Eritrea: Part IV - Deciphering the Peace Accord between Eritrea and Ethiopia - An Interview with Yosief Ghebrehiwet
PART: I | II | III
Yosief Ghebrehiwet has added a comprehensive analysis to his previous three interviews regarding the Peace Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
This time he has dealt with the outcome of the rapprochement with Ethiopia, lifting of UN sanctions and EU's financial aid.
Peace Accord: the EU’s and UN’s Responses
In the third part of this interview, the interviewer (AI) asked how various entities came to respond to the Isaias regime’s reaction to the emerging Peace Accord: (a) the outside world [UN, EU, AU, Germany, US, etc], (b) PM Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, and (c) the Shaebia foot soldiers (the supporters of the Asmara regime). I added two more to make the list complete: (d) the TPLF (or the Tigray leadership) and (e) the Eritrean Opposition. So far, I have only dealt with PM Abiy’s response. In this fourth part, I will deal with the response of the outside world; and, for that, confined to the EU and UN only. In the fifth part, I will deal with the Eritrean Opposition’s response.
In the third part, I claimed that all of these outside actors do not really know the true nature of the Isaias regime. Then, I went on to describe that nature: its perennial goal or drive as “self-preservation at any cost”; and the means it employs as totalitarian terror inside the country and vulgar pragmatism outside that confine. Both means are instruments of destabilization; in the former, on how to perennially destabilize its subjects inside Eritrea; and, in the latter, on how to periodically destabilize neighboring nations as needed. [For elaboration on the nature of the drive and on how the means work, please look at part three, which is essential for understanding this part.]
In regard to the response from the outside world in particular, this was the question that was further elaborated by the interviewer:
“The bilateral summit that took place on 8-9 July 2018 in Asmara, Eritrea, between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and officials from the two countries was supported by the United Nations, African Union, European Union, the Holy See (the Vatican), USA, UK, Germany, France, China, Russia, Japan and more. Are these institutions and countries seeing something we cannot see? In other words, are our idiosyncrasies on the way in seeing the peace agreement clearly?”
I don’t see anything wrong in their initial approach. In fact, I do believe that all opposition groups should applaud this first step. Where it gets murky is in its follow up; namely, in totally ignoring the conditions that deny its enforcement on the ground. Their initial optimism that nothing could go wrong if PM Abiy has already accepted the Peace Accord is understandable. Where they have gotten it wrong is in the assumption that when dealing with Eritrea they are dealing with a normal nation. They fail to see that the intimate connection between the internal destabilization and the external one is what makes the enforcement of the agreement – in regard to both demarcation and “opening up” – on the ground extremely difficult, if not impossible. And this gets even murkier if the self interest of some of these foreign forces is factored in. Let’s now look at the responses of two of the most consequential entities from outside: the EU and UN.
The EU: financial aid, reform and refugee crisis
There is no doubt that the EU wants to see peace restored in the region, and the daily lives of the masses improved as a result. But what motivates it the most to see a quick rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia is an equally quick resolution to the ongoing massive refugee problem that has generated a crisis in Europe. We know that most of the Eritrean refugees who have left the region have ended up in Europe. Many more are waiting in nearby countries and many others are strategizing to get out of Eritrea, their eyes focused mainly on Europe as their final destination. The European leadership has been coming up with various innovative ways to slow or even stop this outflow of humanity; so far, with little success. The emerging Peace Accord has given them a new reason to hope that this time around they might succeed.
EU officials realize that the main reason behind the mass exodus of young men and women from Eritrea is the intolerable living conditions in Eritrea, in general, and the indefinite National Service, in particular. They have tried before to convince the Asmara government to demobilize and rehabilitate much of its bloated army; often, with financial incentives, but to no avail. Now, with the olive branch offered by PM Abiy, they believe that the government has run out of excuses, and cannot but face this reality soon. Again, the failure of this strategy comes from the assumption that the nation they are dealing with is a normal one; true, a dictatorship, but one that can be eventually persuaded to act rationally in the nation’s interest. Even as they see the connection between the National Service (NS) and the mass exodus, they fail to see that both happen to be parts of Shaebia’s strategy of survival at any cost. While the former is the main tool it has to maintain its totalitarian grip over the population, the latter has been its safety valve that has so far prevented an implosion from within. Oblivious of this survival strategy, the EU has been collaborating with the regime in many fronts for the last 20 years or so with the hope of getting better results. Let me provide two examples where such cooperation has been going on for long – demobilization and education – in self defeating ways.
