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The Sarcasm, Denial and Lies of the Eritrean authorities: a personal account on the National service, the closure of the University of Asmara and the Scholarship program in South Africa

Zekarias Ginbot December 20, 2014   Part I   A lot has been said about the atrocities committed by the Eritrean regime and articles with similar content have been published before in this kind of platforms. However, the content of

Zekarias Ginbot

December 20, 2014


Part I


A lot has been said about the atrocities committed by the Eritrean regime and articles with similar content have been published before in this kind of platforms. However, the content of this article might be different in a sense that it is my personal account or reflection of the situation in Eritrea since independence. I am not a politician to give a political analysis about the situation, but like any Eritrean who has suffered under PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice) leadership for years now, I felt I have to share my experience and my frustration with people who are still naïve or knowingly ignoring the facts. I heard and read a lot when it comes to issues related to my country since I left but did not take the initiative to write about what I felt. I admit that I was also one of those people who believed in patience and making sacrifice for a better future Eritrea. Many Eritreans still have these kinds of thoughts. But the Eritrean authorities continued to misinterpret patience as if the Eritrean people do not know what is possible and what could be achieved under the circumstances. PFDJ continued to hold the people as hostages for the last 25 years using different pretexts.

In 1989, when the Eritrean struggle against Ethiopian occupation gained the upper hand in the war front lines, a group of us, high school students at the time, came around an elderly man whom we thought did not support Eritrean independence and bullied and made fun of him, telling him that the country was to be freed soon. He explained to us that he was not against independence but was skeptical of the leadership and ideology of ‘Shaebia (the name the liberation fighters were identified with)’ for post war Eritrea. Today, when I see the current situation of our country, I consider that elderly man a prophet, his soul rest in peace. No one disputes the sacrifice paid for independence and no Eritrean regrets playing his or her part in the process. The dissatisfaction came later when PFDJ failed to fulfil the promise.

The Eritrean people celebrated independence and continued to make an immense sacrifice for a better future. But everything the ruling party, PFDJ, which is the only authority in the country, did post-independence was sarcasm, lies and intimidation. Pre-independence, nationalism and patriotism was so high and people were not even able to see some of the evil tendencies of the PFDJ leadership. Parents who lost some or all of their sons and daughters in the war and children who were left alone wanted no sympathy from anyone. Every Eritrean was proud of what has been achieved after such a long and bitter war for independence. However, what followed after a couple of years post-independence was far from what was dreamed of. The leadership which lead the war for independence and in power today, immediately started to blame the people for being spoiled and for expecting more. Today, to the credit of PFDJ, Eritrean nationalism and patriotism has fallen to its lowest level.

The authoritarian policies and communist ideology of PFDJ started to be noticed when they started to introduce the student summer campaign and the national service programs (both in 1994). Both these programs would have been for the good of the nation if there was a good intention at heart and good management. But both programs were introduced without any public discussion, planning or concern for traditions and culture. High school students and their teachers across the country were required to report to designated stations after the completion of the academic year and perform land rehabilitation activities. But parents, especially in the country side, wanted their school children to help with farming during summer vacation, and those in the urban areas to work and get some income to contribute in covering the next-year’s school expenses. Others were not happy to let their young daughters go away due to traditional ramifications and the consequences later in their lives. The authorities refused to address these concerns or entertain alternative measures; or create an environment for public discussion. The program itself was mismanaged and did not leave any meaningful and measurable trace of improvement on the ground.

The national service project was also mismanaged and was not as effective as it should have been. It was started by a decree without proper planning, and as it is true for any government run program in Eritrea, it did not have a proper oversight. Military training requires mental health, preparedness and physical strength and not every young person is born fit. It requires basic facilities and qualified personnel to deal with all kinds of issues. There was no preparedness of any type except arranging the transport when the first batch of thousands of trainees arrived in a place called Sawa which was to become the center for military training for the years to follow. The manner in which the program was handled at the beginning was in the same manner as was the case during war for the liberation of the country. But that was a different setting; why do we need to make it so difficult when we can afford to provide modern training?

