Berhane Yemane, aka "Hanjema," was recently elected as the chairman of the Central Leadership of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA.) We recently had a conversation with Berhane, who also chairs the opposition group Se.De.Ge.E. (ERDF), inviting him to introduce himself to our readers. The interview covers his service in the Eritrean Liberation Front (1977-80), his capture by the TPLF or Weyane (1980), his enlistment as Political Commissar (1980-1990), his role in De.me.Ha.e and Se.de.ge.e and his recent election to the chairmanship of the legislative arm of the EDA. We asked for a photo to accompany this interview but....answer found below. Saleh Younis conducted the interview by phone, on Sunday, 3/27/05. (Any typos in names of places and individuals are entirely those of the interviewer.)
I have always been curious about this: how did you get the nickname �hanjema� [insatiable]? Is that a childhood nickname?
No, it was 1978, when I was with the ELF [Eritrean Liberation Front.] We were in Alafen, by SelaE DaEro. We were at war: the Derg was trying to get to Mendefera. It was a major war [in 78-79, the Derg initiated a massive campaign, assisted by Soviet Bloc nations, and reoccupied all the major towns that the ELF and EPLF had liberated the previous year.] One of my colleagues called me �hanjema� then and there. And it stuck.
OK. I would like to get a brief background on you, specifically your role in Eritrea�s revolution. Let�s begin with your parents full name.
My father is Yemane Hailu. And my mother is Haregeweyni Abraha. In 1977, I joined the ELF from the vicinity of Adi Keyh�
Let me interrupt. I always ask this question of people: why ELF and not EPLF or vice versa, whenever I learn of the enlistment decision of our veterans. Tell me about yours?
There wasn�t that kind of consciousness where you made those kinds of conscious decisions, when you are 16 or 17. At my age, from my background, to struggle meant to join the ELF. All our elderly brothers had joined the ELF. More than anything, we were driven by national sentiments and the need to avoid the Derg, which was hunting down people our age.
In any event, there was no EPLF in 1977 in my vicinity. A year later, they appeared in Arret, Segeneiti and Adi Keyih, when the ELF was in Hazemo, Tsorona, Shmejana. But not in 1977.
I enlisted in 1977 at Tamde [correction: Semdee], by Berhenet/Aret. And I was sent to Sawa for training. Along with about 300 others, I was enrolled in the �Martyred Dr Yahiya Jaber� school, where I completed a course as a medic.
We were told that �Enda Sabbe� [derisive name of PLF, Popular Liberation Forces splinter group led by Osman Saleh Sabbe] are in Akurdet and we should engage them in battle. We went there, about 40 of us. Twenty-eight of us were wounded, and sent back to Sawa. As for the rest of us, they wanted to send us to Kerkebet to attend commando training. They wanted to send us to Forto. We refused.
How did they deal with that?
They labeled us �mutemerdeen� [dessenters] and we were assigned to Brigade 61, which was led by martyr Weldedawit [Assasinated in Sudan in 1981], Battalion 107, which was led by Mahmoud Ali Ibrahim [now with RC.] I was in company 3. I was the company medic. I was assigned to the Seraye and Akeleguzay area.
In the interest of saving time, let�s talk only about the events that shaped your views in the ELF or events you consider noteworthy.
In 1978, we were sent to resolve an issue, peacefully, with Militia Dembelas. We tried for some time; we did not succeed. In 1979, when they tried to limit the free movement of the ELF, [military] steps were taken against them. The rest either joined the EPLF or the Derg.
Also at the same time, the tension between the ELF and the h.we.Ha.t [Tigrigna acronym for TPLF, Tigray People�s Liberation Front, �Weyane� for short, the nucleus of the ruling party in Ethiopia] was getting increasingly worse. In the environs of Tsorona, there were four villages that the two sides were laying a claim to and�
Could you tell me the name of the four villages?
Oh, yes. These are the same villages that even now are points of contention� they are Teb�A, Ona Sh�haq, Qobo Brdo and Adi Kutu.