Right after the end of the border war, the EU came up with a sizable monetary incentive for demobilization and rehabilitation. The shrewd Shaebia, knowing all along that it will never undergo demobilization, pretended to go along with the EU’s demands and even did some tinkering to that effect to convince its benefactor, but only until it started pocketing the aid money – about 98 million Euros in between 19999 and 2010 [Twenty years of European-Eritrean Cooperation, Official History; Eritreahub.org, Aug 16, 2019}. Soon after, it went back to its maximal militarization with vengeance. And ever since, hundreds of thousands have passed through the horrors of Sawa and National service, most of whom eventually ended up in Europe as refugees.
Another field that the EU has been keen on helping is that of education; between 2002 and 2007 about 52 million Euros have been given. [Twenty Years of European-Eritrean Cooperation] What makes this a mockery is that these are the very years that the Isaias regime undertook a systematic assault on the entire educational system of the nation. First, it was overhauled and restructured to be the main feeder of the NS. Secondary schools were streamlined (or rather, degraded) to feed the military machine. Sawa is a training ground built in a remote corner of Eritrea where every high school student has to go through before he/she is assigned to NS. To comprehend the insanity of the Sawa project, imagine a nation of about three million forcing all students – each year, tens of thousands of them – to attend their last year of high school in a single boot camp, far away from their parents. After that, this totalitarian conveyor belt delivers them to the National Service, where they would be trapped to spend most of their productive life in penal servitude. The only way out of this entrapment is the mass exodus – again, with Europe as the main destination.
Another area in the educational system that was dismantled during this time by the regime in its quest of totalitarian control was higher education. The University of Asmara – by then, the only university in the nation – was the first victim of this project. A mild protest by the university students in 2001, nonpolitical in its content, triggered Shaebia’s survival instinct and the overkill method it uses in such occasions. Now, to grasp the extent of abnormality of this totalitarian measure, let’s ask ourselves which dictatorship or nondemocratic government has ever done away with its higher learning system just to eliminate the remotest possibility of threat to its survival. It is to be remembered that the student body at Haile Selassie University remained a potent threat to Haile Selassie until his last days in the throne. Yet, the emperor never entertained closing it for good, for the simple reason that this would be tantamount to killing the future of the nation. It takes a truly abnormal mind to entertain such a draconian measure. For Shaebia though, all that mattered was that it eliminated any real or perceived threat, even as that very act required killing the very future of the nation. Second, this abnormality is to be found not only in the closing of the university but also in its replacement with isolated boot camps masquerading as “colleges” administrated by semiliterate colonels. Thus, Shaebia’s mission in this case can be summed up as: how to cut out the most potent population group (the university students) from the larger society (the city) and confine it to an isolated area. The NS would simply be a bigger version of this mission.
Now guess where EU’s aid for demobilization and education ended up: in doing exactly the opposite. Unwittingly, it ended up giving a helping hand in the making a bloated army (the National Service) and in the militarization of the entire educational system. We know that the EU’s goal was not entirely altruistic; with the improvement in the daily lives of the masses, it was also hoping that it would help it stem the outflow of refuges headed to Europe. On the contrary, it failed on both counts; as the plight of the Eritrean people worsened, it failed to prevent the nation from being the biggest incubator of refugees in Africa. And this is because it has failed to see, first, the intimate connection between the destabilization policies inside and outside the nation; and, second, the necessity of both kinds of destabilization to Shaebia’s survival. If the NS is the biggest tool Shaebia has in its destabilizing strategy, then it is understandable that it won’t give it up so easily.
