I Miss My Comrades – Especially at These Times

May 24, Eritrean Independence Day, and June 20 Martyrs Day

It was around 2 p.m., June 5, 1998, when I was rudely awakened to the impending war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. I was on my way to pick up my son from school. En route, a fighter jet whizzed overhead and, in seconds, dropped a bomb at Asmara airport. I rushed, picked up my son and went straight to the airport! Thank God, there was no major damage. But, it sank on me that what I was hearing from senior officials of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) that we were merely kicking the “Weyane’s ass” to make them behave was not the true story. Many things were to change from that time on, and not for the better.

A full-fledged war ensued, Eritrea prevailed the first round and all seemed under control. But, I could not help thinking how Eritrea could go back to war after 30 years of war that, we thought, brought an end to all wars in Eritrea.  Was this not beyond insanity? This cannot be acceptable, I thought, and tried to make sense of it. I immediately contacted my friends in Addis Abeba and asked them to meet in Europe. It was important that we try to understand what this war was about, how it came to pass and how it can be prevented from escalating further. At that time, all communications between Eritrea and Ethiopia were already severed; I thus had to ask a Dutch friend to help contact my friends. My friends came out; we all condemned the war and the leaders who betrayed the struggle for peace and progressive politics for which we all fought for scores of years. Nevertheless, we decided to write letters to the leaders of both countries, Isaias Afewerki and Meles Zenawi, and to also visit them. We did write. I could not go to Addis. But my friend and I met President Isaias; Isaias assured us that the war was not to continue; that he would manage to end it very soon; at least that was what he thought he could do. But, I don’t think he understood the feeling of humiliation that was felt by the Tigrayans because of Eritrean incursion deep into their territory during the first round of fighting even though the various forms of provocation from the side of the Tigray Regional Administration had contributed to the war. The fighting did not stop as President Isaias predicted. Peace did not return between Eritrea and Ethiopia for almost 20 years. The “peace” that PM Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias concocted in September 2018 was a peace that quickly showed its true face, a brutal war against the TPLF/Tigray.

The “peace” that PM Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias concocted in September 2018 was a peace that quickly showed its true face, a brutal war against the TPLF/Tigray.

The war that erupted in early November 2020 between the TPLF/Regional Administration of Tigray on the one hand, and the Federal Government of Ethiopia and Eritrea on the other, with various forces intermixing, was therefore a continuation of the 1998-2000 war as far as Isaias is concerned. This war quickly became a war against the people of Tigray. Daily reports of massacres that amount to ethnic cleansing, to war crimes and crimes against humanity, of destruction of property and infrastructure, of looting and the horrendous cruelty of gender based violence, including rape, gang rape, including forcing families to rape each other, demonstrate a degree of human cruelty without any boundary. It so unbelievable that it numbs the senses. Reports have consistently come out that implicate Eritrean troops as willing participants in this brutality, in this outrageous cruelty, in a behavior that will deny peace for the Eritrean people for a long time. The almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees that peacefully lived in Tigray were also caught in the war with many forcefully returned to Eritrea to vanish in the various prisons, with tens of thousands whose where-about unknown; their camps burned, their meager possessions looted.  Some have also lost their body parts; many have lost their lives.

What is going on? I looked around in search of my comrades, members of the old EPLF leadership, to help me understand what this is all about. Alas, they are nowhere to be found. They have been packed up and dumped where no one can hear their voices; no one can know their conditions; whether or not they are even still alive is a matter of speculation. This makes me miss the old EPLF of which I was a member; the organization for which I had a lot of respect and admiration; the one that brought independence and peace for Eritrea. I miss the real leaders that made it what it was. Those leaders who have already paid and are still paying with their lives for refusing to keep silent in the face of Isaias changing their organization into his image; into his tool of destruction, into an instrument of despotism and impoverishment. I miss talking to them on practically every issues, agree, disagree but still continue talking and trying to remain principled.

How I would have loved to ask them how it is possible for the EPLF to simply disintegrate, how the PFDJ deteriorated into birthing looters, rapists and occupiers and potential war criminals. How, how, how?

