Let alone Eritrea, we have no idea what four body parts are doing to us or for us.
Almost sixty years later, Eritrea finds itself – yet again – under the thumbs of Ethiopia, USA and the UN – the three major powers that facilitated, influenced or forced its gradual absorption by Ethiopia. This time round however, it has no one to blame but itself. We have come full circle and that deserves a much deeper reflection. The drill is on to excavate underground waters.
Eritreans have always found it difficult to differentiate ‘freedom’ with the politically overloaded word ‘independence’. A similarly confused perception is there between ‘sovereignty’ and social justice. It’s probably an outcome of an imprisoned mentality that just couldn’t quite manage to open up despite its long defiance to achieve those elusive qualities. May be that is why Eritrea never fails to surprise itself... with a much worse ground to work on.
As in some old traditional practice, Eritrea is probably doomed to sprinkle its own blood across its territory to protect itself from evil spirits and something that wasn’t there in the first place. It has all morphed into fighting ‘enemies’ to the extent of ignoring its own Achilles’ heel.
Whatever could have conceivably gone wrong with Eritrea has gone wrong... all over again. Long before Asmara ‘landed,’ there was the Port of Assab – the real historical origin of a politically mapped Eritrea and not everyone is bothered to figure out howf.
Asmara stands out like the Promised Land high up on a mountain. It’s always frustrating to locate a starting point, missing links and obscure boundaries and territories or pieces of superimposed fabric of Eritrean identities that have assumed an unstable mode of existence with the neighbours – Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti and even the Red Sea waters. The behaviour is not unlike that of a spoilt child who triggers a fight here and there, causes havoc and makes so much noise with a deliberate intention to attract attention but only to lose out in the end. It is an indication of a lack of confidence in ones sense of worth or a combination of an identity crisis and a loss of direction from within.
If Eritrea were a disease, Assab would be the virus and Asmara would naturally become the cyst. And now, Badme – the barren border area between Eritrea and Ethiopia where thousands of soldiers died – has evolved to cover-up the viral infection that has spread across the nation. These have mutated to a scale so grotesque and deadly that they have to be quarantined for future studies.
If Assab could be framed on a politically charged Richter scale, it would be on high point as the source of a tsunami that gave rise to an ocean of blood. It happened a long time ago and not many can remember. Long before Asmara was even conceived, there was the Port of Assab and it all started with Juiseppe Sapeto.
On the 15th of November of 1869, a certain Giuseppe Sapeto – an Italian priest and a commercial agent – is reported to have bought a portion of what is now known as the Port of Assab for an Italian company called Società di Navigazione Rubattino.
Assab was and still is one of strategically located ports along the southern tip of the Red Sea. It was sold around the time the scramble for Africa was brewing in Europe. In 1882, Assab was taken over by the Italian government. By 1885, Massawa was absorbed and by 1890, what is now known as Eritrea became an Italian colony and Asmara the capital. However disputed to world’s end, Eritrea was confined by an international border agreement. One might be tempted to say, “... and the rest is history”. But there is one other crucial development. It was in the late 1940s – almost 80 years after Assab was sold to Società di Navigazione Rubattino.
When Italy was defeated by the British in 1941, Eritrea’s future was again hanging in the balance. A few years before Eritrea was federated (under UN approval) with Ethiopia in 1952, the British Governor of Eritrea was invited to come to Addis Ababa to attend a meeting arranged by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia for foreign dignitaries, commercial agents and international companies. The Governor says that Eritrea was one of the main agendas. He further relates that the Emperor would be fair better if he were to settle for Assab and abandon the idea of swallowing Eritrea whole. He [the Governor] eventually concludes that the Emperor’s eyes were on Eritrea and that it might have undesired consequences for the future.
It’s all back to square one... Assab is on the spotlight all over again.
It seems ignorance, an incessant inward-looking attitude and greed are the main keys that open the doors to impose fear and acquire whatever one desires and, in the process, basic needs are ignored. For some, unfortunately, ‘sweet dreams are made of these...’ In this part of Africa [the Horn] and maybe in the rest of the continent, horrible nightmares are incubated in such histories. If sentiments of the past go above and cloud present imperatives, the probability of repeating history and reaping the same old outcome is always much higher.