I admit lots of changes have been made since then on the ground in Sawa but the mind-set of the people who manage the program did not change. The commanders can do anything they want. Many young lives were lost because their health issues were not attended by professional personnel. Health complaints were always seen by military commanders as excuses to evade national service. Many young people who could not perform well or commit minor crimes were inhumanly treated and some of them died in the process. I could give personal accounts of the events I witnessed during my short stay in the program. Many parents whose sons and daughters ran away to avoid national service were incarcerated and forced to pay a ransom of 50,000 Nakfa per evader, which is a huge money on the country’s standards. Even individual families who were terribly affected by the death of many of their family members (or one or both parents) in the war for the independence of the country were not spared. It is true that the punishment for refusing to participate in the national service was not consistently implemented over the whole country and it was not known whether it was a national policy or it was up to the discretion of the local government officials.

National service is not unique to Eritrea. It is practiced in many nations around the world but unlike in Eritrea, it has a time limit. In Eritrea it was supposed to play a vital role in nation building and contribute meaningfully to the economy of the country. But the program costed the country millions to build the infrastructure required for it and to run it year after year. Members of the national service were kept moving stone from one place to another and building temporary shelters wherever they move. However, the contribution of this generation in the Ethio-Eritrean border war should not be belittled. The bravery and sacrifice made by this generation was not any less than the heroic struggle made for independence of the country by the previous generations. They played a major role in saving the country from falling into the hands of PFDJ’s counter parts in Ethiopia. But national service has become non-ending, modern slavery. Thousands of young people have lost their precious time in the military being abused without any hope for the future. The young people who were enlisted in the national service in 1994 or in the years followed are now middle aged. Many of them are married and have children but they do not have salary to support their own families let alone their aging parents. They lost hope because they don’t see any way out or a way forward. The young and school-age people see this as their own destiny, too. They do not get any motivation to complete high school; after all they will end up in the military anyway. They also hear and see some young people who made it to overseas destinations send money and help their families left behind. Their situation is so desperate that they do not even pay attention to the number of people who are killed by Eritrean border guards while trying to cross the border or drowned in the Mediterranean waters or killed by smugglers.

It is outrageous to hear PFDJ leaders in Eritrea to blame other imaginary forces for involvement in fleeing of young people from the country. They also sometimes call them tourists and other times traitors. For God’s sake these are the young people who stood beside their older brothers and bravely defended the country from reoccupation by Ethiopia. If anyone is in doubt of these, go to the refugee reception centers in European countries or find recently resettled Eritreans and get your story right. The same is true in the refugee centers in Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere. After the bitter border war with Ethiopia and the tragedy that happened to Eritreans living in Ethiopia at the time, no one would imagine going to Ethiopia. But thousands of young people are fleeing into Ethiopia despite the shoot-to-kill policy of the Eritrean authorities, and obviously many die trying to cross the border. So, this should help those who are still naïve to understand the degree of desperation in Eritrea today. But no one can give a prescription to others who choose to ignore facts.

But why is this small group of PFDJ leadership not interested to listen to the grievances of the people and so obsessed with maintaining power? By the way, the Eritrean people did not demand a handover of power. What the people asked for was for a rule of law to be established, for the constitution to be implemented and for the military service to have a limit, just to mention some. They have jailed (without trial) comrades-in-arms who proposed alternative ways of dealing with issues. Is it possible that this small group of people is scared of what might happen if power slips away from them? They should have remembered that the Eritrean people have even forgiven the atrocities committed by Ethiopia. I remember the famous statement made by the late Ethiopian prime minister during his visit to Eritrea before relations went sour; “We should not scratch each other’s wounds”, but by then the Eritrean people have already forgiven the atrocities committed in Eritrea by Ethiopians. By the way, that same Ethiopian leader later forgot what he preached when he caused lots of suffering to the Eritreans who lived in Ethiopia when the border war started.

I am now in my middle age and I believe I represent the generation who joined the Eritrean war for independence in its final stages and became the major force (through national service) that fought later against Ethiopia in the border war. Back in 1984, I was among many youngsters who were rounded up and taken from the villages by Eritrean liberation forces to become a fighter but then sent back home as they concluded that I was too young to carry a gun. I then went to school and 14 years later, I did a one year national service as a school teacher. When the border war with Ethiopia started in 1998, I was in the final year of my undergraduate program at the University of Asmara. We, the students, volunteered to go to the war front lines to help. I, with a group of fellow students, was assigned to the Senafe area and played our part.  A year later, I was again asked to do a national service that included the military training, the infamous, indefinite and now identified as modern day slavery by many. Despite the fact that I had already served for more than a year before, I had to go and after 10 months in the military, I somehow managed to come back to the University where I started a third year national service as a graduate assistant.

