Dejen’s Syndrome: the Contradictions of the Eritrean Mind

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet


Recently, there have been two stories of unusual courage that have dominated Eritrean opposition websites: the Catholic Bishops’ [1] and Dejen Ande Hishel’s [2]. Yet, they differ in one critical way: while the former focuses on the sense of urgency needed to save the nation, in the latter we meet the main bottlenecks that have kept Eritreans prisoners of their own minds, depriving them of that very sense of urgency that the Bishops talk about. In Dejen’s great escape narration, we find all the elements of the unfolding Eritrean tragedy that have killed the people’s survival instinct. By asking ourselves what ails Eritreans in their attempt to liberate themselves, we will find the answer to be: whatever ailed and, to a some extent, still ails Dejen in his attempt to fully liberate himself – that is, in his attempt to fully decolonize his mind from the past (to borrow a phrase from Seyoum Tesfaye [3]).

Dejen is no doubt a brilliant fellow, a lucid narrator, an honest citizen and a very courageous man. Throughout the narration, his decency is palpable. In a culture marred by duplicity, his honesty is breathtaking; at no time does he try to deliberately cover his weaknesses. His will power is astounding, in that he never allowed his spirit to be broken down in 15 years of life in prison. And his courage is the stuff out of which legends are made of. And in all of this, he remains humble, as he puts it in an understatement, “ayguadain’ye” (“I am harmless”). In short, he is an example par excellence of the quintessential hero. That makes the teasing out of the elements that ail Eritreans from his narrative easier, given that the confounding factors are minimized to the barest minimum by his commendable characteristics. Had he been some kind of a dubious character – say, some former official with a checkered record – it would have been easy for us to attribute any lethal flaws of the nationalist type in his narration to him and him only. Likewise, if we find in him debilitating flaws in the process of liberating himself, we are more likely to attribute those to the colonized mind that has burdened teghadelti, in particular, and Eritreans, in general.

This article will focus on the irreconcilable contradictions that coexist in the same mind that has debilitated Eritreans to a point of catatonic inaction in the face of existential calamity. In Dejen’s case, this took place throughout his years in prison where the image of malevolent and benevolent leadership coexisted in his mind, denying him a clear face of an enemy against which he had to fight back. And when that leadership comes in the form of President Isaias Afwerki only, that discordant picture still exists in his head, albeit in its less obvious yet recalcitrant form. It is this state of a discordant mind that finds itself in an ever-hesitating mode in times of liberating itself that I am calling “Dejen’s Syndrome”.

As I listened to all the seven parts of the interview that Dejen conducted at, there were two things that struck me as very odd:

(a)    Through the entire length of the seven-part interview, the absence of condemnation of Isaias Afwerki by Dejen was almost total. Given that it was the President that was behind his 15 years in prison, I thought his reluctance to put the President in negative light is disturbing.

(b)   After being asked by the interviewer what he believed to be the reason for his imprisonment, Dejen fails to explicitly state what he thinks it was. Instead, he gives an extended account of the circumstances that led to his detention, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.

Eritrea is an example par excellence to witness how the banality of evil [4] is destroying a nation. When it comes to the making of the tragedy of this nation, categorizing men between evil and good in the traditional way won’t do the job. Among other things, what are sustaining the totalitarian regime are innocuous-looking assumptions that carry horrendous consequences, many times done by people with good intentions. The cardinal sin of these concerned citizens is the inability to see the consequences of their acts. When “evil” is reduced to its logical or even technical elements this way, it definitely gets banal. The goal of this article is to put these assumptions, as held by Dejen, to scrutiny, in the hope that a general lesson could be drawn out of it that applies to the larger population.

Sisyphean striving in a Kafkaesque world:

Kafka’s parables do not easily lend themselves to make a political or even humanitarian point, since they were written with the human condition at its most elemental level in mind. But the striking resemblance these parables have with Dejen’s narrative forces us to encounter the Eritrean condition bared to its human essentials. We vividly meet this Kafkaesque world in Dejen’s narration: in the bureaucratic nightmare he couldn’t pass through; in the constant disorientations he had to go through; in the irreconcilable contradictions he had to live with; in the image of the oppressor and savior that cohabited his mind; in the ever-deferred hope he had to strive for; in the Sisyphean tasks he was trying to accomplish; etc.

The stark futility of Dejen’s endless striving to find fithi (justice) in the face of impossibility is, in fact, captured by what it means to be “Kafkaesque”: “What's Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.”, says an author of biography of Franz Kafka. "You don't give up, you don't lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance. That's Kafkaesque." [5] The mismatch of the two Shaebia worlds that cohabited Dejen’s head – the romanticized one of the past and the brutal one he met in prison – the latter refusing to yield to the former, is what created this Kafkaesque world. For years, Dejen attempted to interpret the realty of his prison world through the ghedli prism that he was brought up with, refusing to admit the contrary evidence with which he was met every day.

In a case of life imitating art, at various points Dejen’s narration has this uncanny resemblance to one of Kafka’s memorable parables, A Message from the Emperor [6]:

“The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death … he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd …” The messenger has to make his way through similar crowds of multitudes thorough endless chambers, stairways, courtyards, palaces, dwellings, the royal capital, etc. that, Kafka says, he would never be able to make it even in thousands of years. Yet, the parable ends, “You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.”

Dejen literally waited eternity for that message from the Emperor, Isaias Afwerki, to arrive (and to some extent, is still waiting). We meet this Kafkaesque world of endless striving in the face of impossibility depicted in the parable in Dejen’s case when he kept writing countless letters [Dejen puts it as “thousands”, a figure of speech meant to depict the sheer enormity of it] “To Whom It May Concern” without having any clue who he was addressing them to; and when he knew whom he was addressing, without having any assurance that the letters would reach them; and, above all, without knowing the specifics of the crime he was accused of. This triple uncertainty created an indeterminate world (a world that lacked certainty) that Dejen had to live in limbo for long. He was made to strive endlessly in a Sisyphean task for a goal that was never there, even as every time he looked around all he could feel was this vertigo, as the world of content he had grown up with – that idealized world of Hizbawi Gimbar implanted in his head – caved into a free fall. If he hadn’t come out of that Kafkaesque world on time, when he somewhat renounced the system and partially gained back a world of meaning, he could have easily lost his sanity.