The way things look, the hyper-inflated identities on territorial maps or national borders and equally unacceptable expenditures on armaments and the military – always justified for defense of the nation – simply rejuvenates endless cycles of powerlessness at the bottom and reinforces control from the top.
Eventually, something has to give in. For Eritrea, it began at Assab and that is probably where it will all end.
Have you ever taken the time (in your mind’s eye) to superimpose the territorial map of Italy on Eritrea? All you have to do is set and adjust both maps on the vertical and see the mirror image.
The contour is quite striking!
Not many are aware that Eritrea was mapped a few years after the Battle of Adwa and it really looks like Italy, having failed to colonise Ethiopia, had to do the border lines to impose and reflect its presence on the Horn of Africa. They even gave it the name ‘Eritrea’ – a name that recalls the Greek word for ‘erythro’ – meaning red. In the olden times, that used to signify the ‘red’ in the original name for the Red Sea and all it had to with was with the red algae or plankton that lie underneath the waters of the sea.
Since that fateful map, would it not be apt to say the ‘Eritrean’ blood has never hesitated to flow like a perennial river to find itself back on the same spot every time it attempts to cross the border line?
ASSAB IS JUST A SYMBOL
Why do you think the Europeans who took part in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 19th century put a different map on Africa? It is like dressing up the surface of Africa by cutting it down to territories to suit their needs. It’s all about subjugation, convenience and resource management. It doesn’t necessarily imply that African nation states, ethnic groups or tribes were or are doing any different. But it somehow boils down to guilt, revenge, pay-back time and all sorts of accommodations for resources all over again.
Is it not ironic that Europe is extremely busy trying to manage or eliminate borderlines within its own continental shelf while Africa is still going strong on maintaining those deadly frontiers – but still subject to international law – that were non-existent in its topography more than a hundred years ago?
If we can manage to open our minds, maybe there is a way out. If we ‘resource’ – as in going back to the source – the source of borderlines, we could then see the evolution of resource mania in Africa from inside and outside. After decades of ‘foreign’ rule, the new and independent African nation states of the 1960s became so engrossed with euphoria for a newly acquired power that was totally and absolutely alien to their own history and background. They became foreigners to their own background. A ‘fenced’ African state became the base for a new identity, a reason for being or belonging to a nation state that practically had no idea what it had in store and whoever and whatever attached to it had to bear the consequences.
Eritrea joined the club in 1991 and immediately began looking down on all African states that didn’t make the way Eritrea did it… only to repeat the same old story. Whenever lessons are not learned or somehow corrected so as not to repeat the same blunder, the same old and brutal event is bound to happen at a higher price.
The Asmara of 1940s 50s serves as a typical exhibition of that kind experience on a massive scale. The majority of Eritreans assumed they had the power to decide their own destiny… they did and it was short-lived. The same thing happened not long after the ‘independence’ of Eritrea in 1991. Just like what is going on in Eritrea all over again, Eritreans all over must be suffering from undigested memories.
Why do they get so excited by short-term benefits while indulging in lost memories without even able cover or recover their own history that stretches across borders over so many centuries? Is it not about time to put an end to borderline hypertensions on so many levels or does it come with the territory so naturally?
What do you think?
Liberation Struggle and Asmara in the ‘70s
In an attempt to make some sense of whatever goes around, there is always the tendency to submerge oneself or go blind behind some big cause. It’s a human trait – almost equivalent to that ever basic animal instinct of fight or flight. In most cases however, it’s a cover-up that literally shows their inability to deal with what is going on right in front of their eyes. How they manage to employ that unquestioning and blind belief to the point of sacrificing their own life or that of their offspring is beyond comprehension.
The first two casualties are the ability to reason or to at least think twice and feel something. Reason is twisted to a point of insignificance while what is left of feeling is upgraded to a level of emotional turmoil.
When young people started joining the armed liberation struggle for the independence of Eritrea, they surely had a cause in mind and en masse. “You are too young to understand,” they used to say... not to discourage you from joining the mass migration to the countryside for a cause no one really knows about, but only to show off their importance and superiority in matters so grave that their participation is of utmost need. Most were about to become the bread-winners of the family but left their young brothers, sisters and parents to suffer the consequences. They had all the right combinations in the wrong order.
