The Bologna Drama: The Voice for Democratic Change vs. the Sound of Oppression
By Petros Tesfagiorgis
When I opened Assenna.com I noticed a poster written in small letters. I pressed the full screen it goes: Una Citta’ Antifascista non puo’ ospitare un regime FASCISTA. In just few words the poster brought the Government of Eritrea to the ranks of fascists for subjecting the Eritrean population to extreme repression.
The translation is “An Antifascist city should not play host to a fascist regime”. The power of these words is so much so that the Italian passersby who read the poster would not have any difficulty to connect the deaths of 357 Eritreans in Lampedusa to the human rights violation perpetrated by PFDJ. PFDJ is responsible for all these human tragedies and the time are not far away when they will be held accountable in front of the law be it local or international. The effort of the lawyers in Sweden to bring President Isaias and his cronies to court for abusing the Swedish Eritrean Journalist Dawit Isack is a harbinger for more to come in the future. There are more than 10,000 prisoners of conscience in the PFDJ prison dungeon detained illegally for years.
This 40 year Anniversary does not reflect the history of Bologna:
I followed in detail the festival on ERI-TV and the demonstration on the internet. I am best situated to compare the Bologna festival now and during the struggle because I have attended Bologna 14 consecutive years in my capacity as EPLF member working full time for ERA-UK and EPLF Public Relations man in the United Kingdom. I represented EPLF in the Annual Congress of British Labour Party for 8 years, few times with Ermias Debesai (Papayo)then head of European desk – to date he is one of the prisoners of conscience rotting in prison together with his “tegadalit” Sister – the passionate singer and mother of 3, Senait Debesai. Also one time with the late Amdemicael Kahsai the Secretary of EPLF foreign relations– “Amdemicael was a very dynamic and competent diplomat fluent in English Italian and Arabic.Prior to his death Amdemikcael disillusioned with the PFDJ oppressed system took to heavy drinking and died a frustrated person. There is unsubstantiated rumour that he is murdered. He died in a mysterious circumstanced falling in a low stair. Both Papayo and Amdemikael– members of the EPLF Central Committee, were based in Rome Italy at one time or another. Therefore, the history of Bologna without mentioning these two figures is a history amputated. Likewise during the 30 years anniversary celebration of the decisive victory of the battle of Semenawi Sahel where the Ethiopian strong army named “Wekaw Izz) was annihilated was handled in the same distorted way. The 30 years celebration took place without mentioning General Ogbe Abraha the hero who led the battle. It is tantamount to robbing the history of the popular struggle of Eritrea. It is to celebrate this victory that Brigadier General Mebrahtu Tecleab (Vinac), Brigadier General Amanuel Haile (Hangema) and ex-head of Red Sea Corporations (09) Dessu Tesfatzion met their death in a car accident while driving to Sahel to celebrate the victory.
The Mass Association were the Ambassadors of the people of Eritrea:
It was summer 1979 me and Berhane Gebrihiwot a member of the mass association in UK, co-worker for ERA-UK went to Blackpool to attend the Labour Party Conference at the Winter Palace representing the EPLF for the first time. There was an unforgettable incident to do with the then British Prime Minister Sir James Callaghan and us during the international reception called in his name. At that time PM was to learn more about Eritrea and has to refer us to his foreign Minister David Owen for follow up. (More in my next article). At that time partly due to the charity organisation War-On-Want headed by Mary Dines- who introduced ERA-UK and the mass association UK (work is done on the basis of division of work) to many labour party parliamentarian and the Liberal peer Lord Eric Avebury who became honorary chairman of ERA-UK, followed by the 1979 International Symposium on Eritrea , gave rise to the Labour Party Execute committee passing a resolution in support of the right to self-determination of the people of Eritrea in 1981. These opened the door for ERA-UK access to substantial amount of aid from NG0s but also opened a door to get political and diplomatic support from many social democratic parties in Europe who dominate Governments at that time. The social democratic parties were pioneers and architects of welfare state of free education, free health care and cheap social housing for all the citizens. They were also strong advocates for the right of refugees – the 1951 Geneva Convention. It is sad to see Eritreans in Diaspora who took advantage of the Geneva Convention but keep a blind eye to repression in Eritrea. What an opportunist double standard. It is no surprise that some countries spear headed by Norway are concerned and started to shame even threatens those who maintain this inhuman double standard asking protection from Eritrean Government and dancing with it at the same time. In France under the socialist president Mitterrand similar resolution was passed on Eritrea. At that time the Australian labour party was in Government and Eritreans there made good use of the documents of British Resolution including the discussion paper on “the right to self-determination of oppressed people “presented by the famous writer on Africa, Basil Davidson. Basil Davidson covered the 1987 battle of Afabet during his visit to the field and he labelled it as “Dien Bien Phu of Africa” in his live interview with the BBC from the field.
The mass associations were the Ambassadors of the Eritrean popular struggle who were active in building relationship not only with political parties but also with peace and justice loving individuals, journalist, academician and with human rights and humanitarian organisations in the countries they adopted.
The festival of yesteryears Bologna was the get together of people bonded together in search of freedom and peace and to draw plans of how to support the struggle at home and evaluate achievements and shortcomings but also to celebrate the struggle. As I mentioned in my previous articles Bologna was the cultural pride of Eritreans in Europe.
