One of the greatest problems that the Eritrean people face now is the romanticized image of ghedli that most are unwilling to give up. If romance does kill a nation, this will be it. This is not a case of how a nation has come to kill an idea (I wish it has been so), but of how an idea is literally killing a nation.
The idea of “ghedli” (and all the paraphernalia that goes with it) has become so disproportionally heavy that it has reached an unbearable stage for the masses who have been carrying it on their backs for such a long time. This Frankenstein of our creation has developed such a voracious appetite that an enduring culture of martyrdom has to be created just to sustain it. One generation of youth after another are being devoured by this monster just to keep an inarticulate, fuzzy and discordant dream alive. And now, in its last days, it is in the very process of devouring the whole nation; Shaebia has decided that if it is going to die, it might as well take the nation down the drain with it. Yet, enamored as they are with their revolution, many Eritreans would rather blame anything else than ghedli for all the ills that is currently afflicting the nation.
Ironically, the only thing that unites those who hold extreme positions in the current crisis, and wouldn't see eye to eye on any other issue, is this romantic obsession with the revolutionary past, magnifying whatever was good in it beyond proportion, while discounting anything else that mars that picture. You find Jebha supporters reminiscing about "mighty Abbay Jebha” and “ade ghedli,” while minimizing or totally discounting its authoritarian, sectarian, anarchic, corrupt and dysfunctional nature that finally doomed it to self-destruction. Then we have Shaebia supporters who never tire mentioning its "heroic past," while ignoring its totalitarian, isolationist, paranoid and barbaric past. But this romanticizing of the revolution requires a lot of denial for it to stay potent: mass amnesia when it comes to the past atrocities of ghedli, giving “make-overs” for many “heroes” with dubious past, remaking of history to fit one’s own purposes, creating myths of peace and harmony among the people that never was, claiming a national identity that has never coalesced into anything identifiable, coming up with endless excuses for endemic failures, finding scapegoats to play the enemy’s role, etc.
Similarly, nobody dares to fault the masses for the current mess in Eritrea. Given the Marxist overtones that still find echo in revolutionary Eritrea, the masses are never supposed to be on the wrong. Even Shaebia, an organization that has shown the greatest contempt for the masses, keeps verbally extolling their “virtues”: their resistance (“TsinAt”), their endless sacrifice (“tewefaynet”), their patience (“tetsewarinet”), their patriotism (“hagerawunet”), etc. And when it comes to the opposition, their favorite line is: “hizbna’do izi mreKebe?” (“Do our people deserve this?”) In both instances, what they find appealing about the masses is that they sustained the “sewra” for such a long time patiently, paying a huge sacrifice in the process. Nobody pays attention to the fact that it is that very unquestioning obedience that sustained ghedli that is now sustaining the Isaias regime; there is something wrong with a culture that doesn’t seem to care whom it serves. Notice how the supposed “virtue” of the masses is invoked circularly just to keep the image of ghedli well and alive; these two myths feed on each other’s misconceptions.
The abuser and the abused in collaboration
The great irony is that the two main causes for almost all the ills that beset modern-day Eritrea can be traced to: (a) the culture of abuse of ghedli perfected in “mieda”, and now applied ruthlessly and indiscriminately all over Eritrea, its cancer-like spread infecting every population group imaginable; and (b) the culture of acquiescence of the masses that has created a very conducive environment for the abusive culture of ghedli to tenaciously take hold all over Eritrea.
The collaborative task of keeping the image of ghedli pristine has been one of glues that has kept these two cultures in interactive mode for such a long time. For the first, the perpetuation of this myth has been the essence of its survival; and for the second, it has been a quasi-religious cause that has been synonymous to the notion of “ Eritrea” itself. But keeping this picture pure requires a lot of illusion, not unlike that of magic; only this time, it is willfully played upon oneself. Not only does it require a lot of willful forgetting of what happened in the past, it also requires that one not see a lot of what is taking place in the present. As in all romanticized constructs, the good parts are inflated and the bad parts deflated, all to the peril of the masses. It seems as if the sanity of the whole nation depends on keeping the legacy, and hence the image, of ghedli unblemished; they feel that if they let go of that image, there would be nothing left to hold onto. Hence the national amnesia to blot out the painful past, and the endless excuses to find scapegoats that would be made to play the role of the “enemy.”
In this collaborative task to keep the image and legacy of ghedli intact and pristine, the first step is to misdiagnose what ails the nation. If one is set out to save the legacy of ghedli at whatever cost, the first thing to do is to place all the blame for what is going on in Eritrea right now on anything else but ghedli. The culprit, depending on who is doing the finger-pointing, can be the old generation, Isayas and his few henchmen at the top, those who have “agame” blood, the PFDJ, the Woyanies, the US and UN, etc. The consensus among all of these disparate groups is that “ghedli” – whatever each one of them takes it to be – is not to be blamed for what is happening now in the nation; and if ever, very little.
And then, of course, there is this willful collaboration to forget the past. But this task of romanticizing and glamorizing ghedli by willfully ignoring the atrocities of the past is not an easy one. All that it requires is a little bit of digging up for all the skeletons of both movements to come up to the surface for anyone to see. So the legacy-keepers of both Jebha and Shaebia in the opposition camp are in as much involvement as the Highdefites in actively erasing certain damning events in the past and glamorizing their respective heroes (most of them with dubious, criminal past). But, as they say, a history that remains untold is apt to be repeated. If so, those in the opposition who are actively revising history for their own petty purposes are equally to blame as those who are currently in power.
