Memories of a dreadful time.
Wednesday, 16 September 2009 00:01 Milkias Mihretab Yohannes‘We were young and naïve ………”The idea of starting a newspaper or a magazine came in a very informal way and rather casual setting. We were having coffee
Wednesday, 16 September 2009 00:01
Milkias Mihretab Yohannes
‘We were young and naïve ………”
The idea of starting a newspaper or a magazine came in a very informal way and rather casual setting. We were having coffee in downtown Asmara at Bar Bereket with my friend school mate Medhanie Haile. I used to be an assistant editor to a magazine and a newspaper called” rim” and we both used to contribute to the then new independent paper”setit”.
Gazeta zeynjimir(why don’t we start a newspaper?) . I heard that the ministry of information was issuing licenses and press cards to independent newspapers but Medhanie was reluctant at first. His worry was where can we get the money? Printing cost? Who is going to buy our paper? Who will write for us? I suggest some names and we agree to contact them. A very good and humble lawyer and former teacher Habteab, and a young University assistant Lecturer Yosief Alazar were contacted and agreed to be members of the editorial board. There was a very young law student whom I admire so much for his all rounded knowledge and love of books and awareness. In fact he was the only one, I was comfortable discussing any thing from Stalin’s crime to the incompetent university law school teachers to the war with Ethiopia and the paranoia of our leaders. His name is Ghezae Hagos Berhe and let glory be to the almighty God, he is one of the few who escaped the inhuman regime in Asmara. It was agreed that Ghezae,or Koba as I used to call him to write political articles and commentaries. Yosief Alazar and Habteab Yemane were mainly writing in the Cultural and legal sections of the paper. Medhanie and myself were responsible for the news, editorial and other segments of the paper.
Then, what will be the name of our paper was another issue to be tackled. All kind of names and headings were raised. Some names were funny and long like”KINAT ADEY MARIAM” it looks like a title of a religious book. Others were too confusing and look like government newspaper name like “HAGERAWI”. How can you have an independent news paper by the name”HAGERAWI’? I like the name Kestedebena or the rainbow for some reasons. It is the name of the new nation and a new beginning in South Africa after Mandela was released and a new era was ushered. I also like and follow the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition of all races and colors for justice and equality in the United States. As Eritrea is a nation of different nationalities, ethnic and linguistic groups, I thought and believed the name rainbow will be a fitting reminder of this diversity and blessing. So we agreed on the name and we went to the Ministry of Information commonly known as “ENDAZENA” for license and all the necessary formalities.
The Ministry of Information (MOI) was built by Chinese contractors some where in the mid90s. It was built around a cemetery in the environs of Forto not far from a ghetto township called BETMKHAEE. Avery unassuming and depressing building it looks more a party headquarter than a ministry building. All the propaganda and terror and intimidating campaign of the PFDJ gangs is done, coordinated and directed inside the edifice. All the regime’s propagandists and Gobbles look alikes work and lie to the unassuming populace from their bunkers and offices inside the gloomy piece of structure. From the handsome butcher Ali Abdu(Eritrea’s chemical Ali with out the chemicals of course) to tiny spider looking secretaries, the MOI was full of activity ,bustling with all kinds of people. To come to my point, we went for the issuance of license and registration card and we were directed to office n umber 7 in the second floor. We met a heavy smoking middle aged man and typical of Eritrean office etiquette under HIGDEF, he said” INTAY DELIKHUM?(What do you want?) We told him about our desire to start and publish a newspaper and after we filled all the forms and pay the required fee he gave us the license, an advice and a warning. He said that before we publish any newspaper we have to bring to the ministry for censorship and review. The censorship committee was composed of three people YISAK,ASMEROM HABTEMARIAM and MEKURIA or a chap by the name of NEGASH. Every copy before it goes for printing should be reviewed by these people and each must sign on every page for approval. He also warn us that SHABEIA has ears and eyes every where:WELA AB MEDEKESIKUM KELEKUM INA NRIYEKUM( we can see you even while you are in your bedroom).
