(II) Discontent at the Top: How Indispensable Is the Prison System to the Eritrean Defense Forces?

by Yosief Ghebrehiwet


Four brothers fight over a bicycle. One takes one wheel; the second, the other wheel; the third, half of the frame; and the fourth, the rest. Now, if any one of the four is found working very hard on improving the speed of the bicycle while it remains disjointed, we would think he is crazy. But what remains irrational under one explanation may be found to be rational under a different explanation. We might find his action rational if we realize that all he is doing is give the impression that he, unlike the others, is taking good care of his part; in the process normalizing the idea of “owning” a disjointed bicycle. So is it with the Eritrean opposition: any demand on how to improve the Eritrean condition without addressing the disjointed nature of the nation would be bizarre. But if they keep working very hard in doing that, in the process normalizing the idea of disjointed Eritrea, we must find a rational explanation for their seemingly bizarre behavior.
Shaebia’s source of power lies in keeping the following three Eritreas disjointed:

  1. Warsai’s world: The disjointing of Warsai’s world from the rest of Eritrea starts at the national service, to eventually end up in permanent exile in diaspora. If this world of constant flux is to be sustained, the continuous expulsion of Warsai from villages, towns and cities across Eritrea into the national service, and then across the border, should never come to an end.
  2. The peasants’ world in the army: If the army in its bloated form is to be sustained, the internal exile of the peasants and pastoralists in indefinite national service should never come to an end. Since these two population groups, unlike their educated counterparts, have nowhere to go, the army happens to be the terminal end of their displacement. That is why now the EDF has turned into a primarily peasant army.
  3. Civilian Eritrea: This world is made up of helpless demographic groups (children, teenagers, women and the old) in villages, towns and cities across the country; gutted out as it is of its most productive population – young adult males – who happen to have been exiled either internally in the national service or externally outside of the country.

[For an extensive elaboration of how this disjointing would go, please refer to the first part of this article: (I) Discontent at the Top: Mismatching Disjointed Eritrea]

Notice how the defining characteristic of the three population groups is exile or confinement: the Warsai, whose journey of exile starts internally in national service, to eventually end up in external exile; the peasants, who remain trapped in internal exile within the confines of the national service; and the civilian population that remains exiled in its original place (call it, if you will, “under house arrest”), a state of confinement reached after taking out the most potent demographic group. Thus, the only and main reason why the regime wants to keep these three Eritreas disjointed is rather simple to understand: by keeping them disjointed, it renders the three population groups helpless by confining them to secured areas (as in a prison); and by rendering them helpless, its totalitarian control over them remains undisputed. By the same token, the regime’s Achilles’ heel would be found in doing just the opposite: in bringing the disjointed parts together. And the only weapon that can do that is demobilization; and, by implication, making peace with Ethiopia. Like a magic wand, this is what keeps the Warsai in the country, brings back the peasants and pastoralists to their villages and returns civilian Eritrea back to normal. And normalcy to totalitarianism is as daylight is to a vampire; neither of them would survive the exposure.

If so, anyone who invokes democracy or quam or any other democratic rights like freedom of the press or release of political prisoners to undo a totalitarian system that survives on keeping that nation unnaturally disjointed is like the brother who tirelessly works on improving the speed of the disjointed bicycle. If we wouldn’t even know what the latter would mean, how are supposed to know what the former keep doing with their superfluous democratic tools? To grasp the extent of the absurdity, all you need is to think how the release of political prisons is supposed to work in disjointed Eritrea. But, as in the bicycle example, what we find odd under one explanation might not be so odd under a different explanation.

When many in the opposition come armed with democratic demands to usher regime change, consciously or not, it is because they have taken disjointed Eritrea as given and don’t want to tamper with it. If demobilization of the fully mobilized army is the only means that can reassemble disjointed Eritrea, then one understands the reformists’ dilemma: the defense of Eritrea! They have become prisoners of the paranoid Eritrea that Isaias Afwerki (and ghedli) has created for them. National “sovereignty” and “security” have become the measure of who they are; so much so, that even if the nation goes down the drain in the process of “defending” it, one would proudly salvage the Eritrean identity “against all odds”. It is like someone who, when faced with death at a point of sword or conversion into a religion he abhors, he chooses death – thereby salvaging his religious identity amidst body disintegration. The problem is, in the Eritrean case, the pointing of the sword is done by none other than the one who wants to retain his identity; that is to say, there have never been hard choices to begin with.

Starting from this self-made debacle, it is clear why no one opposition group makes its slogan “Demobilize the army!” or “Make peace with Ethiopia!” – that is, even those based in Ethiopia. Given how their organization would be looked at by relevant others if they adopt these slogans, no wonder they consider that move as a kiss of death. Under this situation, the constitution and other democratic rights are invoked primarily not for their intrinsic values, but as a tool of resistance that happens to fall short of demobilization. This way, they believe that they could go radical as far as possible, but without tampering with the identity that has been inextricably linked to issues of “sovereignty”. But no weapon selected with an eye to the “security” of the nation (assigned to none other than the regime!) will ever do a job of undoing a totalitarian system.

