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
December 20, 2014
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!!