Eritrea: Our Martyrs' dream (What the Book of Martyrs' Doesn't Say - II)
When a revolution with no justifiable cause goes through so much horrendous sacrifice, as the Eritrean Revolution has, it seeks justification in numbers only: “because so many died for it.” And when further clarification is demanded to get us out of the vicious circularity entailed in this explanation, we are again referred back to the dead for further articulation: “hidri suwuatna” (“our martyrs’ dream” or, literally, “what our martyrs entrusted to us” ). The cause is believed to be unerringly and unambiguously known to the martyred simply “because so many could not have died in vain”. With death in numbers comes certitude in knowledge, something that a martyred would have never attained had he/she survived it all or died alone. Because claiming otherwise is considered to be sacrilegious, all explanations are supposed to come to an end at the martyrs’ grave site (meqabir harbegnatat). But even so, a persistent question haunts all those who accept or promote this circular argument: what could this hidri, as only known to the martyrs, possibly be? Since we cannot resurrect the dead and make them talk, there has to be a human way of finding out what this hidri is all about.
The first hurdle we meet in deciphering the content of this hidri is if we take it as given that there was one and only one hidri that all those tens of thousands martyred shared. What kind of a common hidri could the thousands of rounded up peasants forcibly kept in the trenches, the thousands of child and underage soldiers who were not mature enough to decide on their own, the thousands of students who were never sure of what they were doing and kept rebelling under one cause or another, the thousands of ethnic- or religious-motivated sectarians with nationhood last in their minds, and many others more – Marxists, Baathists, Arabists, Islamists, tribalists, nationalists and patriots – possibly share?
And even if we grant that there were many in ghedli, irrespective of their numbers, who had worthwhile dreams in their heads, there is the further question of whether those dreams were doable: Did any of those dreams ever made it outside their heads? Was the road they embarked the right means of achieving those dreams? Were their dreams ever achievable within the ghedli context? Were they able to hold on to their dreams for long within the toxic environment of ghedli? Even as they believed otherwise, all along it could have been someone else’s dream that they were fighting for; and for that, not one to their liking. After all, was it not the dream of the urban elites, both of the Muslim and Christian types – a mere fraction of the population – that was imposed on the peasants and pastoralists?
If there has never been one cause, let alone a justifiable one, the invocation of hidri suwuatna by most Eritreans to provide meaning to a discordant past, to seek rationale for an unflattering present and to infuse hope into an uncertain future demands a much needed explanation.
Hiding behind hidri suwuatna
The main reason why Eritreans from all walks of life want to hide behind “hidri suwuatna”, “that sacred mission of preserving our martyrs’ dream”, is that that phrase could be made to be all the things you want it to be. It has become a place holder, a blank slot, to be filled in with whatever variable to get the result that one wants. After all, the dead are not with us to contradict the many assertions made in their name. Here is, in fact, one made by none other than Isaias Afwerki on this year’s Martyrs Day (President Isaias’ speech on the occasion of Martyrs Day 2010):
“Taking into account the uninterrupted obstructions created, the achievements registered through resolute rebuff as regards keeping intact our pledge for liberation and freedom, as well as honoring the trust of martyrs over the past 20 years are not to be viewed lightly, though these may not correspond to our lasting aspirations. …… This way or the other, their arguments and fabrications [the Woyanies’] have been laid bare in due course, while at the same time Eritrea keeps on standing on reliable moral ground, which in turn amply attests to the reward of our martyrs.”
By invoking the name of martyrs, not only does Shaebia try to wipe out all traces of the past that may lead to unsettling discoveries, but also to justify whatever it does in the present. Notice how the tyrant is invoking the name of martyrs to justify the endless slavery enacted under the grandiose name of “Wefri Warsai-Yikealo” and his mindless Badme blunder, and all the horrendous consequences that followed them both – tens and thousands dead and maimed and tens of thousands more fleeing in mass exodus, to mention just two in the long list of misery index that besets the nation.
Eritreans in the opposition camp too tend to put unwarranted words into the mouth of martyrs. It is not unusual for many to find solace in hidri suwuatna when the harsh realities of today keep testing their faith in the “ideals” of ghedli as never before. It is also not uncommon among them to draw inspiration from “hidri suwuatna” to fight the injustices of today and to infuse purpose into the future – “They didn’t die for this”; “They died for democracy”; “They died for a harmonious Eritrea”; etc. But are all these warranted? And what would be the consequences of drawing lessons from unfounded facts, however noble they may sound?
