Monday, February 18, 2008

Unfiltered Notes: SO-CALLED "INDEPENDENT" ERITREA: PRISON AND DEATH CAMP

By T Stephanos, Feb 17, 2008

As reported by Awate.com on February 16th "The family of Taha Mohammed Nur were summoned by government authorities to collect his body and no explanation was given to them—not even about the circumstances of his death."

I can imagine the anguish Taha's family must be going through. Typical of this regime's sadistic practices, Taha was most likely denied visitation rights from his family during his years of incarceration. It is no doubt heart-breaking for the family to find out about his death this way. I am saddened by this unfortunate news and offer the family my deepest condolences.
I had the pleasure of knowing Taha as a warm and friendly human being. We were members of the Asmara Rotary club, and not surprisingly, Taha was one of the most prominent. He was always enthusiastic, especially when we were working on community projects, such as the one to eliminate polio from Eritrea. Taha had a contagious jovial manner and I distinctly remember how much he was liked by everyone at the club. It was certainly a positive experience and a source of pleasure for me that our paths crossed.

The regime has done the country yet another injustice by wasting Taha's life. How long will this be allowed to go on where human life is treated with such contempt? For me, with Taha's incarceration and subsequent death, a piece of Eritrea's hope to become a country of justice and opportunity also died. As one who played a key role in architecting Eritrea's constitution, Taha, at the very minimum, should have been the beneficiary of the protection the constitution intended to afford its citizens. But the constitution was not to be either. It too died in the bloodied hands of the self-declared president-for-life. It has been too long now since Eritrea became a land where human life is given no meaning. And a nation that does not value and protect the lives of its citizens will eventually be empty and meaningless itself. Somalia is a sad reminder of such a reality.

For hope to return to Eritrea, the regime's culture of death and contempt must be rejected by the general public with the urgency it deserves. Taha is gone now. Others continue to suffer and die because Eritreans who ought to know better are too busy inventing excuses for the regime's crimes instead of condemning them. Even when the "president" says there is no border issue, those who choose to be forever deaf and blind still say justice can be postponed until the border issue is resolved. There are even those who shamelessly claim the incarcerated are put in prison by a benevolent regime for their own protection. To make matters worse, the so-called opposition camp is scattered and incoherent. I sincerely hope Taha's death will be a reminder that "freedom is not free" and that silence against such injustice and paralyzing inaction are a criminal's best friends.

One way for positive action is to join The Network of Eritrean Civic Societies in Europe (NECS - Europe) to actualize its five point action plan suggested in (http://cs.asmarino.com/?itemid=586). The main characters most responsible for Eritrea's reign of terror are probably less than 10 individuals. Although nothing compared to the pain they are inflicting on Eritrean families, having these 10 or so declared as terrorists and striving to impose a travel ban on them so they too will be "imprisoned" within the confines of the country they have converted to a miserable jailhouse would give them a very small taste of their own medicine. Then Taha's death and that of Ogbe Abraha and countless others before them would not be in vain.

Taha, my friend, may you rest in peace. Your uplifting spirit and pleasant demeanor will be sorely missed.


Email: testifanos@gmail.com

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unfiltered Notes: HAPPY HOLIDAYS – WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

By T Stephanos, Dec 9, 2007
Email: testifanos@gmail.com

With the triple holidays of Eid, Christmas and New Year approaching, I first want to wish everyone life enriched with good health, peace and happiness. As we get immersed into the swing of this “season of joy”, it will also be good to remember those who are denied justice everywhere. More specifically, I really hope Eritreans - especially those who have so far shut their hearts and minds to the plight of the ones locked up in Eritrean dungeons - will take a moment to reflect on the state of the disappeared and their families as “Eid Mubarek, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” wishes are uttered.

As we enjoy the spirit of the season, let’s ponder how the children of Pertros Solomon and Astier Yohannes are feeling as their own “government” continues to deny them the presence and love of both of their parents. What does it mean to the many families inside and outside of Eritrea who had to scramble like mad to come up with the ransom money the “government” demands to free an aging and often ailing parent from its prisons? And let’s also question what these cruelties have to do with the border issue, which is the excuse often given to justify the regimes excessive transgressions?

And what crime have these aging parents committed? Their sons or daughters in their twenties and thirties have fled Eritrea’s self-inflicted misery to free themselves from the regime’s enslavement programs. How can Eritrea forget its own recent history so fast? When Eritrea’s current “leaders” joined the independence movement, the respective Ethiopian regimes did not imprison their parents and ask relatives to come up with ransom. Hopefully, this irony of so-called “independent” Eritrea will also remain top of mind during this holiday season and beyond to awaken our slumbering conscience.