In this part (Part II), I will try to show what is wrong with the above mentioned opposition’s strategy by focusing on only one of the democratic rights: the demand for the release of political prisoners. If it works for this demand, it will also work for all other democratic demands. Below, I will argue that the elaborate prison system in Eritrea is indispensable to Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), without which it would entirely disintegrate. To sustain its full mobilization, EDF needs to keep the three Eritreas disjointed; and the elaborate prison system happens to be what keeps the three population groups apart. In light of this, to expect that the army will be interested in the release of political prisoners without dismantling itself in the process would be absurd – a lesson to those who are waiting for democratic salvation from the EDF while, at the same time, intending to keep it strong enough to defend the nation from outside enemies. If we are to expect any salvation from the EDF, it would have to be under its own terms that have nothing to do with democratic ideals.

When the mutineers made the demand for the release of political prisoners, they must have had an audience in mind. Who could it be? Is it the regime, with negotiation in their mind? Is it the masses, with mass uprising in their mind? Is it to the rank and file soldiers, with rebellion in their mind? Is it the colonels and generals, with collaboration or accommodation, or even indifference, in their mind? Is it diaspora Eritrea, with complementing their task in mind? Is it the outside world, with support in their mind? Or is it any combination of the above? Even if it was the regime they had in mind, going public the way they did must have been the only way they could put pressure on it; and, if so, they must have had a larger audience in mind. And if it was meant to entirely bypass the regime, with a mass uprising in mind, then again the audience will be the rank and file soldiers and the masses. And if the nature of their demands took reformist bent to appeal to the military leaders too, we need to know why and whether such a thing is doable. And since the opposition in diaspora seems to have embraced the demand, raising these questions seems to be even more relevant. We can ask the opposition who they have in mind when they make this demand, and why. For all, let’s start with those who own and operate the prisons.

Who owns and runs the prisons in Eritrea?

It would be a cruel joke played upon the Eritrean people to think that the colonels and generals are really interested in the release of political prisoners, given the utter disregard for the army conscripts that they have consistently shown in the last 15 years or so. To think that the likes of Sebhat Efrem, who has been enabling the tyrant since day one for almost four decades; Gen. Filipos, who is reputed to be the cruelest of them all and to have undertaken the largest number of executions in the units he has been leading; and Gen. Omer Tewil, the one who engineered the Kunama massacre at Mai-Dima, would be interested in the release of political prisoners would be total naivety. Besides, almost the entire prison system in Eritrea is intimately tied to the army itself; and, at immediacy level, each unit has its own make-shift prison with the Orwellian name of “tehadso” (renewal or renaissance) appended to it. Sprawling concentration camps such as We’a that double as training grounds for apprehended conscripts are also run by the military. That is to say, the army owns and operates the larger part of the prison system in Eritrea. After all, the most cruel torture systems such as “Helicopter”, “Otto”, “Jesus Christ” and “Almaz” have gained their notoriety when applied to army conscripts within the army itself. Furthermore, the infamous atsnihaley phenomenon, where a colonel entrusts a prisoner to a prison outside his turf and forgets him for years, shows how military leaders have used the prison system in the most cruel and callous way imaginable.

One could still argue that, even if the above is true, these happen to be excesses conducted by unscrupulous military leaders and that they should be stopped; and, if so, the demand for the release of political prisoners by the mutineers and the opposition would even make more sense under these brutal conditions. That assessment though is wrong because the prison system in Eritrea is not only kept and run by the army, it also happens to be indispensable to the army. That is to say, there is a more pragmatic reason why the EDF might not be interested in the release of political prisoners: without the elaborate prison system put in place in Eritrea, the army in its present form would disintegrate. If this happens to be true, could it be that the opposition is rallying under this cause for the same reason that disgruntled military leaders would do – that it comes short of demobilization – albeit with a different motive: while the disgruntled colonels and generals are doing this in the process protecting their power turfs, the opposition is doing it in the process of protecting “Eritrea”. For all, we need to look at how indispensable the elaborate prison system in Eritrea to the EDF is.

A prison within a prison within a prison1

In Eritrea, out of the thousands “political prisoners”, only a fraction would count as truly political – a fact that would make the prioritization of the demand for political prisoners outright incoherent from the very start. The overwhelming majority of the prisoners have to do with the nature of the military itself: army deserters, conscription evaders and others detained for infractions that has nothing to do with politics. If the army refrains from using frequent and relentless giffas (round ups),  from occasionally filling up concentration camps like Wi’a that double as training grounds, from constructing and filling up officially recognized prisons (more than 300 of them so far, and still counting) for those caught in the act (like crossing the border) or considered not malleable enough to fit into the military machine, from fully enforcing shoot-at-sight policy at border areas, from penalizing parents of army deserters and draft dodgers, from erecting check points to screen out deserters and evaders wherever possible, etc, there is no doubt that the army in its present form would unravel. As it is, with all these draconian methods put in place, the army is losing thousands of young men every year. So for the army to demand the release of all political prisoners would be self-defeating – to say the least. That is to say, not only has most of the detention been taking place within the army itself, there would be no EDF as we know it without that elaborate detention mechanism put in place everywhere.

