Eritrea: Forced Peasant Conscripts that Sustained the Eritrean Revolution

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet

One of the greatest paradoxes of the Eritrean revolution is that it is not the largely voluntary army of the early and mid 70’s, mainly composed of students and other urbanites but also of peasants, but the largely involuntary army of the 80’s, mainly composed of helpless peasants abducted from their villages, that marched in triumph into Asmara; a phenomenon that puts the revolution’s self-claimed participatory nature into question. The nation, in its euphoria, failed to notice that almost all of the foot soldiers that were marching into Asmara came from the weakest section of the society – peasant men and women from distant villages whose names they probably had never heard before.

What could have happened in between for such a drastic transformation to take place? Indeed, what calamity could have turned an army that used to attract participants from all walks of life into a colonial army with a thin crust of urban elite at the top leading a huge force of coerced “natives” at the bottom within a short span of time? To tell this story is to tell the greatest crisis the armed struggle underwent since its inception and the horrors of forced conscription (giffa) and all its dire consequences that the peasant population was subjected to sustain the revolution at a time of its direst need. It was the most horrendous policy that both Fronts subscribed to and executed ruthlessly, relentlessly and exhaustively: in its scope, it involved tens of thousands of peasants; in its duration, it lasted for about a decade and half; and, in its consequences, it ravaged entire rural areas.

If one is to sum up the relevance of forced conscription in the history of the revolution in one sentence, it would probably go as follows: with it, most of the horrors of the revolution; and without it, guaranteed failure of the revolution. If it is to account for most of the horrors and for the success of the revolution, what explains the total absence of this phenomenon from the entire literature on the Eritrean revolution?


Selective narratives

To my knowledge, so far no one has written an article, let alone a book, about this particular plight of peasants in zemene ghedli (the era of the revolution). In all the romanticized books about the Eritrean revolution, you wouldn’t find a single chapter addressing this tragedy. If the question of peasants’ role in ghedli ever showed up in some of these writings, it is in praise of the “symbiotic relationship” between the guerrilla fighter and the peasant that rarely existed.

In its notoriety regarding this amnesia, no other book or article matches the book Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea by Jordan Gebre-Medhin. [1] It is rather astounding that in a book entirely committed to peasants in the Eritrean revolution, there is not even one single reference to the forced conscription that ravaged hundreds of villages across the Eritrean landscape. Instead, the author goes on talking about peripheral land reform, where he had to invent a class struggle between landlords and peasants (in a land where there were hardly any landlords to speak of!) and about oppressed peasants that became happy campers in Shaebia’s revolutionary tent to give his narration a leftist twist. How is it possible for an Eritrean scholar who was interested in the role of peasants in the revolution to miss a phenomenon not only so huge in its scope, so long in its duration and so devastating in its effects to the very population group he had made center of his study, but also so paradoxically critical to the success of the revolution? And the case of this author is not an exception, but the rule. Both Western and domestic scholars, hypnotized by Shaebia’s revolutionary charm, could not spot this huge blight squarely sitting on the surface, let alone detect crimes that were taking place under the cover of darkness.

Sadly, this amnesia happens to afflict not only all the literature that unabashedly romanticizes the revolution, but also the literature supposedly written to expose the crimes of the revolution. The recent narration of ghedli atrocities by former guerrilla fighters is a case in point. [2]

Teghadelti narrators and their exclusionary narrative

Lately, a few former EPLF guerrilla fighters (teghadelti) have broken decades-long self-imposed silence to tell us the dark side of the revolution. And this is, indeed, a welcome development that, hopefully, others would follow. Yet, that doesn’t mean that whatever is written under their names shouldn’t be looked at with a critical eye. Actual presence in the field doesn’t necessarily translate into objectivity, especially if it seems to be confounded with ideological and background biases.