Excuses and finding scapegoats
Let me now go briefly over some of the common excuses used by many in the opposition to exculpate ghedli and the masses by making others culpable for all the ills that currently haunt Eritrea:
(1) A few at the top
It has now become fashionable to attribute all the ills of Eritrea to a few at the top: the dictator, a few corrupt generals, some policy makers at the President’s Office and some few criminal colonels at the middle. This lets-make-everybody-happy diagnosis carries the solution in its sleeve: take out these few at the top and everything else will be returned to normal. They forget that taking out the few at the top has been very difficult precisely because nobody could make his way to the top as a result of countless entanglements at the bottom. So what one has to equally look at is the national malady entrenched at the bottom that has created a conducive environment for the dictatorship to thrive.
An enforcer at the bottom – an informer, a torturer, a cadre, a foot soldier, a fund raiser, a technocrat, a propagandist, a cheer leader, etc. – is as much to blame as the ones at the top. The fact that his reach is more constrained is simply offset by the fact that the likes of him, unlike those at the top, come in large numbers (and that, given the opportunity, he would act exactly like the ones at the top). But more importantly, this kind of minimalist attribution leaves out the multitude of true believers that really enable the very survival of the totalitarian regime. One needn’t go further than the Diaspora community to see how this particular group of population is not only willingly supporting the regime morally but also financially. The “hizbawi meKete” that is going on right now is a good example of how those at the top work very closely with those at the bottom to pursue their repressive agendas. And then there are the resigned masses, who for one reason or another, do not want to take any stand against the government.
When this minimalist approach is carried to its extreme, the whole nation’s ills are attributed to one man only, Isaias. The minimalists totally miss the fact that even the making of a hero out of Isayas has been a result of a decades-old collaborative work between teghadelti and the masses. The making of the Monster of Asmara didn’t come overnight on its own.
But what is sad about this minimalist diagnosis is that it demands an equally minimalist solution. That is why we see most of the opposition preoccupied at tinkering along the periphery. Some want to talk to Isaias, imploring him to change, as if he has been in a listening mood for the last ten years. Some want to write a letter of protest to him, as if this hardened criminal is a first-time offender that needs a little bit of prodding to come to his senses. Some are still allergic to the phrase “regime change,” as if there is room for this unrepentant regime to get rehabilitated. Some want to “soft land regime change,” without having any clue as to how that could be achieved. Some are involved in petty projects of “sanctioning” Isaias only, hoping that their “precision surgery” will take out the top while sparing the rest the pain of protracted medication. Some are in the business of rehabilitating old criminals in the opposition, all under the name of diversity. And still others are in the business of endlessly reshuffling organizations and changing their names, as if semantic tinkering will do the trick. That all of these stances the opposition have taken so far have been epiphenomenal to the task of bringing about change in Eritrea doesn’t seem to bother them at all; they are just happy in the noise they make, even if it finds no resonance anywhere else except in their ears.
(2) The ubiquitous “Agame” card
And then there is, of course, the ubiquitous “agame” card happily used on both sides of the isle. In both camps, one observes this futile but diligent search for the “true,” “real” or “genuine” Eritrean going on unabated. Blaming all the ills of the nation on those who are not “dekebat” has become the “patriotic link” that joins many in the opposition with the Highdefites. You can see this ugly, fascistic search for the “pure Eritrean” going all over the Eritrean-based websites. There is even one opposition website that, unashamedly, calls itself “dekebat.”
When the accusation comes from the PFDJ supporters’ side, this witch-hunting has a sweeping applicability: anyone who opposes the Isayas regime is not a “genuine Eritrean” and most probably of Agame or Ethiopian origin. For them, anyone who challenges the Isayas regime becomes, by definition, someone who is not “a genuine Eritrean.” Since this is done by definition, no further scrutiny is needed to confirm their allegation. And as to those in the opposition who are tirelessly guarding the “purity” of Eritrea, one of their main tasks is to obsessively trace the ancestry of every PFDJ higher official. Measuring how many pints of Tigrean or Amhara blood is to be found in these officials’ veins has become their favorite pastime. To them, Isayas does what he does simply because of his “agame” blood. The rationale for this form of denial is obvious; it says, “No true Eritrean would harm his country the way these individuals are doing. So it must be their ‘agame’ heritage that is causing havoc in the nation.” Once this idiotic line of thinking has been taken, it is easy to see how both ghedli and the Eritrean masses would be exculpated from all the ills that afflict the nation. They would rather bury their heads in the sand than courageously face their demons as a people once and for all.
Sadly, this kind of misguided reasoning is what we have been witnessing in the debate on “Awrajawunet and Eritrean identity” in TV zete. Leaving aside the dubious premise that Eritrean identity is built on awraja identity – a premise on which the whole discussion was based – the panelists seem to agree on one ill-conceived conclusion: that it is those who “feel insecure in their identity” that are to be mainly blamed for the ills of the nation. Their implicit rationale for such an irresponsible statement goes as follows: those who are “insecure in their identity” can only feel secure of their belonging to Eritrea if everybody else is deprived of his or her awraja identity, and by extension, his or her national identity. And their equally misguided recommendation is to put the “origin” of PFDJ collaborators into special scrutiny! If this sounds like witch-hunting, it is because it is. To them, the tens of thousands of “genuine Eritreans” that actively sustain this evil government through their collaboration is something secondary. The primary culprits are supposedly those few with Tigrean or Ethiopian blood in their veins. The fact that the ethnic cleansing done on the Eritrean side has been so thorough that it has left almost no one with Tigrean or Ethiopian blood in the land doesn’t faze them at all. Such kind of willful blindness is the stuff out of which romanticized constructs are made.