To grasp the extent of how much the army depends on the prison system in Eritrea, one need to see its elaborate, multi-layered nature meant not only to prevent desertion and evasion, but also to feed the army with new recruits and rehabilitated ones. Like the Russian doll, one has to open one prison system to discover anther one embedded in it, and further open the exposed one to find yet another one inside it. Once, I described this prison system as a “prison within a prison within a prison”, made up of three concentric circles, one embedded into the other.2 In the outermost circle, we find the whole population trapped within the sealed borders of the nation; in the middle circle, we find the hundreds of thousands of army conscripts trapped in the national service; and, in the innermost circle, we find the thousands of “political” prisoners trapped in officially recognized prisons. In such a layered world, the misery index of an army conscript (actual or potential) is measured by how deep into this system of concentric circles he/she finds himself. If so, when one talks about the state of “political prisoners” as a primary concern of the nation within this multi-layered prison system in Eritrea, besides the fact that such talk trivializes the extent and severity of this prison system, it fails to identify the indispensability of that system to the army. What this pervasive prison system shows us is that the army would not survive a day without it, for the prison system is structured in such a way as to maximize both the army’s recruiting and retaining capabilities – the very concerns that are worrying the military leaders to death.

Let’s take a look at each of the circles mentioned above in regard to its recruiting and retaining capabilities, with only the army conscript – be it potential or actual – as a prisoner in every one of the concentric circles in mind. It is important to reiterate this point: when we look at these circles, first, it is not with the lot of the masses but with the lot of the conscript only in mind, with the environment that would render him/her a “prisoner” to be found in each and every one of them. Only after we do that will we look at the prison system in regard to the larger civilian society.

(1) Outermost circle:

We have to start from the outermost circle (the world of civilian Eritrea) to see how this recruiting and retaining system works. First, the entire nation has to be sealed off at the border if forced conscription is to work. And further inside, the regime has set an elaborate system within the bounds of the outermost circle to stem this mass exodus that is profusely hemorrhaging the EDF to death. As a result, we see that most of the crimes that the regime commits in the outermost circle have to do with the nature of national service itself, with the army conscript  (draft dodger or army deserter) as a fugitive to be hunted down by whatever means necessary. These crimes against the conscript fugitive take place as a result of (a) apprehension of the escapees from their hiding places within Eritrea through the regime’s informers and security apparatus; (b) forced conscription that keeps replenishing the ever-dwindling pool of army recruits on regular basis (Ex: locking up the entire 12th grade students of the whole nation in single camp, after which they are made to join the army); (c) giffa (round ups) meant to catch conscription evaders and army deserters at their unguarded moments; (d) shoot-at-sight policy at the border meant to punish and discourage those fleeing the nation (e) structural overhauls imposed on traditional and modern institutions to meet the recruitment demand (Ex: the destruction of the educational system – the opening of Sawa, the building of boot camps masquerading as colleges outside urban areas, the closing down of Asmara university, etc); (f) parental punishment for escaped sons or daughters meant to discourage others from putting their parents through the same excruciating experience; etc.

The most important point to remember about the outermost circle is this: in order to feed the army with hundreds of thousands of young men that it needs to survive in its present bloated form, first, the nation has to be sealed off and, second, ways of “smoking out” new conscripts, deserters and draft dodgers have to be put in place – and this happens to be what has turned Eritrea into the largest open-air prison in the world. The poignant image that we have to retain in regard to the outermost circle is that of the fugitive living in fear in his hiding place, changing places to elude his followers, escaping from close calls and finally attempting to flee the nation altogether; with many never making it, their saga ending in apprehension or death. Given the above, the demand for the release of political prisoners fails to make sense in two major ways: First, it trivializes the life of the fugitive, which has the characteristics of a full blown prisoner on the run (tens of thousands have gone through this experience). And, second, without all this elaborate mechanism put on the outer circle, the army wouldn’t survive a day.

(2) The middle circle:

The confinement of army conscripts within the middle circle (the National Service) is not only meant to prevent them from escaping but also from making contact with the rest of Eritrea, especially the urban centers. With this “sealing off” process from two sides, those in the national service have acquired all the characteristics of an exile/prisoner: (a) Isolation: they are allowed minimal contact with the civilian world, with the containment of dissent in urban areas in mind. (b) Hard labor: they are subjected to endless slave labor with minimal payment, with all the “development projects” being done by them. (c) Supervision: they are put under constant supervision lest they “misbehave” or escape, with the ever watchful eye of the Yikealo (the Big Brother) on them. (d) Indoctrination: they are subjected to indoctrination, with the destruction of the educational system and prevention of religious practices as its trade mark. (e) Torture: they are subjected to physical and mental punishment (“Helicopter”, “Otto”, “Jesus Christ”, “Almaz”, etc.). (f) Execution: some have also been executed (sigumti tewesidlom) for insubordination, attempt at desertion and other reasons. (g) Little care: they remain chronically undernourished, with little attention paid to their health; they also happen to be victims of the elements, as they keep wandering all over the Eritrean landscape – from hot, arid deserts to cold, mountainous areas. (h) Abuse: the sexual abuse of women has been rampant, with many of them “chosen” to serve the colonels. (i) Wasted years: most of the conscripts have wasted their productive years in national service, with no prospects for further education, normal jobs or raising families. (j) Escape: tens of thousands of them have deserted the army in mass exodus, with all its dire consequences. (k) War: they have also been victims of a wanton war, with tens of thousands of them dead and many more maimed; etc.