Young blood, peer pressure, the urge to explore life and all that justified to fight for justice! The ‘turmoil’ inside them was swollen with this-is-a-man’s-job attitude to a point where even the women started acting like men. That is basically how the idea of ‘free Eritrea’ got impregnated and became unstoppable. It has to be acknowledged that the Ethiopian army was committing gross injustice in the countryside... so did the Eritrean liberation movements. The same old story is going on and on in what is now known as ‘independent’ Eritrea and hence, nothing new there. All was lost for lack of sense and sensibility on either side. The simple fact is that young people have so much energy and want to change the world. Some are caught in cross-fires only to have to deal with it for the rest of their lives. They always end up saying, “They [the faceless authorities] used us!” but there is nothing they can do about it. It’s happened so many times across the whole bloody planet. It’s not surprising anymore. It’s a fact of life.
There were asmarino city-slickers or undercover agents who frequented high schools, sport centers and neighbourhoods of Asmara trying to recruit young men and send them to the slaughter house. Heaven knows what was happening in the countryside. The current Government of Eritrea is actually much more efficient now. They call it an ‘indefinite’ national service. “We need more young blood,” they say to renew the old covenant but it was slavery then and it is still slavery now. They are just operating under different names.
Have you ever come across what the Jesuits (a Catholic priesthood) used to say? “Give me a child and I’ll give you the man”. Well, we got the men now and we know what the liberation struggle did to them. They are lost in deadly memories and the only option they have is to re-create them and recreate in them. If there are ‘Eritreans’ still dancing and getting excited by that kind of gallantry and grandeur, they must be off their heads.
CELEBRATING THE DEAD
There are cultures that dwell on the dead forever. In some cases, it’s a bewildering social practice that borders to insanity. Irrational as it may sound, why people celebrate their loss demands some sort of rational explanation.
Why do age-old human cultures or religions congregate and dance around the idea of resurrection, reincarnation and life after death? Is it probably because the human mind cannot tolerate the unknown or is it just a way of trying to deal with the inevitable?
When it comes to a collective loss, brooding about Eritrean martyrs is one of them. To remember the dead with a degree of respect is one thing but to guide the future upon their lifeless bodies is a bit of a contradiction. The Eritrean thing is probably more about sharing a collective grief than giving your life for a free country simply because Eritrea has nothing to show for it.
We are all mortal.
However and whenever these dear martyrs of ours and unbeknown to themselves, are still serving – as in life and so in death – to perpetuate the idea of an independent Eritrea for free. If some martyrs were granted the ‘permission’ to come back to life and be (politely) asked to do it all over again – and given the state Eritrea in the current times – it’s doubtful if they would sell their precious souls all over again... for nothing.
Most ‘mature’ Eritreans would ask anyone they somehow relate to and haven’t met for some time, “Do you have a child”? They do really sound so concerned.
“You need a replacement,” they would say... or something to that effect. Literally, it could read like, “You must have someone to take over”. And that is exactly what is not happening in Eritrea. The young are either dying young or fleeing the country while the nation is celebrating the dead... another form of immortality for a dying dream.
What is there to be said – in respect for the dead, past and present – for those who gave their lives for the independence and defense of Eritrea, they passed away in the hope that social justice would eventually prevail. But the independence of Eritrea was only the means and not the end.
Let history bury the dead and the living may find the time to forge their own future.
THE COMMON THREAD
The commons – usually those perceived to be at the bottom of the social ladder – are the last to benefit from changes of state. Governments, like any other social institute, have their own type of life cycle. The irony is that even the commons of one cycle evolve to produce their own system of social ladder along the lines of ethnic, class, race, gender, religious and power borderlines.
The dark clouds of the past always rain in the present and the future won’t be that different. However, when it comes to Eritrea, there is one common thread that binds them together: the song of injustice that is playing like a broken record for more than a century.
Injustice is the common thread that is part and parcel of the human condition. Are we not always tempted to shout, “Life is not fair!” But nature operates on disequilibrium otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The question is: how do we make it more habitable and sustainable to make it easier on ourselves?