But this indeterminate world devoid of certainty is not simply the making of the system, for it requires the active collaboration of the victim with his victimizers in his victimization to sustain itself. To fully understand the making of this world, and the horrible consequences it carried, we need to start at the beginning.

The preferred subject

We have to read the parable in inverse order to get its logic right: it was not the Emperor that preferred the subject, but the subject that had the Emperor’s preference of him in his head. We see that in the last statement, “You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.” Except in Dejen’s case, it would go like this, “You, however, sit at the door of your cell and dream of the message when morning comes”, since he used to wake up early and expectantly wait by the door every morning, believing that he would be set free; that is, for months and months. As in the parable, Dejen’s story has that element of “preferred subject” in it that would explain this unwarranted hope, so much so that the President would take it as his task to see his predicament resolved. For years, Dejen held fast to the impossible belief that had Isaias known about the circumstances of his fate, he would have set him free. He believed then that if there was anything to be blamed, it was the bureaucratic nightmare between him and Isaias; that is, for having failed to hand-deliver the message to the Emperor.

Wherefrom came this naïve belief that he had the ears of the Emperor? Besides the ghedli blinkers that he shared with rest of Eritreans, it has to do with the shielded environment of Biet Timhrti Sewra in which he grew up. Even though both Dejen and Amanuel dwell on the romantic aspect of the school, it is clear that its students were groomed to be the real inheritors of Shaebia (and not the unfortunate Warsai). Dejen says they were brought up to believe that, in a nation liberated through the martyrdom of their fathers and older brothers, they were the ones who would inherit it, and not those who would be coming from abroad or those who grew up in safety inside the country. (Interview, Part 1) And here is how he describes himself before his prison life, “With my upbringing in Sahel, I looked at myself not merely as part of Hizbawi Gimbar but as Hizbawi Gimbar itself; and the government as my government, one that first and foremost belonged to me. And when I was taken to prison, it never entered my mind that one day Hizbawi Gimbar would deny me justice.” (Part 6) This is, indeed, an apt description of someone who took himself to be a preferred subject in the eyes of the system.

Following this preferential blueprint from mieda, among other privileges, almost the entire Air Force was reserved for teghadelti’s kids like Dejen who grew up in Sahel. Dejen says that the 50 or so finally selected to be pilots and ground technicians for the fledgling Air Force came from a single class of 9th grade from Embalko in Sahel in right after independence, in addition to some schoolmates from the technical school that joined them in Asmara. [We are not sure from his “memahrtna” if there were any students from the civilian population included in this initial process; and if so, how many. But the results speak for themselves: whenever Dejen mentions any pilot, invariably he has to hail from Biet Timhrti Sewra.] Let’s take note here that, except for these two schools, the entire school system of the nation was excluded from participating in this selection process that would initially make up the Air Force of the nation. There is no other reason except for the preferential one why almost all the pilots of the Air Force hailed from Biet-Timhrti Sewra while there were many others in their age group with similar or better talent among the students from civilian parents all over Eritrea. To grasp the oddity of this, let me add the Ethiopian factor – that is, for the ghedli romantics to ponder.

During Haile Selassie era, I remember [when I was a high school student at San Giorgio] when the Ethiopian Air Force used to recruit students through standardized examination all over the high schools in Eritrea, as it did in the rest of Ethiopia. And, as a result, there were some Eritrean students that joined the Air Force this way. Now, contrast if you will, what took place a few years after independence: the Eritrean Air Force had to be made off limits to the entire civilian student body to make room for a hundred or so from Biet Timhirti Sewra. I don’t think that Dejen is fully aware that the Air Force that he was so proud of, and the flying that he fell in love with such a passion, was built on a systematic injustice that excluded the entire sons and daughters of ghebar Eritrea. A wholesale absence of fithi started from there.

It was this privileged status that had blinded the inheritors from Sahel for long to the plight of ghebar as they remained blindly loyal to Shaebia. And Dejen was no exception, as he described himself then as being “wedi menghsti” and ready to defend it in whatever way possible. That was why Dejen was so naïve as to find it impossible to believe this was happening to him for years after his detention. Prior to his giving up on the system, Dejen’s naivety is to be seen throughout his narration: that they had arrested him by mistake; that once things were cleared, they would let him go; and, later, that had the letters reached the President, everything would have been cleared. That naivety was also on display when he kept writing voluminously to the National Security, to the Air Force and to the President without having any guarantee that it would reach them. But probably the most Kafkaesque picture in this regard was when he rose up every morning, gathered all his belongings, and waited by the door to be let out for months straight. It required an enormous amount of good will towards Shaebia for someone to stay naïve for so long.

On his own admittance, it took years in prison for him to give up on the system. Since this was a gradual process, the question of whether he has totally given up on the system is still legitimate. This is best approached by looking at the relation between the victim and the victimizer, given that Dejen’s entire narration revolves around the question of justice.