The main flaw of the recent teghadelti’s narrative doesn’t lie in what it includes, but in what it excludes: neither the victims nor the victimizers that the teghadelti narrators talk about make a tiny fraction of ghedli’s atrocity stories Among other things, both of these exclusions are done with salvaging ghedli, in general, and Shaebia, in particular, in their minds. We can mention four types of exclusions that betray deep-seated prejudices in these teghadelti-centered narrations of Shaebia’s crimes:

(a) These narrations tend to focus on individuals, be it victims or victimizers, rather than on broad policies that victimized huge swaths of the population. The fear is that focusing on “indispensable” policies accepted by all would tarnish the image of the Front rather than those of few personalities at the top.

(b) These narrations tend to focus on teghadelti victims only, totally leaving out the suffering of civilians under the brutal hands of the two main Fronts. This approach betrays the teghadalay-ghebar divide that still informs the narrators’ world-view.

(c) And within the confines of the Front, these narrations tend to focus on victims of the leadership and elite types. This betrays the narrators’ urban or educated or elite upbringing, where another divide is at work to the disadvantage of the peasants: the urban-rural divide.

(d) And on the side of victimizers, by deliberately limiting their investigative accounts to “Isaias and his few henchmen”, the narrators exculpate the rest of teghadelti from any wrong-doing – again, all said and done with salvaging the image of ghedli in their minds.

Blinded by these four prejudices, these narrators fail to see the elephant in the room of ghedli’s crimes even though they were in the midst of it all: the incalculable crimes committed against the peasants by the revolution. Even the peasants within the Fronts, who used to make up the bulk of the combatants and suffered the most, never come up in their testimonials. Instead, these narrators obsessively focus on “elite” groups and individuals – Menqae, Yemin, the leadership (Ibrahim Affa, Abraham Tewolde, Mussie Tesfamickael, etc), etc – that don’t even make a tiny fraction of those who suffered and perished under the bloody hands of the revolution. It would be enough to focus on the plight of peasants throughout the revolution to debunk this exclusionary narrative that betrays its urban and ghedli biases. The story of victimized peasants both within and outside mieda (the field) is probably the greatest horror story that has yet to be told from ghedli era.

Urban reactions to giffa in present era

But what turns the case of the peasants into a full-blown tragedy is that this amnesia regarding their plight is shared by the larger urban population. Most of the urbanites were oblivious that it had ever taken place; many others who thought they knew didn’t realize the magnitude of the suffering; and many more others who knew either supported the policy or didn’t give a damn. But what is shared by all is that, even now, they don’t want to dwell on the plight of peasants in ghedli era. To the urban public, it is as if it was something that happened to a people alien to themselves – the urban-rural divide working at its best!

One need only contrast the way giffa in present day Eritrea is perceived now as opposed to the way giffa in ghedli era was and still is perceived to see the gaping discrepancy in the urbanites’ outlook that victimized the peasants.

If there is a single policy that is to account for almost all the horrors of present day Eritrea, it would be forced conscription that comes under that deceptive name of “national service”: the militarization of the whole society, with all its dire consequences; the emptying of villages, towns and cities across the nation of their adult population; the draining of the nation’s most productive labor force; the systematic destruction of the entire educational system; the slaving of hundreds of thousands in the national service; the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands; the shoot-at-sight policy enforced at border areas to stem the flow of escapees; the proliferation of hundreds of prisons, most of the inmates being from the national service itself (deserters, draft dodgers, dissenters, etc.); the pervasive sexual abuse of women, with all its horrendous consequences; the main incentive for Isaias’ misadventures in the region, including the border war; the penalization of parents of deserters and draft dodgers through incarceration or hefty penalties; the wanton expropriation of land, motivated by the abundant slave labor afforded by the national service; a total waste of life for most – no education, jobs, families to raise, etc; the all out assault on the family, with parents losing control of their kids; the draining of the economy, given what it takes to arm the conscripts, feed them, house them, clothe them, look after their health, etc … One could go on and on.

