Eritrea’s New Symbol of “Progress”: Print E-mail
By Prof. Habtu Ghebre-Ab - Jun 26, 2007   

“The Gel'alo Building …is built in a rocky sea-side location in the eastern out-skirt of the town. It has 41 rooms and 16 restrooms. It is built at a cost of Nfa 9.7 million... The manpower comprised members of national service under the Warsai-Yikalo campaign.

Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?

And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right" Martin Luther King

Recently, I received a letter from Eritrea. If you are like me, one of the first things you would stop to take notice of is often the stamps on the envelope. The stamp has a way of encapsulating a nation’s views of itself – what it thinks defines its ethos. They are the smallest artistic expression of either a country’s pride in its past - such as important monuments - its present achievements or of its future aspirations. Stamps are the smallest billboards, if you will, to “sell” a destination. They are, in short, a country’s calling cards, a snap-shot of what a country says are distinctive and noteworthy about itself.

What grabbed my attention to the particular group of stamps on the envelope from Eritrea was the side-view picture of a well-developed Eritrean young male carrying, in an awkward posture, a rather heavy stone on his back. The frame of the young man in the picture is slightly bent over under the weight as he lurches forward with certain purposefulness towards an unseen destination to unload his sorry burden.

As I stood by the mailbox, puzzled and trying to make some sense of the symbolism - what the image was supposed to represent - I recalled seeing sometime back another picture of a life-size statue standing on a raised pedestal on the front lawn of a hotel-like edifice in a town called Gel’alo somewhere along the new road between Massawa and Assab.  Lo and behold! The picture on the stamps is the same wretched figure as that statue.

A working man does not have enough time in a day to try to figure out the meanings and symbolisms of a stone-carrying human being in commemoration of whose miserable life a stamp has been issued and a statue erected. In some very general sense, I found the whole matter unsettling. But the meaning and the message the image is supposed to convey simply eluded me. This, I felt, was best left to philatelists - stamp collectors, that is - and art critics, and went about my life.  

But the stone-carrying figure had no intention of leaving me alone. On a recent leisurely visit to a friend’s house, I had an occasion to have a taste of Eri-TV programming, a satellite television program of the government of Eritrea that targets Eritreans in the Diaspora. As the lady of the house busied herself preparing tea, the television was blaring in the family-room, where I was seated. Eri-TV was on. As I tried to follow one of the signature vignettes of the program, I saw a racing film clip, reminiscent of government propaganda films of China’s cultural- revolution-style “national achievements”.  Right in the middle of the rushing images, a grainy, silhouette of a figure passed over the television screen. It was the same young man walking with a large stone on his shoulder. I was stunned at another unexpected rendezvous with the stone-carrying young man. Confronted with this disturbing image yet again, I did not know what to make of the encounter. This was no longer a small, colorful and polished image on a stamp or a perfectly chiseled, life-size statue in the middle of a well-tended flower garden with a water fountain in a desert-like surrounding. No, this was a young man with a pastel-colored overall (It could have been a military uniform) carrying the same rock on his right shoulder in a more realistic gait.  There was one stark difference, though. The young man in a military cap was a living, breathing and sweating human being, seemingly hoeing at his daily chore. I don’t exactly know where this young man was hauling the stone to or for what purpose. Be that as it may, at that moment, one thing became clear to me – a haunting epiphany of a sort.

The stone-carrying figure, the new ubiquitous national symbol of Eritrea that is being foisted upon an exhausted nation symbolizes a disturbingly new direction for the nation. From the brief description of the statue of the stone-carrying young man, which I had to go back and search for further elucidation, it is, without any doubt, an official representation of the life of the so-called “warsai” – the post-independence generation of Eritreans. [Read the caption of the statue above]. My heart dropped to my knees at discovering that the poor “warsai” is now being represented in an archaic practice in Abyssinia that stood for submission and humiliation. In the Ethiopian empire of the late 19th century, there were at least two major instances where a junior king submitted to an emperor by approaching him with a stone on his back as a sign of contrite submission.       