The oppressor doubling as benefactor

We meet another aspect of the Kafkaesque world in Dejen’s narration repeatedly when the oppressor doubles as a savior, to the confusion of the captive. Whenever Dejen demands justice, insisting that at least he should be told what he was accused of, as he kept languishing in his cell, the kind of response that he used to get was, “Aren’t you under the protection of government?”;  “What are you afraid of?”; “Why are you so impatient?”(Interview, Part 2) It gets downright bizarre when the interrogator proposes that they should work like “brothers” (kem ahwat). We see this blurring of the worlds of the victim and victimizer by invoking a larger Shaebia family that embraces them both when his tormentors beg him to understand their situation: that they could not attend to his enquiries on time because of the prevailing war conditions (kunetat hager). That is, they were audaciously appealing to his patriotism to collaborate with them in his victimization. When this Orwellian twist was at its worst, to his repeated question as to why he was in prison, the response was “Perhaps it is because they want to spare you from the war”. (Interview, Part 2) Even though this rationale was apparent in its incoherence, Dejen was honest enough to admit that it used to add confusion (hinfishfish) in his head.

This face of an oppressor doubling as a benefactor wouldn’t have taken roots had it not found a fertile soil in Dejen’s mind. Dejen says that at one time he held this image of Isaias Afwerki not only as “our military Leader but also as our Father”. (Interview, Part 2) Even long after his detention, this idea of a benevolent leader was still intact in his head, “They are not sending my letters to whom it was meant. Had the President known my condition, he wouldn’t let me stay in prison even for one night.” (Interview, Part 3) He was still a believer then even though, I suspect, that all along he must have had this lingering suspicion that it was that fateful meeting with the President that was at the root of his undoing. That is to say, the images of a malevolent and benevolent leader, of an accuser and defender and of an oppressor and savior must have coexisted in his mind for years in prison till the moment he gave up on the system. But what is intriguing is that when he gave up on the system, it didn’t necessarily mean he entirely gave up on the main culprit, President Isaias Afwerki.

When it comes to the President, there is this strange phenomenon that we observe in Dejen’s narration that would remain totally inexplicable without attributing Dejen’s Syndrome to Dejen: his reluctance to put the tyrant in negative light; his tendency, in unguarded moments, to put the tyrant in positive light; and his ambivalent silence to the exact reason for his imprisonment.

The reluctance to put the President in negative light

What remains conspicuously absent throughout the extended seven-part interview is the condemnation of Isaias Afwerki. One would think that since it was none other than the President himself that personally condemned him to 15 years of imprisonment without providing any justification, Dejen would go after him like no other in his narrative. Yet, in the entire hours-long narration, we don’t find the familiar words that put Isaias Afwerki in proper negative light, such as “dictator”, “despot”, “tyrant”, “oppressor”, “totalitarian”, “megalomaniac”, “paranoid”, “lawless”, “victimizer”, “wulqe-melachi”, “aremyen”, “amatsi”, “regats-fithi”, etc. that have found wide-spread currency in opposition literature and, to a great extent, among humanitarian groups. The only time he says anything negative about the President was when he talks about the President’s “cruel handling” of Pappayo; and that was only when he was reminded of this fact by his interviewer. Even when he condemns the “government” as having been corrupted from the top, he uses a feminine possessive (kab riesa) to describe that top, as if pointing directly to the President is too much for his stomach to handle.

This systematic omission couldn’t be by chance since Dejen doesn’t mince words when he describes the government as “dictatorial”, “lawless” (highi-albonet), bestial “arawit”, “badonet” (nihilist), “shameful”, “whose history will be written in a dark book”, etc. In one of his most condemning mood, he describes the government as something that was looked as “angel” by the people just after independence but has now turned into “devil”. And when he talks about “those” responsible for the imprisonment of political prisoners, he describes them as those “who seek power”, “who have betrayed their country”, “victimizers” (ametsti), “who trample justice” (fithi regitsom), etc. Again, none of these apt descriptive phrases are ever used to describe the President. In fact, throughout his narration, Dejen rails against the government and the authorities (always in plural) without ever dragging Isaias into the picture. All his anger is directed at the system, as if he is incapable of hating the Leader and hence finds it hard to bring himself to say anything negative about him.

Nor does he explicitly blame the President for anything that has categorically taken place in the country. Even though the issue of justice, or lack thereof, has been understandably Dejen’s obsession, not even for once in his many hours of interview does he point an accusatory finger at the President in this regard. Instead, again, he uses general terms as “those” or “the government” as his target for culprit. The same holds true in regard to the absence of peace, prosperity, democracy, etc. Even when he deliberates about the demise of the Air Force, he talks in general terms without ever squarely putting the blame on the President. The only time he criticizes the President in regard to the Air Force is on a minor technical point, when the President compares Mig-29 with F-16. (Interview, Part 7)

What explains this systematic omission when it comes to describing the true nature of the President and when it comes to putting his share of the blame for all the ills that has been stalking the country on him? Why this reluctance to put the President in the negative light he truly deserves? And this is not all that there is to it.

Putting the tyrant in positive light

What is worse is when Dejen, in his unguarded moments, actually puts Isaias in positive light. Let me point at three such unguarded moments that briefly let us into the inner thinking of Dejen. At one point in the interview, Amanuel asks whether there was nonprofessional interference (that is, of political nature) in the Air Force by the President. Dejen responds in the negative, adding that when the President came to visit the Air Force, it was as a “student” (kem temeharay) who only wanted to learn. There could have been such moments, at least outwardly, but to remember him in that humble picture requires an enormous amount of erasing in one’s memory of those facts that overwhelmingly contradict that student image. First and foremost, wasn’t it precisely because he didn’t want to listen to the pilots’ complaint “as a student” regarding the preparedness of the Air Force that Dejen got into deep trouble? Did the President sound like a “student” when he reprimanded Dejen, “It is only a bad student that complains about his teachers” (Interview, Part 2) And isn’t, among other things, the bad deal that President had gotten into with the Russians that brought the quick demise of the Air Force? How did that image of “temehary” persist throughout these years in Dejen’s mind, despite a ton of evidence that has contradicted it ever since?