SPEAK FOR THE VOICELESS – GOOD NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

The regime has created an effective one-way megaphone to spread all kinds of lies against those it wants to harm and continues to subjugate. Its victims have no opportunity to defend themselves and cannot counter the lies. This imbalance should give anyone with a sense of justice and fairness some pause. Although resistance to this sad reality is emerging, it has yet to manifest itself in a manner that is effective enough for justice and truth to prevail soon. NECS’s (http://cs.asmarino.com/?itemid=586) five-points call-to-action is an excellent start and should be adopted widely.

September 18th, the sad anniversary when the regime openly turned on its own people, has come and gone without progress. Those who disappeared in 2001 and before are still not heard from. Many have disappeared and joined their plight since. Knowingly or unknowingly, those who support the regime blindly are only perpetuating Eritrea’s misery. The word “blindly” is key here because I am not opposed to people supporting their “government” so long as they also make a clear stand for justice and fairness. Any regime supporter who claims to love Eritrea ought to be able to tell the regime and its messengers this: “I support you but I also want Astier Yohannes to be free, I want the government to free ALL prisoners or allow them to have a fair and open trial NOW. I want the government to stop holding aging parents hostage and to return the ransom money collected so far to its rightful owners immediately” or any issue a supporter thinks is important to them. Unconditional support without such a stand quickly negates the love one proclaims to have for a nation or its people. If love of country does not include taking a stand against terrorist acts by those in power to protect the powerless, then where is the love? The mountains and valleys couldn’t care less whether colonialist or native-born feet are stomping the grounds. If people are taken out of the equation, any flag can be planted on any mountain top. The mountain, I am sure, doesn’t know and doesn’t care..

UNCONDITIONAL SUPPORT FOR THE PEOPLE, NOT FOR A GOVERNMENT

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Eritrea may not have a bigger enemy than this regime. This is a regime that has consistently managed to turn opportunities of hope and optimism into misery and despair. Unable to pull themselves out from the cesspool of consuming hate to settle personal grudges, the regime’s elites continue to squander Eritrea’s meager resources to fund armed groups of all sorts - including some who are avowedly against Eritrea’s sovereignty. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, the regime continues to force the country to drink this poison of hate in the ridiculous hope that the poison will actually kill the “enemy”. This regime does not deserve more support. The problem is that it had too much of it and what it needs now is a heavy dose of reprimand that its behavior has become intolerable and unacceptable. How? See NECS’s five point action plan (http://cs.asmarino.com/?itemid=586

Think back to the early 90s where hope and boundless energy were about to be unleashed to help Eritrea realize its potential. The air was charged with goodwill and can-do spirit. Compare that to where Eritrea is today and reflect how optimism and hope were mercilessly crushed by this sadistic regime. Brave and innocent citizens who dare to think differently are labeled traitors, spies, defeatists and the like. I learned today that Petros Tesfagiorgis, a good friend I had the pleasure of working with as a member of Citizens For Peace (CPE) in Asmara, was declared an Ethiopian stooge by the regime’s thugs in a London gathering. What is amazing is that this total lack of basic civility is called patriotism by some. Samuel Johnson captured it beautifully when he said “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
As a result of the regime’s destructive fanaticism and endless capacity to fabricate internal and external enemies to cover up failures, Eritrea’s future direction seem to be heading to that of Somalia; instead of the vibrant future that was possible had the spirit of the early 90s prevailed. The possibility of Somalization should not be under estimated. It is bad enough to see the regime encouraging or tolerating bigots. But it is equally disturbing to hear people who ought to know better white washing the crass behavior of the regime’s elites along ethnic lines as well. This is wrong and dangerous. The regime’s elites are betraying people’s trust, killing and jailing old friends and refusing to listen to reason because they are of bad character; and not because x% of their blood is of certain lineage. There is no Eriteran I admire more than Woldeab Woldemariam and he was 100% Ethiopian by blood – but 100% Eritrean in life.


IN THE SPIRIT OF THE JOLLY SEASON, STOP BEING AN APOLOGIST FOR BAD BEHAVIOR

Apologists for the regime might say - in fact do say - that the world turned against Eritrea and list all sorts of lame excuses while never acknowledging the phenomenal failure of our own making. Isaias still unashamedly says the constitution was “hijacked”. No one hijacked the constitution. He did. It was shelved in 1997 a year before the 1998 war could even be claimed as a remote excuse. It is disappointing but not surprising to hear that from a guy who is a miserable failure when it comes to accountabile and responsible behavior. What is surprising is that many continue to believe and re-broadcast the lie.