Nowadays, the whole nation has realized the consequences of forced conscription. Both the public’s and conscripts’ reactions attest to the sense of outrage with which this policy has been met by the population; the mass exodus tells it all. Parents are willing to go through anything, even if it means months of detention in Shaebia’s prisons, to get their children out of the country. And their children are willing to risk their lives to do just that. And among diaspora Eritreans, it has become the center of discussion among the public and among writers. When concerned Eritreans look at the tragedy of epic proportions that has befallen on the youth, with exile and rape at home and abroad as their lot, it is with a mixture of sadness and anger that is palpable wherever they congregate. Even as they speak otherwise, the government’s supporters in diaspora too would do anything to save their beloved ones from the horrors of national service; that is, from the clutches of the hands of the organization that they worship.

Given the striking similarities of the two giffas respectively conducted in ghedli and present day times – in their scope, duration and implementation – one would expect similar consequences as of today’s to have affected the rural areas that were subjected to it during the liberation era. If so, what explains the deafening silence of the nation, or the total lack of outrage, when this very phenomenon took place in ghedli era? And what explains the total blackout on this subject matter in all the literature of the revolution up to this very day? How do we account for these muted reactions as contrasted to the anger and sadness of the public over present day giffa? There is a simple answer to all these questions: then, the horror was confined to rural Eritrea only; now, it has come to include the urban area. So far as the cost of the revolution came at the expense of the peasants, so far as giffa was enforced among a dispensable population only, the urbanites didn’t mind it.

The urban dwellers’ indifference to the peasants’ plight while it happened on the ground in zemene ghedli and their willful amnesia thereafter tells us that the revolution was not only the creation of the urban elite, later to be imposed on the peasants and pastoralists that made up the overwhelming majority of the population, but it was also always looked at through urban eyes only throughout its duration and thereafter. For the peasants, nationalism, Marxism and all their -ism variants were alien concepts that had no place or necessity in their limited world. That is why the peasants had to be convinced to join the revolution through violence. If so, it is time we should look at this problem through peasants’ eyes. We need to ask: What did the peasants’ world look like in zemene ghedli? And what are the parallels we notice between the peasants’ and Warsai’s worlds in regard to forced conscription and its consequences?

Magnitude in conscription and death

When the urban elite that were to determine the course of the revolution were transplanted in mieda, all they saw in the peasants was an undifferentiated raw material that they could mold and use as canon fodder in their endless confrontations with the Ethiopian army. This was especially so after the retreat of 1978, when volunteerism came down to a trickle.

Having lost its allure with the retreat and its setbacks and a familiarity of its criminal ways, very few made the trek from urban areas to Sahel to join ghedli after 1978. The new generation of students, unlike their older brothers who joined ghedli in droves, mostly stayed put in Asmara and other cities and towns across Eritrea. And to make matters worse, this was the time that tens of thousands of teghadelti made their exit out of mieda Eritrea – through defeat, martyrdom, disability, desertion and surrender. First, the whole army of Jebha was driven away from mieda Eritrea in 1980, soon to disintegrate as it touched the Sudanese soil. Second, within a span of few years, tens of thousands were maimed and martyred as a result of the relentless assault of Ethiopia’s werars, civil war, internal uprisings and other purges. In the numerous battles conducted to stem the offensive during the retreat and in defending the dejen (the Sahel fortress) only, Shaebia took its largest toll ever. Third, thousands more deserted to Sudan and Ethiopia; at times, the stadium in Asmara used to fill up with wedo gheba.

Shaebia was rapidly shrinking at its two ends: at its recruiting and casualty ends. The only way out for it was forced conscription: the poor peasants were to take up the slack and make up for this huge loss. And did they pay the price! Entire areas, especially those that were easily accessible to large armies of ghedli, were depopulated. Nobody was spared: overage and underage, children and adults, men and women, laymen and priests, married and unmarried, etc. Like medieval armies moving with captured slaves, the captured peasants were made to march all the way from their humble villages to the dreary environment of Sahel with guns pointed at their backs. The result of this new policy was stunning: an army that was mostly voluntary in the 70’s was turned into an involuntary army made up of the most helpless section of the society by the end of the 80’s. On the liberation day, except for the weghahta that joined the Front when teghadelti reached the gates of Asmara and the minority of urban elite at the top, the entire army was made up of forced peasant conscripts.

