Eritrea: Call for Patience amidst Generational Genocide
Many of the opposition in diaspora abhor the very idea of probability, given that they are anxious to settle for the least probable. When it comes to their dear Eritrea, something that happens one in thousand has equal place in their heads as something that happens one in ten. To them all that matters is that something like it did happen somewhere in the world or sometime in history, irrespective of the context, for it to occur again in Eritrea. On the probability of an uprising, they say: “We don’t know when or how, but it will happen!” “One day, there will surely be a spark!” “It is inevitable that the oppressed masses will rise up!” “All that we need is to believe in people’s power!” If it is this historically inevitable, why bother to take a costly road to regime change? In fact, among others, it is this attitude that has made them settle for the least harmful measures against the regime.
True enough, in the inexact science of human behavior nobody can predict things with pinpoint accuracy. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. If there is a slim chance of an event taking place within a reasonable span of time, even though it won’t be totally counted out, one doesn’t build an overarching policy based on it. Statistically, there is a vanishing point beyond which it becomes insignificant. In the world of believers though, that it could possibly happen one day is all they need to know to wait patiently for it to happen. It doesn’t matter to them whether it will take place five, ten or twenty years from now, or whether it will materialize during this generation or generations to come. What mostly matters to them is that it will happen … one day!
What should our role be in ushering regime change in Eritrea? That is the question that those of us in the diaspora opposition camp have been grappling with. But in doing that, unless we also chart out the limits of what we can do, and thereby distinguish the probable from the improbable, we will either try to put the fault somewhere else or keep asking for patience whenever we fail in our task. The two are interlinked in that those who often ask for patience do so believing that rearranging their tools of “self reliant resistance” once more would do the trick. That they should seek the solution somewhere else outside their limited selves is something that they would rather not hear. Thus, the worst part about the self-reliant resistance that many in the opposition camp subscribe to is not only that it is not doable, but that to find out just that in the distant future we are told to be patient. In their zeal to discredit alternatives, they never assess the prohibitive cost of their patience.
The question I want to address in this article is: can we afford to wait, even as success at a latter date is rendered failure by virtue of its late coming? Let me start with an example …
Patience that outlives the patient ones
A woman who wanted to kill her evil and abusive husband, but in a safe way that wouldn’t put her in danger of being charged of murder, began to feed him with cholesterol rich food that he couldn’t resist in the hope that he would soon drop dead of heart attack. Every time he felt sick, she would say to herself, “This is it; this time I have got him!” Hoping to finish him off soon, she would even increase the cholesterol dosage for the duration of the illness. But the extra cholesterol seemed to do wonders to his health. He would come out of his illness all fired up to do the next new thing. Very confident that one day her “self-reliant and safe” medicine will work, she always refrained from doing it the quick way. And you know what … one day, it did work – the guy actually dropped dead of heart attack in front of her joyous eyes! “I did it!” she screamed, “Now I have to start living my life in earnest”. But it took her few minutes to realize what is wrong with her euphoria. The mirror did it: an 80 years old woman, all shriveled and beaten up through long abusive years, stood in front of her. Her husband died at the age of 82, the exact age of Mubarak of Egypt. It took decades for her medicine to work!
When Egyptians got successful in deposing Mubarak, by beating death or senility by few years in claiming his reign’s end, do they have the right to claim, “In the end, the oppressed masses always win”? The absurdity of the waiting game is even more apparent in an extreme case: for instance, that of North Korea. If, after more than six decades of total darkness the North Korean people are to rise up now or sometime in the future, is it justifiable to invoke “the indomitable human spirit” or “people’s power” to explain their uprising? That would definitely fail to explain why they lived more than six decades of total darkness in total submission. So I prefer to draw a different lesson: there is no Hegelian inevitability in history. Some succeed and some don’t; and some don’t even get off the ground. And some come late, but still welcome; and some others too late to be sustainable.
For all I know then, the “self reliant resistance” – be it of the violent or nonviolent means – that many Eritreans in the opposition camp are enamored with might work, but too late to make a difference in the existential predicament of the nation. By that time, of course, Eritreans will have to look at the mirror to find out what their dear Eritrea looks like. They shouldn’t be surprised to find it at all shriveled and beaten up, trailing at the tail end in the global race of the 21st century – that is, if it will ever make it that far. With the latter prospect, there is a possibility of finding no image at all reflected back by the mirror.
The moral of the above story is this: revolutions, especially in the 21st century, should come with expiration date stamped on them. For this century will be merciless to those nations that lag behind. So the greatest problem with this call for patience is that it never puts the cost of the waiting into consideration; all its calculations have to do with the cost of alternatives only.
In the non-falsifiable world of believers
The problem with those who advocate nonviolent resistance in the Eritrean case is that their theory is not falsifiable. You can never prove it wrong because they will always keep extending its trial period by asking for patience; time never factors into their calculation. How is it possible to show them they are wrong if they will claim victory whenever it takes place and demand for more time whenever it doesn’t?
Recently, Seyoum Tesfaye has been gracing Asmarino.com with his excellently written series of articles in defense of the nonviolent way in the Eritrean case The Path is the Agenda: Armed Struggle or Peaceful Transition? (Part one), Relevant Lessons from Strategic Non-violent People’s Uprisings, Relevant Lessons from Strategic Nonviolent People’s Uprising - II] The series would make an excellent handbook on how the nonviolent way works, but with a caveat: only in those places where it is supposed to work. It is that oxymoronic. If a handbook is written based on successful cases, it doesn’t mean success is guaranteed in other cases.
