(I) Kebessa Eritrea’s Suicide Mission from Sahel to Lampedusa: The Other War
By Yosief Ghebrehiwet
Eritreans believe that the war that determined the fate of Eritrea, with independence as the ultimate goal in their mind, was fought in mieda – in the valleys, plains, mountains, sea, villages, towns and cities of the country. But if the war of independence is to be taken as one chapter within an overarching existential Eritrean tragedy in the making, then the real war that will determine the fate of Eritrea for good has actually been and still is being fought in the womb of the Eritrean woman, especially that of the Kebessa one. The Lampedusa tragedy just happens to be one of the latest battles waged against that womb in a series of battles that go all the way to the ghedli era by the mindless ghedli generation. And with a full blown war against that womb still raging on, Kebessa is being emptied of its youth in epic proportions; driven closer and closer to the edge of extinction.
The tragedy of Lampedusa is not only the latest casualty in this war against the womb, it is also replete with symbolisms of that larger existential tragedy in the making: not only does it pin-pointedly identify the current predicament of the nation-state of Eritrea, but also explains how that came to be and why.
What the tragedy of Lampedusa symbolizes
When we ask our shocked selves what indeed happened in the Lampedusa tragedy, the obvious response would be that a ship, with 365 Eritrean refugees still boarded on it, sank in the Mediterranean Sea on the shores of Lampedusa. But the symbolism of this goes far beyond this specific incident to signify the sinking of the nation-state Eritrea itself. After all, all those who perished in this incident did so in the very process of jumping off the sinking ship called “Eritrea”. The literal jumping off the sinking ship on the shores of Lampedusa happens to be just a small detail within that overarching national tragedy.
How did it happen? There is another vivid symbolism in the Lampedusa tragedy that gives us a hint on the making of this tragedy: that of the image of a premature infant still linked to its mother with the umbilical cord, both floating dead in the belly of the cruel sea. This vivid picture symbolizes the beating the Kebessa woman’s womb took under the relentless assault of the ghedli generation in the name of the nation, thereby driving Kebessa Eritrea to the edge of extinction. And there is no doubt that all those lost in Lampedusa have made many a Kebessa mother’s womb barren after the fact, as has been the case in ghedli and independence eras. There is another symbolism that completes this morbid picture: Eritreans demanding the burial of the Lampedusa victims in Eritrea. Here is a nation the living flee from, but the dead demand to get in – indeed, a cemetery of a nation for the dead only!
Why did it happen? All the tragedies that took place in the Mediterranean Sea happened with Eritrean refugees heading towards Italy, as was the case with the Lampedusa tragedy. This too is symbolic in the larger context in that the Eritrean nation is dying in its effort to reincarnate a nation created in the image of colonial Italy – the result of a generation’s misconstrued concept of modernity. Entirely inspired by Italian colonialism and its legacies, the whole mission of the ghedli generation has been how to recreate colonial Eritrea. It is after witnessing how that colonial Eritrea functions under teghadelti that the youth began to flee the nation in mass exodus. It is the horror of this reincarnated colonial entity that is driving the youth out of the nation, into the hands of smugglers, kidnappers, torturers, rapists, murderers and cruel deserts and unforgiving seas. That is to say, at the root of the current Eritrean tragedy is the deep and thorough colonial aspiration of the ghedli generation – both of the Christian and Muslim types.
Below, first, we will look at how Kebessa Eritrea embarked on a suicide mission with the ghedli project. For 50 years, it has been proudly wearing the mantel of nationalism, without having any clue that with each and every “progress” it has made in its revolutionary zeal, it has been tightening the noose around its neck. What the Lampedusa, Sinai and other similar tragedies show is the Kebessa entity noticeably chocking as the ghedli noose gets tighter and tighter in its final act.
Second, we will see how a mindless generation waged a relentless war against their sisters and mothers in the ghedli era, and against their daughters in the independence era; thus denying the Eritrean society, in general, and the Kebessa society, in particular, a means of recovery that is necessary in eras of war and destruction. It is astounding to see how this generation went mad beating its sisters’, mothers’ and daughters’ wombs to pulps, oblivious that it was decimating the regenerative power of the society at its roots – all in the name of Eritrean nationalism.
And third, we will examine the colonial aspiration of the ghedli generation that has been the driving motive for the revolution. We will particularly explore the nature of the unique sense of entitlement that this generation feels over Eritrea, its resources and its people; something that is only matched by similar sense of unwarranted entitlement that European colonists felt when they came to colonize Africa. We will see how the ghedli generation has been outperforming the Italian masters in their enactment of their colonial entitlement on the ground: in the decimation of the Eritrean culture; in the wiping out of the people’s history, with ghedli history as replacement; in the way the modern day iskirina is enforced by them, coercive, sweeping and extended in its enforcement; in the relentless interference in the religions of the land, with submission or purging in their mind; in the exploitation of free labor, rampant and extensive in its reach; in the sexual exploitation of women (concubinage, forced cohabitation, rape, etc); in the gutting out of the educational system, overhauled to fit their military adventures; in the displacement policy, not only from the towns and cities, but altogether from the nation (with the youth as their main target); in the economic policy, entirely extractive and sweeping in its dispossession; in their anti-intellectual quest, with temekro mieda subverting all kinds of professionalism; etc.
At the bottom of the current Eritrean tragedy is this colonial sense of entitlement of the ghedli generation that is driving the youth in droves out of the country. After all, the victims of the Lampedusa tragedy perished in the attempt of escaping the undue claims the Yikealo have been making over them – both over their bodies (as army conscripts, slave laborers and sex slaves) and their minds (as guinea pigs for Shaebia’s experimentation to mold them in the image of teghadalay). Yet, amidst the incessant revolutionary rhetoric that went on for decades – nationalist, communist, socialist, feminist, etc – Eritreans have missed that the single aim of the ghedli generation has been the reincarnation of colonial Eritrea, true to its smallest colonial details, with the askaris, servants and madamas brought to life to recreate the colonists’ la dolce vita for the new Brahmin caste of Sahel.
The march to Das Hawya
Think of a carnival that marches to its various tunes along a winding route, singing, dancing, drinking, shouting and doing all the other rowdy things that revelers do in such occasions. A group of carnival participants would be typically engrossed in their role, even as now and then they would be able to take interested glimpses of other groups’ acts. For instance, some of them would be part of a drumming group that keep marching to its own beat; others would be part of a dancing group moving its feet to a different beat; yet others would be part of revelers shouting to nobody’s beat; and so on. But there is one thing that all of them do: strictly follow the winding route of the carnival. There is a simple reason for that: anyone who strays out of that carnival route, even if he/she keeps doing his/her “part”, it won’t count as part of the carnival show. Now let me add a little bit of morbid detail to this elaborate, winding and long march: suppose the carnival route’s terminal end is a steep cliff, where everyone that reaches it is blindfolded and made to jump off the cliff to his/her death. Of course, any group that has been joyously, but diligently, doing its part would never know that all along it has been marching to its own death; nor would the ground-level spectators, who are made to watch bits and pieces of this long march as it passes them by. But anyone with a bird’s eye view would see the march for what it is: a March of Death. Eritrea’s 50 years of March of Independence has been such an immaculate suicide mission: a March to Das Hawya. And this is especially true when it comes to Kebessa.
