Eritreans take perils of the Mediterranean over torment at home

Near Ethiopia's coastal city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound full of stacks of ammunition boxes of bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. © Jonathan Manthorpe 1993

Near Ethiopia’s coastal city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound full of stacks of ammunition boxes of bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. © Jonathan Manthorpe 1993

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs  
April 24, 2015  

As independence approached in 1993 Eritreans, like these women carrying rocks to build a dam, were happy to volunteer for reconstruction work. Now they are drafted into unending years of servitude. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe, © 1993

As independence approached in 1993 Eritreans, like these women carrying rocks to build a dam, were happy to volunteer for reconstruction work. Now they are drafted into unending years of servitude. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe © 1993

“If the world had any sense,” began my friend and fellow Africa correspondent Remer Tyson as we hunkered down behind a thick wall in Mogadishu to avoid the stray bullets whistling overhead in the early rounds of Somalia’s civil war.

“If the world had any sense,” he continued, “it would give this place to the Eritreans to sort out.” It was a few weeks after the January, 1991, ouster of Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre by an uneasy alliance of clan militias, whose unity quickly dissolved into a civil war, a war which, nearly a quarter of a century later, is still going on.

Meanwhile, next door in Ethiopia another civil war was approaching its climax as rebels led by fighters from the northern territory of Eritrea closed in on the capital Addis Ababa to depose dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. This they did a few weeks later, in May, 1991, and Remer and I had the good fun of riding into Mengistu’s palace with the rebel tanks.

At that time the Eritreans stood out as one of the most remarkable people and societies in Africa. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) started their fight in the 1960s for the liberation of their territory bordering the Red Sea.

They were remarkable for many reasons. Unlike most of the liberation armies in Africa, a third of the EPLF fighters were women. This influence was profound. The EPLF had a reputation for exemplary treatment of Megistu regime’s soldiers it captured. Many were even taught useful trades such as vehicle maintenance.

One of the more extraordinary accomplishments of the EPLF was to construct and run underground hospitals, even in territory still theoretically occupied above ground by the Ethiopian forces. And it wasn’t just subterranean hospitals the EPLF made. They had pharmaceutical factories in tunnels and even underground workshops for fixing captured government battle tanks and other armoured vehicles.

Eritrea map via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Eritrea via Wikipedia, Public Domain

But most crucially, the EPLF was perhaps the best infantry army in Africa at that time. The courage and stamina of the regular foot soldiers as well as the strategic and tactical skills of their commanders – all Chinese trained – were legendary. All the EPLF fighters wore the same simple uniform – shorts, a T-shirt and sandals whose soles were cut from old truck tires, a highly practical fashion statement borrowed from the Viet Cong in Vietnam. They carried enough food, water and ammunition to sustain them for several days and could move regiments across country with devastating speed.

So there was a lot of logic in Remer’s comment. Judged against the shambles that were African rebel movements in those days, and especially the utter murderous chaos in Somalia, the Eritreans stood out as a disciplined, ordered and effective society. But the chances of the World in the shape of the United Nations or what was then the Organization for Africa Unity, now the African Union, taking up Remer’s suggestion were nil. As he said as we waited for a good moment to leave our refuge: “the trouble is the Eritreans are far too sensible to take the job.”

And that good sense seemed destined for a fine future. As a reward for leading the charge to take Addis Ababa in 1991, the new government of Ethiopia, led by Meles Zenawi, gave Eritrea its independence in 1993.

But something has gone desperately wrong in Eritrea in the 22 years since.

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. The United Nations reckons that at least 4,000 young Eritreans a month are fleeing their country. Many used to cross the Red Sea to Yemen, but since that country has become the battlefield of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Eritrean refugees have found it marginally safer to cross Sudan into Libya. After the deposing and murder of leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya too is in the grip of civil war. However, people traffickers have been established in Libya since well before 2011. They are skilled in taking advantage of chaos to ply their deadly trade.

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Italy / boat people / The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.   / UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 14, 2015

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Above, migrants disembark April 14 from the  Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti, survivors of vessels that sunk in the Mediterranean. Photo by F. Malavolta, © UNHCR

The common denominator among the Eritrean refugees is that they are almost all young people fleeing forcible recruitment for indefinite periods into the country’s armed forces. Unlike when the EPLF was a model liberation army, Eritrea’s modern military is a brutal operation. Draftees are often rounded up from homes, schools or workplaces by press gangs, and kept in harsh conditions and without any end to their service in sight. The conscripts, collected from both men and women aged under 50, are held in isolated barracks in the arid hinterland and used as forced labour to build roads and other construction projects. Release depends on the whim of the commander, and some studies have found that most conscripts serve between six and 12 years before they are allowed to leave.

Donald Rumsfeld with Isaias Afwerki. Photo by Helene C. Stikkel, United States defence department.

Donald Rumsfeld, former United States defence secretary, with Isaias Afwerki in 2002. Photo by Helene C. Stikkel, US defence department.

The irrational use and degradation of Eritrea’s military, now the largest in Africa, is symbolic of what has happened to the country as a whole. Far from fulfilling its promise of becoming a beacon for what can be achieved in Africa, Eritrea has gone in the other direction entirely. As a social and economic community Eritrea now most resembles North Korea. The economy is controlled by a destructive Maoist ideology. About 80 per cent of the six million Eritreans live by peasant agriculture using what one foreign diplomat called “Dark Age technology.” The regime meets even the whiff of dissent with arbitrary detention, usually involving torture and on the brink of disaster.