The invocation of martyrs’ name to serve one’s end cannot be successfully done if one is allowed to do genuine history or to examine the actual present. Anything past the grave that would take us into the historical past is a taboo subject matter that would only defile the name of martyrs. Digging deeper into the historical past is taken tantamount to the sacrilegious act of digging up martyrs’ graves. And anything taking place after the burial – the here and now – is also verboten lest hidri loses its ideality marred by the unflattering realities of today. That is why hidri suwuatna is meant to start and end at the grave site, deliberately bypassing both the past and the present. The martyrs’ world has to be severed off from its links to the past and the present for hidri to do its assigned work.
Denied of any past or present context that would provide meaning to hidri, the intent is to finally render it empty of content. Two unspoken, yet agreed upon, guidelines are used to this effect: (a) bury all the evidence, be it from the past or present, that would tell alternative stories from the one ghedli romantics want to tell; and (b) create a language wherein hidri carries all the gravity the nationalists want it to carry without providing it with content. In both instances, for hidri to accomplish its assigned job, it has to remain in its inarticulate, vacuous form. This is a tall order, but so far it has been met with spectacular success. Below, we will see this success manifesting itself in various ways.
Burying the evidence: bypassing the living
If you ask the purpose or wisdom of ghedli you are not referred to the living, of whom there were and still are tens of thousands, but to the dead. What indeed motivates this deliberate bypassing of the living?
If we are to stick to what is humanly possible, you would think that there is already a lot of evidence out there both in the past and the present that would tell us about the nature of this hidri that could be retrieved by asking simple questions: What kind of dream did all those who joined ghedli voluntarily have? After all, all those who flocked to mieda in the 70’s must have had some kind of vision of the “Eritrea” they wanted to build, however vague or crude that must have been. Further more, what did transpire in the 30 years of mieda that would give us even a hint about the nature of this hidri? Take note that even when ghedli romantics refer to the dead for guidance, they are not interested in what they were doing while they were living; all they are interested is in their death – the sacrifice. And, more relevantly, what can we tell from the still living teghadelti who, of course, must have brought this hidri all the way from mieda to Asmara? Would it be too much speculation to claim that whatever dream the dead had must have been shared with those who have survived them?
If this hidri cannot be discerned from looking at 50 years of behavioral performance of tens of thousands of teghadelti, how is it possible to assert that it ever existed? You would think that tens of thousands of living teghadelti both in the past and present would make a sample large enough for any conclusions made out of it to hold. But don’t tell that to ghedli romantics who don’t want to delve deep into the past into the history of ghedli or to scrutinize ghedli-conceived present day Eritrea for any signs of this hidri; they would rather confine the search to the martyrs’ graveyard, to meqabir harbegnatat. It is understandable though that they have adopted this strategy, for neither the past nor the present attests to a dream or vision worth preserving.
Ghedli romantics are fully aware of the hazards of associating the dead with the living ones: the barbarity, sectarianism, tribalism, religious bigotry, corruption, incompetence, anarchy, nihilism, bloody wars, uprisings, chambers of horror, halewa sewra, executions, torture, child soldiering, giffa, famine, mass exodus, totalitarianism, fanaticism, monopoly, etc that defined ghedli and still defines present day Eritrea. By following the strategy of avoiding the living, it is made sure that none of these misery indices affect hidri.
A blank slate on which to inscribe
I once put the nationalists’ safe strategy as follows [all poems quoted in this article come from the series, Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism]:
… where no one dares to dig
to keep their sanity intact.
Eritrean attribute ghedli tsegatat to the dead
and the ills to the living
for fear of someone asking them
where the evidence is
The strategy is rather simple: First, you bury all the evidence “where no one dares to dig”. Since digging up martyrs’ graves is a sacrilegious act, there would be no better place than meqabir harbeghatat to hide what you don’t want ever to be found. Second, by claiming all the good evidence is buried with the martyred, it is then easy to come up with whatever tsegatat that one could think of attributable to the dead only. Hidri suwuatna thus becomes the empty slot for all these tsegatat to squeeze in.