The regime’s deafening mantra was accountability, transparency and rule of law. Nice words really. But so far, the only thing the regime’s elites have proven beyond any reasonable doubt is that they have done the exact opposite of what they say. I challenge anyone to name a meaningful incident where this regime has been accountable, transparent or answerable to the rule-of-law. Continued support for a regime with a nasty habit of repeatedly betraying people’s trust and expecting something good to come out of would be crazy. Anyone who tells you “Just trust me, I will take good care of you and your money if you promise never to ask any questions” is a crook. Anyone who trusts such a person more than once is a fool.

RESOLVE TO REJECT THE REGIME’S DEMAND FOR ENDLESS SACRIFICES

Good leaders make protection of their citizens the primary goal of their legacy. But Eritrea’s so called “leaders” only seem to be capable of creating one phenomenal mess after another where people, especially young people, are sacrificed needlessly.

- When Eritrea became independent, the necessary due diligence to formalize its borders that could have prevented the Badme war was not only not done but it was actively discouraged. To those wise enough to look ahead and urged the subject to be addressed without delay, the regime’s response was its trademark contempt for good ideas not originating from its arrogant small circle. The regime routinely threatens concerned citizens outside this circle for getting involved in the affairs of their own country. Normally, this is exactly the type of citizen a nation wants in order to thrive.

- When the constitution was ratified in 1997, it died in Isaias’s office. As a result, a lawless environment is created where people have absolutely no protection against abusive power. Eritreans are sacrificed in one adventure or another cooked up by people who don’t have to pay the price. It is sad and interesting to hear regime supporters in the diaspora berate young Eritreans who managed to escape Eritrea’s slave camps as traitors. In other words, people who have already sacrificed their youth are reminded that they didn’t sacrifice enough by those who can only manage to parrot insults and few empty slogans.

- During the heat of the 1998-2000 war, Isaias was bragging how surprised the world will be when it finds out how low Eritrea’s sacrifices were compared to Ethiopia’s. I guess the lives of 19000+ young people who perished means nothing if one’s mission is sacrificing innocent people rather protecting them. The other irritating point about such positioning is that knowing there is more misery in Ethiopia is somehow supposed to make us feel better. We need to change this loser’s mind set. The last thing we should do is forget the injustice the regime is committing against Astier Yohannes, Sium Tzehaye and thousands of innocent citizens because Ethiopia may not be doing well either. This is absurd.

- Self-reliance is not a bad thing but when it is preached by people who have never been self-reliant themselves, it becomes nothing more than the empty slogan that it is. If the regime’s elites won an election or, at a minimum, are held fully accountable for the positions they assigned themselves to, then fine. But to pretend self-reliance as a motto while actively driving families that were self-supporting for decades into poverty is criminal. Regime owned “businesses” unburdened with taxes and with access to slave labor now siphon off good money that used to support families and educate children out of the economy, only to turn it into bad money where a culture of corruption and drunken behavior are the new beneficiaries. So the message the regime needs to hear from us is: “start earning something for a change first. I mean earn anything - an election, legal income based on your own efforts, transparent accounting of the positions of power you bestowed yourselves with etc”. Embezzling money from families by jailing aging and ailing parents just because you have the power to do so is not self-reliance. To be blunt, some would actually call it parasitic.

There is no need for pretentions anymore. The list goes on. The sooner we realize we don’t have “leaders” whose first priority is saving lives, the sooner Eritrea will have an opportunity to reverse this downward spiral.

It is no secret that post-independent Eritrea’s health has been deteriorating year over year. This time, we have no one to blame but ourselves. All the colonialists are gone. Even during the Dergue years, Eritreans had hope that better days were around the corner. The first Eritrean regime is killing that hope every day now and we have so far chosen to be spectators or incoherent objectors. It is human nature to turn hope into tragedy. We are doing just that. It is also human nature to “overcome darkness with light”. We need to do that. Again, NECS five points listed below, edited for local audiences, can become good catalysts for peaceful and sustained mass-action. Happy Holidays!

1. Release of Prisoners: The EU should strengthen its call for the immediate release of all those who are illegally detained in Eritrea. It should put more energy and political resolve in highlighting and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms in Eritrea.

2. Democratic governance: The EU should insist in the development of democratic institutions and introduction of democratic governance in Eritrea. Eritrea is currently governed by the wishes of one man with no transparency and accountability. The EU ought to support Eritrean civic organisations currently operating within the EU as they need resources for human capacity building to enable them function properly and be effective defenders of human and democratic rights as such organisations do not exist in Eritrea.

