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Requiem for National Security Or, the Death of a Patriot Print E-mail
Written by Tricia Redeker Hepner   
Friday, 23 February 2007

On January 11, 2007, in a small African country most Americans have never heard of and could not locate on a map, a man died alone and in pain after suffering years of ill-treatment and torture at the hands of a government he had not only supported but helped to create.

That country is the Horn of Africa nation of Eritrea, and the man was Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a beloved veteran of Eritrea’s struggle for independence from Ethiopia, children’s theater director, author, and pioneer in that country’s short-lived movement for freedom of information and expression. Accused of jeopardizing national security for publishing critical political commentary, Joshua was arrested in September 2001 along with dozens of his colleagues and friends, many of them equally patriotic veterans. For six years he was held incommunicado and without charge, denied not only his constitutional rights as a citizen of the country he loved but his very dignity as a human being.

After gaining independence in 1993 following a lonely three-decade struggle for self-determination, Eritrea entered the international spotlight as Africa’s newest nation-state. Lauded by President Bill Clinton and other foreign observers as a leader in an emerging African Renaissance, the government of Eritrea seemed to embody the hopefulness, integrity and resolve of its nearly four million citizens. Led by the formidable Isaias Afeworki, the once aptly (and now ironically) named Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) electrified the imaginations of all who dared envision a brighter future in a continent haunted by the crippling legacies of colonialism, economic marginalization, and armed conflict.

That bright future quickly dissolved as the combined pressures of a border war with Ethiopia in 1998 and structural disadvantages facing the new state coalesced in a devastating downward spiral of increasing national isolation and political repression. Although the active conflict with Ethiopia ended in 2000 and the government redoubled its efforts at state-led development, the losses were already severe. Elections were cancelled and the constitution put on ice until national security could be assured. Eritrean citizens and exiles rallied to the challenge, but disillusionment seeped in at the edges, beginning with the bloodshed at the border. And as lasting peace retreated from the advancing wartime demands, the rhetoric of democracy began to ring hollow.

But Eritrea’s freedom was not a thing to be taken lightly by its citizens or its government. Facilitated by an emergent but thriving independent press, articles and letters churned forth from the pens of veterans, exiles, and everyday people, questioning the wisdom and purpose of the war. For a time, the grimness of the situation was tempered by citizens’ critiques of their government. And also for a time, the government allowed those critiques to emerge. Democracy was a subject of debate, as were the meanings of freedom, development, and independence itself.

Among those who raised their voices, and helped others do the same, was Joshua Yohannes.

I first met Joshua in 1998, when as a young graduate student, I had returned to Eritrea for a second time in preparation for the field research I would complete in 2001. We sat together at a friend’s wedding dinner, and he caught me by surprise and delight by popping a spongy morsel of bread and stew into my mouth in that quintessential Eritrean gesture of solidarity and affection. Although by no means small of stature, Joshua seemed a much bigger man than he physically was. He was gregarious and warm, with a deep and resonant laugh that flowed effortlessly from a broad smile framed by a bushy black beard. He seemed boundless in his energy and enthusiasm, not unlike many Eritreans I knew. Like them, Joshua also left me wondering how someone who had seen so much suffering could seem so hopeful.

Days after that happy celebration, however, I saw Joshua grow brooding and pensive. We sat in silence in the Shewit Children’s Theater, props and artwork strewn all about us, brows furrowed and ears glued to the radio. Ethiopia had just bombed the outskirts of Asmara, and foreigners were told by their respective embassies to leave the country that night. Later, as I collected my things in a haze of sadness, fear and confusion, Joshua appeared in his trademark tiny green jeep to escort me through the checkpoints that had sprung up like mushrooms throughout the city. As we said goodbye at the airport, we assured one another that all would be fine, peace would soon return, and we would meet again.