And when it came to martyrdom, the peasants paid the heaviest price of all; they died in disproportionately huge numbers. If you look at the figures of martyrs of the border war, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that the peasant areas paid disproportionally higher sacrifice than the cities. [3] If this happened at a time when the whole nation, rural and urban alike, was accessible to the recruiters, what do we think had happened in the 80’s when volunteerism from the urban areas had slowed down to a trickle and almost all of the new recruits were coming from rural areas?

The peasants perished in huge numbers not only because they participated in disproportionate numbers but also because their peasant background disadvantaged them even within the confines of mieda itself. Their life span within mieda was much shorter than that of a student or urban dweller with some trade that Shaebia needed. All the kiflitat (departments) – kifli tsetita, kifli hizbi, kifli hikimina, kifli ziena, kifli timhrti, kifli ‘itqin sinqin, kifli bahli, kifli polotica, etc – were run by the educated ones; all the bureaucratic, technical and occupational positions were given to former students and other urbanites. In contrast, for the peasants, there was no other place to end up than in the murderous trenches. As a result, they were more likely to get killed or maimed than the rest. Characteristically, Shaebia was unfazed by all this; so far as it kept its trenches filled up on time to ward off the next Ethiopia’s offensive, it didn’t give a damn. Whenever it lost a few thousand in one werar, all it needed was to conduct another round of giffa to fill the gaps in its Sahel trenches. For the peasants, it was hell within and hell without. In zemene ghedli, the Eritrean peasants used to live in a Hobbesian world where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” [4].

We now need to retrace our steps to keep track of the itinerary that forced peasant conscripts took, all the way from their humble villages to Sahel Fortress or an escape destination, or both, to see the full extent of this foreboding Hobbesian world.

Living in anxiety and trepidation

As in the present case with Warsai, evading conscription, deserting the army and migrating were common survival strategies that evolved amongst the peasants in the era of giffa.

Ask the kids of Asmara, and they will tell you how inventive they were in detecting and evading giffa enforcers – from cell phone calls to alert one another to elaborate hiding strategies to elude surprise visits from authorities. But that doesn’t mean it was fun while it lasted; for many, it was years of hiding in anxiety and trepidation, cooped up in a single compound. Similarly, in those areas that were accessible to teghadelti, the peasants were always on alert.

Many of the young peasants opted to live in the wilderness as fugitives in their own land, with occasional visits to their villages to replenish their dwindling sinqi (food supply). But Shaebia was good at tracking them, especially if they were shepherds, vulnerable as they were in tending to their cattle. It used to follow the cattle to get to the shepherds; grazing fields and wells were areas that teghadelti frequented to trap their victims. But even inventive hiding places were no guarantee for safety from experienced enforcers. A former teghadalay once told me that teghadelti used to fetch the shepherds even from such odd hiding places as guangua (hollows in old dying trees). The desperateness of the peasants had no limit!

For those braving it in their villages, after years of experience, they had developed an elaborate system to detect and announce sudden arrivals of guerrilla fighters. As soon as teghadelti’s presence was detected, all adults subject to conscription would go into hiding. But their detection mechanism was not full-proof and surprise visits at odd hours were not uncommon. And in the case of the shepherds, many were captured in their hiding places. But the worst part was that nobody in the villages knew how those dreaded enforces would react if they didn’t find what they wanted. The preying on women, underage and overage was a direct result of their frustration; like a barbarian army, they used to cart away this most helpless group of the society as a replacement (amsaya) for the adults they couldn’t capture.

Here is a story I heard about two female teghadelti right after independence that throws light on this amsaya phenomenon: When a marauding army unit of Shaebia overwhelmed a village in Kola Seraye, an area that was blighted by giffa for years by Jebha until its disintegration in 1980 and a whole decade thereafter by Shaebia until independence, the adults who were lucky enough to be alerted on time went into hiding. Having no time to escape to the outskirts of the village, two brothers went into hiding in koffos (grain silos). In their frustration, the vindictive enforcers took their two brides with them. After Shaebia’s grand entrance in Asmara, true to the spirit of triumphalism of the times the two female fighters refused to join their former husbands, retrospectively dubbed as reactionaries.

