The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: “Hadnetna” from Sahel to the Sinai
(III) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: “Hadnetna” from Sahel to the Sinai
More than half the youngest nations in the world were born or reborn after the collapse of communism in Europe and had existed as independent states as far back as the Middle Ages. Most regained independence with established institutions – courts, banks, police forces, schools – and skilled people to run them.
After an initial decade or so of wrenching economic change, places such as Croatia, Estonia and Slovenia began to boom, boosted by the promise of membership of the European Union. Former communist states such as the Czech Republic have come through the global financial crisis in better shape than richer neighbours.
At the other end of the spectrum are far poorer young nations such as South Sudan, Eritrea and East Timor, all born following armed struggle and boasting far fewer institutions and far fewer of the type of skilled bureaucrats countries need if they are to prosper.
South Sudan, whose first year Reuters has chronicled in a series of special reports, is the most extreme example of that. When it won a measure of autonomy from Sudan in 2005, its roster of organised, national institutions began and ended with its army.
The desire to secede was understandable. Most Southern Sudanese had – and have – profound ethnic and religious differences with their former rulers in Khartoum, who alternately neglected or fought the south.
But when it gained full independence last year, just one in four South Sudanese adults could read or write; only two percent of children are enrolled in secondary education. It still has only 300 km (186 miles) of paved roads. Over a quarter of the population will require food assistance this year.
If South Sudan’s more developed neighbours – places such as Ethiopia and Chad – are any measure, the newest nation on the planet will have to rely on the United Nations and aid groups for years to come, even if it develops quickly and smoothly.
“In the case of South Sudan, you don’t reconstruct, you don’t rebuild, you start from scratch,” Hilde Johnson, the U.N. Secretary General’s Special representative for South Sudan, told Reuters just before the first anniversary of independence in July.
A Reuters examination of more than a dozen key indicators in the 31 nations founded or reconstituted since 1990 shows just how steep a climb South Sudan faces (see chart for six key indicators).
Almost all the most successful new countries had a welter of winning traits from the start: stable and often generous neighbours, strong institutions, homogenous and well educated populations, and relatively low corruption.
The best performing – places such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as the single most successful, a reunited Germany – have been those with the longest prior experience of nationhood and centralised government. They are also, strikingly, countries with more limited natural resources of their own, and economies built on commerce and trade.
On measures including life expectancy, perceptions of corruption, education, press freedom and the rule of law, the former communist nations of Eastern Europe have generally improved more than new countries elsewhere.
In contrast, resource-rich states such as Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have performed well on aggregate figures such as GDP per capita, but rank close to the bottom when it comes to effectiveness of government, rule of law and transparency. This is unsurprising. Economists have long known that the combination of weak institutions and easy cash can be particularly destructive.
One of the worst performing new countries by many measures is Yemen, a fusion of two struggling states with a dysfunctional economy and little tradition of effective government. While the country has begun to tap its reserves of natural gas, corruption and one of the fastest growing populations in the world are likely to keep its people poor.
It’s not all bad news. Many of the very poorest young states have seen improvements in income and health over the past couple of decades. Even when international aid has not been able to keep the country stable, it has often saved lives.
Two of the most troubled, Yemen and Eritrea, have experienced significant improvements in life expectancy. Infant mortality has fallen in all of the newest 31 nations, and children are spending more time in school. Even in Somalia, generally regarded as the world’s most troubled state, international handouts have kept child mortality from rising sharply.
And there are exceptions to these trends.
Development experts hope that East Timor may join the short list of developing nations to escape the resource curse – in which natural resources hurt growth rather than boost it.
East Timor, which split away from Indonesia in 2002, has been helped by billions of dollars worth of oil and gas. With the aid of advisers from model nations such as Norway it has built up more than $11 billion in a fund created to ensure good management of its oil and gas money and make sure that its 1.1 million people have something to live on when the resources run out.
The tiny Indian Ocean state also has powerful friends – in particular Australia, which has provided troops several times to stabilise the country during periods of unrest.
But even good friends don’t guarantee success. For all its support from the West, and despite rapid economic growth, the former Yugoslav Republic of Kosovo has struggled with corruption and organised crime. It doesn’t help that the country still exists in a state of legal limbo, un-recognised by Moscow or Beijing and heavily dependent on the UN, EU and NATO for aid and protection.
The kind of massive aid and institution-building efforts deployed in South Sudan over the past few years show particularly mixed results, even in countries that are not starting from scratch. A multibillion-dollar aid and military mission to Somalia in the early 1990s did little to stop it falling deeper into chaos (though in the past few months it has finally shown signs of progress, in part thanks to an African peacekeeping mission).
Peacekeepers, development experts and billions of dollars of aid in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti continue to struggle to keep the peace and even basic services running.
Writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper last week, Richard Dowden, head of the London-based Royal African Society, argued that Congo has been hurt most by its politics. “Aid has probably made things worse by offering development which may never be delivered,” he wrote. “There is no state capable of delivering it. If ever there was a case for a country to be under a UN mandate, it is Congo. The United Nations’ current half-baked, ill-thought-out mandate was cruelly exposed last week as UN troops stood back to allow rebels to take the city of Goma in eastern Congo.”
The United States and other powers supported the birth of South Sudan not because they thought the country had brilliant prospects but because independence looked better than the alternative: the continuation of a decades-long civil war that had claimed some 2 million lives. The southern rebels and their Western backers – including evangelical churches and campaigners in Washington DC – had made a convincing argument that South Sudan deserved to be free.
But freedom brings fresh challenges.
“The international community can’t build countries,” says John Temin, a veteran former humanitarian worker and now head of the Sudan project at the United States Institute for Peace, a U.S. government-funded think tank. “Countries have to build themselves. We can only help. We are getting very good at stopping people from dying, but we’re not good at building institutions.”
South Sudan’s deputy health minister, Dr. Yatta Lori Lugor, believes the problem often lies with those seeking to help as much as those receiving aid. “In general (non-governmental organisations) help but some of them come just for themselves,” he said. “This is very frustrating.”
Can South Sudan, the world’s 193rd country by the United Nations’ count, prosper? In its first 16 months it has come close to war with its old masters and rivals in Khartoum, seen several ethnic massacres, the biggest of which killed more than 800 people, and had to survive without 98 percent of its income Amid an oil-industry shutdown.
Such problems are to be expected, according to John Christofides, a former head of the United Nations Department of Peace Keeping Operations’ South Sudan team and now in charge of all other peacekeeping operations in Africa. When it comes to nation-building, “you often find the operation will be in the country much longer than you expected.”
For Garang Kuach, the County Commissioner for Aweil West, that misses the point.
“This is our land,” he said, standing in Freedom Square, a patch of dusty earth in the town of Gok Machar, half an hour’s drive from the border with Sudan. “You cannot say it is yours. (Independence) is better for us. It gives us freedom.”
How did Eritrea get into this mess?
If there was no distance in between the worlds of the “colonizer” and the “colonized” to begin with to justify the revolution, the ghedli generation had to invent it, with all the horrible price the Eritrean people were made to pay to maintain such a fabricated distance. In the last five decades, the fight against gravity has been going on relentlessly: whenever the direction seemed to point to the starting point (the normal world of the people), an unusual violence was needed to straighten it out for the abnormal ghedli journey to continue. Corresponding to the two alien identities that the Kebessa and Muslim elite have been aspiring to acquire in maintaining this alien distance, there are two major problems that Eritrea has been haunted with: the perpetual dislocation of the society and the making of a dual society, respectively. In this posting (Part III), it will be the former that will be mainly addressed. We will see how ghedli, in general, and Shaebia, in particular, has been adept at perpetually dislocating the masses so that they would never realize the actual state of affairs they find themselves in. This way, the disoriented masses would be made to embark on the circular journey that ghedli has paved for them without realizing its futility – as has been the case for the last 50 years..
It is to be remembered that I have adopted the geometric parlance of circularity and linearity to elucidate on this phenomenon. In Part I of this article [ (I) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: Journey Identity], I tried to describe the “escape route” nature of the ghedli journey: how the ghedli generation used the revolution to escape from their roots; or rather, from themselves. In Part II [(II) The Circular Journey in Search of Eritrea: A “World Distance” that Never Was], I tried to explain the circular nature of that journey: how the ghedli journey ended up exactly at the starting point from which they did their best to escape. In Part IV, Eritrea’s viability as a nation, as inspired by the colonial map, will be discussed by asking a simple question: does Eritrea have a solid center that could hold on to its peripheries? In this it will be the illusion of cohesion that the colonial map has created on the urban elite that will be discussed. In Part V and final, I will address the making of the dual society in Eritrea, since that primarily concerns where the nation is heading to.
Even though the fight against gravity is going on as before, the ghedli identity that has motivated this fight has been losing its appeal fast; there is no doubt that the ghedli identity is on its last days. But that doesn’t mean it is not putting up a last fight, and the consequences of this deathbed struggle have been horrendous. In its last effort to straighten out the ghedli journey, one of its trajectories has reached as far as the Sinai. The trajectories of the perpetual dislocation inside Eritrea are to be seen everywhere where refugees have landed, with the most gruesome destination being the Sinai Peninsula. In the first half of this essay we will see how that perpetual dislocation inside Eritrea goes, with the Warsai generation in particular focus. In the latter half, we will see how the two alien identities – ghedli and Arab – have come to converge at the Sinai to victimize the Warsai. But before going into that, we will have to look at the vulnerable frame of mind of the ghedli generation that allowed these alien identities to take hold on the Eritrean soil.