But there is a problem with this strategy: if one fills in the blank with one’s own arbitrary wish, won’t one be fixing the content of hidri even if it is not to be rightly attributed to the martyrs? If so, despite this article’s claim to the contrary, won’t that mean conclusively identifying what this dream or vision is all about?
Not so, for the good thing about this hidri is that you could always erase what you have written before and replace it with a new one that would fit your current intentions. That is why it is essential that this hidri always remain in its open, variable form. Since it would be impossible to know what the future holds, it is only if hidri remains in its vacuous form that one could go on modifying his/her wishes as he/she sees it fit to the ever-evolving context. For instance, if tomorrow Isaias makes peace with Ethiopia knowing there is no way out, we shouldn’t be surprised if he invokes the name of martyrs to justify that move too, claiming that hidri suwuatna had all along been about “peace”, even as it would be in direct contradiction to what he is claiming today. And within the opposition camp, now that the phrase “mesel biherat” is gaining currency, don’t be surprised if they began claiming that hidri suwuatna had all along been about “self-determination up to cessation”. So, whenever ghedli romantics put words into the mouth of martyrs, their intention is not to fix the meaning of hidri once and for all, but with an eye to withdraw or replace it if future context demands so.
But the vacuous, variable nature of hidri raises further questions: How does a hidri that is devoid of content manage to keep hope alive? How is it possible for this hidri to be passed over from one generation to another, and to be reverently preserved “as is” all along the way, in its empty, content-less form?
Passing it over as a wrapped gift
Once I compared the often invoked “hidri suwuatna” with a wrapped gift that no one dares open, but nevertheless is reverently passed over to the next generation. The whole nation fell in love with this wrapped gift without having any clue as to what it contains inside. The Eritrean people deferred to ghedli when it comes to the knowledge of what lies in this wrapped gift: “deqina yifelt’u”. But the teghadelti themselves had no inkling what that hidri was all about; they either deferred to their own dead or to the “founding fathers” or to the Front they belonged to. It was not unusual to hear teghadelti extolling the wisdom of Shaebia or Jebha or to a more abstract sewra as if these were different entities that existed above and over the individual teghadelti themselves. And when it comes to the “founding father” Idris Awate, what kind of a dream could a notorious shifta whose “patriotism” was openly displayed in settling age-old tribal scores, burning down Kunama villages, murdering innocents and rustling cattle possibly have? At its worst, this hidri atrophies to a point where the whole nation defers to the wisdom of the leadership – the Isaias Afwerkis and Idris Abdelas. It is no surprise then that this game of deference, this abduction of responsibility, ended up in the tyrant himself as being the ultimate keeper of this hidri.
Yet, throughout the ghedli era, it was not easy to detect this mass cluelessness from looking at defiant Eritreans in never-ending romance with their revolution. They were dead serious about their revolution without having any clue as to what it was all about and where it was heading to. I once wrote the following stanza to capture the façade of certainty, and the sure-footedness that goes with it, camouflaging the sea of uncertainty that lurked beneath it:
With such a grim, determined face
each of us wore
for such a long time,
nobody tried to find out
what it was all about.
The seriousness with which every one of us took matters of ghedli was so daunting to the onlookers that no one among us dared to ask what it was all about. Since “matters of ghedli” were inextricably linked with “matters of the martyred”, the grave face we wore at the mere mention of “martyrs” made it impossible for us to ask: what are these tens of thousands dying for? To ask such an obvious question was taken tantamount to treason, and hence inconceivable.
With no one having any clue as to what martyrs’ hidri had to offer, the need was to pass it over wrapped with glittering nationalist cover named “independence” or “Eritrea” or “unity” (“Hadinetna”) – always with that serious, determined look stamped on our faces. Once teghadelti marched into Asmara, it was time to open the gift. But having no clue as to what independence was meant to offer, they reverted back into the only thing they had been familiar with for decades: they offered the nation more of ghedli. With the border war, after recreating the Sahel environment to its minutest details, it was time to wrap this hidri all over again and pass it over to the new generation ominously named “Warsai”. This was the first generation to suspect that, after all, there might be nothing at all in this wrapped gift; that all they were meant to inherit was an empty promise with a heavy name stamped on it. Once opened, this Pandora box had nothing to offer but more of ghedli: meswaitinet, tewefaynet, tetsewarinet, qoratsinet, tsin’at, biddho, bistifrina, biqiltsimna, mighidal, etc. Translated on the ground, tseghatat ghedli looked like all the ingredients of hell on earth. Once this awful realization sunk in, the Warsai began to flee in mass exodus.
