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July 31, 2009

The house of despairA filthy squat in Calais is home to 50 Eritreans who daily try to cross the Channel seeking asylum in Britain. Here are their stories

Filed under: News — eritrearealclearpolitics @ 8:14 am
  • Caroline Woods
  • The Guardian, Thursday 30 July 2009
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  • The first thing you notice is the smell. Sour and rancid, it cuts at the back of your throat; a powerful combination of rotting food, urine and sweat. Next it’s the flies, lots of them, circling in a frenzy. Then, out of the gloom, a pair of eyes emerges, and another – and then the shape of a young man, sleeping deeply on one of the grubby mattresses that line the floor of this derelict place. A few minutes from the centre of Calais, this is “Africa house”, so called because of the 40 or 50 Eritrean asylum seekers who now squat here, waiting and hoping.

    Most of the inhabitants are male, aged between 14 and 30, although every so often a young woman darts past from one filthy room to the next. Small piles of possessions dot each room: a few clothes, a tattered Bible, a torn rucksack, a jumbo-sized bottle of ketchup. There is no electricity, and the windows are either boarded up or covered with blue tarpaulin.

    Outside, rubbish is piled up high against the walls. Old sleeping bags lie on top of empty milk cartons, tins of soup and yet more flies. There is graffiti on the walls, most of it in Tigrinya, the main Eritrean language, although the occasional, quaintly old- fashioned slogan is in English: “Be sociable to everyone, a friend to many and enemy to no one, faithful to one,” reads one wall. “God help Africa,” says another.

    Despite being further from the rubbish, the smell upstairs is worse. The previous night, I am told, the local police threw tear gas into this house, trying to make life so difficult for the squatters that they would be forced to leave. But, other than sneaking inside one of the trucks that queue near here en route to the UK, these Eritrean refugees have nowhere to go. They spend their days washing their clothes in a nearby canal, or waiting for food hand-outs from one of the local charities.

    Issayas tells me he is 14, but looks much younger: “I have been here one month and two weeks. I came via Libya, then Italy.” Like most of the Eritreans seeking asylum, he has made the treacherous journey alone. So too has Michael: “I have not seen my family for six months. They are waiting for me to send money. I paid $6,000 to get here, and I can’t call them until I get to the UK. I’ve been here three or four months but I can’t tell them.”

    The residents of Africa house are nervous of our presence, and only describe their journeys from Eritrea upon guarantee of anonymity. They are even more reluctant to go into any detail about why they left the country of their birth. According to a damning Human Rights Watch report from earlier this year: “Many of the refugees were fearful of describing their experiences in Eritrea, because they were concerned that doing so could result in repercussions for their families.”

    Yoseph is sitting on a dirty mattress with his broken leg bandaged. “On the way from Libya, soldiers caught us in the sea, so I spent five months in prison there. After prison, I pay $700 to come to Trablous [Tripoli], then $1,500 to cross to Italy, and from Italy I came here. It’s very difficult. I have been here six months.”

    Broken arms, legs and ankles are a common sight here, a result of the refugees jumping over the high fences and falling off the lorries. On a typical day, a minibus from Secours Catholique or one of the other local charities might take 10 refugees to hospital. Those with broken limbs carry a resigned look, knowing their chances of slipping quietly into a truck have diminished further.

    Many attempt to cross into Britain several times a night: “One night I tried three times,” says Merhawi, who has also lived in this Calais squat for six months. “The border is very hard, the police are serious. I left home two years ago, I don’t have anything.”

    Earlier this month, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) set up a Calais office to help people claim asylum in France, Italy or elsewhere in Europe. But many of these refugees still want to come to the UK because they perceive their life prospects to be better here.

    “We explain the French asylum system, we offer other solutions for them,” says Marie-Ange Lescure at the UNHCR office in Calais. “A small number apply for asylum in France, but most of them speak English and there is an Eritrean community in England, so they want to go there. If they haven’t been fingerprinted [elsewhere in Europe], they will try to claim asylum in Great Britain.”

    Shockingly, even those who have been fingerprinted elsewhere (and therefore only qualify for refugee status in that country) will often go to the extreme measure of burning their hands in the mistaken belief that it will remove their fingerprints. “The problem is that once they’ve had fingerprints taken in Italy, under the Dublin convention they are supposed to continue to stay in Italy,” explains Ben Rawlence of Human Rights Watch. “But they want to go to a country with a much better support system where they can get training, housing and a helping hand to start their lives.”

    The Eritreans are not the only asylum seekers here in Calais. There are an estimated 1,600 migrants sleeping rough in the city. Much has been written about the 400-600 Afghans living in a makeshift camp known locally as “la jungle“, but there are also Sudanese, Somalis, a handful of Vietnamese and these 50 or so Eritreans, all of whom have entrusted their lives, and often thousands of pounds, to people-smugglers in the hope that they can get them in to Britain illegally.

    Calais’ citizens appear to be divided into those who openly hate the migrants – barely hiding their disgust as they drive past the food distribution area – and those who feel such compassion for them that they regularly bring food and clothes and offer them the chance of a shower. So regularly, in fact, that the French government has threatened to arrest any locals found to be harbouring the migrants in their homes. Fresh reports suggest that many of the Afghans who were living in la jungle have now left after learning of the French police’s plans to bulldoze the area. Some have headed to Paris, sleeping rough in the parks near Gare du Nord; others are now thought to be squatting in Calais, in houses similar to the one occupied by the Eritreans.

