(EritreaAt24 Series: May 19th) The a, b, c's of Eritrea
Eritrea, the low-income, developing country, widely rejected and long-left for dead, is 24. For decades prior to and since its unlikely yet stunning independence, so-called human rights defenders, journalists, academics, analysts, stooges, saviors, intelligentsia, and compradors have inundated us with bleak, sensationalist, and politically-driven reports and discourse regarding Eritrea’s necessary abortion, projected DOA (death on arrival), perceived unviability, weakness, impending demise, imminent destruction (e.g. “it’s going to blow”), isolationism, hermit-kingdom status, and backward ways. Sigh. Self-baptized experts, fellows, and think-tankers, who can hardly locate Eritrea on a map, pen tomes on the country and forward unsolicited “advice” and “recommendations” - do as I say, not as I do. Yet, the track-record, decades long, is clear and inarguable. How wrong they were then. And how wrong they are now.
Eritrea wins, simply because it is. Yes, it crawls. It stumbles. It grasps. It misses. But, it also hits. It progresses. It develops. It moves forward. It lives. It stands.
Independence is much, much more than a quick stroke of a pen upon a formal declaratory document, a simple wave of a flag, or a passionate rendition of a state song. No, no. It is not an event, but an ongoing, dynamic, fluid process. It is crossing the river by feeling for stones. It is taking firm command of one’s own present and forging a self-developed path towards the future. It is sitting upright at the table - alongside and rightfully. Not by the table, on the floor - subservient to and awaiting crumbs.
Those that wrote off Eritrea or continue to condemn it, forgot about or choose to remain ignorant of the simple basics about the country. Accordingly, and quite humbly (as local custom dictates), a crash-course on the a, b, c’s on Eritrean history is in order.
- is for Afabet. In March of 1988, Afabet was the scene of a monumental battle during the independence war, considered by eminent historian Basil Davidson as the most significant victory for any liberation movement since the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. By the end of the three day battle, the Eritreans had killed or captured over 18,000 Ethiopian soldiers, and captured a massive amount of arms and supplies.
A is also for Asmara, Eritrea's beautiful capital located 2.4 km above sea level. Come and see Asmara and you will fall in love with it in an instant. A is also for Assab , Eritrea's southernmost port. It was at Assab Italian colonialism reared its ugly head in 1869. A also stands for Adal and Anseba. Mt. Adal was the place where the first shot for independence was fired on September 1, 1961. Anseba is one of the major rivers in Eritrea. Its source is right at the heart of Asmara; it flows northward into the Sudan. Today Anseba is also the name of one of the six regions in Eritrea with its capital in Keren.
B - is for Bases. Africa is the new global battleground, and Empire eyes the continent with menacing intent. Empire utilizes many different mechanisms to extend its hegemony. In Africa, think AFRICOM - a constellation of military partnerships, programs, infiltrations, and bases stretching across the continent. Empire’s goal is to control, dominate, and devour the continent’s resources. Yet, Eritrea remains amongst the only countries within the “dark continent” that refuses to host foreign military installations or bases. Cue Empire’s defamation and propaganda.
Again B is for Barka, another major river in Eritrea. The others are Anseba, Gash (Mareb) and Setit. Barka is also a place where Mt. Adal is located. B is also for Barentu the capital of Gash-Barka region of Eritrea and also for Bisha the first modern gold mine in Independent Eritrea.
C - is for Cuba. From Che Guevara’s military campaign to avenge Lumumba in the Congo to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, nearly 300,000 Cubans fought alongside African revolutionaries. However, for Cuba, the Eritrean liberation struggle was complicated, and the Cubans sacrificed the Eritreans by instead supporting the Mengistu regime. Cuba trained the Ethiopian military, and sent thousands of troops to the Ogaden to combat Somali forces (who were also battling Ethiopian colonial domination). Consequently, Cuba “freed” Ethiopian troops to focus solely on Eritrea - thus working against the Eritrean revolutionaries. Ho hum. History offers many lessons, and in the meantime Cuba and Eritrea have strengthened ties since independence.
D - is for Denden. Denden was the main mountain surrounding Nakfa, the location the Eritreans strategically retreated to after the massive intervention by the Soviets in the mid-1970s. Denden was a 4600-foot “maze of jagged peaks and intricate trenches (over 400km worth)!”.
E - is for Economy. In recent years, Eritrea has produced notable economic growth (often annually higher than the impressive average growth rate of the Sub-Saharan Africa region). Since economic growth does not necessarily equate to “development”, the country has promoted the former alongside, and not at the exclusion of, the latter.