It is clear from the above that many in the opposition are collaborating with the Highdefites in sustaining the culture of exclusion brought all the way from mieda, all to the detriment of the nation; for no nation on this earth would be able to survive the global world that is now in the making with this kind of claustrophobic state of mind. The isolationist culture that Shaebia wallows in finds its echo in the “uniqueness” of Eritrea that many in the opposition keep touting. The fact that the two camps are constantly feeding this ugly culture in the very attempt to achieve opposing objectives is of a minor point.
(3) In the name of martyrs
And then there is this most sensitive of all categorizations: that of martyrs. Almost all Eritreans – be it from Highdef or opposition camp – believe that our martyrs died for a “better” Eritrea. There is a double fallacy embedded in such a statement. First, it attributes wisdom to the dead that the living don’t possess. It claims the following statement to be true: if those who survived it all had been dead, they would have been wiser (more patriotic, better democrats, better citizens, etc.) than they are now. Or, to put it conversely: if the dead have been living, they would have known better what to do and Eritrea wouldn’t have been in the mess it finds itself now. But this claim is so arbitrary that it has no underlying logic to support it. Second, nobody can put his hands on what that “better Eritrea” that the martyrs died for would have looked like to them then. Many now want to attribute that a democratic Eritrea must have been the dream of our martyrs. But this belies all the evidence. There was not a trace of democracy in ghedli of Eritrea. The majority of the martyred, being peasants (and mostly forcibly taken through “giffa”), had absolutely no inkling as to what democracy looked like. The rest, the student body, was totally preoccupied with Marxism and its variants, and were in fact antagonistic to liberal democracy as we know it now. And if we push this search all the way back to the time of the “founding fathers,” like Idris Awate, where neither communism nor liberalism were yet in vogue, we find an archaic, feudal world where ethnicity, religion and the cult of the leader were the main inspirations. These feudal characters would not recognize democracy even if it hit them in their faces. If anything, throughout ghedli, what has remained consistent is the disdain that both Jebha and Shaebia have shown for the democratic process.
But what is worse, in this ill-defined revolution, the martyrs have become the final cause for perpetuating further martyrdom. If you ask many Eritreans why do the masses have to undergo so much more sacrifice, they will tell you “because so many have died for it” – that is, in order to keep the legacy of ghedli alive. In other words, the means – the martyrdom of many – has morphed into a primary cause. They don’t realize how circular their reasoning is. A cause doesn’t become a justification because you die for it; its justification should be established prior to the sacrifice. If all the reason we could muster as to why we should keep this nation of ours intact is because so many died for it, we are in deep trouble.
(4) An untenable distinction between Shaebia and PFDJ
There are those who use a semantic sleight of hand to exculpate Shaebia from the horrendous crimes it has been committing against the Eritrean masses. They say, “It is the PFDJ that is committing all the crimes, and not Shaebia.” But Shaebia under any other name remains Shaebia. I am not sure what these apologists would have done if the EPLF had opted to keep its old name rather than its new one, PFDJ. Anyways, it is easy to see that it is the old leadership and its repressive apparatus and the whole nihilist culture brought from mieda that are now to blame for almost all the ills that currently afflict the nation. The fact that there have been few dissenters among Shaebia does nothing to change its identity; in its history, there have been many dissenters, and in all instances what has remained constant is Shaebia’s ability to wipe them out. And, more importantly, almost every policy that it is following now has its roots in mieda.
What we are witnessing now is the exact replica of what had been going on in the fields, down to its minutest details: the ruthless “giffa” (especially of the poor peasants that had nowhere to hide), the proliferation of prisons (Shaebia's underground chambers of horrors), the draconian security apparatus that left nothing to doubt (“Halewa sewra” being its best embodiment), the killing fields of Sahel (the massacres and endless purges: Menkae, Yemin, “jasus,” etc), its confrontational stance with any faction (Jebha, TPLF, EPRP, etc.), the bogus philosophy of self-reliance (“btsfrna,” “bKlstmna”) , its religious policy, with its untenable distinction between “old” and “new” religions (enshrined in its mieda-constitution), the paranoid glass through which it perceives the rest of the world – a philosophy that informs its foreign policy (the encirclement mentality of us versus the world), the ghedli experience that is now being replicated in the national service (with all its nihilist underpinnings), the totalitarian grip under which the teghadelti lived (now imposed all over Eritrea), the culture of martyrdom that sustained ghedli (now invoked to sustain the PFDJ), etc. All of these are now being replicated to their minutest details from the blueprints kept in the murderous heads of Isayas and his henchmen. That is to say, there is nothing new in what is taking place right now; we only failed (willingly) to register the lessons of history - all to our detriment. In the after-independence euphoria, anybody who would dare point at these ugly blots of history was considered a spoiler set out to mar that romantic picture of ghedli that everybody wanted to have and hold.
On all of these counts, the almost unanimous silence of former teghadelti is also amazing. Even those former Shaebia officials who are now openly working to bring down the Isayas regime have yet to admit any of these past atrocities; they are in as much denial as the Highdefites. In fact, their constant invoking of the distinction between Shaebia and PFDJ is mainly motivated by this effort to keep the image of ghedli (and hence, their legacy) pristine.
(5) Exculpating Jebha
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.
