By Beaton Galafa,
I have heard stories too good for Eritrea. I was once told by a friend that this demonized country is not as exactly as what we are told out here. At first, I never gave it a serious thought. Then, after recalling my ears’ and eyes’ loyal service to the only news sites that are readily available to us, I noticed something. The friend said Eritrea is one such country where the system makes it hard for ministers to live a life above everyone else’s just on ministerial perks. He said the country has strict disciplinarians in policy making positions.
I know, so too does everyone else, of the lavish lifestyle of our ministers that has been internalized by our praised democracies. It was hard for me to believe this account because of my Malawian experience. I opted for Google to substantiate such narratives. To my dismay, the first few entries, apart from its Wikipedia history, were all about exodus of Eritreans: from Asmara to Sudan and to every corner of the globe.
Disappointed that I had been lied to, I decided to follow some link that took me to Letters from Eritrea: Refugee women tell their story. It is a booklet by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) Network, apparently with the aid of Oxfam Novib; Mr. Peter Jones who collaborated with SIHA in compiling and reviewing the stories (the letters, also referred to as testimonies); and Ms. Philippa Croome who helped in drafting the document. (All this is according to the acknowledgement section of the booklet).
The booklet includes testimonies from women refugees of largely the harsh realities of life in Eritrea (because the aim of all human rights activists is to prove beyond reasonable doubt to the world that Eritrea is not a good place to be, common sense will tell you this), and partially the experiences they encounter as they try to escape to other countries.
I read the booklet with my focus on the letters by some nine Eritrean women. I ignored the other parts because I have already on numerous occasions read and listened to news on BBC and other media houses we rely on for international news about human rights, arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and disappearances as well as military and national service in the country. For once, I had the chance to read firsthand accounts of what being an Eritrean means to some.
I read about one Medhin. Then Hayat Ibrahim, and all the seven others. It wasn’t what I expected. I know the effect emotions have on writing, and I thought the letters would give more life to the suffering of Eritreans. But what I came up with out of the testimonies was a tendency by some self-acclaimed human rights groups fighting on behalf of imperialists to destabilize African countries (especially those that do not give a damn about western aid and colonial preset principles and codes of conduct like Eritrea).
All the testimonies, I find them so real and they tell stories that are so common amongst asylum seekers, one can’t dispute that fact. But, I felt the obsession to blame the Eritrean government made SIHA Network misplace the stories. And most of the testimonies lack enough detail to substantiate claims of persecution as the main cause that led to their refugee status.
For example, there’s no link in Medhin’s story between the build up to her family’s “escape” and the actual reason that led to the escape. At the beginning up to somewhere close to the end, we are made to think that her family will escape towards the end because they are fleeing the persecution of Pentecostal Christians by the country’s security forces. Medhin (or SIHA Network?) succeeds in buying our emotions into the story, but they lose out the moment they want to switch from the cause to the result.
She says her husband developed health problems in 2006, and he could not work. “We decided we had to leave Eritrea for Sudan,” she explains. From the way it’s been told, the decision came because her husband could not work due to the health problems; nothing else. Now, this is nothing strange all over the world. People are always migrating to other places seeking greener pasture, only to confirm for themselves the adage ‘grass is always greener on the other side of the fields.’ There are a lot of people of other nationalities everywhere in Africa due to the stories of how milky faraway lands tend to be all over the continent.
It is the same case with Ibrahim’s story. Her story, and that of the rest of the women, is that of not just an Eritrean, but an African, lured to another country because of the same old lies we have developed in our societies that there’s both social and economic security in other countries rather than our own.
In fact, it is the second and third parts of their stories that are rather more compelling. Ironically, these parts have absolutely nothing to do with the Eritrean government. The Eritrean migrants are always raped and held on ransom, forcing them to communicate to relatives either back home or abroad to bail them out. But these people place themselves in the hands of human traffickers and smugglers who aren’t in any way linked to or a direct result of the Eritrean political system. Most of them are Sudanese and nationals in the countries they find themselves in on transit. The problem of human trafficking is global and persistent even in the west. If the west, with all the resources at their disposal, fails to control this problem, why should it then be pushed down on the Eritrean government for migrants who in their pursuit for economic liberty end up in the mouths of crocodiles? No, the Eritrean government has nothing to do with it; it’s a global problem which is also punishable by law right there in Asmara as it is anywhere else.
The final sections of the women’s stories are as equally disastrous as their preceding ones. After survival in their treacherous journeys, the treatment they get in the host countries make them long for home. They realize too late that life out of Eritrea is as hard as life inside Eritrea, the only difference being when you are home, you know all corners of your house and it’s much easier for you to find solutions. This takes us to Africa’s major problem: we always want to run away from responsibility. It took our slave ancestors to build the west’s economy with their manpower and resources, and we should have stopped way back rushing to them whenever we have problems. We must help ourselves create our own safe haven, right here in Africa, Malawi or Eritrea, Nigeria or Mozambique.
Let us not allow some selfish Africans whose work is only to destabilize us and create distrust amongst us because they have been made black masks in white skins by a Eurocentric education to frustrate our efforts at developing our nations in our own preferred style. Perhaps SIHA’s work was meant to highlight the challenges refugees meet, which is commendable, but it was overridden by imperialists funding their research. Because in the end, it is those funding you who decide what should come out of your work. That is the problem with dependence, and Eritrea is exactly trying to avoid that because it understands what sovereignty means.
The writer Mr. Beaton Galafa is a Pan-Africanist from Malawi