It would be critical to understand that there has been no community or institution (be it traditional or modern) that hasn’t been destabilized in Eritrea by the NS: (a) Cities, towns and villages have been thoroughly hollowed out of their young adult population, causing various societal ills: chronic labor shortage, recurrent food scarcity, demographic collapse, etc. (b) The three pillars of Adi (the traditional village) – bayto, shimagle and place of worship, pertaining to the legal, cultural and spiritual aspects of the peasants’ life – have either been deeply compromised or gutted out to weaken its resistance to maximal militarization. (c) All religions have been targeted in a preemptive move, some outright outlawed and others constantly harassed, as they are believed to be competing with the regime for the allegiance of the youth. (d) As we have noted above, the whole educational system has been systematically dismantled to feed the voracious appetite of the NS. (e) There is no place in Eritrea where the security apparatus of the regime, with its various tentacles, doesn’t reach; its indiscriminate targeting has created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear that never leaves the scene. (f) More than 360 prisons have been built all over the Eritrean landscape to accommodate the excesses of this social experimentation: army deserters, conscription evaders, parents of deserters and evaders, dissenters of various types, etc. (g) The NS has also become the economic black hole that swallows most of the nation’s resources; that is, in arming, training, feeding, clothing, providing medical care and overall maintaining its huge army. (h) The monopolization of the economy couldn’t have been attempted without the free labor of conscripts in the NS. (i) But the most consequential of this ugly social experimentation on the Warsai generation has been its mass exodus, with hundreds of thousands having already left and many others following in their footsteps.
The sinister nature of the NS project as Shaebia’s destabilizing weapon par excellence is to be witnessed most in the relentless war it has been conducting against the family, the fundamental unit of the society [(III) the Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea; asmarino.com; Dec 01, 2012]:
“Shaebia has always thought that the family stands on its way in its social experimentation to mould the youth in its own image. The idea of weaning the youth from the warmth of their families as early as possible, and putting them away in the farthest place possible where no family influence reaches them, was done with this macabre social transformation in mind. We can see that enacted at Sawa, in the make shift ‘colleges’ serving as boot camps and in the indefinite national service. And whenever the experimentation seems to fail in churning out the new teghadelti, Shaebia has provided an escape route to them that doesn’t lead back to the family: mass exodus. In the end, the all out loser in this experimentation is the family. Nowadays, the degradation of the family is to be seen everywhere in Eritrea: the youth are either in the National Service or in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, or further scattered throughout the world. In today’s Eritrea it is common to see households entirely made up of aging parents only.
“But it is not only in the degradation of numbers that we see the assault on the family, for the National Service has negatively affected it in more than one way. First, most of the Warsai in the National service cannot raise a family; it is not uncommon to see unmarried men in their thirties still serving in the military. Second, it is the dire economic impact on families that have been deprived of bread winners that we witness across the land. Third, across the Eritrean landscape, children growing up without their fathers has become a common phenomenon. We have yet to see what the impact of female headed families will have on future Eritrea. And fourth, the gender demographic imbalance that has been taking place in Eritrea as a result of the mass exodus is not conducive for a healthy family unit to evolve. The disproportionate numbers of those who are leaving Eritrea in mass exodus, especially among the Warsai generation, happen to be males. That means that tens of thousands of females of similar age (to take a conservative estimate) are trapped inside Eritrea with no prospects of marriage. Besides the demographic impact this imbalance will bring, there is also its social impact: spinsterhood, out-of-wedlock birth, prostitution, destitution, etc.”
Shaebia is like a vampire, in that both are creatures of the dark; neither would survive if forced to face daylight. In Eritrea, the darkness under which Shaebia has been thriving has been made possible by the National Service, which has single handedly brought almost all the abnormalities in the country into existence; all of which has been essential for the regime to maintain its totalitarian grip over the masses. The perpetual displacement of the masses, with their perpetual disorientation as its goal, couldn’t have been achieved without the NS. With the end of the NS, most of the destabilization would come to an abrupt end and normalcy would return to the lives of the people. But this daylight in the people’s lives is the very daylight that would kill Shaebia. And Shaebia knows it; that is why it is now fighting with its last breath to push this daylight for as long as possible, and the outside bodies that keep normalizing it are helping it in doing just that.
This rush to normalize relations with Eritrea without demanding any behavioral change from the Asmara regime is already resulting in disaster within and crisis without. For instance, when the border was briefly opened, a rush of humanity rushed towards the border to escape Shaebia’s totalitarian grip. As an already depopulated country gets emptied thoroughly, tens of thousands more would be heading towards Europe after burdening Ethiopia for years to come. By treating the nation as a normal dictatorship that can survive open borders, the EU ended up doing the opposite of its intention to curtail the refugee outflow towards Europe.
