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Eritrean Dissonance: Refugees Listening to Eritrean National Anthem in the Ghetto of Tel-Aviv

Eritrean Dissonance: Refugees Listening to Eritrean National Anthem in the Ghetto of Tel-Aviv

Out of habit, people talk about Eritrean politics, yet the behavior of the victims of the regime in many instances is quite strange and abnormal necessitating the need for the tool of other disciplines such as psychology and anthropology. In order to help us a understand a little the phenomenon in contemporary Eritrea and its diaspora, a contrast will be made between the defiance of the Jewish Nazi victims in Terezin, Czechoslovakia about sixty years ago,1 and an incident reported on the “infiltrators” from Eritrea in the ghettos of Tel-Aviv, Israel a few days back.2 We will begin with the former.


In the early 1940s, in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, thousands of Jews were kept in horrible conditions in an old castle used by the Nazi authorities as a concentration camp. Starvation and disease combined with the dampness of the building was exacting a heavy toll on the inmates. They did not submit to it passively, however. Led by a former composer, a group of about 150 people started a choir of musical resistance, in order to uplift their morale and brave their captors.3 They successfully performed the concert several times with little means and food to sustain their very famished bodies. Once the camp authorities discovered the project, however, they chose not to stop it, but instead used the situation for a devious means.

The International Red Cross had been invited to visit the camp to allay the spreading news about the purpose of the camps built for Jewish extermination. The Nazi camp authorities constructed a Potemkin Village using the labor of the camp inmates to give the impression that there is an autonomous town for the Jews. The victims, and particularly the choir volunteers, knew the rationale behind the Nazi purpose; nonetheless, they also decide not to miss the scarce opportunity to show their fate to the outside world.

The choir group selected Verdi’s Requiem, a Catholic funeral mass song for the occasion. Among the audience were Nazi officials who, it is told, clearly understood the messages behind the performance. There was no satire or parody behind it. Many of the camp victims did not survive the ordeal, but are still proudly remembered by the Jewish people and rest of the world for “speaking truth to power”. Here is a portion of the powerful song

II. Sequence


The day of wrath, that day will   
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.   

How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
who will smash everything completely!

The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound
through the tombs of every land,
will gather all before the throne.


In contrast, the behavior of refugees from Eritrea in a restaurant in the shanty district of Tel-Aviv, as witnessed by a reporter from PBS recently, is incomprehensible. Over a loud blast from a stereo playing the national anthem of Eritrea, the journalist had to strain himself to listen to the conversation.4 What we observe is a clear example of dissonance.

The nation-state of Eritrea and the national anthem are mainly the projects of the abuser regime they fled from; they were inherited neither from another generation nor from a different regime in the distant past. Yet, the victims are reluctant to renounce it. Although this behavior appears anecdotal, it strongly represents the attitude of the diaspora from Eritrea, including the elite opposition, whose mantra has always been, “Do not throw the child with the wash water”. What they seem to forget is that we have a monster child and dirty water at the same time.

Oddly, the elite opposition, in tandem with the regime supporters, would not refrain from proudly describing this macabre-like circumstance as nationalism that is still robust and alive, and as Eritrea in the “rightful place!!.” An Orwellian phase, which we will visit again. Why does this spectacle appear bizarre and anomalous to a rational thinking mind?

Eritrea has been ranked as one of the countries exporting the highest number of refugees per capita, the lot of the refugees, however, is very different. While the lucky ones, who made it to South Africa, Europe, Australia, and North Africa are by large accepted by the public, allowing them to work and access to other services to lead a normal life, their counterparts in the Middle East exist with their basic rights curtailed in a bondage environment.

The ones who headed many years back to the Middle East are people who voluntarily made a decision to travel to the region. Their situation, though reprehensible, is much better than their recent counterparts who, on the journey to Israel, were forcefully kept in chains for ransom in the Sinai enclave of Egypt. A deluge of reports has been pouring out describing their torture, rape, and outright murder leaving the dead, rotting victims chained together with the living dead in order to extort tens of thousands of dollars from the relatives in the diaspora. The Bedouins’ use of the cell phone in the age of globalization is evil in the extreme case. As of now, excluding the torture and rape victims, the number of dead Eritreans in the hands of their Bedouin captors is estimated around four thousand.

Yet, they, like many of their fellow compatriots outside the hell-like place, call their country, have a habit of listening to the regime’s national anthem, cultural programs and political narrative. The irony in it is that these victims are people who fled in earnest from another “Promised Land.” They seem to be very incognizant to the mockery in the national anthem that claims, “Eritrea, Eritrea has taken the rightful place in the world.” They have therefore failed to speak the “truth to power”, though, living in a relatively safer condition than the victims at Terezin. They have also disappointed Ahferom Berhe who once proposed Verdi’s other song of defiance, Nabucco, (for the Forto Incident,) following the aborted military mutiny in Asmera, on January 21, 2013.5

To sum up, the funereal- like condition in the land will certainly require a defiant funeral mass song of the Verdi kind, but the nationalists will not have it. In their eyes, such a recommendation is nothing but belittling and demoralizing the Eritrean masses.

This small piece may be considered as a contribution to the pioneering work on “dissonance” in Eritrea by Gabriel Guangul, and others who are doing a marvelous anthropological study on Eritrea.6

For the farce in the national anthem, the entire text is in the following7:

Eritrea, Eritrea, Eritrea,
her archenemy destroyed wailing,
her sacrifices vindicated by freedom.

She holds firmly her goal,
her name has come to mean perseverance and steadfastness,
Eritrea, the pride of the oppressed people,
is a testament that truth prevails.

Eritrea, Eritrea,
has taken her rightful place in the world.

The supreme dedication that brought her liberation
Will serve to rebuild her and make her green,
We shall honor her with progress,
It is our legacy to embellish her.

Eritrea, Eritrea,
has taken her rightful place in the world.


[1] PBS; Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance, Partisan Pictures.

[2] Tobia, P.J.; Eritrean Refugees: Unpromised Land; PBS NewsHour; published in; June 20, 2013. PBS Newshour

[3] PBS; Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance, Partisan Pictures.

[4] Tobia, P.J.; Eritrean Refugees: Unpromised Land; PBS NewsHour; published in; June 20, 2013.

[5] Berhe, Ahferom; Va Pensiero: the Forto Song;; March 13, 2013.

[6] David O’Kane and Tricia Redeker Hepner, eds. Biopolitics, Militarism, and Development: Eritrea in the Twenty-First Century; New York: Berghan Books.

[7] Wikipidia: Ertra, Ertra, Ertra - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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