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.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Unfilted Notes: Remembering Sium Tzehaye

By T Stephanos, Sept. 13, 2007

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?


Thursday, August 30, 2007


By T Stephanos, August 29, 2007

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.


By T Stephanos, August 23, 2007

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.

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

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.


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.