We present to you an interview conducted with Dr. Habte Tesfmariam, Spokesman of the Eritrean Liberation Front- Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC). San Jose, CA, on Saturday, July 6, 2002.
Dr. Habte, Welcome. Let me begin by asking you about your childhood years and how you developed your national sentiments. How did your national consciousness start to grow?
It all started in my household. When I was about eleven years old, I was observing political discussions among my relatives, in our house. My relatives were members of different political parties. They discussed Eritrean issues and that is when I started to develop national consciousness. During the weekends, my parents debated serious political issues. I started to become conscious of nationhood and even history�history of colonization. The British were then administering Eritrea, I came to know before that, Italy, and others colonized Eritrea. Questions came to my mind: why are the British tanks rolling in Eritrea?
Thereafter, I started to observe the conflict that was instigated by the British among Moslems and Christians.
I remember we had cattle and they were shepherded by Asawrta Eritreans. One day, they fled and took refuge in our house taking refuge because they were being beaten by Shiftas [bandits] like Asresehey and Debessai Drar who were beating them and killing others. This strengthened my sentiments. Where they [simply] Shiftas? They were being sent by Ethiopia from Adwa and other confines of Tigrai in general after being armed with guns. They were instigated to confront what was being presented by Ethiopia as an Islamic rebellion. This worsened the conflict. There was an interference by Ethiopia and also by the British who would have two flags and would wave the Ethiopian flag from atop their rolling tanks when they passed the Unionist groups and take a second flag from their other pocket and wave the Rabita Al Islamiya flag�the red and green and a justice scale flag--when they passed Rabita meetings. When the Unionists saw this they thought the British were with them and when the Rabita saw their flag being waved they thought the British were on their side. They encouraged the people by giving them [false signs of strength.
The Rabita were gathering at the Asmara checkpoint, Blocko while the Unionists gathered in a place known as Sememmu. Then, women, dressed in white and with a shawl of Ethiopian flag, would pass�even students were influenced by all of this. The British tanks were moving between Blocko and Semmemu�the women would approach the unionist group and instigate them by saying: �you, women, the Rabita are coming to you with guns, swords and axes; are you waiting until they come and kill you!�
Yes, agitation. Then the Unionist would carry their guns, swords and Gezemo and march towards the Rabita gathering. But then the British would come and stop this. This instilled in me anxiety and since I was a kid in the third grade, I was very scared of what was happening.
This complicated conflict of different parties caused me to have a national conscience. I said to myself, Eritrea should be free from the British and the Ethiopians. The second incident that arose my consciousness is, while I was in grade four, students union in Asmara demonstrated and broke windows in the Haile Sellasie School. They were detained and brought to Adi-Kwala to be imprisoned. The young teachers told us that the students were brought from Asmara because they demonstrated. We as students sympathized and started to think of what we should do. I remember I went to my parents and asked them to give me Herkam [twenty-five cents]. We each pooled our money and bought bread for the jailed students.
Do you remember any of those who agitated you as students?
At later stages I remember three names of those who made me a member of Mahber Shewaate [Eritrean Liberation Movement]. The names that I remember are: Seyoum who was going to Comboni School; Yohannes from Leul Mokenen school; and Tekheste Wedi-Qeshi from Haile Sellasie School. Those three were explaining to me what needed to be done and that Eritrea should be sovereign and free and what we should do. They told me of the necessity of an underground movement.
I had my fears of what was befalling the Eritrean people: jailing, burning of villages and killings. This encouraged me and made my conscience clear that I have to struggle in an organized manner. I became a member.
What were you doing?
My main task was carrying mail because I was the youngest. No one would suspect me. I would be told to carry a letter and hand it to someone who would wait for me at a certain place�. even our meeting places were from house to house so that we would not be traced�
When is all this?
It is towards the end of 1950s. It was around the time the Workers Union demonstrated. It was a tough time in Asmara. At that time I had to carry a letter to Mendefera students. They were preparing for a demonstration.
We were charged up by Ato Weldaab�s radio addresses . And though the broadcast was aired for a short period with limited air time and few days a week, we went to teashops to listen where crowds of people would gather to listen and be charged up with patriotism.
Didn�t they [Haileselasse regime] tell him [Ato Welda�ab Weldemariam] he couldn�t change things from abroad then?
Yes, this was being said then also.
Who did you give the letter to?
The name was Haile�. He was an eighth grader. And within a week they held a demonstration. The police officer at the time was a Colonel named Saleh Berrada, a man who played an important role. When the students held the demonstration they were dispersed and pushed out of the town and gathered there. The police started to round up the students. Colonel Saleh told the police to go back to the town and he said that the students, whether knowingly or not have started to demonstrate and that he would attend to their requests. He met the students and asked what they wanted. The students said: �we want to demonstrate inside the town, from the San Giorgio school to the Church carrying the Eritrean flag; we want all the shops to hoist the Eritrean flag and to be closed during our demonstration�. He replied: �I can�t accept the request regarding the shops because if I pass that order, I will be considered one of you�. The students sent about ten students who sneaked out of the gathering and went around Mendefera to tell the shopkeepers to close their shops. And the Colonel allowed the students to hold their demonstration.
What authority was he using?
The Eritrean Federal Constitution was then in force and it allowed demonstration. It was more agitated in Asmara and a serious struggle started. I was part of it for some years. You see, once you are organized, it is easy to continue wherever you go.