In the third part of this interview, we have seen how Shaebia doesn’t shy away from wielding its destabilization weapon against neighboring countries, which happen to be very susceptible to religious, ethnic or regional strife. But adhering to its vulgar pragmatism doesn’t mean it refrains from using it against distant powerful forces which are not susceptible to such maneuverings. For instance, with the huge refugee influx into Europe and the crisis it has engendered, Isaias has quickly realized that he can turn this crisis “golden” by demanding ransom money. He has successfully blackmailed the EU to provide him with 200 million Euros more to stem the flow of refugees; all under the pretext of “poverty reduction and socio-economic development”. (EU announces support for poverty eradication in Eritrea; European Commission Press Release, Dec 11, 2015) long before President Erdogan of Turkey mastered this art of blackmailing the powerful. And, unlike Erdogan, Isaias has no intention of delivering on his promise.
It is clear now that the European nations do not have a clear understanding of who they are dealing with: by aiming for demobilization, they are hoping for Shaebia to collaborate in its suicide. Had they known the true nature of Shaebia, they would have strategized differently even as they applaud and encourage the peace agreement. The bottom line is this: international bodies that are capable of utilizing political and economic pressure should use them to demand internal reforms that go in tandem with the enforcement of the peace agreement; or else, neither is likely to take place.
The UN and sanctions
The same holds true with the UN; even as it had done a lot to expose humanitarian crimes in Eritrea, the fact that it was eager to be convinced otherwise in regard to sanctions so soon tells us that it never grasped the true nature of the Eritrean regime in the first place; that is, that the terrorism the regime sponsors in the neighborhood is motivated by the terrorism it conducts on its own people. The UN has never been able to connect these two forms of destabilization.
To underscore this intimate connection that holds between internal and external forms of terrorism, let’s compare the Eritrean case with that of North Korea. When North Korea conducts missile and nuclear tests, those who complain the most are the ones that are least likely to be ever the victims of such posturing: US and Japan. The truth is the paranoid regime’s target is not the outside world but its own people. It is literally holding its subjects hostage with a loaded gun pointing at their heads. In this hostage-taking scenario, the totalitarian leader is simply reminding the outside world never to interfere with the way he terrorizes his people. It just happens that a nuclear-headed missile is a neat way of keeping outside interference at bay.
The case of Eritrea is similar to that of North Korea in that the regime’s weapon of destabilization against the outside world is primarily directed against its own people. It differs from the North Korean case in that the threat the Isaias regime uses to ward off the neighborhood forces had to be necessarily in its active form (as opposed to North Korea’s latent form). Eritrea doesn’t have a nuclear-headed missile that would make it easier for it to terrorize its people without outside interference. But this is not to be seen as a blessing, for it gets messier when a totalitarian leader has no such neat means of holding off “enemies” at the border. Isaias’ main weapon of terrorism has been an old fashioned one: to recruit, train, arm, transport, and finance all sorts of militant groups, from cessationist groups in Sudan, ethnic groups in Ethiopia to Islamist groups in Somalia, to destabilize the whole region.
With sanctions imposed by the UN, Eritrea was being punished by the international community for sponsoring terrorism in the region. That is, the community was responding to what the regime was doing to other nations, and not to its own people. But what the world failed to see (or ignored) is that the external terrorism that the regime sponsors in the neighboring nations is solely motivated by the internal terrorism that it conducts against its own population. Had they known that, they would have easily figured out what Shaebia is doing currently with its newly acquired weapon: the Peace Accord. True to its vulgar pragmatism, Shaebia is now weaponizing the Peace Accord with the same goal in mind: how to exploit it to maintain its totalitarian grip over its people, with survival at any cost as its ultimate goal. We have already seen in Part III how the regime has already successfully lobbied Ethiopia’s PM Abiy to rehabilitate it among the society of nations and hopes to do the same to get an economic lifeline from outside; all without undergoing any reform, be it political or economic, on its side. Similarly, when the UN lifted the sanctions, not only is it allowing an unrepentant regime to quickly rearm itself, it is also normalizing (or legitimizing) it in the eyes of the world; both of which happen to be actual and potential impediments to the peace agreement.
It is instructive to learn that the UN’s incomplete grasp of what is going on in Eritrea didn’t start with its response to the recent peace accord; that is, with the lifting of the sanctions it undertook so quickly. It is the same failure to see the whole picture of the nature of the Isaias regime that has led the UNESCO to designate Asmara as a World Heritage site in 2017; another normalizing act with similar consequences.