He has described all the necessary phases that a peaceful resistance undergoes before it finally explodes into the scene, and rightly so. But describing accurately all the different stages of growth that a flower undergoes doesn’t mean that every flower seed makes it through all those stages. Seyoum forgets that history is full of failed revolutions, revolutions that went astray and revolutions that never came to be. His problem is that he sees some kind of historical inevitability in the human spirit. According to this Hegelian account, all that we have to do is watch as the human spirit unfolds and reclaims its rightful place. He admonishes those of us who are impatient as failing to understand the true nature of human spirit. And, consequently, he advises us for what else but more patience.
The same is true with Petros Tesfagiorgis, in whose recent article he also invokes “people’s power” to give credence to his stand. [Building the Foundation of a New World view – II] All that we have to do is believe in people’s power, and things will take care of themselves. This is the stuff out of which religious evangelism, and not empirical projects, are made.
The very fact that their nonviolent theory is meant to be universally applicable anywhere in the world and at anytime in history also betrays its vacuity. These kind of theories based on human essence will refuse to take account of the differences in time and localities simply because for them no such inconveniences will ever stand up to the indomitable spirit of human nature. Like the cardinals that refused to look at Galileo’s telescope because they believed there is nothing that could show them anything to debunk the centrality of Man – and hence, of the earth – in the Universe (because the Scriptures said so), all the contrary evidence in Eritrea is simply a nuisance that couldn’t stand on the way to people’s power, and therefore no need of examining it closely.
Even the idea of the internet (or technology, in general) playing a determining role in these recent uprisings spoils the narrative of the human spirit that they want to tell. The idea that some geek in a California university, credited for the idea of social networking in the internet, has probably more to do to the success of the revolution than a fire-breathing revolutionary in the streets of Cairo doesn’t sit well with them. After all, it is the technology of the 20th century that made totalitarianism possible. And now we are witnessing the latest technology doing just the opposite. For all we know, the next big break in technology might allow totalitarianism to thrive. For the purists though, the very idea of the human spirit at the mercy of the whims of technology is unthinkable.
The invocation of revolutionary slogans like the “indomitable human spirit” and “people’s power” might do well for rhetorical purposes, but explain nothing on what is going on the ground, be it in Eritrea where the response so far has been mute or in Egypt where the response has been as loud as can be. Instead, what Seyoum and Petros should do is look at the facts on the ground and formulate their hypothesis based on that. Even though the bankruptcy of their theory is obvious, what is worrying is the cost of their call for patience – especially if heeded by others.
Neither here nor there
In their waiting game, the self-reliant ones miss two important phenomena that mock their strategy:
- They fail to see what is going inside Eritrea in regard to two relevant aspects: first, that the war they want to avoid is already raging inside Eritrea; and, second that the passive resistance they see inside is, at best, a double edged sword and, at worst, a clear advantage to the regime.
- They get it wrong on what is going on outside Eritrea in regard to two critical aspects: not only do they see themselves as one of the major players among “agents of change”, they also believe that the various tools of their resistance can effect change inside Eritrea if directly employed. That is, they fail to see the epiphenomenal nature of the tasks they have assigned themselves to bring change inside Eritrea.
They are neither here nor there – not only do they confuse the useless tools in their hands for “tools of change”, they also keep misreading everything that is happening in Eritrea. Like a crazy dentist who walks around with his old box labeled “dentist”, but now full of plumber’s tools, they fool themselves (and many others) simply because all their ineffective tools are put under the term “resistance”. They also misread that the patience demanded by the nature of their ineffective tools for patience that is needed for the volcanic eruption of the masses to take place.
Below, first, we will mainly explore the cost of waiting out this regime from the inside; and, second, we will see the superfluous nature of the self reliant resistance of the diaspora.
An all out war against the masses
One of the main reasons for call of patience by “self-reliant resistance” adherents is that they never look at what the regime is doing as an all out war against its subjects. For them, war has only territorial implications. Like their Highdef counterparts, they adhere to the motto, “People will come and go, but land is forever” or “Land first” or “Eritrea first”. The fact that people could lose all that they hold dear while fanatically holding on to a piece of land, at best, or that the land could be gutted out of its essentials to a point that the people can no more hold on to it, at worst, doesn’t seem to faze them.