If looked at in bits and pieces, the past 50 years would look like a glorious history of heroism, dignity, sacrifice, martyrdom, steadfastness, perseverance, victory, independence, liberation, successful referendum, nation-building, self-reliance, etc. And the vignettes that are often hoisted high up by Eritreans for everyone to see are meant to handsomely pay tribute to these pantheon of Eritrean virtues: the arduous march from Sahel to the gates of Asmara; the siege of Asmara and the heroism of its inhabitants who persevered it all; the great retreat, and the various werars repelled one after the other; the destruction of Nadew by heroic Shaebia; Sirhit Fenkil and the liberation of Massawa; the underground hospitals, schools and industries in Sahel; the final days of Derg and the independence of Eritrea; the drafting of the constitution; the Badme war and the bravery of Warsai; Wefri Warsai-Yikealo and the rebuilding of the nation; and in all of this, the heroic Eritrean woman fighting and building alongside the Eritrean man. As in the carnival show, each piece is meant to display Eritrean revolutionary zeal, search for dignity and freedom, unparalleled heroism and, above all, Eritrean exceptionalism. And, accordingly, hymns of praise were sung by local and foreign spectators impressed by this carnival display: “the can-do generation”, “the greatest generation”, “Against all odds”, “Never kneel down, Eritrea”, etc. But add up all this picturesque vignettes, and the jigsaw puzzle takes a morbid turn, as all those deeds merge seamlessly into an overarching one: a people with such intense determination to continue the ghedli journey that eventually leads to mass suicide. No other people have worked for so long, so hard and with such consistency against their self-interest – again, this remains especially true of Kebessa Eritrea.
Kebessa Eritrea was thriving (relative to the rest of Ethiopia) in every aspect in the 50s and 60s under Haile Selassie reign. In those days, the peasants were full owners of their land and its products, of their village and its institutions; of their families, of their religion, of their traditions, etc. The government’s invasive presence was as light as it could possibly get, with minimal taxation imposed on the peasants. And when it came to providing services, such as schools, police, malaria-prevention and roads, it would compete with the best of rural Ethiopia. So was it with the urban areas: Asmara’s Golden Age happened to fall into that era. The city was a hub of commercial and industrial activity, with excellent institutions to back it up. And for a third world city, it used to provide excellent services to its inhabitants: electricity, water, transportation, schooling, health service, sanitation, safety, etc. All of this was to drastically change for the worse overnight when ghedli reared its ugly head in Kebessa in the early 70s. And now, with the ghedli generation taking over every imaginable position, everything has fallen apart. Armed with temekro mieda, incompetence has become the trade mark of Shaebia. Now, they cannot even provide the most rudimentary kind of services such as water and electricity to their citadel, Asmara. Yet, this generation had the audacity to refer to the Haile Selassie era as that of colonial oppression as it started its ghedli journey – and with that notorious labeling, Kebessa’s march to mass suicide began in earnest.
At a conceptual level, the Eritrean March of Suicide started with the elite creating a vacuous common cause called “Eritrea”, invented more for its “commonality” within an arbitrary map than for its content; and tens of thousands were made to die for that cause. The paradox is that common cause could be had in its vacuity only if anything else dearly held in common in the land was to be sacrificed: culture, history, religion, language, family, rule of law, society, etc. And, finally, when that “Eritrea” came to be, it was bereft of anything held in common except itself. But “itself” (as “Eritrea”) was simply a semantic place-holder for the contradictory colonial aspirations of the ghedli generation, the one looking back to the Italian colonial past and the other looking across the sea at Arab imperialism for inspiration and emulation. The ghedli generation’s deep urge to build a colonial Eritrea, a fact that has been camouflaged for so long with overabundance of revolutionary rhetoric, was to be unmasked with the independence of the nation. It took a single crisis – the border war – for the youth to realize that there is nothing in this colonial Eritrea worth having. All they got from it was colonial oppression in its pure unadulterated form, as teghadelti found the proper context to fully enforce their colonial aspirations. Soon after, the mass exodus was on a full swing.
What the calamities that the Eritrean youth are willing to go through – the horrors of capture and imprisonment, the shoot-at sight policy of the regime, the human trafficking ordeal, the Sinai and the Arab Passage horrors, the drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, etc – to save their individual selves indicate is the death of their collective survival instinct as a people. It seems as if they are saying that, as a people, there is nothing held in common that is worth saving, including the very idea of “Eritrea” itself. Simply put, there is nothing left worth to die for. Once everything that is worth keeping collectively has been taken away from them, the new generation feels that the only things worth dying for are their naked individual selves – each for himself/herself only.
The Warsai generation has never known what it means to “own a country”. The Yikealo, true to their colonial aspiration, have clearly shown them that the country belongs to the new colonial masters from Sahel. Consequently, Warsai’s lives on this cursed land as slaves have been hell on earth. There are no good memories that could feed their nostalgia attached to this land. If so, how is it possible for them to feel the loss of “Eritrea” that they never owned in the first place?
Run away slaves never look back at the land of their oppressors. They try to make home for themselves wherever in the free world they land. Imagine a female Warsai, abandoned by her family at a tender age to the mercy of the dreaded hands of Yikealo; forsaken in the trenches, raped by colonels or other military officers; sexually abused by Rashaida all the way from Sudan to Sinai; and gang-raped and tortured by the Bedouin Arabs at the Sinai. Like a useless chattel that no one wants, she has been handed over from her parents to Shaebia, from Shaebia to Rashaida and from Rashaida to the Bedouin Arabs. All she remembers from her adult life is abandonment. If all she could remember is the Trail of Tears, of hers and other women’s, starting from the horror trenches of Eritrea to the cursed Arab lands, then it makes perfect sense if she never looks back again (kubo derbiyatla). Why would she look back at “Eritrea” – that very cursed colonial creation that has been the root cause for all her misfortunes?
Here then is a paradox: Here is a nation supposedly created to provide safety to its people, without which no other right should be entertained. But Eritreans, both collectively and individually, have never felt as helplessly vulnerable as they do in today’s Eritrea. With the independence of this nation, the loss of control over their lives has been rendered complete. What is more ominous though is the underlying logic of this vulnerability that promises this problem will never go away from the scene: for the project of colonial Eritrea to remain potent, Eritreans have to be necessarily rendered vulnerable. That is to say, the colonial nation that has been reincarnated by the ghedli generation is inherently hazardous to its people. Given it geopolitical position, its societal makeup and the conflicting colonial aspirations of its elite, Eritrea will structurally remain unsafe to its inhabitants even after this regime is gone.
We have come to a full circle: the very idea of “Eritrea” that tens of thousands have been made to die for has done such a thorough job of atomizing Eritreans by killing any collective heritage they could identify with to their ancestral land that no one is willing to die for it anymore. That is to say, the very idea of “Eritrea” hatched up in the Eritrean elite’s head has run its full course, and now is at its deathbed. Yet, befitting to the contradictory state of mind of a people committing mass suicide, many of the youth that have left the nation in their hundreds of thousands keep clenching their fists from across the ocean, bombastically playing lip service to the nation-state brought about by none other than their tormentors. But don’t listen to what they say; for it is their feet that, in their fleeing mood, tell it all: that this toxic state, created by the colonial mind of the ghedli generation, is no more habitable!
