The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: Journey Identity

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet

The Eritrean revolution has never been about ideals, be it freedom, emancipation, equality, democracy, socialism or even nationhood, but always about identity or belonging. That doesn’t mean that one cannot make an ideal out of preserving one’s identity. But that has never been the case; to the contrary, Eritreans have been at war with themselves for 50 years in search of alien identities. Those alien identities have been sought not for what they included – that is, not for their content – but for what they excluded; so far as they excluded the Habesha world from which they were desperately attempting to run away from, those identities could take various forms. If so, given the various possible escape routes that such a starting point provides, what remains constant is the act of running away itself. And given that any such escape route will do the job, no content can be accorded to these escape routes. And since the ghedli journey (temekro mieda) is all about “running away” from the starting point, it would be interesting to see how Eritreans have come to tie their identity with that escape route with no identifiable destination; that is, how they have come to ferociously embrace an alien identity devoid of content.  A movement whose raison d’etre has been merely “running away” also provides the only reason for the creation of the nation. The problem is that nation cannot stop running away from itself without giving up the very reason for which it has been created; and therein lies Eritrea’s current predicament.

Schematically, under the best scenario, the ghedli journey can be drawn as a circular one, with the starting point also serving as its ending point. For if there is to be any salvation at the end, running away from oneself ought to end by coming back to one’s real self. And, commensurate to the various possible alien identities that the escape routes provide, one can also imagine various circular routes but with the starting point as their only intersection. But since there is the 50 years of madness in between, the idea of coming back to the starting point after all the human toll it took is simply unbearable to those who have been toiling along these futile circular roads for decades. Every time the ghedli journey took a curved bent as a result of the strong gravity on the ground – that is, the normal world of the masses – to take a circular form, in order to pull them back to the staring point of their father’s and forefathers’ world, the revolutionaries used to react violently in the process of unnaturally straightening out that revolutionary road. For to them, it is the linear road, unburdened by the gravity of the past (history, culture, religion, language, family, etc), that is supposed to take them to the alien identity that they all along have been aspiring for. In fact, all the catastrophes that happened to Eritrea can be explained as a result of this quixotic fight against the gravity of these social forces.

If the generation that has been running away from itself is ever to find itself again, it would only be by realizing that it has all along embarked on such a futile, circular journey. The first step in the recovery process would be the realization of this simple fact. If so, what is to be salvaged is not the circular journey (ghedli), but the starting point. But for a people who still believe that their Revolution has been a Great Leap Forward, in the very linear sense of it, it is no wonder that so far no such realization has taken place. Even the Warsai generation that has been victimized the most from this wanton circular journey, instead of going to its roots (the starting point), is tragically tying its identity with that aimless journey. This article is a modest attempt to nudge the present generation towards that realization, for future Eritrea could be built only from what the starting point entails.

On Part I of this article, it is only the nature of the escape route that the ghedli generation embarked, and how they desperately tied their identity to it, that will be examined; for that will be essential in understanding the nature of the circularity of the journey – which will be the subject matter for Part II to examine. And, in Part III, the dire consequences of this journey identity on the Eritrean masses will be discussed.

Journey identity

Think of a traveler who set out for a long and difficult journey with a “noble goal” in mind. But along the journey, he realizes that the goal is elusive or that it doesn’t even exist. Having invested too much on the journey, he is reluctant to render it fruitless. Instead, he tries to draw all the fruits that he expected from the goal, from the journey itself. Minus the awareness, that has been the story of the ghedli generation that embarked on a long and difficult journey without having a clue as to what they were searching for. Having failed to find the “Eritrea” (the place-holder) they were searching for, they settled for “ghedli” – or rather, for the journey – to attach their identity with. This has been so despite the fact that the discordant match between the true identity they wanted to discard and the alien identities they wanted to adopt has been the reason for much of their sufferings.

As stated above, the Eritrean revolution has never been about ideals, but about creating a new belonging alien to themselves. When such belonging supersedes other factors for creating a nation, then that nation has no other relevance than any other category where such belonging could take place. Such categories had been the Fronts themselves, where their essence was derived not from their ideals or visions – they had none – but simply from the alternative belonging they provided to their followers. The Fronts were the escape routes from the “feudal and backward Habesha world” they so desperately wanted to run away from. And an escape route, by definition, doesn’t have to have a direction, shape or destination to count as an escape route; neither does it have to be the only one, given that various escape routes can serve the same purpose. If so, the ghedli escape route doesn’t have to have a vision, ideology or any other noble goal other than providing them an alien world to escape into.