After that, when I went to Alemaya College in Ethiopia; we formed an Eritrean Cooperative group. The Ethiopian Students objected to us having a grouping because they wanted a similar organization. Our excuse was that we were the furthest of all, we might face financial and other problems, and we have to have a way to confront any problem we might face. The College Administration was composed of Americans who stated that if any of the other students wanted to form a group, they could do likewise.
We stared to give a monthly contribution to assist the Jebha [ELF] and we were following the development of what was happening in Eritrea.
In Alemaya we delegated Ahmed Kerar and martyr Aregai Habtu to make contacts with the armed movement. They were from Keren and were going to visit their family. We gave them money and letters to establish contacts.
Which armed group were they trying to contact?
We heard of the conflicts between Weldaab and Idris Mohammed Adem and that Eritreans from the Sudan were trying to reconcile them�. News that Haraka was thinking of having its own armed wing and Jebha was objecting to that and all of that was devastating to us all but we held on.
But that didn�t stop us from doing things. For example, we wanted to promote creativity and we did so at the YMCA in Asmara: we organized and financed an oratory contest to promote nationalism and the enrichment of the Tigrigna language and we offered some money and prizes as gifts.
What happened after Alamaya College days?
I, along with two others, as well as another group of three Eritreans, left for Europe, Poland. Six days after our arrival, we met three other Eritreans and we formed the Eritrean Students Union.
Do you remember the names of the members?
It has been a long time and I might have forgotten many names of people who are highly educated and highly respected professionals, but I remember Dr. Gerghis Tekhlemicael (now with the PFDJ) Michael Yohannes, Abraham, Michael Isaac, Berhane, Embaye, and Amare Fitwi, who had already been living in Poland. Amare knew students in Germany and Hungary and informed us of interested students, including in Vienna and we wanted them to join us in preparing our constitution. Amare was given the task of making contacts and introducing us to the other students. We used to go to Berlin during vacations. The person who was holding the membership documents as a Chairman was Semere Michael; he was struggling alone. When we met him, he was pleased to see us. We briefed him about the situation in Eritrea� about the Haraka movement and the general political situation. He said that since our number in Poland was bigger, he would come to Warsaw and hand us the documents. Later, we the responsibility was handed over to us and I was elected the General Secretary of the Students Union.
If we go back a little, when we formed the Eritrean Cooperative Association Alamaya College, we were not limited to that locality. We had contacted the Haile Sellasie University and for example we contacted Kidane Kiflu, wedi Adgoi [Kidane Adgoi] and we were connected in an underground movement. The first student movement was started at Alamaya; then we expanded it to Bahre Dar and in Addis Ababa [University] Engineering College and others.
While in Europe, we observed that we couldn�t be effective in our scattered form. We decided to have small groups [chapters] in different places. It was of course difficult to meet openly, therefore we used a cover: The Ethiopian Students Congress. We participated in Ethiopian Students Congress and meeting; by day we are with them at night, the Eritreans would meet alone [secretly].
In 1966, in Dimchurch, under the guise of the Ethiopian meeting, Eritrean students met by night secretly. Twelve countries send their delegates. In the congress that we held in 1967 � by now we started to have our independent congress- we held that meeting in Leipzig [Former East Germany]. We named our movement, Eritrean Students Union Abroad. But we observed the fact that we were limited to Europe and that there were student unions in the Middle East and that they were closer to Eritrea. Also, since our struggle was only diplomatic it had to be connected with the armed struggle in Eritrea, we wanted to have closer relations with the students in the Middle East so that we could work on projects jointly. At that time, I was the chairman of the union and the congress delegated myself and Ahamadani to travel to Cairo for that purpose. We sent a telegram informing them of our trip and when we arrived, we held two meetings with them. They were very pleased. We agreed to name our combined organization, General Union of Eritrean Students [GUES) and also agreed to have a congress in Syria. Of course then, the issue of Haraka was ended and there was conflicts among the ELF and the main place of the conflict was Cairo and that is why we agreed to have our congress at a distance and decided to meet in Syria. We even got assistance from Syria. The GESU was formally formed in December 1968-January 1969 in Syria.
We started to meet with different elements of the leadership of the ELF through letters and face-to-face. We continued our struggle� and during the first national congress of the ELF, it was only natural that the student union should be asked to send its delegation. Michael Yohannes and myself were delegated to be present at that congress, but unfortunately, for different reasons, our participation was hindered.
What was the hindrance?
The preparatory committee of the congress sent us a telegram that said it was decided that we would attend. But the telegram was confusing: it said that the congress has started, and that we should come onboard the United Arab Airline, the Egyptian Airlines. No ticket and it was not clear where we would travel to--The congress has started and how long would the congress last? We knew that the complications were a hindrance not to get us there. But we thought: there are enough students participating in the congress and our presence was not that critical.
Do you remember students who joined the armed struggle then?
�It is difficult to remember names, but the majority were from the Middle East. Those who joined from Europe were: martyr Fitsum Gebresellasie and martyr Aregai Habtu� and even though he was not registered in the Student Union, he is one of us [student] �
Herui was not a member of the Student Union?
We tried to have him join. But when we met with him in the congress that we held in France and we had a long debate and I told him that he would have a big role in the movement, he said: �I have finished my studies and I am going to the field [to join the armed struggle]. And he left. There were many others who finished their studies and left for the field�.�
Now we are over with the 1st Congress of the ELF?
�...To be continued
PART TWO & FINAL.