It has been more than a decade now since the regime has declared an all out war on Eritreans of every ilk. Mention any population group in Eritrea, and it would tell you its side of a war-ravaged story. Let me ask the territorialists in regard to the war that is being waged without territory in mind: Could anyone of us dare look in the eyes of Warsai and tell them that the PFDJ hasn’t declared war on them? What do you think it would mean to them to be permanently evicted out of the their residence areas, be it from cities, towns or villages; to be denied proper education, jobs and raising families; and to aimlessly wander in the Eritrean deserts for more than a decade, only to end up in the refugee camps of neighboring countries and beyond? What do you think it would mean to them to work as slaves in “development projects” for most of their productive years? What do you think it would mean to Warsai women whose fate have been to follow a trail of rape and tears – from rape in the trenches by Yikealo Big Brothers to rape by the Arabs all the way from Sudan to Libya and Egypt? Could anyone dare look at the faces of these women and tell them that no war is being waged against them? How about the parents of Warsai, who have been losing their children one by one to permanent exile (be it internal or external), to end up childless in their old ages? And to add insult to injury, they are asked to pay 50,000 Nakfa for every child that ends up outside Prison Eritrea or face prison. Could anyone among us tell these Eritrean parents that war is not waged upon them by Shaebia? Could anyone dare point a finger at the Kunama and Afar for fighting back fire with fire for the scorched earth approach that the Isaias regime is using in their ancestral lands? Could anyone convince the Jehovah Witnesses and Evangelical Christians whose religions have been outlawed and who have been disenfranchised and relentlessly persecuted that the regime is not waging war on them?
The other side of this war is that every imaginable institution has been targeted, be it of the traditional or modern types: religion, culture, education, rule of law, family and every kind of profession. Religions are either outlawed (Evangelical Church), systematically dismantled (Orthodox Church) or silenced (the rest); Age-old cultures are being gutted out to make way for ghedli tseghatat; the entire education system is militarized, with the higher education system as its greatest casualty; Niether highi endaba nor any other modern law serves the land; the arbitrary has become the norm; but most of all, the most damaging assault has been on the family. The regime’s tendency to expropriate anything of profit in the country (land, food products, businesses, factories, etc) extends to the family itself; as soon a child reaches 16 or 17 years old, the nation claims “ownership”. With that, the destruction of the family as a unit starts, never to recover.
It seems that for our self reliant opposition, these assaults are too fine grained to be noticed; to their grossly discriminating eyes, it has to be as big and as concrete as territory to be noticed. Given their territorial worries, no wonder they confuse their unilateral ceasefire for peace. Their cry for “No more war!” would have been great, if war can be avoided by the good will of one party of the antagonists only: the victims. But that is not how it works. If one party declares war on you, even if you vow never to raise your arm because of your principled stand on “peaceful resistance”, it will still be called war. And in Eritrea, this all out assault against the masses will never stop unless appropriate measures are taken by powerful forces outside the nation. By opposing outside intervention – be it of economic or military type, or both – the “self-reliance” adherents should know that until their patient way works, they have chosen the default position – war itself! Only this war is not against the regime, but against the masses.
Often, when we look at Shaebia’s crimes, we are lost in the details and miss the bigger picture. When this evil organization targets individuals as its victims, we fail to notice that its victims are generations rather than individuals. True to our misunderstanding, we tend to measure our responses appropriate to individual-time rather than to a generation-time. Many of those in the opposition who call for patience do so, among other things, out of this fundamental misunderstanding. Individuals could die as their generation survives. But if a generation dies out, it requires many generations to come to fill in the vacuum it leaves for the society to regain its footing. When the essential link between two generations is lost, institutional death is committed that makes for the society hard to recover its legacy – the rule of law, religion, culture, family, etc – and to build the future.
More than anything else, the generational wars waged by the regime against the nation tend to show what is at stake if we heed the call for patience, for they capture the loss both in its institutional and human costs. Institutional and human losses can not be seen separate of one another, since neither could survive without the other. Men without institutions get dehumanized, if not rendered extinct as a society. And when men get dehumanized, whatever that used to make them human at a collective level (all kinds of institutions) slowly disappears. In Eritrea, generational attack is being waged at these two ends – hence, the urgency of the matter.
Let me highlight this urgency of the matter by going over two recent topics that have been points of discussion in asmarino.com: the systematic dismantlement of the Orthodox Church (one of the oldest institutions in the land) as has been pointed out by inchainsforchrist.org and tewahdo.org and the plight of the Warsai generation as has been recently highlighted by the tragedy of Eritrean refugees in the Arab world.
Institutional death of the Orthodox Church
The total destruction waged against the Evangelical Churches in Eritrea is too obvious to miss. With their religions outlawed, their churches closed down, worship in any form criminalized, more than 3000 of them in prison, most of them having fled the country and the remaining disenfranchised, the PFDJ is aiming at nothing less than the total obliteration of their religion from the Eritrean scene. Given their small population, and hence their helplessness, Shaebia believes that the death of their Church is a doable task; and for that, that no generation-time is required. And when it comes to Islam and the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the populations are too big and the structures too impervious for the regime to penetrate too deep with a degree of success; so in their cases, so far, compliance is what it is seeking at most, though occasional brutality is to be seen. We find the Coptic Church in the middle, too large to be obliterated but too loose-structured to avoid Shaebia’s evil eye. Hence, to see how the systematic dismantlement of an age-old institution can go with the aim of killing it in generation-time, there is no better example than what is going on now in the Orthodox Church.