In another instance, there is this state of mind necessary for survival in the prison world that Dejen repeatedly talks about: that even though one should take account of the prevailing realty if the prisoner was to eventually find a solution to his predicament, it was also necessary to balance this grim assessment by revisiting good moments in one’s life to keep one’s sanity intact. Nobody could actually quarrel with that. But it is in one such explanation that we catch Dejen again in one of his unguarded moments, putting the President in unwarranted positive light: he says that he even used to invoke the good times he had with the President (Interview, Part 3), as one of those good memories needed to keep his sanity intact! It is important to realize that he was invoking this image of a Loving Leader to sustain him in his hard times years after his detention, long after he suspected that he was in prison because of that same leader. This then is a perfect example of a malevolent and benevolent leader coexisting in that same mind, symptomatic of Dejen’s Syndrome.

What makes the above incident doubly disturbing is that the “good moment” scene could have only been imagined in its exaggerated form: there is no way on earth that Dejen could have had enduring good moments with the President (as experienced in real time) that could feed the memory. When people invoke good memories to sustain them at times of extreme adversity, it is those good times they have had within their intimate circles – with one’s family members, lovers, friends, comrades, etc – that they remember. I am sure Dejen have had his share of those moments in his life. But to equate the fleeting moments that he could have had with the President – when he visited them in the Air Force, for instance – with these intimate memories require a flight of mind similar to the Kafka character mentioned above, where the subject imagines the Emperor had him in mind at his deathbed. One has to inflate those fleeting moments – perhaps a pat on the shoulder, a gesture of acknowledgement, a few words of commendation, a professional talk on the Air Force, etc – to gargantuan size to relish them at times of extreme adversity. And what makes them Kafkaesque is not only this loss of proportion but also that the invoked good moments happen to be with none other than his victimizer, the very person who created that unbearable world that Dejen was trying to run away from by invoking good moments in his life.

Someone might intervene here by saying, “Well, he might have been afflicted by that Syndrome then, but not anymore”. I would be reluctant to extend that charitable interpretation to Dejen for two reasons. First, as pointed above, there is not the slightest bit of effort on his side to put Isaias Afwerki in negative light in his entire narration. And since this narration has taken place just recently, this systematic omission obviously reflects his present state of mind. And, second, there is another unguarded moment that tries to depict the President in positive light now. In the last part if the interview, Dejen correctly criticizes those who equate the removal of Isaias from the seat of power to endangering no less than the nation itself – so far, so good. But right after that, in order to prove them wrong, he quotes none other than Isaias himself for confirmation! He says, “Everyone knows that one day Isaias has to leave the seat of power. Isaias himself has repeatedly told them that there is no such thing as everlasting government; he did this over and over, countless times (maileya gizye).” (Interview, Part 7) Imagine that! To utter these words after the fact that the tyrant is still in power after 23 years and after he has repeatedly asserted that he will never abdicate the seat of power requires a discordant mind of the enduring type typical of True Believers – and, again, symptomatic of Dejen’s Syndrome. Here is a guy who had been languishing in prison for 15 years through the direct order of the President and still seeking redeeming values in the words of a megalomaniac leader.

Correction at the bottom

Although we are led to believe that Dejen seems to know the incident that condemned him to 15 years in prison – namely, his encounter with Isaias on the unpreparedness of the pilots and, by extension, of the Air Force – he never explicitly says so. We are left in the dark as to why the President would want him locked up because of that incident. The interviewer woefully fails in pressing Dejen on that most important part of interview. At most, he simply prompts him to assent, “You know who is behind your imprisonment, even though they kept saying ‘to whom it may concern?’”.   And Dejen says “Yes” without following it up with any explanation as to why Isaias would want him locked up in prison because of that encounter.

We are left to guess that the event that retrospectively sealed Dejen’s fate was the meeting he had with the President in regard to the unpreparedness of the pilots. The pilots believed that they had gotten inadequate training by their Russian trainers, and hence needed further training to meet the stringent requirement to fly Mig-29; and they had a good reason, since this was a time of war (1999). Even though the President was clearly offended when he responded, “Only a bad student complains about his teachers”, we are left in the dark as to why this relatively mild reprimand would eventually morph into sealing Dejen’s fate.

So it must be the events that followed soon after that must have retrospectively rendered that meeting lethal. What followed soon after was the poor performance of the Air Force in the war of Badme, with two Mig-29s and their pilots lost, and with the rest of Air Force impounded for the rest of the war. This disaster also bared the deal with the Russians for the farce it had been all along: that the pilots were poorly trained, that the Mig-29s they sold them were “used” (although sold as “new”), that the “ejection seat” and the parachute failed to work (sealing the fate of the pilots), that the Mig29s weren’t even equipped with proper bullets; etc. All this proved that Dejen was right in his complaint, with its implication that the Air Force was unprepared for such eventualities; which also further implied that the President woefully failed in believing otherwise. This is something that no totalitarian leader would ever tolerate: to be proved wrong by one of his lowly subjects. This picture would get worse if the President had actually had a hand in expediting their training. We have to remember that this was in the midst of war time; even though there was a lull in between, it was expected that war would erupt at any time (as it did on Feb 12/14 1999, a month after their training ended). If so, Dejen’s quest for more training would go against the time frame allowed by the rationale of the war. Although Dejen keeps telling us that Isaias approached the Air Force only as a student, we cannot discount the fact the he could have been behind the expedited, but nevertheless, abortive training. After all, Dejen says in regard to the Russian trainers, that they were there primarily to make the authorities happy rather than provide them with adequate training (Interview, Part 2). But even if we don’t buy this additional argument, the demise of the Air Force implicitly anticipated by the pilots’ complaint, followed up with the palpable anger and sadness among the pilots with the actual demise, was enough to retrospectively criminalize that fateful meeting with the President that Dejen had.