Part of the nature of this mass suicide is that the people involved in this act should never realize that they have embarked on it; given that, if they do, they would definitely change their course. That is why it is essential that they look at the whole march in bits and pieces, and never in its totality.
The first part of this mass denial is that no one calls the most obvious mass suicide with its proper name: the death of Kebessa Eritrea. Almost the entire people that are dying in their thousands in the Arab Passage, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea hail from Kebessa. So are the hundreds of thousands that have been heading to Israel, Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa, USA, etc – all destination points of no return. What is being depopulated at an alarming rate is Kebessa Eritrea, with little prospect of turning the tide back. Yet, the confused Kebessa elite, in the hade hizbi, hade libi spirit that ghedli has instilled in their heads, are scared stiff to name what is happening to their people for what it is – that, so far, it has been primarily a Kebessa existential crisis. Even in death, they shamefully disclaim their own, and rather lament at the loss of the generic “Eritrean”, thus defusing the victims’ identity in order to meet the nationalist demand.
A labeling that is not specific enough leads to wrong diagnosis, and wrong diagnosis offers wrong solutions. It is important to notice that it is the very idea of that vacuous “common Eritrea” that has muzzled the Kebessa elite from ever asking: What is it that is happening to Kebessa Eritrea? Why is it being massively depopulated, with little chance of recovery? Why are the Kebessa youth victimized throughout the Arab world? Why did ghedli disproportionately target Kebessa villages for its forced recruitment? Why was the Kebessa woman targeted for untold horrors – from giffa, conscription to mass rape – both under ghedli and national service? The confused and cowed Kebessa elite would rather not talk about these issues for fear that it will come at the expense of hadnetna. That is, they are willing to sacrifice their people – even to the extent of committing suicide en mass, as they are doing now – for the sake of that commonly held morbid “Eritrea”; thereby implicitly subscribing to the “land over people” underlying logic of the rabid nationalists.
At the root of this self deception is the preoccupation with the sideshows of the carnival, be it as participants or onlookers. The sideshows tend to be mostly of three types of preoccupations: with ghedli, which the urban elite still want to proudly own despite its newly acquired ambivalence towards it; with the alien colonial identities they want to identify themselves with, immaterial of the human cost that such a search entails; or with the democracy project, an entirely superfluous preoccupation that cannot be undertaken without normalizing the crimes of the totalitarian regime. For instance, in the first case, all those who have been horrified by what teghadelti have been doing in Eritrea since independence instantly get unarmed the moment the image of suwuatna pops up in their heads; and, consequently, their survival instinct to protect themselves as a people from Yikealo vultures would be lost. And on the identity issue, to provide a most recent example: Demhit! The moment Demhit comes into the picture, the crime itself, giffa or the national service, one that is behind the mass exodus and the numerous tragedies associated with it, become secondary as an issue. As usual, the identity issue, which has always been the most potent trigger button among Eritreans, has overshadowed the bigger existential issue. And the democracy project comes in its various forms: the demand for the implementation of the constitution, the freedom of the press, the release of prisoners, etc. This comes from the faulty assumption that the Eritrean problem has primarily to do with individual rights, and not with an existential one that deals with the very survival of the people. This tendency of Kebessa Eritreans to be fascinated by ghedli, nationalist and identity fireworks meant to distract their eyes from ever realizing their existential predicament has now reached a zombie status.
Here is a version of a stanza I wrote in with the zombification of the Kebessa elite, who have failed to see all the sideshows for what they have been designed to be, in mind (Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism):
It took a blind man to see
those who entered Das Hawya
were not coming out,
immune to the distracting shows
that eyes couldn’t resist.
One needs to shut his/her eyes to the sideshows presented at every opportunity if one is to gain a bird’s eyes view of the impeding apocalyptic end. Although this stanza was written with higdef foot soldiers and EriTv sideshows in mind, it holds true with the entire Kebessa people that are blissfully marching to their end, properly attired in their nationalist blinkers, all the way singing the Eritrean anthem, with their tricolored flag proudly held high above their heads. In all this, they refuse to see the other war that has been raging on in the Kebessa woman’s womb, a war that is driving them to the edge of extinction, as they get childishly obsessed with all kinds of ghedli paraphernalia that is thrown to them on their way to Das Hawya.
The Kebessa people’s cowardice when it comes to protecting their own in the name of nationalism is legendary, and this is no more apparent than in their abysmal failure to protect their women. And therein lies the Achilles heel of Kebessa Eritrea as a society. How so?
The victimization of the Kebessa woman
If an evil genius was to give advice on how to render a certain people barren, and thus drive them towards extinction, he would put it oxymoronically: “Target the womb”. Of course, that means the women, the carriers of that womb. Once that is done, the society will sooner or later wither away and die. This is because, at times of wars and upheavals, women are the ones that keep the family intact; and, after the war, it is inside the home, in the bed of fertility and around the warm hearth, that the regeneration of the society takes place. In Eritrea, where war and destruction has been going on for 50 years, the need of the woman in rejuvenating the society is pronounced by that much. That is to say, the womb – both in its physical and metaphoric sense – is where the healing of a war-traumatized society takes place.
It is precisely because of this realization that Alemseghed Tesfay titled his book The Other War,1 to differentiate it from the obvious one: the war conducted with bullets. With the phrase “the other war”, he was referring to a war conducted in Eritrean wombs by Ethiopians 2; if you ask me, more of a figment of his imagination than reality. Typical of the frame of mind of the Eritrean elite, he was referring to the “bastardization” of the race. Nevertheless, his universal point on the womb as a possible arena of war is well taken. Yet, a great irony is totally lost on him: that it is ghedli generation that has been relentlessly waging war on the Kebessa woman’s womb for 50 odd years, and not as in bastardization (where fertility would still go on) but as in rendering it barren.
In a normal world, a direct war against the womb with the aim of subjugation or elimination of a people would be hard to accomplish, for the men will die first protecting their women. But in the abnormal world of ghedli’s Eritrea, even this primordial instinct to protect one’s women and children has been lost – for the sake of the nation, that is. It starts with the Big Brothers – the ghedli generation – who are the architects of this evil design that singled out their sisters for the role of fighters and their mothers for the role fighter-incubators. And eventually, the very thought of “deqina” paradoxically killed the instinct of parents to protect their young. That is why there has never been enough outrage among the parents to protect their young, as Shaebia comes to their home to claim their teenage daughters; that is, even as they know the sexual and other servitude they will be subjected to.
In a normal forward-looking world, people get martyred for the sake of the living, with the regeneration of the society in their mind. But in Eritrea, it is this vital process that has been reversed: the living fight for the sake of the dead. That is why hidri suwuatna, which is all about teqebeleni biretey, has this tremendous hold on Eritreans. Although the nature of this hidri shows self-perpetuation of one’s act as being the only goal of the myopic ghedli generation, no living would ever dare utter anything against it. And the parents joined this madness not because they believed in Eritrea, but because their children (deqina) were dying believing in it. This is an odd kind of deferred belief: a belief about a belief. So they believed in “Eritrea”, not because they saw any intrinsic value (any justifiable cause) in it, but because it was “hidri deqina”. When fathers deferred to the “wisdom” of their sons, the death of Eritrea was already in the making.