A generation at a total loss of what it actually wanted
A child enters a pastry shop and comes out with a pastry in his hand, which he keeps eating with relish. Another child gets in and out of a number of pastry shops before he finally emerges with a pastry in his hand, which he keeps eating with equal relish. At first sight, the first child seems to be the one who knows exactly what he wants: he enters a familiar shop and buys what he wants, period. No ifs and buts, no hesitation, no getting in and out of stores. But outside looks might be deceptive. So let’s retrace our steps and follow the kids all the way inside the stores and get an insider’s look.
The first child comes from a very poor family, and consequently has never bought a pastry before. Luckily for him though, today he has found a dollar in the street. It is after that that we see him running to the pastry shop around the corner. But as soon as he is inside the store, he finds himself at loss what to do; all the pastries in the store look equally ravishing. He has absolutely no clue as to how to distinguish one pastry from the other. To get what he “wants,” he has either to point randomly at one cake, hoping that even in the worst case it would still taste good, or he has to let the man behind the counter do the choosing for him. In either case, this is the main point: when it comes to what he “wants,” the child defers either to random choice or to the knowledge of others. So when he nods his head as the man in the counter asks him, “how about this one?” his assent is not a “Yes” of affirmation, of someone who knows exactly what he wants. For that, it would require, at least, familiarity of that particular pastry that he desires and, at most, familiarity with those he doesn’t want too. For our purpose then, let’s call his assent a “Yes” of deference.
The second child, outside appearances aside, is in fact the one who knows exactly what he is after. It is precisely because he knows the exact specifications of what he wants that he keeps looking for it in a number of stores before he finally finds it. True, being a visitor from another city, he doesn’t know where exactly to find it; hence his “false attempts”. But that shouldn’t be held against him; in what really matters, there is no presence of uncertainty in him.
Notice, that in both instances, the primary object of desire is a pastry. But there is also a secondary object of desire which would eventually lead to the primary one: a pastry shop. Using this distinction, we can see, first, that an affirmative “Yes” to a secondary object of desire (the pastry shop) doesn’t necessarily mean an affirmative “Yes” to a primary object of desire (the pastry itself). Remember, the fact that the first child knows where exactly to go doesn’t mean that he knows what he actually wants to get. And, second, not being sure about one’s secondary object of desire doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t know what he ultimately wants (as is the case with the second child).
The story of the ghedli generation of Eritrea follows the story of the first kid. Twice uprooted – first, by surface Asmara modernity that inspired them to escape from their “backward” roots, and then by ghedli that obliterated whatever values they were left with from their past – they lacked the wherewithal to know what they actually wanted. They embraced “Eritrea”, “hadnetna” (“unity”) and “independence” with all the assuredness of someone who really knew what he/she was doing. But once they got what they “wanted”, they had absolutely no idea how to translate them on the ground in terms of the lives of the people. They had always confused secondary objects of desire for primary ones because they had absolutely no idea what was it that they wanted when it came to the latter. They never asked whether “Eritrea”, “independence” or hadnetna would be able to deliver the primary objects of desire such as individual liberty, preservation of one’s identity, prosperity, peace, security, harmony, knowledge, happiness, fulfillment, etc. The essential mark of these final objectives is that they are individual properties. Given ghedli’s alien search for collective identities, none of these individual aspirations fell within its “field of vision”. Appropriate to its self-referential habit, ghedli became an end in itself, and the means became the only source of final objectives.
For the ultimate goal, the ghedli generation have always deferred to ghedli; theirs have always been “Yes” of deference. Fathers and mothers deferred to their sons – “dekina yifeltu” (“Our sons know better)”. But the teghadelti themselves had no clue as to what they were fighting for; they deferred to “sewra” (“Jebha tifelt” or “Shaebia tifelit”) as if the revolution had a mind all of its own, independent of themselves. At worst, they deferred to the leadership – “the founding fathers know”, or “Awate knows”, or even “Isaias yifelit”. In this inarticulate revolution, it is not by accident that the foot soldiers keep deferring to either a mute leader (Awate), who absolutely said nothing about anything or to an incoherent one (Isaias) who says a lot about everything without saying anything. The result is obvious: there is not a single memorable quote that could be extracted from the entire ghedli literature. That memorable phrases like “against all odds” and “even the stones are burning” have come from writers twice distanced from the realty on the ground (not only did they have to be thousands of miles away from the Eritrean scene, but they also had to be foreigners) says it all. And to those who could read (the confused students), there was an additional authority to which they could defer: the colonial map (“the Map knows better”), as if Eritrea being in the colonial map was all that was needed to justify their revolution. They too, like a mute, keep pointing their finger at a map, which of course answers back to them in what else but a mute language of scribbled lines on the sand. Ghedli’s bad habit of self-reference tells us that it has nothing to say outside itself – including Eritrea! That is why in its “virtues” (self-reliance, perseverance, sacrifice, martyrdom, hadnetna, etc) we see total absence of ultimate goals that could be pointed at as the vision of the revolution, because for that it had to point outside the parameters of the revolution itself.
Now, if the ghedli generation’s quest has always been a “Yes” of deference and not of affirmation, the question that springs to our minds would be: if your dream is about a dream that you defer to others, could it ever be said that you have had a dream? That is what dreams amount to when the means dethrones the goal to be the end in itself.
From the above, we notice that these ghedli virtues, as objects of desire, carry their secondary nature on their sleeves. One such secondary object of desire turned into ghedli’s final objective was hadnetna, one that probably explains the visionless nature of the revolution more than anything else; for it is in the desperate search of it that the alien identities were adopted, with all the horrors that the Eritrean masses have been subjected to as their immediate consequences.
A revolution that makes the means (itself) its terminal end is a revolution devoid of any vision. Without a vision to guide it, a revolution resorts to unnatural means to provide meaning to its goals. As a result, those goals end up being exactly the opposite of what they were supposed to be in their organic form. “Independence” ends up referring to the land only, as in separation; “democracy” ends up subverting itself in its enduring form; and “unity” could end up meaning “unity at any cost”.
To prove that independence, as in separation, doesn’t necessarily lead to a good end, one need only point to the current sad state of Eritrea. And when it comes to the unity of a nation, if two (or more) major population groups that make up the nation don’t get along (so much so that they keep hampering each other’s freedom, security, prosperity, happiness and fulfillment in ways that are irreconcilable), it might even be wise to split up the nation; the case of Czechoslovakia would be a good example. If not, one could end up with a perennially split nation at its fault lines, such that no enduring democracy would be made to hold in the land. The introduction of democracy too is no insurance to a benevolent end. For instance, Islamic fundamentalists throughout Middle East have become the loudest proponents of democracy not because they believe in it, but because they want to use it as a scaffold to reach their non-democratic goal; a scaffold that they will have to throw away once they attain their theocratic states.
With the above counter-examples, I am trying to emphasize one obvious point that many Eritreans miss: that these goals – independence, unity and democracy – however desirable they are, are never meant to be ultimate goals; rather, they are intermediate goals put to service to achieve ultimate goals. So which are these final, ultimate goals? As mentioned above, the most prominent one are: individual liberty, prosperity, peace, security, harmony, happiness, knowledge, fulfillment, preserving one’s identity, etc. And my main point has been that when intermediate ones are taken for ultimate goals, it can only be done by subverting all those that individuals aspire and live for – as the Eritrean revolution has done.
If the above makes sense, then hadnetna, on its own, has nothing to tell us on the primary objects of desire. Therefore, the worth of hadnetna should be measured only through the worth of the ultimate objectives that could be reached through it. But in Eritrea’s ghedli, it is this natural order of things that has been turned upside down: all kinds of primary objectives of desire are denied to the population in order to achieve or preserve “unity”, be it in the form of ghedli or nation.
The kind of “unity” that ghedli espoused was for-defense-purposes in nature, one that was needed only to defeat the enemy, be it of the external or internal type. This is not the kind of unity that grows organically among population groups, as their bonds grow through various interlinks: historical, cultural, religious, neighborly, institutional, etc. Thus, ghedli’s kind of unity expends its usefulness in its defense task. That explains why the ghedli generation sought this unity anywhere else where no such organic interlinks exists, so far as it served its defense task – namely, in alien identities. When the Muslim elite sought Arabic as a binding factor among various Muslim ethnic groups, it was precisely because they felt such a superimposed “unity” was needed to defend themselves from the habesha, be from the inside or outside. So was it with the ghedli identity whose elite adherents were mainly from Kebessa; they felt that if Eritrea is to be kept as one nation, it is by waging war on all local identities, by replacing them with a brand-new revolutionary identity; the hade libi hade hizbi mantra is the logical conclusion of such undertaking. As a result, a nation is created where the liberators (teghadelti) and the liberated (ghebar) have been warily looking at one another for the last two decades. That is to say, it is with “unity” in their minds that the elite of the ghedli generation have caused all the catastrophes in the country.