The recent report provided by the Eritrean Orthodox Church in exile, [The Eritrean Orthodox Church: The Church That Suffers Silently], poignantly points out what it means to “wait out” the demise of the Isaias regime under its own weight:
“In the five years alone, since the forcible removal and imprisonment of His Holiness Abune Antonios, the Patriarch of the EOC, the report reveals that 1700 clergy of all ranks have been forced out of the church in one form or another. … The report further states that the overwhelming majority of the 1700 clergy are forced to flee the country because of the relentless persecution against them and the church. …
“Just as devastating to the EOC has been the additional large number of priests and deacons, representing the younger generation clergy, who have been forcibly conscripted into the army under the guise, euphemistically known as ‘national service’. The report states that the number for these has reached 1350. …
“The total number of the clergy who have been put out of commission through imprisonment, proscription, exile and forcible conscription into the army has reached 3050. In a country with a population of only 4 million, it is not hard to imagine the utter devastation the church has already suffered.”
Let us look at the Russian church, if we are to learn from history. Once the very soul of Russia, by the end of 70 years of Soviet rule, what remained of it was a ghost of a Church attending to few of the very old only, mostly women. The plan was clear: the Church should die with the old generation. Now, after the demise of the Soviet Union, even under the most favorable conditions, it is still struggling to find its rightful position in Russian society. And, more importantly, we can never measure the incalculable damage the absence of the Church has done to the Russian society.
The PFDJ is following the same formula: kill the Orthodox Church at its source; that is why it is mainly aiming at wulad kahnat. If it can dry up the source, then it is not hard to see a few years from now churches closing down at a brisk rate everywhere in Eritrea. In fact, this has already started:
“While many of the churches in the larger cities are still able to continue their ministry, numerous Orthodox Churches in rural Eritrea are devastated by the severe shortage of clergies resulting from the above policy. According to the result of ICFC’s research, numerous examples can be cited of churches that have closed their doors as a result of the government’s pernicious and deliberate plans to depriving the Orthodox Church of priests.” [Eritrean Orthodox Churches Closing Their Doors at an Alarming Rate]
In drying up the source, the evil regime is aiming at three nefarious goals:
(a) Making kihnet (priesthood) unappealing to the young: First, it rudely interrupts their education at every possible juncture: at village religious schools, monasteries and churches. The regime is known to have conducted giffa, not only in traditional religious schools scattered in Kebessa villages but also in age-old monasteries seeking wulad kahnat, for army recruitment. Second, it subjects them to the National Service for as long as possible. And third, Shaebia limits the number of priests attending one church, claiming the rest for itself. So, even the middle aged and seasoned priests are not spared from Shaebia’s evil design.
(b) Forcing priests out of the country: Given that armed conscription of kahnat is against the church canons, it then follows that the most conscientious of them would rather flee the country rather than subscribe to Shaebia’s evil design. That, in fact, explains why most of the 1700 priests mentioned above have chosen exile. This choice, probably, is the most lethal to the Church. Shaebia has put them in this strange predicament that if they stay within the country it is only by compromising the nature of the priesthood itself and if they decide to leave the country to save their priesthood it is by abandoning their parishioners.
(c) Militarizing priests: by forcing priests to carry arms, something that never happened since the 4th century, the idea is to produce “Shaebia priests”: a unique breed of gun-totting nationalist priests doing the bidding of the regime. It is hard to imagine how a wulad kahin, after spending years in the army, completely prohibited from practicing his profession – no cross in his hands, no Bible in his bag – is going to serve the Church. This is a place where anyone caught with a Bible in his hand is severely punished and Bible-burning has become a patriotic, nationalist ritual. This goes with the regime’s overall experimentation to immerse the society into ghedli’s culture of negation.
If the above is true, Shaebia’s aim is nothing less than the institutional death of the Orthodox Church that could only be achieved with the phasing out of a generation of priests and their parishioners – this is death in generation-time.
The unwitting collaborators of this generational death are the ghedli romantics, for whom the demise of the Orthodox Church is secondary; given the choice, they would rather allow the Church to perish if only they could have their “Eritrea”. That is why they balk at anything that seems to threaten the territory, but preach all the tolerance in the world when it comes to the existential predicament of the Church. In this sad country, even the victims join in this “Land over people!” demagogy. Even the exiled pastors of the Evangelical Churches – the most brutalized of all religions – have more tears for the loss of Badme than for the obliteration of their religion from the land, be it with or without Badme! [Open Letter to Alliance of Eritrean Evangelical Christians in the U.K]
Anyone who doesn’t understand the drive of a young man in the old Habesha world that made him leave the secure world of his peasant family to take the longest trek of his life – a one thousand miles journey from his humble village in Kebessa to some remote monastery in Gojjam – in his quest for spirituality and knowledge would never understand what a true scholar means. That is why the ghedli monsters who have utter contempt for the monasteries of Eritrea have also equal disregard for the higher education in the country. They would destroy the monasteries built by Estatewos centuries ago with equal nonchalance as they have done with the University of Asmara. In their stunted minds, knowledge is equated to its technical aspects only. The human soul, be it in its spiritual or cultural sense, in need of ethical and aesthetical food to survive is something that they look at as if it is some kind of luxury that the nation can ill afford, especially at a time when “its national sovereignty is threatened”.
Again, venture no further than the old Soviet block to see how decades of brutalization destroys the very fabric of the society. The more brutal and the longer the social experimentation, the harder they find it to regain their footing in the civilized world. While the Asian parts of the Soviet Union have turned back with vengeance into their Oriental despotism, nations such as Russia and Ukraine are still struggling to find their place among the civilized world. Conversely, it is not by chance that it is nations that resisted the totalitarian tendencies of communism from penetrating too deep into their social fabric – nations like Poland, Check Republic and Hungary – that bounced back quickly by reclaiming their rich legacies of the past to join democratic Europe. Therefore, reserving the past is essential in curving up the future. The longer Shaebia stays in power, the more irretrievable becomes the legacies of the past and the harder, if not impossible, will the journey be to the future.