From the above, the image that we get of the life of the conscript in the middle circle is that of a double jeopardy, both as slave soldier and slave laborer. Please do not fail to note that this slave soldier/laborer has been able to retain the main characteristics of the classical “exile/prisoner”: isolation, hard labor, supervision, indoctrination, torture, execution, maltreatment, wasted years, escape, fodder for war, etc. Again, there are two points to remember: First, the attempt to isolate “political prisoners” within this context of pervasive and persistent abuse that involves hundreds of thousands is to miss the whole picture. And, second, it is obvious that without the prison-like characteristics of the National Service, the army wouldn’t last a day.

(3) The innermost circle:

To date, there are thousands of prisoners (perhaps tens of thousands) languishing in the innermost circle – that is in the more than 300 prisons and concentration camps strewn all over the Eritrean landscape – under various pretexts, the most frequent of which is “national security”; and many more have gone through it. As pointed before, only a fraction of those would count as real political ones. The overwhelming majority of these prisoners are directly related to the national service. If we categorize the prisoners related to the national service by types, they would be: (a) army deserters, (b) draft dodgers, (c) parents of escapees, (c) those accused of “insubordination” within the army (d) those who refuse to serve in the army for religious reasons (ex: Jehovah Witnesses), (e) those practicing their religion while in national service (ex: Evangelical Christians reading the bible), (f) and for various other trivial reasons while serving national service – for having misspoken, overstayed one’s leave, refused an officer’s sexual advances, shown no ideological zeal, failed in his/her regimentation, failed to serve in the slave labor he/she is assigned to accomplish, suspected of anything else, etc.

What the above tells us is that, as in any totalitarian system, it requires by far less than a political dissent to end up in the dungeons of the regime – and that happens to be the whole point. If so, focusing on “political prisoners” could not be done without missing the totalitarian aspect of the regime’s nature. And even though the overwhelming majority of all those who are in prison have nothing to do with politics, it is crystal clear that their detention is essential if the EDF is to remain functional in its present bloated form.

(4) The extended circle:

When it comes to the escaped conscripts who made it across the border, there is an additional fourth circle that is a direct consequence of the indefinite national service that has increasingly turned into an extended prison system beyond the borderlines, outside the country: the world of refugees whose trajectory starts at refugee camps in neighboring countries, passes through the Arab world and ends in Israel. Even though its extended nature has placed it beyond the domain of the concentric circles, and hence beyond the reach of the regime’s hands, it serves the regime in a direct way: the stream of exodus of the most disgruntled and potent part of the army (young and educated men) has been serving it as a safety valve that has so far prevented the army from imploding, thereby stretching Shaebia’s lifespan. And, as in any of the circles mentioned above, this circle has had similar adverse effects on the fleeing population group. First, the wasted years in the national service that the escapees desperately tried to run away from make their reappearance in refugee camps, as they remain trapped there for years in destitution and despair. And now, where kidnapping by Rashaida predators has become common, they are living in the Sudanese refugee camps in daily terror. Second, as they trek northward to Egypt and Libya, they have been facing detention, deportation, abduction and death. And as the latest news indicates, in Libya the Arabs are using them as mine sweepers.3 At the Sinai Peninsula, they are met with the ultimate horror under the hands of Bedouin Arabs: hostage-taking, blackmail, torture, rape, organ-harvesting and murder. And as they cross the Egyptian-Israeli border, as if to remind them that nothing has changed in the projected regional prison that they have been thrown into, the Egyptian border guards keep shooting at them point blank. And for those who made it to Israel, rabid racism of the likes they had never met before and detention for years with fear of deportation await them.

What we have seen above is that, even as the conscripts escape Prison Eritrea, they are unable to escape its trajectory that follows them throughout the region. Again, the two main points remain the same: first, to talk about political prisoners as a priority in face of this unimaginable horror where thousands have perished in the Arab Passage, a direct consequence of the disjointing of Eritrea, is absurd; and, second, the safety-valve nature of the mass exodus tells that even this extended prison system outside Eritrea is indispensable to the EDF.

Above, we have been examining each of the four circles independent of one another. But the best way to look at how indispensable these circles (and hence the elaborate prison system) are to the EDF is not by looking at each one separate of others, but in their totality as they keep interacting and complementing one another. This way we will be able grasp that each disjointed one is part and parcel of the whole elaborate prison system, where one circle cannot function without the other circles in serving the EDF. How so?

Recycling army conscripts

The three concentric circles within the nation are meant to feed and sustain the army; that is, even as there is a division of labor assigned to each circle, each one of them is structured to serve the same function. First, the outermost circle is where the conscripts originally come from. The entire outermost circle is overhauled in such a way to function as the main feeder of conscripts. The overhauling of all the institutions within this circle has been done with maximizing the number of new recruits in mind. And, further, the walls around this circle and the traps set in between are not only meant to hold in any potential conscript, but also actual ones who may have escaped from the middle circle. Second, the middle circle is meant to confine the whole army within manageable parameters. Its double walls are meant to assure the isolation of the army not only from the outside world, but also from the civilian world within the nation. Third, the inner circle is meant to punish and rehabilitate any conscript who either cannot meld into the middle circle or is caught in the outermost circle after either escaping from or refusing to go into the middle circle. Now, if we add the fourth circle as a safety valve for this elaborate prison system within Eritrea to function properly, we get the full picture. It is this indispensable interlink between these circles that has forced Shaebia to go “pragmatic” in handling the problem of the perennial “prison escapee” – a phenomenon that could provide us an insight into the “symbiotic” nature of this multi-layered prison system.