But then E is for Eritrea, and for the ELM (Eritrean Liberation Movement), the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) and last but definitely not least for the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front).
F - is for Fenkil, the operation that liberated the port city of Massawa in 1990. In this battle the EPLF soundly defeated the Ethiopian navy with all its armaments and ships using only fast speed boats. The liberation of Massawa was the beginning of the end of Ethiopia's occupation of Eritrea.
F is also for Five. As in Eritrea is the five-times-straight African continental champion in Men’s cycling (not to be outdone, the women have also won and placed highly in several recent editions). In sport, it is often said that reaching the top is hard, but staying there is much more difficult. Then what do you say about five-straight? Nothing. Just tip your hat, and nod in respect.
G - is for Gold. Eritrea is endowed with abundant natural resources, especially gold, and it has translated this into economic growth and tangible developmental outcomes. To be sure, resources are not the magical solution to development challenges, but instead are only one variable within the multifaceted national developmental strategy. Yet, rather than fanfare and kudos, Eritrea has been placed within Empire’s crosshairs. Why? Because its approach towards its resources is a no-no. Eritrea firmly and unconditionally believes that the primary beneficiaries of the country’s resources must be Eritreans - not foreign multinational corporations or international elites (a la Chomsky’s radical nationalism). Such a stance places it in direct opposition to Empire’s designs for regional and global hegemony.
Then again G is also for Gash, another major river in Eritrea with its source few meters from the campus of the Eritrean Institute of Technology at Mai Nefhi. Gash starts its journey as Mareb in the foothills of Mt. Teqera, serves as a boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and then is renamed Gash few kilometers east of Barentu. It flows westwards through the city of Tesenei into eastern Sudan.
H - is for the Horn of Africa. The politically-fractious region is a powder keg, and has suffered from decades of poverty and strife, foreign intervention, global superpower competition, famine, drought, ethnolinguistic and religious conflict, external manipulations and machinations, imperialist designs, and war. It is precisely within this historical and present context that Eritrea must be understood,
“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s law is wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breath fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.”
Then again H is also for Hamid Idris Awate, the man who started the armed struggle for independence.
I - is for Isolationist. Eritrea’s self-reliance is often mistaken for isolationism. Self-reliance involves depending on one’s own resources and efforts to develop, strengthen, and grow, so as to integrate and engage with others cooperatively - not subordinately.
J - is for June. While independence day falls in May, it is impossible without June, the month of martyrs. J is also for Jebha, from the Arabic name for the ELF. Its stands for Front.
K - is for Kneel. Eritreans never kneel down, except on two occasions - to pray and to shoot. Regarding shooting, it is and was the Kalashnikov. During the independence struggle, the fighters acquired Kalashnikovs (commandeered from the enemy), and modified the weapon so that it was lighter and easier to control.
Then again K also stands for Keren, Eritrea's second largest city better known for its hospitality.
L - is for Latin America. The struggle against Empire is not local or national, but global, and to understand Eritrea, one can review the history of Latin America. The region, flippantly regarded as Empire’s “backyard,” has withstood 500 years of Manifest Destiny, Munroe Doctrine, imperial domination, oppression, bloqueos, Operacion Condor, desaparecidos, Chicago Boys, guerra sucia, foreign military bases, oil spills, living on its knees, and finally stood up defiantly to say, “No Mas!” So, “study history, study history,” because in it “lies all the secrets of [Empire’s] statecraft.”
M - is for the Millennium Development Goals. Passing up on aid, Eritrea’s record on the UN’s MDG’s is amongst the best in the world. Of course, this can only be mentioned in hushed tones or whispered softly, if noted at all. Sharing these facts too frequently or too loudly poses a clear and present “threat of a good example.” How? It is a threat to the dogma that Africans must be politically subservient, economically dependent, and firmly shackled by the oppressive chains of neocolonialism. And it is a threat to the rapacious international humanitarian and foreign aid industry, based on lucrative consultancies, “expert” programs, expatriates living high off the hog, sleek fleets of glossy 4x4s, and “saviour” NGOs scattered across the Global South. So shhhh!
M is also for May 24, Eritrea's Independence day. It is also for Massawa, the Pearl of the Red Sea. Massawa is the largest deep water port along the Red Sea.
