becomes stable it acts based on its self interest only. Thus, Egypt necessarily needs unstable nations all around Ethiopia for its blackmailing strategy to work. Put in clear terms: Egypt doesn’t need a stable Eritrea that is allied with it, for a stabilized Eritrea would soon find out that it has little convergence of interests with Egypt. So what Egypt wants is an Eritrea that is at limbo (like the current one), at minimum, or an entirely somalized Eritrea, at maximum. If the latter takes place, such an all out anarchy could easily penetrate Ethiopia and Djibouti.

The idea that somehow Ethiopia could sustain its stability and economic growth while the whole neighborhood keeps burning is bogus. If so, as the giant of the neighborhood, it is incumbent on Ethiopia to take a leading role not only in ushering regime change in Eritrea, but also in bringing stability thereafter. But so far, in the post-Meles era, we haven’t seen any move towards that direction. All we have been seeing are ambivalent messages and the hosting of opposition meetings. At this point all I could say is this: I only hope that the suicidal habesha foolishness that we see exhibited by Kebessa Eritreans finds no counterpart beyond the Mereb River.


[1] Arbi Harnet; Virtually No Border Control in Eritrea; April 12, 2014; asmarino.com.

[2]Belloni, Milena; It’s April, which means Eritrea’s refugees are headed north; April 05, 2014; Global Post.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Connell, Dan; Eritrean Refugees at Risk; April 11, 2014; asmarino.com.

[5] Yebio, Ghirmay; Awate was a trigger happy ordinary outlaw; Oct 15, 2012; asmarino.com.

[6] Erlich, Haggai; Ethiopia and the Middle East;  Sep 1994; Lynne Rienner Oub.

[7] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea: What the Book of Martyrs Doesn’t Say; July 14, 2010; asmarino.com.

[8] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Forced Peasant Conscripts that Sustained the Eritrean Revolution; Dec 18, 2010; asmarino.com.