The 18 September crack down on freedom of press, the imprisonment of the G-15 pro-reform and elders provoked a conspiracy theory of a new epidemic of national lunacy among people in the Diaspora mainly ex-members of ELF or ELF sympathizers.
Ismael Omer Ali provided one good example. In his article at Awate.com dd Nov. 1, 2010 he wrote, “To me, EPLF of the 70s is virtually indistinguishable from the PFDJ/GOE of the 21st century. The different names are but political nomenclatures used to reflect changes in mundane duties not changes in thinking or outlook.
Another theory tries to deny all those ex-members of EPLF and ELF who are accused of sins during the long years of armed struggle the right to participate in activities for democratic change.
There is this theory of labeling non-violent way of change tantamount to surrender.
The worst is the conspiracy of silence. This is the most damaging because it ignores the suffering and pain of all those who live in abject poverty in Eritrea, those who languish in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia and those who die in the hands of human trafficking in Sinai desert, shot by the Egyptian security forces when they cross to Israel and those who die crossing the sea from Libya to Italy.
The Situation in 1975
EPLF and PFDJ are as different as night and day. Ismail’s theory is simply misleading. Their differences can best be explained in terms of push and pull factor:
At the beginning of 1975, the Ethiopian Military Junta that overthrew Emperor Hailesellasie in February 1974 was at its weakest militarily. The two fronts (ELF and EPLF) have liberated most of the country side and many small towns. The capital Asmara was virtually encircled. ELF was stationed in the village of Weki and EPLF in Zager- both in the outskirts of Asmara. At that time very little was known of EPLF and the number of fighters was much smaller than ELF.
At that moment in time in Asmara most civilian supporters were pro-ELF. The workers in various factories, the students of the University of Asmara, the football sport club members. EPLF had few sympathizers among which are the few of us who were influenced by the radical student movement of Haile Sellasie 1 University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Sadly, the two fronts were at each others throat and more than 30,000 people from Asmara went to put pressure on them to make peace and push forward to liberate Asmara and declare independence.
In that moment in time the EPLF got the opportunity to explain its politics and vision to the visitors, as a result several people came out impressed even convinced enough to join it later.
When the Military Junta started to consolidate its power in Eritrea and stepped up its repression thousands from the towns and rural areas joined the two fronts, the push factor was at its highest. The new recruits boosted the strength of the EPLF. They joined of their own free will.
The pull factor had matched the push factor. Many young people were attracted to the idea of liberating Eritrea through armed struggle and opted to join EPLF in their thousands. One can talk the same with Eritreans living and learning abroad. Abdurrahman Babu, a leading African statesman and ex-cabinet Minister of Tanzania under president Julies Nerere on his return from his visit from the EPLF held areas wrote, “Where in Africa today would you see doctors, engineers, mechanics, technicians, all of world standards, inspired enough to flock back home enthusiastically from foreign universities and institutions of learning to serve their own country-without pay?” Those studying in the Soviet Union and other communist Eastern European Countries had a standing resolution to join the EPLF as soon as they graduated.
The majority of those running the EPLF workshops, factories, clinics have come from various universities in Eastern Europe particularly Soviet Union. The socialist ideology preached in the EPLF has played a big role in the unity and camaraderie of the fighters and it Diaspora supporters. Thus the EPLF had managed to absorb with ease thousands new fighters from different walks of life.
The PFDJ is known of its Push, Push, and Push identity:
The PFDJ has subjected the population to religious persecution, political repression, and other forms of human rights violations such as forced labour of the youth and curtailing freedom of expression. All these pushed Eritrean to join the stream of refugees in the Sudan and Ethiopia.
The number of new arrivals is increasing from time to time reaching an average of more than 1300 persons/month in Ethiopia and the same number in the Sudan. To choose to go to Ethiopia which was supposed to be at war footing with Eritrea shows how much the people are brutalized and are desperate to abandon the country.
Jerusalem Post: Ben Hartman 11/03-2010: Eritreans by far the largest refugees group in Israel. Sharon Harel, assistant protection officer for the UNHCR- in Tel Aviv, said Monday, there were around 8500 Eritrean refugees in the country as opposed to some 5 or 6 000 from Sudan.
BBC – Janne Macauly, Tuesday 9/03/10 “A woman jumped out of a flat window as the pressure of being an Asylum Seeker becomes too much for her, Lidia Tewelde is 22 from Eritrea. The country she fled because of fear of religious persecution.
Recently there is yet another horror story of more than 250 Eritreans held hostage by Egyptian Bedouin in Sinai who subjected them to torture and humiliation asking a ransom of about 7000 US dollars for their release.