N - is for Nakfa. Was there any question? It is “the place of resilience” and was the EPLF’s mountain fortress. It represents a symbol of Eritrean determination and resistance to colonial domination. In 1977, after the EPLF strategically retreated to Nakfa, they built heavy fortifications, including a forty-kilometer-long, labyrinth-like defensive trench in the surrounding mountains. Despite repeated attempts, the Ethiopian army was unable to dislodge the Eritreans from Nakfa. Between 1978 and 1981, the Dergue unleashed five large-scale military campaigns against the EPLF, none of which resulted in success. Nakfa is also the name of Eritrea's currency.
Then again, N can stand for the massive amounts of napalm dropped across Eritrea, burning numerous people or leaving others behind only as charred remains. Or, N can stand for night - since so much activity during the independence struggle took place at night, so as to avoid the deadly military jet bombers overhead which emerged at first light.
O - is for the OAU (the Organization of African Unity). In 1993, the OAU was the scene of President Isaias’ first speech at the now defunct organization (it was succeeded by the African Union). During the speech, Isaias branded the organization an “utter failure” for its historic rejections of Eritrea’s calls for self-determination, its overall ineffectual approach, and he also decried the money-hording, corrupt, aid-dependent practices of many leaders. Reviewing the brief history of the African Union, it is clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Then again, O stands for Orotta, the world's longest underground hospital. This was a hospital where EPLF's fighter doctors were performing complicated surgery for wounded freedom fighters. Today Orotta is the name of the School of Medicine and Dentistry inside Asmara that is graduating medical and dental doctors.
P - is for the PFDJ, (People's Front for Democracy and Justice), the successor of the EPLF, the bedrock of Eritrea's self-reliant and independent vision. It is the movement that is leading Eritrea into a bright future with a progressive vision and commitment for national harmony, social justice, economic and political democracy, and cultural revival.
But P is also for Pirates. As in St. Augustine’s story of the pirate in City of God parallels Empire’s unfounded allegations that Eritrea, one of the first countries to battle Bin Laden and the scourge of extremism, is a supporter of terror and a destabilizer in the region. Recall how in City of God, St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, "How dare you molest the seas?" To which the pirate replied, "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor." St. Augustine thought the pirate's answer was "elegant and excellent."
Q - is for Quite Ironic. As in, it was quite ironic that although the Soviet Union was a key driver of the UN resolution on decolonization and the principle of self-determination - A Resolution on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples - it also opposed and actively worked against Eritrea’s self-determination and independence.
R - is for the Red Sea. It is also known as the Eritrean Sea. The vital sea that links the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. Eritrea has over 1200 km coast line on the western side of the Red Sea.
R is also for Red Star Campaign. Better known in Eritrean circles as the 6th Offensive. In February of 1982, Ethiopia embarked on a major offensive, its 6th in 4 years, against the EPLF, dubbed the “Red Star Campaign.” The sixth offensive by the Mengistu regime involved 120,000 troops (massively outnumbering the Eritreans), and was developed with the help of Soviet advisors. Regardless of the discrepancies in personnel numbers or superpower help, the campaign failed to dislodge the EPLF from Nakfa, instead it resulted in the death of over 40,000 Ethiopian troops. In this offensive the Ethiopian Mentir command that was to encircle Nakfa from the west was totally wiped out and the other two commands the Wiqaw and Nadew commands were checkmated in the door steps of Nakfa. After the failure of the Red Star Campaign, the EPLF regrouped to seize the military initiative and two years later it wiped the Wiqaw command in March of 1984, liberating Tesennei that summer of that year, and Barentu a year later. All these were the harbinger of decimating the Ethiopian army at Afabet the base of the Nadew command.
S - is for Sahel. Sahel was the EPLF's rear base. Sahel is also where Nakfa, Afabet and Orotta are all located.
Again S stands for Sanyo and Singer. The former refers to the “Sanyo” radios that could be found throughout the trenches during the independence war. As well, modern “Singer” machines (captured in EPLF raids on Asmara) were used to make uniforms and children’s clothes in EPLF-held areas. Many of the Sanyo and Singer machines were refurbished, reassembled, and, in some cases, even produced from scratch - illustrating the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the freedom fighters.
But above all S stands for "Shaebia", a word taken from the Arabic name of the EPLF. It stands for "people", the Eritrean people. Shaebia is what most Eritreans call the EPLF and the PFDJ, it is used as a name of endearment.
T - is for Tegadelti, Tigrigna for freedom fighters. It is for the selfless and dedicated youth that sacrificed their lives, limbs and opportunities to fight for their country. 65,000 of which paid the ultimate price and tens of thousands where disabled. No words can describe the heroic fit these sons and daughters of Eritrea did.