The ghedli generation never realized (at least, not consciously) that the route they took for this self-negating pilgrimage was an escape route. But this blindness was essential if it was to serve them in shedding off their old Habesha selves. They confused it for a road that would take them to that citadel called “Eritrea”, even though it was this very escape route that doubled as permanent haven for these identity refugees. And, besides, had this pilgrimage had a specific destination, they wouldn’t have settled for any route. They mistook the road for the destination; and, consequently, fatefully tied their identity to it. The consequences of this existential blunder have been incalculable. One has to look at the content-less nature of this identity to grasp the extent of the social disaster it brought upon the people of Eritrea.

Ghedli identity entirely depends on hows for its essence, and not on whys; that is to say, it is all form without content. Let me provide an example I have used before to elucidate on this phenomenon [(I) Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All the Sacrifice?]:

All that you could see from your window is a man appearing around a corner of a block, running very fast through the length of that block, before he disappears around the corner at the end of the block. You may admire his running skill, but as to whether what you have just seen is a good or bad thing you cannot say. You need to know why he has been running and whether he has achieved what he set out to do with his running to reach that kind of judgment. If he happens to be a thief running away from those he has just victimized, it is a bad thing, But if he has been running fast to save someone that would definitely count as a good thing.

Notice that the admiration of the onlooker entirely depends on how the man runs; neither the destination nor the cause of the running has to be known to admire such a “how” attribute. Now, all that you have to add to this picture to see the extent of the absurdity of the ghedli journey is if the only reason for the man’s running is to escape from himself. If ghedli generation’s “admirable qualities” of perseverance, sacrifice, martyrdom, self-reliance, etc are for purposes of running away from itself, there would be no greater tragedy than that for a nation to go through.

Now, let me go back to my previous example to fill in the details of this absurdist picture. If we ask the traveler in the example, who has taken a journey without any destination in mind but nevertheless believes that he has accomplished what he set out to do, what ideals he has gained, he will have to refer to the journey itself for an answer. It would be “virtues” that he has attained from the traveling itself, and not from the nonexistent destination, that would end up making his list: how he preserved the arduous journey, how his steely resolve helped him tackle all kinds of hurdles along the way; how he courageously faced the elements; how he sacrificed a lot to “finish” his journey; how he relied on himself for all his needs throughout his journey; etc. If these qualities of perseverance, steely resolve, courage, sacrifice and self-reliance seem to have uncanny resemblance with the ghedli virtues that ghedli romantics keep touting, it wouldn’t be simple coincidence. As “how” characteristics acquired along the journey, these attributes never answer the most essential question: what for? That all these attributes could easily be appropriated by anyone who has gone on a different journey (or rather, a different escape route) shows that no stable identity could be forged depending on them. Identity is not only about shared similarities among fellow countrymen, but also about what makes those countrymen different from others. For instance, if both TPLF and EPLF end up claiming these same ghedli properties, what makes the one different from the other? What is missing is the “what for” part – the content part – that distinguishes one from another.

The fact that Eritreans of every ilk keep invoking “suwuatna” day in day out to give purpose to ghedli says it all. If martyrdom would explain their goal, so would the enemy’s. The rivers of blood spilled explains the “how” aspect of the struggle only – that is, the process through which the separation materialized. The question that the culture of martyrdom cleverly avoids is: why was all this sacrifice needed in the first place? Or to put it in the geometric parlance adopted in this article: why did the ghedli generation embark on this circular journey, if it is eventually meant to end at the starting point?