The 40 year anniversary of Bologna Festival organised by PFDG and the Diaspora supporters:
Today the 40th Anniversary of Bologna festival is turned into a propaganda ploy. PFDJ is isolated internationally and is under pressure. The 40 years Bologna anniversary is meant to challenge that. Furthermore it wanted to boost the ever dwindling moral of the supporters in Diaspora and the people at home.
On the other hand PFDJ had no good message from Eritrea to tell to the Bologna participants – only an empty rhetoric. The situation inside Eritrea is bleak.
On the other hand the festival was very flashy conspicuous for its extravaganza, the village tents were not ordinary and simple tents as they used to be. They are like a fairy tale tens, modern and sophisticated. The park is heavily decorated mainly with towering Eritrean flags. They had a security guards in black shirt written Eri-Blood at the back. It is very intriguing to choose Mussolini’s “Camicia Nera” that symbolizes the power of fascists in Italy. Why do they imitate it? Is it to intimidate the protesters? Over all a lot of money must have spent in the festival too much for a country whose in fracture is in tatters and continuous interruption of electricity in Asmara is creating problems to restaurants, hotels and ordinary households. This has become a house hold talk even among the supporters. Poverty is endemic. To ask about the thousands of Eritrean languishing in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. About 90,000 in Ethiopia and more than 150,000 in Sudan is unthinkable. It is a typical example of a people who internalized the system that oppresses them.
There are 2000 unaccompanied children in Ethiopia. Doctor Alganesh Fesseha – a women bigger than life, has a feeding programme there. Would the participants care to contribute one pound/dollar a week to help these children at least on humanitarian considerations? Rather than spend hundreds of dollars for transport, hotels and booth to go to Bologna. What a shame.
Do the Diaspora ever realise that victims languishing in refugee camps and scattered in prisons in Egypt, Libya, and in the dungeons of Sinai- chained like slaves are their own people. Do they know they exist? “The message “Where is your brother? by the Catholic bishops points at them more than anybody else. Where is their conscience? Amanuel Iyasu has expanded it as “questioning the consciousness of Bologna goers? It is the battle of ideas the work of raising the level of consciousness of the supporters.
A woman who attended the festival was telling me that there was sadness in some faces (she must be one of them) at least she said she was happy to see many faces she respects for their service to the community in the UK in village photographic exhibition. She said my photo was among them. I told her jokingly “Hurray, I have also participated in the festival of propaganda.” It has to be understood that some of the women are coerced to attend the festival. Some were afraid that they may be refused to enter Eritrea. The fear is quite strong. There was a letter sent by ex-member of mass association to be read in the Radio of Medrick who expressed his regret for attending the festival and at one moment when he heard the slogans from the outside wished that the demonstrators come and disrupt it. I have learned from friends that attended the festival and told me that you can see sadness in many faces, but it was a repressed sadness”.
The camp of protesters: Seekers of Justice (Deleiti Filth)
The protesters through their loudspeakers mounted on a vehicle were giving very powerful messages. They march lining the side of the streets, the slogan was in Tigrinya, Arabic and also Italian the language of the host country.They were identified by the flags they carry from what countries they came from. They had British flags, Swedish, Italian, Swiss etc. side by side to the Eritrean flag. Unlike the PFDJ rhetoric, it is the present that matters to these demonstrators the gross human rights violations that gave rise to the pain and suffering of the people crossing the Eritrean borders to the land of freedom but go through dangerous journey. They condemned, repression, slave labour etc.
Asefaw Gebrekidan- the treasurer of “Eritreans for Unity and Justice UK (EUJ-UK) the Vaccaro initiative, told me that the slogans were so powerful people watching ERI-TV in Asmara started to hear it but then stopped all of a sudden. They were asked to lower the sound by the police. They protested but the city administration explained that the order came from the central government from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and said it is overriding decision. News came out that the Minister is a colleague of ex-Italian President Berlusconi known to avoid taxes and corruption with women.
“On his return to London Mehari Kidane the chair of “Eritreans for unity and Justice UK- told me that “We were privileged to have Piazza Majore –the City Centre- to carry out our programme there but also we had a speaker , Amelia Frascaroli from the Department of Social Services, the City of Bologna Administration (Mayoral office). She delivered her welcome speech in Italian and did it happily (con gusto in Italian). The talk of the Bologna administration is a sign of recognition of the human rights violation taking place in Eritrean. It is a blow to the festival organisers. Asefaw said, “They tried their best to prevent us using the Piazza Magiore but they had no sympathy from the Administration of Bologna at all. The administration was all out in our favour”.
The injustice versus justice controversy (dichotomy) was covered by many Italian newspapers and the PFDJ has never been exposed like this before. The demonstration was so successful as to make the once invisible pains and suffering of the people of Eritrea visible by their slogans, marches and the power of the posters and the truth of their message lobbied the Italian. I am not disappointed by the left leaning democratic city of Bologna.
To be continued on part 2:
There were serious flaws among the organisers. Evaluation and Constructive Criticism is required in order to learn from past mistakes and carry the struggle to a higher level. Comparing the Culture of struggle during the long struggle and today.
Although the Bologna periods during the long struggle was very tough and difficult the comradery, the brother/sisterly, the love among Eritrean and the commitments was exemplary. How about to day among the opposition?