Here is stanza that I wrote with this hidri in mind, where the call from the dead begat death only (Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism):
Because they died for it
When there is no justifiable cause
for the death of so many,
the death of so many
becomes the reason
for the death of many more.
At its worst, even the women join this madness as they drive their children to the national altar of sacrifice. And I had the kind of women who join in this beating up of the womb in mind when I wrote the following stanza along the same line of thought as the above stanza (Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism):
When a nation at war with itself
invokes the name of martyrs,
mothers lose their instinct
to protect their young
and spill their milk on dry earth.
In the above stanza, mothers drunk with nationalism prefer to offer their breast milk to the dead (suwuat deqina) rather than their infants. That is what they do when they drive their living ones to fulfill hidri suwuatna. With the women joining this madness, it is as if the entire Kebessa has been working in tandem for their mass suicide.
Perhaps nothing else than the plight of the Tigrigna woman in the hands of ghedli, in general, and Shaebia, in particular, best explains the disgraceful indifference that the Tigrignas display to their own kind. It is as if their women are an alien group, left to fend off on their own in a very hostile environment. No other ethnic group in Eritrea threats its women the way the Tigrigna ethnic group does.
Shaebia and the Kebessa woman
The abuse of the Kebessa woman under the hands of Shaebia, both in ghedli and independence eras, is unparalleled in Eritrea’s past because it has been systematic in its application, and hence affecting a large segment of the population.
First, it has to be noted that one third of Shaebia fighters in the field were women. As a result, one third of the casualties, both in martyrdom and disability, were women. And almost all of the women happen to hail from Kebessa. This is unlike the casualty of men, where a significant proportion of the martyred and disabled were from other ethnic groups. The reason was simple: after the 1978 retreat to Sahel, with Shaebia’s chance of recruiting from the urban areas becoming slim and with the werars of Ethiopia taking a heavy toll, the Front targeted the Kebessa villages indiscriminately for years, without any let up. In contrast, no such giffa that targeted the Muslim woman ever took place; even in the very area where Shaebia had total control for decades – Sahel.
But the worst abuse of the Tigrigna woman took place after independence. It started with Sawa, where Shaebia’s social experimentation with the Tigrigna woman went on unabated, with mental, physical and sexual abuse of huge proportion for its result. The horror of that social experimentation was to reach its pinnacle during the border war, where sexual abuse under the hands of higher officers and colonels became rampant.
It was during the border war that the regime further relaxed its attitude towards sex within the army. Imagine the recklessness involved in this act: they snatch these young women (many of them teenagers) from their families, many of whom that have hardly ventured outside their homes, and throw them in the foxhole with many men. First, what are the chances that these women would be able to make informed choices regard sex under these conditions? And even if they wanted to resist, what were the chances that they would weather out the predatory nature of all those military officers for long (that is, for years)? Remember that many of those who resisted fell out of favor of the military authorities and, under the slightest pretext, found themselves in difficult positions: constant harassment, unexplained penalties, reassignment into worst areas (at the time of war, to the war front), etc. And in many instances, many women were made to shave their hair, in an effort to humiliate them into submission. If, to all this, we add the fact that this was the time the Aids epidemic peaked in Eritrea, we could easily see how criminally irresponsible the regime had been.
The above is a good example of how the Tigrignas shamelessly handed their daughters as guinea pigs to the ruthless Yikealos. The tyrant’s focus on the Tigrignas for all forms of abuse doesn’t mean that he prefers the other ethnic groups to them. But it means he holds the other ethnic groups less in contempt. That is, he reserves his utmost contempt for the Tigrignas because they let him do with them whatever he wants; when it comes to the Tigrignas, he can get away with almost anything.
When the despot sensed resistance from Moslem population to Shaebia’s unsolicited incursion into their womenfolk, he backed down without admitting it officially [in fact, he admitted this much in public: “ghele ghele hidgetat tegheyru iyu”]. Except for some few token Muslim women from the urban areas (which by the way were repeatedly displayed in television to create an impression of equal participation among the Christian population), the Muslim population group was exempted from this misguided policy and spared from all the horrendous consequences such a policy brought about. But this same policy was ruthlessly applied to the Christian population. True to Shaebia’s vulgar pragmatism, the despot thought that if he could apply it selectively on the Christians, he could get away with it, with little protest from the population. He always takes the path of least resistance (remember the Tigrigna proverb, “haseKa dembe ab zlemlemelu”). And so far as he is concerned, this policy of selective application has paid off handsomely.
The Kebessa parents began to show some outrage only when they saw the extent of abuse that their daughters had undergone under the hands of Shaebia officers; even then, their outrage didn’t go far enough. Only when their daughters came back with tales of horror, some deeply traumatized from sexual abuse – sexual coercion, mass rape, unsafe abortions, unwanted pregnancies, illegitimate children, HIV infection, etc. – did they began to have second thoughts about the nature of agelglot when it comes to women. Many of the women were to be stigmatized for the rest of their lives, with little prospect of marriage. Some returned with serious mental problems in a land where there are no mental institutions. As a result, outrage among the public was palpable, and the despot sensed it. It was only then that the Isaias regime thought it wise to quietly withdraw most of the women from the trenches, without ever admitting that its social experimentation had been a social disaster of unimaginable proportion.
But that doesn’t mean the despot has changed his mind for good. With future confrontations in mind, Shaebia has never stopped rounding up Tigrigna women to undergo all the necessary military education and serve the national service (most away from the trenches). That means that, in smaller proportions, they are still made to serve in the trenches. And if confrontation with Ethiopia ever comes to materialize, we will witness the same horrors again, with the women forcibly thrown into the inhospitable foxhole. In fact, this might even come earlier; as the young men are fleeing the nation in disproportionate numbers and the men in active duty keep aging, the regime might put the women back into the army in large numbers to make up for the loss.
It is both in ghedli and national service eras that the Kebessa woman has been singled out to play the role of either the fighter or the incubator of fighters. Her womb has been rendered barren in both roles. As a fighter, long years in the trenches and martyrdom meant little or no fertility, as was the case with tens of thousands of women teghadelti. Many of their ghebar counterparts in that era didn’t fare better, who faced spinsterhood for the rest of their lives for lack of eligible men. And many of those who gave birth to children were rendered barren after the fact, when ghedli snatched away the children one by one.
So is it now with the national service, where hundreds of thousands of women are left stranded in villages, towns and cities across Eritrea, while the men are either in the indefinite service or have left the nation for good. Hundreds of thousands of Kebessa women are facing a bleak future, with little prospect of marriage; most of them will have to live out the rest of their lives as spinsters. Many of the rest are condemned to raise their kids, legitimate or otherwise, on their own. And then there are the traumatized many that have passed through the sexual abuse in national service, mass raped by the liberators, and stigmatized for the rest of their lives.
The cost of all of this to the Kebessa society is incalculable. First, women-headed families in Eritrea have increased in leaps and bounds; and, when it comes to Asmara, the woman-headed family has become the norm. Even though this alone would have adverse effects on the society, the demographic one is much worse.
