Exculpating Jebha

Source Romanticizing Ghedli (I): the Excuses

For many in the opposition of the Jebha mold, the crisis in Shaebia is all they needed to make a full time job out of rehabilitating Jebha and some of its dubious heroes. But this sounds more hypocritical than the Highdefites’ task of defending Shaebia because, while the Jebha defenders do want us to remember all the atrocities committed by Shaebia, they do not want us to remember even a single event that seems to mar the image of Jebha. All this despite the fact that this organization, throughout its history, has inhabited the worst of two worlds: although it emulated Shaebia in almost all its failings, it lacked the focus the latter displayed in fighting the enemy.

But if there is anything that defines Jebha aptly, it is its sectarianism. This is an organization that was born out of sectarian motives, with ethnic and religious overtones; lived throughout its existence in sectarian squabbles (religious, regional, ethnic, linguistic and ideological); and understandably died as a result of its sectarian malaise. Its only half-hearted effort to reform itself in the 70’s soon floundered because it was never able to distance itself from its sectarian past, all along having been unwilling to let go the sectarian leaders of its past. No wonder that in its ashes, the Jebha factions that have survived it have now neatly aligned themselves along the very fault lines that doomed it to self-destruction. Only now, having come out of their respective closet, they openly wear their religious and ethnic hats all the way to their EDA meetings.

The contradictions that Jebha supporters display could be seen everywhere: They have been diligently digging up all the skeletons they can find in Shaebia’s past (as it should be). But if you point to similar cases in Jebha – Falul, Suriyet Addis, Menfere, Rasai, and all other pre- and post-Adboha massacres. – they throw tantrums. They love to criticize Isaias for every blunder that he makes and for every crime that he commits (again, as it should be). But not only do they not want to hear any negative attribution about their leaders, however inept, undemocratic, sectarian or murderous they were, they also are in the active business of giving them a post-mortem “make over.” They never tire of reminding us of the marginalization of Kunamas under Shaebia (again, as it should be). But if you tell them that in this marginalization, which has a long history behind it, Jebha played a major role, with many of their villages burned down to the ground, many Kunamas killed and their cattle pillaged, they go nuts in anger. Day and night, they never tire of pointing out the inhumane treatment of prisoners under the hands of Shaebia/PFDJ (again, as it should be). But it is in one of the most shameful history of ghedli in Eritrea that Jebha summarily executed its Ethiopian prisoners at a time of its retreat in the late seventies. In this regard, even Shaebia didn’t match this atrocity. I could go on and on: the horrors of giffa (which actually started with Jebha), sexual abuse of women (especially by corrupt cadres and military leaders), endemic corruption of the leadership, etc – all areas that Jebha had excelled well before Shaebia came to be fully identified with them.


Falul and identity crisis

Unlike the case of Menkae which took place at an early stage of Shaebia’s history, the Falul insurgency took place at the peak of Jebha’s evolvement, and hence involved thousands of teghadelti. A look at how Jebha and Shaebia handled this major insurgency gives us an insight on how their quest for self-preservation led them to brutal measures that had absolutely nothing to do with the Eritrean cause.

Jebha of the seventies was undergoing a huge identity crisis. With tens of thousands of youth from Kebessa flocked to mieda, it had a hard problem absorbing them without simultaneously undergoing a drastic change in its identity. Many of the powerful Jebha leaders, and many of their followers, couldn’t reconcile themselves to this fact. They were in a serious dilemma: They realized that if they were to out-survive Shaebia, they badly needed this new force. But at the same time, they thought that this wouldn’t be worth it if in the end it would come at the expense of the old identity of Jebha; for, in the first place, it was the preservation of that old identity that was motivating them to out-survive Shaebia. As they were desperately looking a way out of this precarious dilemma, they thought they found a balancing solution in the Falul crisis. Let me explain.

Although Falul was no small movement in its scope, the questions it raised were not radical by any measurement. Ironically, the only serious question that the Falul insurgents raised was the issue of unity. They thought that Jebha was deliberately skirting the issue of unity by making a “pact of unity” with Osman Saleh Sabbe (a pact that had absolutely no teeth, since Sabbe was in no position to enforce it on the ground) than with its Shaebia counterpart in mieda. Of course, there was a lot of naivety involved in this insurgency because they were assuming that the latter would be earnest in seeking unity. Leaving aside the naivety though, this was an uprising that could have easily been defused if Jebha had used tact and understanding instead of brute force. It could have even turned the tables against Shaebia by putting it to test, for the latter would have never taken that offer seriously anyway. But the threat to Jebha identity that the leaders were worried about was not one coming from Shaebia’s offer – the were dead sure that neither of them wanted unity – but from within the Jebha rank and file. So why did the Jebha leadership finally decided to use force against Falul?