What the regime is doing now is kill all the rich hizbi tseghatat, and replace them with nihilist ghedli tseghatat, the same way communism did in the old Soviet block. The only difference is that it is doing it fast and in the most brutal way possible. Not only has it put its social experimentation in a fast track by the national service, it has also wiped out the entire higher education system. If we add other forces that are unleashed by Shaebia to kill the nation’s age-old legacies – its all out assault on history, culture, religion, rule of law, the family and any kind of institution – then we can easily see where the nation is heading: by denying the society its own and the civilized world’s legacies, nothing less than the nation’s future is at stake.
The idea of falling back to the past to reclaim your humanity is only possible if the past hasn’t been put beyond retrieval. Under authoritarian regimes that essential link to the past might be frayed here and there, but a total break is never entertained. In contrast, totalitarian regimes, as their name denotes, can only think in “totality”. The longer the time they are left to rule, the harder they will try to make a clean break from the past; and people without a past will have no future.
Shaebia’s generational war against institutions is meant to deny Eritreans a “falling back” mechanism. This Orwellian experimentation is already having a huge impact on the generation that has grown up in “independence years”. Having grown up in an environment devoid of historical, cultural and institutional coordinates, they lack all the resources wherein to locate themselves. Rudderless, they keep wandering – both physically and mentally. Not only is their geographic compass broken, so is it with their political, cultural and moral compasses.
This comes as no surprise given that the most damaging attack has been on the most important institution – that of the family. A generation of children have been raised without their fathers, only to be taken to Sawa at a tender age followed by indefinite national service; and, for most, this was followed up by exile in neighboring countries and beyond. Except for brief visits, a child who grew up in total absence of his father will lose his entire family throughout his adult years; and if forced to flee the land, the loss will be forever. When we add to this serial anti-family assault the fact that he/she is not allowed to raise his/her own family, the destruction of the family becomes complete. And if so, where is one supposed to learn the love of a nation if he/she has been denied love of one’s own family?
Generational genocide on Warsai
The generational war of the regime is made more poignant and easily tangential if seen as conducted against an entire generation rather than against the more abstract institution: the all out war against the Warsai generation.
Lately, there has been much talk about how Eritreans are being maltreated by Arabs, highlighted by the ongoing harrowing experience of kidnapped Eritreans held hostages for money in Sinai Desert. “Modern day slavery” is an apt phrase to describe what is going on in Sinai. The selling of Eritreans from Sudanese refugee camps all the way to Sinai, with the increase in his/her price, as the refugees keep changing Arab hands, has now become a familiar story among us. And with it, the gang rape of the women goes on as it must have been in old times of slavery. It could even be that women slaves of the ancient were treated better, given the value their virginity fetched among the old Sheikhs. Horrifying as it is to witness what is taking place in Sinai, we tend to miss the greater picture: that this is just a small part of the enslavement process of Warsai under the hands of their “liberators”.
People talk about ethnic genocide in Eritrea. In realty though, the greatest genocide that has been committed so far is a generational one. Nowhere in the world has an older generation treated its younger generation with so much cruelty. The only way to describe the cruel fate of the Warsai generation under the hands of their Big Brothers is if we coin a new phrase for it: generational genocide. An entire generation has been evicted out of the country to make room for teghadelti, for the “liberators”. And those who are forcibly kept inside the country are needed only to serve as slaves in “development projects” or to carry arms in defense of the land of Yikealo. As in all kinds of slavery, the Warsai are needed not for what they can do for themselves, but for what they can do to their masters.
The modern day slavery in Eritrea doesn’t even spare the parents. The parents, like in the old days of slavery, don’t own their children. The children of the slaves belong to their masters, the Yikealo. Eritrea is the only nation on earth that directly competes with the parents for “ownership” of their children. The children are taken away from the parents at their tender age, and corralled in their tens of thousands in the desert in service of “Eritrea”. Under this nationalist façade, they are asked to put nothing less than their entire life in service of the Brahmin caste of the newly liberated Eritrea. And the lower caste that is needed only to serve is a strange crossbreed: the slave-warrior.
The slave-warrior of the Roman times has been reincarnated in modern day Eritrea; the Warsai is a slave-warrior par excellence. Hundreds of thousands of them spent their entire adult life alternating between the trenches and the slave labor fields. Free labor in PFDJ farms and other “developmental” projects are meant to enrich the colonels and generals and stretch the life of the PFDJ. Young men who joined the national service at a tender age of 17 are now in their 30’s, without having a respite to find out what a normal life means. And this may go on until the age of 55, the time set by the liberators for the graying slaves to retire to their quarters. At that age, they would be too old to be of any use to the masters, and will be discarded without any pension at their most helpless moment. They will be dependent on a wife they have rarely visited and on a family they have never raised.
Many of the women Warsai also end up in the quarters of the colonels and generals as sex slaves, not unlike the Turkish/Arab harems of the old. In a striking parallel to the era of slavery, while the master is given the free hand to do whatever he wants with his women slaves, the male Warsai live out their adult lives celibate like monks. Many of them reach their thirties without getting married. And to those who escape to the refugee camps, it will be years more before they get married, if ever. Given the miserable lives they lead in refugee camps and the skewed male to female ratio, to most the likelihood of having a family is postponed to middle age. The further they venture, the more skewed becomes the proportion. In Israel, 90 percent of the refugees are men! [UNHCR: Eritreans by far largest refugee group in Israel]
It is easy to see from the above that the Warsai are meant to provide their new masters the most “essential” services: life-time protection, free labor and free sex. And, of course, this cannot be done without all kinds of brutality that go with slavery: the ever-watchful eye of the Yikealo, lest the slaves escape; forced labor in “developmental projects”; their permanent presence in the trenches; prisons and concentration camps for unruly slaves; the shoot-to-kill policy at border-crossings; etc. And as in all kinds of slavery, the one thing that the slave wants to do is: escape! If so, it is easy to see how this national slavery has become the reason for the slow extinction of the Warsai generation from the land.
To sum up, the Warsai generation is dying out as a result of three factors: (a) in a mass exodus of epic proportion, hundreds of thousands have left the country for good, never to return. (b) hundreds thousands more are living in modern day slavery, with the prospects of raising their own families very slim; (c) an entire women Warsai generation, whose male counterparts are either evicted out of the country or sequestered in the wilderness within Eritrea, have little chance of getting married. This is a generation that is literally dying out in front of our eyes. If the Warsai were an ethnic, religious or even regional group, what is happening to them under the hands of Shaebia would have been aptly called genocide, and much would have been made of it. But, sadly, for lack of a name, nobody is noticing the Warsai generation’s extinction.
Passive resistance: a double edged sword
The go-slow adherents fail to see not only the war being waged by Shaebia against the nation, but also the most frequent form of resistance in Eritrea, and probably the only one that matters, is working against the nation. All they see is that slowly but surely the masses are abandoning the regime and that eventually the masses will rise up to topple it; in the meantime, all that we need is patience. But if in the very process of abandoning the regime, one also abandons the country, is it worth waiting? That is exactly what is happening to the Orthodox priests: in the very process of abandoning the regime, they are also abandoning their parishioners. And that is also exactly what is happening to Warsai: in the very process of abandoning the regime, they are also abandoning their people. The self-reliance advocates don’t see that the very factors that are weakening the regime are also killing the very future of the nation, if not the nation itself. Seyoum mentions many forms of dissent that are slowly but surely heading towards that critical mass he expects to arrive biding its time – like drain drops turning into a flood, to use his metaphor. What he fails to mention is that no such critical mass is being built up in Eritrea thanks to the peculiar kind of dissent that its youth have chosen: mass exodus. Every time it rains, the flood – that critical mass – meant to sweep away Shaebia instead ends up in Ethiopian and Sudanese refugee camps.
Here is what I wrote in Romanticizing Ghedli II on how this double-edged sword works in helping the regime in Asmara to stretch its life beyond necessity:
“As any separate ‘organic’ entity that evolved to have a separate existence, Shaebia has to find a way of getting rid of the ‘toxic waste’ built up within that would threaten its very survival if left long enough to do its work. If there is anything that Shaebia dreads, it is the wrath of the youth that have been put in captivity in the wilderness for more than a decade under the misleading name of ‘agelglot’. Even as it badly needs them in protecting it from the Woyanies, it takes them to be the primary enemies from within. That is the main reason why it has deliberately kept them away from urban areas and put them under the constant watch of the military. But it has found out that that is not enough. The ‘agelglot’ itself might implode unless the ‘excess toxic waste’ – the disgruntled Warsai – is occasionally purged out from its system. Hence, the necessity to drive the youth out of Eritrea in mass exodus of epic proportion. Without the mass exodus of the disgruntled Warsai, by now things might have imploded. Even though the ongoing lethal hemorrhage will eventually end up destroying the EDF, in the meantime it is essential for Shaebia to occasionally relieve itself of ‘excess’ Warsai if it is to survive. Thus, the mass exodus has been the safety valve that Shaebia needs badly to let go of the excess pressure from within, right before it implodes. This metabolism, as in any other biological organism, needn’t be conscious; conscious or not, it simply has to happen or Shaebia would die of excess ‘waste’ accumulated in its body. But that only stretches its lifespan a little bit longer.”
Notice how Shaebia eliminates any kind of pressure from building up from inside; that leaves us with no choice but to seek that pressure from the outside. The adherents of self reliant resistance though fail to see the deathbed struggle between Shaebia and the nation for what it is. I continued to elaborate on how this goes:
“Shaebia is not only emptying the land of its new generation, it is also hollowing out all the rest of insides of the nation. Like a voracious parasite, it is devouring its youth, its economy, its security, its institutions, its humanity, its religion, its culture, etc. – anything and everything that makes the nation. In the meantime, in its quest for self-preservation, it is living off the nation as any other parasite that lives off its host does. All that it knows is that it has to voraciously eat its host (Eritrea) from inside. The fact that the very body on which it is living off is eventually going to die as a result of the hollowing out done from inside is something that the parasite cannot bring itself to contemplate, for there is no other alternative to its means of survival. So Shaebia is doing what it does because there is no other way for it to exist else than through what it is doing right now, even as this will eventually lead it to suicide. It is as simple as that. The question for us is: how do we deal with this parasite before it kills the nation?”
