The Boiling Frog
Berqi from Asmara
Call this a cry for help or a wake up call.
Sometimes, you want a simple illustration to describe a great incident, a long story or a series of events. A single sentence such as JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner said it all when he addressed West Berliners. Sir Alex Fergusson, the Manchester United football club manager, in loss of words to express his feelings when his team scored two goals against Bayern Munich in injury time to win the 1999 UEFA Champions League, in what is now a legendary summary of the game said, “Football, bloody hell.” Simple and clear. And I have for long been in search of such an illustration to describe the unfortunate turn of events in Eritrea. Of course one cannot be expected to find a fitting illustration for the complicated pathway the Eritrean people have been adjudged to go through. But let me try one.
I intend this article to be just a start for, and part of, the discussion in cyberspace and elsewhere for the good of the Eritrean people and their land.
A few months ago we were at a café sitting for long hours over teas and cappuccinos and machiatos. That is the order of the day in Asmara. It is difficult to find a spot at an Asmara cafés after 9:30 AM and after 5:30 PM. A wave of youth occupies the seats and talk about the same stuff again and again and again. It was in the midst of such routine that one of my friends told us this story about frogs. He said that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if you place it into a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will boil to death. It was a sort of eureka moment for me. It said it all for me. I did some study on the story and found out that it has been told since the 19th century and that despite some circles not believing the biological side of the story most agree on the facts, but everybody in business and political circles uses the story as an anecdote to remind people to ‘make themselves aware of gradual change lest they suffer eventual undesirable consequences’ or ‘as a cautionary tale warning against the folly of letting smaller wrongs just slip by or of falling into a pattern of small and seemingly harmless sin rather than disturb one’s complacency enough to address these issues, thereby allowing evil to grow into a powerful force’. Why does slowly boiling water kill the frog? Because the frog keeps along with its surroundings and tries to adjust with it. (Please see the illustration at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyBKz1wdK0M). I found the frog story to be a pithy expression for what I had always wanted to say about what Eritreans have been going through. It was a sort of eureka moment for me. It said it all.
I was too young at the dawn of Eritrean independence to fully appreciate what the Eritrean people had gone through during the Derg and Haile Selassie regimes. I do have a good memory of the last, depressing years before 1991 though. When tegadelti came, still not fully appreciating what their removing the Derg meant – and would mean – to us, I joined the crowds that danced on the streets for weeks. That was the first and last moment of genuine collective joy I had witnessed. Thinking back, I often wonder if this was actually the day of liberty and independence of Eritreans or the day when tegadelti occupied Asmara with no more cities to occupy. I say this because the Asmara of these days does not look like a city of free citizens, but an occupied city waiting an official declaration of the resumption of the normal life of a nation of liberties. Two years into Independence Day, one late afternoon, a close relative of mine, a tegadalay, came home visibly perturbed. I said I was not adult enough at that time, but I know that was the day when tegadelti went on a strike. ‘Do tegadelti do this?’ I asked myself. Later that night, as I gathered among my neighborhood mates to discuss what just happened that afternoon, the older ones amongst us told us that they had been at kombishtato and saw some tegadelti ordering shop owners to close their shops. Another added that some young tegadelti had ordered Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki to march all the way to Asmara Stadium. What happened after this, we all know. It was the first moment of shock for me. “So, there will be detentions such as this in this new Eritrea,” my juvenile intuition must have said. But, let alone a young student such as myself, the entire population, including those who are now the ardent opponents of the group in power in Eritrea, I must assume, was in some sort of intemperance to recognize what was going on. The minority of soothsayers of the ‘doom’ that was to follow in the hands of the group that rose to power were vilified. Well, the water was just starting to boil for the Eritrean frog.
It takes one whiff to start cigarette addiction and one shot to be an alcoholic or a drug addict. The water that would roast and kill the dancing frog started to heat slowly with incidents such as the tegadelti strike. The boiling is still continuing twenty-one years after May 1991 and many are still on the ‘Eritrean Liberty’ hangover to accept what is happening in front of their eyes. Are you? The powers that be were and still continue to be smart at tightening the cuff.