3. Strong Action: The EU should follow its demand with strong and decisive action if Eritrea fails to be governed by the rule of law and democratic principles. Instituting a travel ban to members of the Eritrean government and the ruling party would give a clear signal to the Eritrean authorities of the importance the EU places on human rights and it would also give real hope to the Eritrean people.

4. Aid and Human Rights: Development aid ought to be linked to discernable improvements in the country’s overall human rights culture, or to an agreement either for the provision of human rights training for members of the state security apparatus, or for assistance in the development of independent local human rights organisations and defenders. The Commission's allocation of €122 million in bilateral aid for 2008-2013 from the 10th European Development Fund, in the absence of any visible change or even willingness to improve human rights in Eritrea, goes against EU values and needs to be re-examined.

5. Urgent Resolution of the Border Issue: In order to remove a source of instability that has contributed towards insecurity in the entire Horn of Africa and the deterioration of human rights in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, there is a need for key members of the international community, especially the EU, to undertake sustained high-level advocacy to ensure Ethiopia’s unconditional compliance with the international ruling on the border between the two countries, and the demarcation of this border as a matter of urgency.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Unfiltered Notes: The Insanity Of Jailing The Only Psychiatrist In The Country

By T Stephanos, September 22, 2007

Dr. Fitsum Ghebrenegus was the only psychiatrist in Eritrea until his disappearance in November, 2004. I don't believe the country had one since either. The regime, of course, does not burden itself with legal matters and never bothers to justify any of its actions through a court of law. Since it routinely victimizes all segments of Eritrean society without cause, the best guess is that Dr. Fitsum was jailed for his positive engagement with the youth through his church. The destructive jealousy and violent reaction of the ruling elite to anything it perceives as competition for people's mind share - and that of the youth in particular - is causing irreparable damage to the nation. Its culture of militarism heavily depends on the continued enslavement of youth trapped into forced military service that has no limits.

Dr. Fitsum's efforts and many like his, no matter how noble and how beneficial to the long term health of the nation, must therefore be stopped according to the perverted logic the regime uses to deepen its reign of terror. The unjust and yet unexplained imprisonment of Dr. Fitsum has thus denied the country the services of its only psychiatrist. Given the wanton destruction of Eritrea's social fabric unleashed by this regime, the services of Dr. Fitsum and his profession is actually something the nation, and particularly the ruling elite, could have benefited from.

The disappearance of Dr. Fitsum and the thousands more like him is not just criminal. It is insane as well. But the lunacy extends well beyond the confines of the ruling elite. People who should know better nonchalantly shrug off these massive disappearances. "gele reKiblom kKewn alowo (he must have found something on them)", many say, with disturbing approval of acts of terror that a sane mind and a humane heart would never tolerate.

It appears Eritrea, as a nation, has gone mad. Nothing seems to outrage Eritreans anymore. As one of the poorest countries on the planet, precious resources are squandered to build prisons to lock up innocent and highly productive people. Assuming 5000 prisoners have been locked up for 5 years, Eritrea has been robbed of 25,000 man-years of productivity so far. Include the estimated 10,000 former recruits who fled to Ethiopia and other parts of the world into account and the loss is 10,000 man-years of productivity every year. As big and damaging these numbers are for this small nation, they are perceived to be on the low side.

The loss is exacerbated even more when the remaining productive labor and other resources are diverted to support and finance armed groups of neighboring countries while Eritrea spirals down into the abyss of material, mental and spiritual poverty. What is it going to take for Eritreans to be outraged enough to say NO MORE!? For positive and peaceful change to take place, the the insanity of "gele reKiblom kKewn alowo" has to stop.


Email: tesTifanos@gmail.com

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Unfilted Notes: Remembering Sium Tzehaye

By T Stephanos, Sept. 13, 2007
testifanos@gmail.com

Many years ago I attended a seminar where my main take-away was a powerful example about how mindsets are formed. It involved an experiment conducted by behavioral scientists. It starts with a dog inside a locked metal cage where small electric shocks are applied initially. The dog desperately tries to open the locked door without success. The shocks stop temporarily; the dog relaxes a bit but they resume again with increasing intensity. Not surprisingly, the dog goes at the door with all the energy it can muster but fails repeatedly. Finally, the experimenters unlock the door. All the dog would have to do this time is give the door a push to be freed from the punishing shocks. But after so many failed attempts, the dog eventually gets conditioned into thinking that it is no longer worth trying. It resigns to taking the shocks lying down and just whimpers with every shock.

