Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unfiltered Notes: A Rosa Parks moment for Eritrea – Part II

“Part I” attempted to show how “Constructive Optimism & Positive Action” could be helpful in achieving a Rosa Parks moment for Eritrea. The idea being, when there is hope and optimism, positive action is likely to follow. Here is Part II.


“Colonel Korn’s rule was a stroke of genius. Under Colonel Korn’s rule the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since … it was agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.” –Catch 22.

Catch 22 was written in 1961 and I am amazed by how accurately these lines portray current day Eritrea. Isaias used to respond to “questions from the people” for a few years after independence. Then the questions got tougher demanding accountability and Isaias got visibly irritated – in essence telling people to stop asking questions. Soon the sessions were discontinued all together. He is now surrounded by a cadre of messengers -- “yes” men and women -- and no questions are asked anymore. I attended what was to be the last session in the Municipality building in Asmara in 1996. I still remember the event with disbelief on how poorly he conducted himself.

Instead of addressing the issues as one would expect from a good leader, Isaias intimidated the folks who dared to ask. One of them, a young law student, asked what many thought was an excellent question about why the special courts were created without the opportunity to appeal. Isaias went on a foaming tirade, demeaning the guy for bookish cleverness. Sometime later, I heard the same law student was killed in a “car accident”. I can’t help wondering now if this was the same sort of “car accident” that, in 2008, also killed Mohammed Hagos, a decent Eritrean I knew.

Why have we, as a culture, failed to ask the tough questions to uncover the truth? (The “we” here primarily refers to diaspora Eritreans as those inside have no means to express themselves). The official reason given by the regime for the 1998 Badme war was that Eritrea was responding to the death of about a dozen Eritreans killed by Ethiopian militia forces. To this day, I doubt if anyone even knows their names. Do we even know the event occurred as claimed by the regime? By the regime’s own admission, Eritrea lost 19,000 lives and Eritrea’s bleeding has never stopped since. And all that to avenge an incident that may not even have taken place. Imagine that!!. And what of his eye popping claim that he learned about the war after someone woke him up from his nap? Really ?!! Is this going to be our recorded history?

I don’t recall the title of the book I read years ago at the moment. The author, a reporter, says he submitted his first story about a dead body that was missing one arm. In the book, he retells the story about how his editor reprimanded him for not specifying which arm was missing. That kind of focus and attention to detail to get to the very bottom of the truth is what is missing in Eritrea’s post-independence culture. Tyranny thrives in an environment of fear where people stop asking questions. No further proof is necessary than to look at the two Koreas and former East Germany; or even at Eritreans who succeed in education, in business and life in general anywhere else but in Eritrea -- same people, same DNA, just different environments.

Has Eritrea crossed the line where it is “neither possible nor necessary” to awaken people who never question anything? I certainly hope not. We need to rejoin the vibrant nations of the world who are fast moving forward as we are marching backwards. And we can’t do that and get to our Rosa Parks moment without asking the good and tough questions to help us uncover the truth.

Isaias is notorious for taking an example of a bad thing happening anywhere – usually an exception – to make a hugely inaccurate conclusion in an attempt to cover up his crimes. Notable examples are his endless ranting about the absence of free press, or lack of democracy anywhere.

Although he may be right in absolute terms, he says these outrageous things to divert attention from the miserable state of affairs he has subjected Eritrea to. The exceptions he refers to in the countries he maligns happen with 100% certainty in Eritrea. Never in his rumblings does he ever acknowledge that the countries he despises (Sweden as his last victim and the West in general) do have self-correcting processes in place to ensure they are protected from the type of tyranny that has befallen Eritrea.

In other countries, brave souls who stick their necks out against injustice or those who dare to speak for the voiceless don’t end up in jail or dead as happens in Eritrea. Even if we grant him that free press in the West can sometimes miss its mark, it does not change the fact that free press absolutely does NOT exist in Eritrea. The world still has many courageous journalists who expose corruption and other weaknesses in their own societies and their people are the better for it. The ones who tried this in Eritrea are ALL in jail, exiled or dead.

It is a fascinating mindset that never addresses Eritrea’s real issues. But then again, Isaias is not known for his problem solving skills. He is a tragic figure who is, sadly, very good at escalating resolvable problems into full blown crisis that end up consuming lives and resources with abandon. But he has very little, if any, to show that he actually solves real problems. I understand why he would position things the way he does but it is hard to understand why Eritreans are not massively outraged by these fallacies. Realizing this point alone and being the wiser for it, I think, will go a long way in realizing Eritrea’s Rosa Parks moment.

Another one the regime uses with some measure of successes is the “look how worse off Ethiopia is” trick. Unless Eritreans are sadists, why are we even expected to rejoice at someone else’s miseries? And secondly, what relief does it bring to a hungry, imprisoned, enslaved or impoverished Eritrean that another human being is also suffering somewhere else? Those who like to perpetuate this kind of thinking can go back to the stone age if they prefer, but no sane person should have any part in it.

So, here is the bottom line with these irrational and circular arguments: On one hand, Isaias argues that there is no democracy or free press anywhere in the world implying - falsely of course - that these attributes only exist in Eritrea. On the other, he tries to tone down his monumental failures by saying Eritrea is at least not the worst failure on earth. It is time that we stopped falling for such nonsense.


Some say Eritrea is so messed up that Isaias is the only one who can keep it together. This tone of despair cuts the issue the wrong way on so many levels. First, you don’t entrust what you cherish to the care of someone who is actively destroying it. Second, this mindset overlooks the simple fact that he certainly will be gone one day. And then what – leave it to another brute? So, the sooner we move beyond such disempowering fixation, the better off we will all be.