I wish this new symbol was a young man or a woman in a white coat with a stethoscope slung over the shoulder or a student in a science laboratory raising a test tube to an eye level for careful observation of the content, as I have seen on some other nation’s stamps. In fact, any thing else, but a stone-carrying human being would do. The odd character, the new Eritrean hero, does not at all represent a new frontier in a nation’s forward march. It seems to represent something archaic and sinister. It seems to depict backwardness, something difficult for the human mind to be drawn to in admiration of. It has, for instance, none of the admirable qualities of the famous American “Rosie the Riveter” – a propaganda poster of the World War II era that was meant to represent a ground-breaking role for women in the American society of that period.

The achievements of any society at any given time is rarely judged quite as much by some specific and isolated acts; rather by the overall direction it sets for itself and the trends and the tenor that characterize the over-all direction over some period of time. In the initial 5-7 years of Eritrea’s independence, a period of rapturous euphoria, the Eritrean people might not have been necessarily wrong in giving their new government a “blank check” in so far as its governance was concerned. Except for a decidedly minority of people with foresight and ability to discern, the overwhelming majority of Eritreans only looked at finally being able to live in peace and taste what it meant to be a citizen of  independent Eritrea. The overall direction was not one that might have caused too much consternation either. It seemed as though an era of constitutional democracy was slowly unfolding. Independent media, even if haltingly, was flourishing. Unstoppable market economy seemed to be the order of the day. Universal access to education and health care seemed achievable goals. Higher education was being revamped.  Such seemed the general direction and the trend of this brand-new nation. Nevertheless, in hind-sight, even then, there were signs of fragility in the system.

Even during 1998-2000, the years that tried the resolve of the nation to its farthest limit, the overall trend did not seem to change dramatically. The people within the country and in the Diaspora, attributing to exegesis of war even to the obvious oddities and shortcomings of the ruling regime, rallied as never before in defense of the country’s independence.

As the dust of that devastating war settled, however, the people began to call for accountability and the fulfillment of the promises of the struggle. There were, to be sure, those Eritrean intellectuals, academics and notable citizens - the so-called G-13 – who called attention to the ominous signs of a change in direction, and prescribed a bold set of corrective remedies.  These were the first group of brave Eritreans who were willing to collectively break with a deep-rooted tradition in Eritrea that is steeped in not questioning authority. In so doing, not only did they discharge their historic responsibility, but also touched the conscience of a nation.  There was that famous and prescient article of Mr. SalehYounis towards the war’s end which shed bright light on the immediate task of “house cleaning” as soon as peace returned. Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie, the scholar-statesman extraordinaire, and others publicly and thoughtfully laid out to the nation the dangers of the non-implementation of the constitution that was ratified in 1997, but was shelved away by the president to gather dust. Mr. Te’ame Beyene, the former President of the High Court, took a public stand by sounding an alarm-bell on the untoward encroachment of the President’s office and eventual take-over of the judicial branch of the government. Students of the University of Asmara rose up in defiance and demanded the end to the practice of unremunerated forced labor of the youth by the government. The young and vibrant private press fearlessly publicized the cause of democracy in Eritrea. The highly public call by a group of high government officials, known as the G-15, to hand power over to the people was perhaps the most climactic event in the cause of democracy.

These were sure steps in the political maturity of the people. But nothing could have prepared the Eritrean people for the events of September 2001, a period which marked a decisive turn in the general direction of the Eritrean government. Amidst the growing demand of the citizens for democracy, what followed was the swift action of the ruling clique in the arrogating of all power – legislative, executive and judicial - in the hands of one man – President Isaias Afewerki.      

The direction the government of Mr. Isaias Afewerki chose at this critical juncture in Eritrea’s short history as an independent nation became that of complete autocracy and the subordination of Eritrea’s national interest to the interests of one man’s insatiable appetite for power. Alas, it became crystal clear to everyone that the president had become a law unto himself. It has been said that every revolution begins with the power of an idea and ends when clinging to power is the only idea left. This became a fitting ode and the defining characteristic of the regime. From here on, Eritrea’s political climate became repressive to the extreme, to be compared only with the likes of North Korea.  Mussolini’s motto: “Nothing above the state; nothing against the state; and nothing outside the state” became the ruling creed. To this effect, anyone who showed the slightest independence of thought – let alone any intimation of opposition – was brutally silenced. The country was soon turned into an African gulag, ruled with ever increasing sadistic cruelty. In a very short span of time Eritrea was turned into a magnified Robben Island, the notorious prison off the coast of South Africa where opponents of the Apartheid system were shipped off for a long and harsh imprisonment - to a life of hard labor, a life of breaking rocks.