It starts with a socially or politically disadvantaged minority, or any small group at that. For us, it all started with the summary encampment, free laboring and whimsical imprisonment of the former EWP (isepa) members in the summer of 1991. Unluckily, we were all inebriated by the May 1991 booze and proved ourselves a typical eye-for-eye mass. None of us had the foreboding feeling of what was to come. By the way, the isepas case was one of the very few opportunities that we could have gained the moral higher ground after 1991. Against whom? Against our conscience and the future in 1991, today that is. The Rwandese (in their treatment of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide) and Weyane (in its treatment of the isepas) beat us in rounds. Yet the whim that we lauded for hitting the isepas in Eritrea was set to meet us all. The isepas were all, I heard later, sentenced in the most ridiculous and bizarre one-morning ‘trial’. Well, the inquisitor cum jailor of the isepas himself, Naizgy Kiflu, has, two decades later, been denied burial in his home village let alone a state burial. Justice he denied to others, justice he could not get. That is the rule of the game in Eritrea. The water was not very hot in the Naizgy days when most of us were actively and happily reporting on ex-isepas. As the water got too hot twenty-one years on, the whipper-in-chief has whipped us all. Next followed the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1993, and then the Wahhabi Muslims. Again none of us sensed the omen of what was to come. Army deserters tasted hell in many dungeons. We did not even mutter. The menfes were and continue to be hunted at every corner of the country. We zipped our mouths. The water got hotter and we now have an Orthodox priest defrocked and ailing in house arrest. The water is very hot now; everybody, it seems, could be on their way to the boiling pot. If we had shown the minutest interest in seeing that isepas and the Jehovah Witnesses and the Wahhabis and the disabled war veterans were given proper treatment and decent trial – they deserve it I guess – it would have been best fitting for us to cry justice now for the tens of thousands being abused in Eritrea. Hasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. told us ‘Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere’?
Who could be next in line?
As to liberties, many a book and many an article have been and continue to be written. In the early 1990s people could literally walk across the border to Ethiopia. Now, the absolute majority of the people can’t get out of their country. In fact, up to a year or so earlier, people couldn’t even get out of their bloccos. It was breaking news when a friend in Asmara came back after seeing a relative in Adi Kuala or Sen’afe. One of my earliest memories of the early 1990s was that the kiellatat that the Derg had put all over the country were gone and Dmtsi Hafash and Haddas Ertra continuously mentioned this as a sign of the New Dawn for Eritrea. What we witnessed in the last ten years about kiellatat says it all about the water that was heating up.
And mention gffa. The entire nation ululated as the 1st round of national service were driven to Sawa in July 1994. I recently heard an interview of Mesfin Hagos, who was the defense minister at that time, in which he mentioned that Isaias Afwerki had wanted to forcefully conscript the youth for the national service from the get go, but may be Mesfin advised that gffa would be a very hot water for the boiling frog back then. “We’ll come back to that,” the decision of the clique seems to have been in July 1994. The nation was to witness countless rounds of gffa later on, all executed by the ululated qedamay zurya and their successor rounds against their fellow citizens.
I miss my innocence and that of my generation, a generation that has been slowly scandalized from all angles. When our parents protested about the indecencies during the 1992 Expo festivities, they were told that their daughters were out there to celebrate freedom and the unity of the Eritrean people during Expo festivals. Pass. When parents asked why their daughters were going to Sawa, Askalu Menqerios & Co. at NUEW (Hamade’e) fired back and Big Brother said it was a call from the motherland and at least they would ‘entertain’ their brothers. Pass. Our sisters left their guns and came back with kids. Pass. Our brothers came and come back confused and unable to sleep at night. Pass. A generation for whom scores of thousands are said to have died so it can leave in tranquility is now used to daily usage of vulgar by halefti and their heads filled barbarous words as mrshan, mqntsal, mHrad, mqtal etc. Eri-TV shows clips of bloodbath almost every night during dinner time with kids and parents watching at the same time. Pass. My younger brothers and sisters who used to hear an uncle or an aunt was abroad and sending money now grow up hearing that an elder brother has been in tehadso for years or comes home only for a couple of weeks a year or is wondering in the streets of Khartoum, Roma or Tel Aviv. Pass. Elder brother dies there and cannot be buried at home (as if burial itself is something good). Pass.