Now we see why Dejen was not detained immediately after that fateful meeting with the president. That encounter, on its own, was not found to be enough of a crime that deserved any punishment, let alone imprisonment. Dejen had to be found correct in his assessment first for the past encounter to be seen as a crime in retrospect. That is, the President had to be found wrong in his assessment of the Air Force first for Dejen to be found guilty of past crime. That means that had the Eritrean Air Force performed well, the President’s assessment would have been found true and Dejen’s encounter with the President would have remained to be the small nuisance that it was and never morphed into a full-blown crime. In this kind of a retrospective world that finds a totalitarian leader always right fithi has nothing to do with it.

In totalitarian systems, whenever the leader makes a blunder the correction is always sought at the bottom. In this case, Isaias is correcting his disastrous assessment not only by disappearing the evidence (the man who implicitly anticipated the failure), but also by making him a scapegoat for that failure; in this regard, we have to remember that Dejen was the topmost among the pilots. And if further correction was needed, as it eventually did, Dejen’s boss in the Air Force, Commander Habtezion Hadgu, had also to be taken to prison. Both Amanuel and Dejen see the detention of the latter within the sphere of fithi. Again, fithi, or lack thereof, had nothing to do with it. I don’t think the president cared what kind of persons these two were. Dejen, at the time, was a True Believer, and hence no threat whatsoever to the President on the subversion scale. Dejen himself talks about his “not free” frame of mind at that time: that he was “wedi menghsti”; that he was rooting for the government; that he would do anything the government told him to do; that he would stand against anyone who criticized the government; etc (Interview, Part 7). If so, if anything, he was the kind of foot soldier that the President could count on through thick and thin; and, given this frame of mind, I doubt Dejen would have gone against the President on account of the growing injustice in the land.

Dejen is unaware that ghedli rationale had found a better purpose in him: that he would better serve the system this way in prison than in the Air Force. That is how “the revolution devours its children” totalitarian dictum does its logic: he was fulfilling his patriotic duty in prison, given that in the greater scheme of things the correction that his detention allows is much better for the system than whatever patriotic duty he could perform on his own outside the prison in his capacity as a pilot. The former, unlike the latter, leaves the image of the infallible totalitarian leader intact.

Dejen’s multiple prisons

In the Eritrean tragedy still unfolding, we see that the innocent-seeming assumptions many Eritreans carry in regard to ghedli or the nation have enormous consequences. In one of his deliberations on fithi, Dejen appropriately invokes the saying, “Justice denied to one is justice denied to all” (Interview, Part 5), his point being that we shouldn’t be silent when others are denied justice, for it will come to haunt us when it is our turn. But the same could be said of those who deny or delay justice in the name of the revolution or the nation, “Justice denied to one in the name of revolution or the nation cannot be entertained without extending that ‘exception’ to the entire population”. It is in this sense that I want to explore now the consequences of the assumptions carried by Dejen’s state of mind at its various stages of self-liberation, attained or otherwise.

At one particular point in his narration that I found revealing, Dejen says that it took him four years in prison for him to entirely give up on the system – that is, to fully realize that the fault was not on the prisoners’ but on the system’s side. Up to that point in time, he thought there was a reason for him ending up in prison. Not that he believed he had committed a crime deserving such punishment, but that there must be a justifiable reason for things being where they ended up to be. That is, he was trying his best to find extenuating circumstances that would vindicate the system, even though it was him that was at the receiving end of this lopsided affair. For four years, he was the system’s best lawyer, arguing against his condition effectively. While his victimized self kept arguing that he was innocent (as his countless letters demanding an explanation testify), the Shaebia in him was convincingly arguing back that the system should be assumed innocent until proven guilty. This indeed was very odd since Shaebia didn’t reciprocate in kind when it came to his case: he had to be assumed guilty until proven otherwise. Thus, as much as his countless letters were a plea for acknowledgement of his innocence from the other side, there was also this desperate hope that the system would eventually redeem itself in front of his eyes. Only after four yeas did that lawyer in him die for good; and only then did he give up on the system.

Please note that it took Dejen four yeas to escape from his mind-prison. Only then did the idea of escape from the physical prison conclusively enter his mind. This probably is the greatest lesson that Eritreans should have drawn out of the Dejen story: that it is only if they kill the Shaebia in them thoroughly that they will be able to liberate themselves (and the nation). But neither they nor Dejen seem to carry this lesson to its logical conclusion. What, indeed, went wrong? The ambivalence that is killing the nation is also to be found in Dejen’s narration.

What the assumptions carry

Let’s first look at two assumptions that Dejen must have carried with him prior to him giving up on the system to see the extent of the Eritrean malady as exemplified in Dejen’s Syndrome. If Dejen was unable to question the nature of the system that had victimized him for four years, it goes without saying that he wouldn’t extend the benefit of doubt he denied to himself to other prisoners. At best, he would think that some prisoners were there like him, locked up as a result of some kind of misunderstanding that would eventually be cleared to the satisfaction of all, thereby vindicating the system in the process of the resolution. But it is obvious that he couldn’t use that rationale with all the “political” prisoners in Eritrea without falling into incoherence. It would be insanity to believe that all those political prisoners in Eritrea ended up in their cells by mistake or by some kind of misunderstanding. So he must have believed that in his case (probably with few others) it was the exception to the rule. And given this line of thinking, there is no way we can escape this disconcerting conclusion: that, in his eyes, all the rest must have been guilty, and hence deserved their incarceration. He says that until he found himself in prison, he never thought that anyone would be held in prison without charges in Eritrea; that is, prior to his detention, he used to believe that there were justifiable reasons for people ending up in prison (Interview, Part 2). The only way Dejen could wake up from such a stupor was when he killed the lawyer in him deployed in defense of the system.