By now, the “Warsai problem” has become so pervasive that the regime has adopted a “pragmatic” approach to deal with it: human recycling. On a yearly basis, tens of thousands of conscripts try to evade or escape from this hell hole called national service. Many of them are apprehended at their hiding places inside Eritrea, at attempts of border and camp crossings, through deportations from Arab countries, in frequent giffas and other traps. Through the years of dealing with this problem, the regime has found out that it cannot afford to put this large number of detainees indefinitely in prisons and concentration camps. First, there is this logistical nightmare of where to put them and how to “take care” of them. But more importantly, if it does that, half of the army would have to be put away in these prisons, and the meltdown of the army that it dreads would come sooner than later. The result of this realization has been the constant recycling of the same people from one circle to the other: one who has escaped from the middle circle (the national service) to the outer circle (the larger civilian Eritrea) is apprehended by the authorities and sent for punishment to the inner circle (the prisons) and stays there for a year or two and is then sent back “rehabilitated” to the middle circle to repeat this cycle of terror until one day he/she succeeds in breaking out of this cycle by successfully making it to one of the neighboring countries. If one were allowed to visit the prisons of Eritrea, at any given moment a huge chunk of the prison population would be EDF conscripts going through just one stage of this recycling process. If so, to look at them as “political prisoners” at that stage without grasping the recycling phenomenon in its totality is not only to miss how essential this human recycling has been to the survival of EDF, but also to miss the abnormal nature of this totalitarian system.

The Shaebia regime has perfected the art of human recycling in its mieda (the bush) years. Thousands of teghadelti (guerrilla fighters) went through the halewa sewra (a security apparatus under that ubiquitous Orwellian name, “the revolutionary guard”) before they were declared complaint enough to be rehabilitated. Thousands considered irredeemable perished, and thousands more escaped. And in the “liberated areas” that the Front used to control (the outermost circle), the same phenomenon of terror, apprehension and giffa was to be witnessed. The Front was able to survive through the years by purging one group of dissenters after another – one of its time-tested safety valves. And in the most trying decade after the ’78 retreat, it survived by “depending” on the most helpless population groups: child soldiers, women and peasants. So, there is nothing new in what Shaebia is doing now. If it believed then that it could survive only by sequestering helpless groups and recycling the renegade ones, it also believes now that it is only by erecting these multiple walls at different levels that it could survive. It doesn’t know anything better. This should be a lesson to the ghedli (revolution) romantics who want to consign this egregious human dispensability to the current regime only (and the most idiotic or dubious of them, to Isaias only!), for the entire blueprint for this totalitarian horror comes out directly from mieda pages. That is why, in fact, for Shaebia the changing of gears to its totalitarian past was a seamless effort without any glitches whatsoever.

To sum up, the most important aspect of the concentric circles we have seen so far is how the army conscript has been treated as a prisoner in every circle. In the outermost circle, the prisoner characteristic that defines the Warsai most is that of a fugitive or a prisoner on the run; in the second circle, that of a slave soldier/laborer; and in the innermost circle, that of the prisoner within four walls. In the fourth circle (outside the concentric circles), the trajectory of this exile starts as a refugee confined to the refugee camp and ends with the Warsai as a slave put for sale in the Arab bazaar. Now that we have seen how this multilayered prison system works, it is time to ask to whom the demand for the release of political prisoners would be appealing under these conditions, and why. If we are to get rid of this pervasive prison system that has rendered the Warsai a prisoner in every circle, it is obvious the “release of political prisoners” won’t do the job Under these circumstances, we don’t even know what the demand would mean, let alone to implement it. If so, it would be interesting to know who would be interested in such a demand, and what would motivate such an interest.

The demand and its appeal

The reason why I have been going over this elaborate, multi-layered prison system in Eritrea is to show how indispensable that system is to the army itself. If the EDF cannot release its prisoners without dismantling itself in the process, does it make sense for anybody (including the mutineers) to make such a demand? It would be self-defeating for the colonels and generals to accept it because the source for their military, political and economic power comes from the fully mobilized army. If so, the only way disgruntled military leaders would support such a demand would be if they think that it would exhaust itself in cornering Isaias (at best, in unseating Isaias); and, hence, attain the goal without infringing on their turf. In that case, what they would like about this democratic weapon most would be the fact that it tries to attain its goal without raising the issue of demobilization. But this would come woefully short of doing the desired job, for the fact that it comes as a weapon short of demobilization may also be the reason why it cannot do the job. The problem is that neither the rank and file nor the masses would be impressed by such a demand. And if there happens to be no convergence among the top and the bottom in regard to the nature of their discontent, this strategy would be a non-starter. So let’s see how the demand would fare among the rank and file and the masses.

Let’s first see if the demand can appeal to the rank and file for the right reason. If the demand is meant to directly appeal to the rank and file to rise up against the regime, one could still argue that it would find receptive ears among them too, albeit for a different reason than that of the military leaders: that is, to actually execute the demand on the ground. After all, they are the ones who find themselves at the receiving end of this extensive and elaborate prison system. Under this scenario, all that matters is that an overlap between the interests of the bottom and the top takes place, even though for different reasons. If so, why wouldn’t such an overlap be enough for them to work together?