Eritreans talk about how they fought back against colonisation by the Italians, the machinations of the British, the occupation by the Ethiopians and the great victorious achievements after an armed struggle of 30 deadly years. All these magnificent sounding episodes of this epic fight are bound by words that ignite words like liberation and independence.
What are these words supposed to mean?
Talking of meaningless words or absolute absence of communication, there is this real story about one of the batch of Asmarino’s who migrated to Asmara sometime in the 1930s. In those days, in relation to the Eritrean countryside, Asmara was from another space-time and whoever landed there would experience some kind of quantum leap.
There was this Eritrean who worked for an Italian auto-mechanic. One day, he (the Eritrean) needed a loan and a few days off work to attend a remembrance day of his father’s death. It’s a traditional custom organised by family and relatives a few weeks after burying the deceased.
The Eritrean wasn’t fluent in Italian then. He asks his boss, “Massawa malato, Areza morto, jib seladi, metesker weladi!”
According to him, he was speaking Italian. What can you figure out of that?
The Italian probably thought his apprentice was talking in tongues – Tigrinya, Italian and Arabic rolled in one. The boss, unable to sort out such a linguistic mayhem, called his other assistant to interpret whatever the other was trying to say.
A literal translation would read like: Massawa sick, Areza dead, give money, to remember parent.
The interpreter managed to put the message across as follows: His father got sick in Massawa. He went back to his home in Areza and died there. Now, I need some money to go there (Areza) to commemorate his passing.
The boss gave him the money and a few days off with a warning that he should come back to work on a certain date. The story doesn’t report on whether he went back to his workplace or not – just like whatever has been going in Eritrea for ages: the usual no-one-knows kind of narrative.
It’s Babylon time in Asmara – all over again.
There is a mythological story in the Old Testament (the Bible) about the ancient city of Babylon. The Babylonians planned to build the highest skyscraper that would reach the clouds and see God. They did manage to raise the building to that level but God, in his mysterious ways, made them speak in different languages until they couldn’t understand each other at all. Whatever they were constructing collapsed to ground zero right when they were about to reach their pinnacle of success.
There shouldn’t be any surprise then the independent media was finally put to rest just when Eritrea was about to express itself in meaningful terms and conditions of engagement.
Asmara does exhibit that tendency but not in that kind of instant crush which is associated with sudden death. With Asmara, it is more about an invisible and gradual deterioration one gets used to until nothing seems to be changing – a kind of death in slow motion. Again, the same could be said about Eritrea as a whole – a country with at least 9 languages and a population of less than 5 million. By the way, no one really knows the exact figure.
When it comes to the latest generation of Eritreans or those of Eritrean decent, the new events are incomprehensible. All you have to do is visit Asmara in July and August of every year and, in addition to the local and familiar languages, you come across all sorts of languages from across the world – from Swedish and German to Swahili and Dutch with a sprinkle of the odd ones.
Is this probably why so many Eritreans have become alienated to each other and the world at large? Could it be the burden of its unexplored internal strife? So much stuff has happened to this small country that it’s, whatever language is used, almost beyond ones ability to comprehend and communicate with clarity. The whole Eritrean experience demands opening up to these realities instead of closing down by a fenced idea of defense and an outdated attitude of assuming Eritrea is composed of one kind of people. It’s a melting of so many types of people and a suitable governance structure would do well to reflect that.
Asmara was initially populated by the Italians with restricted access to the city centre for the indigenous people. Let’s not forget that both were displaced from their ‘natural’ habitats. Seventy years on, Asmara is still a perfect symbol of displacement while Eritrea is the embodiment of all that. The modern day Eritrean tourists, with their higher income and sort of superior attitude, would flock to Asmara to put the local residents out of place. Most of the poor locals are now restricted access by virtue of their extremely low earning potential. Some are forcibly serving their national service along the border lines to protect the nation from imaginary enemies; others have fled or are still fleeing the country while tens of thousands are spread out in prisons all over the towns, villages and in unknown but purpose-built locations.
If Asmara could, in its psychological journey, somehow map Eritrea’s mind-boggling turmoil, Part 4 (an unexpected addition to the series) on drawing some of the fault lines that could have contributed to its current state of Eritrean affairs.
12 June 2009