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

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