The rank and file soldiers wouldn’t be impressed by the demand for the release of political prisoners simply because they instinctively grasp the logical contradiction inherent in such a demand: what good will it do if all those caught deserting and evading the national service were to be released, only to be reintroduced into the army? In fact, isn’t that what the Isaias regime has been doing all along? As pointed out above, it is precisely because of the large number of deserters and evaders that the regime has realized it cannot hold them for long in prison. As a result, many of those that are serving in the army now happen to be a product of that recycling system. But if the demand is for the apprehended conscripts never to go through the prison system in the first place, what would prevent them from attempting to escape again and again, given that there would be no repercussion for their behavior? So the demand for the release of political prisoners while the indefinite service in the army remains intact is impractical and hence insincere – and every army conscript understands that. So is it with the masses; they realize that without addressing the national service problem, addressing the problem that result from that service is absurd; after all, the masses too have been its victims.

Even though it is the conscripts that have fared the worst, the masses are not far behind in the list of the abused by the totalitarian system in Eritrea. Disjointed Eritrea and the prison system feed on one another in inextricable ways: without disjointed Eritrea, it would be impossible to sustain the prison system; and Eritrea cannot be kept disjointed unless there is a prison system that holds the disjointed parts apart. That is to say, it requires unprecedented violence to keep the nation disjointed; and the prison system happens to be the best enactment of that violence. And since it is the elaborate prison system that is keeping the indefinite national service going, whatever impact we see the latter as having on the masses’ lives can also be blamed on the former.

The first impact the national service is having on the masses is as intimate as the relation they happen to have with the army conscripts, given that the latter are their sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, etc. Given that most of these were the bread winners of the family, the destitution of many Eritrean families is related to the service in this direct way. And whatever impacts the conscripts directly, like detention, desertion and exodus, also impacts their families in a direct way. Even when the conscripts reach “safe” havens (in the fourth circle), their plight hits the family hard; think of a call from Sinai to grasp the horror of how far reaching the impact of the prison system of Eritrea has been. Nowadays, there is almost no adversity in Eritrea that can not be connected to the disjointed nature of the nation.

And, at general level, we can point to the national service as the single factor that has wiped out normal life from the Eritrean scene. Here are some of the dire consequences of the national service on the larger society (economic, demographic, cultural, educational, etc): (a) The national service has become the economic black hole that swallows most of the resources of the nation: in training, arming, feeding, clothing, quartering, providing medical care and maintaining this huge army. (b) At the root of the ownership of all kinds of companies by the PFDJ/army is the national service, providing the regime with the motive for bankrupting or taking over all kinds of private enterprises. The free labor that these enterprises use to survive would be impossible without the slave labor of the army conscripts. (c) The national service has also tied up most of the nation’s labor force. This has specially affected the rural areas, the results of which has been recurrent famine all across Eritrea. (d) Since most of those voting with their feet tend to be young and educated, a bleak future awaits the nation. Given the relevance of education in our era than at any time before, the existential consequence is: will this nation ever make it in the 21st century? (e) As the desertion from the army continues at a frightening rate, not only the army but also the nation will be hollowed out of young men, with all kinds of negative consequences to follow up. (f) The demographic effect of the mass exodus on women is also devastating: the fact that the overwhelming majority of those fleeing the nation are men means that a whole generation of women faces a bleak future with little prospect of marriage. (g) So is it with future demographic effect for the nation, where both the mass exodus and the quarantining of adults in the national service for years on end means a lower fertility rate, especially on those border areas hard hit by mass exodus. (h) One of the dire consequences of having hundreds of thousands of adult males either quarantined in the national service or fleeing the country is that a whole generation of children is growing up without the presence of fathers. We don’t know yet what women-headed households would mean to the larger society in the future, but it cannot be good. (i) The entire educational system has been overhauled to meet the demands of the national service. It is to be noted that it is with the militarization of education that the entire educational system has collapsed. (j) The destruction of all institutions in Eritrea – both traditional and modern – has also been undertaken to accommodate the national service. To take just the religious institution, the banning of Evangelical Churches and the restructuring of the main ones have adversely affected a huge chunk of the population, with many churches closed down, kahnat (priests) forced to carry firearms, the Patriarch in house arrest, thousands passing through the prison system, etc. (j) The elaborate prison system that cannot be imagined without the national service has also been directly affecting the society; after all, giffa and the detention of parents takes place among the civilian population. (k) And, above all, the mass exodus (a consequence of the national service) has made an already paranoid regime extremely paranoid, it being the reason for all the draconian measures it is undertaking in its desperation to stem this lethal hemorrhage that is slowly bleeding the army to death; that is, the utmost enactment of the totalitarian nature of the regime is to be found in the national service.

Thus, if there is one single policy that has snuffed out normalcy from the daily lives of Eritreans from all walks of life and single-handedly created the abnormal world in which the people find themselves in today, it would be national service. It is in this abnormal world that we lose the distinction between a real prison (within four walls) and other “prisons” in the different circles described above; and, in the end, so would it be with the distinction between an army conscript and a civilian living in these circles. Hence, we need a working definition of “prisoner” within this abnormal world that cuts across all these distinctions.