��if the issues in Eritrea were only political, the opposition chair is very comfortable...you criticize and accuse and get involved in rectifying and changing�even to get hold of power�that is the job of an opposition. But in Eritrea it is different: it is about salvation. It is between salvaging and demise. Our land needs salvage; otherwise, we will be eradicated. Our people need salvage; otherwise there is demise. In such an urgent situation, anyone who sees himself as a responsible one should be organized in this opposition and form a combined plan to salvage the country from the demise that I mentioned earlier by establishing a democratic system.�
ELF: Eritrean Liberation Front. Post 1981, it is also the name of the splinter group chaired by Abdella Idris, then the head of the Military Office.
ELF-RC: Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council. Chair: Ahmed Nasser. Splinter group of the ELF.
TPLF: Tigray People�s Liberation Front, now the senior partner in EPRDF, Ethiopia�s ruling coalition party.
EPLF: Eritrean People�s Liberation Front; now renamed PFDJ, People�s Front for Democracy & Justice, the sole party and the ruling party in Eritrea.
UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization
1. The Birth Of The UNESCO School in Kassala, Sudan
1.1 Now we are over with the 1st Congress of the ELF?
1.2 Anything more on that period?
Of course, when we started the student union, Ethiopia was troubled. We formed and declared our union and severed even the camouflage affiliation to the Ethiopian student union. Ethiopia started to follow our movements. Since I was the chairman of the union, when I finished school, I received a letter from the Polish authorities telling me �your ticket is at the airport and you should leave for Ethiopia immediately.� I showed the letter to my friend. Then, I took my diploma and fled to Berlin. I wanted to go to the field but the means of contact was not there (as I explained previously, when we received the invitation to the congress.) Nevertheless, scores of our members joined the Front and those who were left behind were involved in the diplomatic struggle: many students from Europe and other areas were studying in Egypt or the military schools in Syria.
1.3 Then you decided to participate in the 2nd national conference of the ELF?
During the 2nd congress, many colleagues pressured me into joining the leadership of the front. I started my first assignment in the filed in the Cadre School. The 2nd meeting of the revolutionary council assessed the weakness of the ELF internationally, and decided to assign me to the foreign affairs office. I was put in charge of Europe and Africa relations desk. We played an important role. We met and established contacts with many foreign departments of Europe and launched important relations with different political parties. We managed to get an observer status in the Socialist International organization. We established relations with African liberation movements, like Angola, South Africa, Mozambique. So, too, with Palestine. We also got membership in the African Political Scientists� Association. Based on that, and our contacts with different humanitarian organizations in Europe, we did the groundwork for the establishment of the Eritrean Red Cross And Crescent. We partnered with the Red Cross and aid started to flow to Eritrea: refugee, children, schools, etc. We also established the UNESCO school in Kessela: many of today�s Eritrean doctors, engineers went through that school. That school is dear to me because it is a project that saw the light with my initiative� together with Dr. Yousif Berhanu.
1.4 Single handedly?
The UNHCR chief in Switzerland then was Dr. Cadolson [sp?]. He was speaking bitterly about students who were given scholarships. I told him, �Yes, a single scholarship that you give to one person would educate a hundred students in Eritrea�. He asked �how?� And I explained�
1.5 I am just wondering�as you mentioned, there are many professionals and successful Eritreans who owe their major success to the opportunity given to them in having the UNESCO school in Kessela. Do you think they know of the role of Dr. Habte and others in bringing that school to existence?
I don�t think so. Many don�t know the history of the school. Even the teachers in that school didn�t know that. Some knew the story later on. I remember once when the late Michael Gabir [later, Director of the UNESCO school] who once came to me and asked me to tell him the history of the school. . I explained to him and he was amazed. I explained the whole story to him� it is long...
1.6 We have all night, doctor....
OK. It started with a trip to Switzerland to meet with officials of the UNHCR. In the lobby, while we were waiting, I glanced at a magazine (Refugee) and read a story about a UNHCR school in Dar EsSallam built for the refugees from Mozambique. [At the time] the UNHCR had no business with us regarding refugees; they were taken care of by the Sudan.
When we met the UNHCR official, we asked him about scholarships. He replied that they [UNHCR] were fed up with the students: those who were given scholarships to the Middle East wanted to cross to Europe and those that got scholarships to Europe wanted to go to the USA.
We told him that it is the mistake of the UNHCR because they were talking about scores of students while we were interested in thousands of children inside Eritrea and Sudan who needed education most because they don�t even have the basic education and who, for lack of education, face a dark future. We asked them, how would they help to alleviate these problems?
They said: those in Sudan are the responsibility of Sudan. Regarding those [the internally displaced] in Eritrea, they couldn�t talk to us about because we [ELF] are not recognized by the UN. Therefore, he explained, they couldn�t help us. We reasoned by explaining that we can prevent the exodus to the Sudan by offering them schools inside Eritrea. He said there was no way they could build a school in Eritrea. He said that he couldn�t deal with us. We suggested that the UNHCR help us to build schools in the Sudan. He said, �you are not a government and on what basis would we deal with you?� Now, I brought the argument that UNHCR had helped FRELIMO set up a school in Dar EsSellam to educate Mozambique youth and children, why would they not do the same for us? He agreed to follow up in the Sudan and see if the Sudanese authorities would agree. He told us that he would send a fax message to the UNHCR representative in Khartoum and asked if we would do the same and inform our people to get the consent of the Sudanese. I said that I would not send any message; instead I would fly to the Sudan immediately. That was an important project. I left Dr. Yousif behind and went to Sudan.
I met with the late Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammed Saleh [then in charge of the Education Dept within ELF] and two others and briefed them of the project and that the UNHCR was willing to finance the building of two schools, one in Kessela and another in Khartoum. We set out to secure the approval of the Sudanese authorities. The Education Ministry of Sudan agreed and said that they wouldn�t mind because the property would be left in the Sudan anyway. But they refused to grant us permission for a school in Khartoum and decided on only one in Kessela.