Thus, if we could sum up the content-less nature of the escape route that the ghedli generation embarked on, it would be: If destination doesn’t matter, any journey would do. And since identity is about belonging, that assertion would translate into: if content doesn’t matter, any belonging would do. Below is a thought experiment that helps us understand this bizarre belonging phenomenon that defined the nature of ghedli in Eritrea:

The switching case

In the early 70’s, when thousands of students flocked to mieda to join the two liberation fronts – the ELF (Jebha) and the EPLF (Shaebia) – there was this odd phenomenon happening too frequently to be ignored as a fluke: many of the students deliberately assigned themselves to the two feuding camps (Jebha and Shaebia) so as to eventually bring them together. In retrospect, this personal effort at reconciliation might be considered as naïve, even though no doubt all said and done out of good will. Full of optimism, as the spirit of the times dictated, they set out to seek that elusive unity. Having taken the idea of “Eritrea” as given, it never occurred to them that when they joined the revolution they were embarking in this life-time journey in search of “Eritrea” that they already had in their possession. Their fallacious understanding was: if it was part of Ethiopia, then there was no “Eritrea” to be had; they wanted an “Eritrea” that they, and only they, could own. But to their surprise, even after liberating the land, they have yet to find it. They never came to grasp that the problem was not in the land, but in themselves. The proof is that they mistook any kind of belonging they came to identify with along their ghedli journey for it, so far as it fulfilled their demand for exclusive ownership.

One would expect that a generation that set out with an ideal of “unity” wouldn’t settle for simply “belonging” to either of the fronts. But that was exactly what happened. Those who ended up in Jebha became True Believers of Jebha, and those who ended up in Shaebia became True Believers of Shaebia. And in the years of acrimony between the two camps to follow, rarely did any of them change their minds. Even when there was dissent in both camps, it had rarely to do with the ideals of the other camp. Even now, 30 years after the final showdown that forced Jebha to leave mieda, former Jebha teghadelti still remain loyal to the name and spirit of Jebha Abbay – that has been so even after Jebha splintered into various factions. Worse yet is the loyalty that is displayed by the victims. None of the thousands of Falul and other dissenters who managed to escape final assaults and found themselves scattered all over the world would dare utter anything against Jebha; and this is not out of fear of retaliation, but oddly enough, out of filial loyalty. The same phenomenon is also to be witnessed among Shaebia teghadelti. Among the tens of thousands of fighters that entered Asmara in 1991 triumphantly, not a single teghadalay dared utter anything against the past horrors of Shaebia. Even now, 14 years after things have fallen apart, the reluctance to talk against the atrocities of the past, with few exceptions, remains as adamant as ever. And when anyone dares to talk, more often than not, it is about Isaias and his few henchmen at the top rather than about the nature of ghedli – the journey that they have associated with their identity – that had victimized them and the masses.

If the above is true, then the following question is asked by the switching thought experiment about those students who deliberately assigned themselves to the two fronts in order to reconcile them: if those who ended up in Jebha had left for Shaebia in the first place, and vice versa, what would have happened? Nothing new would have happened; both groups would have ended up believing in the front they happened to join under the switching condition: the now Jebha followers would have become fanatic Shaebia followers, and vice versa. Having come from similar background (that is, everything else being equal), there is nothing that shows us they would have behaved differently in their switched environment.

The geographic factor

We can expand this experiment by invoking a geographic factor so as to include the majority of the teghadelti in the switching process. We know that Jebha and Shaebia had their own respective turfs, with fluctuating lines at the borders they used to meet. Shaebia’s traditional grazing area started from Sahel and followed the chain of mountains all the way to Hamasien plateau and parts of Akele-Guzay; this domain included parts of Senhit and the whole of Semhar. Jebha’s turf included Gash, Barka, parts of Senhit, Anseba, Seraye and parts of Akele Guzay. What is striking in both cases is that the people that joined the fronts for most happen to be from their respective turfs. That is to say, the people used to join whichever front was active in their area. And what I am asserting is this: for most, that geographic factor also happens to be the only reason why they preferred the one for the other.

Now, back to our thought experiment: if we switch the turfs of Jebha and Shaebia, so that one ends up having the other’s turf, what would have happened? Would the people that joined them behaved differently in joining them or afterward? Not at all; if the main reason of why one would join a front had been the fact that that front happened to be the only (or the main) movement active in his/her area, then the switching process would bring nothing new: all those who joined Jebha for proximity reasons would have ended up believing in Shaebia once they joined it, and vice versa. As in the first part of the experiment, further belonging to their respective fronts would have solidified the belief they had in the front they had joined.

What we have been looking at is the randomness of it all: one could join either of the Fronts for a random reason, for a reason that had nothing to do with the ideals of that front, and yet it is almost certain that he/she would end up being a true believer of whichever front he/she had joined. But if, in the first place, they have taken these movements as escape routes, then their actions would be understandable. Only then they would not care which route they took, so far as it served their deep urge to escape. What needs to be explained is the frame of mind of the ghedli generation that came to fanatically believe in an escape route, random as it happens to be. There is something dogmatic about all this, and that is what we should look at more closely.