Myths and lies
In order to justify this revolution, Eritreans have been accepting all kinds of myths concocted by ghedli without putting them under scrutiny. First and foremost, Eritreans must be made to believe that they have a separate national identity from that of Ethiopia. But this is not as easy task as it seems, for not only has one to establish what is it that differentiates Eritreans from Ethiopians, but also what is it that unites the disparate population groups within Eritrea into one identity. Hence the need for “sewra” to revise history and concoct myths that would show just that. Some of those concoctions are:
(a) That we, Eritreans of different backgrounds (religious, ethnic, regional, linguistic, etc.), have been living in peace and harmony throughout history, especially when left alone by foreign forces. This is totally unsupported with historical evidence. In fact, just the opposite happens to be true: the only peace the land came to know was when law and order was imposed from outside (ex: under the Italians).
(b) That there is such a thing as an “Eritrean identity,” the preservation of which has been the main task of ghedli. But what has transpired from past experience – the pre-Italian history, the Italian era, the pre- and post-federation upheavals and the whole sectarian era of ghedli – is that, in fact, no such univocal identity has ever emerged. Jebha failed precisely because it was unable to craft such an identity, and Shaebia simply repressed the fissures of such an identity.
(c) That the revolution in Eritrea is a case of the oppressed masses rising up against their colonizers. A closer look would show that the truth is much more complicated. The internal trauma that ghedli experienced from its inception until now can be traced to two wrong beginnings that could never meld with one another: the sectarian roots of Jebha with no unitary, progressive vision for the nation and the naïve high school student’s movement (“sheboro”) – something that should have been confined to the school campus – turned lethal with firearms in their hands.
(d) That the history of Kebessa Eritrea is separate from that of the rest of Ethiopia. This probably is the greatest lie concocted in ghedli. To the contrary, the history of Kebessa is closely intertwined with that of Tigray, in particular, and with that of Ethiopia, in general. The revisionist history concocted to prove “ Eritrea’s unique history” by ghedli (and many Eritrean historians) is stunning in the scope of distortions that it undergoes.
It is obvious that this mass denial – the excuses, revisions, myths, lies, “make-overs,” etc. – we saw above is meant for us to escape the hard questions that we ought to ask: What is about us Eritreans, as a people, that has gone awfully wrong? What is about ghedli, in general, and Shaebia, in particular, that is fundamentally flawed? In a follow-up posting, I will try to deal with the latter question first.
Eritrea: the Martyrs' Dream - "Hidri Suwuatna"
(What the Book of Martyrs Doesn't Say - Part II)
by Yosief Ghebrehiwet
[This article was written on on August 28, 2010 as the second part of "What the Book of Martyrs Doesn't Say" and posted here in asmarino.com. Given the endless invocation of the martyrs' names in Paltak, faceBook and websites to serve dubious causes, it seems to me the content of this article remains as relevant today as it was then two years ago - hence, the motive to post it again.]
When a revolution with no justifiable cause goes through so much horrendous sacrifice, as the Eritrean Revolution has, it seeks justification in numbers only: “because so many died for it.” And when further clarification is demanded to get us out of the vicious circularity entailed in this explanation, we are again referred back to the dead for further articulation: “hidri suwuatna” (“our martyrs’ dream” or, literally, “what our martyrs entrusted to us” ). The cause is believed to be unerringly and unambiguously known to the martyred simply “because so many could not have died in vain”. With death in numbers comes certitude in knowledge, something that a martyred would have never attained had he/she survived it all or died alone. Because claiming otherwise is considered to be sacrilegious, all explanations are supposed to come to an end at the martyrs’ grave site (meqabir harbegnatat). But even so, a persistent question haunts all those who accept or promote this circular argument: what could this hidri, as only known to the martyrs, possibly be? Since we cannot resurrect the dead and make them talk, there has to be a human way of finding out what this hidri is all about.
The first hurdle we meet in deciphering the content of this hidri is if we take it as given that there was one and only one hidri that all those tens of thousands martyred shared. What kind of a common hidri could the thousands of rounded up peasants forcibly kept in the trenches, the thousands of child and underage soldiers who were not mature enough to decide on their own, the thousands of students who were never sure of what they were doing and kept rebelling under one cause or another, the thousands of ethnic- or religious-motivated sectarians with nationhood last in their minds, and many others more – Marxists, Baathists, Arabists, Islamists, tribalists, nationalists and patriots – possibly share?
And even if we grant that there were many in ghedli, irrespective of their numbers, who had worthwhile dreams in their heads, there is the further question of whether those dreams were doable: Did any of those dreams ever made it outside their heads? Was the road they embarked the right means of achieving those dreams? Were their dreams ever achievable within the ghedli context? Were they able to hold on to their dreams for long within the toxic environment of ghedli? Even as they believed otherwise, all along it could have been someone else’s dream that they were fighting for; and for that, not one to their liking. After all, was it not the dream of the urban elites, both of the Muslim and Christian types – a mere fraction of the population – that was imposed on the peasants and pastoralists?
If there has never been one cause, let alone a justifiable one, the invocation of hidri suwuatna by most Eritreans to provide meaning to a discordant past, to seek rationale for an unflattering present and to infuse hope into an uncertain future demands a much needed explanation.
Hiding behind hidri suwuatna
The main reason why Eritreans from all walks of life want to hide behind “hidri suwuatna”, “that sacred mission of preserving our martyrs’ dream”, is that that phrase could be made to be all the things you want it to be. It has become a place holder, a blank slot, to be filled in with whatever variable to get the result that one wants. After all, the dead are not with us to contradict the many assertions made in their name. Here is, in fact, one made by none other than Isaias Afwerki on this year’s Martyrs Day (President Isaias’ speech on the occasion of Martyrs Day 2010):
“Taking into account the uninterrupted obstructions created, the achievements registered through resolute rebuff as regards keeping intact our pledge for liberation and freedom, as well as honoring the trust of martyrs over the past 20 years are not to be viewed lightly, though these may not correspond to our lasting aspirations. …… This way or the other, their arguments and fabrications [the Woyanies’] have been laid bare in due course, while at the same time Eritrea keeps on standing on reliable moral ground, which in turn amply attests to the reward of our martyrs.”