The conflicts and the stare downs kept escalating. In February 1979, we engaged the TPLF in a battle in Mai Hamato, which is just past Beles. We held some of their prisoners of war as captives. There are things you do that nag your conscience later on�
Such as the way we treated the prisoners of war. There are things you do in anger that you regret later. But the conflicts and stare downs continued. There was one, for example, in Welkait. Anyway, in 1980, we were stationed in Seb�O. And we were ambushed�
When was this?
This was in March 1980. It was in the morning of Hamus tSigbo right as we were having breakfast. We were only three platoons. The TPLF employed entire battalions with mechanized arms. We had to retreat. While we were withdrawing towards Tsorona, I was hit, first on my shoulder. A second bullet shattered my knee, and a third grazed my head. I passed out.
Just for historic accuracy, for reference: who was the leader of your company at the time of the battle?
The company had three platoons. Ordinarily, it was led by Zemzemia, but he wasn�t there on that day, so it was led by his deputy, Uqbai. I don�t know his father�s name, we used to call him Ugbai �Jebjeb.�
Ok, let�s continue�
When I regained consciousness, I saw the TPLF carrying me on a stretcher. I was a prisoner of war. They took me to a place called Yeka�al, by Adwa, to be treated for my wounds. It was three to four months later, while I was still in rehabilitation, that the big assault began�
You mean the combined EPLF-TPLF attack against ELF? How did that make you feel?
As an Eritrean, of course it hurts you. But in my stay at ELF, I had come to the conclusion that although the ELF leadership was big on sloganeering about democracy and unity it took no tangible steps to bring them about. It was not democratic, questions asked of leadership were always being studied, but we never got back an answer. As for unity, in fact, much of its steps were geared towards inciting civil war�.
Can you give me an example?
In 1979. There was an area where the ELF and the EPLF had some truce, following their conflicts. The ELF was in Hazemo/Mai Aini. And the EPLF was around Mai Edaga, Dekemhare. Yet, the ELF dispatched us, a company, to the area that was clearly in the hands of the EPLF. A battle ensued. It was that kind of reactivation of simmering conflicts.
So your feelings were souring on the ELF leadership?
It began earlier. Earlier I told you about how we had refused the order to go for commando training? What had happened was, we were sent to Forto, Ela Abdela (in the vicinity of Tessenei.) There I met, for the first time, members of Falul [a pejorative word for �anarchy� for a movement within the ELF that emerged in the late 1970s. Its official name was EDM.] They were there because they had been sentenced to labor camps. Now when we were all sent to Mendefera�they were in Batallion 149�I grew close with them. We became close friends. Although I never once thought of leaving the ELF, I sympathized with the issues raised by Falul�
That the measures the ELF were taking contributed to the escalation of civil war; that the solution was democratic and not stare downs. In short the issues of unity and democracy.
Ok, back to your hospitalization.
I was hospitalized between April and August 1980. When I completed my rehabilitation, the TPLF gave me four choices. They said you are among friends, and you have choices. They could send me to Sudan, they could send me home, they could send me to the EPLF or I could join the TPLF�
You explained why your sentiments about the ELF were cooling off�
� well they had weaknesses. And in my state of mind, I thought about stories I had heard as a child in Adi Keyh. How they burned down a village, because they were not happy that one village or another had given support to the Popular Forces [the precursor to the EPLF] or to Ethiopians. Villages like DerA were burnt to the ground.
And the EPLF? Why wouldn�t you join the EPLF?
That was never, ever a consideration. When I was with the ELF, the EPLF used to say things like Amma Haradit shewate Kara entezeykones shewate lama alewa (If ELF the butcher does not have seven knives, it will at least have seven razor blades.) [Amma was pejorative, derived from Qiada Al Amma, Arabic for General Command, the leadership of the ELF.]
What did the expression mean and why did it offend you?
The slur was that the ELF killed people for no reason (the butcher claim) and that they were so self-indulgent, they had lotions, soaps, and toiletries. This, at a time, when all I knew was total deprivation, was very insulting to me. And I had always suspicions that it was a fascistic organization.
So no ELF, no EPLF. But why TPLF?