I stayed in the national service for a total of 3 years but those who were enlisted before me and in the years that followed are still under those extraordinary tough conditions. This is to mean that the facts I describe here are common to thousands of Eritreans of different ages. The time I spent in the national service first as a military trainee and then on breaking and collecting stones and woods was traumatizing. It was not only the hardship but also the fact that we did not see what we were doing as something important or we believed that it could have been done differently. All the shelters we built did not survive another year, it was just an environmental disaster. For me, the objective seems to make the Eritrean youth submissive and obedient through hardship, intimidation and military indoctrination. One of the methods used by the military leaders to achieve this is recording the identity of anyone who asks questions in meetings. Then this is followed by a private warning and then if these people commit minor offences, they are subjected to all the hardships. This might be the likely reason why we do not see many incidences of revolt in the Eritrean military despite the ill-treatment and abuse.

My first escape from the military was not far enough; it was coming back to the University and continue the national service without salary. To put it in exact context, I was getting paid 250 Nakfa a month in Asmara in the year 2000 when a single meal in a cheap restaurant was 50 Nakfa and a 3x3m2 room was about 300 Nakfa. This might have been a better option than in the military for those who had relatives in Asmara to stay with but not for me. I was going to the student cafeteria when they left to beg for a meal and then we meet in class later. This might not seem bad in a different context, but in Eritrea, a teacher was respected and had a different status in the society. My situation was not inspiring to the students either. At one stage, I decided to ask the University’s president, Dr Woldeab Yishak, to make some kind of arrangement so that I could carry out my duties at the university. I had to wait at the stairs for an hour to stop him as he told his secretary not to keep appointments. But his response was demoralizing. He told me that I could go back to the military if I chose to do so without even waiting for me to finish my question. Going back to the military was not a better option to consider and I had to make a private arrangement with the cafeteria staff to get a meal. I found the cafeteria staff better understanding than Dr Woldeab.

……..part II will follow.

Peace and Prosperity to the Eritrean people!!

Review overview
  • FM December 23, 2014

    Brhane and his likes continue to blame Woyane as if they are the archenemy. First of all, it comes from a chauvinist attitude; plaguing many Eritreans against Tigrayans for almost a century. Woyane, whether you like it or not are minding their business and giving refugee to your brothers and sisters. Treatment no other refugee camp has accorded to Eritreans no were else (check how Eritrean refugees are treated in Yemen). Finally, no Eritrean should be fooled that if it was not for Woyane or any government in Ethiopia – Eritrean independence would never have been received any legitimacy. For someone who have a clear thinking Woyane has never been your enemy but obviously when provoked they reacted the way governments do. Some of us don’t know how to face the truth, the naked truth.

  • Fact-is-Fact December 23, 2014


    You really want to think about what Tes commented @
    Tes on December 23, 2014 at 7:54 am said:

    Since you are spending your precious time to write this article and its follow ups, you really would like to think over about what you write because your writings have to synchronize with the facts on the ground such as the border war of 1998-2000. PFDJ itself admitted to the border commision that it started the war. However, true to its color, it blacked out its admission of it from the people of Eritrea that are inside Eritrea. But, how is that an enlightened, educated person in Dec 2014 telling us “weyane, weyane.. Ethiopia” .

    An educated person, like yourself, who is also at good age to grasp things far deeper ዕድመዊን ኮ መምህርዩ : የብስልዩ ) should have the capability to differentiate between systems, institutions and a people that are citizens of a country:

    For instance, will the people of Djibouti blame the people of Eritrea for what PFDJ is messing around? The answer is NO!

    For instance, will the people of South Sudan ever to blame the people of Eritrea for what PFDJ is messing around? The answer is NO!

    For instance, will the people of Sudan blame the people of Eritrea for what PFDJ is messing around? The answer is NO!

    Then by the same token, the citizens of Eritrea like yourself should refrain (if you are wise, deeply far-sighted) from blaming the people of Ethiopia for what the institutions of the Emperor, Derg to Eritrea & its people.

    because if you care about humanity & are an honest person attached to humanity then, you should have the capacity to grasp: Any institutions, systems such as Derg, PFDJ ONLY cares about its power base at the expense of humanity, citizens, and everythingelse. Derg didn’t ONLY kill Eritreans in Eritrea but also killed Ethiopians in Tigray, and every corner of Ethiopia.