We have no clue about printing cost, the logistics of distribution, the nature of advertisement, cost and revenue and all the ensuing issues related to a news paper. We didn’t have an accountant, a secretary even an office! Yes the first issues were typed and layout was done and finished at MINASSIE COMPUTER CENETR in down town Asmara! After the first 3000 issues were sold, we rent a windowless office , a one room store adjacent to RINO restaurant in front of CINEMA IMPERO. But still we didn’t have telephone or secretary and we used a telephone number of a boutique, near RINO RESTAURANT for telephone addresses. The girl working at the boutique was a fiancé of our colleague Habteab(abuye) and she agreed to be a DEFACTO secretary of KESTEDEMENA newspaper! But there arise a problem. She was working with her uncle at the boutique most of the time, and while she was at the shop there was no problem. But some times her uncle and the shop owner, will took over the shop and when readers start calling ”IZI GAZETA KESTEDEBENA DYU?”(Is this kestedebena’s office?), the bewildered uncle will shout back “NAY MINTAY GAZETA IZI DIKUAN INDA HAILE IYU”(What newspaper? This is wedi Haile’s shop). Oh we had many funny moments too.
One of the most important factors in the flourishing of my paper and the other independent newspapers is, the Eritrean people’s desire and aspiration for free, democratic Eritrea and freedom of speech and thought. After a long year and era of colonization after colonization, Eritreans all over were eager to talk, write and think without fear of being arrested or killed for the first time in their life or in living memory. Independent newspapers were in high demand and readership was large all over Eritrea. From The small town of ElaBerid To the village of Marreba in the highlands, you can see people reading voraciously, the weekly or twice weekly papers. There were times when we have to print two or three times a single copy just to satisfy the high demand in Asmara and the surrounding areas only. We were totally unprepared for this kind of attention and responsibility in tiny Eritrea where almost every one know each other. In one of the world’s strangest and forbidding political system, where there is no resemblance of even a 17th century kingdom, people start looking at us as the only outlet of their desire, aspiration and frustration at the system. In the chilling nightmare called Eritrea where a Muslim shop owner was taken away from his family for just praying and growing his beard and parents were told to dance and be happy for the death of their beloved ones, we naively began a newspaper. In the land of HALEWSEWRA(gulag) and countless butchery and debauchery , we start on newspapers, one of the greatest anti-tyranny and anti-totalitarian tools ever exist. We were young, idealist, naïve and like many Eritreans, unsuspecting!
There were at least 25 Independent newspapers at their peak. Like anywhere else in the world, the papers have their own style and content target audience. Mestiat(Mirror) of Mehari Abrha was one of the earliest. It was published in English and in Tigrigna. During the Issuance of Eritrean currency and tension in the border with Ethiopia, Mirror and journalist Philemon did a great job by going to the border area and present a detailed report. Setit was another of the early papers and one of my favorite. Well staffed and with experienced and dedicated staff like Aaron Berhane, Semret seyoum, Fesshaye Yohannes(Joshua) and Dawit Issack and others. With large circulation and audience, it was the giant of Eritrean independent papers. Meqalih was staffed by young Eritrean Journalists like the cheerful Editor Mattewos Habteab(Machu), and Dawit Habtemichael, probably the youngest of all of us. It was a good paper with quite big readership. Tsigenay newspaper was also one of my pick, staffed with bold and mature editorial staff like the great Yusuf Mohammed Ali,Akheder and the talented poets and essayists Meles Negussie and Zemenfes Haile. Zemen was an iconic newspaper for those interested in culture, rich tradition and history of Eritrea. Led by two high caliber journalists Amanuel Asrat and Gezhae Hagos,Zemen was full of spicy cultural and political articles and deep Haiku like poems and unique Tigrgna prose and commentaries.
Admas newspaper was founded and published initially, by the energetic and the indefatigable Eritrean journalist Khaled Abdu. A brilliant individual, journalist a close friend and confidant, Khaled laid the basis for Admas’s popularity and fame later on. With staff members and editorial board like Said Mohammed(the only one of the independent journalists to own a printing press), Said was a humble and hard working journalist who made Admas one of the biggest selling newspapers in later years. There were different independent newspapers with smaller circulation but with highly devoted and cordial journalists and staff. From the full of romantic story tabloid Wintana to the English/Tigrigna paper Millennium, the Year 1995-2001 was a year of newspapers and unprecedented freedom of speech and expression in the otherwise turbulent and bloody history of Eritrea.