The loss of control over one’s own life

What is it about a prison that is to be dreaded most?

Responding to this question will provide us with a hint why Eritrea has been called the largest open-air prison in the world. It will do it in a way that bypasses the categorical details of the circles mentioned above; that is, by providing us with an overarching definition that overrides the differences in the details in each circle. Given this definition, it is not only the army conscript but also the civilian that we would find entrapped in the prison system of the nation.

Even though one prison system differs from another depending on the type of government that enforces it, there is one defining characteristic that all prisons share: it is a place where the individual loses total control over his/her life. Once rendered a prisoner, one gives up the liberty to take control of his life, as the government takes over that responsibility. Within the walled prison, every aspect of the prisoner’s daily life is planned and rigorously enforced by the prison authorities. The prisoner will have no say at all in planning and organizing his life in prison. And if we have carefully followed the four circles mentioned above both in regard to the conscript and ghebar (civilian), the most defining characteristic in their lives happens to be similar to that of the classical prisoner in this overarching sense. As the totalitarian state tries to control every aspect of the individual’s life – parental, educational, occupational, religious, social, etc – in the confined world it consigns him/her, the individual loses control over important aspects of his life. What makes this worse in the Eritrean case is that the nation happens to inhabit the worst of two worlds – that of totalitarianism and anarchy, seemingly contradictory worlds – because it has never been able to come out of the formative stage of totalitarianism, where everything remains in a state of flux [more on this in Part IV].

The loss of control that the individual faces in the disjointed world of today’s Eritrea is pervasive: to mention just a few: parents (in civilian Eritrea) who have lost control over their children, with Shaebia taking over their upbringing since their teenage years; fathers in the indefinite national service having no control over the upbringing of their children, as they grow up in their absence; women folk facing a grim future, with very slim prospective of marriage; students with no prospects to pursue their education, no jobs to look forward to, no married life to envision, etc; religious people who lost control over their spiritual life, denied as they are to freely practice their religion; kahnat losing control over their churches, as the regime forces them to carry arms; businessmen who cannot plan ahead, given the unpredictable nature of the regime; farmers who have lost control over their farms and food products, given the predatory nature of the regime; and, above all, a whole generation stranded in the middle of nowhere – both geographically and metaphorically.

The regime follows a simple strategy in its attempt at totalitarian control: as it introduces anarchy into the life of the individual so that it would be difficult for him/her to plan and organize his/her life, the regime’s control over his/her life increases by that much. The massive dislocation that it conducts on these population groups is meant to bring such anarchy in the individual’s life. Thus, the higher the anarchy level (and the unpredictability that comes with it), the more secure gets the totalitarian grip over the masses. That is to say, the more abnormal the lives of the masses get as result of the dislocation, the more secure the regime gets in its power hegemony. It is failing to understand how this overarching mechanism of the totalitarian system of the Eritrean kind works that has left the opposition tinkering with superfluous demands. Anyone who grasps the extent of the total loss of control over one’s life that currently characterizes the typical life in Eritrea would never spend regurgitating democratic demands that would make sense only if no such anarchy at every level exists.

Think of a mother that has lost control of everything that she holds dear; foremost, her children – does that sound familiar? Let say, she has had six children, not unusual for an Eritrean family. One was killed in ghedli, another one in the border war. Two have been serving the national service for years. Recently though she has heard that her son who has converted into Pente (Evangelical Christian), as many of his generation happen to do, has been apprehended by the authorities after having found him reading the bible. Ever since, she hasn’t had any information about his whereabouts or condition. And when it comes to her beautiful daughter, even as she keeps reassuring her mom that everything is OK with her in the national service, the mother has been heart broken ever since she heard rumors that she has been forced to live with a colonel in sexual servitude. Her other two children have left the nation for good, as hundreds of thousands of their generation have done. One still remains stranded in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, hopelessly waiting for a ticket to the West. His more daring sister, after going through a harrowing experience, is now in Israel. When the Arab Bedouins had held the daughter hostage, the family was forced to sell their house to get her free. Again, even as this daughter too keeps reassuring the family she is doing fine in Israel, the mother has heard from others that all is not well – that her daughter arrived in Israel with late pregnancy, and gave birth to a child from her Arab rapist. To cup it all, with the forming of the new militia, her old man has now been forced to carry arms.

Now, who would dare tell us that prioritizing the release of political prisoners or the implementation of the constitution would reflect this mother’s tragic state best? Rather, at the root of the mother’s problem is a disjointed Eritrea that has rendered all her beloved children inaccessible, and thereby left her totally helpless. First, the disjointed world of ghedli swallowed up her eldest son. After all, the idea of disjointed Eritrea comes from ghedli, where an insulated world distinct from ghebar Eritrea had been created; one that found it difficult to meld into the civilian world even after independence. Second, the ghedli-replicated national service devoured another son, put another one in prison and turned the third into a sex slave. And, third, ever since their escape, the remaining two have remained trapped in Prison Eritrea’s trajectory in the region. All these disjointed parts being out of her reach, all the mother could do throughout the unfolding of this family tragedy is watch helplessly from afar as the Shaebia monster keeps gobbling up her children one after the other. She remains a prisoner amidst the abnormal world that the ghedli generation has created. Now, who among us would dare say that her predicament is less than any other actual prisoner? After all, the loss of control in her case is as total as anyone confined within the four walls of prison. Furthermore, unlike the case of the political prisoners which remains confined to thousands, her case is a typical story told again and again by families all over Eritrea.