In the Eritrean revolutionary context, hadnetna had always meant strategic alliance, at it best, and social atomization, at its worst; one need only look at how Jebha and Shaebia used it respectively to see how these two work. In Jebha’s eyes, the Metahit-Kebessa unity was always seen as a strategic alliance, without which the enemy couldn’t be defeated. Besides that, nothing else of substance was invested in that unity. But one needs a more robust vision than strategic alliance to build and sustain a nation. In history, many nations had made strategic alliance to fight a bigger enemy, but that doesn’t mean that they were ready to unite into one nation once the enemy is defeated. In time, let alone a nation, even Jebha as a movement found out that it could not sustain itself through strategic alliance only. In the end Jebha came to disintegrate because it could not keep the Metahit-Kebessa alliance intact under its own terms. When a strategic alliance flounders, unity is sought not among the former allies, but within each camp. This naturally leads to the making of a dual society, where both camps keep eying each other in a permanent state of hostility.
As pointed above, when unity is seen as an end in itself, it can be sustained only by subverting the very things it ought to have achieved in its organic form. We have seen how that goes when it was translated into strategic alliance, be it between Metahit and Kebessa or between teghadelti and ghebar. But it is when one looks at how Shaebia kept unity at mieda and now in independent Eritrea that one finds out how the secondary object of desire “hadnetna” has taken over all kinds of primary objects of desire – that is, how it has become an end in itself. What makes this “unity” strange is that it is achieved through the perpetual dislocation of the society. This goes contrary to intuition because, in order to keep the front or the nation united, one aims at nothing less than the atomization of the society, where the bonds that tie the individual to the larger society are deliberately tattered to render him/her “manageable”. According to this convoluted logic, the more atomized the society gets, the more likelihood that the front or nation prevails.
You wake up early in the morning to start your new job in a new city. You have all the directions written so that you do not get lost. You don’t want to take any chances, so you decide to beat the rush hour as early as possible. But to your amazement, even at that very early hour, the whole city is in total chaos, and it has become impossible to drive. Worse yet, it has become impossible to find your way out of this mess – be it to your work place or even back to your home. You see, something odd has happened overnight: all the road signs have been taken off, and randomly reassigned to all the streets throughout the city. This could be nothing but the work of the Devil himself. If you add to this bizarre situation the fact that you are not even aware of the mixed up road signs (given that you are a newcomer), your condition would accurately describe the current predicament of the Warsai generation, aptly called the Lost Generation. All the reference points – historical, cultural, moral, legal, societal, religious, global, familial, educational, etc – that would have told them with pinpointed accuracy their current whereabouts have been thrown away by Ghedli (the Devil in Eritrea) and replaced with signposts that are meant to keep them constantly disoriented.
Let’s say that, in the thought experiment, after few weeks the city dwellers have familiarized themselves with the new names, and already begin to use them as actual reference points for guidance. A new map is printed out and distributed. Things begin to take their normal course; even mail begins to arrive using the new addresses. But just as normalcy seems to return to the lives of the city dwellers, the Devil is at it again. In just one night, he messes up all the street addresses again. This is followed with the usual chaos. It seems that the Devil would just wait until some kind of normalcy returns for him to mess it up again and again. Under these circumstances, there would be no other remedy than for the people to adopt themselves to this abnormal world of perpetual dislocation.
The mass dislocation of the ghedli generation started earlier than the revolution in urban centers of Eritrea, in general, and Asmara, in particular, when they identified themselves with “Asmara modernity” and tried everything possible to distance themselves from backward Habesha – the Ethiopian, the haghereseb, the Orthodox Church, their own fathers, etc. Once dislodged from their roots, they became easy preys to the luring of ghedli. In ghedli, with every value from the past degraded to the lowest level possible, the uprooting was carried to its nihilist logical conclusion. After independence, this nihilist project went unabated both among the civilian population and the National Service. Now that his perpetual dislocation of ghedli’s making has been going on for 50 years, the young generation didn’t even get a glimpse of the normal world that would have served them as a reservoir of reference points with which to compare their abnormal position. Having grown in a completely abnormal world, the yard stick by which they assess their situation comes from none other but that abnormal world itself. Thus, the Warsai generation’s tragic condition can be summed up as: since they don’t know where they have come from (their past), they dont’ know where they are now (their present condition); and since they are unaware of their present whereabouts, they don’t know where they are heading to (what the future holds).
The main reason why the Warsai generation have been unwilling to fight back is that, amidst the shifting ground that this perpetual dislocation creates, they have been unable to clearly see any ultimate goal in the horizon. If so, the primary goal ought to have been how to halt this perpetual dislocation once and for all; but to do that, one has to see this perpetual dislocation for what it is and for what it has always been: the only potent means of keeping them in the circular ghedli journey, as atomized individuals bereft of enduring social links. Instead, they want to find their way out of their predicament by using the very coordination points provided to them by the abnormal world of ghedli’s making; and that holds so even with those who renounce Isaias and Higdef. Thus, it is this simple fact that remains lost on this generation: if it is ghedli that has brought this abnormal world into existence, it then has nothing to offer them as a way out of that self-induced problem. But don’t tell that to the Warsai generation who still keep looking back at hidri suwuatna for guidance, even as the only hidri they have found there is: “tekebeluni biretey”; and ever since, there has been nothing but the continuation of the ghedli journey. Even though their feet, as in mass exodus, have been saying “No!” to this hidri, their mouths have been in that contradictory mode symptomatic of those who have gone through massive disorientation.
To fully grasp the perpetual dislocation that the Warsai have been subjected to, one needs first to look at how this diabolic means of upholding ghedli’s wanton journey came to morph in mieda, with teghdelti as its primary victims; since it is the blueprints of mieda that are now being applied in the National Service.
Perpetual dislocation at mieda
Shaebia has honed the art of perpetual dislocation to perfection at mieda. This art boils down to this: how to atomize the teghadalay by severing off all the social links that would make him/her responsive to his/her environment. Or to put it in linguistic form: how to deprive him/her of all forms of dialog that feed his/her dialogic self. This is how I explained this unnatural world devoid of dialog in The Collective Insanity that is Killing a Nation:
“The defining mark of this paranoia was the isolation of the individual teghadaly. Any permanent bonding that might evolve between the fighters was looked at with utmost suspicion; and wherever suspected to hold, everything possible was done to disrupt it. Contact between groups of fighters, be it in the form of individuals, ganta, hayli, bottoloni or any other group was kept at the bare minimum, and always supervised with vigilant eye. Reshuffling was by far too common a phenomenon, thus denying any long lasting relationships to take hold. And more importantly, the congregation of any like-minded was vigilantly discouraged. If students gravitated towards one another, the action was condemned as elitist. If people of the same region, city or neighborhood sought out each other in the most innocuous ways, they were labeled as regionalists. If people with similar political outlook found each other, they were violently disbanded. The only ‘communal’ emotional outlet allowed was that of guaila; so much so it became Shaebia’s version of ‘the opium of the masses.’ The sum total of all these deprivations is the emergence of the isolated individual as the only unit acceptable by the organization; a unit that would be made to fit in the totalitarian machine of Shaebia. The purpose was clear: any lasting lateral relation between the fighters was to be discouraged so that the individual would be made to develop only an enduring vertical relation with Shaebia. This was, indeed, equality by subtraction at its best: the love that one lavished on Shaebia could only be had by denying the love to one another.”
This attempt to perpetually dislocate the individual teghadalay was easier to accomplish in mieda because of the insulated world that such an environment allowed. Already, by the time one had joined the movement, one had severed off almost all the links he/she had had with the larger society – family, relatives, friends, adi, town, city, school, neighborhood, work place, religion and the world at large. With that advantage to start with, the task for Shaebia was how to keep that state of isolation by denying him/her from establishing any lasting relationship with others in the new Sahel environment. And since the newcomer had arrived on the ghedli scene with social values from his/her past that still determined his behavior to some extent, the additional work for Shaebia was to erase that memory link to the world he/she left behind as much as possible. And since the best way to erase values is by providing opposing alternatives, for Shaebia the task was how to replace these social values with mieda values. For these new values to do their vertical work, they have to be self-referential and, hence, devoid of any content. For instance, for historical values, after erasing the past, all ghedli would do was refer to itself for history; so was it with culture, spirituality, economy, military, work and other values. In this task, temekro mieda was supposed to be the wellspring of all the necessary values required to create the “new man”. When this self-referential habit is taken to absurd level, one ends up with a repository of “neutral” values that could be employed either way: tewefayinet, tetsewarinet, qoratsinet, bitsifrina, biqiltsimna, hadnetna, etc (perseverance, steely resolve, sacrifice, martyrdom, self-reliance, unity, etc). Given their content-less nature, a mafia organization could easily appropriate these “values” and employ them to its nefarious end – as has been the case with Shaebia.