By invoking the name of martyrs, not only does Shaebia try to wipe out all traces of the past that may lead to unsettling discoveries, but also to justify whatever it does in the present. Notice how the tyrant is invoking the name of martyrs to justify the endless slavery enacted under the grandiose name of “Wefri Warsai-Yikealo” and his mindless Badme blunder, and all the horrendous consequences that followed them both – tens and thousands dead and maimed and tens of thousands more fleeing in mass exodus, to mention just two in the long list of misery index that besets the nation.
Eritreans in the opposition camp too tend to put unwarranted words into the mouth of martyrs. It is not unusual for many to find solace in hidri suwuatna when the harsh realities of today keep testing their faith in the “ideals” of ghedli as never before. It is also not uncommon among them to draw inspiration from “hidri suwuatna” to fight the injustices of today and to infuse purpose into the future – “They didn’t die for this”; “They died for democracy”; “They died for a harmonious Eritrea”; etc. But are all these warranted? And what would be the consequences of drawing lessons from unfounded facts, however noble they may sound?
The invocation of martyrs’ name to serve one’s end cannot be successfully done if one is allowed to do genuine history or to examine the actual present. Anything past the grave that would take us into the historical past is a taboo subject matter that would only defile the name of martyrs. Digging deeper into the historical past is taken tantamount to the sacrilegious act of digging up martyrs’ graves. And anything taking place after the burial – the here and now – is also verboten lest hidri loses its ideality marred by the unflattering realities of today. That is why hidri suwuatna is meant to start and end at the grave site, deliberately bypassing both the past and the present. The martyrs’ world has to be severed off from its links to the past and the present for hidri to do its assigned work.
Denied of any past or present context that would provide meaning to hidri, the intent is to finally render it empty of content. Two unspoken, yet agreed upon, guidelines are used to this effect: (a) bury all the evidence, be it from the past or present, that would tell alternative stories from the one ghedli romantics want to tell; and (b) create a language wherein hidri carries all the gravity the nationalists want it to carry without providing it with content. In both instances, for hidri to accomplish its assigned job, it has to remain in its inarticulate, vacuous form. This is a tall order, but so far it has been met with spectacular success. Below, we will see this success manifesting itself in various ways.
Burying the evidence: bypassing the living
If you ask the purpose or wisdom of ghedli you are not referred to the living, of whom there were and still are tens of thousands, but to the dead. What indeed motivates this deliberate bypassing of the living?
If we are to stick to what is humanly possible, you would think that there is already a lot of evidence out there both in the past and the present that would tell us about the nature of this hidri that could be retrieved by asking simple questions: What kind of dream did all those who joined ghedli voluntarily have? After all, all those who flocked to mieda in the 70’s must have had some kind of vision of the “Eritrea” they wanted to build, however vague or crude that must have been. Further more, what did transpire in the 30 years of mieda that would give us even a hint about the nature of this hidri? Take note that even when ghedli romantics refer to the dead for guidance, they are not interested in what they were doing while they were living; all they are interested is in their death – the sacrifice. And, more relevantly, what can we tell from the still living teghadelti who, of course, must have brought this hidri all the way from mieda to Asmara? Would it be too much speculation to claim that whatever dream the dead had must have been shared with those who have survived them?
If this hidri cannot be discerned from looking at 50 years of behavioral performance of tens of thousands of teghadelti, how is it possible to assert that it ever existed? You would think that tens of thousands of living teghadelti both in the past and present would make a sample large enough for any conclusions made out of it to hold. But don’t tell that to ghedli romantics who don’t want to delve deep into the past into the history of ghedli or to scrutinize ghedli-conceived present day Eritrea for any signs of this hidri; they would rather confine the search to the martyrs’ graveyard, to meqabir harbegnatat. It is understandable though that they have adopted this strategy, for neither the past nor the present attests to a dream or vision worth preserving.
Ghedli romantics are fully aware of the hazards of associating the dead with the living ones: the barbarity, sectarianism, tribalism, religious bigotry, corruption, incompetence, anarchy, nihilism, bloody wars, uprisings, chambers of horror, halewa sewra, executions, torture, child soldiering, giffa, famine, mass exodus, totalitarianism, fanaticism, monopoly, etc that defined ghedli and still defines present day Eritrea. By following the strategy of avoiding the living, it is made sure that none of these misery indices affect hidri.
A blank slate on which to inscribe
I once put the nationalists’ safe strategy as follows [all poems quoted in this article come from the series, Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism]:
...Where no one dares to dig
To keep their sanity intact,
Eritreans attribute ghedli tsegatat to the dead
and the ills to the living
for fear of someone asking them
where the evidence is.
The strategy is rather simple: First, you bury all the evidence “where no one dares to dig”. Since digging up martyrs’ graves is a sacrilegious act, there would be no better place than meqabir harbeghatat to hide what you don’t want ever to be found. Second, by claiming all the good evidence is buried with the martyred, it is then easy to come up with whatever tsegatat that one could think of attributable to the dead only. Hidri suwuatna thus becomes the empty slot for all these tsegatat to squeeze in.
But there is a problem with this strategy: if one fills in the blank with one’s own arbitrary wish, won’t one be fixing the content of hidri even if it is not to be rightly attributed to the martyrs? If so, despite this article’s claim to the contrary, won’t that mean conclusively identifying what this dream or vision is all about?
