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.
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.