Almost all of us journalists were young, inexperienced and full of quixotic dreams and ideals like the youth every where in the world. We came from different background, education, family, neighborhood and life- experience .Most of us were University of Asmara students or graduates. Seyoum Tsehaye, Yusuf Mohammed Ali and Joshua were the matured and experienced ones. They were members of the generation that fought for the independence of Eritrea and were a little bit cautious and not too romantic about the state of things. Medhanie Haile Aflei was a gregarious and smart wediasmra, a lawyer by education and profession. Meda, as he is known, was also an accomplished table tennis player and champion. He was the ever optimist, even during the darkest of days, he was also a skilled writer and analyzer of events in home and around the world. Temesgen Gebreyesus(KIRBIT) of kestedemena was another talented journalist and highly touted artist and sportswriter. But Temesgen was known by many as a writer, director and actor in many movies, theaters and comedy shows. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of world soccer, players and teams. Amanuel Asrat was not a journalist by education, just like many of us. He studied soil and agriculture in the University of Asmara, but he was a born artist, cultural essayist and writer of high quality. His knowledge and command of Tigrigna language, tradition and culture was phenomenal. A humble wedeAsmra with big smile and hearty laughter, Amanuel was one of the giants of Eritrean Independent journalists.
The bespectacled and teacher look-alike, Yusuf Mohammed Ali of Tsigenay was one of the great journalists in the short and catastrophic history and saga of Eritrean independent journalism. A very kind and affectionate person with lots of experience inside and outside Eritrea, Yusuf was one of the few independent journalists with family and children. I used to go to his house during Ramadan and I have a cherished memory of those short but beautiful times. Yusuf was educated in the middle east and the Sudan and was a highly influential member of Eritrean student union in the field. Though he had had an opportunity to emigrate to Australia or some other countries, he prefers to stay in Eritrea and work for the betterment of his nation and paid the price with his life. Dawit Habtemichael was a Physics graduate and a teacher by profession. But he was a marvelous journalist and a pillar of the news paper Meqalih. Born and raised in Asmara,Dawit(wedimemhir) as he is known, was one of the nicest and wonderful people I ever met. Mattewos Habtebab(machu) was a Mathematics graduate from the University of Asmara. But his field of specialization was journalism. He was so interested in journalism and so fanatical in his newspaper that few knew he was a math science graduate. Mattewos was a passionate journalist with high goals and aspirations. A friendly man with sharp memories ,Machu was known for his humor and wit too.
I didn’t know much about Said Aabdelkadir of Admas news paper. But in the little times we been together, I can see his commitment to his paper and freedom of press in Eritrea. Born and raised In Akhria, Asmara, he talks little and was eager to listen other’s viewpoint. Khaled Abdu’s, Said Abdelkadir and the late Journalist Paulos Kidane’s relentless effort and perseverance made Admas a beloved and much sought paper among the readership. Another gallant journalist and freelance photographer and writer was Seyoum Tsehaye. A Veteran of the armed struggle, a former teacher and French educated intellectual, Seyoum was a professional Photographer was stints in international media groups. A chain smoking workaholic with camera and books in his hands all the time, Seyoum’s crime was to be born in that bloodthirsty land called Eritrea. Under normal condition and in any other countries, he would have been a teacher or would have opened his studio as he always dreamed. Fessehaye Yohannes,a.k.a Joshua was a prominent journalist for Setit Newspaper, play writer and one of the best directors of theater and artistic shows Eritrea ever produced. A veteran of the armed struggle and influential member of EPLF cultural troupe, Joshua was one of the best Interviewers and writers of the independent media. One can write a book easily about the deeds and accomplishment of the great Joshua, but let’s say he was one of the finest. Another well known and highly respected Journalist and artist was Dawit Issac of Setit Newspaper. An established author and novelist from a well-known family in Asmara, Dawit was an artist all his life. A seasoned writer and critic, the Swedish/Eritrean Journalist Dawit was mild mannered principled writer with deep love for his nation and people. He came to Eritrea leaving his family and established life in Sweden, just for the love of art and his land. Much has been said about Dawit by the local and International media and Dawit is one of the many victims of the devilish regime in Asmara.