The patient ones totally miss that this is a race against time. The question is not simply how do we bring the regime down, but how do we do that before we lose everything that we cherish. And there is no better place to see their confusion than in the epiphenomenal tasks – tasks totally devoid of causal power – that they have assigned themselves to usher regime change.
It is, indeed, ironic that in the information age where revolutions through the indispensable help of the internet are raging on in our region, one can still use the metaphor “revolution through remote control” to convey the impossibility of it in the Eritrean case. It is the disconnection of diaspora Eritreans to the reality in Eritrea that makes the metaphor an apt one.
Let me start with an example: A child, fascinated by the moon, goes out to the backyard armed with her thousand and one shiny and multicolored marbles. She is convinced that aligning her marbles “in the right way” would pull down the moon strong enough as to make it land on her lap. Every time it doesn’t work, she believes the fault is in the alignment or realignment and not in her overall strategy. She would say to herself, “If I could only get the right pattern!” There is no doubt that if nobody stops her, it would take her a lifetime. So is it with the opposition’s endless realignment of their self-reliant tools of resistance, if by that they are aiming at directly impacting regime change in Eritrea. The diaspora’s endless obsession with the tasks it has assigned itself to bring down the Isaias regime are as epiphenomenal as the child’s effort to bring down the moon on her lap. Both of them exist outside the world of cause and effect, and entirely within the realm of fantasy.
Some of the shiny marbles the diaspora opposition have been playing with to bring the Isaias regime down are: the unity project, the awareness project, the democracy project (or its variants, the constitution project, the free speech project, the federalism project, the language project, etc), the peace project, etc. Mention any meeting conducted in diaspora – be it in Brussels, London, Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Addis-Ababa – the entire meeting is consumed with one or a combination of these subjects. They never ask themselves: how are any of these supposed to impact what is going on in Eritrea?
Below, I will focus on just two of these projects to make my point – the “unity” and “awareness” projects.
The "unity" project
Let me focus on the “unity project” by addressing Selam Kidane’s article [So what is wrong with the Ethiopian Card then?] since she has made unity, or lack thereof, her focal point in that article. Although she gets it right when she diagnoses the ailment in the opposition as lacking in unity and being ineffective, the solution she offers is nothing but a new configuration of the same self-reliant tools.
The bulk of Selam Kidane’s article is a lamentation for the lack of unity among the diaspora opposition. To make her point poignant, she mentions no less than a dozen groups and their various configurations in one paragraph: EPDP, EPDP1, ENSF, ENSF1, Tedamun, ELF, the Federalist Party, Al Nahda, EDA, Kunama Front, Afar Front, Bilen “Front”, etc. Although I understand her despair, it is a misplaced one if by that she somehow believes that had all these factions been united, they would have made a significant difference in Eritrea proper on their own.
Let’s imagine for a moment that Selam’s wish is miraculously granted and that all those ever-splitting opposition groups come to a sudden unity; and, what is more, that they come unanimously to believe in a self reliant and nonviolent revolution she adheres to. How is that supposed to bring change inside Eritrea? How is that meant to have any causal effect on what is going on the ground in Eritrea? It is only hubris that makes the diaspora Eritreans believe that the fate of those inside Eritrea depends on whether those outside Eritrea are united or not. The naked reality is this: whether diaspora opposition remains splintered in one thousand or united in one, on its own, its direct effect on the inside will always remain epiphenomenal.
The idea that somehow if the opposition gets united it would have a direct effect inside Eritrea has given birth to an equally bogus argument: that the Eritrean people are not revolting for lack of an alternative leadership (another argument of Selam). The Eritrean masses are not rebelling because they have no elbow room for maneuvering! It is as simple as that. If there was any public space to maneuver around, they probably would have openly dissented by now. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian youth took to the streets spontaneously not after weighing whether they had a better alternative leadership or not. In fact, in both cases, no credible leadership has ever emerged. This bogus rationale reflects the diaspora’s obsession with itself rather than the reality back home. The idea that somehow a government-in-exile will make a difference inside Eritrea is a direct result of that bogus “alternative leadership” theory – hence, one more shiny marble in the alignment game.
The “awareness” task
When a new bride needed help, all the village women were ready to teach her how to cook. But the bride was not wanting on cooking skill; all she needed was a cooking pot to be “empowered” in her kitchen. Similarly, the diaspora opposition, like the village women, are always eager to provide the masses either with what they already have or what they don’t need. When we, as agents of change, ask ourselves what is our task is, our response should be tailor-made to fit the real need of the people.
I wholeheartedly agree with Seyoum Tesfaye when he says that we have to empower the people inside Eritrea. But the problem with this phrase is that it is such an overused revolutionary slogan that, unless cashed out in more verifiable terms, it fails say anything meaningful. If we want to see how vacuous this phrase could get, think of the various ways we could empower the Eritrean masses. You could take the whole day and the whole night to think for an answer, and I bet you wouldn’t come up with a single idea. If you ask those who espouse this high-minded idea how, they have nothing tangible or verifiable to say except to pull out the good old tool nikhat (awareness) from their arsenal of peaceful resistance.