The symbolism of the strange, stone-carrying persona that is being stealthily idealized and glamorized as the new heroic figure for Eritrea speaks volumes. It is a metaphor for reducing Eritrea’s youth to an expendable commodity – good for only carrying stones. It explains why an entire generation of young people is denied higher education. It is emblematic of what the government thinks the new role of Eritrea’s youth, the so-called “warsai” generation, to be. It adds insult to a grievous injury. In this new, dark vision that can only be dreamed up by morbid minds, the education of science and technology no longer has a place. What is often being referred to us knowledge-based economy is rejected in favor of the drudgery of breaking and hauling stone.   

This re-adoption of a variance of the Italian native-education policy in Eritrea - a minimalist education, if you will - a system designed for keeping the youth as mere errand boys and girls at the service of a repressive regime at times seems well thought out in its conception and implementation. But that is only an illusion. The myriad of contradictory decrees by which the country has been ruled betray the whimsical, erratic and unpredictable character of the man at the helm - the new Duce of Eritrea.

In this new direction, the youth of Eritrea are condemned to a life of servitude.  Seeing the fate to which they are consigned by a ruthless system, the stone-carrying figure, I have concluded, is a monument for a future that is being stolen from the young. It is a portrait of a country the PFDJ (the ruling regime in Eritrea) has turned into a wasteland of human potential. It is a perverse symbol of a lost vision, a system bereft of direction. And this new twisted vision is intended – yes, intended - to produce a nation that is barren intellectually, backward technologically, dead spiritually and degenerate morally.   

Now that the grim future of the “warsai” is clearly laid out before us and a pitiful monument is erected for such a cruel and inhuman designs on a generation of people, an occasion to which I was invited a couple of weeks ago provided me with yet another back drop for comparative reflection. The occasion was a graduation ceremony of a group of young Eritreans in the city where I live and work. Most of these high-school graduates were born and raised in this country – the United States. As parents, relatives and the community at large gathered to celebrate their achievements and to wish the small group of “Diasporic warsai” a great future, I thought of the hundreds of thousands of the “warsai” in Eritrea.  The young people whose graduation we celebrated have a bright future, one that is limited only by one’s own imagination and personal choices. For them, the sky is the limit. On the other hand, the hundreds of thousands of the youth in Eritrea are cursed to a life of stone hauling.       

I observed the joy of the parents among the crowd of well-wishers. I have known most of the young graduates since their birth and followed with keen interest their maturity into the fine young men and women they have blossomed. Lest I be misunderstood, I shared this special moment of their lives with a sense of hope and optimism for the future.

There was another sad dimension to all this, though. Among the parents who have worked so hard to lay the necessary foundation to see their children reap the fruit of their labor, and are now proud to see them go off to bigger and better things, there were PFDJ members and supporters of the ruling government in Eritrea. Some can be classified as diehard and others nominal members, just tag-alongs. They support the PFDJ as a system, the system that has so cruelly robbed and exploited the vigor of the nation’s youth.

Curiously enough, I have yet to see one PFDJ supporter in the Diaspora who, while extolling the non-existent virtues of the government of Mr. Isaias Afewerki, is willing to sacrifice the future of their offspring by sending a son or a daughter to Eritrea for a life of stone-breaking and stone-hauling. No, the wish for their own children is to sore like eagles to greater heights and enjoy the great opportunities this country affords. I don’t fault them for that. It is, after all, what I wish for my own children – my “warsai” generation children. What saddens me beyond any words I can possibly muster, however, is this: supporters of the regime blindly follow a government that has reduced the entire youth of Eritrea to a miserable life of stone-breaking and hauling. In this they have become complicit in the awful crime of our generation.  These supporters of the regime believe that such life should be the lot for the children of those in Eritrea. As for their own kin, many of the same folk have managed to extricate as many of them as they could afford from the jaws of the very regime they support. What a perverse sense of justice, to wish on someone else’s children – often the children of the anonymous poor - what one would never wish for one’s own!

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Last Updated ( Jun 26, 2007 )
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