In this nefarious task of keeping the teghadalay in perpetual destabilization, Shaebia was aided by the nature of the martyrdom in mieda. Macabre as it seems, death in massive numbers came to the aid of Shaebia in maintaining this climate of permanent disorientation. The longer one stays in the Front, the more likely to realize that he/she is a creature of constant dislocation. People cannot live in this abnormal world devoid of all sorts of human links. And if this human deprivation continues for long, they are more likely to dissent (thousands perished in various uprisings: Falul, Menqae, Yemin, etc) or to totally abandon it (thousands escaped to Ethiopia and Sudan). This worked well for Shaebia because the danger always came from those who had become aware of their perpetual dislocation; eliminating them quickly from the scene meant keeping the large majority in the dark. But what helped it most in this task is martyrdom; death at the trenches was doing the reshuffling at a regular pace that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible with purges only. Remember that reshuffling was conducted by Shaebia when bonds between teghadelti seemed to coalesce, a precondition for any meaningful resistance to materialize. The case of peasants is a good example of how death was employed to a similar devastating effect.
For more than a decade, ghedli sustained itself through relentless giffa in the rural areas. Tens of thousands of rounded up peasants perished in defending the dejen in Sahel. Their life span in mieda was very short because, unlike many of the urbanites who were assigned to kiflitat (kifli zena, kifli timhrti, kifli sinqi, kifli tset’ta, kifli polotica, kifli hikimina, kifli hindesa, kifli bahli, etc) there was no other place for them to end up than in the murderous trenches. When thousands perished in one werar, all Shaebia had to do was conduct another giffa to fill up the trenches again. [For a more extensive discussion on peasants and giffa, please ready my article, Eritrea: Forced Peasant Conscripts that Sustained the Eritrean Revolution] This way, most of the peasants would die without ever finding their footing in this alien place they had been brought to with the barrel of the gun behind their back. They were given no time to create bonds among one another or with the rest, and perished without ever becoming a threat to the Front. Thus, put in terms of perpetual dislocation, what reshuffling did to the rest, short-lived mieda life was doing to the peasants.
Many of us wondered why was it that among the tens of thousands of teghadelti that triumphantly entered Asmara, none was willing to utter about the dark side of ghedli. In retrospect, the explanation is clear: these were socially atomized individuals who could not think in collective terms. If there is phrase that defines their state of mind, it would be: each for his/her own. It is sad to see when independence at national level could only be had by erasing independence at individual level. When the ghedli generation ventured to mieda with “independence” in their mind, however ill understood that concept was, they never realized that that spirit of rebellion came from the normal world they grew up. When they returned, the abnormal world has taken over and, with it, that dissenting spirit was irretrievably lost. Thus, the irony of the Eritrean revolution can be seen in the inversion of values at the two ends of the journey: when they joined the revolution, it was as free men; but when they returned, it was with their spirit totally broken down.
Notice how the kind of “unity” that Shaebia was working hard to keep in mieda was counter intuitive: for the front to remain united, the social atomization of teghadelti became a necessity. The less cohesion there was among the freedom fighters, the less threat there was from them, and hence the more “united” got the front. The logic, convoluted as it is, is rather simple to follow: For the ghedli journey to continue, hadnetna was indispensable for defense purposes. And if hadnetna at the Front level was to be sustained, it could only be done by permanently disorienting the teghadalay at individual level so that he would never get his footing in the Sahel environment as to be a threat to the organization. And that permanent disorientation could be attained only by permanently destabilizing him/her, thereby denying him/her the reference points by which he/she could locate his/her present whereabouts. Thus, when unity becomes an end in itself, it does exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do: it keeps atomizing the society; and if need be, to a point of collapse – as Eritrea now seems to be heading to.
Currently, we can see how this perpetual dislocation is going on among the population, in general, and the Warsai generation, in particular. What death at a rapid rate and constant reshuffling, among other things, did to teghadelti in mieda to perpetually dislocate them, exodus and National Service is doing it now to the Warsai generation. Let me start with the general population to see why Shaebia felt it needed to go the “mieda way” with the Warsai generation.
Perpetual dislocation of the masses
In its 21 years of rule, Shaebia has never stopped to amaze us by the new stratagems that it comes up to perpetually dislocate the people. Shaebia’s central logic as to how to keep the masses perpetually disoriented goes as follows: if the people cannot be made to go to Sahel, Sahel has to be brought to them. In this task, a similar procedure as in mieda’s is followed: first comes the erasure of the people’s values, then follows the replanting of ghedli values. In doing the first, it has been conducting a relentless assault on age-old and modern institutions – family, religion, culture, history, legal system, etc – since these tend to be the most robust links of the social fabric that have sustained the masses for centuries. There is no better place to see that than in the destruction of ‘adi’s institutions.
There are three pillars of ‘adi, symbolized by the Church/Mosque, baito/da’iro (the sycamore tree) and the elders, around which communal life gravitates. While the religious center is where the spiritual quest of the peasants is met, baito is where their legal quest is met. And whenever a collective wisdom (history, legends, myths, stories, genealogy, shimghilna, advice, etc.) is sought, one goes to the village archive – the elders. And it is these three institutions that have sustained the village for centuries that have been relentlessly assaulted by Shaebia. First, for religions to be useful “in building Eritrea”, they had to be restructured in the most violent way to accommodate Shaebia’s designs. This regime showed its disrespect for the age-old institution of priesthood in the most contemptuous way imaginable when it decided to arm priests and deacons – a taboo never trespassed in the history of the Orthodox Church. This happens to be a continuation of its mieda ways, when it used to conduct giffa of wulde kahnat in ancient monasteries. Second, Shaebia’s arbitrary decrees on everything that the peasant depends – on land, food products, markets, national service, militia, etc – have also rendered highi enda’ba obsolete. And, third, they have shown no qualms in their contempt for the wisdom of elders; after all, the history, myths, legends, stories, genealogies, traditions, morals and laws of the land told and retold by elders tend to totally negate everything that ghedli has been telling the masses. Even shimghiina which was reserved for the revered shimaghle (notice the etymological connection between the two words) in the traditional world was seen as a threat by Shaebia. Only in Shaebia’s Eritrea would elders in their 70s and 80s be detained for attempting to mediate between former comrades in arms. In all the three cases, the heavy blows on the society are meant to tatter the social fabric to its flimsiest.
After the demolition, the replacement of old values with ghedli values starts in earnest. Or rather, whenever a void is created by the demolition, the Ghedli Spirit is meant to fill it in to reflect the new reality. The Khmer Rouge declared the year they entered Phnom Phen the Year Zero [Year Zero (political notion) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]; with that, all the past was meant to be erased, with the history of Cambodia starting from them – self-referential history at its best. Even though unstated in such a blunt way, the same holds true in the Eritrean case. With their triumphant entrance in Asmara, the Year Zero started. Since then, the Ghedli Spirit is meant to suffuse everything, felt by everyone, everywhere and all the time – nothing less than the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Ghedli Spirit is aimed at. This is to be witnessed in the revolutionary renaming of streets, currency, companies, buildings and other landmarks (Harnet, Nakfa, Denden, Sewra, etc); in the revolutionary songs, theaters, film, literature and other forms of art; in the ghedli content of Shaebia-monopolized media; in the rewriting of the whole history at the school and outside; etc. But there is no better example than the ubiquitous festivals to carry the masses back to the world of ghedli.
If a nation was to be graded by the number of festivals it conducts, Eritrea would probably come out first: Independence Day, Martyrs Day, Labour Day, Women’s Day, Operation Fenkil Day, Bahti Meskerem and all other events created (like Expo) for such occasion. And some of these last for days, if not weeks. The invocation of martyrs has been effectively used to disorient the masses in these festival days; the ghedli narrative, with the story martyrs at the center of it, totally takes over. In the old habesha world, with Saints’ Days filling up a huge chunk of the Geez Calendar, the Coptic masses used these days as reference points in their daily lives. Shaebia’s Calendar is meant to replace that world by providing alternative Holy Days and their Ghedli Patron Saints, complete with their hagiographies. [For an extensive discussion on festivals and PFDJ, please read Tekle Woldemikael’s “Pitfalls of Nationalism” in Biopolitics, Militarism and Development: Eritrea in Twenty-First Century] And what is more, as in the old days of mieda, in these festivals guaila has become the opium of the masses.
Even though guaila as “spiritual venue” is undeniably vulgar, it has a striking similarity with religious meeting places in its dialogic structure. Remember that guaila was the only communal gathering that was allowed in mieda; it had to be a non-dialogic kind of gathering to be rendered as a harmless form of outlet. In a church, a hundred people could gather without any of them talking to one another, since the dialog is held vertically with the Spirit. The same has been the role of guaila in the revolutionary context: it has become a way of vertically making a link with the Ghedli Spirit. It is no surprise then that it is the worst totalitarian states that insist on massive gatherings in festivals while disallowing any groups from gathering in much smaller numbers. In Eritrea, no gathering above seven persons is allowed. Yet, for a tiny and extremely poor nation, its festivals are sprawling, filling up a stadium; elaborate in its details – parades, costume, music bands, theater, exhibition, etc; and made to last many days. The numbers, indeed, tell a story: to display “unity” at a massive level in these festivals, the atomization of the society is required; the more massive the display (as in North Korea), the more severe the social atomization.