The third choice, going back to my home, or retiring to Sudan was out of the question. I wanted to struggle. Politically, to me, the goal of democracy was empowering the proletariat and the worker. In which country and how you implement this ideology was dictated by the particularities of each country. I had been observing the TPLF while in rehabilitation. First of all, I was impressed by their firm stand on the issue of Eritrean independence. People now forget how revolutionary and brave it was then for an Ethiopian movement to advocate Eritrean independence. I admired their relationship with the people. I liked the relationship between the rank and file and the leadership. I was impressed by how humanely they treated their prisoners of war.
Other Eritreans who were with me and finished their rehabilitation before me left and told me, �we are joining the EPLF. We will see you there.� I said, �we�ll see.�
I enlisted as a combatant with the TPLF in August 1980.
As a medic?
No! I never liked being a medic. The TPLF knew that that was my background but I told them I am not interested. I just did not want to work in health services. I was assigned in 055, Kifli Ide Tbeb�Department of crafts. I was in the transportation division, working at their garage.
Beginning in 1983, through 1986, I was a political commissar. In 1986, there was re-structuring, and I was assigned as a Zoba [Region] Political Commissar, in the surrounds of Shire. Then there was another restructuring, in Adiyabo, and I was its political commissar. In 1989, I was in charge of political orientation of students.
Now, two years earlier, in 1987, De.ma.Ha.e. [an off-shoot of Eritrean Democratic Movement, or Falul. De.ma.Ha.e is the TigriNa acronym which translates to Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea] began mobilizing in the surroundings of Tigray. I established contact with its membership, who gave me a copy of its political program and charter. It called for democracy led by the proletariat and worker; banning the sale of land and transfer of its ownership, a program of popular democracy, a program that believed in Eritrean sovereignty, free from external interference. I believed that this would place future Eritrea on a path of development. I liked it and wanted to be a part of it.
Due to the similarity of the political programs of De.ma.Ha.e and TPLF, many people believe that it, De.ma.Ha.e, was actually a satellite of TPLF. That it was formed by TPLF�
Well, this is simply not true. Falul was a thoroughly Eritrean phenomenon. They may have been hasty, but their calls were for democracy and against civil war. They were attacked for their beliefs. The leadership of De.ma.Ha.E. were ELF members through and through; they were people who had established a reputation as men of valor. Men like wedi Zere, who was chief of security of Aministration #8 [ELF had numeric codes for the administrative zones of Eritrea]; people like martyr Giorghis, people like Zekarias, people like Mezgebe. Secondly, their program was not identical. The TPLF believed that Ethiopia was suffering under ethnic oppression and that ethnic groups should have a right of self-determination up to secession. There was no similar program in De.ma.ha.E. De.ma.ha.E did not believe that there was �ethnic oppression� in Eritrea, nor did it call for the right of self-determination up to secession.
Ok. So you joined them?
Not immediately. I stayed with the TPLF until September 1990.
Is that when Tigray was liberated?
No, that is not what I was waiting for! (laughs.) I wanted to join in 1988, but I had just been reassigned by the TPLF to another position. Leaving then would have appeared that I was protesting my re-assignment. I thought the prudent thing to do was to wait a year.
There was another development. In August 1990, Adi Keyh was liberated by the EPLF. I wanted to visit my family, and I was given a 10-day leave by the TPLF. Going from Adi Grat to Adi Keyh was incident-free. But two days after my arrival in Adi Keyh, I was approached by EPLF security. They directed me to go to Senafe the next day and get paperwork approving my visit to Adi Keyh. I think they suspected that I was a De.Ma.Ha.E. member. Well, I didn�t go to Senafe as told. On Day 4, I was accused of holding the EPLF in contempt and ordered to go to Senafe. On Day 5, I was in Senafe. My paperwork was not approved. Now, remember, I only had a 10-day leave to visit my family.
In my short stay there, I came to the conclusion that a country led by the EPLF would never amount to anything good.