1.7 Given that you are so passionate and proud of that achievement, would you consider that as your main achievement?
Of course, it is. You see, education is the basic necessity for development. Ethiopia fought us in different ways: with arms, culture. In the long struggle, we had many things lacking. Mainly, we had lack of education. Many of our youth joined the armed struggle. Those who remained behind were not given the opportunities for education or job training and they ended up doing menial jobs. It is important that we established a strong basis for education; without that, the Eritrea we dreamt about would be useless. These were in my thoughts and I worked hard for the project.
2. Civil War & The �Pending� Issues
2.1 Moving on to a different subject, in the years after the 2nd national congress, there were several covert meetings by the ELF with the East Germans and the Soviets, would you tell us about them?
No, I was not part of the meeting delegation and there is not much that I know of.
2.2 Not even some information?
No, because the results of the meeting were not published and I was not part of it�
2.3 There are several published reports about it and we know about it�
But I don�t.
2.4 All right� there were internal problems inside the ELF followed by an Ethiopian counter offensive and followed by the recapturing of major towns and then the battles that pushed the ELF to the Sudan by the combined forces of the TPLF and EPLF. How did you receive these series of events?
Well, I never believed that the civil war would reach to that extent. But generally, I felt that the EPLF was not interested in unity and that it badly wanted to liquidate the ELF�I had information that they [EPLF] were planning for that�
2.5 Personal information?
Personal, as well as information through the ELF. They were training for that purpose�.
2.6 You had been abroad; is your information from the outside perspective?
No. I was frequently traveling abroad but most of the time I was in the field.
2.7 The EPLF also accused the ELF of stating that the Eritrean field cannot hold more than one organization, which implies that the ELF is to blame for the civil war. How do you see that?
This is similar to the classical story of the fox and the sheep who were drinking water from the same stream. Although he was on the higher end of the course of the stream, because he was planning on feasting on the sheep, the fox accused the sheep of polluting the water that it was drinking from.
The slogan of �no more than one organization� is not because the field cannot accommodate more than one organization; it was because of our intent to promote unity. The EPLF and Isaias know this. But he had to find a reason to attack the ELF. Isaias was preparing while waiting for the opportune time to liquidate the ELF; that was achieved when the EPLF and TPLF were at their best level of relations.
2.8 The ELF was driven out to the Sudan, then what?
When Abdella Idris [now the chairman of the ELF] carried out the coup d�etat, and members of the Executive Committee including the Chairman [Ahmed Nasser] were jailed, I was vice Chairman. With those not imprisoned and other senior cadres, we decided on the continuation of the struggle. We were determined that even if we lost everything, the nucleus of the Front should live. We believed that the principles of the ELF were the principles of the Eritrean people. In 1985, we held a seminar in Kessela. We had problems and were being jailed and deported. When all the organizations were building the �Tripartite Unity� we rejected it; we believed the exercise was to dissolve the ELF. We condemned that. The Sudanese security was harassing us. I was being taken early morning from my home, and they would put me in a cell for the whole day and release me in the evening. They would take me back the next day.
2.9 There was a lot of property belonging to the ELF, including arms that were captured by the Sudanese authorities. Whatever happened to that property?
Well, some of the properties were given back to us at a later stage. And we used it. Also, don�t forget that then we had an army who was carrying arms and attacking the enemy and being chased by the EPLF and by Abdella. We tried to solve our internal problems peacefully but the EPLF and Abdella considered us the main enemy and were attacking us. Our members were being hunted down. For our part, when the Ethiopian offensive was intensified, we gave the EPLF some arms; heavy equipment that they didn�t have�anti-aircraft guns for example�
2.10 You gave equipment to the EPLF? When?
It was in 1986.
2.11 How? Were you reconciled then?
No, but the relations between us and the EPLF was improving a little and they had better use for the equipment that we gave them. What is important is the fact that we had heavy equipment and we were not willing to join the EPLF and dissolve, we chose to maintain our principles. But we were working to have some kind of coordination with the EPLF. We held meetings with them, for example, our delegation met with them in Sahel. We met for a dialogue with Isaias in Khartoum.
2.12 There is confusion here: we hear of fierce conflicts and then all of a sudden there is peace. The cause of the conflict is not openly discussed and is not openly resolved. Now, after all the bloodshed, you reached to a level where you would give the EPLF heavy equipment. Good enough. What happened to the bloody conflict you had a few years earlier? Did you resolve it, or you just hugged each other and forgot about it? Who bears the blame? Who was mistaken and who was the victim? Did the EPLF apologize or you apologized?
Our goal was the liberation of Eritrea. If it was possible, we would have liked to see both organizations liberating the country together. If not possible, then we don�t mind one organization, be it ELF or EPLF, to achieve the goal of the Eritrean people, liberation.
2.13 How about the monopoly you just talked about?
In spite of that. A country and a nation stay forever; a government and a leader cannot live forever. We never were driven by hate or vengeance. Let alone the EPLF, we started to have relations with even the TPLF, the organization that attacked us by siding with the EPLF, because of one principle: they assured us that they unequivocally support the right of the Eritrean people for self- determination. They openly declared that when they had the required strength to unseat the Dergue [Mengistu Hailemariam�s military junta], they would follow the same principle.
2.14 Is there some justification for the attack of the ELF by the EPLF and TPLF, even from their perspective, since there are some claims that the ELF was preparing to the do the same to them? If not, how would you explain the extreme flip-flop type of relations you had with the EPLF and the TPLF in a matter of few years?