The UNESCO: Normalizing Asmara
The tragedy of Asmara is that whatever has been found appealing in the city has invariably been described by factoring out its human component to its barest minimum. Gutted out of its young adults population group, impoverished to a level never witnessed before, stunted in its growth for half a century and living under totalitarian terror for almost two decades, the city of Asmara is now at its most traumatized state. Yet, it is at this very moment that the UNESCO has chosen to designate the city as World Heritage site. What is wrong with this picture?
Western writers and some Eritrean scholars, fascinated by Asmara’s colonial architecture, tend to look at it independent of its human factor as a “frozen city”, “forgotten city”, “jewel”, “secret modernist city”, “Little Rome”, “bella Asmara” etc. The fact that it was kept frozen, forgotten, secret, bejeweled, Italian-like, bella, etc. at a huge human cost is rarely mentioned. Nor is its colonial significance taken into account to the extent it should. What did it take to build this city? What monstrosity motivated its overnight growth in the 1930s? What kept it frozen in the past 50 years or so? What kind of superfluous modernity did it inspire among Eritreans? What is the colonial legacy of Asmara among the post-colonial generation (the ghedli generation)? What kind of colonial task did the city inspire generations of Eritreans to undertake in its name? Has the abnormality of the nation-state anything to do with Asmara itself? Why has the current totalitarian regime been so obsessively selling Asmara to the outside world as it simultaneously keeps destroying it from the inside?
That the Asmara in the mind of many Western and Western-minded writers has little to do with the lived Asmara on the ground is clear. But the damage done by this detached Asmara (detached from the lived realty on the ground) is insignificant compared to that done by a similarly detached Asmara in the minds of the post-colonial generation in Eritrea. This generation conducted a misguided revolution entirely inspired by Asmara modernity, fascinated by brick-and-asphalt modernity bared of its human component. The false sense of betterment that the modern looks of this city gave to this generation is at the root of the grievance that fed the revolution. In a desperate attempt to make this colonial legacy its own (and its own only), the ghedli generation unashamedly undertook the unholy task of sanitizing its colonial past. In romanticizing this ugly past, it kept erasing the pain their fathers had gone through in that colonial era. In the end, to preserve this colonial legacy, camouflaged under “Asmara modernity,” this generation conducted a mindless revolution that has so far lasted half a century. It is not a coincidence that those are the very years that the city has remained stunted.
Ironically then, it was this revolution that kept interrupting the remarkable growth Asmara had been registering during the Haile Selassie era. But it was in 1991, as Shaebia entered triumphantly into the city, Asmara’s fate was sealed. In their euphoria to celebrate their ill-fated independence, the Asmarinos failed to notice that the ominous signs were already there in the demographic make-up of the Front. After decades of purges and counter-purges, the Shaebia army that entered Asmara resembled a colonial army, with few urban elites at the top – as leaders, cadres, and members of kiflitat (departments) – and tens of thousands of helpless multitude almost entirely rounded up from villages across Eritrea: peasants, pastoralists, women and underage. After 28 years of Shaebia’s colonial rule, it is no more surprising that Asmara’s demography has now an eerie resemblance to that traumatized population group. After similar purges conducted to Asmara, we have now a city with the new colonial masters at the top and a helpless population, mainly made up of the old, women and underage, at the bottom. With that, the re-colonization of Asmara has been rendered complete.
Now, the colonial legacy is to be seen in all aspects of the regime’s governance; so much so, the family resemblance to the Italian colonial past has rather become striking. While the Italians displaced the entire native population to the periphery of Asmara, Shaebia has purged the most productive population group (considered threatening to its existence) far out of the city. While fascist Italy maximally recruited the male population to fight in its colonial wars, Shaebia did the same with both its male and female populations, now indefinitely trapped in the NS. While Italy provided the natives with minimal education, meant only to serve its colonial purpose (as low ranked clerks, interpreters, menial workers, maids, askaris, etc), Shaebia too adopted this anti-intellectual minimalist approach in educating its subjects, mainly geared to its maximal militarization. While Italy used massive cheap native labor to build the nation, Shaebia exploits the free labor of the Warsai population group for the same purpose (known as Warsai-Yikealo Project). And, most macabre of all, Shaebia has imitated the Italian colonizers in its anti-habesha policy to perfection. It has been waging a relentless war against anything and everything habesha: its culture, religion, history, society and, of course, the people themselves. Anything that seems to robustly connect the people with Ethiopia and with their habesha past has been massively attacked, with the colonial legacy used as an eraser to accomplish that. At the bottom of all these deprivations is the colonial imperative that colonial subjects have only obligations to fulfill, and no rights or services to ask in return. The abysmal living conditions in Asmara, with its inhabitants denied all kinds of subsistence-level services, is a case in point. In recreating this old colonial world, no wonder that Shaebia has even outperformed the Italian colonial masters it slavishly tries to imitate. To top it all, this colonial legacy is now being repackaged as “architectural heritage” to normalize its totalitarian rule in the eyes of the world. In this unholy task, the regime is now being helped by many writers and experts (of foreign and native extracts) and nationalists (of both supporters and opposition kind) who have been unabashedly romanticizing the city. The UNESCO has been the latest to unwittingly join this group through its designation of Asmara as World Heritage site, an act done in total indifference to (or, ignorance of) Shaebia’s normalizing mission and the human tragedy still unfolding in the city.