I remember telling myself then that “I will NEVER be that dog”. And as time went on, I thought I did fairly well in staying true to my promise. But my real test did not come until September 2001. I was living in Asmara at the time and that is when it hit me that I had actually become that dog.This was the time when the regime in Eritrea started closing all the private newspapers. It was jailing journalists, the elderly mediators, reform minded government officials and other brave souls like Kiros Awer and Tesfai Gomera who had the courage to stand up against its excesses. An environment of fear was aggressively launched by the regime and it worked flawlessly in its favor. After seeing indiscriminate cruelty unleashed against young and old, courage became the first victim – as intended.Among those imprisoned early on was my high school friend, Sium Tzehaye.

Six years later, Sium and his colleagues are still locked up without a chance to defend themselves before a court of law and with no visitation rights from their families. Sium was additionally denied the joys of fatherhood as his daughter was born shortly after he disappeared. As someone who should have spoken up openly sooner but didn’t, this is a belated apology to Sium and the many others languishing in the regime’s dungeons.

Unfortunately, I also see I am not alone in this. In spite of the regime’s repeated crimes, I see many in the Eritrean community who are still incapacitated by the dog’s resignation. Although there is no shortage of willing apologists no matter how horrendous the regime’s crimes, there are many good-hearted people who feel they cannot speak out because doing so, in their minds, might compromise Eritrea’s sovereignty. This is understandable but flawed. At some point, there is a bigger risk where being too generous with one’s “benefit of a doubt” in favor of the oppressor seriously undermines the very principle one is trying to uphold. Personally, I can’t think of anything more damaging to a nation’s dignity and survival than a subdued and terrorized citizenry totally denied of any peaceful means to tame power gone wild. A nation ruled by fear and fear alone is not a nation at all.

I can understand the prolonged state of denial some are experiencing. Some gave a good part of their lives for Eritrea’s cause and now find it hard to accept the torch of optimism and hope is on the verge of being extinguished. In today’s reality, even those who fought for Eritrea’s independence are finding themselves as refugees in their advancing ages. Parents, including former tegadelti, encourage their sons and daughters to get out of Eritrea because they see the Eritrea they so genuinely loved and fought for is no longer a place of opportunity for their own children. Even those who verbally support the regime are busy helping their own relatives to get out of Eritrea. Unquestionably, for those who gave their all, this is indeed very hard to take. It is hard to reconcile that all the sacrifices, the high aspirations, all the belt-tightening, all the patience that took decades to bear fruit has come down to simply replacing one tyrant with another. But that, sadly, is what has exactly taken place.

Yes, although mainly empty and of poor quality, clinics and roads are being built. And if the source of labor were not the trapped and enslaved youth, it wouldn't have been so bad. But unless the buildings are also complemented by an environment of optimism where an empowered population feels confident about the future, a pile of stones alone can never be a measure of progress. As proof point of such failed pretensions, mentioning North Korea’s building fa├žade across the DMZ will suffice. The new waves of Eritrean refugees with its associated brain drain, the reality of how unbearable life has become in Eritrea, the arbitrary and indiscriminate disappearances that still continue without letup makes one wonder if distribution of misery is the only thing this regime has capacity for.

There are two roads ahead and the choice cannot be clearer. One road leads to the reality of many failed African regimes which did not invest in their people and now find themselves at the bottom of the heap as the rest of the world marches on. Many of these countries are in far worse shape today than the day they became independent with decades’ worth of opportunity wasted.

The second road leads to the examples of those countries which managed to create miracles by investing in education and in the empowerment of their people. Judging from its track record so far, the Eritrean regime has unfortunately chosen the wrong path. As the youngest nation in Africa with all the benefits of hind sight totally squandered, the regime that used to so arrogantly scoff at African leaders, the UN and the OAU has - in record time - proven itself to be far worse than those it used to deride with such venomous contempt.

The abundant reservoir of optimism and goodwill for Eritrea so prevalent when the war for independence ended in 1991 seems to have all but vanished now. Like a child who refuses to grow up, the regime’s excuses are always outward looking. It refuses to accept any responsibility for the monumental failures of its own making. One can list a long list (for or against) as to why Eritrea is at odds with its immediate neighbors and the outside world. But there is no justification whatsoever for the regime’s continued acts of terrorism against its own people. There is simply no one else to blame here.