I remember when, in the EPLF, sexual relationships between comrades were forbidden and if found, severely punished. This was before marriage was allowed. Even when marriage and therefore relationship was allowed, combatants were required to inform their commanders of the relationship. That was intended to protect female combatants from random sexual encounters and therefore sexual exploitation. This is not to mean that everyone lived a celibate. One could notice, especially as we approached victory, discipline among the leaders waning. The loosening of discipline prompted the Secretary General at the time to conduct front-wide seminars on the “five privileges”; one “privilege” was commanders drinking and then exploiting women comrades.  After independence, the very person who preached discipline was seen attacking innocent women and committing acts of what can be called sexual harassment and exploitation; even snatching women from their husbands’ beds, causing the disintegration of families – an affront to our culture and family honor. At that time, it was possible to talk about this excessive and vulgar behavior of the President with the other senior leaders of EPLF. I miss them now!

Where are the leaders that we can talk about the misbehavior of one of them openly, and express our concerns? I remember travelling to Massawa in 2000, right after what we called “third offensive” and discussing the war with Petros Solomon. I criticized him for not foreseeing this war coming and therefore avoiding it. Petros was the head of intelligence and then Foreign Affairs Minister. He said, they tried to warn Isaias but he had stopped listening by that time. He then asked me to return to discuss the Constitution. I went back, and to my surprise and pleasure, he had also invited others, including two generals. Petros, being the classy person that he was, took us on a cruise with excellent fish dishes, explaining what this particular dish was made of what particular kind of fish. We discussed the contents of the Constitution and they admired not only the work we did but the result. They asked, “if this is implemented, does that mean we can hold the President to account for his actions?” I said, yes, let us work for its implementation. That was never to be.

Right after the third offensive by the Ethiopian army, around June 2000, I asked one of the generals what the situation of our defense forces was given the recent setback. He said, they are just like any other government institution with their leaders undermined by the President, directionless and therefore ineffective. I asked him what the war was really about; his answer was “this s-o-b, he wanted his own war so that he can have his own victory”. This took my thoughts to the war that we won, the peace that we brought in victory, the collective joy that was expressed and the looking forward to a brighter future in harmony and reconciliation that was everyone’s. That was the people’s war and every Eritrean, every combatant and every leader worked for it.

Now, I miss the real EPLF leaders – Mahmud Sherifo, Haile Durue’, Petros Solomon, my dear friend General Estifanos Seyum, who was my roommate in Madison, Wisconsin, all with whom I was able to freely discuss anything. How I would have loved to discuss the cruelty that is reportedly being perpetuated by our young ones over the people of Tigray and help me understand how, why; what should we do to stop it; how can we reverse it; how can peace and justice be brought to our communities. Alas, I can’t! I don’t even know where they are; whether they are even alive? Even their immediate families, their spouses, their off-springs do not know where exactly they are; whether they are even breathing life. For, they have been made to disappear by the very person they trusted; the very person they protected and promoted; the very person they voted into a leader Congress after Congress. Their only sin was to ask why the 1998-2000 war happened; how it was prosecuted and how the whole process of peace with Ethiopia was managed. And they committed themselves to handling it legally and peacefully.

Would they, as parents themselves and teachers, be able to understand how our young, perhaps their own sons, can become perpetrators of such dreadful crimes while being victims themselves at the same time?

I miss my sisters and comrades – the two Asters, Aster Fessehatsion and Aster Yohannes, Senait Debessai, her guitar and her beautiful voice, and Miriam Hagos and her unfailing smiles; Saleh Kekia, and his kindness, Beraki Gebreselassie, the trustworthy teacher, the heroes Ogbe, Berhane, Germano… I would have asked them whether they would be surprised, given the cruelty they have been treated with, the betrayal that befell them, to hear of the immense cruelty that is being visited on the people of Tigray – and by our young ones at that. Would they, as parents themselves and teachers, be able to understand how our young, perhaps their own sons, can become perpetrators of such dreadful crimes while being victims themselves at the same time? They have seen cruelty first hand; they have been treated in the cruelest manner.

How I wish I could see our journalists who have also been made to disappear for the sole sin of trying to inform and enlighten us, for enabling different Eritrean voices to be heard, and ask them to bring us news of the horrors of the war that is being perpetuated on the people of Tigray with truth, impartiality and integrity. How I miss reading their articles and news items and the pioneering spirit they inspired and the hope they gave of an emerging Eritrea that is open, that is just and that is democratic!

I also miss the spirit of Mesfin Hagos who believed his fate should have been in Isaias’ prisons with his comrades and the struggle we went through to convince him to stay outside and become their voice; I miss Sebhat Efrem, for we were able to discuss openly topics that, by later developments, were taboo – as long as we stepped out of his house.  