Nothing can justify that [the attack], because on the side of the ELF, there was no intention, plan or anything.
2.15 But doctor, after all the bloodshed, when you sit for dialogue, they must at least tell you why they attacked you, even if you don�t accept what they tell you. How could they at least not mention the cause for the assault?
Well, the TPLF says that they had differences of their own with the ELF and they claim they were not siding with the EPLF. They explain that it was natural that they would attack us when we were most vulnerable and weak.
2.16 According to them, The TPLF, you don�t have to believe them, just tell me what they think took them to the extent of an armed conflict?
Of course, we know there was a conspiracy between the TPLF and EPLF�
2.17 Doctor, when someone attacks you and you sit with him at a later time, he would tell you why he attacked you, regardless of the fact they you might accept it or not or whether it is justifiable or not. Why did they say they attacked you, specifically please? What were the points of difference with the TPLF?
It was mainly regarding the Eritreans living in Ethiopia, Tigrai... a dispute of land, the border. These were disputes that we had but we never thought they would lead to an armed conflict.
2.18 Still on the PENDING issues, in 1994, the Ethiopian government expelled the ELF from Ethiopia after jailing your cadres for months. Now you have good relations with them. Are you ever going to resolve the issues openly? Do you intend to keep every difference pending; don�t you feel the luggage getting heavier by the day? Why don�t you resolve it once and for all? What about the EPLF, why do they say the attacked you?
Even them, they say that they saw suspicious movements from two of our brigades in Sahel and thought that they were preparing to attack them. Therefore, they say, they wanted to take a pre-emptive strike: be the first to surprise us with an attack.
2.19 After liberation of Eritrea, the ELF-RC was bound to Asmara for dialogue with the EPLF, who was facilitating the meeting and what happened?
The contacts were direct. When we were about to leave for Asmara, we received a telegram from Eritrea and they told us that the meeting was postponed indefinitely. They might have had a sinister design for the delegation that was going to Eritrea to meet them. But the issue was internationalized and the international media announced that an ELF-RC delegation was flying to Asmara to meet the government. That might have frustrated their design and that might be why they cancelled the meeting.
2.20 Did the ELF-RC have any relations with the ELF [led by Abdella Idris]?
None�until the formation of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces [AENF]
2.21 How are your relations since the formation of the Alliance? Did you try to iron out your differences and resolve it or�. as usual, you are keeping it pending with the other unresolved issues?
We didn�t try from our side and he didn�t try on his side. Because there are unresolved issues, details of the coup d�etat. The important point here is that the Alliance of the opposition is more important; it is the priority. Because, if it was in Eritrea and the differences are treated as a political question then each goes about with his organization and remain as opposition parties. Now the priority is even more serious in two main aspects: (1) A situation has come about, where Eritrea�s continuity as a nation is at risk and (2) The risk of Eritrea being depopulated.
Firstly, in the Eritrean land, especially in the highlands, soil erosion is so severe that a plot of land that used to produce 10 sacks of grain twenty years ago, cannot produce two sacks today. The fertile land is eroded. The resource that should have protected the land is, on the contrary, being wasted. The fertile lands are being turned to rocky terrain.
Secondly, the people are being annihilated. Additionally, there is a risk of continuity, a gap of generation in the population: those who reached the age of marriage are not getting married at normal intervals; they are all involved in wars and services and cannot start a family, a guarantee for the continuation of the population. Then, we are lagging behind on production because many of the people in the age of productivity are physically disabled. We have to compare the level of productivity thirty years ago with now. Eritrea is now suffering of hunger and depending on foreign aid for wheat and flour.
Thirdly, we are lagging behind on education. Instead of going to schools, the opportunities of the youth are being wasted in Sawa. The youth are contacting their brothers, sisters, relatives and friends and asking them: �Please get me out of here!� The young generation is being eroded. The few educated are being lost to brain drain. Those abroad sink where they are, and those few educated who remain inside are preoccupied with the wish to get out. This is grave situation. The country, the land and the people are being wasted. In such a situation, it imperative for the opposition to address this situation with utmost urgency, to bring about a quick solution.
2.22 How would you go about a solution when all the opposition are being dragged by old grudges and unresolved issues; issues that never get resolved for years and remain in the ever-increasing pending folder?
The reality is, to solve an issue, there has to be willingness from the parties involved to resolve the issues. Those of us who were involved in the conflicts should come, sit and discuss our issues. This is one way of doing it. There is another way: first, establish a democratic system, with institutions. Parties should be formed. Then, these parties could bring about their grudges, their old conflict and agree to address them bilaterally or they could use the established democratic institutions to address the issues through a justice system.
2.23 Are you, the ELF-RC, ready to address these issues? And how would you classify these issues, say, how many percentage of that is personal grudges and how many percent is real political difference?
Honestly, we don�t believe in grudges...frankly speaking. To us there was always a priority: the country and the people. We set out to realize a free Eritrea. By �free�, we meant a country that would establish a democratic system. Anything that will hinder this process, we have a difference with.
2.24 So you are telling me that if there was a mechanism for you to sit with�say Abdella Idris or other organizations and solve the minor differences, are you ready?
Of course. It is only that when we start such approaches, we are fearful that it may hinder other processes within the alliance because of the sensitivity of the issues.
2.25 But you are ready?
Yes, because we believe we are right.