T is also for the Tsorona Front. In early 1999, the Tsorona Front was scene to some of the fiercest fighting of the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war. Thousands of Ethiopian conscripts were forced to march against Eritrea’s well dug-in defences at Egri Mekel and were mown down by a hellish barrage of machine gun fire and mortars. Shudderingly, one weekend saw over 10,000 Ethiopians die in what can only be described as a monumental tactical and strategic blunder. Ethiopia tried to dismiss its loses and the infamous Salome Taddesse was quoted saying "how did you know the dead where Ethiopians, by their smell?" Like Nakfa, Egri Mekel can evoke similarities to Thermopylae.
U - is for the United Nations. While the UN allegedly champions lofty ideals and universal values, its historic relationship with Eritrea has been fraught with injustice. In the immediate post-WW2 period, the UN was one of the authors of the original crime against Eritrea, overlooking Eritreans’ calls for independence and instead promoting an association that led to annexation. Thereafter, the UN refused to heed Eritreans’ calls for self-determination during the long independence struggle, while since independence, the UN has upheld sanctions (and overlooked an illegal military occupation) utilizing “evidence” and assertions that harken back to Iraqi WMD’s. Sigh. All the perfumes of Arabia…
V - is for Volleyball. When we think volleyball, we think “serve, return, bump, set, spike.” But regarding Eritrea, volleyball was the name given to a courageous “game” played by independence fighters in the trenches. In the trenches, fighters were under constant bombardment and fire from enemy forces. Whenever the enemy lobbed over a grenade into the trenches, the Eritreans, rather than flee for cover, ran towards the grenade and attempted to “return it” from whence it came - hence “volleyball.” Volleyball is a trench on Mt. Denden.
W - is for Water. Eritrea is strategically located on the Red Sea, specifically the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, through which a large amount of global maritime trade (e.g. oil) passes. Thus the country has long remained a focus of western and imperialist interests, as suggested by the former head of US Central Command in 1990, General Norman Schwarzkopf, “the Red Sea, with the Suez Canal in the north and the Bab el-Mandeb in the south, is one of the most vital sea lines of communication and a critical shipping link between our Pacific and European allies…Since a significant part of USCENTCOM’s forces would deploy by sea, ensuring these waterways remain open to free world shipping must be a key objective.” Water also can refer to how Eritrea has dramatically improved its population’s access to water, reaching above 90% in many areas.
X - is for X-factor. The X-factors, both for Eritrea’s independence and for the country’s ongoing developmental pursuits, are the women of Eritrea. Embodying the notion of equality through struggle, valiant Eritrean women served honorably, fought bravely, and sacrificed greatly alongside men in the labyrinth-like trenches, on the battlefields, and across the front-lines. In the annals of all revolutionary liberation and guerrilla movements, Eritrea’s women are set apart upon two dimensions - their role (they performed all duties, as commanders and rank and file fighters, nurses and doctors, technicians and journalists, leaders and teachers) and their number (they constituted up to one-third of the independence army). Eritrean women under enemy occupied territory and in those in the Diaspora were also the engine of the Eritrean Revolution. The EPLF's slogan was: "The Eritrean Revolution would not succeed without the full participation of women" and ultimately, women would prove absolutely critical to the eventual achievement of independence. In a similar vein, since independence women have been the key drivers of the nation’s pursuit of broad national development and economic progress.
Y - is for Yes-(wo)man. Why has Eritrea been the target of defamation, sanctions, subversion, invasion, incursions, occupation, calls for “humanitarian intervention” based on so-called “responsibility to protect”, and low-intensity conflict? Because Eritrea is “undemocratic,” has a “deplorable” human rights record, or a variety of other “bad” things? No, no. Because it refuses to bow at the kneel, and be a yes-(wo)man. Because it chooses independence and to define its own policies. Because after independence, Empire demanded Eritrea privatize a long list of government sectors and businesses, and Eritrea flatly refused. Because it refuses to be a foreign proxy or succumb to imperialist intrigue. Because it spoke up and said that the solutions to the plight of Africans could only be developed by Africans, not by D.C., London, or Paris.
Z - is for Zones. During the colonial period, Italy implemented policies of segregation and apartheid in Eritrea, particularly within the capital, Asmara. The city was divided into zones: one zone for Italians, one zone for those of mixed descent, one zone for the “natives” or “indigenous” populations, and a zone for industry. The ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) had also divided Eritrea into five zonal commands.