Sium and his colleagues should never have been incarcerated for so long without due process. Sium should not have been robbed of the joys of embracing his new-born baby. I read Sium’s writings. He mostly used real stories from real people to make a point. It was a sound approach. An honest reader easily found resonance with the truth in his articles. From what I know and read, I can say with very high confidence that Sium is NOT a spy. With no burden of proof, espionage, defeatism and lack of patriotism are some of ridiculous charges the regime shamelessly continues to throw at its victims.

For six years the regime has played the role of accuser, judge and jailor. This is a regime that has been cruel to its own people without cause. The case of the prisoners can and should be a good rallying point towards Eritrea’s healing process. All segments of Eritrean society are represented in the regime’s prisons and their cause can be a great unifying power. This should not be trivialized by injecting petty politics. Their cause, first and foremost, is about justice and human dignity. It is a good cause to revitalize Eritrea's conscience.

This is about right and wrong and it is wrong to unconditionally support a regime that has made thousands of innocent people disappear. It is long over due that Eritreans start saying ENOUGH! What good is a nation, if its most important members – the people - continue to live in fear in their own country?

Email: tesTifanos@gmail.com

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Unfiltered Notes: SAD ANNIVERSARY APPROACHING, CAN WE DO THE RIGHT THING?

By T Stephanos, August 29, 2007
testifanos@gmail.com

People have been disappearing in Eritrea since the dawn of independence. Bitwoded and the Keren teachers are but few examples. Although the net of lawlessness was cast way before the 1998 war, the regime bared its fangs on September 18, 2001 with the arrest of former government officials and the shutting down of the emerging private press.

What unraveled on September 18th still continues unabated today. Anyone the regime dislikes - be it an octogenarian Patriarch of the Orthodox church, bright-eyed high school students or anyone in between– is abused and thrown in jail without due process. What makes this regime's crimes more heinous is that the incarcerated are denied visitation rights from anyone making it impossible to know if the victims are even alive. This is unfathomable in independent Eritrea because visitation rights where not even denied during the Dergue's rule.

Unless we force the regime to release those it unjustly continues to incarcerate, September 18th has the potential of rendering both Bahti Meskerem and May 24 th totally meaningless. But how do you force a mindless regime that seems to have no soul or heart to do anything good? First, we need to withdraw our support until it releases all the prisoners. If the will is there, the people and not the regime, has full control of how much support the regime gets. We owe it to our brothers and sisters who have so far been condemned to a miserable and voiceless life. Can we be their voice in this darkest hour where no light of freedom shines in so-called "independent" Eritrea?

At the very least, whatever support we are willing to give to the regime, it should be made conditional to the release of the prisoners. Mass imprisonment of innocent people, creating miserable conditions that make young people believe exile is the best alternative and intentionally creating a lawless environment on top of an otherwise law-abiding culture, will weaken even the strongest of nations. How can Eritrea be strong and viable when its people are terrorized, impoverished and under-educated?

As this sad day approaches, regardless of our political leanings, the innocent prisoners should remain on top of our minds. This wrong must be righted. Freeing the prisoners is a necessary first step towards Eritrea's healing process. Rallying for their freedom can and should be a uniting cause in order to reclaim a country that has been hijacked away from its rightful destiny. Let us reverse the damages done by September 18th so that Bahti Meskerem and May 24th will be worth celebrating.

Unfilered Notes: ERITREA AND TERRORISM

By T Stephanos, August 23, 2007
testifanos@gmail.com

The US is making noises about adding Eritrea to the list of terror-sponsoring states. Leaving the external component of this potentially hot debate aside and focusing internally for now, there is no doubt a terrorist regime rules Eritrea today. Regardless of the merits of the U.S. claim, this could be a good wake-up call for Eritreans of all stripes to do the long over due soul searching and start reversing our willingness to be ruled by remote control.

Before it became “independent” in 1991, Eritreans, by and large, were known for their dynamism, love of family and passion for education. They did relatively well in Ethiopia and other countries in business and the professions. This regime has now destroyed the family unit through endless militarism and exile. It has no respect whatsoever for age, wisdom, rule of law, education or institutions. Ironically, the only place on the planet where Eritreans are guaranteed to fail from realizing their dreams is in “independent” Eritrea itself.