I want to remind readers that the issue here is not whether the colonial architecture in Asmara deserves being World Heritage site or not, but whether that architectural heritage is to be seen independent of the human context that informs the city at many levels – historical, cultural, political, humanitarian, social, economic, demographic, etc – in doing that. Thus, the timing of this designation is at the root of this problem.
One might say that it is not the business of UNESCO to look at the human condition when it examines potential World Heritage sites; it uses independent historical, architectural or natural criteria. For instance, when it designates the pyramids of Egypt as world heritage, it didn’t have to ask itself whether the ruler of Egypt at the time of designation was a despot or not; rather, it strictly adheres to the neutral criteria (in this case, historical and architectural). Or take the Koguryo Tombs, a World Heritage site in North Korea, given its obvious parallelism with Eritrea; the UNESCO didn’t have to look at the totalitarian nature of the regime to assess this designation. One could, in fact, argue that this kind of heritage primarily belongs to the people who are always there, and not to the ever-changing governments. If so, does it mean that every such designation should be looked at separate of its human context, irrespective of timing? Not if we look closely at the case of Asmara.
What makes the case of Asmara different from the above mentioned cases is the recentness in time, in that whatever happened in this recent past still impacts the here and now in significant ways; it is not yet finished to be regarded as “safe” history. At this point in time, maintaining a picture of romanticized Asmara could only be done at a huge expense to the native culture, history and overall welfare of its inhabitants. The misguided revolution it inspired is still kicking and alive; the colonial aspirations of the ghedli generation the city inspired is being enacted now on the ground all over the country. The superfluous modernity that the ghedli generation adhered to is behind almost all of the regime’s Sisyphean “developmental projects”, all undertaken irrespective of their human costs – both in building them and in their practical irrelevance. And now, this city finds itself at the center of Shaebia’s ongoing totalitarian experimentation. And to crown it all, a sanitized picture of this city is being sold to the outside world so that it could go on terrorizing the inhabitants of that romanticized city. To solely focus on this city’s colonial architectural treasure amidst this extensive humanitarian blight, partly inspired by that colonial heritage, is insanity; but that is what the UNESCO did.
To see the extent of this insanity, let’s compare Asmara with Phnom Penh in a hypothetical scenario. The Phnom Penh of the early 1970s was a beautiful city of around half a million then known as Paris of the East or Pearl of the East. By 1975 it was swamped by about one and half million refugees who were escaping from a multiple strife that involved the Viet Kong, the Americans, the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered triumphantly Phnom Penh. Now, suppose a year later the city’s colonial buildings were able to meet all the historical and architectural criteria that UNESCO was looking for to designate it as World Heritage site and soon thereafter was successfully included in that venerable list.
What would be wrong with the above drawn hypothetical picture? Well, by that time the entire city had been emptied of its 2 million inhabitants by its “liberators”, namely the Khmer Rouge. In one of the most brutal episodes of the 20th century, this communist guerrilla group had decided to turn the “decadent” city dwellers into revolutionaries by making them participate in an agrarian revolution meant to deliver a socialist agrarian paradise. By the end of their rule, within a short period of just 4 years, they have killed off about a quarter of the population of Cambodia, about 2 million. Now, it is clear what would be wrong with the hypothetical UNESCO’s inclusion of the city as a World Heritage site: it could only be done by totally ignoring the human context. It would be bizarre if it would do that to a ghost city emptied of its inhabitants.
