By Amanuel Biedemariam,
There are not enough words to describe what transpired on September 25, 2011 in New York City before, during and after the gathering with His Excellency President Isaias Afwerki.
The festive-charged environment was indescribable and the event was a smashing success. The collection of Eritreans gathered covered the gamete. They came in droves from Florida after driving eighteen hours. Minnesota drove over 21 hours. Chicago 14. Grand Rapids Michigan drove over ten hours. From Edmonton Canada people drove for two days and Toronto drove for over ten hours. People drove from everywhere. Those that flew in from the West Coast and Europe came to Washington DC and boarded onto buses to New York with those that gathered from everywhere.
It will be disingenuous to discount logistical problems people encountered on the way to New York but once they were loaded, and ready everyone was happy enjoying the ride with patriotic music playing, dancing and laughing. We started boarding about 3 a.m. and arrived in New York about 9 a.m., which is prompt for a trip from DC to New York. When we arrived, we were greeted by thick lines of crowd that covered blocks and blocks in a major city creating a traffic nightmare for the city. It was serene to be received by crowds of Eritreans adorned with colorful Eritrean flags and dressed in traditional outfits that beautified the glorious city of New York. They accorded New York grace and dignity unmatched by any. They were civil and smart about the meaning and magnitude of the event. The weather was calm and cloudy as we arrived.
We hurried to get out of the busses to join the crowd. The people I came with all joined the long lines and I found my station in the media section. From that point on, I was oblivious to what was taking place outside. Our cell phones and computers were-not allowed in for security reasons so we did not have a way to communicate with those that formed lines to get in. My focus was inside and the assigned job.
The event had so many moving parts that were readily visible. The stage was fitting and graceful. The stage setters did a good job setting a presidential setting worthy of the moment. The mood was festive. The security was tight making it difficult to move once you are inside because movements were restricted.
When the president arrived, the hall was raucous and after a brief exchange of greetings, the President along with his delegates got seated on the front raw with the audience as the stage leaders announced the details of the program. They started the program with a moment of silence to remember our Martyrs graced by a beautiful sax by Tesfamariam. Soon thereafter, the EriAm Sisters sung our national anthem adding a spice to a memorable event. After that, the president and the delegates were lead to the stage amidst cheers of welcome that emanated from deep feelings of happiness and expression of love of someone deeply missed and loved.
President Isaias’ presence was grand. He occupied the seat with such a grace and comfort. It was incredible moment for Eritreans to witness their beloved hero seated in front of them. The President was beaming with a glow of happiness that filled the hall. There are thousands of pictures that showed the grandiosity and beauty of the moment and the presence. However, there are no pictures that can describe the feelings and the happy expressions in the hall. I was seated close enough where I can see the action closer than many. However, the whole event appeared like a dream and passed way quicker especially relative to the time that passed to prepare and travel to the event.
This event was by far the most significant event Eritreans held even more than the February 22 demonstration of 2010 thus far. The messages Eritreans passed were- embedded on every step. The messages were all loud and clear for all to see and bare witness to. It was saying loudly that Eritrea is in the house in New York City hitting New York like a lightning strike. The event showed how patient and disciplined Eritreans are. It showed the resilience of Eritreans. It showed that Eritreans speak with one voice, the same tone everywhere, and all the time.
When I first approached the crowd; as I was greeting people and finding my way, I bumped into a Caucasian approximately six feet two in height. I said excuse me and I realized the man had communication equipments in his hand. Not sure what he was doing I asked him what his intentions were and he replied he is a reporter from Expressen. Expressen…? I asked. He said it is a Swedish Newspaper. I asked what he was doing and he replied I came to film this event. And I asked him what his impression was? He said, I am surprised…I thought I was going to see more on this side not the other. He was saying it in a surprised and, disappointed tone. Evidently, he came with a predetermined idea to film President Isaias embarrassed by thousands of his enemies. Instead, he learned the truth about Eritrea and learned first hand that Eritreans are one with the President.
That is one message that reverberated sending shockwaves everywhere our enemies are. That is the message Eritreans wanted to send loud and clear to the world, the State Department and, the stooge-agents of the criminal junta in Ethiopia that were parading as Eritreans. It is a message of solidarity. It is an answer to those who wanted to weaken Eritrea systematically by targeting specific strengths. They delivered the message in New York City where Ambassador Rice can see clearly that President Isaias Afwerki and Yemane Ghebreab are the people. There is no distinction and room to extricate any Eritrean from another for whatever reason. Eritreans are one with one-voice and, that is the message those who traveled millions of miles-collectively wanted to send and sent it loudly.
There was not a whole lot of new information that His Excellency divulged. One of the first things that he said was that; ten years may have elapsed since I last saw you but you were never far away from me. That is expression of affection. And the feeling was mutual. Because nearly every question that people asked was accompanied by expressions of support and praises for his bravery. However, there were a lot of memorable statements that he made.
He referred to those who went to Addis as ‘nefseher‘ meaning they are none but dead souls walking. He acknowledged that there is exploration for oil. He said that there is not much any one can do to us if we are united be it one or four powers. He said that all the lies the Weyane clique spewed over the years are exposed and that the moment is opportune for us to re-engage at the UN. However, he said that the highlight of his trip was his meeting with his people.