FEW EXAMPLES OF THE REGIME’S TERROR TACTICS
1) People have been disappearing at the whim of the self-declared president-for-life since independence. When General Ogbe Abraha wrote to him suggesting it was time the regime mend its ways because people are beginning to complain, the “president” couldn’t’ care less about the more important matter of WHAT was being said. Typical of bullies, he only wanted to know WHO said what instead. Now we have thousands of politicians, journalists, religious figures and countless innocent citizens, including Ogbe (who is feared dead), rotting behind bars with no visitation rights even from family members. The message is cold and clear. The regime is essentially saying: ‘we show no mercy to 70 and 80 year olds, women, former comrades or students. So, shut up and do what you are told, give what we demand or you will meet their fate’. That is ruling by terror

2) One of the regime’s many embezzlement schemes forcibly collects 50,000 Nakfa from aging parents. Their crime? Their sons and daughters who are in their 20s and 30s - for whom parents have no legal responsibility - fled the country for a better life elsewhere. The regime uses conscripts as cheap slave labor with no limits on the length of servitude. Frustrated, they flee and the regime terrorizes their parents. Women have given birth in filthy prisons because they couldn’t come up with the embezzlement fee in time. In a country with no pension plans, the security of aging parents is typically tied to their children. But with their children forcibly conscripted, parents are often left to a life of poverty.

3) Even its “supporters” in the diaspora fully understand the regime rules by fear and fear alone. They see there is no freedom of assembly, no freedom of expression or freedom of any kind. In spite of their proclaimed support, they have refused to make Eritrea their home. No one should blame them for their instincts of self-preservation, of course. It is just that they do it dishonestly. By staying put in their adopted countries and keeping themselves and their children out of harms way, they have cast the only vote that matters thus nullifying any self-deceiving declarations about how much they stand behind their “government” and others don’t. Willingly trapped within the range of the regime’s remote control, the freedom to be oneself is surrendered.

It is both sad and funny when the never-elected “president” rambles on, often incoherently, about the lack of freedom in the U.S or Ethiopia and about how non-participatory their systems are. Those who are close to him should help him turn the mirror around to let him see the undemocratic and non-participatory images he seems to despise so much and is continuously trying to paint on others is actually more fitting to his own image.

Jam the regime’s remote control and turn the damn mirror around. Jointly calling for the release of the prisoners is a necessary first step in Eritrea’s healing process. Whatever the color of our politics, this is a humanitarian issue first and foremost.

Unfiltered Notes: WAY FORWARD

By T Stephanos – August 14, 2007
testifanos@gmail.com

Observe any Eritrean gathering these days and one sees animated conversations that are stuck in a time warp. It is a machine that regurgitates old arguments to justify positions time has long deemed irrelevant. The interaction lacks curiosity and leaves little room to entertain new ideas or to listen to other points of view. For the most part, people are polarized at two extremes - those whose false sense of patriotism knowingly justifies tyranny and often condemn the victims of tyranny on one hand, and those who have simply given up because they don’t see any way out from the mess independent Eritrea has gotten itself into.

These extreme positions rule out the abundant but unexplored common ground that could unify the silent majority into taking long over-due positive action. No matter how small, positive action compounded through healthy participation of the vast middle can transform and has transformed societies before. There is no magic to this and is certainly not original.

BUT WHAT ACTIONS TO TAKE?

Just to mention a couple of examples, Berhane G/Negus, a good friend, has been courageously trying to revive a sense of civic responsibility among the once active but now dormant diaspora community. Elsa Chrum has provided hope and comfort to new Eritrean refugees in Malta and Libya. Berhane’s and Elsa’s civic activism, if we can support them to gain the necessary momentum, are encouraging developments because this is what is needed to empower individuals to take proactive action against injustice without waiting for someone to do something somewhere.

The endless incarceration of innocent Eritreans by the very first regime of post-independent Eritrea betrays the hopes and aspirations of the living and insults the legacy of those who paid the ultimate price. Unfortunately, we have become silent observers as old prisoners are forgotten and new ones added in alarming numbers. Since jailed former government officials and the countless others are in no position to speak for themselves, we, on the outside should stand up for them. If the regime cannot bring its victims to an open and fair court of law after six long years, it is time that its false charges are discarded and the prisoners freed immediately and unconditionally. With total lack of curiosity for the truth, the justification still given by the regime’s supporters is that the jailor must have found something against these innocent victims (gele reKibulom kKewn alewo).

The jailor, who is also the accuser and the judge with all the instruments of power at his disposal, continues to spew fabricated charges against the muzzled victims. The victims, on the other hand, have ZERO opportunity to speak in their defense. This disparity should give anyone with some sense pause but, sadly, it continues to fly right above the heads of the “gele reKibulom kKewn alewo” crowd. Where is the so-called legendary Eritrean sense of fairness and justice? We have let thousands of our brothers and sisters suffer for too long.

