Drs Tsegezab Gebregergis
After several decades in exile in Europe and the US, I visited Eritrea in December 1991; exactly seven months after the heroic and jubilant Eritrean freedom fighters militarily defeated the huge Ethiopian occupation army stationed in Eritrea and triumphantly entered Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
I arrived in Asmara on Christmas Eve and stayed in the country for eight weeks. During my stay in the country, I made a lot of observations on how Eritrea was run by the EPLF, the direction the country was taking and whether or not the EPLF and its cruel, despotic boss would embark on the path of democracy – according to the pledges that the EPLF had made to the Eritrean people in its manifesto – or betray the Eritrean people and institute dictatorship.
Thus, upon my return to the Netherlands, I wrote a small book entitled “An Account of My Journey to Independent Eritrea and the Question of Democracy”.
I started writing the 115-page book in 1992 and it took me a year and four months to complete it. It was written with the express purpose of documenting the observations I made during the eight weeks I stayed in the country and sounding an early warning to Eritreans about the coming dangers to the country and its people under EPLF rule and especially under the EPLF’s authoritarian and politically selfish boss, Issayas Afeworki.
The book was the first of its kind to make such bold statements and to raise the question of democracy and the urgency of national reconciliation and it was published at a time when the EPLF was worshiped, it leader seen as a demi-god, and when Eritrea was about to declare its political independence.
The excerpt I am presenting to the readers of MdreBahri today is the concluding chapter of the book, pp 111-115 and I hope it will be of interest to the young generation of Eritrean political activists struggling for justice and democracy in Eritrea today. Enjoy reading it.
On the Way to the Airport… I Wondered If It Was the Beginning of My Second Exile!
On the eve of my departure from Eritrea back to Europe in March 1992, I spent the evening with ‘N’ and ‘S’. After many hours of chatting in the course of eating and sipping Eritrean beer, at around midnight – as I had to get up early the next morning to go to the airport – my friends brought me by car to the house of my aunt, where I was lodged during my stay in Asmara.
As soon as they departed from me, I went to bed with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was extremely happy to have seen my aged mother alive, after 26 years of separation, and to have witnessed the liberation of my country during my lifetime. On the other hand, I was not able to convince myself that I had to leave my liberated country once again, leaving my mother behind, all alone. The last night I spent in Asmara was thus a terrible night for me.
Somehow the terrible night passed away and day-break came. I got up early in the morning , as agreed with ‘N’ and ‘S’, who were coming to take me to the airport , and I was soon waiting, ready with my luggage, at the gate of my aunt’s house. They both came on time and we drove to the airport right away.
On our way to the airport, we saw someone walking along the road-side. As we passed by, ‘N’ said: “Oh, who is that person? He looks like Mr So-and-So; could he be going to the airport?” “Why don’t you give him a lift?” ‘S’ suggested. So ‘N’ stopped the car to ask the man if he was going to the airport. It turned out that he was who they thought he was. He entered the car and sat in the front with ‘N’ and we headed to the airport. Once we got there, the man thanked us for the free ride and went on his way.
Although I pretended not to have known who the man was riding with us to the airport, in reality, however, I knew only too well that he was an EPLF spy assigned to watch my contacts/activities closely during my entire stay in Eritrea and to report to his seniors. Indeed, whenever I visited one of the pubs or a restaurant, accompanied by my relatives or friends, he was always around sitting on the next table and keenly listening to our conversations. What is more, my sources had earlier informed me that I was being closely watched by the EPLF security and that they had been given discretionary powers to arrest me at the airport on the day of my departure. Much to my dismay, I also learned that my “close friends” – those who were taking me to the airport – actually knew that the man who was given a ride was an EPLF spy assigned to monitor my activities.
One might ask here, and rightly so, why I was identified and targeted as a security risk to be watched and monitored? This was because, during the period of the armed struggle to dislodge Ethiopian rule from Eritrea, the EPLF leadership had liquidated thousands of highly educated, critical members of Eritrean society and many young, committed, dissident Eritrean fighters. And I was adamantly opposed to the bestial, criminal deeds of Issayas Afeworki and his fascistic disciples. As a result, the dormant file kept on me was reactivated after the EPLF authorities were tipped off about my presence in the country.
In any case, I said farewell to my friends at the airport gate and went directly to the departures desk to pass the routine airport controls. At this desk, I was requested to hand-over the Currency Exchange Control Certificate which had been issued to me upon my arrival in Eritrea. Back then, this was a certificate issued at the airport to every visitor, stating the amount and type of currency which he/she had brought into the country. On this certificate, all the legally transacted currency exchanges during the visitor’s stay were recorded. Upon the visitor’s departure, the certificate was to be handed over to the EPLF airport authorities. The actual money in the possession of the departing visitor was then counted and compared with the entries made on the Currency Exchange Control Certificate. This draconian form of control was done in order to determine whether or not the visitor had made any illegal money transactions. I was told that, if a discrepancy were found, it could mean a heavy fine and/or imprisonment depending on the severity of the matter.