2.26 Then, are you ready to sit with the PFDJ?
Let me tell you candidly. PFDJ has its own history: it was set up for one goal and led by one individual. Now, there is a belief that there is a government in Eritrea and it should be replaced. I don�t accept that. There is nothing called �government� in Eritrea. When we say a government, it should have its own institutions, and the institutions should be working institutions. But in Eritrea, an individual acts at will, dreams of something and implements it on his own, and runs matters in a temperamental manner. There is no entity that runs the country with plans through institutions. Therefore, we are ready to open a dialogue with hzbawi gnbar (the people�s Front) as an organization, for example to realize democratic changes in Eritrea. But, Isaias is not ready to enter into a dialogue with us.
2.27 How about if he invites you for a dialogue, are you ready?
2.28 For a dialogue?
This individual is one we don�t trust, fundamentally.
2.29 But what if he invites you; will you tell him �we don�t trust you and we will not sit with you�?
Ahlan Wesahlan, let him come. If he wants to have a dialogue, let him come to a place we feel comfortable with�
2.30 You don�t have any other conditions?
We don�t have any condition since we believe in democratic development, he can come to us and we can�t say we will X him by refusing a dialogue. He has to state that he is willing to follow a national platform and not his individual platform. Right now, he is ruling the country, just like a foreigner would. Our wish for establishing a democratic rule in Eritrea is not yet realized. An individual should believe in the right of the Eritrean people to choose their leaders. Any individual coming to us should believe in this tenet. This individual [Isaias] has become an obstacle against this principle.
2.31 But you are ready to dialogue with anyone based on this principle?
2.32 After the independence of Eritrea, the ELF-RC had a presence in Ethiopia. A few years later, your cadres were jailed and deported and your organization was banned from operating in Ethiopia. In 1998, you re-established a relationship with the TPLF. Given the past record of resolving pending issues, did you just reestablish the relations by shelving previous issues, similar to what you did in the mid-eighties with both TPLF and EPLF, or you addressed and resolved past unresolved issues?
The issues are still pending. The past issues were not addressed and neither party put emphasis on the issues and said it is a priority that should be resolved. But both parties have an understanding that it should be resolved.
2.33 But what is the difference between something left for unlimited time and something that is forgotten: is it pending or forgotten? We are talking about issues some of which happened and are pending for more than twenty years; would it be correct to call it pending or forgotten?
We don�t want it to be forgotten; at least it should be studied and left for history. There is no recorded debate; recorded dialogue, recorded complaint and recorded replies that we can leave for history. Therefore, it is appropriate that we should arrive to an agreement on the things that should be left to history. But, as we say, we have priorities. The situation in Eritrea is urgent.
We should be able to solve a strategic question, because this individual, who says he is leading Eritrea, has ignited conflicts that are leaving a lot of strain. He has opened conflicts with all neighbors of Eritrea. Eritrea is suffering. He is liquidating the strategic reality of Eritrea; the conflict between the clique or �government� led by Isaias and between Ethiopia. Instead of the disagreement remaining a conflict between the military powers, it is becoming, or has become, a conflict between the people. For us, it is a devastating reality: for the Eritrean people and even for the Ethiopian people. It is a must that we place the conflict in its proper place. We are struggling to disengage the conflict, from being a conflict between the two people and place it in its proper place as a conflict between two systems. The relation between the Ethiopian and Eritrean people should not be a relation of grudges and bad blood but one of a cordial relation and a peaceful relation. We have to be able to address this issue.
2.34 I will still go back to resolving of issues: how long will you keep this pending whether to reach an agreement to resolve it, or properly leave it for history, will that wait for another twenty years to address it once and for all?
We are always ready to address and resolve it. If there is a wish and preparedness by the Ethiopian government and TPLF, we are ready. But if this will put us back on grudges and [misunderstandings], we don�t want it raised now. As I said before, we have a priority now, if solving it will not take us to peace and good relations, by solving it we will not wait for reparations or compensations. We will like to solve it and place it in its proper historical place and [work] towards cooperation in peace and cooperative development.
2.35 Isn�t it a hindrance for your organization to move on carrying all of the unresolved load, many pending? Isn�t it so heavy it requires unloading?
It depends how you treat it; it depends. You can record it and move on. You can go back to it when time is suitable.
3. The Future & The Way Out
3.1 You have an experience in diplomatic affairs. Eritrea has several circles of influence around it. The first circle being the neighboring countries, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Then you have the second circle that go as far as Egypt and the Gulf states and then you have Europe and USA and the rest of the world. How would you assess your relations with the different circles? Do you have relations and acceptance?
Well, Sudan, Yemen�there is a direct relation because they are close neighbors and, from time to time, there are contacts. Egypt and Gulf States, Syria� though there was an old relation with them, getting it to the old level has not been that successful yet. That is because the region has another priority, the Israel-Arab conflict. They don�t see the role of Eritrea in terms of PFDJ or ELF-RC or Abdella Idris�ELF, but they see it as a role of Eritrea from the global strategic point of view. For example, the way the Arab states are seeing Eritrea is in light of the negative influence of Isaias on relations. We haven�t asked them to help us or anything else; but we declare our position on all situations
3.2 But the Israeli-Arab conflict was there when the Eritrean revolution established relations with those countries. Could it be that the Eritrean government enjoys a strong presence in the neighboring countries and it is difficult for you to penetrate? One would think for any organization that comes from the traditional ELF would find it easy to penetrate the neighboring countries, how are you doing there?