In the speech at UN that she delivered recently, The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, gives the following statistics: more than 300,000 has left Eritrea in the last decade; this year it has been 2000 to 3000 per month (24,000 to 36,000 per year); and in the 9 months of this year more than 7,000 have made it to Italy.3 And this is what the UN has tracked; the realty could be much worse than that, since many refugees simply bypass UN registration to trek out to different parts of Africa. And what is more, with the flood gates at Libya opened, the mass exodus towards Europe has gained an ever-accelerating momentum. Before, during the Gadafi era, there were some inhibiting factors in place that slowed down the flow, one of which was the agreement that Gadaffi entered with Italy to stem the flow of migrants. Not anymore; now all the youth in the refugee camps stationed in Ethiopia and Sudan that can afford it are stampeding out to reach Europe. And this will, in turn, inspire more youth from Eritrea to leave the nation. With this, the fate of Kebessa Eritrea seems to be sealed. And if the center caves in, so would the rest of the nation; heralding Somali-like anarchy in the land.
We can see from the numbers above that the mass exodus is having a catastrophic demographic effect, not only in the sense that the most productive demographic group mostly composed of young men is fast disappearing, but also the number of children born in the land is dropping dramatically. Given that an entire generation of men – those in their late 20s, in their 30s and in their 40s, and even early 50s – who would have been fathers by now has left the nation for good, a demographic collapse at the center is already in the making. To provide a rough estimate, if the hundreds of thousands of adult men that have left the land for good were left alone in peace to raise their families in Eritrea, by now there would have been hundreds of thousands of children born to them. To take a most conservative estimate, if we take the Kebessa adult men that left the land to be around 200,000, then we have at minimum roughly 600,000 unborn children to take into account. If the women, the overage and underage refugees are included, we could say Kebessa Eritrea has lost almost a million within a span of time of just a decade. And this estimate is reached only if we go by the conservative numbers that the UN has provided.
Thus, this demographic collapse at the center is of the most serious type. When all those who are done with raising children (the 50s and above) and all the unmarried women in Eritrea are out of the picture, what we get is a society getting slimmer and slimmer demographically as every male that reaches the eligible age for national service leaves the nation. The children born to this society get fewer and fewer as this scenario gets momentum, as it is happening right now. With the hollowing out of the center, few newcomers arrive to replenish the society. This is how the Kebessa is coming closer and closer towards to the edge of extinction.
Now, let me draw the attention of the reader to what all of us would agree is a noble cause: the many humanitarian, civic and political groups that are shouting their voices hoarse telling the world to do a better job of dealing with Eritrean refugees. Let’s say their wish is fulfilled and the West agrees to accept all these refugees while they are still stationed in the refugee camps of the neighboring countries; and, for that, in short time – say, within a year or two of their arrival. The next thing we know, the whole of Eritrea would be on the move. That is to say, even this call for help by these Eritrean groups, noble as it is, would still count as part of the Death March that is steadily driving Kebessa to the edge of extinction. When what is good for the individual refugees is lethal for the survival of the nation, and vice versa, it says something unflattering about the very structure of that nation. When we reach the point where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, it is the sign that all roads have merged into one and that we have reached the edge of the existential cliff.
With the ghedli generation foolishly aiming at the womb of their sisters, mothers and daughters, they were aiming at nothing less the fountain of life of Kebessa Eritrea. In the name of the vacuous Eritrea that had to be had in common, they were killing the life source of their own society. But all that the carnival spectators were noticing was the glamorized Eritrean female warrior with her Afro hairdo, her field jacket, her sandals, her short pants and her Kalashnikov. The image that this invoked is that of the revolutionary, emancipated woman fighting side by side with her brother, thereby feeding the myth of the exceptionalism of the Eritrean revolution. None of the spectators were interested enough to ask where these many women hailed from. If they had done so, they would have come to know that the overwhelming majority of them hailed from the villages of Eritrea, almost entirely as a result of giffa. And the myth would have been shattered there and then, given that these were illiterate women peasants (most of them underage) that had had no concept of “Eritrea”, let alone the revolutionary zeal that was accorded to them in retrospect. If they had only done a little bit of enquiry, the self-deluded onlookers would have realized that this was part of an elaborate show displayed by the Kebessa elite on their people’s Death March to Das Hawya.
What indeed is behind this entire catastrophe that has brought us to this dead end?
Colonial sense of entitlement
Think of strange ships, the likes of which you have never seen before, suddenly appearing on the shores of your ancestral land, and tens of thousands of men of a different race, different color, different language, different religion, different culture, different attire, etc boarding off these ships, and overwhelming the local population with their superior firearms. Soon after, the natives are told in no unclear terms that their land, its resources and its labor force belongs to the alien people from a distant land that just boarded off their ships. This is exactly how colonial Europe came to colonize Africa. What is astounding about this phenomenon is the sense of entitlement that these colonizers felt over a land and a people they had never seen before. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Why did they feel entitled to the ownership of land and people they have never set their eyes before? How did this strange idea take roots in their heads? No wonder, even as they were so sure of themselves, these colonizers felt the need to hide this pure naked greed as a “civilizing mission”. So is it with the ghedli generation: the sense of entitlement that this generation accorded themselves over Eritrea and Eritreans outstrips even that of the Italian colonial masters – all said and done under a new “civilizing mission”.
For such kind of colonialism to take place, first a clear distinction between the colonized and the colonizer is needed; a distinction that discriminates at a categorical level. This would enable the colonizer to hold the natives metaphysically apart in order to objectify them, with total ownership of the latter in mind. This quest to be different than the Other that one wants to distance from is at the root of all kinds of colonialism. Once that is done, the natives are turned into pure raw material for exploitation, subjected to all kinds of colonial horror. And that is exactly what happened when teghadelti entered Asmara.
The colonial raison d’être of the Eritrean revolution, “We are different than Ethiopians”, has undergone various metamorphoses before it settled into the latest one: teghadalay versus ghebar. This distinction provided the liberators with the necessary distance to disown their people so as to “own” them (as in material possession). Selam Kidane once wrote that while the fathers (that is, the ghedli generation) died for the country, the sons run away from it [I believe it was in facebook]. That happens to be true, but what she left out is the fact that the sons were driven out of the country by none other but those very fathers. This came easy to a generation that had conducted war against everything that their fathers held dear; that too, after disowning them (for being “andnet sellouts”). Notice that, by disowning both their fathers and their sons, how they have cut off themselves from the natives to create an island of identity that no one else could get in – the only way they could attain the colonizer status.
When it comes to the turn of Warsai, they did just the opposite. They did what normal sons do when they fight with their fathers; not by striking back, but by leaving their fathers’ houses altogether. Don’t get me wrong; I wish they had stricken back. But to do that it would require disowning their fathers first – that is, disowning ghedli first – which so far they couldn’t bring themselves to do. At the root of the Warsai generation’s inability to fight back then is this unwillingness to dissociate themselves from the ghedli legacy, from all that their fathers brought them from the mieda past. Thus, what deqina did to unarm the fathers of the ghedli generation, abotatna is doing to the Warsai generation – both trying to reestablish the umbilical cord that the ghedli generation ruthlessly cut.