The audience asked many penetrating questions and the answers were satisfying. One young woman said that all the pertinent issues in Eritrea are addressed adequately and asked if the President considered human rights. He answered by saying that he fought for human rights for over forty years. The primary focus in Eritrea is and remains to ensure that the basic needs of Eritreans are met. That is the number one focus. He emphasized that Eritrea does not tolerate human right abuse at the government level and we have mechanisms in place to prevent abuse by the private sector as well.
He also said that a great deal of effort is exerted and, steps are in place to get the Diaspora involved in development efforts of the nation. Eritrea is shifting into a new gear in regards to development effort and if we are going to succeed in achieving the outlined objectives for 2012-2013, we need to make sure the concerns of Diaspora Eritreans are addressed. Regarding the border issues, he said, it would be demarcated in due course. Moreover, he stressed that we need to focus on what we are doing.
It was incredible to witness the harmony, affection and support the public showed President Isaias. The people did not come there to find out any thing new. They did not travel to demand anything from the President. They just showed up to show support.
After the President left the Manhattan Center, I briefly spoke to Dr. Berhe Habtegiorgis and asked him what his observations revealed. His reply captured the moment precisely. I still remember his focus, enthusiasm and the exuberant tinkle in his eyes as he said, “The world can not understand or believe what just transpired because it is in complete contradiction to what is taking place all around the globe!”
I was dead tired barely able to open my eyes before the President arrived but as as soon as he arrived, I was wide-awake and able to communicate on Facebook the entire event. When I left the building, I was excited to reconnect with my wife and friends that traveled with me for the event and eager to talk about what transpired and to discuss issues. And as soon as I came out and asked, did you have fun…? I saw this dazed gaze of disappointment filled with teary-eyes and heard; we didn’t get in. I melted. “You didn’t see the President”; I shouted! “No. We did not see him. We didn’t even see him when he left because we were expecting him to come on that side and he came out on the back”. Very few people saw him. Who else did not get in? I found out nearly all the people that came with me did not get in along with over 2,000 people. President Isaias expressed his disappointment by saying “I thought the City of New York was a big city.”
We were all tired beyond expression; hungry and sleepy but captured by the moment and surprised by the fact that thousands could not get in. We knew there were people that were not able to get in but we did not know the size. However, as I spoke with those that did not get in, my feelings started to change dramatically.
The sadness that I felt turned into pride. I begun to understand the resolve and satisfaction that these people felt. My friend Haile said, “Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have been inside and enjoy the moment, but the purpose of my journey was to give support to my President and show solidarity and I have accomplished that regardless where I was and, I am satisfied.” Every story that I heard was more uplifting than the other. A father with his four grown up kids came from California paying thousands and said that he was proud to have been there even if he was not able to get in. A group from Grand Rapids Michigan is very popular because they kept the mood very uplifted by singing and saying “Masse” a form of rap entertaining the crowd. A family that came from Edmonton Canada after driving two days, a family that drove from Florida and unable to get in expressed the same feeling of satisfaction. Those that did not get in were there without rest, food and water for over six hours. They stood faithfully with discipline wowing NYPD in fact comforting the police in some instances.
The organizers were faced with logistical nightmares considering the short notice, the security considerations, the uncertainties and the distance they had to deal with. One has to think of the list of chores and details that they needed to sift through. The coordinating efforts are nightmarish to think about. But it came through beautifully and there were many reasons why it was a success.
Firstly, it is because Eritreans are very organized. Eritreans can mobilize faster and in greater numbers for their nation any time and anywhere. That is due to years of experience and organizational structures that were formed during days of the struggle for liberation. In February of 2010 Eritreans successfully organized large demonstrations to oppose the illegal sanction levied by the US against Eritrea. And ironically that major event paved the way for this presidential gathering that brought people from everywhere.
Secondly, it is because Eritrea takes a center stage in the life of every Eritrean in ways I have never seen anywhere. In fact it is mind boggling considering the fact that Eritreans sing, dance, and laugh, cry, wed and talk Eritrea every single second. Eritreans think and talk Eritrea. Eritreans live for Eritrea. Eritreans are aware and educated about their country. They are cognizant of all the threats, the challenges and opportunities. And they know how to fight and make use of the opportunities presented to them. This is one occasion that Eritreans seized like there is no tomorrow.
There are moments that change lives and take place once in a while. This occasion was one of those moments. There were many heads of states that gathered in New York for the same UN conference President Isaias attended. And I am certain none were received with the passion and enthusiasm. No one was accorded the kind of welcome President Isaias received.
None of the people that came to see the President came to demand or complain; they came to support and show him solidarity. It has been a while now since there has been a concerted effort made to demonize President Isaias and give inaccurate picture of what Eritrea and Eritreans are. There have been many hysterical noises made by handful opportunists. It was exposed on Sunday 25 September that they truly are the walking dead (nefseher) as the President called them.
Eritreans came with a purpose united in a vision in a surreal environment making indescribable spiritual connection with each other and their president. He embraced the moment and gracefully delivered unscripted speech from the heart in a presidential setting confidently. The journey was tough and long but joyous and historic. The sacrifices made were all worth it because, in the process and in the moment, we affirmed to each other that we are all Eritreans in a mission to express that we are one “Eritrean in New York” in support of our nation and President!
Indeed “Hade hzbi, Hade libi”!
The writer is an Eritrean of US resident and can be reached at [email protected]