The latest attempt in disorienting the masses is the whole sale arming of the masses; not even women and the old are spared. This is supposed to accomplish, among other things, what the classical reshuffling was doing in mieda. In mieda, reshuffling was done whenever a crisis seems to be in the horizon. Many in Eritrea and outside have been wondering what Shaebia intends to accomplish with this bizarre move, and many of those have come to the conclusion that it wants to create internal strife. They would be right only if that “internal strife” is understood within the objective that perpetual dislocation aims at. Shaebia would have nothing to gain by instigating civil war among Eritreans – at least, not until its reign ends. But it has a lot to gain by sowing distrust among one another. What this does is prevent any social cohesion among the population to hold. The more members of a society are alienated from one another, the less likely Shaebia would face a threat from an uprising. As in the case of mieda, the ultimate goal of the government is “social atomization”, as David Bozzini has aptly noted. [Why is Eritrea arming its civilian population with Kalashnikovs …]
Again, notice, how Shaebia tends to keep the nation intact together – that is, “united”. It has been following the same script that it applied in mieda: if Eritrea as a nation is to remain “united”, it is by denying any other kind of unity to hold among the masses. Notice that any kind of lateral unity that naturally grows out of various dialogic interactions is considered to be a threat to the nation. This is equality by subtraction at its best, as applied to unity: if Eritrea is to achieve unity, it is by forcing individuals to sacrifice any other unity they could have among one another, as in family, school, neighborhood, village, region, church/mosque, etc. In order to unify vertically with Shaebia or “Eritrea”, one has to cut off all lateral links that feed his/her very self. This then is the logical consequence of imposing an alien identity on the masses, for the main virtues of ghedli identity happens to be that “it unifies us”. Thus, when unity is taken as an end in itself, it morphs into a monster that keeps devouring all the tseghatat that sustained the masses for centuries by doing the opposite of what a naturally grown organic unity would do – welcome to the abnormal world of ghedli’s making!
But the grandest of all these dislocations after independence has been the National Service, where hundreds of thousands of youth were put in a secluded environment, away from the general population. Given the resilience of the traditional society, Shaebia felt that bringing Sahel to them was not an easy task. That is when it decided to move the young generation to the reinvented mieda Eritrea – the new Sahel.
Warsai in perpetual dislocation
Even though the task of keeping the Eritrean masses in perpetual dislocation has been going on since independence, it was with the border war that Shaebia found the perfect environment for its most nefarious task: to recreate the mieda environment in modern-day Eritrea. As noted above, half of the task needed to perpetually dislocate teghadelti was done by the mere fact that the newcomers, be it forcibly or voluntarily, had left their natural habitat in the cities, towns and villages across the country. So, for Shaebia, the primary problem it faced in perpetually dislocating the Warsai generation was: how to uproot them from their natural habitat. Without that spatial displacement, that perverse social experiment to create a “new man” in the image of teghadalay would have never been attempted. It is in this sense then that the border-war came at the nick of time to save Shaebia.
With the National Service, an entire generation have been displaced from their natural habitat and relocated in the reinvented Sahel habitat. With this, the aim is to deny them all the reference points that a normal habitat provides to assess one’s condition. If they don’t know their past, it would be impossible for them to know their and their country’s current position in historical terms. If they are denied family contact as early as possible, they wouldn’t be able to realize how to assess their situation in terms of family values. If they are denied spiritual guidance, they wouldn’t realize how perverse it is when ghedli values are provided to them for moral guidance. If they don’t know the kind of education provided to them in relative terms, then they wouldn’t realize their actual educational standing. If they don’t realize what is going on in the outside world, then in absence of global reference points they would not realize their state in comparison to the rest of the world. And on and on it goes. Once the uprooting has been done, the replanting starts in earnest. But since temekro mieda lacks identifiable content that could be taught in any formal way, it can only be learned through experience. And for this, the whole ghedli experience has to be reenacted on the ground. Thus, in the new Sahel, the Warsai had to play the double slave role of “warrior” and “builder” by developing his/her “how” attributes: tewefayinet, tetsewarinet, qoratsinet, bitsifrina, biqiltsimna, etc. With these overarching two tasks accomplished – first, the uprooting, then the replanting – the goal of keeping the Warsai in perpetual dislocation seems to have been attained. Or is it?
The problem with Shaebia’s experimentation is that it failed to create an environment as insulated as Sahel. The semi-insulated environment of the National Service remains susceptible to both outside and inside influences; and, as a result, the social atomization happens to be not as severe as it was with teghadalti. But this doesn’t mean that its experimentation has been total failure. Even though the lack of a continuous war has denied Shaebia the opportunity to get rid of disgruntled elements before they “contaminate” the rest, in this job it has been helped by the mass exodus made possible by the porous borders. If we carefully look at the demographics of those fleeing Eritrea, most happen to be from the Warsai generation that stayed long enough in the service to properly size up their situation. This way Shaebia would always remain with similar harmless population groups that it used to keep in mieda: the underage, women, peasants and pastorals. Only this time it has added the overage to this list. The only problem is that this happens to be a double edged sword: while evicting the most seasoned of the Warsai generation through mass exodus has stretched Shaebia’s life, it has weakened it to the extent that it can no more protect itself from outside attack. But that is what social atomization does: while it protects the Front or “Eritrea” from internal uprising, thereby maintaining its “unity”, it comes at the final cost of social disintegration.
And then there is the social cost of the atomization at individual level. Even though the social atomization of Warsai didn’t reach the extent it was among the teghadelti, enough of that has taken place to render them harmless to Shaebia. Given the hundreds of thousands that have left Eritrea in mass exodus, it is easy to see that if even a fraction of them had risen up, it would have been the end of Shaebia. The fact they couldn’t act collectively tells the extent of Shaebia’s success in socially atomizing them. Instead of looking at the abnormal world of Shaebia’s making as a national problem that victimizes the Eritrean society, in general, and the Waresai generation, in particular, each and every one of them addressed it as an individual problem and sought an individual solution to it: how to get the hell out of abnormal Eritrea and find a place where they can lead a normal life. As in the case of teghadelti, after going through the social experimentation, each was for himself/herself. Most of them, even though brutalized in the National Service, never took Shaebia as an enemy. Having grown up in a world suffused with Ghedli Spirit, it never occurred to them to fight back against the embodiment of that very spirit – Shaebia itself. It is only now that they are making noises in protest – thousands of miles away from where it would have made a difference.
When this social atomization takes its worst form, the “each for himself/herself” credo morphs into a Hobbesian one of “zeben wura wura, nebscha ayteibira”, where some of the Warsai generation literally tread over each other’s corpse to do the unimaginable: hundreds of them have been involved in selling their own kind to Rashaidas and Bedouin Arabs. Reminiscent of the old slave trade in Africa, they have become the middlemen in this modern-day slavery, with its network spreading from the PFDJ in Asmara all the way to the Bedouin Arabs in the Sinai. Having grown up in an environment whose social fabric has been tattered to the flimsiest possible, nothing is anymore newri to these modern day slave traders. At their worst then, in this Hobbesian world of “survival of the fittest”, the Warsai have turned out to be the mirror image of Shaebia itself. Here is a stanza I once wrote to explain in how Shaebia out-survived its rivals (Jebha, Derghi and all kinds of internal dissenters) to end up triumphantly in Asmara [Martyrs and Martyrdom]:
Despite doing everything wrong
if a family remains healthy and plumb
at a time of great famine,
count and recount its children:
it could have been eating its young.
That socialist self-absolution, “The revolution devours its own children”, describes Shaebia’s past more than anything else. Once Shaebia started eating its “young” at its very inception, it never stopped. With the border war, Shaebia returned to its cannibalistic self of the old days of mieda, when it survived by devouring tens of thousands of unwilling peasants, among others. And now, it is devouring the Warsai. If so, that worst elements of Warsai have internalized this cannibalistic habit of eating their own wouldn’t be a surprise at all. It would only show the extent of the success of the social atomization.
We have seen how the National Service provided Shaebia with Sahel-like environment to mold the young generation in the image of teghadalay. And it is this search for alien ghedli identity, whose two defining marks are the “Spartan warrior” (never-ending confrontation) and the “selfless developer” (never-ending slavery), that is to be blamed for the mass exodus of this generation.
The attack on the family
Above, we have seen how social atomization has been going among three population groups: among teghadelti, the masses and the Warsai generation. In these 50 years of madness, the greatest victim of the aimless ghedli journey has been the fundamental unit of the society: the family itself. Even though all of the factors mentioned above have, either directly or indirectly, contributed to the weakening of the family, the direct assault aimed at the family started with giffa of the peasants during the ghedli era. Nobody was spared in this indiscriminate giffa: the young and adult, the underage and overage, the male and female, the farmer and kahin, etc. At its most contemptuous, Shaebia not only dared to set its feet on sacred monasteries, but also on its secular counterpart, the wushate, to drag out underage brides to be used as fodder in its defense of the dejen in Sahel. The numbers tell it all: the overwhelming majority of all the female martyrs (estimated to be one third of all the martyrs) happen to hail from villages across Eritrea, almost all of them conscripted by force. This difret was unparalleled in Eritrea’s history, for neither the Ethiopians nor the Italians have ever dared to enter the monastery or the wushate for military recruitment. No wonder then that Shaebia is now trying to emulate its success in mieda in assaulting the family unit, with the same purpose in mind: defending the dejen, only now the dejen happens to include the whole of Eritrea.