When I came back to Ethiopia, the viewpoint was that the demise of the Derg would happen within months, not years. Planning had begun on post-Derg Ethiopia, and the TPLF did not want the Eritrean members to leave. I could have stayed and maybe gotten a senior position, like other Eritreans. For example, the Ethiopian Minister of Information, Bereket Simon, is an Eritrean...
But my case was different. I had joined an Eritrean front, ELF, and it was only circumstances that resulted in my ending up with the TPLF. All my thinking was about Eritrea. So I gave official notice that I did not want to stay, that I have found an Eritrean organization that believes as I do. In September 1990, I joined De.ma.ha.e. That is when I met Mezgebe Gebrehiwet (martyred) and Yohannes Asmelash, who is in your part of the world.
Ok. So we are in the 1990s. Independence, Referendum�
Following independence, De.ma.ha.e, like all Eritrean opposition organizations, called for the establishment of a transitional government and laying the groundwork for political pluralism. The answer we received was that there could be no talk of this until Eritrea�s independence is legalized, and formalized in a referendum.
The position of De.ma.ha.e was that although we suspect that this is just a ploy to buy time, we should, nonetheless, contribute our share to ensure that the ballot box of �yes to independence� was as full as could be. We dropped our weapons and said that the struggle for democracy should be pursued peacefully and legally. Beginning from our chairman, [Gebreberhan] Wedi Zerie, all the way to our rank and file, we did all we could to contribute towards the referendum process.
But, by nature, the EPLF is a power-monopolizing, fascistic organization. Political pluralism contradicts with its inherent nature, a nature that makes it the enemy of the people.
In 1996, while in Desse [Ethiopia] conducting political mobilization, Zekarias Negusse was killed by agents of the Eritrean regime. Also in February 1997, Gebreberhan Zerie was kidnapped by the security forces of the regime, and his whereabouts is still unknown.
Now I think I was familiar with De.ma.ha.e. But where did Se.De.Ge.E. [Tigrigna acronym for Eritrean Revolutionary Democratic Front] come from?
I�ll have to take you back a couple of years earlier. In September 1995, Saghem [one of the groups that was formed when ELF was pushed to Sudan, with a slogan of returning to the Eritrean field. Eventually some joined the EPLF, and some maintained their autonomy and were known as Saghem Qesel (Saghem continued).] splintered into two. You may know Abdella Mahmoud? He was with the splinter group. The splinter group and De.Ma.Ha.E. merged and formed Se.De.Ge.E
I understand. Going back to the killing of Zekarias Negusse and the kidnapping of Wedi Zerie. Both of these incidents happened in Ethiopia. How is it possible for the EPLF to move about freely, armed, inside Ethiopia to kill and kidnap your colleagues? Could this have happened without the consent of TPLF?
Politically, there is more strategic depth in the relationship between TPLF and Se.de.ge.E. But the EPRDF [the ruling party of Ethiopia which was formed by the coalition of TPLF and other ethnic-rights groups] has to deal with the PFDJ at a governmental level. Earlier, EPRDF had told us that it is in the interest of Eritrea and Ethiopia for them to develop strong relationships with the government of Eritrea. They cautioned us, early on, that the EPLF may take advantage of this stance and that harm may come to us. It was based on this advice that our opposition movement went underground. The killing and kidnappings were the responsibility of the EPLF, made possible by their exploitation of the opportunity that the government-to-government relationship that was presented to them by the EPRDF.
We decided to accept their killings as precious martyrdom.
Let me take you to a very controversial subject. 1998-2000. Many Eritreans, including some who are within the opposition movement, including some who have leadership positions in the Eritrean Democratic Alliance, have accused you of following the TPLF during the Third Offensive. �On the trails of Ethiopian tanks,� or �bludgeoning our people� as the accusation has it. What is your response to that?
Ok. Let�s give the proper background to 1998-2000. When I was with the ELF, we all accepted that Badme was part and parcel of Eritrea. Let us contrast that with the views and behavior of EPLF. When I was with the TPLF [1980-1990] specially when I was in Adiyabo [Tigray], as it is political commissar, Badme was part of Adiyabo, Tigray. After independence, nothing changed. So the EPLF offensive of 1998 had nothing to do with a border dispute. If it were a border dispute, there would have been an attempt to solve it peacefully and legally. It was an assault, pure and simple, by a conceited class of people who used to brag about �empty barrels� and other phrases that make me cringe to think about them now.