Ghedli as dogma

When we ask a fellow Muslim or Christian why he believes in his religion, he would respond with all the reasons his/her Book provides him/her to convince us of the rightness of his/her belief. And this happens to be the case for every religion on this earth, past or present. But for a social scientist that has managed to collect all the data about these people, the most determinant factor why one follows a certain religion than the other would be the fact that he/she happens to be born in that religion. That is to say, if a Muslim had been born in a Christian household, he would have been a Christian follower and argued along the same line as the Christians do, and vice versa. If so, one has to ignore all the reasons religious people provide for being a Muslim or a Christian as internal rationalization (except for few converts). So is it with Jebha and Shaebia adherents.

A Jebha teghadalay reminiscing on Jebha’s past might say, “I am a Jebha believer because Jebha was more democratic, inclusive, tolerant, etc.” Similarly, a Shaebia teghadalay will selectively invoke all the virtues that he feels differentiate it from Jebha: jigninet, tewefayinet, tetsewarinet, bitsifrina, etc. But since all these so-called virtues had hardly cross over effects for converting others into one’s movement, they remain internal rationalizations. As in the religious cases, they have to be entirely discounted. For the simple reason that had these adherents switched places they would have parroted the same reasons their opponents are now parading. Those opposing reasons would thus cancel each other out. If so, what remains constant throughout the switching process are not the “ideals” (or the “content” of their Books), but this: that at one time or another, they happened to be there or they happened to pass through it – journey identity, indeed! Once one is baptized as Jebha or Shaebia, one remains in the same religion for the rest of his/her life.

Once we have identified that the reasons behind one’s allegiance to Jebha or Shaebia is as dogmatic, and hence as arbitrary, as religious belief, what we have to ask now is the persistence of that belief. We should be worried not only about its intensity, but also its duration; since after 50 long years of insanity, it is still persisting, causing havoc among Eritreans. We need to know why this irrational belief is haunting Eritrea even today.

The ever-deferral of the destination

If your belief system is entirely based on the journey, you would never want that journey to end. A circular journey that ends at the starting point is a direct affront to such form of belief. In such form of belief, a destination that is never reachable – hence one that has always to be deferred – is necessarily needed for the journey never to stop; the linear aspect of that journey comes from that belief.  So far, the place holder “Eritrea”, one that is never attainable, has provided such an ever-deferrable destination point. Again, the similarity with religion is striking.

For religions that believe that earthly life is just a temporary journey that prepares us for the afterlife, the behavior of the believers in the here and now is regulated by an invisible “destination” or “goal”. Given that the goal is placed beyond the mortals’ reach, there is no fear that the linear nature of the journey would ever be jeopardized. If so, to a social scientist, what is interesting about the afterlife is not the question of its verifiability, but how the belief in it has determined the behavior of the true believers in the here and now – that is, the nature of the journey itself. Similarly, when the journey subverts the destination in the Eritrean context, what is interesting is not the verifiability of that alien “Eritrea” they wanted to belong, but how the belief in it has determined the behavior of the nationalist true believers. It is only then that we could account the horrors that the nation has been facing for five decades – the subject matter of Part III.

If one’s identity depends on “how” variables, then that journey should never stop. If the identifying marks of that identity are attributes like perseverance, steely resolve, sacrifice, martyrdom, self-reliance, etc, one would need an enemy (a devil) that would never leave the scene to develop those qualities. The whole idea of the National Services originates from this primordial urge of Shaebia to go back to the escape route, after it faced an existential threat as it began to assimilate into the greater society. In the religious case, the behavior of the true believers as determined by their belief in the afterlife comes to an end only with their death. So is it with Shaebia: it will shed off its journey identity only when it comes to its death, the very process we are witnessing now. That is to say, it is in the very process of keeping the road linear, away from the starting point’s assimilative tendencies, that it will die. The fear is that it will take the nation along the same linear road of self-destruction.

So far, I have said little on the circular nature of the ghedli journey; and the cryptic way I have put it might have lead readers to ask more questions. In Part II, we will look at it extensively.


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