Shaebia has always thought that the family stands on its way in its social experimentation to mold 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 furthest 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.
If the above makes sense, then we can say without exaggeration that with the all out assault on the family conducted by ghedli in the last five decades, the social atomization of the society has been rendered complete.
If the ghedli identity is to be credited for chasing away the Warsai generation all the way to Sinai, the other alien identity – the Arab identity – was lying there in wait to complete the farce of the ghedli journey.
Convergence at Sinai
Nothing symbolizes better than the Eritrean refugees’ tragic condition at the Sinai the dire consequences of the alien identities’ quest associated with the revolutionary journey – those of ghedli and Arab identities. In the Sinai, the Arabs have shown us unequivocally what they think of us. If so, we need to look at how the tectonic dislocations these quests for alien identities have caused among Eritreans have found convergence at Sinai.
What the ghedli identity has done to the Warsai generation is obvious. Twice uprooted – first from their natural habitat in the villages, towns and cities across Eritrea and then altogether from their country, never to turn back – they have been facing all kinds of horror in their itinerary to exile: first, in the National Service, where they face indefinite service, slave labor, war, imprisonment, torture, execution, etc; second, in the refugee camps, where they face long years of wasteful life, destitution, kidnapping, etc; and, third, further in their journey in places like Libya, Egypt and Israel, where they face racism of the most virulent type, with mass detention, mass deportation and mass deaths as its defining marks. We have seen that in Libya, where hundreds perished in the Mediterranean in the effort to escape rabid Arab racism that targeted black Africans in their “Arab Spring”. We are seeing that in Israel, where similar rabid racism among the public was recently on display in the streets; and the government is following suit by creating mass detention centers and forcing newcomers back to Egypt. But there is no better place than Egypt where all these evils have found convergence. This is a nation that has been deporting Eritreans back to Eritrea in their hundreds, and still holds hundreds more in its prisons. But it is in Sinai that the alien identities that ghedli has created come to their farcical conclusion.
Rape and identity
The list of atrocities that the Eritrean refugees have been subjected to under the Arab hands is long: racism, kidnapping, detention, rape, torture, extortion, deportation, drowning, organ harvest, mass murder, slavery, etc. But rape throws light on the identity variable more than the rest.
The Arabists among us have been claiming that, rape or no rape, we are organically connected to the Arab world. The loudest proponent of this “organic link” has been Saleh Ghadi of awate.com, who has been hop scotching around the world giving speeches on how this link goes. Given my penchant for habesha ambiguity (call it qinye, if you want), let me render his words true in ways he won’t like it: there is no better organic connection than organs being reaped out of young Eritrean bodies to be replanted in ailing bodies of old Arabs. See how our young are robbed of decades of life to stretch the lives of old ailing Arabs by just few years … see how lopsided this whole organic connection can get. And this metaphor of “organic connection” holds true in more ways than the Arabists can imagine. But let me start at the beginning, from ghedli’s project to create alien identities, to see how this organic link goes.
There is something terribly wrong in the premise of ghedli’s project to create alien identities ex nihilo: that it is entirely up to us Eritreans to adopt whatever identity we want. But identity is shaped more by external circumstances over which one has no control. Anyone who has read rudimentary Black History would realize what is terribly wrong with this premise; black Americans came to learn that the hard way. For instance, if one light skinned black American (let’s say with 90 percent white blood in his veins) decided to put himself in the “white” category and thereby distance himself from the rest of Black America during the Jim Crow era, a single event was all that would be needed to remind him where he/she actually belonged. All that he had to do was try to enact his belief on the ground – attempt to go to a white hotel, to ride in the white-reserved part of the bus, to enroll his child in white school, etc – to find out his real identity. At no time would the wider world he lived in “put him back to his place”, despite disproportionate pints of white blood that ran in his veins. That was how much the white world respected its white blood under a black man’s skin. That is to say, even though individuals have a lot of say in the making of their identity, it is up to the larger society to mold and accept them as such. If there is anything that the Sinai tragedy has done, for all of those who are pining for Arabic identity, it has put them back in their place. The simple fact is: the larger Arab society doesn’t accept Eritreans as its own; and this has been unequivocally shown through the brutality that Eritreans are being met with throughout the Arab world.
Let me refer to Ghadi and his organic link again: in his over-zealousness to find the Arab in us, he has been counting how many pints of Arab blood we have in our veins. So was the light skinned black American mentioned above – 90 percent! What we have learned in that example is that how much one wants to identify himself with others, it is those powerful others that do determine his identity by rejecting him. Here is a good example from Sinai how that rejection in its most cruel form goes: In one of the horror stories that were coming out of the Sinai, there was this case of a raped Eritrean girl that gave birth to a child. Now guess what that Arab rapist of a “father” did to his child. Of course, the idea of acknowledging the child as his is out of question; the habesha blood in the child has rendered it unclean to contemplate such an action. What is surprising is that he went much further than that in his disavowal: he used to torture the child in the most cruel way imaginable to extort money out of her family. So much for the “Arab blood in our veins”! As in the above given example that is how much the Arabs love their blood under Habesh skin. So even if we agree with Ghadi on the proportions of blood he invokes to find the Arab in us (even though all that he needs is to look at his face in the mirror and ask himself whether it is in his color or his features that the Arab in him resides to refute his theory), the question is not what we think of that blood, but what the Arabs think of it.
Thus, “Eritrea” as forged by ghedli identity or by Arabic identity doesn’t mean anything to the Arabs. They see our faces, they identify us as Habesh; the “Eritrean identity” as separate from “Habesha identity” happens to have no currency at all in the Arab world. The fact that the Arabs made no distinction between Eritrean and Ethiopian faces in their maltreatment says it all. It happens to be similar to the way white Americans treated the black American in the above example, the only difference being that we don’t even have that shade of difference from Ethiopians that the light skinned black American taught had a redeeming value. The Arabs would give a damn if the refugees invoke their nation’s Arab link (even if they shout that in Arabic) as they rape them, torture them, blackmail their families, rip their organs and murder them. Joining the Arab League or making Arabic the official language would not change that perception even an iota. I don’t think that even invoking Islam would help, as has been amply shown in their maltreatment of some Muslim Eritreans and Darfurians. And as for Christian Eritreans, the bind happens to be double; for the Arabs, all they see is the “abed” and the “infidel” bundled together into one. It was with this in mind that I wrote the following stanza when it was in the news that one Eritrean lady was raped by eight Arabs [(IV) Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism]:
Rape and identity in Egypt
As heavyset Arab rapists
laid on top of her one by one,
all the little Eritrean lady felt was
the full weight
of her Habesha identity.
That is to say, even if Eritreans want to escape their Habesha identity, it caught up with them big time at the Sinai. That kind of rude awakening was needed to remind Eritreans that they cannot escape their skins – literally. The sad part is that those who are reaping the “fruits of ghedli” at the Sinai happen to be the sons and daughters of the ghedli generation, totally unaware that they are paying for the sins of that generation – a direct consequence of the perpetual disorientation that they have been subjected to in today’s Eritrea. Sadly, after having come out of the Arab horror from Sinai (those who have escaped the Arab dagger), you hear this same Warsai generation invoking “hidri suwuatna” ad nausea to find meaning to their tragic condition, oblivious that it is the very ghedli behind which they are seeking refuge that has rendered them vulnerable to all kinds of vultures, domestic and foreign alike.
This rape phenomenon in the Arab world uniquely describes the predicament of the Eritrean women refugees, as closely tied to their true identity. This is not to say that they are not met with rape anywhere else. Any place where women are rendered vulnerable, rape exists. But not to the extent and duration and with such impunity as it exists in the Arab world. You don’t hear of Eritrean women mass raped anywhere else – not in Uganda, not in Kenya, not in Ethiopia, not in South Africa, not in Israel and most certainly not in the West. What indeed explains this malady that afflicts the Arab world? In this culture of repressed sexuality, there are three factors that make a lethal combination to the victim: (a) deep seated racism against the African/Habesha, (b) contempt for others than Muslims (d) and utter disregard for women in general. If the victim happens to be an Eritrean lady of the habesha kind, she happens to transgress all these three taboos that would make her an easy pray to Arab predators. To all of this if you add the fact that there is no rule of law in these countries, or rather that the law is selectively applied to their own kind only, you can easily see the horror the Eritrean women have been going through in Arab lands on their way to the free world – from Sudan, to Libya and Egypt.
