Fleeing Eritrea: The Old, The Blind, And The Cripple

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Nov 1st, 2012

Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

In the venerable practice of medicine, it has always been easy to treat a disease in its early and initial stages. But the symptoms and signs are very few, and the damage so subtle, rendering its recognition quite challenging and tricky. During its latter stages, a disease is always very easy to pick up; but its management becomes an uphill task, sometimes becoming a time and resource wasting futile endeavor.

The above observations also hold true when it comes to societies and nations. And, recently, there are poignant ‘symptoms and signs’ that the health of our beloved nation has taken a severe downward plunge. This time around the manifestations are not the usual ones, the spectacles that we have become so accustomed to seeing over the past decade or so. These are not-any longer- the usual signs of neglect and abuse. What we are witnessing of late portend a much serious damage. They are the telltale signs of a society in ruins.

And, the response from Eritrea’s political actors, civic society leaders, religious leaders, and elders has so far only succeeded in exacerbating the situation. A maddening inaction and chaos reigns in the atmosphere. For all intents Eritrea’s would-be-healers have forsaken their duties and responsibilities, and settled for what can be called, in the parlance of modern western medicine, an ‘’involuntary form of euthanasia’’- or ‘mercy killing’, in layman’s terms.

At the Adi-Harish Camp for Eritrean refugees

The 74 years old mother was lying on the bare floor, a thin blanket as her only comfort. She had arrived there with her daughter-Zahra-only two weeks earlier when I met them in late May, 2012. The mother had broken her right hip around two years back, and had been mostly confined to bed ever since then. For whatever ‘crazy’ reason, daughter and mother had decided to exchange their decent villa in elegant and temperate Keren for this sweltering and squalid refugee camp in the lowlands of south west Tigray, in Ethiopia. Zahra’s only complaint was lack of an elevated toilet seat and bathing chair for her crippled mother.

Aboy Tekle is a sturdy septuagenarian who came from a village around the town of Areza. He arrived at the above camp in early September, fleeing from the local authorities after he refused an order to take up an arm.

Like most veteran EPLF fighters he goes by a nickname-‘wedi memhir’. He joined the EPLF in 1977, and his whole left leg was blown out of him somewhere on the mountain chains around Nakfa during the 6th campaign of the Dergue. The refugee lady who took care of him for weeks when he first arrived at the camp around one year back still shudders when she recounts his terrible condition. When she first saw him in the camp clinic she had thought, wrongly, that he had suffered a horrible burn injury.  ‘’He must have literally rolled up and down the hills, ravines, gorges, and plains all the way from his village around Senafe to reach into safety inside Ethiopia’’, is the way she described his condition. His entire body skin was literally peeling, bruised and festering, full of thorns and dirt.

The 13 year old child was born with a debilitating type of congenital disease. She has never walked, talked, or used the bathroom by herself. She came to the refugee camp on the back of her mother around two years back. They came from the village of Azarna, on the northern outskirts of Mendefera. I can’t fathom why in God’s name her mother chose for her this arid, treeless and hot land over those scenic, rolling, and rich meadows of her village which I know so well! I didn’t ask… fearing that my unbridled curiosity might cause unnecessarily more harm than good.

Ibrahim is a blind 15 year old boy who run afoul with the security people at Adi-Quala after one of his lyrics was found wanting. He was a student at the School for the blind in Godaif, Asmara; and, during the summer breaks he used to sing at the bars, ‘enda sewas’, and cafes of that town for money. He was arrested for that poetic infringement. When he was released, he fled across the Mereb River with the help of two younger village boys.

…the account given above is taken from a random interview done during my two brief visits to the Adi-Harish refugee camp for Eritreans, a rapidly filling camp with a population of 20, 626 ( ARRA update, June 2012).

Unsettling Trends

In my two previous commentaries on the refugee situation in Ethiopia, I have tried to give you a picture of the Shemelba and Mai-Ayni camps. The majority of the refugees in the former were young and educated conscripts; and the latter camp’s dwellers include a high proportion of children, numbering over 2000.

But the recent trends are quite distressing and tragic. A significant proportion of the refugees who keep trickling into the Adi-Harish camp are not of the usual young and healthy type. They do not belong to the category of the so-far-typical Eritrean refugee who crosses the border with the intention of trying out his luck in far off richer meadows. These are people who do not have the physical power or psychological will to proceed further than the squalid and overcrowded camp. These are people who, like Zahra’s mom and Wedi Memhir, are just too weak to go beyond the perimeter of the camp. They are fleeing from Eritrea to rot and decompose in the tents that have become- by a tragic twist of fate- their homes in the twilight of their lives.

The journey has come to an end for many of these refugees. They have come this far, but they do not know what the future holds for them. Most have come to accept their impermanent condition. They have become resigned to their fate, their life and routine now limited to waiting for the monthly paltry handouts. They spend their days sitting on the threshold of their houses, remunerating, their vacant eyes looking into the northeastern horizon. One can only guess as to what must be going on in the dark recesses behind those gazing eyes.