And we did meet again, on September 18, 2001. I had been back in Eritrea for two months but had not yet seen Joshua. He was very busy in those days. He had joined the staff of an independent newspaper called Setit, and had remained active with the children’s theater troupe, which toured the country performing skits and acrobatics depicting Eritrea’s twin experiences of suffering and resilience. He was also a family man, married with children. So it was a wonderful surprise to run into him on the street that warm and sunny afternoon. We embraced and bumped shoulders lightly in the greeting common to freedom fighters. He smiled broadly but I noticed at once how rapidly his smile faded. His eyes darted to and fro, scanning the streets around us. He seemed restless and distracted. I commented that he must be quite busy with all his projects and I would stop by the theater later that week. Alright, he said absently, we will drink tea and catch up then.

Perhaps I was a bit on edge myself. The September 11 tragedy had happened but one week earlier, eerily unreal to me as the images beamed over satellite television into Asmara hotel lobbies.

That night, or perhaps the next, Joshua was picked up by security agents. “They’ve gone mad,” a close mutual friend who I will call Saba cried in desperation as she told me the news. “The authorities – don’t they know who Joshua is? What he sacrificed for our country?” She had gone to the police station but the guards would not let her in. None of the officials in the party, also Saba’s and Joshua’s friends, would give her any information. Herself a former fighter, Saba had known Joshua since they were teenagers in the trenches. But she never saw him again. No one did, save the guards who watched over him, those who tortured him, and the doctors and nurses who occasionally treated his wounds. Over the course of the next six years, he was moved to several different prison locations, often held in solitary confinement and routinely tortured. He was never charged with a crime nor was he ever brought before a court of law. The only explanation provided for his arrest, and the detention of what now amounts to thousands of other Eritreans, was ‘national security and unity.’

Since the beginning of Eritrea’s ongoing human rights crisis in 2001, the government has remained impervious to criticism by the international community and ever more intolerant of dissenting views among its citizens at home and abroad. Pursuing nationalist policies underpinned by the stubborn resolve ingrained over generations of hardship, the PFDJ has expanded conscription into the armed forces. A logical extension of the mobilized discipline that characterized its recent history, Eritrea’s militarization is also a strategy for maintaining control over its political and economic destiny in an increasingly uncertain global order. Today, Eritrea commands the largest army in Africa proportionate to size, and undertakes most development work through the labor of young men and women who serve indefinite terms in the military. Ever vigilant of threats emerging from beyond its borders, and within them, the government may deploy troops at any time by conjuring the magic words, ‘national security.’ After all, this is (so we’re told) the ultimate prerequisite for peace, freedom, and democracy.

Joshua Yohannes is dead. I tell myself over and over again, though it cannot ever make sense. And along with Joshua, I contemplate the thousands of Eritreans – among them others I know personally – who are right now suffering similar fates because they dared to believe that their country was free and democratic, and dared to exercise that belief through the open exchange of information and opinion. But, as we all know, the world is an unsafe place. Our governments are skittish. The patterns and technologies of globalization have made us all vulnerable to the interests and motives of foreign powers and non-state actors, many of whom may be terrorists, or at the very least, traitors.

During a 2002 visit to South Africa, President Isaias Afeworki was asked by a university student to explain how so many could be held in detention without charge in Eritrea. The President responded, “Do you have any idea about the Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, where the United States has detained prisoners . . . for reasons of national security? So can we do; just like that. We can detain people whom we believe are a threat to our national security, if want indefinitely.” For many Americans, the name Eritrea is as unfamiliar as that of Joshua Yohannes. But the reasons for Joshua’s death, if any can ever truly be found, are not unfamiliar. Nor is the logic of militarism and its demands for unending sacrifice made by troops and their families, or the increasingly hollow ring of words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom,’ words which more than ever cruelly gloss over suffering, human rights abuses, repression, and war. I am an American, and I see America and Eritrea reflected in each another. And I mourn the loss of a friend, a patriot, a courageous soldier, and a genuine freedom fighter, whose death can serve to remind us all of who we are, and what we may become, when our governments maintain a monopoly on the meaning of democracy and freedom in the pursuit of national security.

Tricia Redeker Hepner is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


ንጆሽዋ ካብ ዶ/ር ርእሶም ሃይለ


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