There is another mindset that says if Isaias is gone PFDJ will be there to carry on. I don’t know what the future holds either but my take is that PFDJ will evaporate into thin air without him. It is an organization built on mistrust, cronyism and corruption held together by the manipulative skills he has perfected over the last four decades. If enough of us, at a personal level, decide to stand for what is right, PFDJ will have nothing to stand on and will simply crumble. I remember my uncle telling me stories of how shepherds with sticks were “capturing” Ethiopian soldiers with their big guns in 1991 when the ground fell from under their feet. I don’t think PFDJ’s fate will be any different. Remember Rumania’s Ceaucescu and the fall of the Berlin wall –how formidable they seemed and the speed with which the end came crushing down?

Of course, the challenges of nation re-building after cannot be underestimated. Reacting to “Part I” of this piece, I got a sober email that stated the problem as: “lowlanders and highlanders don’t know each other”. I like the clear and simple definition of the problem. If we decide to put our hearts and minds to it, making serious progress in knowing each other should not be that difficult. Now instead of throwing energy dissipating tantrums at each other, the question can be reframed as: “what can we do to know each other better?” Can we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes long enough and regularly enough to know what is truly valued by the other? And can we then use those common values to march forward TOGETHER to realize common goals – goals that everyone values such as freedom, justice, prosperity, better education, better life for the next generation etc.? And if we can’t do this, what is the point of Eritrea or any nation for that matter? A country should be measured by how much it values the lives of all its citizens. Otherwise, it is really nothing more than a piece of geography with interesting land marks.

Community centers could be a good venue for getting people together to help them know each other better. But our record on that has been close to dismal. Although attempts are made by good people frequently, negative mindsets often prevail and spoil it for everyone. I was recently told about a church group in California that had a serious falling out among its members. Not surprisingly, some were supporters of the regime. Why an atheist regime managed to successfully infiltrate a God worshiping church in a free country thousands of miles away is pretty amazing.

And it gets worse. The two sides, apparently missing the higher religious calling of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, failed to reconcile and between them ended up paying over USD 300,000 in legal fees. Instead of using the community’s hard earned money for the betterment of their church and their community, it was thrown away to enrich others. Studies show one dollar entering the Chinese community circulates 33 times before it exits their community. In the church case above, money went from the pockets of church members and out to lawyers. This all-or-nothing mindset must stop if want to leave something good for the next generation.

You want your blood pressure raised a bit more? We are all painfully aware of the mass exodus of Eritrea’s youth over the last several years. I am sure you have met some of them as I have. The route is difficult and expensive. Relatives in the diaspora have to come up with USD 15,000 to 30,000 to bring one person to safety. Conservatively, I will guess over 5000 left Eritrea this way. If we average things out and assume $20,000 per person, $100 million dollars was siphoned out of Eritrean communities. This is $100 million that could have been used for the betterment of Eritrean lives – pay for college, save for retirement, improve life styles etc.. If Eritrea was a free country, this $100 million could also have been invested in Eritrea to start businesses and other life enriching projects. Instead, the regime’s failed policies are actively impoverishing Eritreans everywhere – inside and outside.

Of course, since this $100 million was used to save lives, it is definitely money well spent. The point is, if people were allowed to travel in and out of Eritrea freely, the cost would have been that of a plane ticket instead. Keep in mind though this $100 million does not even include the lives lost in the deserts and high seas. And the opportunity cost of what those lives could have been along with 200,000 of our young tied down in the regime’s poverty projects and thousands more held in limbo for years in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia.

These outrageous crimes are being committed in our name. And it is really not that difficult or complicated to understand and act on what is going on. Can we all agree to refuse to go to the back of the bus -- so to speak? To keep things in perspective, many courageous people before Rosa Parks had refused to go to the back of the bus. But although they individually failed to make freedom arrive sooner, their collective sacrifices were what made the arrival of the Rosa Parks moment inevitable. If it were not for those who “failed” before her doing exactly what she did to succeed, Rosa Parks would not have been able to trigger the moment of no return. Similarly, our individual acts may not seem significant and, individually, we may feel like we are failing to make a difference. But since it is okay to “fail” doing the right thing, these “successful failures” are exactly what we need to build the much needed foundation.

And don’t listen to the naysayers when they try to discourage you from doing the right thing. To illustrate this by way of example, I often get feedback – some first-hand and some not -- that it is unwise for me to get involved in politics. To start with, nothing can be further from the truth. I consider myself to be as apolitical as they come. I voice my opinion because I see Eritrea has become the deathbed of all those good dreams. Rejecting this regime for the fraud that it is and for the pain it has caused has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with justice. When Isaias says “we have our own ways of dealing with things” (meaning ‘shut up and do what you are told, I decide who dies and who lives’), it becomes a criminal case – not political. I see people herded to jail never to be heard from again, and I say Isaias is the worst enemy Eritrea has. This is not politics but simply pointing out the obvious – a case of crimes against humanity.

Although it is troubling to see folks failing to make these distinctions, stopping to speak out because you could be misunderstood would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. I’d much rather take my “successful failures” any time of the day. I pity those who intentionally discredit voices of reason as involvement in “politics” because, unless they wake up soon, they will be their beloved regime’s next victims.

My hope is that this two-part article will have added a tiny bit to the dialog and will nudge a few people to stop enabling the regime in any way – stop consuming its propaganda, don’t fall for its old tricks, etc, etc. And with a little more from others, the true Rosa Parks moment will come to pass. The failure of post-independent Eritrea is a bitter lesson. As the Dalai Lama said “when you lose, don’t lose the lesson”. Now is a good time as any to redeem ourselves as people – work towards a Rosa Parks moment.


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