Given this unwillingness to deal with the ghosts of the ghedli past, the Kebessa masses have no clue that they are being subjected to totalitarian horror because the ghedli generation, after decades of ghedli sojourn in mieda, were to their surprise to find out that the masses looked exactly like the fathers (the very people they disowned) in the normal lives they were leading. The idea of people leading normal habesha lives of their forefathers was unbearable to them. This painfully reminded them on everyday basis that the ghedli journey they had conducted for 30 odd years had been a circular one, and that nothing on the ground had actually changed with independence. Imagine for a generation that went on a ghedli sojourn for decades to find out that everything had remained the same. The vindictive retribution against the ghebar was soon to be unleashed. And there is a perfectly colonial reason for what they have been doing ever since: it is only in an abnormal world, with the natives atomized to the smallest unit possible, that the new masters could help themselves to their hearts’ fill to what they believe they are entitled to: the total ownership of the nation’s land, its resources and its people.
The imperial grandeur that the ghedli generation dreamed of was of huge proportions, complete with Il Duce at the top; Isaias just happens to be the one with an over-size ego huge enough to fill in the large slot that the generation assigned for their Emperor. And the fact that the ghedli generation’s colonial aspiration has remained confined within Eritrea doesn’t mean that it could be sustained from within. In fact, given the oversize nature of their imperialistic aspiration, there was no way that it could have been accommodated by tiny Eritrea. That is why, ever since colonial Eritrea came to be in 1991, its life support came outside of itself: Ethiopia, the diaspora population and Western aid. The moment that life support was threatened, the colonial aspiration of the ghedli generation overflowed beyond the confines of Eritrea in the most obvious way to create the border war. Having failed in that project, the colonization within Eritrea intensified to make up for the loss of “overseas” revenues: the enslavement of an entire generation. As the pie kept dwindling, first the ghebar were devoured; now, the teghadelti are eating one another – a well honed cannibalistic behavior from their mieda days.
Thus, the ghedli generations’ sense of entitlement over the land, its resources and its labor force matches any other colonial master’s in Africa. Even though Shaebia has outperformed Fascist Italy in many of the colonial characteristics that define both regimes, the family resemblance between the two is rather striking. We find that resemblance everywhere we look: in their exploitation of cheap labor of the natives for their infrastructural progress; in their coercive conscription policy for their colonial adventures, sweeping in its application; in their minimalist schooling system, carefully structured to meet the colonial demand only; in their dispossession of natives of their lands; in their exploitative treatment of women, epitomized in the madamas; in their native displacement policy, especially as applied to Asmara; in their utter contempt for the native/ghebar; in their attack of the natives’ culture; in their interference with the religions of the land; in the inherent colonial laziness of the masters; in their extractive economic policies; etc. I will go over all these colonial attributes in Part II of this article, in order to show how deep the colonial nature of the ghedli project is. Here though, I will say few words over the colonial maltreatment of the woman, supplementing what I have already stated above on the plight of the Kebessa woman.
Owning the woman
The sense of entitlement that the ghedli generation felt over the Eritrean woman, in general, and the Kebessa woman, in particular, has no parallels in the past of the nation. The cultural transgression involved in the conscription of the woman, in the disowning of its children and her sexual exploitation surpasses even that of Italian colonialism.
Neither the Italians nor the Ethiopians ever dared to conscript the women; the cultural transgression that such violation would involve would have been prohibitive in its cost, as it has been in ghedli’s Eritrea (as described above). They never entertained it, let alone to enact it on the ground. On the other hand, having ruthlessly cut the umbilical cord that joins them to the society, the most unimaginable transgressions came easily to the mind of the ghedli generation. Having successfully uprooted themselves from the society, anything was permitted; there were no societal inhibiting factors that would tell them what is right and what is wrong – a nihilist world was created.
When it comes to the appropriation of the woman’s children, the only parallel we find is in the slave era. Like a slave that gives birth to children that are immediately appropriated by the master, the Kebessa woman has been giving birth to children to be gradually appropriated (as soon as they are old enough to be weaned out of their homes) by Shaebia. This unwarranted sense of entitlement comes directly from temekro mieda, when Shaebia was conducting giffa of tens of thousands of peasants for more than a decade, where the overwhelming majority of teghadelti women hailed from. Think, for a moment, the cultural transgression involved in this: with what kind of entitlement did these teghadelti dared to enter into wushate (traditionally reserved for the woman of the house) and drag out teenage brides for conscription, which took place in the giffa era of ghedli for more than a decade? This transgression is only matched when the teghadelti dared to tread the holy grounds of age-old monasteries with their AK-47 to drag wuldo-kahnat for conscription.
This sense of colonial entitlement over the Kebessa woman goes as far as claiming the ownership of the woman as a sexual object – call it, if you will, the contempt to the womb in the most abhorrent sense. It is to be known that in slavery, the masters took full advantage of the helpless slave women in their full possession. And, to some extent, this was true in some colonial territories; if there was any inhibiting factor in these territories, it was not humanism but the racist policies of the colonial powers. The hanfets (the half-caste) phenomenon in Eritrea is a result a lopsided relationship between the helpless Eritrean woman and the Italian colonizer. The half-caste children were either outcasts, their fathers denying them even their names, or born out of cohabitation that denied their mothers a full married status. Only few women were able to marry fully during the Italian era, the rest being relegated to the status of prostitutes, concubines or cohabitants.4 The Yikealo were to follow the footsteps of the Italian colonists in this regard too.
The horror stories that women tell of their harrowing experiences in national service under the hands of the liberators are too many to tell – as have already been described in detail above. Let me just mention the madamas phenomenon as reincarnated in today’s Eritrea: the practice of selecting the most beautiful women in the national service and assigning them as “helpers” to higher officers and colonels has now become entrenched into the military culture of EDF. I know that the ghedli believers would say that it is only the officers and colonels that commit these crimes. But the fact that the rest of the rank and file teghadelti are prone to do the same thing when they reach that position doesn’t say much about them or the violent ghedli culture they belong to where such sexual violence is nonchalantly tolerated.
The anesthesiologists and their sideshows
How is it that an entire population group blissfully marches to the edge of extinction? Above, we have seen wherefrom these distractions usually come: association with ghedli, identification with colonial identities and preoccupation with the democracy project. But the trigger button that never fails the anesthesiologists, and is often pressed at times of emergency, is the identity button.
The ghedli generations’ deep desire to identify themselves with alien identities trumps any concern for the survival of the people. Appropriate to these identifications, these urban elite always tend to display existential anxiety when they sense a threat to the colonial identity they subscribe to only. It is these urban elite that have been working hard as anesthesiologists, sensing that issues of survival could only come at the expense of their colonial dreams. And, as they sense the survival calamity nearby, they realize that more anesthetic dosage will be needed to keep the marching masses distracted from the sight of the approaching existential cliff. As the masses approach Das Hawya, the anesthesiologists use every trick in their trade to keep the victims’ attention riveted in bits and pieces of the carnival show: “Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems”, “Eritrea’s march to dignity”, “Isaias/PFDJ is the problem”, “Hidri suwuatna!”, “Hadnetna!”, “Don’t trust the Ethiopians!”, “Implement the constitution!”, “Democracy now!”, “Release political prisoners!” “Freedom of the press!”, “We are all Awate!”, “Demhit is in control!”, etc. Lost in the details of these sideshows, the marchers forget that they are marching to their death as a people.