A disquieting Eritrean behavior has added fuel to the burning fire underneath the bowl that is boiling the Eritrean frog. We have this character of comforting ourselves by searching for someone who is worse off than we are. In fact, we don’t usually wake up until the trouble knocks at our doors. With this let’s examine if we are wholly as ‘communal’ as we say or have been told we are. I guess many a tegadalay who was not with the group that was incarcerated during the 1993 strike thought that the incarceration would stop at that. Now it is loud and clear that even the most senior tegadalay is not immune. Remember September 2001. The formula, I stated earlier, is start it slow, remote and with a few. When the government moved to ‘streamline’ its work force by laying off hundreds of breadwinners, the water was not still hot. 17-18 years later, job itself has been streamlined. Evidence? Visit Asmara’s cafés and cinemas. Some parents, I remember, had tasted the fury of the government – and of the disapproving majority of the people – when they opposed the sending of their daughters to the national service. Fast forward to 2009 and thereafter, all parents – including parents of martyrs – have to pay 50,000 Nakfas or be indefinitely jailed even if one of their male children disappears from the hands of the government during national service duty.
The derision of professions and the loath to hard-won wealth started very early. I guess the first profession to get the whip was the legal profession. A year ago, a friend of mine showed me clip of one of the face-to-face-sessions-with-his-people that the president used to have every September. In it, I saw the president crucify a young man – I believe he may have been a law student at that time – for asking some basic questions about the proprieties of the Special Court. The president got out of his way and disparaged lawyers and the bills that they demand for their services. What surprised me – only now – is the roars of laughter of the audience that accompanied the president’s scathing view of lawyers. He also said that it was difficult to say there were qualified legal professionals and institutions in the country. I surfed the internet and found it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfwfQTo-BCI. Please look at it. An obvious effect of this is that there are no enough lawyers in Eritrea. I believe there were engineers and medical doctors among the laughing audience. If not there, they surely repeated the president’s utterances word by word as we all used to do. Well, by 2006, it was engineers’ and architects’ time to see the end of their private practice. Who followed next? Medical doctors, in 2011. Who is next? Pharmacists? Barbers? Bakers?
And on adulating the man. We were all fine with calling him atum or nsom in the very few days after May 1991. Nay, that was patrician, we were told and downgraded our elders and teachers to ata or nsu that is. If the No. 1 man in the country was a simple man available everywhere whose comrades call btsay Isaias, who were our elementary school teachers to be called atum or nsom? He did not want to be worshiped like other African leaders, nor were his photos to be displayed in government offices. We were not African, right? Tell me if this is true in 2012. We continue to call him nsu, but he isn’t an ordinary nsu. You know it all…
A reversal of children’s dreams took a slow step backwards too. In the second half of the 2000s, Israeli children almost unanimously chose Ilan Ramon, one of the seven astronauts who were killed during the Columbia shuttle disaster, as their role model. He was their perfect aryeh as they grew up looking at his photo shown next to a lion’s photo in a children’s book. Who and what kind of a profession did Eritrean children adore twenty and thirty years ago? How about now?
Let my more knowledgeable fellow Eritreans write about the slow erosion of the historic idolization of education and its value in Eritrea…
A hint of something grave it gives, the government in Eritrea surely does. And it is assured that we won’t mutter until the storm hits home. I will give you an ongoing example. A few months ago, I think it was April 2012, a friend of ours told us that the government was forcibly arming civilians. Guess where? In some highland villages bordering Ethiopia. Our immediate reaction was the usual. “This can’t be true. Tetselilom dyom?” Three of those who heard the impossible are now members of the hzbawi serawit in Asmara doing rounds at nights. Wedi Memhr and Tekle Manjus met them. All license owners, taxistas and waitresses have recently been called to Asmara Stadium to receive Kalashnikovs. The hzbawi serawit in ministries have already started to go on night-long rounds. Ministers and very high government and party officials – whether it is a pretext that ‘everybody is doing it, so why are you refusing to’ or that the right time has come for every Eritrean to know that all but one man are mere vassals – are being or soon to be given their Kalashnikovs. It is being talked in town that some biggies (like Kbreab Weldemaryam, the Governor of the Bank of Eritrea, and Ahferom Tewelde, the PFDJ philosopher-supremo wannabe) have already started their duties keeping guard of their respective offices. As much as immediately before the 1998 border war with Ethiopia started members of the 1st–4th round national service were called for a month’s maetot, the government is now getting us used to almost everyone in Eritrea being armed under the pretext of watching out neighborhoods from sprouting gangs. Many who believed that they were given a certificate of freedom and had felt that the turn was now for others to do the vassalage are at the moment, in the typical Eritrean style of shouting when the trouble is at home, appalled when Tekle Manjus and Wedi Memhr have summoned them for the ‘call of duty’. Who knows what the man has in store for us through this. The frog boils slowly.
It looks like we are slowly getting used to the increase in the degradation of the Eritrean humanity itself. What will it take to wake us up into action? Twelve years ago, it was rare news to hear someone had crossed the border to the Sudan. The pot got hotter and it was hundreds crossing the border to the Sudan. Before we could finish our gasp, crossing the border to Ethiopia – an enemy of blood a couple or so years before – became the breaking news. Now Ethiopia is the closest safe haven for Eritreans. The tragedies attached to crossing the borders got bitter and bitter, but we seem to have become insensitive because we were not dropped into the bowl but stayed there from the beginning. It all started with someone getting caught crossing the border and staying in tehadso for a while. Then came the news of the brutalities at ‘Ala, Aderser, Gele’alo and other horrible camps which are Eritrean-style Gulags. Then followed news of executions, some public, of people, including civilians, caught crossing the border. Next followed the standing order to kill anyone crossing the border. Stories of troubles for those who crossed the border also started slowly. I remember one of the early news of twelve Eritreans who were drowned at the Mediterranean Sea. It was a depressing news in the vicinity where I live and we could not believe that such a thing would happen. That was seven years ago. Slowly, the Mediterranean merd’e became a normal story until the time when more than 300 Eritreans perished. I believe the Eritrean brain has now become numb with scores upon scores of tragedies to hear almost every day. Then came the story of our fellow brothers and sisters held hostages by barbaric Bedouins in the Sinai to be followed by the news of their getting killed and their organs sold in God knows which market. So, we just sit, order tea or macchiato, and say, “did you see that paper posted near the Ministry of Education about a guy called so and so? I heard that his family was close to paying the 30,000 USD ransom, alas, they were late and he was butchered.” The others respond, “My God! 30,000 USD!” That’s it. It is difficult to know who is to blame and who to hold responsible.
Add up all the deprivation that we have gotten used to since 1991 and you can see that there is only a little that is left of us. The water is very hot now. The peeling of the Eritrean potato that started in 1991 is almost completed. Let me finish with the following story. There was this protestant clergyman, Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), who was a Nazi sympathizer in the early 1930s. But when he started to actively oppose the Nazis later, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 and sent to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps to taste hell and he stayed there until 1945 when Allied forces liberated him at the end of World War II. After the war, he returned home emaciated and looking a different person. Some say it was a poem others say it was a speech; nevertheless, on 6 January 1646, to the representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt, Niemöller famously said:
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.