Esteemed readers and fellow compatriots I could have gone and on about Eritrean independent journalists and their huge sacrifice and price amidst one of the worst regimes in the world. A book can be written about each and every one of them. All of them are innocent and with out an iota of crime or transgression. Despite the PFDJ clique and its dumb supporter’s false accusations of all kinds of sin and crime, there was nothing wrong that was done. If these people and others were guilty of any crime, they should be brought to justice and be punished or exonerated by now. But the sadist government of Issias Afewerki chooses to inflict the maximum pain and final death on these and other innocent Eritreans. Just like people with Sadomachoistic tendencies, the fascist Eritrean government and leadership is happy to see Eritreans suffer and `die one by one in the unnamed cells and dungeons all over the land. The only crime of these Journalists and myriad of other Eritreans is to be born in that unfortunate and land of unending suffering and plight. Under ordinary condition and under any kind of system or nation, these journalists shouldn’t even spend one week in jail. Even by the low standard of African freedom index, they were not supposed to be fined even a penny let alone languish all these years in jail. But the current evil God-less regime in Eritrea is not interested in crime, legality, and rule of law or even in catching the culprits if any. No, its main goal is the destruction, emaciation and eventual death of Eritreans and Eritrea. Its sole purpose and agenda is to create an Eritrea of drunkenness and stupidity, a land of adultery and cheap sex, a kingdom of millions of slaves with no right what so ever, living and dying like animals with no kind of dignity and human self respect of any kind!
In front of our eyes and the world, a very hopeful nation, with an industrious and law abiding people, was being turned in to one of the worst places even to visit for one day. In a matter of few years, the barbaric regime of Asmara turn the once buoyant nation with high placed goals and many well wishers, in to a desolate land with starving people and bony children. The catastrophe befalling Eritreans at this time is too much and too painful to enumerate, but it might be called plainly pure evil and wickedness of great proportion. Other talented writers and men of pen might put it more than I did, but I don’t think there is any Eritrean who doesn’t know or comprehend what is going on.
Between September 18 and 27 2001 almost the entire Independent journalists were arrested and their where about is unknown till this day. They have no contact with any one all these years. Confirmed and well placed sources indicate at least four have died under terrible condition in jail. Few like this writer managed to escape the beasts, glory and honor be to almighty God. Many other less known journalists especially government media journalists are being hunted and arrested until this very day. The where about and destination of many is unknown and mystery to many. The sad predicament of Eritrea and Eritrean journalists is going on unabated. The Horror and sheer terror story called Eritrea is going on at full speed. No one has a clue as to where this mind boggling phenomenon might end.
There is an English phrase or line said by many” I wish I knew”. Almost all of has said it in one or another instances of our life. Eritrean independent journalists were young, full of passion, ideals and commitment to the betterment of the masses. Like any young people all over the planet, we dreamed of a nation of thoughts and philosophies, a land of flourishing artistic activity and respect for human dignity. We didn’t know we were dealing with one of the most murderous regime and heartless leadership in Africa and the world for that matter. We had no idea we were launching a news paper in the land of an insane and an unstable leader even by African standards. We had no suspicion or hint that we were starting news paper and advocate for freedom of speech in one of the worst political movements and culture where thousands were massacred for being educated and asking questions in the field. We didn’t know that the worst system Eritreans ever seen and experience has supporters in the western democracies who campaign for fascism and tyranny back home. We didn’t have any insinuation that the bestial and child murderer regime in Asmara had such large number of political prostitutes in the west who were willing to be raped again and again. How do we know? Dear reader ,Imagine an Iranian or a Congolese living in America or the west calling for closure of the news papers and arrest of journalists and democratic activists with out trial back home! Yes we were young and naïve and didn’t even imagine such kind of monster called the PFDJ exists.
As any thing in this physical world, the current Eritrean regime will go one day when its day comes. Nothing is forever. One day the glorious story and history of Eritrean Independent media journalists and other patriots will be told and written. The next generation will know the sacrifice and the price paid by Eritrean Journalists and other democratic forces and activists. September 18 will be remembered as a day of infamy in Eritrea’s short history and struggle to achieve democracy and justice. When the brutal, bloody and evil regime of Issias Afewerki is gone, Eritrea will be a land of many untold stories of courage and magnanimity. Lets pray to see that day and our beloved ones alive.