When we were C.I.A spies …… Memories of a dreadful time
Working as an independent journalist in Eritrea should be labeled as one of the most dangerous jobs or undertaking in the world. If there is a Guinness book of records or competition for the most dangerous job in mediaf in the world, Issias’s Eritrea will be a gold medal winner. All independent journalists and many government journalists (yes government journalists!) were working under tremendous pressure, fear and an atmosphere of uncertainty. Nothing was and still is certain and no one knows or plans for what to do the next day, let alone for next year or next 5 years. In PFDJ’S zombie land, today you are a law abiding hard working citizen, tomorrow your destiny might be Adi-Abeto, Adi-Nifas, Track B or in any of tfhe hundreds of gulags all over the country. From the simple welder to the highly educated university researcher, every one was and is still living in sheer fear, dread and panic in the great nightmare called HAGERE ERITREA.
While almost every one was living and working under terror in apprehension and fear of the unknown, we journalists were working under intense strain and great anxiety more than any body else. Any article, piece of news item or commentary can render a journalist a traitor, anti Eritrean, a foreign agent and yes, a CIA agent. Yes we were labeled as CIA agents by almost any one in the PFDJ cabal of insane murderers. From a simple administrator of a small town to Aboy Isais Afewerki, the great leader of Africa’s North Korea, every one was fond of saying ”IZIATOM NAY CIA IYOM”( these are CIA’s people).
Esteemed readers, but how does this ridiculous and insane joke come about? To brand simple, unsophisticated, young and innocent journalists as CIA agents? What is there for CIA to know about Eritrea that it doesn’t already know? Even if the CIA wants to know or spy on Eritrea, why use journalists? What do we know? Though I don’t believe it for one minute, I can understand if the CIA wants to recruit or contact a senior army officer, a government Minster or a PFDJ cadre even a simple secretary at the office of the president. They can be a valuable intelligence asset at least theoretically speaking. As I said it and strongly believe, there is nothing that the CIA doesn’t know or want to know about Eritrea and its insecure leader. Strategically, politically and economically, there are many countries and governments that are of huge interest to the United States and its Intelligence branches. But the Eritrean regime and its leader are afflicted by a disease of unrealistic supremacy, superiority complex on the border of lunacy and racial and ethnic bigotry and chauvinistic tendencies akin to Mussolini or Milosevic of our time, to name the few.
By saying the CIA is after him and his regime and he is a prime target of the CIA, the Eritrean leader is implying his importance and how dangerous and fearsome he is. The CIA is after him, like Castro and Chavez, so is in their league! He is not just a third world thug, leading an impoverished nation; he is a CIA prime target so he must be above many African leaders! It must have been a great sensation to be hunted by the CIA.
That is why the Eritrean regime and its officials were fond of accusing every one as a CIA agent or a spy bent of destroying the country. According the PFDJ’S lexicology there are many candidates as CIA agents. The prime Minster of Ethiopia and the entire TPLF group, The G-15, independent journalists, Djibouti, the Kenyan government, Some times the Ugandan too, religious groups, psychiatrists, university lecturers, university students exiled in South Africa, the world health organization, Bill gates,…… the list is long and astonishing, but that was and still is the way things are in Issias’ and Ali Abdu’s Eritrea.
To come to my point; before I explain how the title “CIA agents” was bestowed to us by the benevolent great helms man, let me share with you some eventful memories in how we were doing day to day activities as independent journalists in Eritrea in the years 1997-2001. As we all know, to get accurate, precise and ample information from any Eritrean government agencies or ministries is almost impossible. The government and the ruling cliques are shrouded in culture of secrecy and deep mistrust of any one, even themselves. Every thing is a secret. I remember my sports editor asking the assistant coach of the national soccer team about their training field and where they might train for their scheduled match with, I believe Nigeria. The reply: “Izimo mistr iyu kemey gere kinegerka tideli”( This a secret; how can you expect me to divulge this to you!)
Working under such kind of atmosphere, makes us to improvise our way of doing business and journalism in Eritrea. The solution was hiring or recruiting agents known by their Tigrgna acronym as SHUKOR LEHASTI (Sugar lickers)
These were people of different ranks and capacity in the party and government who had had access to news and information and events taking place. They were valuable sources of news and information at that time. They were all kinds of people. Ministry of information employees, Censorship department staff, disgruntled PFDJ cadres, Senior and junior Military officers, employees of several Ministries and departments were good and priceless sources of news and information in the otherwise extremely paranoid regime. Since the government never reveals any thing for the local or international press or for the population for that matter, we have to resort to such techniques to get simple information and activities taking place in the closed chambers of government in Eritrea. From the PFDJ senior cadre meeting in Embatkla to the government’s secret dealing with the world bank to importing Indian and Filipino teachers, Shukor lehasti were magnificent sources of hot breaking news and dealings for the independent press corps in Eritrea. They were paid some money for their information and piece of news, hence the name shukor lehasti. Others were just fed up with the regime and like to talk and tell every thing they knew.
The independent papers were becoming more popular and were getting great acceptance by the ever news hungry Eritrean society. For the first time in living memory, Eritreans begun to write freely, debate about their land and enjoy the benefit of free speech. This trend and unprecedented freedom and autonomous thinking alarmed the PFDJ ruling gangs from day one. They used all kinds of methods to weaken and eventually muzzle the press and its journalists. From the unending slavery known as the national service to smear campaign against the independent journalists, they tried all kinds of methods to silence the papers without creating uproar or an international diplomatic incident. They were not successful and despite all kinds of obstacles and pressures, the independent media were flourishing. But the PFDJ and the NUEYS (National union of Eritrean youth and students), known commonly as HAMMAMATE, never ceased their intention of defaming and destroying the credibility of the independent papers and its courageous journalists and staff. In a closed and recluse society like PFDJ’s Eritrea, it easy to create uproar or spread panic among the society. You just spread rumor and gossip and the hostage public, since it doesn’t have any other means of knowing the truth, will begun to believe the propaganda and lies of the Government. It is simple, yet effective Stalinist method: Tell a lie repeatedly and it will be taken as a truth!
Taking in to account the low level of consciousness, education and over all awareness and the docile law abiding and meek nature of the majority of Eritreans, it was not difficult to spread and plant rumors, defamations and false accusations against the Independent press journalists. In a tribalistic and ethnicity sensitive and regional crazy society like Eritrea, the PFDJ cadres start dispersing rumors and MISTR (secret) about the journalist’s ethnicity, family background and genealogy. I remember talking to one of the shukor lehasti of ministry information”enda zena”. He took me away as if he is telling me about the end of the world. He said” kemza zeynegerkhua bimstir hazo kisto ethiopiyawi iyu (So and so is an Ethiopian and please you haven’t heard it from me; keep it a secret). I used to work at the US embassy as a guard and receptionist to augment my income while I was a university student in Asmara. The ever suspicious and unbelievably ignorant PFDJ officials thought this as a good opportunity and labeled me and my paper as CIA agents over night!
One hot afternoon in Asmara, one of the” shukor lehasti “informants came to my office and said he wants to talk to me. We went to down town Asmara and sat down in certain “lateria” (coffee house). He said he had very important news for me. I asked him what that was and was eager to know what he was going to tell me. He said that he was with a company of some intelligence and national security officials and they were discussing primarily about me. According to him, they said that I work for the CIA and the US government and they have evidence that I am an agent of the CIA. Then he asked me whether this true. I was so surprised and couldn’t believe my ears what I was hearing. I sometimes like to tell jokes and laugh under strenuous circumstances, just to keep my sanity. I told my peasant cadre that yes I work for the CIA and was paid by Vice President Cheney, and begged him to keep this secret (abayn abakhan ziteref iyu nmanm keytzareb hadera slezekrebkukha iye….blah blah!) Typical for any highlander the confused cadre said that” No no nmanm ayzarebin iye nskhakua aminka zinegerkani (No no, I am not going to tell anyone since you trust me with such news). I thought he will laugh at it and be impressed by my joke. But my illiterate friend takes it seriously and I can see his face changing into blue. It was so entertaining to see the butchers getting baffled and their reaction. At another time another informant approached me and asked me the following. I heard that you have some Ethiopian ancestry, and I heard it from a person who works at the national security; is this true, please tell me all and don’t hide any thing, as I am your friend. In a monotonous and depressing system of things like the PFDJ’s Eritrea where laughter and cheerfulness is as rare as a lion in Gash Barka, I used every opportunity to laugh and add a little spice to the otherwise dreary and boring life. So I told the knucklehead that yes It is true I am an Ethiopian. Nseb keytzareb imber beboy axum bedey enderta iye gin bejakha nkaalie aytzareb (Don’t tell any one please, yes I am an from Axum on my father’s side and from Enderta on my mother’s side). I saw the his face turning red and he replied rather astonished, “Ere nmanm ayzarebin iye waa gina zegerm iyu….( Oh I am not going to tell any one, but it is surprising…..)
I know how fascistic and racist the PFDJ killer MAFIA group are. Despite the fact many of them came from Ethiopian ancestry, their hatred and deep envy against the Tigreans and the TPLF is so great and on the border of sheer madness and phobia of unimaginable intensity. Though things are much better now and Eritreans are beginning to wake up from profound coma and state of hypnotization, sadly many were afflicted with this incurable disease and racist tendency and PFDJ ploy for long time. I am sure the confused “nay ezni” spread the big news everywhere. It is nice to see wild wolves convulsed and in state of frenzy in their own nightmarish creation.
Almost all the independent news papers were labeled as spies and agents of foreign governments and intelligence organizations outright. I was lucky to get the honorary title of a CIA agent. “Setit” news paper of Aarom Berhane was labled as a Danish agent and “NAY DENMARK” ( can you believe Denmark spying on Eritrea????). Admas news paper of Khaled Abdu and company was marked as a Libyan agent. Khaled used to print large photos of the Libyan Leader in his paper and tried to interview the Libyan ambassador at one time and this was enough evidence to get the title of a Libyan agent (Eritrea’s AL megrahi!). Yusuf Mohammed Ali and his Tsigenay newspaper were Saudi stooges. They used to have a column in their paper during the holy month of Ramadan, a kind of religious question and answer. This plus the editors name were enough to bestow the designation of a Saudi agent! In a land of special courts and scary Gulags, where one can be sentenced at a whim of a military judge and where one can languish indefinitely in prison, in a law less system where there is no recourse of appeal or justice, titles and honorific designation were plenty and some have no choice except to believe in whatever they were told.
Today, after all these years, the state of lunacy of the Eritrean regime and its leadership has reached a mind-boggling level. We are witnessing a leader who describes the grueling and deadly trek for freedom and justice of thousands of Young Eritreans as a picnic. We and the world are watching a leader who promised to hold elections after forty or so years. We are in a time where the hottest product or “made in Eritrea” is terror and destabilization of neighboring countries and others. It is an interesting and incredible time where a leader of an impoverished and one of the poorest nations in the planet describes life is much better that Sweden! The state of insanity and anarchic way of doing things of the Eritrean leadership will render Zimbabwe’s Mugabe as a Monk and Al Bashir of Sudan as a Sufi Preacher! Even Libya’s Gaddafi, who was called as erratic and unpredictable for long time, is much saner and rational than our man in Asmara.
Dear readers and esteemed compatriots, we are witnessing our nation’s fateful journey in to the abyss by a careless atheist regime. Countless Eritreans are languishing in dungeons and concentration camps all over the land. Tens of thousands are fleeing by whatever means they can. Many are dying trying. The catastrophe the befallen to our land and our unsuspecting people is so massive and beyond comprehension.
Compared with what is happening to many Eritreans, the insult, false and even silly accusation against me and my fellow independent journalists is nothing. In fact, as the Dalai lama once said, it is an honor and privilege to be snubbed by tyrants as it shows their state of panic and it reminds one that he is effecting something . Meanwhile stay tuned for more news of the psychosis and idiocy from the Disneyland of nightmare and republic of fear other wise known as ENDAHIGDEF!