Notice that Dejen’s innocuous-looking belief that he was there in prison by mistake carried enormous implications, namely, that almost the entire prison population deserved the punishment they had gotten. And this was because his belief in the system was still strong. Again, there is a precious lesson to be learned from this: it is only if Eritreans kill the Shaebia in them that they would fully comprehend the true extent of injustice in the land.

The second disturbing assumption goes as follows: for Dejen to believe the system was incapable of deliberately doing what it did to him and others like him for years, he must have believed that this organization was not doing anything like that not only in independent Eritrea but also in ghedli era. The decades of horror under halewa sewra had either to be totally denied or rendered justifiable for one to harbor such a romanticized view of Shaebia for so long. Thousands of teghadelti had been in and out of halewa sewra, rehabilitated into the system only after they had been thoroughly broken in. Thousands more had perished in the underground dungeons of Sahel, probably in worse places than the prison Dejen had languished at for 15 years. And thousands others had escaped from the clutches of Shaebia, as tens of thousands of Warsai are doing now every year.

True enough, Dejen was too young to be cognizant of what was going on in halewa sewra at the time he was attending Biet Timhrti Sewra during ghedli era. But the issue that I am raising here is a retrospective one: What did he see then in Carcelli prison when he looked back? And, more importantly, what does he see now when he looks back? Would he make a screeching halt at independence era, and deny or justify whatever took place prior to that, as many of the ghedli romantics are prone to do? The reason why I am saying this is because I see what I fear most in the reaction of his parents, who were old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the ghedli era.

Sacrificing the son

Here is a revealing quote from Dejen’s mother when the victimization of her son hit her in its totality for the first time during the family’s only visit in the prison (Interview, Part 3):

“We are not going to put our back on an organization that we struggled and served for years just because we find ourselves now in a difficult position.

Before we look at the disturbing assumptions that this statement carries, let’s try to have a careful reading of the entity they were referring to. There was not the slightest bit of ambiguity on the parents’ side when it came to the entity they were referring to; be it coming under the name of PFDJ or Shaebia, it remained the same. To put it in clear terms, they were saying they were not willing to give up on this organization that victimized their son (under the name of PFDJ) because it happened to be the same organization that they had struggled and served for (Shaebia). That is, when it came to matters of life and death, the untenable distinction between Sahebia and PFDJ that the ghedli romantics are prone to frivolously invoke had no hold over the parents. Thus, in no uncertain terms, the parents were saying that they were unwilling to give up on Shaebia, even as they fully realized that their son was its victim in the most horrendous way imaginable. I presume this strange phenomenon was not new to them, as it was practiced countless times during the revolution. But it is the assumptions that this stance carried that are alarming.

For the parents to say this, they had to believe either their son’s case (with few others like him) was the exception to the rule, and hence all the rest deserve it, or the thousands other detentions that were taking place under the Eritrean sky by then were equally unjustified as in their son’s case. But if followed up by their unconditional allegiance to Shaebia, neither belief would hold any redemptive value. The first would require a special kind of blind spot that sees only injustices committed to their son (and few others like him); all the thousands others would have to be assumed guilty and hence deserving of what they got. Even though holding this position would be best for vindicating Shaebia in what it was doing, the parents would hardly be different in their outlook than the system itself. The second requires adhering to the old revolutionary mantra, “The revolution devours its children” as applied to countless victims. Given that the son/daughter is the ultimate sacrifice that parents could possibly give, if Dejen’s parents could justify their son’s unjust imprisonment by saying “the revolution has devoured him” without ever giving up on the ideals of that revolution, what would they say if it was someone unknown to them? It goes without saying that they would be willing to forgive Shaebia 10,000 times more for every prisoner in the land. Either way, there is no way out of the two horns of this dilemma.

We can understand how debilitating the parents’ stand was if we can see them as torn between the love they had for their son and the love they had for Shaebia. Ask yourself this question to see the extent of this Eritrean malady: were these parents capable of seeing Shaebia/PFDJ as the real enemy? This is, indeed, the same dilemma that we see again and again among Warsai. Having been indoctrinated to believe the sanctity of ghedli, they couldn’t act in their defense when they found themselves victimized by Yikealo. It being impossible for them to imagine wrestling the land from the liberators, they opted to flee altogether, leaving the land to their victimizers.

So far we have been looking at innocuous-seeming assumptions that carry enormous consequences to the larger prison population in Eritrea, be it now or in the ghedli era. But to see the extent of the damage these assumptions carry, we will have to look their impact on the larger population. To do that, we need to revisit the indeterminate world mentioned at the start of this article.

The indeterminate world

It requires an indeterminate world of the totalitarian type to sustain the kind of unwarranted hope that Dejen clung to for so long at a massive level. There is another excellent parable by Kafka, Before the Law [7] that has, again, this uncanny resemblance to the ever-hedged world in which Dejen found himself, especially so since both deal with the issue of fithi:

The parable starts, “Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.” Observing that, the doorkeeper tells him that even if he gets through this door, one door leads to another and to another endlessly, each with a more ferocious guard than the previous one. So the man decides to wait until he gets permission to enter. He waits for years and years sitting on a stool by the door. In those years, he attempts to bribe the man with all he has got. Every time the doorman accepts a bribe, his response remains the same, “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything”. The man stays by the door for the rest of his life, until the time of his death in old age.

Unwarranted hope

For the system, it is essential for the captives to live in a world of uncertainty, endlessly hedged with false possibilities, for the goal is for them to believe that the only certainty they could get is from the system itself; and that would be the time the captive is totally broken in, as he gives up on the potency his agency. Thus, it is essential for any totalitarian system that its subjects keep striving for an ever-deferrable hope, for it is the moment they give up on this unattainable hope that they turn against the system.