The Arab apologists, driven by that alien quest to identify themselves with Arabs, come up with all kinds of excuses to exculpate the Arabs from the atrocities they commit against the helpless Eritrean refugees, the most frequent ones being: it is just a few Arabs. But the fact is that what the Bedouin Arab (and policemen and soldiers, to a lesser extent) is doing cannot be imagined to take place independent of the pervasive Arab mentality towards the African, in general, and the Habesh, in particular. In the Jim Crow era too it was few whites that were lynching blacks, but this would have been impossible without the general attitude of whites towards blacks that prevailed then throughout the land. So what is important is to identify that general climate of intolerance that allowed such heinous behavior to take place with impunity rather than the behavior of the few who conducted the most abhorrent crimes. That is to say, as lynching was the extreme expression of that climate of intolerance displayed in the Jim Crow era, the Sinai tragedy is an extreme form of expression of the Arab contempt towards Habesh. Let me look at this phenomenon by focusing on Egypt, the very place where the Eritrean movement was hatched by a few Arabists.
The Egyptian Factor
Jebha’s unabashed love for everything Arab is to be seen in everything it taught, aspired and did. Every teghadalay had to learn how the “brotherly Arab people” were helping Eritrea in its fight against colonial Ethiopia: the Syrian and Iraqi connection were told and retold many times. Not only was Jebha receiving much of its arms from them, at one time Iraqi trainers were training commandos in the Eritrean field. Even when Jebha thought “big”, such as socialism and ethnic equality, it was impossible for it to think outside the Arab world. All of its inspirations had to come from nowhere else but the Arab world; socialism had to come in its Arab grab as Baathism, and for “ethnic federalism” of the mieda sort, it had to emulate the “Algerian experience”. Further, not only did it adopt the Arabic language as its lingua franca, but it also unabashedly declared Eritrea to be an Arab country. Jebha’s unabashed Arabism is not the topic of contention here; instead, the question is whether the Arabs reciprocated in kind. There is no doubt that they did their best to separate Eritrea from Ethiopia, but would that translate into the kind of acceptance that Jebha was pining for? Let’s look at the Egyptian factor at a state level.
At one time, characteristically, Saleh Younis bragging points on ghedli’s virtues included that the Eritrean Revolution was not a proxy war – that is, that Eritrea’s self-reliant revolution was not doing the bidding of any nation (“It was not a proxy war for any other power”). [The Spark, The Fire and The Torch]; But the Egyptians would definitely like to differ. Even though Eritreans from all walks of life love to relate how they conducted a self-reliant struggle entirely independent of outsiders’ influence, form the eyes of Egyptian policy makers the entire Eritrean revolution falls squarely as Egypt’s proxy war against Ethiopia. The Egyptians would care less about what Eritreans believed in regard to their revolution so far as they ended up doing their bidding in the larger scheme of things: permanently destabilizing Ethiopia. Given their overarching Nile Policy, one that has remained consistent from the first time they set foot on Eritrean soil in the 19th century up to this day, all they care is to make sure that no strong nation emerges from the region to challenge the monopoly they claim over the Nile waters. To that end, Egypt considers the successful separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia a major accomplishment. If hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have died in that overarching calculation, the Egyptians give a damn. Simply put, the overarching Egyptian policy towards that region has been: how to permanently destabilize the Habesha world so that it would never find its footing in the region as to challenge its hegemony over the Nile waters.
Even as Egypt keeps abusing Eritreans in every way imaginable, it still keeps its strategic alliance with Eritrea intact; in fact there is nothing contradictory in doing both. Given its overarching Nile policy, Egypt will do whatever it can to support Eritrea against Ethiopia, irrespective of whatever kind of government comes up in Asmara. It is within this context that the Egyptian reaction towards Eritrean refugees ought to be seen. The Egyptian government has realized that at this point in time, when Eritrea is in a no-peace-no-war standoff with Ethiopia, anything that weakens the Eritrean army is against its interest. The fact that thousands of army deserters and conscription evaders have been making their way to Israel via Egypt doesn’t sit well with the Egyptian government. The reaction has been swift: deportation, detention, outright shooting at the Israeli border and tolerance for all kinds of atrocities that are taking place at the Sinai extortion camps.
But it is not only in Egypt that we witness this phenomenon; the whole Arab world is in tune with Egypt’s policy. Besides keeping the Egyptian interest at their heart, there is also this age old dream of the Arabic world to turn the Red Sea into a wholly Arab sea. That dream, they believe, came closer to being realized with the independence of Eritrea. Any reversal on that front would mean that that dream would be irretrievably lost. That is why, until recently, Isaias has been using his Arabic card effectively in marshaling indispensable help from the Arabic world: Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States (especially Qatar), etc; and even the non-Arab Iran enters into this calculation. It is then not surprising to see the so called supporters of the Eritrean revolution have turned out to be the most brutal and unaccommodating when it comes to Eritrean refugees (and much more so if those refugees happen to be of the habesha type) and the most enabling of the Isaias regime.
It seems to me the “spare parts” metaphor (as in “organs’) aptly describes the farce of what the ghedli generation has been doing in its search of alien identities. Here is a nation that has been seen by the Arab world as a spare part to fit in their greater scheme, and once the goal is achieved, it is entirely discarded as has been clearly displayed in the maltreatment of its people. For the Egyptians we have expended our use when we are done with destabilizing Ethiopia. So, to them, be it as nation or as individuals, we are nothing more than spare parts to be utilized for the greater Arab Cause and then thrown away, as the thousands of Eritrean carcasses strewn all over the Sinai desert amply testify.
First, we have seen how the ghedli identity victimized the Warsai generation by mass evicting them from Eritrea to finally find themselves stranded in the Arab world – just to show us the farce of the other alien identity, the Arab identity. But this is not only in this way that these alien identities have found convergence at Sinai. If one carefully looks at the reactions of Eritreans to this tragedy, one notices that the search of these alien identities is still going on strong.
The deadly silence that hadnetna demands
If you think that hadnetna, and the alien identities it inspired, has lost its appeal, think again. Above, we have seen how the very idea of “keeping ghedli/Eritrea together” has been the cause for all kinds of atrocities Eritreans have been facing in the last 50 years. Now, we can see that in the response of the foot soldiers in regards to the Sinai tragedy.
If one ventures to Dehai or any other Shaebia-affiliated website, one will see that not a single teardrop has been shed for all the thousands of victims in Egypt and Libya – kidnapping, detention, rape, torture, extortion, deportation, drowning, organ harvest and mass murder. Not a single tear drop was shed when hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. And now, not a single tear drop is shed for the thousands of Eritreans buried in sands of Sinai desert. What explains this eerie silence?
Now, we cannot say that it is because these victims are not of their own kind that they are indifferent to their plight. Despicable as that act would be, we would have at least gotten some rational explanation to the puzzle. But that is not the case, the fact being that nearly all of the Eritrean victims are from Tigrigna stock, a description that would match exactly with those congregating at Dehai. Not only that; in fact, many of the victims happen to be immediate family members or relatives of some of these ardent supporters of the totalitarian regime. Therefore, as many other Eritreans, they have been doing all they can to save their beloved ones; and whenever a tragedy takes place among their own, they have been grieving in private. If so, what makes these people not utter a single word of condemnation to either Libya or Egypt, let alone to the Eritrean government? What explains for their total lack of outrage? Answer: simply because the alien Shaebia/ghedli identity they want to identify with demands such a silence.
The answer is rather obvious: they would rather see all the Eritrean ladies that pass through the Arab land being raped by Arabs or even all the victims buried in the Sinai desert rather than jeopardize Eritrea’s relationship with Arabs that they think is vital in its stance against Ethiopia, hence – according to them – in its survival as a nation. See, how safeguarding “Eritrea” necessitates this kind of silence in face of unheard of atrocities. Of course, for direction, these foot soldiers are closely following the reactions of the Shaebia regime in Asmara, a government that would not dare register a single protest to Egypt or Libya about the atrocities committed against its own nationals. To the contrary, it fully condones it, believing that in the end it would help it stem the mass exodus. And, now, as has lately transpired, it has even been involved in the lucrative trade of human trafficking. So when Highdefites respond to the call of “strategic alliance” from Asmara, it is with the “noble cause of saving the hadnet of Eritrea” in their minds.
But this mentality is not confined to Highdefites. It is also rampant among the opposition groups. There are those who are mad how Eritrean refugees are being treated by Arabs but, in their quest for hadnetna, are careful not to offend Arab sensibilities among Eritreans rather than openly attack the alien identities that have victimized their people. And then there are those who openly identify themselves with the Arab cause and try their utmost to protect the victimizes from stigmatization, with the worry that if the truth is told the Arab link might get frayed. A good example of that would be what has lately been going on at Awate.com [Have You Seen This On The Mainstream Media?].
The Awate Team despairing for Gaza victims
Think of a very liberal white American who never stops confronting people whenever he hears them use the word “nigger”. One day a neighbor comes running to him in alarm and says, “A n– is raping your daughter around the corner!” Now, why is it that we think this fellow liberal is either out of his mind or doesn’t give a damn about his daughter if he stops to lecture his neighbor about the immorality of using the n-word and how that word happens to stigmatize all of blacks? We would say, “Where in his inner self did he find this sense of outrage at a time when all the outrage he could muster ought to have been directed at saving his daughter?” That picture fits well the Awate Team’s recent reaction to the Gaza-Isareli conflict.