In light of the above, the clueless democracy project that the diaspora opposition has been regurgitating endlessly would have no appeal whatsoever to the Eritrean mothers’ ears. What would have made immediate and electrifying impact on them is the demand that would bring together the disjointed parts of Eritrea that has so far prevented their children and husbands from coming back to them – the demand for demobilization of the fully mobilized army.

The crux of the matter: demobilization and peace with Ethiopia

Given the horrors that their family members (sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, etc) have been going through the four circles, if the masses were to be asked their number one priority, it would be regarding those very beloved family members: they want their sons and daughters to grow up as normal kids, attending schools nearby – not in Sawa or any other boot camps. They want them to come back from this endless servitude to lead normal lives – finish their schooling, get a normal job and raise a family; etc. They want the husbands and fathers to come back and take the role of bread winners, and share the responsibility of bringing up their children in the proper way. They want the mass exodus, with all the horrors that their children are facing throughout the region, to stop. And, above all, they would love to hear that old Habesha decree that the emperors used to give after years war and turmoil, "harestay hires! negaday niged!” (“The farmer, back to his farm! The merchant, back to his trade!” that would unambiguously announce that normalcy has turned back to their lives. If these are done, normalcy would return to the land and the horrors they have been going through in the confined circle that Shaebia has created for them would come to a quick end.  So the one demand that would have appealed to all Eritrean families would be, “Give the Eritrean families their children, husbands and fathers back!” Ad if uttered by the families themselves, it would go: “Let our children, husbands and fathers go!” And to say this, one has to first assume that their children, husbands and fathers are held in the national service against their will – one of the defining attributes of a prison, and not the EDF that some clueless opposition are trying to make a point of pride.

The demobilization demand cannot be entertained without the intention of making peace with Ethiopia – and therein lies an additional reason for the colonels’ and generals’, the reformists’ and the opposition’s dilemma. Anything that implies “making peace with Ethiopia” is taken as too extreme, and hence to be avoided no matter what. It is to be remembered when the G-15 dissented, they never questioned the war itself, but “how it was conducted”. Realizing this, Isaias has never stopped playing his “defeatism” card. That is to say, the opposition, be it inside or outside Eritrea, has never been able to set themselves free of the language that Isaias has set. They think that working outside of the nationalistic parameters that he has set for them as treasonous. That is why, in the end, the mutineers settled for the empty rhetoric that the diaspora opposition has been mindlessly regurgitating for years on end. It was as if the mutineers were talking to the outside world, bypassing the rank and file in the army and the masses in Eritrea.

Concurrent to the above demands, what would be coherent is for the army to change the nature of its composition, and shed off all the elements that has turned it into a huge bloated, cumbersome machine that is the cause for all the horrors in the country: the indefinite national service. Nothing less then reducing it from the hundreds of thousands it has mobilized now to tens of thousands it consisted of before the war is necessary. If so, the call for the release of political prisoners without the demand for demobilization that would render indefinite national service unnecessary would be incoherent. Thus, what makes the reformists’ demand of the release of political prisoners incoherent is that it is supposed to take place within the fully mobilized army in its present form. And if full mobilization is to be sustained, it is only by keeping Eritrea disjointed.

The problem with reformists is that all their reforms are meant to be implemented on a disjointed Eritrea, and hence are inherently not doable. In the bicycle example at the start of this article, we saw how impossible it is to improve on the speed of the bicycle while it remains disjointed. One has to get back the bicycle to its normal status before any work on improving it starts. Similarly, all effort should be directed at getting back the normal Eritrea first. But if one tries to improve on abnormal Eritrea, the appeal of this task must come not from what it could do (for it can do absolutely nothing) but from what it avoids doing: interfere with “defending” Eritrea. Thus the entire dilemma of the reformists of all ilks comes from asking this question: how do we usher regime change without compromising the nation’s sovereignty? And Isaias loves it, for there is no way out of this self-imposed dilemma. If so, the democratization card is touted by the opposition not because it goes beyond demobilization, but because it falls short of it – and the masses have instinctively grasped this repulsive urge to prioritize “Eritrea” above them in the opposition’s strategy.

If I were a cartoonist, I would end this essay by drawing a picture of a man whose legs are half-way into a crocodile’s mouth, with all the blood sputtering out, but whose two hands patriotically hold two placards that read “Release political prisoners!” and “Implement the constitution!” What makes this even more bizarre is that the two placards are held up in two spears – spears that should have been aimed at the crocodile.

[In Part III, I will go over the nature of the discontent at the top; and in Part IV, I will deal with the nature of the military leaders’ and reformists’ dilemmas. And in the meantime, I hope the dialog will go on unhampered by Ismail Omar-Ali's declaration of fatwa on me :)]


[1] On this subject matter, I have heavily drawn from my article of XXX, Sealing Off Eritrea in asmarino.com, posted on Nov 03, 2009.

[2] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Terrorism: in the Nature of PFDJ, asmarino.com; 2007.

[3] HRCE, Eritrean Refugees in Libya: Forced to Clear Landmines; asmarino.com; March 19, 2013.

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