It is true, even if we see the strong relations, we communicate with all countries. For example, we held two meetings of the revolutionary council in Syria. These countries follow the movements of the ELF-RC and the Alliance in general. It is very obvious their concern with what is happening in Eritrea. They have relations with the leader of the ruling party in Eritrea. Evidently, they understand that Eritrea deserves better than the current leader. But so far, though there is no serious discussion to open an office or ask for assistance, there is a cordial relations and it will develop. Our delegation moves frequently to all these countries and meets with authorities to explain developments in Eritrea.
There was a move by some countries to invest in Eritrea. Most were disappointed and held their investments. We explain that there should be a democratic system before one could invest. It is also important to see the balance of power. The power of the opposition should be strengthened. It must a reach a level that will give it international recognition. There are efforts being carried out and we hope to produce something.
3.3 How about Europe?
It is different. There you can go, without invitation, and meet with anyone easily. You can meet foreign ministries, you can meet their parliament and all the parties and do you job. It is very successful there.
3.4 How do you fund your operations? For example, who funded your trip?
Our funding is from our members. For example, I work; I paid for my ticket. I know the resources of the organization. When a person who earns one thousand dollars is paying a contribution, there is no reason why I cannot pay for my ticket when I earn more that that.
3.5 A year ago, when we interviewed Seyoum Ogbamichael [head of International Office of ELF-RC], he said, �Eritrea needs political pluralism and not military pluralism�. Is the Alliance moving with its military pluralism or there are some changes?
The military wing that will be established in Eritrea has two plans. Firstly, the orientation that is given to the military is that it is being formed to protect the democratic institutions of future Eritrea and its sovereignty. Secondly, we as an opposition, when we move about to talk to the people in Eritrea, we use the military wing to protect those who are conducting orientations. Additionally, the Eritrean Army is part of the Eritrean people. In a time when the Eritrean people are facing hardships and difficulties, and the people decide to unseat the individual that is causing all this, the people will have the backing of the army that will protect them.
It is true that different organizations have different armed groups; but the plan is to have a military that will develop in unison based on one orientation.
3.6 What is the size of your military wing?
[Laughs] This is an organizational secret, I can�t tell you the size. But, our military wing is not being trained to attack or confront the Eritrean Army. On the contrary, it is a support to the conscious part of the army that would decide to uproot the system. It is an army that has a clear responsibility.
3.7 Theoretically, military is all about power. If you were to say �I have an army of ten soldiers�, this is not like saying �I have an army of several thousand soldiers.�
Our people should understand--and when we explain in diplomatic circles we have to clarify that--we do not have any wish for a civil war in Eritrea. On the contrary, it is a defensive military wing that will protect our political power that moves inside Eritrea. We don�t have any intention or plans to form an army so that we can attack the Eritrean army and take power. It is to protect the political orientation that should develop and spread over Eritrea; a guarantee for the safety of the political movement.
3.8 Don�t you see that there is a risk in having an army with no central command and with loyalty to its own party spread all over the country?
I don�t see any risk in the current situation. I see a risk in the army set by Isaias, one which has different directions, that is where I see the risk. Because, if Isaias� army disintegrates, it may spread on the established groups and maybe considered a power for different entities. To avoid this, we have already formulated a plan to form one national army to protect the democratic institution that will be established in Eritrea. The plan is there and we are pushing to execute it.
3.9 What brings you to the USA?
First, I came to the USA, to meet with my colleagues who are here, and to see the development here and to explain the developments of the organization. On top of that, I have a private affair related to my work. What brought me here are different affairs. I will hold general meetings with members of different organization. I have also plans to meet different institutions on the government of this country [USA]; I will also try to meet other institution.
3.10 Do you have formal relations with the government of the USA?
Well, there will be formal contacts; there has always been a continuous contact with different institutions of the government; it is still continuing. Since 1989, when I first visited here, I have held many contacts and it has not stopped. It is continuing.
3.11 In the mid sixties, an American official met Ato Tedla Bairu [the first Chief Executive of Eritrea�s Government during its Federation with Ethiopia.] The official was given instructions not to make the meeting formal or public in order not to antagonize the then American ally, Haile Sellasie and not to give a false hope to the ELF. Is there something like that now in your relations with the USA?
Speaking for myself, there is nothing I know of or heard of. Whatever meetings there are, we publish them on our newsletters, we raise it in our discussions, and we talk of how we would develop it� and we inform our members about it. Therefore, we don�t have secret meetings or unexplained contacts that are not publicized.
3.12 What would you forecast about the developments, one year from now?
Eritreans, especially those abroad, are getting more conscious and are recognizing the hardships and sufferings inside Eritrea, and that the individual leadership should be replaced by a government; and that democratic institutions should be established in Eritrea. This is very much observed specially by the educated class. Now, observing that situations have reached to the extent that necessitates holding meetings and, within a short period, holding a conference on the national level is being discussed. This development is very interesting.
The individual who claims to be leading Eritrea has two or three tools. Fist is prison, second is his security apparatus and third, in the field of diplomacy, is his lies. With those tools, it is almost impossible to lead a country and a people and form international relations. For a short time, he may deceive; for a short time he may suppress the Eritrean people and rule, but obviously, that will not carry him for too long.
I wish there would be a change in Eritrea soon�it is not only a dream, it is being witnessed all over. Developments are going on and he is giving up and in confusion. His tools from Alpha to Omega have been lies, he has been giving the Eritrean people false promises� and to the world, propaganda of lies.