What made me mad about those people who came to the defense of Bedouin Arabs when the news about Eritreans suffering under their hands was fresh was not that there was anything wrong in their logic (after all, nobody should stigmatize a whole tribe for the work of a few, if that is all that there is to it), but that they came too quick to their defense, when all their sympathy ought to have been directed towards the victims. It is in the same vein that I look at Awate Team’s latest farce: Where does their sense of outrage come from, while countless Eritreans have been abducted, ransomed, tortured, raped, organ-harvested and murdered in the Sinai and about a thousand more are still held hostages by the Bedouin Arabs next door to Gaza?
And to add insult to injury, that there is a connection between the Bedouin Arabs and the Palestinians in Gaza in this extortion business have been established more than once. [ Report: Hamas torturing 250 Eritreans in Egypt, Israelis arrested for Hamas Sinai kidnapping plot] In one of those news reports, in a case where four Israelis were arrested for helping a Hamas operative in extorting money from relatives of those Eritrean kidnapped by Bedouin Arabs, it says: “Amad Abu Arar, a Hamas operative who lives in Gaza, allegedly contacted Grad in late August and instructed him to go to Tel Aviv to collect $13,000 from an uncle of an Eritrean migrant captured by Bedouin smugglers on his way to Israel.” [Four Israelis arrested for extortion of Eritrean migrants | The Times of …]
And given that the human trafficking and arms smuggling in the Sinai are in the same hands, there wouldn’t be a surprise if a Sinai-Gaza alliance exists in this gruesome business. If so, here then is the brutal truth that follows: some of the Eritrean organs are being sold to further a cause dear to all Arabs – the Palestinian Cause as spearheaded by Hamas. And what does the Awate Team do? They want us to sympathize with the tragedy of the very people that are victimizing us in Gaza. And this is not something that happened in the distant past; the rape, extortion, torture, organ harvest and murder is still going on as the Team is crying a river for the Gaza victims! The latest has been from BBC, from few days ago, where we hear a harrowing cry for help from a young Eritrean under torture. [BBC News – Today – ‘Kidnapped’ Eritrean man in plea for life]
But what makes it disgusting is that while they want us to forget what is going on right now in the Sinai so that we could economize our emotions to focus on the killings in Gaza, they want us to remember what happened to us by Ethiopians decades ago. The not-so-subtle connection between the two videos they want us to draw is obvious: by putting Israel and Ethiopia together on one camp and Gaza and Eritrea together on the opposite camp, a geopolitical line is to be drawn in our minds. And where do we put the Sinai tragedy in this geopolitical regrouping? Well, to them, as in the case of ghedli, this is a price that has to be paid for this Arab hadnet.
Let me ask this hypothetical question to underscore the farce of Eritrean sympathy as directed to those who don’t need or even want it: what would the Hamas operative from Gaza who was receiving money from human trafficking in Sinai say if he heard that in an Eritrean website Eritreans are crying in despair as they see Arabs children killed in Gaza? I am sure he would be bemused, and would probably say, “These Habesh must be awfully generous people. First, they donate their organs for our cause. Now, they are wailing with us for our children …” Imagine a black slave during slavery era lamenting the fact that white women were not allowed to vote, even as he/she knew such a transformation wouldn’t change an iota to his/her people’s condition. The question is, even though women’s suffrage is a noble cause, was a slave really in a position to lament the disenfranchisement of white women? Would the white women even care for the sympathy of a slave? The slave’s deplorable position would make such a gesture of sympathy farcical at best. So is it in our case. As in the case of identity, the issue is not whether we sympathize with them, but whether they care for our sympathy. Would they even give a damn about sympathy coming from abed? Ah, what a pathetic race we have turned out to be!
That fact is that neither in the Arab world nor in Israel are Eritreans treated humanely. I don’t think that Eritreans have ever been faced with the kind of rabid racism they have been met with in Israel anywhere in the world, including the Arab world. That is why I find it incomprehensible when Eritreans take sides on this issue. It is like asking a prisoner which of his torturers he likes best. The Gaza-Israel conflict is a non-issue to us, and this is why: we cannot afford it. We need all our emotions directed to our own victims, be they in the Arab hellhole called Sinai or in the detention camps in Israel designed only for African refugees.
Looking at the reactions of both the regime supporters and the opposition to the Sinai tragedy so as to preserve the kind of hadnet they think is necessary for their respective alien identities to prevail, the most critical question that needs to be seriously entertained is this: what kind of a monster is this “Eritrea” that it requires the kind of hadnet that demands endless sacrifice of its children, be it in death, slavery or rape, to sustain itself?
Family resemblance of the alien identities
If the story of the Eritrean refugee woman going northward is to be told, it would be a trail of tears that begins with the PFDJ rapists at home and ends with Arab rapists in Libya or Egypt. In their barbaric acts, both of these alien entities have striking family resemblance:
Of course, all starts with the utter contempt that both alien cultures have towards the Habesha. The contempt that the Arabs show to the Eritrean refugees starts by the contempt Shaebia has consistently shown for ghebar, in general, and the Warsai, in particular. Shaebia rapes Warsai women in the trenches; the Arabs follow soon, with rape following the women all the way from the border, by the unruly Rashaida, to Libya and Egypt, by smugglers, soldiers and Bedouin extortionists. Shaebia shoots to kill at the border; the Egyptians follow soon, with their trigger happy soldiers making a target out of the abed they see – all with impunity. What is puzzling about this is that it is not even the case of preventing refugees from entering their country but of refugees trying to leave their country. Shaebia throws the Warsai in its dungeons; the Libyans and Egyptians follow soon, with hundreds of Eritrean refugees ending up in their dreaded prisons. Shaebia treats apprehended Warsai with all kinds of horror; the Egyptians happily collaborate and deport back the refugees in mass. Already the Egyptians have deported more than a thousand refugees back to Eritrea. And had it not been for the Ethiopian government that had been intercepting these refugees, thousands more would have ended up in the dungeons of Shaebia. Many others are living in fear of deportation. No other nation on this earth has so many Eritrean refugees deported. Journalists speak of modern-day slavery in Sinai detention camps; this happens to be just a continuation to national service slavery the Warsai have escaped from. Shaebia extorts money out of parents of the Warsai that flee the country; the Bedouin Arabs follow soon in excelling in the art of extortion. So we can easily see that to the Warsai generation, in extortion, apprehension, rape, torture, detention, execution and slavery, Shaebia and the Arab world have turned out to be a mirror image of each other.
Indeed, there is no surprise that the ghedli generations’ quest to distance itself from its roots has ended in this double jeopardy. In this regard, the Sinai tragedy epitomizes the victimization of Warsai under these two alien identities: as the ghedli identity chases them all the way to the Sinai, the Arab identity has been lying in wait there to pounce on them; penned in between the two, they have nowhere to go, but to face all kinds of unthinkable horror.
Let me revisit the logic of objects of desire, since that has been where the article starts: Suppose you wanted to visit your father who lives in a far off city. You have been contemplating whether to take a bus, train or plane before you finally settled with the train. Now, the train would be your secondary object of desire because it is just a means for your destination, which is the primary object of desire. Notice that while there are alternatives to your choice of the means, there are no such alternatives to your main goal: visiting your father. So is it with the primary objects of desire such as individual liberty, identity, creativity, prosperity, security, fulfillment and happiness. These are indispensable to any individual to live a full life and are not a matter of choice. What is a matter choice though is the means through which you plan to achieve them.
But Eritreans, fascinated by the revolutionary baburey, which came in the form of ghedli, “Eritrea” and hadnet, never looked back at what they were leaving behind nor looked forward to a particular destination; all they cared for was to have a life time experience by riding the baburey. Where this tsulul babur was taking them has never been their concern. Even when it has taken them back to the starting point, they are refusing to get off the baburey that has made them fall in love with the journey. They would rather go off the cliff riding it rather then get off at a destination that they had already been.
The aim of the article has been to show the consequences of a revolution that had no idea where it was heading. Let’s revisit then the itinerary stops of this tsulul babur. It started with an urban generation that wanted desperately to run away from its roots because of a confused understanding of modernity. This is not a particular malady that afflicts the Asmarinos only; it is rampant throughout the third world. An Addis kid’s surface modernity is as bad as the Asmarino’s. But what has made it lethal in the case of Eritrea is that this urban disease has found a way of morphing into ghedli identity. Ghedli identity came to hold on a fertile soil because the ghedli generation had already done a lot in dislocating itself from its Habesha roots prior to embarking on the ghedli journey. The rest of the uprooting was thoroughly accomplished by ghedli in the total insulation of its Sahel enclave. And soon after independence, that uprooting had to be expanded to cover the whole nation. In this unholy task, Shaebia was helped by the border war. With the new Sahel environment, Shaebia was back at what it does best: dislocating the youth at a massive level. Now the tsulul babur has reached the cliff. And what we need to remember is that every itinerary visited by this babur has been done in the name of hadnetna – a secondary object of desire which has nothing to do with a destination, but everything to do with riding the ghedli babur.