    Derg, in its infamous Red-terror period of 1976-1978, killed Addis youth (from Eritreans parents, ethiopian parents) without discriminating as long as they threaten its power base whether they were real or perceived threats.

    so please please – know & understand facts, histroy. Understand humanity first. PFDJ is an institution. PFDJ is led by Isaias but it is an institutioin well designed and erected by none other than those who are now the victim of it – the well educated ones! The system is a continuity of the past.

    so you need to understand this deeply! By blaming Ethiopians summarily they system that savagely killed them & themselves, you prodit nothing. After all, Eritrea will live alongside ethiopia forever.

    so, as an educated person, you have an obligation to differentiate evil politicians from ordinary citizens that are always victims of their institutions.

    Institutions manipulate ordinary citizens and get citizens to not have friendly neighborhood with their neigbors. It is obvious friendly neighborhood for citizens is not good for those who wants to erect tyranny system!

    so differentiate between PFDJ & the people of Eritrea and Derg & the people of Ethiopia. if you tell me Shaleqa Dawit woldegiorgis was a snake that tried to fool Eritreans in his days in eritrea, I say YES IN DEED!

    if you tell me about that poor soldier who was forced to come to Eritrea to kill or be killed, I only feel sorry as much as I feel sorry for those ordinary tegadeltis who died for a cause that they thought would free Eritrea!

  • Fact-is-Fact December 23, 2014

    By blaming Ethiopians summarily they system that savagely killed them & themselves, you prodit nothing.

    By blaming Ethiopians summarily along the system that savagely killed them you profit nothing but erecting enemity between the ordinary citizens of both countries.

  • Brhane December 23, 2014

    Ts, fm
    Rietokum blibi tekebileyo alku.
    1.ab lieli hizibi tigray hizbi ethiopia bhafesha akibrot ember zikone kireta yebleyn. Ab lieli sreatat weyane mengustu haile slasie gn kulu gzie bhakili msar zitmutiwa senseletawin tselaetina eyom. Hiji wn melsey mar mar keyebelkum ay terfin eyu. Mkiniatu nfliliat reeto sebat titsaweru ay timeslun ekum. Ethiopiawian entekonkum dma tsirtsir abede ayntsawet kiblekum efetu, eritreawian gn bzuh seb kabzi rieto ekun articles kimhar sle zikiel tsibuki dliet nay kulna kikewin tesfa egebr.
    2.blikie abzi gzie ezi abal pfdj ay konkun degafi issais wn aykonkun. Neti rieto nmimlas eye kemzi zibl zeleku.

    ..merhinet weyane tselae hizibi eritrea eyu.
    Mnalbat keysefhani b gobru asrat njemr
    “Eritreawian sle zinekuna nhamusa anatsu hanti dumu, n 1000 hamema hanti filit. Ezi zereba ezi kab gbru asrat tiray ena semienayo kab hgdfawian aysemaenayo. Aziu btsilie nay zikerhane seb. Nay hade merah kilil zerba kitblo keman zehinki zereba.

    2.Nbuzuhi meriet eritrea ab gziat tigray zetewe b23 hidar 1997 bato gbru asrat zitezerghe. Nkulu akedimu bdongolatat zitiriro zineber zetkalele.

    3.B19 hamle 1997 bhade brged nay weyane nadi murk srat weyane nabalat serawit eritrea bhayli gobitu ,meriet eritrea zikonet adi mruk ab tihiti gobeta weyane kem zeetewa kisab kunat badime wn ab tihitiom kem zinebert.minalibat srat higdf nalem zeymitirueu. Natu hilalawi atehasasiban kemueu gerom weyane zisilbetuwo wn aymesilon neru ekwin eu.

    4.ethio_eritrea border war as the fault of ethiopians(the regime in ethiopia) trying to re_occupy eritrea. This is absulitly true.thanks brather.

