Eritrean Quietness and the Disposing of Victims without a Trace

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
May 22nd, 2014

For many years, the war for secession from Ethiopia had been described as the “hidden war”, or the “forgotten” war. In reality, however, the real secret was the campaign of terror waged against the civilian population, and the fighters under the Fronts, which started way before the famous “Red Terror” in Ethiopia under the Derg and continued throughout it duration at meda. The public in Eritrea has by and large kept silent on this infamous violence of people from the urban areas, dissenters within the organizations and particularly the peasant population. While the Derg authorities were executing significant numbers of people openly, with the list of the victims accompanied with martial music and the shrill Amharic song of yefeyel wetete announced in the radio, the Eritrean political elite were doing it in secret, and in a sly way without any single record of the poor victims. Strangely, a few of the Eritrean elites in the diaspora who admire the alleged data gathering of the EPLF, such as the Martyrs data base and the census of several years back, forget the glaring data absence on the scores of thousands of the disappeared.

This policy of deliberate habit of not keeping the records of the victims has left the public numb and in complete state of anesthesia, leaving many of the former henchmen of the regime now living in the West to deny any responsibility for the injustices committed. These individuals not only demand the “sacredness” of the ghedli, but also their valor and sacrifice allegedly made during their sojourn in the bushes of Eritrea. The constant alarms raised by some activists whenever the issue of the atrocities of the past is raised in the Eritrean cyber world have been very disappointing and detrimental to the search of the closure of the mourning of the thousands of the victims’ families. They abhor the calling of the dead or living operatives of the regime as criminals; invoking lofty words of “court of law” and “due process of law”, they implore the public to wait for justice in the likelihood of the fall of the regime.

The regime, however, which was responsible for the fate of the large number of the victims, is still well entrenched with little signs of actual threat to it. Thousands of the families of the victims have passed away, including witnesses and, yes, hundreds of the victimizers either from old age or being killed themselves in turn. All these factors are huge impediments for any justice seeking institution, but the most damaging of all is the complete lack of data about the masses of the victims. Thus, even “delayed justice” will remain a luxury in Eritrea. The Eritrean totalitarian state is unique in this sense.

The Derg in Ethiopia meticulously kept dossiers on its victims. The BBC described its practice in this manner: “Ethiopia’s obsessive bureaucracy meant that everything was documented. Every arrest, every execution, every act of torture was authorized, signed for and rubber-stamped- and every piece of paper was filed away and kept. At the time it meant that the officials “covered their backs”. [1] In the hands of special prosecutor’s office in Ethiopia, authorized to look into the case of “Red Terror” victims; around 600, 000 documents were available. Among these massive documents were the ones detailing the circumstances of the final hours of the senior officials of Emperor Haile Selasie.

Signed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the paper indicates the list of names, time, method of killing, and the means of burial (the Amharic document is made available in the next page). Incredulous as it may seem, the minutes on the decision and the votes of the Derg members on the fate of the emperor himself were also discovered. [2] The Eritrean fronts, who derided the former regimes of Ethiopia as archaic and feudal have little to offer any documents on their victims. The EPLF, which allegedly did a meticulous research on the customs of the rural folks and the flora and fauna of Eritrea, garnering it a cult of elite followers to this day, does not possess any single document on any one of its victims, including the ones after it became a state. The adulation for EPLF for some census taking at this age and time does not make sense. Think that the Martyrs list and the census were kept secret until they were smuggled out. Furthermore, the United Nations often provides the funds and the expertise for less developed countries.

Eritrea is a small country with a few million people in it; the EPLF fighters and the people in the “liberated” parts of Sahel were even much smaller. If the Six Degrees of Separation theory, where everybody seems to know everybody else in an intimate environment, applies to inhabitants of the country (as one writer often loves to mention), the degrees of separation among the fighters in the EPLF organization was certainly smaller. And yet, people who witnessed the horror on their fellow comrades, or people who participated as ordinary guards, interrogators and security officers have yet to talk about it; let alone the senior leaders. They and their supporters in the diaspora have remained silent, or unapologetic to the atrocities.

Often, a comparison is made about the role of denial by the Left in the West about Stalin’s terror in the early parts of the last century. The Eritrean case is however much worse, for the large majority of the participants had either participated, witnessed, or heard about it. Yes, the terror was not loud as the Derg’s, but was visible and perceptible for many people. How can such a state of terror exist among fighters, who shared a “legendary” comradeship, state the regime supporters, including those in the opposition? The thing is comradeship is a universal phenomenon among soldiers throughout history, whether the cause is noble or not. Eritrea’s theater of war was no exception.