Understandably, the most spectacular sideshows that the anesthesiologists have pulled off have to do with identity; and, for that, alien colonial ones. They realize that whenever the colonial identities that the ghedli generation has fought for – the ghedli identity and the Arab identity – the Eritrean elite are up in arms; and, in the process, totally forget their and their people’s existential predicament. That is why the anesthesiologists keep pushing the identity button whenever they sense that the masses are focusing on survival issues. Here are two instances where the identity card was cleverly used by the anesthesiologists to divert the attention of the masses from real issues of survival: the Awate controversy in the last bayto meeting in Addis and the Demhit case now.
The Awate sideshow
The last time the bayto met in Addis Ababa, the anesthesiologists instigated a spectacular sideshow: the whole bayto , supposedly made up of Eritrean representatives from all over the world, was preoccupied for four days to redress an “insult” leveled against Awate, while not a single sentence was uttered on behalf of the refugees, many of which were facing unheard of horrors all the way from the refugee camps to their destinations, and little on behalf of the oppressed masses under the totalitarian regime inside Eritrea. The bayto would rather talk passionately over a symbol of “Eritrea” rather than the plight of flesh-and-blood people on the ground. And there is good reason why the anesthesiologists pushed the Awate button: to the Muslim elite, Awate happens to be the embodiment of the colonial Eritrea they want to build. As a man chosen to do the bidding of the Eritrean pan-Arabists that congregated in Cairo, Awate represented the other half of the colonial aspiration that the ghedli generation came to fully embrace. Thus, with the threat to the image of Awate, slight as that threat might have been, the ghedli generation of the Muslim type that congregated in Addis felt a threat to their colonial aspirations, and the Arab identity that necessarily goes with it.
As I said in numerous occasions, the Eritrean revolution has absolutely nothing to do with individual rights, colonial oppression, or democracy. It has always been about identity; and for that, alien ones. As a result, the “Eritrea” that many Eritreans of various ilk are up in arms to defend has no correspondence with the reality on the ground. The “Eritrea” that the bayto felt was in real danger was neither of the masses that are living under the totalitarian horror in the mainland nor of the Eritrean refugees that have been facing unheard of horrors in the Arab Passage, in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Mediterranean Sea. There is a rule of thumb to the behavior of EDA or bayto: it has either to do with the past or the future; the present is invariably bypassed. It has either to do about preserving ghedli’s Eritrea as constructed in the past (of the Jebha type) or about the future alien Eritrea that they want to construct. It is only when they feel that “Eritrea” is in real danger that they rise up in outrage. Given that there are various conflicting “Eritreas” in the mind of the ghedli generation, the colonial “Eritrea” that bayto felt was in mortal danger, so much so that it attracted their entire attention, was one that has to be constructed in the image of the Arab world. That was why the voting went strictly along religious lines, and hence strictly to do with identity. That is to say, in this particular case, it is the threat to the Arab identity (with imposing Arab cultural and linguistic imperialism on the land in mind) that trumped the existential issues of the nation.
The anesthesiologists felt triumphant in the spectacular sideshow they instigated, given that this was all about the starting place (jemar sewra) of the carnival route that was meant to end in Das Hawya. And the foolish marchers never saw it for what it was.
The Demhit sideshow
This colonial malady, this deep urge to adopt an alien identity for colonial reasons, is not solely the Muslim elite’s disease. Their Christian counterparts are equally afflicted with this colonial disease, except that in the latter case, the alien identity they want to adopt is defined more by what it doesn’t want to be than by what it wants to be; thus reflecting the confused state of mind of the Kebessa elite. Negatively defined by the distance it wants to keep from the habesha identity, the anesthesiologists also know which identity button to push to set the Kebessa elite to frenzy. In the most recent case, such a button has been the Demhit case.
The Demhit case was one of those rare opportunities that the anesthesiologists would never pass by, given that it aims at the very cleavage between the two Tigrignas across the Mereb River. The pan-Arabists have always believed that if their colonizing mission is ever to have a chance to be enacted in Eritrea, the wedge between the habeshas across the Mereb River, in general, and between the Tigrignas, in particular, must be kept alive. So anything that drives this wedge deeper is always welcome to them. They know that many of the Kebessa elite will be driven to frenzy if they are told “The Ethiopians are coming!” It doesn’t matter whether the invaders are coming form outside or inside (as Kiros Yohannes has predictably put the warning as, “Demhit from within, Demhit from without” in the EYSC facebook).
With all the websites joining in the Demhit mania, no one was speaking about the brutality of giffa itself, which has directly to do with the existential predicament of the masses, but about the identity of the enforcers. But it was the awate team that, with the deepening of the above-mentioned wedge in mind, has put the distinction cleverly this way5:
“... In previous dispatches only TPDF members with passable Eritrean Tigrinya accent were recruited to conduct the roundup. In this particular mission, there appears to have been a breakdown and TPDM members with noticeable Tigrayan accents were roaming the Merkato neighborhood of Asmara and asking for “metawekia” and “mewesawesi” – Ethiopian words for moving permit – whose Eritrean version are “tessera” and “menkesakesi” respectively.”
These anesthesiologists are shrewd enough to realize that the Kebessa fools would always be driven to frenzy if the issue is identity, and they do that subtly by invoking the difference in dialect that exists between the Tigrignas. They seem to say to the Kebessa elite: “Haven’t you fought for decades to keep all those who say “menkesakesi” on this side of Mereb, and all those who say “mewesawesi” on the other side of Mereb? Nothing less than your Eritrean identity is at stake, as “mewasawesi” is being heard in the center of your Asmara; and, for that, at Merkato!” Of course, they only have to hint it for the fools to latch on to it, and forget their existential predicament.
In the last few days the Eritrean cyber space has been inundated with the Demhit controversy, and the news that were coming out of the websites were unanimous in their assertion that the use of Demhit in the round up of the youth had been met with resistance. I was responding to one such news report6 that claimed the discontent to be coming from both ghebar and teghadelti:
“ … That means that the giffa event in Asmara would have been acceptable if it had been conducted by the Eritrean army, which has always been the case until this point. This would be the same if a woman that hadn’t voiced any opposition when her son is being unfairly condemned to death, gets mad with the authorities when she realizes that the hangman assigned to hang her son is not a “pure” Eritrean but, god forbid, Demhit! When we add the teghadelti’s concern mentioned in the report, it takes a morbid turn: their concern is not that giffa has been conducted, but that they were denied the honor of doing it themselves. In fact, the nation’s mentality seems to be neatly summed up in its reaction to this event: anything is tolerable if it is done by our teghadelti (deqina)! There is an element of this convoluted mentality in the shrill reaction of many in the opposition to this event. …”
Again, notice how identity trumps survival issues; only this time it has to do with the identity that Kebessa elite do not want to identify with – the habesha one beyond the Mereb River. And the example of the woman seems to fit the state of mind of these elite perfectly: miktal miktalus, deqina yiqteluna!