But that doesn’t mean hidri suwuatna has stopped serving its purpose now; the “hope” variously raised in its name is still well and alive among true believers of both the opposition and Highdef types. What could possibly motivate the true believers to hold on to this “dream” despite the hollowness of it?
An investment on prior investment
Currently hidri retains its appeal primarily among ghedli romantics who are watching from a safe distance in Diaspora, be they of the regime’s supporters or the opposition type. While the former invoke it in “defending the sovereignty of the land” to the exclusion of everything else, the latter invoke it to infuse meaning to ghedli in an otherwise bleak political, social and economic landscape of present-day “independent” Eritrea. But what is interesting is that in both cases the underlying motive remains the same: both happen to do what they do primarily because they feel they have already invested too much to let it go now. Among former teghadelti, protecting their legacy becomes the driving force. The idea that all along these groups, both of teghadelti and ghebar types, could have been dead wrong about their ghedli investment is so unbearable to them that they have decided to defend it no matter what. Here is a stanza I once wrote to capture this phenomenon:
A patriot never in the wrong
The patriot refused to believe
the nation’s sons died in vain.
And more sons were sacrificed
to defend that idea.
Hey patriot, it has always been about you!
In No Sense of Urgency among the Opposition, I elaborated on the idea:
“The problem is that most of the time what passes for concern for the masses turns out to be a concern for one’s own coveted idea of ‘Eritrea’ that has been instilled in our minds through decades of ghedli acculturation. It is not even a case of holding on to a belief anymore, but holding on to a belief about a belief; what started as a noble idea has degenerated into a hollow, second-order belief. Many have come to believe in the ‘cause’ for such a long time that that by itself has now become a further reason to go on believing, even as the evidence on the ground tells them not to. In the end then, a national cause atrophies into a personal identity crisis: they feel that they have invested so much on this idea that to let it go now is taken tantamount to a mortal threat on their individual identity; they would do anything, even if that comes at a huge expense to the masses, not to be proven wrong on an idea that they have nurtured for so long. It has gotten so personal that it has become more and more about themselves than about the nation itself. Thus, the faith that they had once in the idea of ‘Eritrea’ degenerates into a tenacious faith in their own personal judgment regarding that very inarticulate idea.”
No questions are being asked whether, independent of their investment track, the ghedli idea was worth investing in the first place. To ghedli romantics, what makes the ghedli idea worth further investing is the fact that already so much has been invested in it, and not of any intrinsic value it has on its own. If the worth of an idea is to be measured by how many died for it, then the only way you could make it more worthy is by letting many more others die for it. And that is exactly what sustains the culture of martyrdom.
Again, we witness how hidri in its vacuous form is put into the service of the “investors”: only if they put it under hidri suwuatna would they be able to get away with investing on a bankrupt idea for so long. To a question, “Why do you keep on investing?” the answer “Because I have already invested so much” sounds frivolous. On the other hand, “Because it is hidri suwuatna” carries all the gravity that one could hope for.
The logic of numbers and ever-deferrable cause
It is the logic of compiling numbers that keeps perpetuating the culture of martyrdom, where the deed of sacrifice is exalted to such a height that no one dares ask its necessity in the first place. No questions are asked when there is a demand for sacrifice, “for the sake of a nation”, be it in the form of death or toil; for one cannot ask the purpose of current sacrifice without questioning the purpose of those who have gone through a similar process in the past. In a strange reversal of temporal order, the goal is to be located not in the future, but in the past; within such a context, one acts not with an eye to what the future holds, but to what the past demands.
There is no doubt that when tens of thousands of the nation’s youth were driven to their death in the border war of Isaias’ making, they were incessantly reminded of hidri suwuatna: When sacrifice becomes the measure of all things, the only thing that matters is how much sacrifice has been paid. The bigger the sacrifice the worthier and the nearer seems the goal, even as no one has the slightest clue what that goal could possibly be. I once tried to capture the vicious circularity embedded in the rationale of the culture of martyrdom in this stanza:
“Because our martyrs 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.