It is admirable and worth emulating to witness non-Eritrean friends of Astier Yohannes in Arizona speak out on her behalf repeatedly. Why is there not similar action by Eritreans from all corners of the planet? It is okay to support the regime if one sees good reason to do so. No problem there. But Astier’s case, and there are thousands more, makes it starkly clear that a line of trust has been crossed. If there is indeed genuine concern for Eritrea the nation, those who say they love this regime should be the first in line urging it to stop mistreating the very people they claim to care about.

Astier’s husband, Petros Solomon, has not been heard from for six years and family members don’t know if he is even alive. Their four young children had already lost a father and when Astier went back to Eritrea to be with them, she was taken away from the airport before she can even see her children who were eagerly waiting for her outside the gates. It has now been almost four years since she disappeared. Their children were thus made instant orphans without generating so much of a whisper from us. If these four Eritrean children, the thousands the regime continues to incarcerate and the thousands more who are voting with their feet to leave Eritrea, cannot live in dignity in their own country then what, one wonders, is the meaning of independent Eritrea?

I hope saying “supporters of the regime with a heart” is not an oxymoron. For those who are, there should be no sense of contradiction for you to initiate a movement within your circle of influence to Free Astier and the countless other victims. Your movement for justice and fairness can be initiated among your friends, places of worship or other gatherings. How about taking a poster that says “I support my government but I also want Astier to be free” to one of the regime’s events you attend? Unless one is supporting this regime out of fear and not out of conviction, taking such a step can only help Eritrea and even improve the regime’s imaged in the process. After all, what is geographic sovereignty if it does not also guarantee peoples’ sovereignty?

To others who are not doing much else besides talking, we can make freedom of the prisoners our primary objective. We can support the efforts of Berhane, Elsa and others to raise our voices in support of our brothers and sisters who are constantly being harassed by Libya. After making an arduous journey across the Sahara, Libya’s repeated threats to deport them back to Eritrea are criminal. We know what happened to the first set of deportees and we can expect no less from a regime obsessed with inflicting so much pain and misery on its people. We can add volume to Dr. Bereket’s letter asking the UN to stop the deportations. We can use the institutions in the countries we live in and urge them to intervene on their behalf. We can partner with Amnesty International and others to amplify our small individual efforts for greater impact.

So, there are small things people can do individually – such as letter writing, making phone calls, involving our representatives and the like. If energies are channeled appropriately big results are possible. But we need the discipline to stay away from the fruitless polemics that we are too familiar with. Focus on the prisoners and ignore all diversions. Civic activism, after reaching a certain critical mass can end up shaping the politics, as it should. Politicians are the ultimate opportunists. When and if we refuse to accept the role of docile subjects of any pathetic regime under the sun, the astute politician of the day will recognize that reality and only then will he or she treat people with the dignity full citizenship deserves.

Until it is absolutely convinced we have shed our self-imposed slavery for good, our current regime is in no mood to change its abusive ways on its own free will. The scattered and directionless opposition is waiting for something to happen and doesn’t seem to have a clue on how to make things happen. Which is all the more reason to strengthen civic activism at all levels as a potent medicine against abusive power – both for the present and for the future.

Although the players will change, the nature of power will not. This is not unique to our situation. History provides abundant examples that power, especially unchecked power, is always arrogant. This arrogance soon leads to incompetence and those two are a deadly combination for the survival of any country. One can plausibly argue that the regime’s arrogance and insecurity lead it to jail those with different or better ideas. By denying Eritrea the services of its able and willing citizens, the incompetence of the regime has finally bared itself for all to see. Reduced to its incompetent core and not having much left in its recycled bag of tricks, it is now squandering Eritrea’s meager resources to finance all sorts of armed groups – some who don’t even believe in the sovereignty of Eritrea. The totally opaque and obsessively secretive regime never had a transparent budget, the economy is in shambles and the list goes on.

An involved and demanding population that channels its energies through dynamic civic activism will never allow this insanity to take place. Such activism can be a very effective insurance policy against abusive power and we need this policy now more than ever. So, I urge everyone, including the regime’s humane supporters, to pick something that you are not happy with and start raising that issue in your circle of influence. Join other civil society organizations. Equally important, stop becoming an apologist for the regime’s crimes. Commit yourself to NEVER say “gele reKiblom kKewn alewo” until you find out for sure for yourself why so many continue to rot in jail.

And one sincerely hopes the spirits of “against all odds” and “never kneel down”, which not too long ago were used to describe the iron will of Eritreans, equally apply to a locally bred tyrant as they did to outside ones. And that, really, is the bottom line.