Eritrea: Conscripted Conscience
It has been 17 years since a group of opposition politicians, popularly known as the G-15, and journalists were rounded up and arrested in Eritrea, never to be seen again. Here is the story of one of their counterparts who narrowly escaped arrest and now lives in the US, as told by his friend.
Adhanom Gebremariam strode across his Bronx apartment with nimble, calculated steps. As he walked from one end of the room to the other, the former “Tegadalay” (Eritrean freedom fighter) mentally kept track of his physical progress.
“You see,” Adhanom said mid-exercise, “from this wall to that wall is twenty paces, about forty feet. So, if I go back and forth 132 times, that will give me a mile of walking. “
Adhanom was recovering from a health ailment, and one could see, in his diligence as a discharged patient, the military dedication that helped liberate Eritrea. Adhanom, at that moment though, was not building strength to foment revolution in his middle age; he was merely multitasking as he asked me about my recent trip to Eritrea, a return to my parents’ native land.
“Wedi Asmara (son of Asmara), tell me, how did you find Eritrea?” he asked.
I knew how to synthesize my experiences, but how does one respond to someone like Adhanom about their thoughts on Eritrea?
I paused briefly, thinking how I should answer the question. I knew how to synthesize my experiences, but how does one respond to someone like Adhanom about their thoughts on Eritrea? He sacrificed decades of his life fighting for the independence of a country that would later unjustly imprison his colleagues (and him, if they could have). Adhanom is one of the G-15, and he hasn’t been to Eritrea since 2001.
To be Eritrean is to fight cognitive dissonance, reconciling a committed love for the land of your country, while simultaneously hating the iron-fisted policies of its government. For Adhanom and thousands of others of the golden generation who devoted their life to the Eritrean independence struggle, daily life is coming to terms with a revolutionary regret, a retrospective questioning of the actions that turned out to strengthen the base of the present-day dictatorship. This was not the Eritrea Adhanom fought for.
I could lament the fact that every young person I met had a scheme to leave the country...
I could reply to Adhanom about the “kbur bahli” (great culture) with its loveable people of Asmara and warm, accepting family members. I could praise the burgeoning trees that lined the mountains roads to the radiant town of Keren, a reforestation effort, now stalled, which he helped lead while he was a member of the government. I could speak to the indigenous beauty of the land and people and connect him via memory to the exiled motherland he once helped liberate.
I could tell him of the street lamps and traffic lights which hovered over “Godena Harnet” (Freedom Street) as electricity-less objects. I could speak of the staid highland air that belied the betraying breeze of eavesdropping whisperers. I could lament the fact that every young person I met had a scheme to leave the country and that neither discussion of the dangers of the Saharan and Mediterranean trek nor the xenophobic trials of refugee life in Yemen, Egypt, Israel, or countries in Europe would dissuade them.
I could tell Adhanom of how Eritrea had changed so much in my mind. As a child, my memories of Eritrea had been exoticized to those of a utopia. In the summer of 1993, I, a first-generation child of immigrants, escaped America for Eritrea; in it, I found a vacation home, a place where I did not need to explain my family’s heritage, where people knew how to pronounce my name correctly, and where I could roam the neighborhood and play with kids without parental supervision. In Eritrea, for one summer in its happier days post-independence, I experienced liberation; I was free. Twenty years before my conversation with an exercising Adhanom, the imprint of Eritrea as heavenly reverie was cemented for me. Regaling family stories of resistance and revolution only aided my simplistic perception, which I held on to much like a refugee to a capsizing dinghy, as if my essence depended on it.
Two years of a suspended constitution
I wondered how Adhanom held on, through the suspension of the 1997 Eritrean Constitution, the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, the dissenting letter from the G-15 and resulting imprisonment of government officials and journalists who supported it, the descent into dictatorship, and the consequent human trafficking and refugee tragedy. Adhanom lifted his knee to his chest, stretching his hamstring. Though his hair was more gray and his fighting skills somewhat atrophied by age, he looked as focused and motivated as when I first him in 2001. His personality did not allow for a post-independence depression; he was always preparing for the next battle.
“Well, dear Adhanom, I actually met someone who knew you, or at least, of you,” I replied. Adhanom stopped his exercise and looked at me with interest. I continued telling him there had been a white man sitting in the lobby of the Nyala Hotel in Asmara. It was 6 o’clock in the morning, and the hotel was asleep except for its employees mopping the floor. I had suspected he, like me, woke up early to use the hotel’s wifi before throngs of Asmara residents and hotel guests crowded the bandwidth of the country with what had to be the world’s slowest internet. I told Adhanom that I heard the man nearby speak English and, after succumbing to the slow internet speed, I thought I’d spark up a conversation.
“Turns out, Adhanom, this man was Thomas Mountain,” I finally let out. Thomas C. Mountain was a known regime apologist, an American who praised Isaias Afwerki and his government’s policies in the country. I knew this, yet, when Mountain asked me who I followed on Eritrean politics, despite my family’s admonishments to avoid discussing politics while in Eritrea, I told him I followed human rights activists Meron Estefanos and Martin Plaut. As soon as I said that, Mountain sanctimoniously exclaimed, “they’re all traitors, them and the G-15!”
The notion of being a traitor stuck with me as I traveled back across the Atlantic. The word felt so childish, as if it were only meant to be used when kids were upbraiding their classmates for jumping ship on the local NBA team for the new champion. I didn’t understand how Thomas C. Mountain, who grew up in a democratic society, could be so illiberal, and how he, who wasn’t Eritrean, could so easily dismiss others who gave their lives for their country’s independence.
I figured Mountain’s comment would anger Adhanom, but he brushed it aside as he continued working out. As I looked at Adhanom, I thought of his perseverance, through his friends languishing in prison to his dreams of a free Eritrea still unfulfilled. Adhanom continued his steps like the effervescent soldier I imagined him to be. As I watched him, I was reminded of another former Tegadaly whom I had asked if he regretted his efforts with the independence movement. After contemplating for a couple of seconds with a seeming look of chagrin, he pined, "I love the struggle; the struggle sustains me." Freedom for the G-15 and all Eritreans is our struggle, and there was nothing more liberating than talking of the motherland with Adhanom, our walking resistance.
*Name of author updated, as the author has given Amnesty International permission to use his real name .