    5.ab alem the fitest servaval eye.eti hakena zeykone zinebrs eti bukue eyu zinebr.
    Blikie haleti nay jeganu eritreawian menti eza halal meriet ziwedku kem zey konkum. Nsimom enda alalna ntselaena tselae kinbl kikiel Alan.
    Dimocrasi bibret bfutsum aytimetsien eyea.
    Kab bretawi gedilina zimerirn, zinewhin aynebern. Hager hamitsina ember dimokirasiwi srat ayemtsanan.
    Awet ninaybihki eritreawi delay fitihi

  • Brhane December 23, 2014

    Ab eritreawinetu ziterater seb ab scrambiling of africa zibl metsahifit ambubu. Tezeyele nay had fiudal atehasasiba hizika ab charter UN zeyele niseb ketegaguyu aytifetunu, tsiwitsiway 3000 amet wn kab zikone nay kerni afrika hibretese niana neritreawin emlket. Wedebu adolis ketematat wn kohato,metera wezet. Hade kilite ketmatat tiray eyen kab hagerna ente wetsa. Gn zehizin eu btarik hagrna kaliot ekoreu.

  • Zekarias December 24, 2014

    Dear all,
    I appreciate all the comments and the constructive discussion around the topic. I have to admit that I learned a lot after going through your comments. I am sure many of you have also gone through the same experiences. I also know now that some of you were graduate assistants with me at the University of Asmara and my colleagues while at the MSc. or PhD programs in South Africa. I will do my best in my next part, Part II, to put the facts out there for this kind of discussion.

    • Berhe Domenico December 29, 2014

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Zekarias and your willingness to follow up on your readers’ concerns. I look forward to reading your next iteration.
      Can you also please include your views and experience of the role of the Faculty (Teachers Association) in helping address the concerns of the grad assistants? Apart from the spineless and coward Woldeab Yisak, who else in the University Administration was colluding with PFJD? Thanks.

  • Dani December 26, 2014

    Hatew ketew

  • Tamrat Tamrat December 27, 2014

    As italia created Eritrea, Ethiopia or any other country could recreate or cancelled Eritrea because countries are created all over the world almost the same way. From both sides using bullets for solution was the reasons for the suffer. No more or no less. Anybody can blame anybody but the blame shouldn’t over ride the future relation to anarchy or everlasting hatred. If Ogaden region secedes in the future then blaming Ethiopia is useless and worse if the killing one another continues. The Ethiopians who are raised as their mother land includes ogaden too can not be blamed for defending their country. The same is true if Afar secedes from Eritrea, it is useless to blame the rest of Eritreans for the killings or destruction accompanied. If the time allows it then accept the new fact and let life go on with out more misery.

    It is not God who creates nations but people. If our commonsense is too low and we solve our problems with guns then accept the consequences. Unit is better than separation. If a secession is must then lets do it without massacring.

    If any one knows the benefit of secession it must be Eritrea the first one. And Eritrea must be the first one to accommodate the secession of Afar. Other wise it looks too ridiculous to blame Ethiopia while enjoying the little status of Ethiopia.

    Most worrisome is the motto dissect Ethiopia and unite Eritrea. If we have to separate in peace and prosperity then Ethiopia is on the right track. Meaning if one can not unite the tigrians above and down the mereb it is very funny to brag about uniting tigrina with afar people. Remember Afar state in Ethiopia according to the constitution can declare independency any time they wish.

  • bielo December 28, 2014


    i appreciate for the skill of writing and language proficiency. Yeah, that is what we expect from a tertiary level graduate. how ever, i am also very sad with your article. still u r sticking with what Isaias has told u = the war was launched from the Ethiopian side. would u mind conducting a real research on that issue? i am so sorry, some one in your level to be this much enslaved ,,,,,,come on man

  • Ahmed Beshir December 28, 2014

    Hello Zaekarias,

    A single meal in a cheap restaurant in Asmara currently is 25-35 Nakfa !!!
    Q: Does this mean that food prices are lower now after 14 years from 2000.
    waiting for reply …

    Thank you,,,

    • Zekarias Ginbot December 29, 2014

      Hi Ahmed,
      Thanks for the feedback and just to comment on the point you picked up: I am not sure what the exact price of a meal is now in Asmara but if you insist I can get info and post it for you. I am sure if you were in asmara now, you wouldn’t pick up that point. But if you are talking about fatta and bread with yoghurt, they both were 25 – 35 Nakfa then in tea shops. If you still believe a salary of 250 Nakfa/month was reasonable under the circumstances I described in the article, then I think there is no point in taking this any further with you.