Not so, for the good thing about this hidri is that you could always erase what you have written before and replace it with a new one that would fit your current intentions. That is why it is essential that this hidri always remain in its open, variable form. Since it would be impossible to know what the future holds, it is only if hidri remains in its vacuous form that one could go on modifying his/her wishes as he/she sees it fit to the ever-evolving context. For instance, if tomorrow Isaias makes peace with Ethiopia knowing there is no way out, we shouldn’t be surprised if he invokes the name of martyrs to justify that move too, claiming that hidri suwuatna had all along been about “peace”, even as it would be in direct contradiction to what he is claiming today. And within the opposition camp, now that the phrase “mesel biherat” is gaining currency, don’t be surprised if they began claiming that hidri suwuatna had all along been about “self-determination up to cessation”. So, whenever ghedli romantics put words into the mouth of martyrs, their intention is not to fix the meaning of hidri once and for all, but with an eye to withdraw or replace it if future context demands so.
But the vacuous, variable nature of hidri raises further questions: How does a hidri that is devoid of content manage to keep hope alive? How is it possible for this hidri to be passed over from one generation to another, and to be reverently preserved “as is” all along the way, in its empty, content-less form?
Passing it over as a wrapped gift
Once I compared the often invoked “hidri suwuatna” with a wrapped gift that no one dares open, but nevertheless is reverently passed over to the next generation. The whole nation fell in love with this wrapped gift without having any clue as to what it contains inside. The Eritrean people deferred to ghedli when it comes to the knowledge of what lies in this wrapped gift: “deqina yifelt’u”. But the teghadelti themselves had no inkling what that hidri was all about; they either deferred to their own dead or to the “founding fathers” or to the Front they belonged to. It was not unusual to hear teghadelti extolling the wisdom of Shaebia or Jebha or to a more abstract sewra as if these were different entities that existed above and over the individual teghadelti themselves. And when it comes to the “founding father” Idris Awate, what kind of a dream could a notorious shifta whose “patriotism” was openly displayed in settling age-old tribal scores, burning down Kunama villages, murdering innocents and rustling cattle possibly have? At its worst, this hidri atrophies to a point where the whole nation defers to the wisdom of the leadership – the Isaias Afwerkis and Idris Abdelas. It is no surprise then that this game of deference, this abduction of responsibility, ended up in the tyrant himself as being the ultimate keeper of this hidri.
Yet, throughout the ghedli era, it was not easy to detect this mass cluelessness from looking at defiant Eritreans in never-ending romance with their revolution. They were dead serious about their revolution without having any clue as to what it was all about and where it was heading to. I once wrote the following stanza to capture the façade of certainty, and the sure-footedness that goes with it, camouflaging the sea of uncertainty that lurked beneath it:
With such a grim, determined face
each of us wore
for such a long time,
nobody tried to find out
what it was all about.
The seriousness with which every one of us took matters of ghedli was so daunting to the onlookers that no one among us dared to ask what it was all about. Since “matters of ghedli” were inextricably linked with “matters of the martyred”, the grave face we wore at the mere mention of “martyrs” made it impossible for us to ask: what are these tens of thousands dying for? To ask such an obvious question was taken tantamount to treason, and hence inconceivable.
With no one having any clue as to what martyrs’ hidri had to offer, the need was to pass it over wrapped with glittering nationalist cover named “independence” or “Eritrea” or “unity” (“Hadinetna”) – always with that serious, determined look stamped on our faces. Once teghadelti marched into Asmara, it was time to open the gift. But having no clue as to what independence was meant to offer, they reverted back into the only thing they had been familiar with for decades: they offered the nation more of ghedli. With the border war, after recreating the Sahel environment to its minutest details, it was time to wrap this hidri all over again and pass it over to the new generation ominously named “Warsai”. This was the first generation to suspect that, after all, there might be nothing at all in this wrapped gift; that all they were meant to inherit was an empty promise with a heavy name stamped on it. Once opened, this Pandora box had nothing to offer but more of ghedli: meswaitinet, tewefaynet, tetsewarinet, qoratsinet, tsin’at, biddho, bistifrina, biqiltsimna, mighidal, etc. Translated on the ground, tseghatat ghedli looked like all the ingredients of hell on earth. Once this awful realization sunk in, the Warsai began to flee in mass exodus.
But that doesn’t mean hidri suwuatna has stopped serving its purpose now; the “hope” variously raised in its name is still well and alive among true believers of both the opposition and Highdef types. What could possibly motivate the true believers to hold on to this “dream” despite the hollowness of it?
An investment on prior investment
Currently hidri retains its appeal primarily among ghedli romantics who are watching from a safe distance in Diaspora, be they of the regime’s supporters or the opposition type. While the former invoke it in “defending the sovereignty of the land” to the exclusion of everything else, the latter invoke it to infuse meaning to ghedli in an otherwise bleak political, social and economic landscape of present-day “independent” Eritrea. But what is interesting is that in both cases the underlying motive remains the same: both happen to do what they do primarily because they feel they have already invested too much to let it go now. Among former teghadelti, protecting their legacy becomes the driving force. The idea that all along these groups, both of teghadelti and ghebar types, could have been dead wrong about their ghedli investment is so unbearable to them that they have decided to defend it no matter what. Here is a stanza I once wrote to capture this phenomenon:
A patriot never in the wrong
The patriot refused to believe
the nation's sons died in vain.
And more sons were sacrificed
to defend that idea.
Hey patriot, it has always been about you!