In the early years of his prison life, it is the unwarranted hope that somehow justice would eventually prevail within the system that debilitated Dejen to a point of indecision or inaction. Notice how contradictory reference points of an indeterminate world are provided in the above parable. On the one hand, the doorkeeper never conclusively says there is no way to the Law. His statement, “it is possible” is what keeps the man pinned to the door for the rest of his life. On the other hand, the statement, “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything”, is meant to exhaust all the possibilities that the man could take to reach the Law. This again is meant to convince the man to resignedly wait by the door, until the Law comes to him on its own, which will never happen. Similarly, we encounter many times in Dejen’s narration where false hope is given to him from the authorities: “We are following your case”; “We have taken it to whom it may concern” “If you could only temper your writing”, “You should be patient”, etc. But for this to work in its task of disorienting the victim, the victim had to necessarily collaborate in his victimization. In a scene that eerily mimics the inaccessible doors of Kafka in the parable, Dejen says, “I have tried all paths in many different ways. And, invariably, all these paths lead to doors that don’t yield.” (Interview, Part 3). It was that ever-deferrable hope that kept him busy knocking at this ever-variable door, for unknown to him he was always knocking at the same door.

If Dejen hadn’t grown up in an insulated environment, he would have realized that the disorientation of the subject necessary for the making of an indeterminate world had been the modus operandi of Shaebia in its prison system, among teghadelti at mieda and now among ghebar in independent Eritrea. The strategy is rather simple to understand: if the subject is not to know where he is heading to, he shouldn’t know where he is exactly located. And the way to do the latter is by denying him reference points by which he could locate his whereabouts. Once he is at loss where he is, he would never figure out how to reach from there anywhere. In life, these reference points by which we locate ourselves are provided to us by culture, religion, history, society, language, family, school, etc. Only when we are firmly grounded this way would we be able to know where we are heading to. That is why Shaebia’s primary task since independence has been to degrade these social riches. This experimentation to create an ideal indeterminate world where the subject would be at a permanent state of flux, and hence confusion, is now to be seen in the national service. It is this feeling of helplessness – that is, of endless and futile striving deprived of meaning – that is leading hundreds of thousands to flee their country.

Again, notice how a single innocuous-looking assumption carries horrendous consequences at a national level: Dejen’s belief in his early years in prison that there had to be a familiar world that would eventually yield to his efforts to find justice could not be held without denying not only the indeterminate nature of the world he was facing in prison every day but also a similar world the Eritrean masses were encountering in their daily lives, albeit at different degrees of indeterminacy.

A world without agency

The most effective way of disorienting the subject in a totalitarian system is to make him believe that he is part of the system even as he is being excluded by that very system. Once he believes that he is part of the system, even as a prisoner, there is no way he could identify the system as his enemy. And the way the victim does that is by denying explicit agency to responsible bodies for his victimization. It was in this way that Dejen had deprived himself of enemies against which to fight back – a malady that has been afflicting the opposition.

Exculpating victimizers by attributing to them lack of agency has become common among the opposition: in one familiar argument, all those who conducted crimes during ghedli and all those who are conducting crimes now are exculpated by attributing the agency behind all these crimes of past and present to one man: Isaias Afwerki. But, in one familiar phenomenon, some of the prisoners have been put there by the atsnahaley hidri of military officials, colonels and generals for personal reasons. And even with general decrees like shoot-at-sight policy, anti-new-religions policy, the national service policy, etc, their execution on the ground requires individual decisions with variable results. That is to say, in between Isaias and the prisoners and oppressed others are tens of thousands men of agency accountable for what is taking place throughout Eritrea. To suck out this entire agency, in order to attribute it to one man, requires a collaborative mind, hence a colonized one, in the making of that Kafkaesque world.

The rationale of “Isaias is the only one with agency” theory is that everyone else does it because of the totalitarian terror that reigns in the nation and therefore is not responsible for his/her actions. But this silly argument can easily be disproved by turning our attention to regime supporters in diaspora: from active agitators to tens of thousands of cheerleaders that support the regime not only financially but also politically. Many of them are diehard True Believers. Many others do it for personal gains: to build a house, to visit the country, to retire in the homeland, to deal with their identity crisis (especially the YPFDJ), etc. But having personal reasons for taking certain “political” decisions don’t deprive one of agency. After all, isn’t it the treating the whole nation as his personal fiefdom that we are accusing Isaias of? What could be more personal than that? If so, why is it hard to extend these reasons that we attribute to regime supporters in diaspora to those in Eritrea? Over there too there are True Believers, criminals and opportunists of all kinds.

In the case of Dejen, given that he is reluctant to place the blame not only at the top but also at the bottom, the agency behind the crimes that have been taking place in the nation is to be found nowhere. First, Dejen fails to explicitly attribute the actual agency behind his 15 years of incarceration to the President. We have seen how the diffusion of such an agency goes above. But that is not all, for he is also reluctant to attribute any agency to those working in the security apparatus of the regime that he used to encounter in prison: torturers, interrogators, guards, minders, etc. When the interviewer asks him whether he blames any of those, he equates them with “betri” (Interview Part 7) Of course, one can never attribute agency to a stick, even when it is wielded by the most vicious tormentor. But to extend that lack of agency to the entire security apparatus of the regime that wields that betri is madness. Instead, the entire agency was attributed to an abstract “government”, and this was only because it came in its faceless form. So who was responsible for Dejen’s and, by extension, for the Eritrean people’s, predicament? We find the answer in Pope Francis’ metaphor: “Everybody and nobody”. [8]. This way, no one with a face is made responsible for what has been going on in Eritrea.