Often, when stories of female fighters are told, it is with phrases like “femme fatale” and “liberated women” that they are described. That romanticized image of the sophisticated and urbane liberated woman was depicted by “Amna”, a protagonist character developed by the author (one of those Western writers hoodwinked by the charm of Shaebia) in his book “To Asmara” [5]. But the reality on the ground, more often than not, happened to follow the line on the story given above. The typical female fighter was a peasant forcibly conscripted by Shaebia; neither urbane sophistication nor feminism had a place in her world view. The reason why women’s martyrdom was proportionally as high as men’s was simply because all the peasant women ended up in the trenches of Sahel, unlike their very few urbane counterparts that had a better chance of survival – the likes of Askalu Menkerios and Fozia Nurhussein, two women Ministers in the Asmara government.

It is often bragged by Shaebia that women not only made up a third of its army, but also had about the same proportion of martyrdom. Here is my anecdotal evidence that these women were overwhelmingly from the peasant stock: how many of you from the urban areas remember that about a third of the youth in your neighborhood that joined the Fronts in the 70’s as being women? All that you have to do is to remember one woman for every two guys that left to mieda. I bet you, you wouldn’t even come up with one-to-five ratio. To narrow the gap in the proportion, you will have to search the numbers in the villages, as Shaebia obviously did. By the end of the 80’s, except for the very few women assigned in kiflitat, almost the entire fighting force of women was made up of peasants.

There was another reason why Shaebia preyed on women and children: to its surprise, it discovered that the more helpless its forced conscripts were, the less likely they were to attempt an escape. Try to remember the faces of wedo-geba; you will rarely see women’s or children’s faces among them. Given its diabolic nature, Shaebia made the most out of this unexpected discovery. By the end of the 80’s, as mentioned above, a third of its army was made up of peasant women. Shaebia doesn’t give out statistics on child and underage soldiers, but from anecdotal evidence alone, there is no doubt that they used to make a sizable part of the army. [6] For a Liberation Front that flaunts its “self-sufficieny” mantra to all those who would listen, the fact that it preyed on the weakest section of the society to sustain itself leaves the whole myth of the Eritrean revolution in tatters.

The story of escape and execution

With their round-up, the plight of peasants would ratchet up instantly. The likelihood that they would die as canon fodder in the trenches or as victims of shoot-at-sight-policy as they attempted to escape or as a “jasus” suspects under the hands of halewa sewra starts at this fateful point.

Many of those who were rounded up attempted to escape while they were still in the familiar landscape of their surroundings. Knowing this, the teghadelti were very vigilant in their watch over the newly abducted peasants while they were still in their villages’ vicinity. As a result, many of the first attempts would end up in tragedies witnessed by and rumored among the locals. Besides, in some instances, the enforcers used to separate those they thought likely to escape, many of whom were executed right then and there before they ever attempted to escape. When in 1989 Shaebia overwhelmed many highland areas that had been off its reach for years, it ruthlessly executed almost all that had even the smallest ranks in militia sirnai. Almost every village in those areas had such executions to tell. This was meant to cow the rest of the militias which were carted off to Sahel, first to prison, then to the training ground.

The next attempt for escape usually took place in the training ground. While being trained during the daytime, armed units followed them in the training ground and guarded them vigilantly. Every move that the trainees made was being watched. It is no surprise then that almost no one attempted to escape under these conditions. The night time was no better. A whole battalion of trainees was herded into a single high-fenced compound with one entrance only, and made to sleep with no space in between them – “Like logs”, the same teghadalay muses. Under such a condition, even under the cover of darkness, escape was unthinkable.