How I would have expressed to all my comrades my sadness to see people like Adhanom Ghebremariam, who put his life at harm’s way and his youth on hold to fight the Ethiopian occupation, to bring independence, to aspire for a better society but forced to leave his country and perish as a refugee stubbornly maintaining the hope of returning to his country and reuniting with his dear wife and wonderful children. The pain is unbearable. Adhanom, I miss you too.

I know all of you would have told me that a monster gives birth to another monster. Isaias has turned into a monster. He has no qualms to devour young, innocent and gullible Eritreans, to simply send them to their death by the hundreds, even thousands, without any accountability to anyone. For this person, every Eritrean life, all of Eritrea, young and old, including the country itself, are dispensable. 

But, I can’t help coming back to the people of Tigray and their tragedy, and the double betrayal that they might soon encounter by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) forcing itself on them to join the UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) to investigate the atrocity crimes committed by the forces that have invaded Tigray. The number of deaths, wounds, physical and infrastructure destruction, as horrendous as they are, might be easier to document and later rebuild. But looking into the sexual violence and asking rape victims to repeat their encounters in the presence of what might symbolize their rapists is a tall order. It requires not only expert knowledge and a high degree of sensitivity but also securing absolute trust of the victims on those who are listening to their stories.  The need to investigate the tragic events that befell the people of Tigray has been accepted even by the very people who unleashed the forces of evil over them, the PM of Ethiopia and his collaborators. How should it be investigated? Who should conduct the investigations? The EHRC has lost credibility in Tigray; it is absolutely mistrusted. It is taken as an agent of the Prime Minister. In the interest of justice, in the interest of the victims and humanity, would the EHRC understand the sensitivity of the people and refrain from involving itself in the investigation? So far, there is no sign that it will happen. On the other hand, delaying investigation risks the disappearance of testimonies, the intimidation of witnesses, the erasing and sanitizing of evidence…. Time is essential.  

I miss my comrades at this time when Isaias is flirting with the idea of federating or uniting Eritrea with Ethiopia. This is not Isaias’s new fantasy. In 1990 at the cusp of victory and an end of the armed struggle, he gathered his colleagues and asked them what they think about forming a joint/unity government with TPLF. He was asked back – “what will we tell our fighters – that they have been fighting for all these years in order to form a joint government with TPLF?” “What are we going to tell the Eritrean people – that their huge sacrifice was to form a joint/unity government with Ethiopia?” He immediately dropped it. Now, at this particular time, in the absence of the comrades who can challenge him to be true to the cause of liberation, Isaias can flirt with seemingly grandiose ideas that do not take the best interest of Eritrea into account. I miss my comrade even more!

Our independence was won through the participation of and huge sacrifice by, our people. This victory was confirmed by their voting in the referendum with more than 99 percent expressing their wish to see an independent, peaceful, just and secure Eritrea. We Eritreans understand the value of regional integration in its various forms based on the will of the people. Regional integration can make us all stakeholders in peaceful, prosperous and stable region.

Isaias’s current flirtation with regional issues and integration sounds like when Meles was “young” and Isaias thought he could manipulate him and dominate Ethiopia through him. But, Meles “matured” and told him to keep his hands to himself. The current infatuation with the idea of federation/confederation, building Ethiopia’s naval force in Eritrean waters; allowing senior members of the Ethiopian government to belittle and degrade our independence, is nothing less than Isaias making them believe it so that he can have Abiy under his thumb and through Abiy, dominate Ethiopia, exploit and use its resources, and be the bogey man of the region that he can’t be without.  If he can’t dominate Ethiopia, he will destroy it. Has that not been his history, his expertise? Dominate to destroy; destroy to dominate. How about Abiy? A willing participants. Or a person with the best interest of all Ethiopians at heart?

My comrades, where are you? Who is there to temper Isaias, to tell him he is wrong and to hold him to account for his crimes?  To even tell him to leave Eritrea and its people alone?!!

How is it possible to celebrate our independence when it is threatened by the very person who is supposed to safeguard it?

How are we going to commemorate our Martyrs’ Day on June 20 when the gravest possible threat is posed to the very cause for which they fought and gave their precious lives?

Paulos Tesfagiorgis is a long-standing advocate for human rights in Eritrea and peace in the Horn of Africa. Read his full bio here.

Photo: Shadows, Wonker, October 17, 2007 (CC BY 2.0)

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