In No Sense of Urgency among the Opposition, I elaborated on the idea:
“The problem is that most of the time what passes for concern for the masses turns out to be a concern for one’s own coveted idea of ‘Eritrea’ that has been instilled in our minds through decades of ghedli acculturation. It is not even a case of holding on to a belief anymore, but holding on to a belief about a belief; what started as a noble idea has degenerated into a hollow, second-order belief. Many have come to believe in the ‘cause’ for such a long time that that by itself has now become a further reason to go on believing, even as the evidence on the ground tells them not to. In the end then, a national cause atrophies into a personal identity crisis: they feel that they have invested so much on this idea that to let it go now is taken tantamount to a mortal threat on their individual identity; they would do anything, even if that comes at a huge expense to the masses, not to be proven wrong on an idea that they have nurtured for so long. It has gotten so personal that it has become more and more about themselves than about the nation itself. Thus, the faith that they had once in the idea of ‘Eritrea’ degenerates into a tenacious faith in their own personal judgment regarding that very inarticulate idea.”
No questions are being asked whether, independent of their investment track, the ghedli idea was worth investing in the first place. To ghedli romantics, what makes the ghedli idea worth further investing is the fact that already so much has been invested in it, and not of any intrinsic value it has on its own. If the worth of an idea is to be measured by how many died for it, then the only way you could make it more worthy is by letting many more others die for it. And that is exactly what sustains the culture of martyrdom.
Again, we witness how hidri in its vacuous form is put into the service of the “investors”: only if they put it under hidri suwuatna would they be able to get away with investing on a bankrupt idea for so long. To a question, “Why do you keep on investing?” the answer “Because I have already invested so much” sounds frivolous. On the other hand, “Because it is hidri suwuatna” carries all the gravity that one could hope for.
The logic of numbers and ever-deferrable cause
It is the logic of compiling numbers that keeps perpetuating the culture of martyrdom, where the deed of sacrifice is exalted to such a height that no one dares ask its necessity in the first place. No questions are asked when there is a demand for sacrifice, “for the sake of a nation”, be it in the form of death or toil; for one cannot ask the purpose of current sacrifice without questioning the purpose of those who have gone through a similar process in the past. In a strange reversal of temporal order, the goal is to be located not in the future, but in the past; within such a context, one acts not with an eye to what the future holds, but to what the past demands.
There is no doubt that when tens of thousands of the nation’s youth were driven to their death in the border war of Isaias’ making, they were incessantly reminded of hidri suwuatna: When sacrifice becomes the measure of all things, the only thing that matters is how much sacrifice has been paid. The bigger the sacrifice the worthier and the nearer seems the goal, even as no one has the slightest clue what that goal could possibly be. I once tried to capture the vicious circularity embedded in the rationale of the culture of martyrdom in this stanza:
“Because our martyrs died for it!”
When there is no justifiable cause
for the death of so many,
the death of so many
becomes the reason
for the death of many more.
It is of paramount importance for a culture of martyrdom that there be no justifiable cause that anyone could put his/her hands on; the intangibility of the cause is essential to the very existence of the culture itself. If one is to find the cause in numbers only, it is precisely because one cannot find it anywhere else.
One sure way a cause is rendered intangible is by ever deferring it, denying its translatability on the ground – in the here and now. Like all religions, the culture of martyrdom retains its relevance by ever-deferring the cause to the hereafter. A religion retains its viability by deferring the cause for which it exists to the afterlife. Since nobody has ever come back from the world of the dead to contradict a religion’s claim, the cause is necessarily located at a safe place where evidence cannot reach it. So is it with the culture of martyrdom: all the evidence that would prove it otherwise is safely buried with the martyred. Once the cause is pushed out from the realm of human reach, martyrdom dethrones the cause to be the sole measure of attainment that one lives for. Within such a world of negation, sacrifice begets sacrifice until it finally devours the very context on which it stands to the extent that it can no more support it. No wonder now Shaebia, after having thoroughly hollowed out the very Eritrea on which it stands, finds itself in its last gasp of breath.
If a book can be made to dream, the Book of Martyrdom’s wish would be to get as fat as it could possibly get: the fatter it gets, the more precious it becomes. It advices us to seek the cause in the numbers of martyrs it has meticulously compiled: the higher the corpses compiled, the greater the cause. No wonder it abhors any dietary advice from the concerned masses to keep itself lean. Its dream of getting fat was momentarily fulfilled when 20,000 more martyred during the border war were added to its already long list. But since the Book has an insatiable appetite, there is no way it could be satisfied once and for all. The perpetual deference of the ultimate goal, be it in the name of “independence”, “sovereignty”, “self reliance”, “h’adinetna” or other elusive ideals, guarantees that it never runs out of “causes” that demand further sacrifice. Thus, the sacrifice in blood and sweat in the altar of ghedli has to go on to sustain the culture of martyrdom until the whole edifice collapses out of lethal hemorrhage, which is what the latest diagnosis of Eritrea tends to indicate.
The intangibility and ever-deferability of a cause demand that the cause remain vacuous, yet meaningfully so, to all the true believers. What better candidate than hidri suwuatna can there be that fulfills this dual demand?
Impotent dream: whose cause is served?
How about the dream of all those well-intended individuals who joined ghedli? Doesn’t their dream count in the overall ghedli narration that we want to tell?
In our ghedli analysis, we often forget one simple fact: that the revolution was able to neatly separate the motivation of well intended individuals from the original cause they had in mind, and exploited the former effectively to meet its own end while discarding the latter.