It is of paramount importance for a culture of martyrdom that there be no justifiable cause that anyone could put his/her hands on; the intangibility of the cause is essential to the very existence of the culture itself. If one is to find the cause in numbers only, it is precisely because one cannot find it anywhere else.
One sure way a cause is rendered intangible is by ever deferring it, denying its translatability on the ground – in the here and now. Like all religions, the culture of martyrdom retains its relevance by ever-deferring the cause to the hereafter. A religion retains its viability by deferring the cause for which it exists to the afterlife. Since nobody has ever come back from the world of the dead to contradict a religion’s claim, the cause is necessarily located at a safe place where evidence cannot reach it. So is it with the culture of martyrdom: all the evidence that would prove it otherwise is safely buried with the martyred. Once the cause is pushed out from the realm of human reach, martyrdom dethrones the cause to be the sole measure of attainment that one lives for. Within such a world of negation, sacrifice begets sacrifice until it finally devours the very context on which it stands to the extent that it can no more support it. No wonder now Shaebia, after having thoroughly hollowed out the very Eritrea on which it stands, finds itself in its last gasp of breath.
If a book can be made to dream, the Book of Martyrdom’s wish would be to get as fat as it could possibly get: the fatter it gets, the more precious it becomes. It advices us to seek the cause in the numbers of martyrs it has meticulously compiled: the higher the corpses compiled, the greater the cause. No wonder it abhors any dietary advice from the concerned masses to keep itself lean. Its dream of getting fat was momentarily fulfilled when 20,000 more martyred during the border war were added to its already long list. But since the Book has an insatiable appetite, there is no way it could be satisfied once and for all. The perpetual deference of the ultimate goal, be it in the name of “independence”, “sovereignty”, “self reliance”, “h’adinetna” or other elusive ideals, guarantees that it never runs out of “causes” that demand further sacrifice. Thus, the sacrifice in blood and sweat in the altar of ghedli has to go on to sustain the culture of martyrdom until the whole edifice collapses out of lethal hemorrhage, which is what the latest diagnosis of Eritrea tends to indicate.
The intangibility and ever-deferability of a cause demand that the cause remain vacuous, yet meaningfully so, to all the true believers. What better candidate than hidri suwuatna can there be that fulfills this dual demand?
Impotent dream: whose cause is served?
How about the dream of all those well-intended individuals who joined ghedli? Doesn’t their dream count in the overall ghedli narration that we want to tell?
In our ghedli analysis, we often forget one simple fact: that the revolution was able to neatly separate the motivation of well intended individuals from the original cause they had in mind, and exploited the former effectively to meet its own end while discarding the latter.
Actions do not come with motives attached to them. Nobody could tell if someone who is shooting at an enemy is doing so out of revenge, adventurism or patriotism just by looking at the action of firing. And worse, even the fighter himself might not to be in the know whose cause is finally being served by the shooting, even though all along he could have been thinking it is his cause that is at work. If the exploiter is clever, he better let the shooter believe in the cause he is shooting for, even as he using it to further a different cause. Let me provide a more tangible example.
A thief plans to break into a rich man’s house. He waits until the family is on vacation to enact his plan. After using all his tricks, he realizes he will be unable to open the door by himself. Only one man in the town could do it: the locksmith. The thief has also got another important piece of information: that the locksmith is extremely jealous of his wife, who is believed to have numerous affairs in the town. After making sure that his wife is not in her house, the thief leaves a written message in the locksmith’s shop telling him that his wife is right now having an affair in the rich man’s house. The hot headed locksmith rushes to the scene and pounds at the door; and when no response is coming, he unlocks the door using his skill and rushes in. The thief, who has been stealthily following him, enters the house and hides himself until the locksmith storms out of the room. The rest is history: the thief escapes with all the jewelry he could put his hands on.