Certainly, not everyone in the bushes of Eritrea bought into this, for there were many who committed suicide or made themselves killed in the trenches to escape the persecution and claustrophobic atmosphere in their camps. Certainly, living, eating, and sleeping always in close proximity with little bubble space, and in complete observance of the totalitarian organization, was not to anybody’s liking. This is not a figment of the imagination of the writer, but from the voice of the veteran fighter, Tesfay Temnewo, who incredulously was let free from the dungeons, a couple of times, only to be re-incarcerated again. Other unfortunate, apolitical but innocent individuals, perished in the jails of the front, leaving nothing traceable; similar to the type of prisoners in contemporary Eritrea. The alleged data gathering skills and crunching as some of Eritrean elites put it is a myth.

Consider this fact. The politburo of the EPLF, the highest powerful circle in communist lexicon was in session in 1976. Ibrahim Afa happened to ask about the fate of the senior leaders of the menkae, who had been under arrest for several years to Isaias Afwerki (one would presume, he should know). Isaias dismissed his question saying, “The case is closed.” We learn from this episode that, there was not any minimal report gathering of any sort. If Isaias had it in his position, then it can only be considered as his personal diary; and it hasn’t made available to the public.

In comparison to the secrecy and complete denial of the EPLF officials, their enablers and elite alike, the Derg in Ethiopia was open and blatant about its terror policy. It even gave it a name: “The Red Terror”, a phrase familiar to people with Soviet history. Terror was a communicative space for the military junta of Ethiopia. For example, Mengistu threw bottles filled with blood in front of the mass rally at the famous Revolution Square, indicating his plan to exterminate his political opponents. It earned him and his regime the condemnation of the world, including the hypocrites from the Fronts who were carrying their own type of terror among the fighters and civilians in Eritrea. The terror of the totalitarian systems witnessed outside Ethiopia was as meticulous, if not more, as the former regime of the Derg.
































The Gulags

In the archives of present-day Russia, voluminous dossiers on the victims of millions of the former Soviet citizens have been diligently kept by the secret police of both Lenin and Stalin; available now for the descendants of the families, and other scholars. The Chinese communist under Mao, who also committed massive slaughter on their subjects left equally massive stacks of dossiers. Many of the victims of the terror did not obtain justice, but some were “content” with the decision of the authorities after Kruchev and Mao to rehabilitate them. Cambodia, under Pol Pot, which committed millions of its own people in its “agrarian” paradise; also, left for history tons of documents on its victims, complete with pictures of the victims.

Cambodia’s death camp

Duc, a high ranking Khmer Rouge officer, who was captured and brought to trial a few years back was responsible for the torture and death of thousands of innocent Cambodians and people who belonged to the communist party in the country. In the camp are now exhibited the torture instruments, photographs of the victims, and the alleged confessions of the victims during their brief harrowing stay. The pictures of people from all walks of life hastily brought either from the “liberated” cities or farms are properly serialized and displayed for millions of tourists. In other places, such as South America records of victims were also available, but different reasons.

Latin American juntas

Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil are among the few countries that underwent the savagery of what is largely known as the “Dirty War”, with leftist movements common in the seventies. These countries, before their complete grip under the military juntas of the times, had different types of democratic systems with the necessary institutions for maintaining them. The coming of the military juntas into the political scene did not completely erase the custom of record keeping. Thanks to these mundane practices, thousands of Latin Americans were able to systematically search for their dearest ones, including the children, who were stolen from their mothers. With the help of the documents, witnesses and forensics, the bodies of victims have sometimes been successfully disinterred for their families to mourn and do a proper burial. With the help of such mechanisms and the political will, delayed justice is slowly occurring in some Latin American societies.

In Eritrea, however, delayed justice is nowhere in the horizon for the following reasons. The regime, the author of the large percentage of the disappeared victims, is still in power unleashing its violence in contempt of the public at home and the world. Once again, tens of thousands of people are kept in scores of clandestine camps in Eritrea, where many succumb to death from either being shot, or tortured, or being neglected to death. Inured to the old practice, the public has mostly kept quiet and resigned, leaving the matter into the hands God. In a culture suffused with a belief in “ghosts”, the disappeared do not even roam around in the land; nobody seems to be haunted by their unaccounted absence. The enablers and elite of the regime, therefore, openly gloat about the “virtues” of the armed struggle, confident that no evidence is available about the untold victims in the land.