Given its long and clear record of respecting Eritrea�s independence, and its stated objectives, we do not consider Ethiopia�s foray into Eritrea in 1998-2000 as an �offensive.� It had no interest on any land that it didn�t have a claim to, nor did it have any interest to rule the people.
Under these circumstances, there is legitimate fear of political vacuum. And there was. We went in there to help the people while they lived in caves. We helped them gather about their belongings. We helped resolve disputes between the people, we guarded against the environment of chaos that war brings. We helped co-ordinate the delivery of emergency supplies. We did this for nine months, and all the while, the people�s front [EPLF] was reduced to watching from a distance. When the right time comes and the people are free to speak, they shall be a witness to the type of help we provided. I have no doubt about that.
This part of our organization�s history and it is something that makes me very proud, at an organizational and personal level, because I was there personally.
Let me move now to current events. The Eritrean Democratic Alliance, the new Eritrean opposition umbrella group. I have questions about its structure, term, etc. You have been elected chairman of the �Central Leadership.� Now what exactly is the role of the Central Leadership?
The best way to think of it is as an assembly. There are 16 organizations. Eleven of them have two votes each and five of them have one vote each, for a total of 27 votes. These organizations, and their votes, make up the assembly. The Central Leadership has a Secretariat: a Chairman, a vice-chairman and a Secretary.
You are the chairman. The secretary, we are told, is Abubeker Suleiman. What is his background?
He is with the ELF-NUO, the organization led by Ali Burhatu.
Ok. And the vice-president?
Before I speak about that, let me talk about the Executive Office. It has nine members which is made up of three offices (Chairman, Vice Chairman and Secretary) and six departments [Information, Military, Foreign Affairs, Social, Finances, and Public Works.] The agreement the organizations made was this: they could have their candidates run for the executive office, or the legislative secretariat but not to both. They opted to field their candidates to the executive office. I was asked to take the position of Chairman, which I did�
What I am hearing is there is no vice chair at the moment. I see a political vacuum! [laughs.]
What you are seeing is a vacancy.
Ok. And what is the term of these offices? For how long are the leaders elected?
It is one year, for both legislative and executive.
Let me ask you about the decision to allocate two votes to some organizations and one vote to others. What criteria did the commission that was selected apply to arrive at the conclusion that it did?
Even before the commission met, we had introduced our organizations to one another. Here are some of the criteria that were used: does the organization have a political program? Was this approved at an organizational congress? Has it introduced its leadership to the people? How extensive are its diplomatic initiatives? Is it engaged in the fields of news and information? Does it have a military establishment? And there were other factors.
Alright. Using that criteria, people may say, �if I were in the committee, I could see how some could get 5 votes and others � a vote��
Remember, the effort was to narrow the differences, to create workable plans, not to create fissures. We were cognizant that this is a first step. The focus was on results, how do we create a leadership team that can work together? Where are they based? How often can they meet?
Why is the charter late? Or I should ask is the charter late?
The charter is ratified. There is no way to conceal it, nor a reason. There can�t possibly be a viewpoint saying, �let�s not distribute it.� In any event, most of its content is known. In my view, the only discussion that is going on is how can we ensure that the publication of the charter maximizes resonance. This is within the scope of the Executive Office, and particularly the News and Cultural department.
It is your turn, your name has finally made it on the Internet and you, and your new post are now the subjects of some speculation. Any remarks on that subject?
Well, I do not want to be the subject of any frenzy. I do not seek publicity. This is why I am saying no to your request for a photo to accompany your interview. I am a simple fighter, and I will fulfill my role and my share in bringing about the downfall of PFDJ. People should know that I did not volunteer for this chairmanship position; I was thrust in it by the EDA. It is a burden, and I carry it. I view myself as a transitional figure. What people should know is that my goals do not extend beyond doing my share to bring about the downfall of PFDJ.