The Eritrean context is a similar one; only in its case, a façade of normalcy has hidden the extent of brutality that has been going on for the last two decades. At first sight, it seems farfetched to make such a comparison, given the sheer number of the dead in the Cambodian case. Eritreans escaped such a fate though not because the regime was of a different type but because it was unable to secure the porous borders; that is to say, what mass killing was meant to achieve in Cambodia, mass exodus did in Eritrea. The key phrase to understand the task of both totalitarian organizations is: mass displacement. If the two are to be seen as displacing a huge section of their respective populations that is entirely politically motivated, their family resemblance becomes clear. It is only that while that mass displacement ended up in mass death in Cambodia, in Eritrea it ended up in mass exodus. Both are forms of genocide; it is only that in Eritrea, the generational genocide that has been going on for the last two decades is a category the UN has yet to identify.
Under the façade of normalcy, the emptying of Asmara has been as efficient as that of Khmer Rouge’s Phnom Penh. In the case of the latter, the emptying of the city was done at one go, while in the Eritrean case it has been a continuous phenomenon. Compare, if you will, a jar of water continuously being filled up on one end and emptied at the opposite end with another full jar that is emptied once and not filled back for a long interval in between. Asmara has been the first jar through which the massively displaced population have been passing through. When we look at the first jar, the façade of normalcy is attained simply because at any point in time it looks full, an appearance that doesn’t take many variables into account: Which population group is being emptied the most leaving a gap behind (at the opposite end of the jar)? Where does the population group that fills this gap mostly come from (flowing in at one end of the jar)? How fast is the city being emptied (For how long does the water remain the same?) Why does the city remain ever stunted (Why doesn’t the jar ever overflow?) Who remains in the city (How much of the water never leaves the jar)?
First, it has to be noted that little of the water in the jar seen at any moment stays there for long. So is it with Asmara; the overwhelming majority of those born in Asmara never stay in the city to reach adult lives, let alone old age. And, as they are first herded into the NS and then expelled from the country, very few of them make it back to the city. The fact that visitors feel a kind of “normalcy” in the city doesn’t take this into consideration; they won’t be there long enough to witness the disappearance of the teenagers they see strolling in the avenues of Asmara.
Second, Asmara has also been drying up its feeding tributaries at a rapid rate. Since the introduction of mass education in Eritrea, all those educated in the villages were meant to end up in the towns and cities across the nation, Asmara taking the lion’s share. The villages of Eritrea (the source) now find themselves in worse shape than Asmara, as they get emptied thrice over to feed the cities, the NS and the refugee camps in neighboring countries. Most of those who reach Asmara are eventually evicted, even as they provide some level of normalcy to that city for the years they stay there. The fact that many others from the villages disappear without ever making it to Asmara still fits with the overall picture painted above. Since most of them would have ended up in Asmara under normal circumstances, it has to be regarded as a great loss to the city; consider it as a tributary redirected to bypass Asmara by a totalitarian design. Now, a bleak picture waits for the city, as it is increasingly denied both its outside and inside sources.
Third, the normalcy that visitors observe in the city fails to take into account its abnormal demographics. So far, hundreds of thousands of youth have been expelled from the city, leaving behind a ghost city mainly populated by the old, single women and underage; a picture unlike any other African cities whose streets teem with young men and women. With time, the gap at the middle of the demographics will get larger and larger to include grown up adults; which, in turn, would mean less and less children born. In general, it is a picture of a dying city.
With the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the city turned normal, and ever since it has been growing in leaps and bounds. A city that has been about half a million in the early 1970s is now around 3 million. Asmara has had a different trajectory; a city that has been about a quarter of a million in the early seventies remains about the same now. And this doesn’t tell the whole story, since the purging has been selective, leaving behind a demographic catastrophe that go beyond its numbers. A simple comparison with Ethiopian cities would show how stunted this city has remained. Given that Asmara was the second largest city in Ethiopia (next to Addis Ababa), had its natural growth not been interrupted by Shaebia, it would have grown to be a city of at least a million inhabitants now.