In a town-hall gathering convened in Asmera, Eritrea, in the mid-nineties; a girl asked the dictator about the whereabouts of some fighters, who were veterans of the war for “liberation”. The reply she got was brief and dismissive. Isaias said, “The file is closed”, as if there was some form of a legal procedure to the murders in the bushes of Eritrea. In reality, there is no file to speak of about the untold victims of the revolution over the long duration of the ghedli, nor during the post-independence period. In reality, there is no single file with the signature of  Isaias, his senior comrades or the rest of the ghedli apparatchik detailing the circumstances of a single victim or a group execution.

Its victims, particularly, the fighters, who were often terrified of the military codes and discipline of the EPLF, a code that sites “heavy punishment” or “death” for many negligent acts, such as the loss of parts of a gun, did not have the luxury of their offense being read to them in their final hours. Terror was unpredictable, random, and very proximate to the brief life of the fighters. Seriously, the diverse fronts in Ethiopia were not “cutting grass” in their long marches to victory, as one astute reporter observed, during the early years of the public trials of the ring leaders of the “Red Terror” in Addis Ababa.

The elite opposition, who never forget to bemoan about the absence of government budget in Eritrea and the asterisks used to donate it, have never appeared to ask for the mythical files alluded to by the dictator. In their sheer desire to protect the sanctity of the war for independence, they refuse to delve into the subject of the thousands of the disappeared in Eritrea, lending the regime more years of power. In their sheer desire to protect the “virtues” of the ghedli, the scholars and a sizable number of Eritreans have kept silent, innumerate, and illiterate to the horrors that occurred in the Sahel, in which place alleged mass literacy campaigns were carried.

“The typical Eritrean quietness”, [3] to the disappearance of the menkae members and sympathizers in the Shangri-La-like fastness of the Sahel was not an isolated incident, but an enduring culture of the “liberation” war. In its depth and width the terror was unparalleled. And yet, the resounding “quietness” is almost loud and palpable to the ears of families of the victims to this day. The victims of the relatives do not exclude the senior cadres of the regime, who often times have either their siblings or spouses made to disappear by the regime. On the opposite pole are many whose fathers were killed by the organization they remained serving to this day. Probably, the most important explanation for the complete silence on the victims of the ghedli is the EPLF’s ability of denying any space for any Pilate like figure to “wash his hands” clean from the crimes.

In Rwanda, close to one million people were murdered, using machetes and clubs in only 100 days. This wholesale massacre needed the collaboration of thousands of ordinary people, in many instances neighbors. In the aftermath of the massacre the search for justice, except for the few senior figures, was so messy that people have to forgive the perpetrators. In Eritrea, if the victims of the revolution were properly accounted for, it would have probably amounted to around a quarter of the number of martyrs; that is, for every four official recognized martyrs, there would be one unaccounted victim of the revolution. Moreover, the killings in the Eritrean guerrilla scene was carried across many years, among fighters who were initially a few hundreds.

Resoum Kidane, [4] a compiler of data on fighters that disappeared in the Eritrean war of independence estimates a figure between 3,000 and 9,000 for the period between 1961 and 1991.  His figures do not include the civilian victims of the armed organizations for the same period; who despite the reigning orthodoxy were the major victims of the meat-grinder organization.  And yet, little have so far leaked to the public at home and in the diaspora for plausible reasons, leading one to believe the collaboration of a significant percentage of the organization members in the execution of the terror that lasted almost three decades.

In his novel, Ciao Asmara, Justin Hill described Eritrea as a land full of scattered bones [5], he was probably influenced by the variety of wars which occurred in the country; he had not factored in the bones of the thousands of Eritreans victims. In the event the regime implodes, the society will certainly need thousands of skilled people, but forensic scientists should be in the first category.


[1]Blunt, Elizabeth. BBC, Recording Ethiopia’s Red Terror; August 7, 2009.

[2]The Economist, “An Archive of the Murders Past”; September 27, 2007.

[3] Wrong, Michela. I Didn’t Do It For You; p.308.

[4] Kidane, Resoum.


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