But the absurdity of this strategy lays not in its inapplicability on the Eritrean ground, but in the assumption it carries regarding the masses’ level of nikhat: it assumes that those who are in Eritrea are unaware, or less aware than diaspora Eritreans, of their condition. Again, the lack of visible dissent in Eritrea is not due to lack of awareness, but lack of public space – something that diaspora Eritreans can do nothing to bring about on their own. If so, the rhetorical question, “How do we empower the masses?” should give way to a more tangible one, “How do we provide the masses with the public space they need to stage their uprising?” The latter, unlike the former, assumes that the masses already know their condition and humbles the diaspora in making them realize the shortcomings of their strategy.
The only way to empower the people is by bringing into the scene powerful “agents of change” that could exert the necessary pressure to substantially weaken the Isaias regime for the people to find enough public space to dissent. Thus, asking the right question not only would it show us the limits of our capability in directly impacting change in the attitude of the masses in Eritrea, it would also point a way out to our problem: to seek the solution outside ourselves.
The insistence to “empower the masses” in our own self-reliant way has led to the springing up of many cottage industries around awareness, democracy, constitution, regional peace, nonviolent resistance, ethnic politics, etc that have become the hallmarks of the “patience malady”. And people involved in this shebdbed believe that are effecting change simply because they are participating in some feel-good activity.
The wrong causal line
Having said the above, I am neither against unity among the opposition nor against awareness, but against which these tasks are directed at. The diaspora opposition confuse whatever that is taking place in between themselves as if it is taking place between them and the Eritrean masses; they fail to realize that there is no direct causal line in between the two – that is, they have got their wiring wrong. The wiring of the causal line goes indirectly, first, from them to powerful outside forces; and, second, from those powerful forces directly to Eritrea. So the “awareness” shouldn’t be directed at the masses in Eritrea (there is no lack of awareness over there), but at those powerful forces. The question that they should entertain should be: how do we make EU, US, AU, UN or Ethiopia aware of the Eritrean condition and lobby them to put the necessary pressure on Eritrea to usher regime change?
The first thing that the diaspora should do is realize their limitation: that there is nothing they could do on their own to directly impact regime change in Eritrea. That would pave the way for a different understanding: that it is only through more powerful forces than themselves that regime change could be ushered. Thus, their impact on events inside Eritrea will always remain indirect. The most effective means of bringing down the Isaias regime are economic strangulation or military intervention, or a combination of both. And none of these are doable by the diaspora opposition. But what they can do is work for these strategies to materialize through other forces: for instance, when the issue of sanctions is raised, these forces will be the US, UN, EU and AU, and when the issue of military intervention is raised, there is no other than Ethiopia that can do the job.
The regime’s only fear: intervention by outside forces
Unlike the opposition, the Isaias regime realizes how the causal line exactly goes. That is why it was more worried by the threat of sanctions than by all the political posturing of the opposition. That is why now it is more worried by what is going on in Libya than by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt.
On Shabait’s last editorial on the North African uprising, [Again Raising Logical and Legal Questions] the regime reaches a hysterical level: in an about two pages long commentary, one sees nothing but an endless line of questions. What triggered this hysteria, especially for a nation that up to recently pretended to be the coolest kid in the hood by ignoring whatever was going in the Arab neighborhood? The idea of a foreign intervention in Libya, in the form of “no-fly zone” or other military intervention, seemed to have struck terror into the heart of the PFDJ.
It is not the losing of a dear friend that has set Isaias’ tantrum, although that too has been his concern. What he is afraid of most is the precedence that this might set. We have to realize that up to this date, there hasn’t been a case where the UN has condoned a military intervention to usher regime change for democratic or humanitarian reasons. Always the sovereignty of the nation has taken priority over humanitarian concerns. That is why when nations like Tanzania and Vietnam prevented further humanitarian disasters from happening by their interventions in Uganda and Cambodia respectively, they never claimed that as their motive in the UN floor; rather, they claimed provocation by the other party. The US started the Iraqi war as against weapons of mass destruction; it was only after the fact that it changed the motive into regime change for democratic reasons. There are other two recent interventions that may count humanitarian: the war against Serbia by the US and the no-fly zone over Darfur. But in neither case was the aim regime change. So what makes the Libyan case unique is that it is being waged in support of democratic forces against non-democratic forces, with the aim of getting rid of a dictator. True enough, the UN hasn’t given a mandate for regime change, but the considerable leeway that nations like France, Britain and the US are given to strike there is no doubt but that it will lead to regime change. It is this paradigm shift that is ringing alarm bells in Asmara.
Now for a last shot at “people’s power” that the self-reliant resistance are depending on: if Gadaffi is ousted, it will have more to do with the destructive power of the cruise missiles than the “indomitable spirit” of all the Libyan revolutionaries.
Nobody expects the advocates of patience to run out of their patience any time soon. But I am glad that at least one of those few “agents of change” that really count on this matter – Ethiopia – is losing its patience!
[Seyoum, Petros ans Selam were responding to my articles: Why the Tunisian Revolution Cannot Be Replicated in Eritrea and Public Space in Eritrea: Lessons from the Egyptian Uprising]