Those who romanticize Asmara, especially the Shaebia’s foot soldiers, never tire of pointing out three remarkable attributes it supposedly possesses: its “beauty” (that is, its colonial heritage), its “safety” and its “quietness”; all without factoring in the human toll it took – and is still taking – to maintain those attributes. First, Asmara has retained its colonial charm from the fact that it has not been developed for the last 50 years or so; earlier, because of ghedli’s destructive interruptions and, later, because of Shaebia’s totalitarian rule. Second, the fact that Asmara, unlike other African cities, remains least crowded – part of its charm, especially to Western eyes – comes from the fact that it has been continuously emptied of generations of youth. And, third, the “safety” of the city hides two ugly facts: the continuous purge of young men (who are the demographic group more likely to commit crimes) from the city and that the greatest crime committed in the city is done by none other than the regime itself.
In the article “Asmara, City of Whispers: Safe to Tourists, Hazardous to Its Citizens” (asmarino.com; Sep10, 2005), I addressed the dilemma the regime’s foot soldiers in diaspora face when they try to sell the “remarkable safety” of Asmara to the outside world:
“The dilemma that they face can be put as follows: If we are to attribute various crimes to the thousands of inmates that populate the many prisons in Asmara (and the rest of Eritrea), the only logical conclusion would be to admit that crimes have indeed been going up at a rapid rate - perhaps even exponentially! That would contradict though with the Highdefites' emphatic assertion that there has been no such increase in crimes committed in peaceful Asmara; and I totally agree with them. But we are still left with this puzzling paradox of a nation with little crime but with thousands and thousands of prisoners. What indeed lies behind this gaping deficit of explanation? This paradox simply disappears if we extend the concept of ‘crime’ to include crimes committed by the state. If we do so, we will have to admit that the overwhelming majority of the inmates are not criminals, but victims of a criminal government. It is only then that we can successfully explain away the gaping chasm between few crimes and a large number of prisoners.
“Once we turn our focus from the crimes of petty criminals committed in the streets of Asmara to the egregious, endemic and all-encompassing crimes committed by the state, we will notice how chronically unsafe Asmara is. It has been years since the streets of Asmara have turned hazardous to the youth. The relentless waves of roundups (giffa) have turned the youth into fugitives in their own land – the Adi Abeyto massacre is a case in point. …”
Add to this the various population groups that have been targeted by Shaebia in the city: Evangelicals, Jehovah Witnesses, Muslim groups, Orthodox leaders, the Catholic Church, army deserters, conscription evaders, parents of deserters, journalists, dissenters, etc, you will notice the extent of the hazardous conditions that the inhabitants of Asmara has been subjected to. If we include economic, spiritual, psychological, cultural and other deprivations, we realize that almost the whole city of Asmara has been living under reign of terror. No wonder then the only people who find Asmara safe are the diaspora foot soldiers who periodically visit the city as tourists. No wonder then that UNESCO, given its tourist-eyes to look at Asmara from a safe distance, gets it all wrong. Another important leader who recently visited Asmara with similar tourist-eyes has been PM Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia who, in fact, invoked the UNESCO designation to romanticize the city’s beauty.
In the above three cases, we have seen three powerful institutions – the EU, UN and UNESCO – taking serious steps that ended up harming the Eritrean masses simply because they failed to take into account the true intentions of the Isaias regime. Financial aids by the EU, lifting of the sanctions by the UN and the designation of Asmara as World Heritage site by UNESCO have all invariably come at the expense of the masses, with the regime at every step getting stronger in its totalitarian grip over them.
This normalizing task undertaken by Ethiopia and these powerful continental and international bodies has in fact emboldened the regime to tighten its totalitarian grip further. As soon as the regime gets what it wants most – the lifting of sanctions, the financial aid, the designation of Asmara, etc – it nonchalantly goes back to whatever it was doing before. In the latest case, as soon as the sanctions were lifted, it unceremoniously closed its borders with Ethiopia. With the nation sealed off, the regime returned to its old ways. One need only look at the war it has been conducting against religious organizations ever since the peace agreement. As PM Abiy kept insinuating that he was trying to reconcile the two factions of the Tewahdo Church, Isaias was brazenly pressuring the Church to excommunicate Patriarch Antonios. As the regime was asked to take baby steps in reform, it reacted savagely by seizing control of all Catholic health centers; and, most recently, by seizing control of seven secondary schools run by Muslim groups, Faith Mission, Orthodox Church and Catholic Church. And, when it comes to the already banned Evangelical Churches, it ha been intensifying its persecution of their followers, with dozens more carted off to its medieval prisons. All of this after the peace deal – so much for the rehabilitating missions undertaken by Ethiopia, EU and UN! It is as if Isaias is mocking them now.