What happened?

To put it simply, Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki is what happened. I interviewed Isayas in the capital, Asmara, in April, 1993, shortly before the referendum which gave overwhelming support for the country’s independence from Ethiopia. I remember thinking he was a distant, cheerless and difficult man. He struck me as an impressive orator, but not an inspirational leader. But I thought he would be a coolly competent administrator who could set Eritrea on the right track.

That seemed to be the case for the first few years of independence until. But appearances are almost always deceptive.

Isayas had been sent by the EPLF to China in the 1960s to be trained as a political commissar. There, as a Chinese ambassador to Asmara was later to tell an American diplomat, “he learned all the wrong things.” Isayas returned as a deeply committed Maoist communist of the most fanatical kind, though this, and his extraordinary catalogue of personality faults, were not evident until 1996.

It was that year when he and his family were returning from a beach holiday in Kenya that something snapped. They stopped off in Addis Ababa, where his ally in the war of liberation, President Meles, offered Isayas and his entourage one of the Ethiopian government planes to fly back to Asmara. But en route the plane caught fire, and, with much luck, managed to return to Addis Ababa safely. It was a traumatic experience, but Isayas was convinced it was an assassination attempt engineered by Meles. From this has flowed Isayas’ deep hatred and mistrust of Meles and of the United States, which the Eritrean leader sees as the dark hand behind all many conspiracies against him.

If the plane fire, which many think unhinged Isayas, had only awakened his dormant personality disorders, he might be manageable. But he is the leader of an important country in a highly volatile corner of Africa – and that is saying something. Isayas’ paranoia, unbridled temper tantrums, vindictiveness, and quickness to take offence – he once stormed, insulted, out of a meeting with diplomats after being offered cherry tomatoes rather than the full-sized version – have dire consequences not only for his six million subjects, but for the region at large.

Isayas’ post traumatic stress disorder – if that’s what ails him – has spawned one still unresolved war with Ethiopia, led to the perpetuation of another in Somalia and turned Eritrea into what many human rights organizations agree is among the world’s worst dictatorships.

It is no wonder that thousands of young Eritreans prefer the risks of dealing with unscrupulous people traffickers and the perils of the Mediterranean with the hope of a life in Europe rather than continuing to languish under Isayas’ heel.

Isayas was elected President by the National Assembly after 1993 independence from Ethiopia. All elections since have been cancelled and Isayas operates a one-man, one-party despotism. Indeed, in 2001 staged his own “coup” against what remained of a collective leadership. Almost all his government ministers, including the Vice-President, were imprisoned as were almost all journalists working for private newspapers. None has been heard from since.

Near Eritrea's coast city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound with stacks of boxes of human bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe © 1993

Near Eritrea’s coast city of Massawa was a high-fenced compound with stacks of boxes of human bones of victims of the war of independence from Ethiopia. Photo by Jonathan Manthorpe © 1993

Isayas’ hatred of Meles came to a head in 1997 when the goverments were unable to agree the border line between the two countries and several Eritrean officials were killed in the town of Badme in the disputed territory of Tigray. On May 12, 1998, two brigades of Eritrean troops backed by tanks and artillery occupied Badme and continued their advance into undisputed Ethiopian territory. Ethiopia quickly mobilised its army and airforce, and the fighting swiftly escalated into all-out war.

Despite attempts at mediation by various international bodies, the war went on until a peace agreement was finally signed in December 2000. Reliable estimates say about 100,000 people were killed in the fighting and about 70,000 Eritreans of Ethiopian origin were detained. Fifteen years later, about 8,000 remain imprisoned in Eritrea, unable to raise the money to buy their freedom. Meanwhile, Isayas continues to dispute the results of an attempted international arbitration of the border line. Both armies still face each other across the divide. They remain on high alert, there are frequent skirmishes, and resumption of the war is always only a few minutes away.

Isayas also takes every opportunity to goad Addis Ababa. One chance surfaced in 2006 when Meles bowed to United States pressure and sent the Ethiopian army to invade Somalia. Meles’ task was to oust the radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a Taliban-like organization from which the even more radical al-Shabaab group has emerged. The ICU had taken over much of the country and introduced a draconian form of Sharia religious law. Since then Isayas has, according to countless reports from many sources, been sending arms and other aid to al-Shabaab, now best known for its terrorist attacks in Kenya and continued violent efforts to stop a workable government being formed in Somalia.

This is deeply ironic considering my friend, Remer’s comment. Far from being a solution to Somalia’s problems, Isayas’ Eritrea has become an agent of perpetual chaos. But backing al-Shabaab is a risky bet for Isayas and is a measure of his virulent mistrust of the Ethiopian government. (Meles died in August, 2012, but Isayas’ hatred of Addis Ababa continues.) Eritrea’s six million people are roughly divided between Christians and Muslims and Isayas runs a strictly secular regime. But by backing al-Shabaab, Isayas has picked sides in the Islamic fury that is sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Shabaab is closely linked to al-Qaida, and is now being courted by the Islamic State group known as ISIS.

Thus Isayas is playing a dangerous game. There have already been several attempts to depose him, most recently in a mutiny by some army units in 2012. But for the moment Isayas looks as securely in power as he has since 1993.

But one of the qualities of totalitarian states is that they are brittle. They look solid, but can shatter with extraordinary speed.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 

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