Actions do not come with motives attached to them. Nobody could tell if someone who is shooting at an enemy is doing so out of revenge, adventurism or patriotism just by looking at the action of firing. And worse, even the fighter himself might not to be in the know whose cause is finally being served by the shooting, even though all along he could have been thinking it is his cause that is at work. If the exploiter is clever, he better let the shooter believe in the cause he is shooting for, even as he using it to further a different cause. Let me provide a more tangible example.
A thief plans to break into a rich man’s house. He waits until the family is on vacation to enact his plan. After using all his tricks, he realizes he will be unable to open the door by himself. Only one man in the town could do it: the locksmith. The thief has also got another important piece of information: that the locksmith is extremely jealous of his wife, who is believed to have numerous affairs in the town. After making sure that his wife is not in her house, the thief leaves a written message in the locksmith’s shop telling him that his wife is right now having an affair in the rich man’s house. The hot headed locksmith rushes to the scene and pounds at the door; and when no response is coming, he unlocks the door using his skill and rushes in. The thief, who has been stealthily following him, enters the house and hides himself until the locksmith storms out of the room. The rest is history: the thief escapes with all the jewelry he could put his hands on.
The action needed, the opening of the door, remains invariable be it under the thief’s or the locksmith’s “cause”. But the thief knows that unless the locksmith is given a motive of his own, he wouldn’t act. In the end, even as the locksmith believed it is his “cause” that is served as he unlocks the door, it was the thief’s “cause” that was actually served. To get this result, what the thief has done is separate the locksmith’s motivation from its cause, and use the former while discarding the latter. Ghedli used similar strategy with those well-motivated to fight to further its cause. Let’s take a most recent event to understand this phenomenon: the border war.
What was the dream of the 20,000 martyred during the border war? Even if many of them believed in the “cause” – that being defending the sovereignty of Eritrea – and many died believing so, in the final count was it not to fulfill Isaias’ dream that they were fighting for? And if so, we cannot talk about martyrs’ dream or hidri that never made it outside their heads, even as they did harbor such a dream. Whenever their dream found its way out in its motivational aspect only (that is, in its action), it was to subvert itself; for the very motivation they got from the “cause” was channeled to serve a totally different cause. If this phenomenon holds true in the border war and its aftermath, what prevents us from stretching it to cover the whole ghedli era?
Notice that, in the above, for hidri to do its assigned job, it has to remain impotent; the dream has to remain not actionable under its original cause. And to talk about an impotent hidri is to talk about no dream at all – or rather, about a vacuous one.
Metaphors to die for
It has been decades since the nation has been literally living off grandiose words: meswaitinet, tewefayinet, korasinet, simret, hade libi hade hizbi, netsanet, harnet, ghedli, Yikealo, Warsai, bitsifrina, biddho, tsinat, kidan, etc. Eritreans don’t realize that it has been decades since they have been living in a world of make-believe. When such a make-believe world attains totality, even blood loses its vitality and appears only in easily expendable metaphors. Here is a stanza I wrote reflecting that phenomenon of human dispensability that underlies this metaphorical world:
In the name of the nation
When metaphors are all we have
for reasons to live and die,
reality becomes our enemy
and blood flows in color only,
as “red badge of courage.”
The most pernicious metaphors of all happen to be mid-objectives like “independence”, “sovereignty”, “Eritrea”, “Hadnetna”, etc simply because they deceptively seem to be ends in themselves. It has been essential for ghedli to create an atmosphere of sanctity around them so that nobody would dare unpack them in tangible and realizable terms. Let me provide an example.
Suppose you wanted to visit your sister who lives in a different city. You have been contemplating whether to take a bus, train or plane before you finally settled with the train. Now, the train would be your secondary object of desire because it is just a means for your destination, which happens to be your primary object of desire. Notice that while there are alternatives to your choice of the means, there are no such alternatives to your main goal: visiting your sister. So is it with the primary objects of desire such as individual liberty, identity, creativity, prosperity, security, fulfillment and happiness. These are indispensable to any individual to live a full life and are not matters of choice. What are matters of choice though are the means through which you plan to achieve them.
The Eritrean revolution has always been about secondary objects of desire: “Eritrea”, “independence”, “sovereignty”, “unity”, etc. But, in and of themselves, there is no guarantee that these will deliver the primary objects of desire. It is no coincidence that in all of these metaphors, the land easily replaces the people as the beneficiary of the sacrifice. And whenever a metaphor easily replaces land for people, the latter are made to serve the former.
But the greatest metaphor of all is the secondary object of desire known as “ghedli”. When a whole nation seeks its very identity in ghedli, the means has spectacularly triumphed in dethroning the goal.
One of the best ways hidri suwuatna does its assigned job is by claiming secondary objects of desire (netsanet, luulawinet, hadnet, hagher, etc) as its ultimate goals. At its worst, it self-referentially points at itself as the ultimate goal: meswaitnet or ghedli. Either way, it is the ambiguity of the metaphor that is carried over to hidri itself.
Notice that hidri, whether it is to be located in martyrs’ graves as an evidence out of human reach; as a blank slate on which to inscribe, erase, withdraw or replace one’s wish; or as a wrapped gift to be passed over from one generation to another; or as a second-order belief about a prior held belief; or as an intangible dream ever to be deferred to sustain its viability; or as an impotent dream that doesn’t exist outside the head of the dreamers but serves others’ end; or as a reservoir of unpacked metaphors, it does its job necessarily in its vacuous, variable form.
Deconstructing “hidri suwuatna” doesn’t mean killing hope, as many of the self-deluded often indicate. Instead, it advises us to build the nation using the sparse materials we have.