Asmera: Under the Long Shadow of the Forto

Asmera:  Under the Long Shadow of the Forto

A love with “Forto 2013” has animated the atmosphere in the cyber world, paltalks and radio outlets visited by most of the Eritrean opposition, who have been desperately looking for some signs of a domestic turmoil in the capital city of Eritrea. The city however appears “calm” as the government’s diplomats have described it. Is this public posture of the capital-city government propaganda? Is it exceptional or the norm in its brief modern history, when faced with extraordinary circumstances? The truth is probably close to the latter. The vocal opposition from the Eritrean diaspora will disagree, however.

They imagine the city restless and in political effervescence, waiting for some disgruntled elements of the army to join the armed occupation that was snuffed out in the ruthless method of the EPLF. They fancy the city breathless for any signs of a crack on the edifice of the totalitarian regime, whose leader’s death was not long ago eagerly expected. They conjure up a repeat of the Arab Spring scenario in the city and rush to call the incident as “embryonic and homegrown,” completely forgetting that the masses in the city were invisible. Most tellingly, they refuse to picture the semi-starved Asmarinos were probably visible all over the city, waiting for the few rationed breads in the same morning the mutiny occurred. Ascertaining the truth for any debate has been arduous.

The fog

The government, true to its history, does not provide either the purpose of the rebellion or the mug shot pictures of the ringleaders or their names, lending the whole scene unreal.1 The rebels’ failure to leave any kind of manifesto has left people in confusion, as noted by a colleague. The alternative outlets were the diaspora media outlets. The information from the opposition websites, however, was mostly sparse, improvised, truncated and oftentimes inaccurate.

For instance, it was reported that the mutineers had blocked all the exit roads of the city and had besieged the airport forcing the government to agree to their demands. The most audacious one was the government memo on the conspiracy allegedly distributed to its embassies.

All this turned out to be untrue, however. Worse, the dissenting officers, former veteran guerrillas, made the cardinal sin of forgetting to prepare a retreat point, and blowing the opportunity to present their version. As if in consolation for this chaos-like situation, the alleged picture of the tank involved in the event is still posted in one of the websites.2 The dearth of information in our digital age cannot even be compared to the little we know about the foiled attempt of Bahta Hagos to storm the fort at Halay in the nineteenth century.  Not all this has dampened the political fervor triggered by the fleeting incident.

The euphoria

There has been solidarity with the “Forto 2013” from all corners of the world in the form of demonstrations and peaceful occupations of the regime’s embassies in the capitals of the West, putting the regime on the defensive. There were also poems dedicated to the place in some of the websites. “Forto 2013” has become the battle cry for the sizable number of the diaspora Eritreans, who felt emboldened by the immense coverage of the event by the media in the West.

The irony in this is that both the diaspora Eritreans and the West dismissed and ignored the bigger armed demonstration that happened twenty some years ago only a few days before the Referendum Day in 1993.3 The blame is entirely on the former. Fearing the bad image this would give the new country and the prevailing euphoria, the Eritrean diaspora elite censured this first armed protest against modern slavery through the act of a silence. This time, however, their rallying around the slogan of the “implementation of the constitution and the freeing of political prisoners” purportedly broadcast for a few minutes by the dissenting officers, though laudable to the West, it nonetheless belittles the systemic slavery and total repression in the country.

The history

What explains this dissonance4 between the Forto incident and the cacophony in the diaspora-living world of the West? Most importantly, what clarifies the long “possum-act”5 of the public in Eritrea? This writer blames the micro-ecology of Asmera; that is, the Forto and the deadweight of its purpose. Cities are often unduly influenced by a prominent landmark in their vicinity such as a river, a volcano, etc. Asmera’s Forto and its other military headquarters dispersed in the mesas have likewise an undue influence on its dwellers. Throughout its modern history, the city’s inhabitants posed as “calm” and “content” following turbulent and calamitous events, often unleashed by forces beyond their influence. Passion was mostly absent.

The exception had been rare. In 1991, when the insurgents conquered Asmera, the public spontaneously crowded the city’s avenues to welcome their long lost deqena (children), who had been dragooned into the nationalist war; a fact that many Eritreans love to emphasize when compared to the cool reception that met the Weyane-led forces in Addis Ababa. The difference in the reception was not a function of the political ideology or political programmes of the fronts, which were communist oriented, but the presence of the high percentage of the fighters from Asmera and its suburbs.

Equally, in the mid-70s, there was an open display of passion for the late General Aman Andom in Asmera. The football stadium in the city was packed with people eager to see the “hero” from their region, and to listen to his proposals for the end of the long war according to some witnesses. The reaction of the Derg and the Eritrean fronts to such open display of affection to the general was very venomous and hostile. It subsequently led to his violent end.

This writer has so far attempted to explain the possible predicament of the people in Asmera in the context of the total information blackout. The writer calls others to profile the ordinary citizens, and avoid the long-trodden-path of analyzing the rumblings of the dictator.

In order to weigh and assess the possible impact of the recent army mutiny, a chronology of important military events in the history of Asmera is in the following:

1890: Italy captured Asmera, Ras Alula's headquarters of the times. The villages were largely empty due to famine and pestilence.

1941: British forces conquered the city; the public in Asmera was invisible. There is a famous photograph of a British tank unit nervously watched by a crowd of Italian civilians. None among the crowd was a native.

1973: Ethiopian army mutiny in Asmera; this time again the public was out of sight. The joyous student crowds that materialized in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian towns did not occur.

1989: Anti-Derg military units rebelled, but were crushed brutally resulting in some of the rebels’ bodies being openly dragged from military trucks. The public was completely absent from the scene.

1991: EPLF rebels took Asmera from the Derg; the public was in jubilation to receive its long disappeared children (deqena)

1993: Eritrean fighters made an armed demonstration in Asmera in their thousands against the plan of the EPLF, which was devised to keep them, serve for no pay for another few years. They reportedly forced the rebel leader to walk to the same venue that General Aman was jubilantly cheered. The public was no where to be seen.

2001: EPLF senior cadres criticize the Isaias leadership, and asked for a dialogue, but except for the small private media, the public was mostly quiet. It is not sure if their pictures, names, and “crimes” were announced to the public; nor did the public demand.

2013: A small unit of the EDF puts under its control the Ministry of Information and made a botched attempt to broadcast its demands, but the public was largely silent.

Conclusion

Forto or Forte Baldissera (Italian) in Asmera was the legacy of the early conquest of Italian imperialism in the Christian Kebesa plateau. It had long survived its initial use for military consolidation purposes, until the present Eritrean authorities demolished it for a new totalitarian propaganda office. Its new function has not however changed the highly militarized nature of the state.

The behavior of the people of Asmera in January 21 amply shows that rumblings around the Forto were not something to join given its subaltern role as the gebars of the Yekealo princes. The reaction of the people of Asmera has for the understandable reasons partly described above not yet recognized the incident as “embryonic and home grown”6 in the real sense. When armies become predators, the notion of such a lofty phrase loses its meaning.

Notes

[1] In the late sixties, the picture and names of a group of people allegedly belonging to ELF killed or botched the assassination of a government official was published in the newspapers. Compare this with the complete opaqueness of the gedli culture. As noted in the article above, it is doubtful if the names or pictures of the G-15 victims and their alleged crimes were also made available for the public.

[2] Assenna.com has displayed the picture prominently.

[3] Refword; Eritrea: Demonstration in Asmara in April 1993 by former Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) fighters; arrests of participants and organizers; July 24, 2000: UNHCR | Refworld | Eritrea: Demonstration in Asmara in April 1993 ...

[4] Gabriel Guangul had famously once used this term to describe the Eritrean psyche at Asmarino.com.

[5] Awate.com editorial, “Epic Fail: Isaias Afwerki Tries to Diminish "Forto 2013’ Incident”: Epic Fail: Isias Afwerki Tries To Diminish “Forto 2013″ In this instance the phrase was used to describe the habits of the dictator.

[6] Ibid.

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