There is an association of the disabled and old people who live at the Adi-Harish refugee camp. The association was formed on August 30, 2011 with the help of ARRA (the government Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs) and UNHCR. It has a five body executive, and though it can’t supply ‘fancy’ utilities like toilet seats for Zahra’s mother, it is doing a superb job of providing the most basic assistance to make life a little bit tolerable for its members who have a whole range of disabilities, natural and man caused. By interfacing with the relief agencies working there, the association facilitates what it can, from providing decent living quarters to new arrivals with disability to arranging daily home support and care to those who are too weak to move.

The day- to- day affairs of the association are managed by a middle aged disabled man in dreadlocks. His name is Bereket, an ELF veteran of Eritrea’s war for Independence. He had lost partial function of his right hand after an injury he sustained in the late 1970’s.

Multi-ailments of a Nation

There are certain well recognized and widely accepted reasons that force people to change their usual place of residence or to leave their country. And these can be grouped into the following: natural catastrophe, famine and hunger, civil war, political persecution, economic reasons, and environmental degradation. Some of these-alone or in combination – might also apply to the Eritrean scene.

The just released report from Global Hunger Index points to an alarming and serious situation in Eritrea (along with Burundi, and Haiti in the Western hemisphere) while it paints a rosy picture for the rest of Africa. The report indicated that Africa has for the first time in its modern and ‘dark’ history outperformed another subcontinent-southeast Asia.

The economic health of the country has also been devastated by years of mismanagement at the micro and macro level.  What remains is, in short, a seedy mafia style economy that prospers and survives on every sort of extortion, smuggling and human trafficking.

And the political and social situation of our country is too suffocating and surreal that they defy any reasoning. George Orwell may have been fantasizing about the political future of communism when he wrote his classical modern day novel-1984; but the frightening premonition of ‘’War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength’’ happen to be the daily dictates of life in Eritrea.

Despite the man caused perturbations and tremors above ground, the tectonic plates that hold together the geographic mass called Eritrea have so far (…perhaps by intercession of our sympathetic divine protectors) proven to be stable and intact. But a handful of men have wrought a catastrophe of a much worse magnitude than a mega tsunami could have caused. Let’s hope, pray and walk on the safe side of the moral highway lest we invite the wrath of our- so- far gentle heavenly protectors (…or run the risk of being wiped out of the map!)

The inevitable consequence of this multiple deprivations has been this human deluge that is disgorging out of the porous borders of Eritrea. My three commentaries can only give you a sprinkling of this unfolding tragedy. But, the theme of the story is the same also in the other refugee camps: at Assaita, Berhale, Dallo, Ab’ala, and Erebti in the Afar region of Ethiopia, where around 20, 000 Afar Eritreans are currently living, and in the dozens of refugee camps in the Sudan and beyond.

An Un-Caring, Stalled, and Messy Politics

Needless to say, our Independence by no means delivered on the promises of liberty and social justice that tens of thousands died for. It was paradoxical that among the first to be gunned down and hunted were the ones who got crippled fighting for it. Wedi Memhir is just the latest addition to the long list of monstrous atrocities committed against the war disabled veterans of Eritrea. In short, from being a means to an end, violence has turned into an end in itself; and, thus creating the doom and gloom that hangs over our country, like a dark and threatening cloud.

But the legacy of the above wanton destruction of a nation cannot be explained entirely by the behavior of the regime in Asmara alone. Some of these reckless behaviors are also to be found among those challenging the regime and the silent majority. It just happens to be the case that the endless suffering and torment of millions of Eritreans at home and the tens of thousands of fleeing refugees continue to be obscured and drowned by the deafening voice of eternal squabble and infighting emanating from a Diaspora elite that is largely indifferent to the mundane concerns of the latter segment of our society.

No one is feeling more keenly the excesses, errors, crimes, and brutality of the regime than those who continue to live under its yoke. But Eritrean opposition politics continue to be so mesmerized by its minor and diverse peculiarities that it is finding it almost impossible to address the basic stuff: the concerns of the average Eritrean who continues to live on the edge of a precipice, a continuous day and night fight for survival.

At home, violence has turned into an end by itself; and, outside or Eritrea’s borders, politics has metamorphosed into an end by itself. Commonsense and reason have left the playground for all sorts of narrower affiliations, and politics has become too partisan with most players primarily jostling and shoving for political office or other myopic and selfishly narrow reasons. And, above all, there is this overwhelming quagmire of mistrust, self-hate, anger and defeatism that has bogged down the political process for decades. The fate of Eritrea’s future continues to be held hostage by its history, with regressive and backward voices drowning out the cries of help coming out of a country held in bondage by a ruthless system. Instead of dealing a final blow to the reigning darkness and opening the stage for a bright future, Eritrea’s political actors, intellectuals, and other protagonists of change continue to engage in a game of obfuscation and obstruction that is preventing the bulk of society from hoping for a better future.

Czechoslovakia’s famous son, the late Vaclav Havel, once said: you can’t spend your whole life criticizing something and then, when you get the chance to do it better, refuse to go near it.

How much misery and suffering should be imposed to prod us into action? How many more cripples must make an agonizing journey across the border before we break our paralyzing inertia?


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