The only opportunity the peasant conscripts had to attempt an escape while on training was during sirihit (battle scene simulation). There were three factors that made this occasion a rare opportunity for those who wanted to escape. First, the trainees had to be dispersed along the hills in small groups to simulate battle scenes. Second, often this sirihit was conducted during nighttime to simulate hujum ( a surprise offensive attacck on the enemy). And third, a lot of firearms were being used to the duration of the simulation. All of these factors made it difficult for an escape at this time to be detected. Many of the desperate peasants, especially lowlanders who were familiar to the landscape, used this rare window of opportunity to escape. For the highlanders, who were in unfamiliar territory and far away from their destination, the likelihood that they would find their way without being caught somewhere along their escape route was slim.

The more cautious peasants had to wait until they finished their training and were assigned to their units to make such an escape attempt. Few attempted it while they were in Sahel trenches. But this act was suicidal for two reasons. If they moved forward, they had to brave cross fires and landmines before they reach the Ethiopian army’s trenches. And if they attempted to flee in the opposite direction, there were special units assigned to shoot any escapees guarding the trenches day and night. So many waited until they were assigned to roving units where the risk was smaller. The problem with this seemingly prudent approach was that the opportunity might never arrive. Given the numerous wereras that Ethiopia was conducting, the likelihood was for a peasant that was assigned to the trenches to die in the trenches.

Obviously, in all these escape attempts, many were killed in the process and many others were captured to end up in the dreaded hands of halewa sewra where torture or execution, or both, would invariably follow. Those who made it, if they decided to stay in their villages, used to live in constant fear. Halenghi sewra (the revolutionary whip) was merciless if it ever managed to find them again, something that did actually happen on numerous occasions. Understandably, some of the escapees preferred to migrate to towns and cities for better safety, even as life for a peasant without any trade would definitely turn out to be difficult. Many others preferred to surrender to the enemy, and opted to carry arms as militias.

To imagine the extent of peasant defections, and the many killings that accompanied them in instances of their failure, one need only remember the thousands of wedo gheba of the 80’s that used to fill stadiums in Asmara; the overwhelming majority of the wedo gheba were peasants. Out of the thousands who made it, we can only imagine how many others must have perished.

For any Warsai who has made it safely to refugee camps in Sudan or Ethiopia, the road the forced peasants took would be very familiar: the traumatized life in odd hiding places, the terror of being captured, the many failed attempts to escape, the ending up in prison camps, the various forms of torture, the shooting at border crossings, etc. Among these striking similarities, there are two main deviations in the way these two population groups were treated that point to the worse condition of the plight of the peasants.

First, while in most cases the captured Warsai are rehabilitated to the army after a year or two o f grueling training and hard labor in concentration camps, the peasants were hardly given such chances. Any peasant that attempted to escape was a prime suspect for being “jasus”. Since the 80’s was the era that many of the peasants were forced to carry arms by Ethiopia in their villages (militia sirnai), there was a special vigilance over them; and, consequently, many had perished under the slightest bit of suspicion. Within this environment of fear and suspicion, a failed escape attempt by a peasant would be most certainly a sure kiss of death.

And, second, there was no final resting place for the peasants, as it often occurs with Warsai when they reach safe refugee camps in the neighboring countries to further venture to the West. Unlike that of teghadelti students (and other urbanites), the peasant’s world view was confined, and it was very hard for them to visualize themselves escaping to Sudan and then making their way to Europe or the US. Even now, it is easy to see that phenomenon from Warsai escapees. Almost all of those who have made it all the way to Europe and US happen to be students or urbanites, even though the majority of the EDF are from the peasant and pastoral stock; again, it is the poor peasants and pastoralists that are left stranded in Shaebia’s cruel world. Given this, the peasants’ option was to live an unpredictable and precarious world full of abnormalitiues.

Abnormal lives

If the measure of the predicament of the people of Eritrea is the extent of abnormality in their daily lives experienced as a result of too much interference by the PFDJ, it would be easy to see the same predicament among the peasants to hold during the years of forced conscription. Besides the dire consequences of giffa to the immediate victims mentioned above, the abnormalities in daily lives were to be witnessed even among those who escaped or were spared from the round-ups.