The action needed, the opening of the door, remains invariable be it under the thief’s or the locksmith’s “cause”. But the thief knows that unless the locksmith is given a motive of his own, he wouldn’t act. In the end, even as the locksmith believed it is his “cause” that is served as he unlocks the door, it was the thief’s “cause” that was actually served. To get this result, what the thief has done is separate the locksmith’s motivation from its cause, and use the former while discarding the latter. Ghedli used similar strategy with those well-motivated to fight to further its cause. Let’s take a most recent event to understand this phenomenon: the border war.
What was the dream of the 20,000 martyred during the border war? Even if many of them believed in the “cause” – that being defending the sovereignty of Eritrea – and many died believing so, in the final count was it not to fulfill Isaias’ dream that they were fighting for? And if so, we cannot talk about martyrs’ dream or hidri that never made it outside their heads, even as they did harbor such a dream. Whenever their dream found its way out in its motivational aspect only (that is, in its action), it was to subvert itself; for the very motivation they got from the “cause” was channeled to serve a totally different cause. If this phenomenon holds true in the border war and its aftermath, what prevents us from stretching it to cover the whole ghedli era?
Notice that, in the above, for hidri to do its assigned job, it has to remain impotent; the dream has to remain not actionable under its original cause. And to talk about an impotent hidri is to talk about no dream at all – or rather, about a vacuous one.
Metaphors to die for
It has been decades since the nation has been literally living off grandiose words: meswaitinet, tewefayinet, korasinet, simret, hade libi hade hizbi, netsanet, harnet, ghedli, Yikealo, Warsai, bitsifrina, biddho, tsinat, kidan, etc. Eritreans don’t realize that it has been decades since they have been living in a world of make-believe. When such a make-believe world attains totality, even blood loses its vitality and appears only in easily expendable metaphors. Here is a stanza I wrote reflecting that phenomenon of human dispensability that underlies this metaphorical world:
In the name of the name
When metaphors are all we have
for reasons to live and die,
reality becomes our enemy
and blood flows in color only,
as “red badge of courage.”
The most pernicious metaphors of all happen to be mid-objectives like “independence”, “sovereignty”, “Eritrea”, “Hadnetna”, etc simply because they deceptively seem to be ends in themselves. It has been essential for ghedli to create an atmosphere of sanctity around them so that nobody would dare unpack them in tangible and realizable terms. Let me provide an example.
Suppose you wanted to visit your sister who lives in a different city. You have been contemplating whether to take a bus, train or plane before you finally settled with the train. Now, the train would be your secondary object of desire because it is just a means for your destination, which happens to be your primary object of desire. Notice that while there are alternatives to your choice of the means, there are no such alternatives to your main goal: visiting your sister. So is it with the primary objects of desire such as individual liberty, identity, creativity, prosperity, security, fulfillment and happiness. These are indispensable to any individual to live a full life and are not matters of choice. What are matters of choice though are the means through which you plan to achieve them.
The Eritrean revolution has always been about secondary objects of desire: “Eritrea”, “independence”, “sovereignty”, “unity”, etc. But, in and of themselves, there is no guarantee that these will deliver the primary objects of desire. It is no coincidence that in all of these metaphors, the land easily replaces the people as the beneficiary of the sacrifice. And whenever a metaphor easily replaces land for people, the latter are made to serve the former.
But the greatest metaphor of all is the secondary object of desire known as “ghedli”. When a whole nation seeks its very identity in ghedli, the means has spectacularly triumphed in dethroning the goal.
One of the best ways hidri suwuatna does its assigned job is by claiming secondary objects of desire (netsanet, luulawinet, hadnet, hagher, etc) as its ultimate goals. At its worst, it self-referentially points at itself as the ultimate goal: meswaitnet or ghedli. Either way, it is the ambiguity of the metaphor that is carried over to hidri itself.
Notice that hidri, whether it is to be located in martyrs’ graves as an evidence out of human reach; as a blank slate on which to inscribe, erase, withdraw or replace one’s wish; or as a wrapped gift to be passed over from one generation to another; or as a second-order belief about a prior held belief; or as an intangible dream ever to be deferred to sustain its viability; or as an impotent dream that doesn’t exist outside the head of the dreamers but serves others’ end; or as a reservoir of unpacked metaphors, it does its job necessarily in its vacuous, variable form.
Deconstructing “hidri suwuatna” doesn’t mean killing hope, as many of the self-deluded often indicate. Instead, it advises us to build the nation using the sparse materials we have.