Ignoring such significant differences between EPLF and PFDJ blurs the focus of the present challenge: By the same logic to dwell on ELF/ EPLF differences has the same effect:
Ismael wrote, “If ELF was half as ruthless as EPLF, the latter would never have incubated let alone survived…) But thanks to the less ruthless ELF, Isaias not only survived but lived to show us what genuine ‘haredti” are made of!
Further amplifying his grudge against everything EPLF, he goes “Whether you knew or not, you were trained to be paranoid under EPLF/PFDJ/GOE leadership particularly against Muslims and now a new crop of shaebians and their likes (neo-shaebians) are attempting to trap you into the same mind-set all over again. Please grow out of it, resist and work with fellow compatriots for the welfare of all.”
That is absolutely non-sense. EPLF’s military success was not out of ruthlessness. ELF’s demise is not because it was less ruthless. Yes today it has become a fad to talk only of the dark sides of EPLF. To be fair there are balanced writers and researchers such as Dr. Gaim Kibreab, His books titled, “Critical Reflections on the Eritrean War of Independence – Social Capital, Associational life, Religion, Ethnicity and Sowing Seeds of Dictatorship” and the most recent one titled “Dream Differed” is very revealing. The beauty of the books is that they are evidence based and very well researched. This blanket biased attack on EPLF undermines the role of the population in the struggle. In fact it is the people’s unreserved participation and commitment that sustained EPLF through out the bitter days of struggle to the final days of victory.
There is this untold story of fighters who cherished unique solidarity and camaraderie among each other that goes “let me be martyred before you” represents the humane side and had been a common phenomena. There are a lot of untold stories of heroism and martyrdom in the journey of rising up and fighting against injustice. This trait is largely absent to day where there seems to be no resistance inside.
EPLF treatment of prisoners of war was unprecedented. At its height there were more than 3000 Ethiopian prisoners of war (POW) in its care. The EPLF humanely looking after their health, providing them with basic education and letting them have their own cultural activities. The Prisoners cultural troupe performance was the best show during the EPLF 2nd and Unity congress in 1987. I have attended the congress and I remember that some of us who came from abroad visited them in their lodging to learn their basic needs and we were provided with good “Tejj, (Suwa)” drinks they used to prepare. Their hospitality was great. Back in London we were host to two representatives, Colonel Girma and Shambel Degafe who was captured in the Battle of Semenawi Bahri. They toured Europe and USA to solicit aid for all the prisoners of war. Back in the field they were angry, so we were told, when the Red Cross provided them with thousands of bars of chocolate instead of basic needs of food and clothing, thus their appeal for help did not materialize.
There was a historic celebration of the 3000 when in a ceremony the late Ali Said Abdella, the head of security at that time, announced the freeing of the prisoners.
Many of them have joined OLF and some formed OPDO (Oromo Peoples Democratic Organisation, some of them are in the Government of Ethiopia). In short EPLF’s military success is largely due to its clear ideology, organisational efficiency, discipline and its clever strategic and political manoeuvring particularly through hard times. All these characteristics have enabled it to attain the level of support from the people needed to achieve the goal of liberating Eritrea in 1991..
This is not to say that EPLF is free from crimes meted out to its fighters. EPLF veterans who moved to the side of reform are exposing the atrocities they witnessed and learned about. Yes EPLF had a dark side, not darker that ELF’s though.
However, the fact that there was a lot of purge and killings in EPLF’s ranks, the fact that it failed to transform itself from a guerrilla movement – with top down style leadership into a constitutional democratic government, the fact that PFDJ high jacked the revolution does not change the history of EPLF and its populist nature.
Ismael’s theory is an expression of victim mentality: To do away with it is a pre-condition to participate in activities that shapes the destiny of Eritrea:
Psychologists tell us that a person may consciously strive to work in harmony against a common enemy and yet unconsciously radiate past grudges and hatreds. Many Eritreans particularly some outspoken ex- members of ELF find themselves in the same situation and adamantly maintain a rigid victim mentality and contaminate others. Once we have fully understood these matters, we will have no other choice than to stop seeing ourselves as “victims” and making others or circumstances responsible for our weaknesses. This realization in itself represents a considerable degree of liberation. People could then focus on finding ways to work together in cooperation to bring the desired democratic change in Eritrea. The people of Eritrea are crying for justice. It is about time that people stand up and fight for change but only with a clear conscience, not with a grudge at the back of their heads.
Our engaging ways must be guided by unconditional love for justice and freedom for all and not to settle old scores.
To be continued