Once the oppressor has been rendered devoid of agency this way, the victim would be depriving himself of the necessary anger needed for him to fight back. How can one fight back against a faceless enemy? Given this, I am wondering, if the only way Dejen could escape from the Carcelli prison had been by shooting at the guards, would he have attempted it? Or would he say, “These are my fellow teghadelti. How can I shoot at them?” I would have wanted his interviewer to ask him a follow up question, “If it required killing a number of teghadelti prison guards to set yourself free, would you have done it?” Let’s remember that the Forto rebellion went out of steam within few hours when it was confronted with a similar dilemma: when the coup d’état threatened to go bloody (or if you want to put it idiotically, when it stopped being a “democratic coup”), it was not possible for the rebel group to see an enemy in the army units that surrounded them. They couldn’t see any difference between themselves and the soldiers pointing the gun at them, even though the latter group would have no qualms in using violence against them (as it did later). That is to say, the Forto event came to its abortive anticlimax because of the same hesitant mind. It was hard for the rebels to attribute any ill intent (any agency) on the side of the soldiers. As Dejen put it, they were like “betri” wielded by someone else to them.

The same could also be said of the G-15 uprising. The impossibility of the “democratic coup” that they were trying to achieve was known to them more than to anybody else, given their decades-long familiarity with the inner workings of Shaebia. Yet, they were consoled by the fact that they were “ready to be martyred”, as if there was anything in that for the masses. Having deprived themselves of the face of an enemy – that of Isaias Afwerki – that had to be eliminated, they were passively waiting like lambs to be slaughtered. Their attempt to reform the system without finding anyone culpable was what eventually sealed their fate. Part of the reason that explains their hesitation was that sometime in their ghedli past they had been in the culprit’s position; thus, by giving the benefit of the doubt to Isaias, they were also extending that benefit of the doubt to themselves. That is to say, it is in their attempt to sustain that indeterminate world where “everybody and nobody” was responsible that they lost the game. We can then say that it is Dejen’s Syndrome that sealed their fate and, consequently, the Eritrean people’s fate.

To sum it up, it is this reluctance to put agency behind all the crimes committed in ghedli and independence eras that have rendered Eritreans totally impotent, even as they are systematically driven towards the edge of existential cliff. When they look at Shaebia, all they see is “deqina”; and who wants to fight against family members? Remember that the entire rationale of the revolution was identity: “because the Ethiopians don’t look like us”. Now that the enemy looks like them, fighting back doesn’t make sense to them.

The time factor

If it took Dejen four years in prison to give up on the system, how many years more, if ever, would it have taken him to give up on the system if he had not been imprisoned and had kept his privileged status as a pilot? And how many more years will it take for him to totally give up on Isaias? By the same token, how many less harrowing years in the national service would it take for the average Warsai to give up on the system? Let’s remember that not all of those who have escaped from the national service have given up on the system, even after having been enslaved for a decade or more. And how many years of living in today’s civilian Eritrea would require for the average citizen to give up on the system?

Eritreans are first and foremost prisoners of their minds. When we look at the time factor, the sad part is that the longest part of this fight to set themselves free happens to take place in their heads. We can, in fact, say that Dejen was actually locked up in multiple prisons, the one inserted into the other like a Russian doll. It took him four years to conduct an escape from the prison in his head, the one that held him hostage to the system. Only when he escaped from this mind-prison, as he gave up on the system, was he able to entertain an escape from the physical prison. And all of this was to flee from the nation, as hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have already been doing, however less spectacular their escapes might be. To fight back against the system requires an altogether different state of mind: he has to free himself from being a hostage to the revolutionary past that has made him deny agency to his oppressors. That is to say, although he has freed himself from two prisons, he still remains locked up in a prison located in another layer of his mind.

If we use a time-exchange system (similar to currency-exchange system), four years in prison would probably be exchanged for 8 years of national service, and 16 years of living in civilian Eritrea; all of them being “prisons” with variations in their severity to the captive. And these ranges of time are for the imprisoned to attempt an escape from Shaebia; to fight back Shaebia would require an altogether different time frame. The problem is that the victims believe that their victimizers don’t deserve to be recognized as full blown enemies: although identified as enemy-enough from whom to escape, they are not considered as enemy-enough against whom to fight back. And that is why as hundreds of thousands escape from Prison Eritrea, none of them would dare shoot at anyone in the system, although many of them were armed to the teeth. If a fourth grader who knows his addition well is provided with the figures above, it would be easy for him to predict where the nation is heading; all he needs to do is put the above given years side by side with the years it would take for the nation to be totally hollowed out of its most reproductive population group.

Isaias’ Eritrea now is a big Potemkin village, surviving more from the images it creates among its people than from any show of strength on the ground. Its army, with mass desertions and conscription evasions, has been thoroughly hollowed out. Its population, with young adults leaving in mass exodus, has also been similarly gutted out. Its economy, despite the “mining boom,” has nothing to show for it on the ground. If there is anything that Dejen’s escape story has shown, it is that people are kept in Prison Eritrea more by the state of their mind rather than by the strength of the regime.


[1] Eritrean Catholic Bishops; Where Is Your Brother? (The Most Daring Message to Come Out of Eritrea; June 07, 2014;; Easter (2014); Asmara, Eritrea.

[2] Interview with Dejen Ande Hishel; XXX; Since there are seven parts to the interview, any quotation from the interview will show which part. Whenever quoted, I will specify which part of the interview. All the seven parts are found at YouTube.

[3] Tesfaye, Seyoum; Decolonizing the Mind: A shift in thinking; July 12, 2014;

[4] Arendt, Hannah; Eichman in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil; Penguin; 1963.

[5] Edwards, Ivana; The Essence of “Kafkaesque”; The New York Times; Dec 29, 1991.

[6] Kafka, Franz; “A Message From the Emperor”; in What it really Means to Be “Kafkaesque”, The Atlantic; Jan 15, 2014.

[7] Frank Kafka, "Before the Law," in Nahum N. Glatzer (ed.), Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories and Parables; New York: Quality Paperback Book Club; 1971; trans by Willa & Edwin Muir.

[8] Francis in Lampedusa: “Cain, Where Is Your Brother”; July 14, 2013;