    While it is generally known that the others are fleeing war or persecution in their home countries, the plight of the Eritreans is largely ignored. After all, Eritrea is neither at war nor considered much of a terrorist threat, and as such is hardly ever mentioned in the news. However, this looks likely to change. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the UN security council had threatened Eritrea with sanctions following claims by the Somalian government that Eritrea is aiding Somali rebels, destabilising peace in the region.

    When Eritrea declared independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year civil war (which ended in 1991), much was hoped of this small country on the Horn of Africa. But in recent times the situation in Eritrea has gone from hope to despair. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR all refer to it as one of the most closed and oppressive regimes in the world. In both 2007 and 2008, Reporters Without Borders placed Eritrea at the bottom of its world ranking for press freedom – that’s worse than North Korea, Burma and Iran.

    “Eritrea is like a giant prison. All the youth are conscripted into national service and face military service or forced labour at the discretion of the government – it’s no wonder many are trying to flee,” says Rawlence. “But they are caught in a trap because you can be shot for illegally crossing the Eritrean border, and if you desert national service you face imprisonment and possible torture upon return. Moreover, the families of all those who flee are punished with a fine or – for those parents who cannot pay the €3,000 – jail.”

    Faced with what Human Rights Watch describes as a choice between “state repression and indefinite conscription” or jail, hundreds of Eritreans regularly try to flee the country illegally (those under 50 rarely get exit visas), knowing that they risk being shot at the border or imprisoned if they are caught. “Despite these risks, Eritrea is now among the highest refugee-producing nations in the world,” Rawlence says.

    Tesfamicael Gerahtu, the Eritrean ambassador to the UK, denies this, saying Eritrea has no greater number of citizens fleeing than many other countries, and the vast majority are economic migrants following the “illusion” of western prosperity. Gerahtu also questions the independence of human rights groups who have criticised abuses in Eritrea, and says the US state department has a long record of hostility towards Eritrea.

    “The reports for most cases are fabricated and baseless and sometimes exaggerated. There could be some mistakes that we have made, but even these are exaggerated. Eritrea is a country where there is tolerance, freedom of religious beliefs and respect of religions. For more than 1,000 years, Christians and Muslims have been coexisting with respect.”

    The journey from Eritrea to Calais can take anything from six months to a year, and can cost around $10,000. Those who attempt the most common route, to Libya from Sudan, do so by paying a people-smuggler. From Libya they cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats to land on the beaches of Malta, Greece, Turkey and Italy.

    “I’ve been in Calais for one and a half months,” says Issac, 20, sitting with a group of fellow Eritreans on a grass verge in front of the Calais squat. “My journey took one and a half years: I came from Eritrea to Sudan by car, then from Sudan to Libya by car – that took three months – then from Libya to Italy by boat, then from Italy to France by train.”

    Samson, also 20, tells me: “Eritrea has many problems, big problems, that is why I left. I came from Sudan to Libya by car, then from Libya to Italy under a truck. I am alone in Europe. It is hard here, but to live in France in this house is better than to live in Italy with no house. In Italy I was on the streets. I paid $10,000 to get there, and my family are waiting for me to send money home. I have tried to cross to England many times. I don’t count any more.”

    Asked what would happen to any refugees who give up this seemingly hopeless quest and return to Eritrea, Gerahtu says “they were more than safe” and most would be reintegrated into their communities. “The government has said that anybody who wants to return can return and be reintegrated into their work or study.” He adds that each refugee who returned to Eritrea would be questioned because they had left illegally, and a few might have to be punished. “If there is a case where this is needed, we would never appease anybody.”

    Meanwhile, Britain and France are at an uneasy standoff over who is responsible for those in the illegal Calais camp and in the Eritrean squat. The Home Office considers it a French problem and is unhappy at what looks like France turning a blind eye to a queue of people plotting to get into Britain illegally. The French just want the camp, and its inhabitants, to disappear. It is UK Border agency officials who search lorries as they enter the Calais port, but anyone found hiding in a lorry is handed over to the French authorities.

    The one thing nobody wants is for the camp in Calais to turn into Sangatte mark two, and as such, there are plans to clear it with bulldozers, rather than improve the living conditions. “While we accept the need to provide basic humanitarian facilities, the French government has made it absolutely clear it will not allow a new migrant camp, which would act as a magnet to the traffickers and smugglers who prey on the vulnerable. If someone is genuinely fleeing persecution, they should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach,” says the border and immigration minister, Phil Woolas.

    In April, his French counterpart Eric Besson said of the Afghan camp: “We will take the time necessary to prepare the dismantlement of the camp, but the ‘jungle’ must be gone before the end of the year.” And the same, presumably, goes for the Eritrean squat, hence the use of tear gas.

    If, or rather when, the Eritrean squat and the rest of the illegal camps are cleared, one thing is certain: these desperate people will keep risking their lives to come into the UK. “Life is like a wave. You go, come back, go, come back, this is the way of life,” says Naga, who came to Calais via Sudan, Libya and Italy. Naga has already been deported from Britain once, when the UK Border Agency discovered he had already been fingerprinted in Italy. So why does he keep trying to get into the UK, rather than stay in France or Italy?

    “In Italy we were like animals – no, like garbage. I cannot survive my life in Italy, it was impossible. And my life in Calais is very hard too. So I will try again to arrive in the UK, this is my dream. The UK has humanity. But when they get my fingerprints, they will try to send me back. I will ask, where will I go? I have no alternative but to come here. So I ask the UK government to please, please help me.”

    Caroline Woods is a pseudonym. Additional reporting by Patrick Barkham. All names have been changed.