For example, he had an interview with AlJezeera [TV in Qatar]; it was all lies from A to Z. I asked some circles what they thought of the interview. They said, �this is not a leader, he shouldn�t think of himself as a leader�. Observers who followed the Arabic program have reached this conclusion. There are many who visited Eritrea, and all governments have reports about the Eritrean situation. What he said was propaganda of lies and to skim the little assistance that he gets from abroad. They understand that he doesn�t care about Eritrea. He is being exposed in the diplomatic side. We all know the steps that Europe has taken against him. The Arab countries are holding their hands and he is in conflict with African countries: no African country wants a friendship and relation with him.
Therefore, his downfall is being clearly seen, but the opposition should take urgent and developed steps. The members of the organizations should be organized, wherever they are, and carry out important tasks in the democratic developments. I expect change in the near future.
3.13 What about the relations of the USA and Eritrea?
This is a diplomatic and delicate issue. It is not based on plans with America but, from what I see and observe, especially in the media in the Middle East, his relations with Israel is getting stronger and he is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The political program of the region is designed not only by America but also mainly by Israel. The plan in Eritrea is associated with Israel; it is difficult for America to reject it automatically. This point is not an issue for public opinion and it doesn�t disturb the Eritrean people; we are concerned with our internal issues and how we solve it. Thereafter, the diplomatic and foreign affairs should follow the path that we choose. Even America is not pleased with what is happening inside Eritrea.
3.14 We will finish here� anything else?
The Eritrean issue is moving on a fast pace. Urgent change is needed. I was saying that if the issues in Eritrea were only political, the opposition chair is very comfortable...you criticize and accuse and get involved in rectifying and changing�even to get hold of power�that is the job of an opposition. But in Eritrea it is different: it is about salvation. It is between salvaging and demise. Our land needs salvage; otherwise, we will be eradicated. Our people need salvage; otherwise there is demise. In such an urgent situation, anyone who sees himself as a responsible one should be organized in this opposition and form a combined plan to salvage the country from the demise that I mentioned earlier by establishing a democratic system.
3.15 Thank you, doctor.
GO To PART 1
On Founding the UNESCO School in Kessela
"I brought the argument that UNHCR helped FRELIMO set up a school in Dar EsSellam to educate Mozambique youth and children, why would they no do the same for us"
On The Role Of The Opposition
��if the issues in Eritrea were only political, the opposition chair is very comfortable. You criticize and accuse and get involved in rectifying and changing�even to get hold of power�that is the job of an opposition. But in Eritrea it is different: it is about salvation. It is between salvaging and demise. Our land needs salvage; otherwise, we will be eradicated. Our people need salvage; otherwise there is demise. In such an urgent situation, anyone who sees himself as a responsible one should be organized in this opposition and form a combined plan to salvage the country from the demise that I mentioned earlier by establishing a democratic system.�
On the �Eritrean Government�
Now, there is a belief that there is a government in Eritrea and it should be replaced. I don�t accept that. There is nothing called �government� in Eritrea.
On �The Eritrean Field Could Not Accommodate More Than One Organization�
The slogan of �no more than one organization� is not because the field cannot accommodate more than one organization; it was intent to promote unity.
When the Ethiopian offensive was intensified, we gave the EPLF some arms; heavy equipment that they didn�t have�anti-aircraft guns for example�We never were driven by hate or vengeance. Let alone the EPLF, we stated to have relations with even the TPLF, the organization that attacked us by siding with the EPLF, because of one principle: they assured us that they unequivocally support the right of the Eritrean people for self- determination.
On ELF-RC conflict with TPLF
It was mainly regarding the Eritreans living in Ethiopia, Tigrai... a dispute of land, the border. These were disputes that we had but we never thought they would lead to an armed conflict.
On Reconciling with Abdella Idris
We didn�t try from our side and he didn�t try on his side. Because there are unresolved issues, details of the coup d�etat.
On Why Eritrea Needs Salvation
In the Eritrean land, especially in the highlands, soil erosion is so severe that a plot of land that used to produce 10 sacks of grain twenty years ago, cannot produce two sacks today We have to compare the level of productivity thirty years ago with now. Eritrea is now suffering of hunger and depending on foreign aid for wheat and flour. Those abroad sink where they are, and those few educated who remain inside are preoccupied with the wish to get out. This is grave situation
On Military Pluralism
Firstly, the orientation that is given to the military is that it is being formed to protect the democratic institution of future Eritrea and its sovereignty. Secondly, we as an opposition, when we move about to talk to the people in Eritrea, we use the military wing to protect those who are conducting orientations�. Our people should understand, and when we explain in diplomatic circles, we have to clarify that we do not have any wish for a civil war in Eritrea.
On Reconciling With Isaias
Right now, he is ruling the country, just like a foreigner would�An individual should believe in the right of the Eritrean people to choose their leaders. Any individual coming to us should believe in this tenet, this individual [Isaias] has become an obstacle against this principle.
On The Tools Isaias Uses To Stay In Power
The individual who claims to be leading in Eritrea has two or three tools. Fist is prison, second is his security apparatus and third, in diplomacy, is his lies. With those tools, it is almost impossible to lead a country and a people and form international relations. For a short time, he may deceive, for a short time he may suppress the Eritrean people and rule, but obviously, that will not carry him for too long.
On The USA-Isaias Relationship
It is not plans with America, but from what I see and observe, especially in the media in the Middle East, his relations with Israel is getting stronger and he is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The political program of the region is designed not only by America but also mainly by Israel. The plan in Eritrea is associated with Israel; it is difficult for America to reject it automatically. This point is not an issue for public opinion and it doesn�t disturb the Eritrean people; we are concerned with our internal issues and how we solve it. Thereafter, the diplomatic and foreign affairs should follow the path that we choose. Even America is not pleased with what is happening inside Eritrea.