As in the present case in Eritrea, one of the consequences of giffa among the peasants was that parents lost control over their children. Children grew up to be gobbled up by ghedli’s insatiable appetite for sacrifice. Marriage was no guarantee for exemption, as the case of the two female teghadelti mentioned above clearly indicates. The all out attack on the family that we are witnessing today was a familiar phenomenon to the peasants of ghedli era. The unwarranted entitlement that Shaebia feels now over the youth of Eritrea started with the peasants.

The contempt for rule of law and religious authorities that we are witnessing today were also familiar to the peasants. Shaebia’s arbitrary laws had no room for the regularity and deliberation that highi end’ba demanded. And their ultimate contempt for religion was to be seen in giffas that didn’t spare kahnat; in search of wulad kahnat, teghadelti didn’t even spare age-old monasteries.

In addition, in those areas where teghadelti frequented, no government services like clinics and schools could be provided. As a result, in those villages an entire generation grew up without education. The effects of the militarization of the whole nation, at the expense of education, that we are seeing today could also be seen in miniscule in those areas.

The round up of tens of thousands of peasants, the internal migration of many others, the duties of militia sirnay, the collusions between the Ethiopian army and the teghadelti in their land and the constant interference of Shaebia into their lives, besides making their daily lives harsh and unpredictable, had also a huge negative impact on the productivity of the land. No wonder that the 80’s were known as a decade of lingering famine. It is easy to see the parallels with present day Eritrea where too much interference in peasants’ farms, in the market place and in business circles had made peasants destitute, bankrupted merchants and closed down businesses.

Internal migration

Nowadays, forced conscription is closely associated with the mass exodus of Warsai. No such link has ever been made between giffa in ghedli era and mass displacement of people. If mass displacements are ever mentioned in ghedli literature, it is only to blame Ethiopia’s brutality for it. But ghedli had its own share in this saga of peasants leaving their villages in search safe havens. One of those happens to be the case of giffa..

Tired of playing hide and seek with Shaebia for years, many of the young peasants migrated to urban areas. During the 80’s Asmara and other cities and towns experienced an inflow of these internal refugees, although nobody ever called them by that apt name. A city whose population had dramatically shrunk during its siege years of the late 70’s [7], Asmara burgeoned into more than 300, 000 by late 80’s; it almost tripled within a ten-year span. And one of the main reasons for this sudden surge was the great displacement of peasants from the rural areas escaping forced conscription. Many others went as far as Addis-Ababa, especially if they already had relatives over there. Others crossed to Tigray with their cattle and families, a land not so easily accessible to Shaebia, especially in those years of tim mibal meritsna (“we prefer silence”) when they were at odds with the TPLF. Very few of the peasants ventured as far as Sudan.

Here is a striking similarity between Warsai’s and the peasants’ outmigration that would make many a nationalist uncomfortable: the same way tens of thousands of Warsai are seeking refuge in shelters provided by Ethiopia now, many peasants also sought refuge in cities and towns protected by Ethiopian army then. Furthermore, even the urbanites that were rooting for ghedli from their safe havens had to count on Ethiopia to protect their children from being abducted by Shaebia. Figure that out, if you can!

In an excellent article on post-colonial rebel movements in Africa, [8] Thandika Mkandawire mentions an extreme survival strategy that peasants adopted when their land was occupied by alien liberation forces on their way to capture the capital: the whole population would move out of their ancestral land, leaving the preying guerrilla fighters to fend off for themselves. [9] For lack of better alternative, most of the peasants in Eritrea stayed put in their villages to the duration of the revolution. But the phenomenon of internal migration is enough to show that had they found such an opportunity, they would have left. In fact, that is exactly what is happening now: if the gates of Eritrea were to be left wide open, the whole nation would be on the move, leaving the Shaebians behind to fend off for themselves. If so, this demands a different explanation of what “alien” meant under these circumstances. The Eritrean experience shows that a front from the same stock as the peasants could turn alien to the peasants. It is indeed sad to see a brilliant analyst like Mkandawire failing to see that that the predation characteristics he has witnessed in other liberation movements also holds true in the case of Eritrea, and calls it an exception. [10]

Excluded victimizers

To give an answer to the question of who were the victimizers of the peasants in the way it is described above by saying, “Isaias and his few henchmen at the top”, would be an ultimate form of mockery. The tendency to focus on individuals only, be it victims or victimizers, rather than on broad policies happily embraced and executed by the teghadelti population across the board, is to account for much of the flaw of the recently evolving narrative on the crimes committed by Shaebia. But the strategy is understandable, for broad policies that cannot be enacted without the collaboration of all the participants tend to implicate the whole organization than individual crimes ever do.