“Demobilize the army!” – the one and only demand that makes sense
The entire existential predicament of the nation, in general, and Kebessa, in particular, is the maximal mobilization of the people to serve the army. It has been the cause for almost all the ills that afflict the nation: the draining of the nation’s most productive labor force; the slaving of hundreds of thousands in make-shift labor camps; the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands more; the proliferation of hundreds of prisons, most of the inmates being from the national service itself (deserters, draft dodgers, dissenters, etc.); the rampant sexual abuse of women; the main incentive for Isaias’ misadventures in the neighborhood, including the border war; a total waste of life for most – no education, no jobs, no raising family, etc; the draining of the economy, given what it takes to arm them, feed them, house them, clothe them, look after their health, etc. One could go on and on. If there is one single policy that has snuffed out normality 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, then it would be the national service.
Accordingly, if the masses were to be asked their number one priority, it would be regarding those very beloved family members affected directly and indirectly by the national service: 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!” And 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.7
If so, the demobilization of the army ought to have been the single demand around which the opposition should rally. It is not that the regime would be willing to listen. But the target audience shouldn’t be the regime but any potential opponents inside Eritrea, including the masses. The opposition in diaspora ought to help articulating the agenda that the masses would embrace. The demand for democracy or the outcry of Demhit involvement or any other sideshows mentioned above would find no resonance among the public because it fails to deal with their existential predicament. The only demand that would find great appeal among the masses back at home would be: “Demobilize the army!” and its corollary, “Make peace with Ethiopia!” (adding that any border issues will have to be addressed through peaceful means, thereby rendering the necessity of a mobilized army obsolete).
The opposition’s unwillingness to rally around the demobilization of the army is because many in the opposition share the anxiety of Shaebia foot soldiers: that without the national service, Eritrea will be unable to defend itself. So even as they air their opposition to giffa and national service (in one form or another), the underlying logic that drives their anxiety says opposite to what they pay lip service to.
If a rat decides to fight a snake clad with iron armor from head to toe, it would simply collapse under the sheer weight of its armaments. That is exactly what is happening to Eritrea: it is collapsing under the sheer weight of national service. Anyone who thinks that Eritrea can defend itself with the national service, indefinite or not, must have the mentality of that rat that grandiosely thought that not only would it be able to carry all the weight of its armor, but would be able to overwhelm the snake. Deep down then, there is this assumption that most of the opposition share with the regime: a strong army that could, if need be, square off with the giants of the neighborhood. This mentality is succinctly captured by Saleh Younis, who said “I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament” [in the comment section of awate.com], obviously referring his avowed opposition against the arms embargo imposed on Eritrea by the UN. But that is probably what the armored rat would probably have said when advised by other sensible rats to discard its armor. And all that the Eritrean masses are saying is: unless this heavy armory is lifted from our backs, the nation will sink under its sheer weight; and so will we as a people! Yet, the clueless opposition remains entirely preoccupied with side issues because they feel the same threat Shaebia is feeling: the threat to their colonial aspirations.
What drove this insane ghedli generation to wage war against their sisters’, mothers’ and daughters’ womb with such fierce suicidal determination is the very image of glamorous colonial “Eritrea”, an Eritrea that must be had immaterial of its cost. The colonial frame of mind of this generation is to be traced behind every kind of assault they had conducted against the society. And since it is when this colonial aspiration is enacted on the ground that the youth began to flee the land in epic proportions, we can additionally say that whatever is done to the society is also done to the woman, as it directly affects her children. If so, we can easily see how the Lampedusa tragedy is linked to this colonial aspiration.
If we were to have a short sketch of the victims’ lives in Eritrea, we could have easily traced every individual death in the Lampedusa tragedy to the colonial aspiration of the ghedli generation: a woman that can no more raise the kids on her own because the only bread winner of the family, her husband, is in indefinite service; an entrepreneur who have been unfairly bankrupted by Shaebia every time he tries his hand on a new enterprise; an Evangelical man who has been getting in and out of prison because of his faith; a teenager who dreads joining the national service, after witnessing what it has done to his older siblings; a female student that faced rape and forced cohabitation with her officer in the army; a girl that has gone through the horrors of Rashaida and Bedouin Arabs, after being sold by military men at the border in Eritrea; a brilliant student who has come to a dead end in the medieval educational system of Eritrea; a deacon from the Orthodox Church, unable to serve his parish, escaping conscription; etc. It is easy to see how the ghedli generation’s deep colonial aspiration to own everything in the country – the land, the economy, the woman, the youth, the religions, the culture, the school system, etc – is behind the escape of each and every one of those that perished in the Lampedusa tragedy.
Yet, you hear almost everyone in the opposition pointing their fingers to Isaias Afwerki only. But Isaias just happens to be a perfect embodiment of that colonial aspiration. Inspired by Italian colonialism, the road that led to a totalitarian system is the idea of modernity without its human factor that fascinated the ghedli generation. Without this Geist of the times as a driving force, Isaias wouldn’t have moved an inch in the direction that finally led to totalitarianism. It is not by accident that, in today’s Eritrea, we see infrastructural development with the human factor totally absent: asphalted roads with no cars, clinics with no medicine, schools with no books, municipality without services, micro-dams with no farms, diquan rit’e with no groceries, etc. If carried to its logical end, this idea of development that factors out human beings gives us the biggest infrastructure of the ghedli project, “Eritrea” itself, a colonial nation reincarnated without having a clue how it could be useful to its inhabitants: an “Eritrea” without its people. We shouldn’t be surprised that when the inhabitants are factored in as an afterthought, this Frankenstein nation keeps rejecting them again and again. If so, it is the very superfluous “Eritrea” that has been cobbled into existence by this generation that is behind the genocide of the Warsai generation. Simply put: for colonial Eritrea to exist, the Warsai generation must submit or leave!
If the above makes sense, speaking in anticipatory language appropriate to the times, we can say that when the ghedli generation triumphantly liberated Asmara, indeed Eritrea was born. But amidst the euphoria that engulfed the nation, none of us noticed that the child was stillborn. Chocked by the twin colonial aspirations of the ghedli generation, there was no chance on earth that this child would have survived. The Lampedusa tragedy is just a simple reminder that the child was in fact dead on arrival. A whole nation is lost in the high seas, traversing between menkesakesi and mewesawesi. Any revolution based on this trivial distinction has to be the dumbest imaginable!
 Tesfay, Alemseghed; Two Weeks in the Trenches; Africa World Press; Sep 1, 2002.
 Lebona, Zekre; The Umblical Cord; Oct 19, 2013; asmarino.com
 Eritrea’s human rights record comes under fire at United Nations; 25 Oct, 2013, The Guardian
 Barrera, Giulia; “Partrilinearity, Race, and Identity: the Upbringing of Italo-Eritreans during Italian Colonialism”; Italian Colonialism; 2005. Iyob, Ruth; Madamissimo and “Beyond: the Construction of Eritrean Women”; Italian Colonialism; 2005.
 Gedab News; A Merecenary Army: Isaias’ Afwerki’s Last Stand; Oct 3, 2013; awate.com
 Bawza; Asmara: Government cadres finding it difficult to convince people of the noninvolvement of Demhit; Nov 1, 2013; asmarino.com
 Ghebrehiwet , Yosief; II Discontent at the Top; Mar 24, 2013; asmarino.com