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    • Inside an Eritrean refugee squat in Calais
      Gallery (8 pictures): Eritrean inhabitants of Africa House in Calais squat in squalid conditions, hoping for passage to a better existence
    • Life is a wave: Naga’s story
      Video (3min 24sec): An Eritrean asylum seeker in Calais talks of his long and troubled journey to seek sanctuary in the UK



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    About this article


    The house of despair

    This article was first published on at 00.05 BST on Thursday 30 July 2009. It appeared in the Guardian on Thursday 30 July 2009 on p4 of the Comment & features section. It was last updated at 00.25 BST on Thursday 30 July 2009.

    Naga, an Eritrean asylum seeker Link to this video


    July 16, 2009

    ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ “ዋዕላ ንዲሞክራሲያዊ ለውጢ” ብዝምልከት ብዲሞክራሲያዊ ግንባር ብሄራት ኤርትራ (ዲግብኤ) ዝተዋህበ መግለጺ

    Filed under: News — eritrearealclearpolitics @ 8:27 am
    Saturday, 11 July 2009 10:35
    ብመሰረት ሓባራዊ ውሳኔ ሓድነታዊ ጉባኤን ብግብራዊ ስጉምቲ ፈጻሚት ቤት ጽሕፈት ኤርትራዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ኪዳን ኣብ መጻኢ ንክግበር ተሓሲቡ ዘሎ ሰፊሕ ዋዕላ ተቓወምቲ ሓይሊታት ኤርትራ ጥጡሕ ባይታ ዘንጽፍ ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ (workshop) ካብ 04-08/07/2009 ኣብ ኣዲስ ኣበባ ተኻይዱ፡፡

    ኣገደስቲ ሃገራዊ ዛዕባታት ተላዒሎም ዓሙቅን ሃናጺ ክትዕ ተገይሩ፡፡ ከይተነጸሩ ንዝጸንሑ ሃገራዊ ጉዳያት ከኣ መዕለቢ ከም ዝሃበ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ግንባር ብሄራት ኤርትራ ይኣምን፡፡ ንጹር ስኢሊ ካብ ዘረኸቡ ዛዕባታት ከምዚ ዝስዕቡ እዮም፡-


    1.       ዓላማ ናይ ዋዕላ ፡- ዘይንጹርን ጽልግልግ ከብለና ዝጸንሔ ዓላማ እቲ ዋዕላ ” ዓቅሚታት ደምበ ተቓውሞ ሓይሊታት ኤርትራ ብምውህላልን ብምምዕባልን ብምውህሃድ ውድቀት ስርዓት ህግደፍ ንምቅልጣፍ” ምዃኑ ኣብዚ ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ ተረጋጊጹን በሪሁን፡፡


    2.       በዓል ቤታዊ ጉዳይ ዋዕላ ንጉዳይ ዋዕላን ነዚ ውራይ ከም ኣቦ ጓይላ መሪሑ ናብ መዕለቢ ከብጽሕ ዝኽእል ኣካል ብሩህ ኣይነበረን፡፡ ኣይጸንሔን፡፡ ኣብዚ ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ ጉዳይ ዋዕላ ንኹሉ ደምበ ተቓውሞ ዝምልከት ዋንን ህዝቢ ኤርትራ ምዃኑ ብዘይገለ ስክፍታ ተነጺሩ፡፡ ስለዝኾነ ከኣ ፖለቲካዊ ውድባት ኤርትራዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ኪዳን፣ ካብ ኪዳን ወጻኢ ዘሎው ውድባት፣ ሲቪካዊ ማሕበራትን (ኣብ ወጻኢ፣ ኣብ ኢትዮጵያ፣ ኣብ ሱዳን) ሃገራውያን ባእታታትን ሓርበኛታት ዝሓወሰ ኣሰናዳኢ ሽማግሌ ንክቐውም እምነትን ትጽቢት ዲግብኤ እዩ፡፡


    3.       ጉዳይ ሃገራዊ ሓድነት ፡- ኣብዚ ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ ከፍርሕ ዝጸንሐ ጉዳይ ሃገራዊ ሓድነት ተላዒሉን ተዘቲዩን እዩ፡፡ ንሃገራዊ ሓድነት ኤርትራ ካብ ዘስግኡ ረቋሒታት ህላዌን ቀጻልነት ስርዓት ህግደፍ እቲ ቀንዲ ምዃኑ ተነጺሩ፡፡ ብተወሳኺ ንጉዳያት ሕቶ ብሄርን ሃይማኖታዊ መዓርነት ቅልጡፍን ውህሉል ፍታሕ እንተዘይተውሂቡ ምርግጋጽ ሃገራዊ ሓድነት ኤርትራ ሕልሚ ከም ዝኸውንን ተሳተፍቲ ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ ነዚ ሓቂ ደው ኢሎም ንክሓስቡ ዕድል ዝሃበ ባይታ ነይሩን ተፈጢሩን፡፡


    ዝተራእዩ ሕጽረታት ፡- ዝተገብረ ዓውደ መጽናዕቲ ኣዎንታዊ ሸነኻቱ ይጉላሕ እምበር ሕጽረታት ኣይነበሮን ማለት ኣይኮነን፡፡ ዋሕዲ ተሳተፍቲ ሲቪካዊ ማሕበራት ሓደ ሸነኻዊ መድረኽ ገይሩዎ እዩ፡፡ ይኹንእምበር ካብ ሽመልባ፣ ኣሳዓይታ-በራሕለን ማይ ዓይኒ ዝመጹ ሲቪካዊ ማሕበራት ብዝገበሩዎ ሻራ-ኣልቦ ተሳትፎን ጻዕርን ሚዛኑ ንክሕሎ ተፈቲኑ እዩ፡፡ ኣተሓሕዛን ኣመራርሓ ናይቲ መድረኽ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ነይሩ እንተዝኸውን ዝያዳ ውጽኢታዊ ከም ዝኸውን ዲግብኤ ይኣምን፡፡ እዚ ኸኣ ብቀንዱ ካብ ድኽመታት ቤት ጽሕፈት ወጻኢ ዝምድናታት ኤርትራዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ኪዳን ዝምንጨወ ምዃኑ ሓደ ክልተ ዝበሃሎ ኣይኮነን፡፡ ኣብ ልዕሊ እዚ ሕጽረት ኣመራርሓ መድረኽን ካብ ጸቢብ ጉጅላዊ ረብሓታት ንምውጻእ ድልው ናይ ዘይምዃን ነጸብራቅ ምዃኑ ዲግብኤ ገምጊሙ፡፡ ኤርትራዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ኪዳን ነተን ኣዎንታዊ ሸነኻት ብምጉልባትን ካብቲኤን ኣሉታዊ ሕጽረታት ተናጊፉ ነቲ ኣብ መጻኢ ክቀውም ተሓሲቡ ዘሎ ኣሰናዳኢ ሽማግለ ዋዕላ ሃናጺ ተመክሮ ንክሕልፍ ዲግብኤ ጻውዒቱ የሕልፍ፡፡ ማእከላይ መሪሕነት ኤርትራዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ኪዳን ከኣ ነዚ ጉዳይ ፍሉይ ጠመተ ንክህብ ምሕጽንትኡ ኣቅሪቡ፡፡



    ዓወት ንዋዕላ ተቓወምቲ ሓይሊታት ኤርትራ !!

    ዲሞክራሲያዊ ግንባር ብሄራት ኤርትራ


    July 15, 2009

    Italy Forcibly Deports Asylum Seekers to Libya

    Filed under: News — eritrearealclearpolitics @ 8:57 am
    By Lisa Schlein
    14 July 2009

    Schlein report  – Download (MP3) Download
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    The United Nations refugee agency accuses Italy of forcibly deporting asylum seekers to Libya. The UNHCR says more than 80 people, most from Eritrea, were intercepted by the Italian Navy on July 1. It says the asylum seekers were picked up near the Italian island of Lempedusa, transferred to a Libyan ship and later transported to Libya.

    The U.N. refugee agency says the group of asylum seekers was placed in detention centers upon their arrival in Libya. It says 76 of the 82 people intercepted at sea by the Italian navy originate from Eritrea, including nine women and at least six children.

    UNHCR staff who interviewed the group, say it seems the Italian Navy did not try to establish the peoples’ nationalities nor their reasons for fleeing.

    UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, says based on an assessment of the situation in Eritrea and from the interviews carried out, it is clear that a significant number of these people are in need of international protection.

    “During interviews UNHCR heard disturbing accounts alleging that force was used by Italian personnel during the transfer to the Libyan vessel,” Redmond said. “According to these allegations, six people from Eritrea needed medical attention as a result. the individuals also alleged that their personal effects, including vital documents, were seized by the Italian Navy during the operation and have not yet been returned to them. Those interviewed also spoke of their distress after four days at sea and said that the Italian Navy did not offer them any food during the 12-hour operation to return them to Libya.” 

    Forcible deportation of asylum seekers is against international law. And, the U.N. refugee agency is concerned that Italy’s new policy on asylum seekers may be in breech of this norm.

    Italy introduced a so-called push-back policy in early May. Since then, at least 900 people trying to reach Italy by sea have been sent to other countries, mainly to Libya.

    Until this new policy was introduced, Redmond says Italy had a good record regarding asylum seekers. He says Italy had rescued thousands of people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, providing assistance and protection to those in need.

    “UNHCR has expressed serious concerns about the impact of this new policy which, in the absence of adequate safeguards, can prevent access to asylum,” Redmond said. 

    Redmond says the UNHCR takes the allegations of mistreatment by the Italian Navy very seriously. He says his agency has sent a letter to the Italian Government asking for information on the treatment of people returned to Libya and asking that international norms be respected. 

    July 3, 2009

    The way forward for Ethiopia and Eritrea

    Filed under: Politics — eritrearealclearpolitics @ 7:35 am

    The way forward for Ethiopia and Eritrea

    June 28th, 2009 | Categories: Ethiopia  |  70 Comments

    By Dawit WoldeGiorgis

    I read Neamin Zeleke’s recent article, The Imperative of Ethiopians Dealing with Eritrea, about his reflection and opinions on the future of Ethiopian and Eritrean relationship. I would like to compliment his very wise observation on this very important issue of our times. I believe that not relating with the Eritrean government is a misguided position. Let me explain why based on my own personal experience.

    After a rigorous three-year military training in the Haile Selassie I Military Academy I spent my entire military career in Eritrea. I was there as an infantry training and operation officer in the 2nd infantry division for six years. Even after I left Eritrea to attend university, I went back to Eritrea every summer to proudly serve in the army.

    I was in Eritrea during and after the federation. During the last day of the federation I was there in Asmara on security mission watching the Eritrean Assembly when they were voting. It was unanimous vote. The Eritrean elites were the first to express their joy. There was in fact a competition within the Eritrean elites to send telegrams and messages to Emperor HaileSelassie expressing their joy and congratulating him.

    There were some disgruntled elements that felt excluded from the new dispensation and therefore expressed dissatisfaction for personal reasons — the loss of power and influence. I was there celebrating with the Eritreans the long awaited unity of Eritrea with the mother land. It was an unforgettable moment. There was spontaneous and almost universal rejoicing by the entire Eritrean population. Undoubtedly, the response was genuine. I have gone across the length and breadth of Eritrea and experienced the outpouring of joy over the decision to unite with Ethiopia. Throughout Eritrea, and I have been to every big and small village, there was a sense of exuberance for the few years after the union. Whatever happened after that is completely inconsistent with what the people felt at the time. It suggests that there was a serious mishandling of the federal arrangement and the union that followed. If it had been handled with caution and without haste, things might have been different today.

    I was there with my troops at the door step of the police headquarters when the first dissent had its first causality, General Tedla Ekubit, the Eritrean police commander. I was there during the most critical times in the development of the Eritrean rebel forces. I was there as troop commander when the first conflict started between the government troops and the rebel forces (then they were just bandits) because they did not have any political agenda. They were just a band of people headed by Idris Awate, a notorious shifta imprisoned by the British and then escaped to continue banditry act. He was again pardoned and was living peacefully when the newly established ELF recruited him and he went back to do what he had been doing all his life. I was there when he was captured and killed.

    I was also there when in September 1956 (Eth. Cal.) our troops suffered their first causality at a place called Haikota, close to Agordat. The ELF took out peaceful soldiers on leave from a public bus and executed them. Until then Eritrea was peaceful. Even after that until the coming of the Derg and its draconian military and security polices, the EPLF did not control a single village or area in Eritrea except the rugged mountains of Nakfa. The EPLF did not enjoy any meaningful support from the population. Despite the fact that the process of uniting Eritrea with Ethiopia was flawed with technical and strategic errors, the people of Eritrea believed sincerely and sometimes manifested in extreme ways that I have not seen anywhere else in Ethiopia. (Refer to my book Kihdet be Dem Meret).

    As a soldier, I have been involved in military operations. We were seven young officers, the first of the kind, in those times to come to Eritrea to train the troops. We used to be called Para Commandos, airborne and special force. (After three years in the military academy, few months airborne and a year in advanced infantry school in USA. That was a lot of military training.) All my six colleagues died in the service of the country. I am the only survivor from this pioneer group. For us the sanctity of the flag, the unity of Ethiopia was paramount. It was not questioned and dying for it was a cause to be celebrated. That is how most of the people I worked with in Eritrea and most of the soldiers I knew much later in life lived and died. They were in hundreds of thousands and all died with a smile on their face: because the cause was the flag and the unity of Ethiopia.

    I came to the USA for my graduate studies and after the overthrow of Emperor HaileSelassie I returned to Ethiopia. I was an active part of the revolution which I sincerely supported until a certain time. But throughout the times I worked under the Derg I was very close to Eritrea. I followed the situation very closely until I was finally appointed as its governor (the party’s representative) for three years, 1980 to 1983.

    When I was governor for three years, my task was to pacify the rebellion and stop people from supporting the EPLF. And indeed, as many who were there at the time would testify, we succeeded to the extent that the EPLF leadership later admitted to me and my colleagues that it was one of the toughest times in their war against Ethiopia. Suddenly young people stopped joining the rebels and many started deserting from the EPLF and joined their families. It was not a miracle nor was it a complicated task. The wisdom is simply treating the Eritrean community as citizens with certain inalienable rights. When we stopped arresting people at random, established the rule of law and treated people on equal terms, people stayed in the country and once again Asmara became bustling metropolitan and other major cities returned to their former status. What we proved was the eternal truth that the major cause of the rebellion was the oppression of the population by successive governments in Addis Ababa. The EPLF and the ELF grew out of the atrocities committed by the Derg and to a certain extent during the Emperor’s era. It became clear to us that the reason why many joined the rebels was not because they really believed that they were not part of Ethiopia but because they were denied their right to live without fear of being persecuted, arrested and tortured and executed. At some point in the history of the Derg this happened routinely. (for more detail refer to Red Tears)

    During my tenure as governor, I was convinced that the Eritrean situation could be reversed if we could do less of military and more of governance and rule of law. I also suggested that we recognize the EPLF and engage with it. This created an outrage. Even after I left my country I have been condemned by my closest colleagues of suggesting that Ethiopian government recognize the EPLF and engage it in dialogue. My proposal for dialogue put me in trouble with the military establishment. As the records would show, I had serious confrontations with the then military leadership over this. Key Kokeb was not about war. Key Kokeb was about multifaceted approach for the Eritrean issue. HULEGEB ZEMETCHA. It was hijacked by the military and it launched an all out war which ended disgracefully and my showdown with the military ended with me leaving Eritrea and being assigned as the Commissioner of Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

    After I left the Derg at the end of 1985, I became actively involved in the effort to overthrow the regime through the movement we had established, The Free Ethiopian Soldiers Movement. The first attempt was the failed coup of the generals. I and my colleagues did the external arrangement for the coup. During those times I went into the area controlled by the EPLF in Nakfa. We discussed the role of the EPLF and suggested to EPLF leaders to participate in a transitional government in the post Derg period. EPLF agreed that it will unilaterally implement a cease fire and participate in the transitional government to negotiate the future of Eritrea. After this attempt failed, I was again involved in another similar effort. The EPLF’s position was unchanged. The EPLF was willing to participate in a transitional government of Ethiopia. And this was only a few months before TPLF marched into Addis Ababa. We were about to try once again, but the TPLF rejected the proposal and the attempt was aborted. Throughout these activities against the Derg, my colleagues and I worked very closely with the EPLF leadership. Despite the fact that I was an ardent supporter of unity, an officer who fought them, a governor who condemned them at every available opportunity, my relationship with the EPLF leadership was cordial and constructive.

    Sometimes when we talk about the heroism of our forefathers in defending the motherland, we forget that a significant number of Eritreans sacrificed their lives for the defense of our independence against colonialists. How can we talk about the heroic struggle of our ancestors without acknowledging the key role that Eritreans played? For me it is ridiculous to say, We Ethiopians, in the context of history, without including Eritreans.

    When, for example, we write and talk about Ras Alula and the battles he fought and won, we must remember that the bulk of his troops were Eritreans and their sacrifice was enormous. As well documented, almost all our external wars came through the Red Sea. Eritrea had always been the frontline for almost all the wars fought against the invaders. Eritrean patriots and Tigreans were part and parcel of these wars against foreign aggressors. Eritreans have always been at the forefront of the wars fought to preserve the independence of and unity of Ethiopia. During the war of resistance against Italian invasion, thousands of Eritrean patriots fought alongside mehal ager arbegnotch. The head of the military of the Black Lion was an Eritrean Colonel Haileab. Eritrean patriots shaped the foreign and military policies and structures after liberation. The first and second foreign ministers were Eritreans. The first ambassador to the UN was an Eritrean. Eritreans played key roles in organizing and modernizing the Ethiopian Armed Forces. There were more than 20 senior Eritrean generals at some point in the Ethiopian armed forces ranging from chief of staff, ground force commanders, air force commanders and division commanders. General Aman Andom was the most prominent among these senior commanders of Eritrean origin. It must also be remembered that considerable percentages of the soldiers in the Army were Eritreans.

    During the war fought between the Ethiopian troops and the EPLF/ELF, there was a special Eritrean commando force which proved to be one of the hardest and in fact most brutal of all the forces of the times. The Eritrean militia, like the most wonderful people of Kohayne, fought to the bitter end until the country was taken over by the EPLF. (Refer Khidet be Dem Meret)

    It is hard to understand how this center broke from the whole. Perhaps it was because the Eritreans have been exposed to many kinds of propaganda and external interests. Unlike the rest of Ethiopia which was ruled by successive kings and kingdoms, in the Eritrean coast land and at a later phase in its history, in the highlands, the Turks, the Egyptians, the Italians and the British have played some roles in shaping the minds of people. These experiences have left some imprints which influenced the growth of different kinds of political thoughts and alliances.

    Throughout my stay in Eritrea as a soldier, and later as Deputy Foreign Minister and then governor of Eritrea, I have delivered many speeches on the unity of Ethiopia, that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia and asking the question if Eritreans are not Ethiopians then who else is? Eritrea is Mehal Ager. It is the center of our civilization and faith, the source of our culture and literature, the place where Ethiopiwinet began. I believed in this and every Eritrean I spoke to at the time believed in this ultimate truth. For me, it was my passion. I grew up taking the unity of Ethiopia and the inviolability of its frontiers as sacred oath not to be broken or questioned. But this oath, this timeless sacred alliance between us and the spirits of our ancestors, hundreds of thousands who died defending this cause, has been brutally ravaged by a bunch of arrogant self-righteous ethno centric individuals who are at the helm of leadership to destroy this unique legacy.

    It must also be understood that the cause of Eritrean independence was supported by the student movement for years. I remember I was in New York’s Colombia University in early 1972-74 and I used to participate in student movement meetings. It was fashionable to talk about self determination up to and including secession. Anybody that did not support the cause of the Eritrean struggle was labeled as reactionary. I tried to explain in some meetings why our soldiers are fighting in Eritrea and why it is wrong to condemn them for protecting the unity of Ethiopia. As usual, I was labeled as a reactionary soldier who has been serving the interest of the feudal regime and my concern was dismissed. There is some credence to the claim that the student movement unwittingly allowed itself to be used by forces that had inimical agenda to Ethiopia’s interest.

    When I was in the foreign office and later governor, and even when I was the Commissioner for Relief and Rehabilitation, I had meetings with the EPLF in some European countries organized by some NGOs, usually the Red Cross and Scandinavian human rights activists. The main purpose was to negotiate the opening of peace corridor in the conflict areas to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilian population trapped by the conflict. These meetings were not sanctioned by the government because it would be considered treason for anybody to have this kind of communication without the knowledge of the government. The once that were done with government’s knowledge had heavy pre-conditions. It was almost demanding the surrender of the EPLF. It therefore did not go anywhere. Ours was an effort by groups of concerned people who were trying to explore options to this endless war. When I and my colleagues met with the EPLF in very informal settings, they were and have always been very open to options besides full independence. There was no doubt in my mind then that EPLF would have accepted some sort of federation. But the Derg/WPE regime was never prepared to discuss this. I was even more certain about the position of the EPLF after my latter encounters.

    After I left Ethiopia the first thing that I and my colleagues did was to establish a movement to overthrow the Derg. In this Eritrea was a key factor. I met the leadership of the EPLF and current President Isaias Afwerki several times in Europe and America and ultimately in Nakfa , through the back door into those parts of Eritrea controlled by the EPLF and meeting the leaders , the very people I have been fighting and condemning for years felt weird to me. That was the time when we were trying to coordinate the external factors with internal preparations for a coup. In an official agreement the EPLF stated that when and if the coup takes place, it will immediately cease fire and be part of the transitional government to discuss the future of Eritrea. True to their words, at the time the coup attempt was taking place, they did a unilateral cease fire and asked us if there is anything that they can do to make the coup successful. They could have taken advantage of the confusion in Eritrea when the commanders were killed and government troops were in disarray, but they did not. They were in constant touch with me and they were very disappointed by the failure of the coup.

    A few years later, we tried to make another change from the inside before TPLF went too far. Again, we had discussions with EPLF and TPLF several times. We had completed preparations from the inside and what was needed was for the fighting forces to agree to implement a cease fire and be part of the transitional government. Until April 1991, two months before the TPLF entered Addis and EPLF Asmara, the EPLF supported the idea of making the change from the inside. They agreed after several meetings that they will be willing to stop fighting and participate in the transitional government and discuss the future of Eritrea. As the war continued, it became difficult to get the same kind of agreement from the TPLF. We had several meetings but eventually they sent us a long letter stating that they are heading to Addis Ababa and they asked us to be part of the EPRDF. Of course, we refused. That is when they established their own Free Ethiopian Officers Movement in order to confuse our followers in the military establishment.

    The EPLF until the last days believed that the best option was to negotiate with the transitional government that would be established after a successful coup. And they know that the negotiation would not be about independence. I was aware that they were ready for some sort of federal arrangement. I was sure about that.

    Besides the misguided policies of successive governments in Ethiopia, and the failure of the military to defend against the breakup of the nation, the overriding factor that eventually led to the independence of Eritrea was the policy of Woyanne. It gave away independence in a silver platter.
    Now, if from early on the student movement had supported the secession and made it possible for the EPLF to be a strong internationally acknowledged liberation movement, if the Derg in the name of national unity committed atrocities that alienated a big portion of the Eritrean population, and if Woyanne regime eventually gave away the independence without consulting the Ethiopian people, why should the Eritreans be blamed for it? Why should we create animosity with the Eritrean people?

    We have to remember that throughout the period of war between the government troops and EPLF and ELF, there had never been a war amongst the people. It never reached a level of civil war like in other parts of Africa. It was a war that went on for several years between the EPLF/ELF forces and government troops but never a war between the people. I am a living witness and can clearly testify that the war had never affected the relationship between the people. While the war was going on in the mountains, Amharas, Oromos, Tigres, and other ethnic groups lived together in peace, intermarried, helped each other, shared whatever they had and lived nothing less than a harmonious life. Over most Ethiopian troops in Eritrea were married to Eritreans. There are hundreds of thousands of their off springs today all over Ethiopia. Internal conflicts in Ethiopia have always been about power and not ethnicity. To my best recollection, the Tigreans in Gondar used to call themselves first Gonderes and vice versa. It is amazing that after years of war in Eritrea, the relationship between the people was never seriously damaged. It never went to a level of civil war. That is the greatness of the Ethiopian people. It demonstrates how deep our culture, our understanding and levels of tolerance have evolved over the centuries. This bonding between the people was broken by Woyanne. The Woaynne incited hate. It started sawing the seeds of ethnicity not only between the people of Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia but amongst the Ethiopian people, too. This is indeed the saddest moment in Ethiopian history.

    Eritrea is now independent. That reality cannot be reversed by force. There are two things that need to be done.

    1. The national security and interest of Ethiopia have been and will continue revolving around three man issues. The Nile, the Red Sea (Eritrea) and Somalia (the Ogaden). Since they are very much interrelated, they could be considered as one. I have explained this in my book Kihdet be Dem Meret. There is no need to do that here. In all this, Eritrea plays a vital role. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a common destiny. Whatever happens in Eritrea will affect Ethiopia and vice versa. Whoever wants to hurt Ethiopia uses Eritrea as stepping stone. Arab Chauvinism (expansionism) and Islamic Fundamentalism have always been real threats to Ethiopia, and Eritrea can possibly turn out to be the main conduit. Therefore, any responsible Ethiopian government will have to develop a policy of peaceful co-existence with Eritrea and go even further and ensure that Eritrea remains a stable, peaceful and independent ally of Ethiopia. And this can only be done through diplomacy and not confrontation.

    2. Whatever the policies of current governments may be, the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea are one people. We cannot and need not live apart. Our genes, our culture, language and history are identical. There are no people on earth that are closer to Ethiopians than the Eritreans and vice versa. We are destined to live together. Therefore the effort should be not to allow politics to change our historical oneness but to work towards integration. The will and conviction of people is mightier than the sword and we will beat the ethno- centricity and be once again one people. There needs to be a conscious effort by civil society groups to bring the two people together despite the politics in their respective countries.

    The national interest of Ethiopia can be packed into three major issues.

    1. The inviolability of state frontiers (territorial integrity)
    2. The unity of the Ethiopian people
    3. Freedom of its people

    Our relationship with Eritrea should be based on these three fundamentals. If the Eritrean government respects the above fundamental principles and is willing to agree on polices that promote peace and development in order to create the necessary conditions for the union of the two people, then there would be no reason why Ethiopians of any group should not establish relationship with the government of Eritrea. Likewise, Ethiopians of all groups should recognize the sovereignty of Eritrea and work towards the fulfillment of our common aspirations.

    After what I have done and spoken for most of my life, it has been difficult to swallow the reality that Eritrea is now an independent country. But I have to face the reality like many of us and look beyond. The reality of today and tomorrow should be on how we can advance the interests of our people in the context of this new reality. We might or might not agree with the policies of the current government in Eritrea. The relationship of the people outlasts leaders and their polices. We should therefore strengthen the foundations of our historical relationship and be careful not to be the victims of the poisonous propaganda by Woyanne. Meles Zenawi has attempted to define what Ethiopiawinet is and what Eritreayawinet is in his own terms and based on his own interests. The truth is: there is no drawing line. His own identity and that of his trusted advisers are testimonies of this reality and truth. It is only the governments that are two. The people have been one and are one. All responsible Ethiopians and Eritreans should endeavor to up hold this truth and reinforce it by focusing on what binds us together rather than what divides us.

    As a neighbor with vested interest in Eritrean affairs, Ethiopians can only take hard positions when the steps being taken by the Eritrean government violates the fundamental principles of our relationship and endangers our peace and security. The current government has emphatically stated that it will not violate these principles and, in fact, it will be willing to work toward the building of a stable Ethiopia. I believed earlier that Eritrea was trying to strengthen its economy and its standing in the region at the expense of Ethiopia. It was my impression that Eritrea wanted a weak Ethiopia that is divided and not capable of posing any threat to Eritrea. This might have been true at some point in its existence. But I believe that Eritrean government realizes now that destabilizing Ethiopia will only bound to hurt it more and will not be in the best interest of the people and the government of Eritrea. Ethiopians are already angry that Eritrea seceded, and for it to go beyond that and try to destabilize Ethiopia will evoke greater anger that could justify conflict. It is wise for Eritrea to adjust to realities and work hard for peaceful co- existence which acknowledges mutual interests. Neither side should try to destabilize the other. Eritrea and Ethiopia can prosper in a peaceful co-existence with each other. Eritrea’s security can be guaranteed through a good relationship with a much stronger Ethiopia. The free movement between the two countries will further strengthen the unity of its people possibly leading to some sort of political union. Eritreans and Ethiopians can’t hide from the truth. No matter what is being written and being told, we are one people with common history, common enemies, common threats and interests.
    Today, the issue is Woynne and not Eritrea. For Ethiopians as well as for Eritreans, Woyanne is a threat. Remove Woyanne and Ethiopians and Eritreans can breathe a sigh of relief and begin a new relationship based on mutual respect and working towards unifying the people. Assab is negotiable. Badme is negotiable. As President Isaias stated, “the sky is the limit.” Knowing how the Eritreans are straightforward and consistent in their words and deeds, there is no reason to suspect that his statement is one of a political gimmicks.

    A friend of mine sent me the following e-mail on the issue:

    I did not say that we should not engage — what I said is that our assessment of Eritrea’s intention should not be based on the assumption that the current leadership would like to see “a strong, united and democratic Ethiopia.” Their own history has evolved to the extent that an apparent state of paranoia has set in, and by all indications of their regional engagement in the region, we cannot escape this conclusion. However, it does not, by any means suggest that we should not engage them.

    Why do we believe them? We don’t have to. Relationship with the Government of Eritrea for a common cause needs to be built, of course, in the framework of our fundamental interests outlined above. If they cannot translate their words in to deeds, they will be the losers, too. Ethiopians sooner or later will get rid of Woyanne and will come out stronger from this tragic political impasse. I am inclined to believe Eritreans because there is simply no option at this time except peaceful coexistence. The initial problem with the Eritrean elites was recognition. It seems now that most Ethiopians have taken this bitter pill and accepted that Eritrea is an independent state.

    Woyanne cooperated in the drive for the independence Eritrea. But it now wants to manipulate Eritrea and make it surrender to its will. Woyanne cannot dupe the Ethiopians by false sense of patriotism over peripheral issues like Badme. Today, the issue is the survival of Ethiopia as we have known it and as it should be. Woyanne is destroying the fabrics of the Ethiopian society by bringing back a Bantustanisation policy from the junk yards of African history, by introducing ethnic politics and dividing people along ethnic lines, slicing our land and giving it away, unleashing poverty the kind that has not been seen in our history, arresting and torturing political opponents, perpetuating a dictatorship by a few Tigrean elite people from Adwa, Axum and Shire, facilitating the spread of fundamentalism and creating hostility with the Muslim world with whom we had a carefully crafted cordial relationship for decades. Woyanne has made Ethiopia technologically the most backward country in the world. Certainly and unequivocally Ethiopia is in grave danger.

    The history of Ethiopia has been about winners and leaders. It was so during the times of the monarchies, was so during the time of the Derg, and has been so now. Our genuine historians had to dig a lot to bring the truth out and popularize it. It has not been an easy task. Once again, Woyanne is rewriting history. Great weight must be given to the damage that will be caused on the younger generation if we allow this distortion to continue unabated. At some point, it might have served a purpose, but now that we are talking about the two people living and working together, we have to design a relationship between the people that will facilitate the truth to be told. The two people have been one and need to be one for more than one reason. With truth there will be no losers but winners. Our destinies are inextricably tied to each other. Those of us who have lived long enough know and understand the truth but the new generation is exposed to the history of denial. The truth will only make us stronger in pursuing our common interest. Emotions must subside and give way to pragmatism. We have to work very closely with our Eritrean brothers and sisters to get rid of Woyanne and establish a new era of peaceful co existence, common prosperity that will lead to a reunion of our people. And this must start from the streets, the restaurants, the clubs, churches and various forums in Ethiopia, Eritrea, America, USA and Africa.

    At one point, I was discussing with the leader of the EPLF, the current President of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki. I asked him why instead of partitioning Ethiopia, he does not become the President of Ethiopia. He gave me some reason why this would not be possible but assured me: “You can be certain, Mr. Dawit, that if and when we get our independence, our priority will be to unite the people under some sort of federal arrangement.”

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