There are three ways that the story of the excluded victimizers in the case of forced conscription of the peasants can be told; first, in the most obvious way, by tabulating all the participants in its enforcement; second, by looking at the two overarching societal divides – urban-rural and teghadalay-ghebar divides – that victimized the peasants; and, third, by looking at the very nature of the revolution’s mission itself that necessitated such sacrifice.

The tabulation would, at minimum, include: Isaias, by virtue of his position as the main architect; the policy makers at the top, who decided giffa would be the only way to save sewra; the kifli hizbi that was assigned to terrorize villages behind the lines; the halewa sewra that tortured and executed peasants that were rendered suspect or were found attempting to escape; the ahudatat (units) that were assigned to surround villages and cordon off escape routes before they go house to house in search of conscripts; the zealous enforcers who rounded up all sections of the society indiscriminately; the trackers who followed escapees to their villages and executed them; the decision makers at the bottom who took it upon themselves to decide who was jasus or not, who is suspect or not; all other enforcers from the top all the way down to the foot soldiers; and, above all, the teghadalay population in general that embraced this policy as the only way to save sewra.

One need only focus on the last point to see how culpability spread far and wide than “the few bad apples” often mentioned to exculpate the rest. For the fighters, the question of whether forced conscription was right or wrong by itself never arose; for them, the end justified the means. If so, more than anything else, it would be the nature of the mission that had already determined what the roles of the leadership and foot soldiers would have to be that victimized the peasants.

One way of partly determining the nature of this mission is by identifying who were its “owners”: the urban elite. It is the urban factor both in ghedli and Asmara that rendered the peasants invisible that needs to be looked at closely.

How is that a single policy that ravaged hundreds of villages, destroyed the lives of many peasant households, brought the highest number of deaths in the trenches and many more under the pretexts of “jasus” or “desrter”, caused a huge internal migration, caused a lingering famine and brought upon the people many other miseries could be missed not only by all the past writers who were charmed by the revolution but also by those who are now trying to come to terms with their past? The answer: because the peasant was rendered invisible to the eyes of the urban population, in general, and the urban elite – both in urban areas and the field – in particular. How else can one explain a phenomenon so overwhelming in its presence to be missed by so many?

To understand the full scope of giffa’s abuse on the peasants, one need to look at how the peasants found themselves at the receiving end of two divides – the urban-rural divide and the teghadalay-ghebar divide – that determined the nature and course of the revolution. Among other things, both the urban and ghedli cultures that victimized the peasants by rendering them invisible in an overarching way, rather than the facile fixation on Nsu need to be put to scrutiny.

[The subject matter of the invisibility of the peasants in the eyes of the urban population, in general and the urban elite (of both ghedli and civilian types), in particular, will be discussed in a different article]



[1] Gebremedhin, Jordan. Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea; May 1989.

[1] Among others, writers that go under the pennames of “Allena”, “Barud 2001” “Mekonnen”, etc in

[3] The border war’s martyrs list was available in

[4] Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan

[5] Keneally, Thomas. To Asmara; Oct 1990

[6] Lebona, Zekre. “The Eritrean Revolution and Its Child Soldiers”; in

[7] Tesfai, Semere. “Tigrigna Domination: Myth Vs Reality”; Nov 17, 2010; “…out of 200,000 in 1974, the population of Asmara dwindled to less than 90,000 in 1977 (Red Tears, pp 91) …”

[8] Mkandawire, Thandika. “The Terrible Toll of Post-Colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry”. The Jouranal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 40. No. 2 (June 2002) pp 181-215.

[9] Ibid., p 206.

[10] ibid., p. 201