In my case, when the money in my possession was counted and compared with the entries made on the Currency Exchange Control Certificate, the EPLF guards found $50 unaccounted for. What had happened was that, on one weekend, I had had a shortage of local currency, and as the EPLF-run banks were closed, I changed $50 in the pub where I was having a drink. I was, therefore, unable to give an account of those $50 when asked to do so at the airport. As a result, I was told that I could not leave the country.
After 10 minutes, the man who was in charge was called to preside over the matter. This was actually one of the men that were closely monitoring my activities during my stay in Eritrea and the one to whom my friends had given a lift on the way to the airport. He also happened to be the man who had the power to decide on the spot whether or not I should be allowed to leave. After the matter had been explained to him, he said three words: “Let him go.” I was therefore free to go.
Nevertheless, as I was entering the waiting room for security-cleared passengers, I was stopped again for questioning. This time, however, it was not by the EPLF guards, but by the force of my own unresolved internal contradictions. The basis for my questioning was this: I had never accepted, even for a single day, during the decades I had lived in the Netherlands, the domineering Dutch way of life and the social norms of an overtly/covertly racist and deceptive society. Therefore, taking into account the fact that I was constantly engaged in a struggle against the negative attitudes, prejudices and distorted views that a Dutch person holds against black people, I was also fully aware that a proud and politically conscious black person living amidst an overtly/covertly racist society was destined to live in rage practically all the time.
Why? Because black people living in an overtly/covertly racist society confront lots of problems in their daily lives. Let me give some concrete examples here. If one is a scholar, one is denied access to research funds; if one is a teacher, one is denied a teaching post; if one is in search of accommodation, one is denied access to decent housing; if one is in search of a job, one is systematically denied – in a civilised way – equal rights when competing for a respectable post, one which corresponds to one’s education and training. What is more, unjustified police violence and harassment and a host of other ugly injustices against black people are also daily occurrences. Such race-based injustices are even worse when they happen in a country which claims to be the most “tolerant” in Western Europe.
For the reasons I have just outlined above, therefore, it did not make sense for me to return to the Netherlands. Indeed, I actually found it to be contradictory. The question I therefore put to myself was this: Why am I returning to the Netherlands which I considered an uncomfortable habitat for a proud and politically conscious black person?
As I was very sad at the idea of leaving, once again, my beloved country of birth, I had, therefore, to provide a satisfactory and convincing answer to my question before I left Eritrea. I was therefore in a heated, if silent, discussion with myself, in search of a convincing answer. In the end, I was able to find one.
I convinced myself that I was returning to my apartment in the Netherlands because, in Eritrea, under EPLF rule and the dictatorship of its ruthless Secretary General, Issayas Afeworki, the key questions of democracy and national reconciliation had not been addressed, much less resolved. In fact, all the indications during my visit to Eritrea were that, politically, the country was being prepared as a playground for one man and his cohorts. What I had seen was therefore very disquieting for me as a democrat.
I therefore believe that, as long as the future fate of millions of Eritreans is being decided by a tiny clique, who arrogantly believe that they alone are the representatives of the Eritrean people, Eritrea cannot be a country for Eritrean democrats, just as a country with a racist society cannot be an ideal home for a politically conscious black person to live and relax in safely.
Thus, as far as I am concerned, to live under a dictatorial rule and to live amidst a racist societies are equally humiliating and degrading to the human personality. Subsequently, guided by the Tigrinya proverb “Better to deal with the devil you know than the angels you don’t”, I chose to leave Eritrea and make my contribution to the struggle for justice and democracy in Eritrea from exile until a political atmosphere conducive to the process of democratisation is created in my country. This writing is part of my efforts to contribute towards that noble goal.
Having comforted myself, I boarded the plane destined for the Netherlands via Ethiopia. As soon as the last EPLF man had inspected and left the plane, I felt that I was once again in the Zone of Freedom, breathing the Air of Freedom.
The account I have given of Eritrea in this book is based on what I saw and experienced during my visits in December 1991 and March 1992. Based on the experience and observations I gathered during my visit, I believe that an EPLF-led government of Eritrea, no matter what mantle the leadership wears, will be dictatorial and non-inclusive. Therefore let the EPLF-led government running Eritrea prove me wrong by creating a politically independent Eritrea with genuine democracy, peace, freedom, security and national reconciliation. In the meantime, I will stick to my guns.
Lastly, some people might object to my criticism of the EPLF leadership as premature given that the EPLF has just declared Eritrean independence. People are free to hold such views, as long as they believe that I am entitled to mine as well. However, as far as I am concerned, not only do I believe that it is timely and appropriate to criticise and expose the unfolding anti-democratic behaviour of the EPLF leadership. I also believe that we have begun raising the question of democracy too late. The EPLF leaders have now become fully fledged dictators.
The oppressed Eritrean people will definitely be crowned with Victory!