The Jebha leaders thought that the Falul uprising provided them with a rare opportunity to retain the old Jebha identity (an identity that they thought was undergoing fast change not to their liking) without at the same time weakening their army. They thought that if they could get rid of this rebelling group (a group they thought was not amenable to their designs) without driving away the rest of Kebessa fighters, then they could maintain that precarious balance that they thought was essential for their survival without identity change. They were, of course, to be proven wrong. After Falul, Jebha never recovered. This was not simply because of the number of teghadelti involved in the dissent, but also because it brought back that atmosphere of suspicion that characterized Jebha in its early sectarian years. That is to say, Jebha died as a result of identity crisis; it never found a formula that would reconcile the opposite ends of its newly evolving identity of the 70’s. As pointed out above, nowadays many Jebha supporters blame Shaebia and TPLF for its final demise. But this is not even half the story. A ghedli that had tens of thousands under arms couldn’t suddenly vanish into thin air if it had not been already hollowed out by internal strife. What Shaebia and TPLF did was give a final shove to an already mortally wounded body.

Even though the Falul crisis had religious and ethnic undertones in it, that was not all that there was to it. To see that, one need only take a look at the flip side of the story – on how Shaebia handled this crisis. You would think, given the similar demographic make up of this rebelling population group – mainly students from Kebessa – Shaebia wouldn’t find it hard absorbing them. Well, think again. When about two thousand of Falul insurgents were cornered between Jebha and Shaebia, the latter made it clear to them that it would not tolerate their separate existence. Having left with no choice, they finally surrendered to Shaebia, believing that it is the “lesser evil” of the two. They were soon to have a rude awakening when Shaebia deliberately put all of them in the line of fire in the most brutal front it was facing then – in the killing fields of the Massawa front. Why did it do that? For the same reason as that of Jebha’s: to preserve its identity.

The most sensible thing that Shaebia ought to have done is to disperse the newcomers throughout its army units. But that was too much of a risk for a paranoid organization that had carefully weeded out every single dissenting individual – real or perceived – from its force with the helping hand of the dreaded “Halewa sewra”. Shaebia thought, in a similar way that Jebha did, that it cannot absorb this huge force without seriously compromising its identity. The fact that these thousands newcomers were not simply teghadelti, but dissenting teghadelti, was the main reason why it was extremely wary of them. The question that it asked itself was: if the Falul insurgents were unhappy with a more lenient organization, albeit authoritarian, how likely would it be for them to end up happy in the totalitarian atmosphere of Shaebia? It thought that assigning them throughout its army units would be like spreading a deadly virus [remember that it had just come out from the mot traumatic experience it had ever experienced from within – the Menkae dissent]. Once it had assessed this threat to its identity rightly, it was uncompromisingly brutal in its solution, not only on how to isolate and contain that “virus”, but also on how to get rid of it. And if that could be done in the process of fighting the Ethiopian army, it would have killed two birds with one stone.

What is ironically tragic is that all those Falul insurgents who died valiantly in the Massawa front ended up in their executioner’s roaster of martyrs. For all practical purposes, these are the ones of whom we could undoubtedly say, “sighumti tewesidulom”. The way Shaebia handled the Falul crisis comes from the old books of tyrants like Stalin, who got rid of many of those they suspected through a similar process. The Falul group is part of that naïve student generation that, with all optimism and good will, flocked to mieda in a futile search for that elusive “unity”, that common thread that would weave “Eritrean identity”, only to be wiped out by two regressive identities – the sectarian identity of Jebha and the alien identity of Shaebia. The students’ input to “sewra” derived from this chronic uncertainty, where the margin of error allowed for the sewra to work was as promiscuously wide as it could possibly get.

Again, the two critical points to remember are: (a) that in the case of Falul, as in that of the civil war, Jebha chose suicide rather than change its identity, even as it was stark clear that only by changing its identity to reflect the evolving realty on the ground that the greater cause of liberating Eritrea would have been achieved; (b) and that Shaebia too was on that suicidal trajectory, only in its case it would be coming much later (now).

Romanticizing Ghedli II: