Mesfin Hagos’s English Book on Eritrea: Useful Facts Tainted by Omissions & Biases2023-09-20 11:23:51 Written by Woldeyesus Ammar Published in English Articles Read 2626 times
Mesfin Hagos’s English Book on Eritrea:
Useful Facts Tainted by Omissions & Biases
By Woldeyesus Ammar
(Posted in Awate.com on 16.09.23)
This article about the book in English by compatriot Mesfin Hagos cannot claim to be a standard book review but is, primarily, a write-up to sincerely commend the author to have published something, even belatedly. Secondly, the article aims to flag out what I see as flaws in it. The hope is to get a genuine review that would eventually include missing parts of contentious but half-told stories in the book so that the upcoming Tigrigna/Arabic versions could be more complete to Eritrean readers like me. In fact, I would not have been tempted to write this piece if it were not to the assertion described on pages 99-101 under the subtitle: “Failed Ethiopian Campaign that Birthed the Derg.”
Forgetful of all the sacrifices our people paid in sweat and blood in previous decades and, in particular, between September 1961 and December 1973, the author (or should one say the authors?) dared to tell us that a single two-week battle fought in the second half of December 1973 between the then small units of the Popular Liberation Forces (PLF/ህዝባዊ ሓይልታት) and the occupation army gave birth to the 1974 mutiny and changes in Ethiopia. Brother Mesfin’s book also claims that the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which he said started almost all the armed hostilities in the field till its defeat, was bent at disrupting EPLF operations against the enemy, and that the ELF was not desirous of unity till 1981 while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) always wanted unity.
Regrettably, and in spite of many interesting and useful facts in it, the book in many sections loses balance by injecting half-truths and harmful biases. One of the misleadingly wrong and negative messages in it - and especially for fresh or uninitiated readers - is the following:- Eritrea had two archenemies called the ELF and Ethiopia, and both had to be gotten rid of at any material and human cost. (In actual fact, the so-called prophecy of Isaias that the ELF shall melt out (ጀብሃ ክትሓቅቕ እያ) existed a decade before the 1980-81 civil war that was started by a decision of EPLF leadership (or may be only by Isaias). Mesfin wrote that: “To win the big battle [against the first enemy, Ethiopia]… it was necessary to solve one problem at a time … and [we] decided to push the ELF out of Eritrea.” (See page 207).
Well, these and similar insinuations and allegations in the book cry for correction and comment, although more convincing responses may have disappeared with the key political leaders and military commanders of both fronts. Most of those figures are not around now to provide helpful rebuttals for our history records, in which case the ELF is a perpetual orphan - at least in the literature so far produced in the West by Eritreans and non-Eritreans alike.
Nonetheless, I must say I am pleased to see the usually unforthcoming Mesfin, whose excessive reticence is known to many, finally sharing pieces of little known facts and clarifying some vaguely heard events in our prolonged struggle. It is also great that he broke out of his old thinking that our history should not be written by individuals but be worked out as a joint project, which is difficult to do in our situation. Yet, those individuals who kindly take the pain to write down what they knew, as Mesfin finally did, should try to tell both sides of a given event, good and bad, and not tell only the part that they wanted to tell, as brother Mesfin conceded to have done in his book while talking to Samuel ‘Aka-Aka’ of Dehay Eritrea not long ago.
In the paragraphs below, I am highlighting under a few subheadings some of the issues in the book that I found to be of interest to take note of.
Merits of Mesfin and His Book
What Mesfin told us about himself in the book is part of our recent history. Many Eritreans of his generation did share the misery in absolute poverty that young Mesfin and his family went through. Post-World War II generations of Eritreans also had the unquenchable thirst for learning that Mesfin ran after. In other words, many Eritreans of the past 82 years can very well relate to Mesfin’s unfulfilled dream cut short because of multiple problems - problems that are still haunting younger generations.
The main author of the book and those, who assisted him to include compassionate feelings in it, must be thanked for expressing the lingering pain in the author because of the fate of his mother who endured life-time struggle against poverty and finally, as Mesfin put it: “[she] did not live enough to see our victory, the singular reason [of her untimely death being that] I was not there for her.”
This sad and emotionally sharp expression is also part of our recent history and can be shared and replicated by so many Eritrean families and readers of the book, old and young. Yet, many of us forget that Mesfin’s mother and a huge number of her likes, women and men, were indeed also ‘martyrs’ of the prolonged and unfinished national struggle. But they were forgotten when the quality of martyrdom and the identity of martyrs was limited mostly to those who held guns.
With its somewhat misleading title of “An African Revolution Reclaimed,” Mesfin’s memoir about his experience and our ups and downs satisfactorily narrates some of the bold decisions and brave actions Mesfin took to keep the struggle going - come what - amidst extremely rough days. For instance, only Mesfin and Fissehaye Abraha”Karachi” returned to the field in June 1968 after their training in China while seven others (what Mesfin called highland/Kebessa Christians) refused to do so. Similarly in Dankalia in 1970, only Mesfin and Measho Embaye chose to stay with the new PLF while the rest of their Christian colleagues refused to stay.
As cited in my friend Semere Habtemariam’s articulate review of the book last July, Mesfin Hagos deserves accolades for being honest, and to be accepted as one, most of the time -- but for sure not all the time. To his credit, Mesfin does not share the opinion of some of our compatriots who used to allege that Christian highlanders at that time, and while they were few, were excluded from leadership posts even as of August 1969 at Adobaha Conference. Mesfin retorts: “I do not believe there were enough Christian highlanders who were fit to become leaders, given our limited experience and duration in the struggle at the time.” He meant this was to the exception of Isaias Afwerki and Abera Mekonnen who were elected to the 38-member General Command/ቅያዳ ዓማ that was from its start demonized far beyond its awkwardly taken actions and shortcomings by those who still do not accept it was “a product of its time.”
Mesfin also boldly and honestly tells readers one of the harmful weaknesses of key ELF leaders of the time by putting it in these words: “The larger we, as Christian highlanders, grew in number within the ELF, the more we were made to feel we did not belong.” (See page 23). Very true, I agree. This was the same malady with multiple other factors that led to the decline and defeat of that once mighty and determined force, popularly called ሰራዊት ሓርነት/جيش التحرير (liberation army) by almost every Eritrean citizen till the 1981 debacle.
Also belatedly following in the footsteps of my old friend Mussie Tesfamichael and his Menka’e group of 1973, in whose condemnation to death he joined three others,
- Mesfin continued to be a defiant but little-heard whistleblower between 1978 and 2001 of the growing one-man dictatorship within their circle.
- Also in addition to his shining military roles in the historic Battles of Afabet and Dekemhare, among others, we now learn that Mesfin saved Asmara from re-occupation in the 1998-2000 border war by his professional acumen presented in the form of advice that led to a disastrous end to an Ethiopian army contingent in the Battle of Adi Beghi’o (see page 362).
- Nor should one forget how Mesfin, and only Mesfin, reacted at what Isaias said in a February 1991 meeting to selected EPLF leadership members about a dangerous intention to make EPLF joint in the formation of a post-Derg government in Ethiopia. (I am inclined to believe that Isaias and his co-conspirators, who kept silent at the meeting, could have fulfilled the treacherous plan in June-July 1991 by liquidating Mesfin. It also appears to me that Mesfin was saved from that possible liquidation by the reported TPLF refusal to Eritrea’s participation in the post-Derg provisional government in Ethiopia. And of course, TPLF leaders were doing what they did in defense of their own political calculations and interests.)
- For these and other audacious actions and reactions, Mesfin Hagos shall be celebrated and long remembered as one of Eritrea’s leading patriotic heroes in the annals of our national liberation struggle. No doubt about this well deserved record!
Mesfin’s Persistent Biases in the Book
In his own words, young Mesfin was “rebellious, sensitive and wallowing in self-pity.” The first two traits plus other positive and negative characteristics might have continued to be part of him, but the last one – self-pity/victimhood - was infectious and effectively transmitted to his friends, as Isaias did infected many in his organization by his own negative characteristics. In fact, Mesfin’s self-pity was well reflected in Nehnan Elamanan, a manifesto that he partly co-authored with Isaias to express an extremely exaggerated victimhood of a section of our people (the Christian Kebessa) in order to create an organization, unfortunately adding more fuel to the harmful “we” and “they” divide that we could not stop to this day. Mesfin still believes that, Nehnan Elamanan, while he calling it “a product of its time”, was perfect and well intended. He says it only aimed “to move us beyond our cultural differences and rally us around a national cause.” But, to my reading and to the understanding of a good part of the Eritrean society, that was not what the document did. However, I am not here to repeat the lasting venom in it.
While at it, let me add the following: Mesfin wrote (page 64): “Much has been said about Nehnan Elamanan, including that isaias had written it in Addis Ababa and took it with him to implement it in the field. This has been said even by those who claim to have been his classmates in Addis Ababa.” (Emphasis added). The writer in Mesfin’s mind can only be Yours Truly because Mesfin knows it, and because no other person but me from Isaias’s school group wrote criticizing that document. Yet, I never wrote saying that Isaias prepared the document in Addis Ababa. On the other hand, what I repeatedly said and wrote as of the late 1970s, including in a book published in 1992, was that in the spring of 1966, Isaias alleged in our ELF cell meeting in Addis Ababa that the ELF was conducting “Jihad” in Eritrea. Also as I repeatedly affirmed, the attendants of that meeting together with Isaias and me included today’s Ela-Ero prisoner Haile Weldetinsae/Deru’e; PFDJ cabinet minister Tesfay Ghebreselassie “China”, Bereket ‘Aket’ of Paris, and twin brothers Andom/Habtom Ghebremichael – all of them former EPLF members, and may be some of them still accessible for Mesfin to inquire. And was it necessary for Mesfin to address me as “those who claim” to being Isaias’s former classmates? And for what honor, brother Mesfin?
Mesfin’s Book About Isaias
I found the following sentence as one of the most fitting and powerful testimonies by Mesfin about his old colleague: “Power did not make Isaias Afwerki what he was not; it only unveiled him.” Very, very true! Through many parts of his book, Mesfin tells how resentful, greedy, intrusive and self-centered Isaias was with his “poisonous character” and consistent failings to consult those around him. To Mesfin, that coldhearted Isaias remained a “malady and incurable one at that.” Yet, many also blame Mesfin of sharing the characteristics of Isaias like resentfulness, ingratitude and a continuing, but sometimes unsuccessfully concealed, mistrust, hatred and contempt of everything (and everyone) associated with their former second archenemy called ELF/‘Jabha’.
After exhaustively explaining how Isaias sidelined him and Ibrahim ‘Afa from their military roles, Mesfin stated that Isaias always “treated the military as his private domain.” This testimony by Mesfin reminded me of what I also wrote in the January 1982 issue No. 45 of the Eritrean Newsletter under the title of “Profile of Adventurism in Eritrea” opining that the EPLF was already turned into “a private company…driven by the insatiable ambition to power of one person.” (Go back and read old ELF documents for similar conclusions recorded over a decade before 1991.)
On the EPLF side, at least one person, Mesfin, had known early on the wickedness of the man now destroying Eritrea, if he has not already finished that job. At one point in 1980s, Mesfin confesses to have contemplated of taking drastic action against Isaias -ያረድ ውዒልካያ….ክክክ! Yet, he did not go ahead doing that because he could not convince himself that the EPLF would find “a replacement half as good as [Isaias[.” And unfortunately for Eritrea and its people, this utterly wrong and dangerous belief in the capacities of one person lingered in the EPLF and still lingers in the hearts and minds of not very few Eritreans infected by the Old Thought.
More About the ELF in the Book
As they say, history is written by those who win because people can believe them very easily because they were winners – and of course serve and served as generals of a winning army, ministers, ambassadors and what have you. The book expressively describes battle-field successes and, when necessary, orderly withdrawals of the PLF/EPLF fighters. But, when it comes to the other front, you will read mostly about defeat after defeat and disorderly withdrawals of the ELF army. Well, if that was the case all the time, let the few surviving ELF army commanders and political commissioners say and comment for the sake of records for future researchers. Leaving things unclear did not help us in the past and cannot be helpful in the future. In short, the book is replete with selective narrations about the now defunct ELF which belongs to our common history. And to cite only a few of the half-told stories in the book:-
- Mesfin, as alluded to in the opening paragraphs of this article, gives to PLF’s December 1973 battle in Sahel a big credit in causing changes in Ethiopia. This claim, I repeat, robs our people’s previous struggles and achievements. It can be seen as part of the persistent historical denial of recognition to others. For sure it equates to getting astray from placing credit where it belongs. The battle in question can undoubtedly be one of the brilliant engagements of Eritrea’s heroic freedom fighters on both sides. The lengthy coverage given to the battle as cause for the “birth” of the Derg is being “justified” by its mere mention among the list of grievances by the Ethiopian army’s mutiny leaders in Asmara in February 1974. Obviously, the Ethiopian army mutineers can list recent events like their failure in the December 1973 battle. But to say that that single failed operation “birthed the Derg” is too much of a distortion and utter neglect of history. (If we were to trust and rely for our history on such Ethiopian documents, one report prepared by the Derg and leaked to the ELF leadership in 1977 claimed that the EPLF will be easy prey to be liquidated by the Ethiopian army because it loses so many casualties in every battle. The document added that the real danger to Ethiopia in retaining Eritrea was the ELF which, they believed, was very careful not to lose many fighters in every engagement with the Ethiopian army.)
- Due to multiple factors, for sure well known to Mesfin, the year 1967 was one of the worst periods in the life the Eritrean revolution. It was full of wanton destruction of villages, livestock, and massacre of civilians by the Ethiopians. Intensified campaigns to divide Eritreans on religious grounds also shook the society to its roots. The outcome included desertions by fighters, and unfortunate killing of a few of them - not hundreds as the venomous PLF documents claimed - by frightened, confused and less capable ELF unit leaders. One of those deserters was Welday Kahsai, the leader of the Fifth Division, who led it only for 3-4 months before his desertion. He was probably the one who caused the uncontrollable panic within the Fifth Division that had 400 members, only 80 of them Christian highlanders, according to an unpublished manuscript by Ibrahim Toteel, now a PFDJ prisoner in Eritrea. Mesfin said he met Welday in 2021 to ask him the reasons for his desertion in 1967. Weldai Kahsai replied to Mesfin saying that he had to hand himself over to the Ethiopian embassy in Khartoum because the ELF leadership was planning to assassinate him. That allegation may be true or untrue, readers cannot tell. But why did Mesfin fail to tell the other side of the story in Weldai’s case? On the other hand, Ibrahim Toteel’s manuscript, widely available in PDF form both in Arabic and Tigrigna, quoted former colleagues of Weldai in Asmara who confirmed that Weldai Kahsai definitely met at least two times with Ethiopian (Asrate Kassa’s) General Amnesty Committee at Durfo and then Filfil before his travel and desertion in Khartoum together with some 20 others etc. The year 1967 was a year of success to Ethiopia in its determined fight to kill and bury the still young and weak revolt in Eritrea.
- Writing about the mid-1967 desertion of a group of 19 fighters to the Ethiopian consulate in Kassala, Mesfin did one right thing: he asked Haile Deru’e, who told him the reason of their desertion to had been fear of Sudan’s expulsion to Ethiopia. He also asked another fighter, Gime Ahmed, who was with them and even urged Derue and the others not to give in to the Ethiopian consulate because the Sudan would eventually release them. So far so good. But that dreadful situation of ‘Gifa’ and fear in Kassala of that terrible summer of 1967 indeed deserved a mention in the size of Mesfin’s book for the benefit of the readers. To say it in a few words: that summer, ELF in Kassala was terrorized by works of a certain Saleh Mahmoud, a traitor who was working as double agent for Ethiopia and the Sudan. On 12 August 1967, an aggrieved ELF member knifed that Saleh in broad daylight in city center. Following this and other incidents, probably most of them initiated by the Ethiopian consulate itself, the Sudan imprisoned key leaders in the ELF Revolutionary Command/ቅያዳ ሰውሪያ and ordered all other ELF leaders and fighters to go back to their Eritrea. To be fair, this situation deserved some place in the book alongside the testimonies from Deru’e and Gime.
- Mesfin’s deep regret, of course in hindsight, of his decision to condemn to death the Menka’e group of 1973 is to be appreciated. He wrote: “Our collective myopia convinced us to take firm action” adding that the four decision makers (including Mesfin) had no deliberate and evil intent to kill them but had “lack of capacity” and deficit in judgment. (God forbid the Menka’e group were not considered ‘guilty as accused until they prove their innocence themselves’, a reversed legal principle and logic that shamefully transpired in recent years in the Eritrean opposition). Anyhow, the myopic decision made against 9 highly regarded freedom fighters ended with their murder for having asked fair treatment for ordinary fighters and democracy in the front. As listed in the book, the victims included Mussie Tesfamiichael, Yohannes Sebhatu, Afewerki Teklu, Aberash Milke, Dehab Tesfazion. Habteselassie Ghebremedhin, Tewelde Eyob, Russom Zerai, and Tareke Yihdego. Similarly, there occurred meaningless killings of high caliber freedom fighters within the EPLF in the 1980s (like Wedi Kudus, my former associate as ELF cell-member) with the charge of being Yemin/rightists. In regard to the killing of ‘Yemin’, Mesfin wrote: “Given that these were most difficult times, I did not take it appropriate to inquire about individuals.” Also on the ELF side, we had a number tragic killings of reform seekers and others including Kidane Kiflu and Weldai Ghidey, murdered in 1970 in Kassala, a shocking event that added more fuel to division and splits in the struggle. But did Mesfin’s book treat and present the tragic and utterly wrong happenings in the ELF in the same way? Did he describe them as decisions made by people convinced by “collective myopia” to take firm action for the supposedly nobler national cause and, not with deliberate evil intent to kill? Judgment is left to the reader.
- Writing about the first ELF congress of 1971, the book erroneously informs readers that “any outlying fighters and organizations were given an ultimatum to join or face forceful reunification.” It is true that that ultimatum was given to fighters taking sides with Osman Saleh Sabbe’s and another miniscule pan-Islamist/Arabist group, but NOT to the dozen or so fighters at ‘Ala that Isaias Afwerki represented. The congress, which was under relative influence of the then new left-wing secret party formed within the ELF in 1968, discussed the religious sensitivity in the case of the Isaias group (ኢሳያስን ብጾቱን) and preferred continued dialogue on the matter. But, the inherently war-monger/war-lover Isaias led his Selfi-Natsinet/PLF2 to join those forces given ultimatum and fight on their side against ELF units. Thus, one is obliged to feel that telling also this part of the story could have helped in making the book a fair reading.
- To an extremely sad episode in 1967 that Ibrahim Toteel called a “never healing wound” in the society, Mesfin’s book makes only a passing mention in a sensitive phrase, “Christian farmers and herders whom ELF units had killed in the environs of Shlalo in western Eritrea.” As it is put, the phrase gives the impression that the killing was an outright rampage to kill Christians. That tragic occurrence at Shimbare near Shlalo was one of the sensitive topics that Self-Natsenet/EPLF used very effectively to build itself into an entity in the early 70s. Those 43 victims at Shimbare included 8 Moslems, and were given land and arms by the enemy to act as a militia resisting ELF activities in that region. Readers can assume Mesfin knew a lot more about such sad incidents but his book’s glossing over the issue without a little effort to say what that killing of “Christian farmers and herders” was about etc is not a helpful omission.
- Briefly, it is difficult to pinpoint in an article all the events told only half-way in the book by an author who lived it all. The ever contention subjects like:
- The still alive talk about the so-called Seriyet Addis, its origin and the questionable number of its victims;
- The alleged non-stop disruptions of the ELF to EPLF operations and killings/kidnappings of its members till 1981;
- Justifications for the involvement or non-involvement of the TPLF on EPLF’s side in the fight against the ELF in 1980-81;
- The actors of assassinations of ELF cadres in the Sudan, e.g. .that of Saeed Saleh, Weldedawit Temesghen ….in the Sudan
Etc etc are among the issues that still wait for balanced writings by telling all sides of every given story for the benefit of future researchers.
Nonetheless, aside from the omissions and apparent biases in the book, which are reflections of the author’s fierce defense of his ‘sacred legacies’ as EPLF, Mesfin’s book, I reiterate, can remain a rich source in further exposing some of the hidden truths about Isaias, about their joint winner front and government till the birth of the historic G-15 in which Mesfin again played a commendable role.
Mesfin on Diaspora Politics
The book summarizes the major hurdles facing the Eritrean opposition camp in exile. He now advises that the opposition must devise correct mechanisms of struggle. Mesfin also pledges to work towards forging an inclusive movement that would finally guarantee to do what the victors of 1991 failed to do: creating in post-Isaias era an “inclusive, fair, equitable and rules based” system of governance. May that dream come true within Mesfin’s and his unlucky generation’s fading years.
Before concluding this piece, I must apologize to Dr. Awet Tewelde Weldemichael, because I presented Mesfin Hagos as the sole author while we are told that the writers were two. One can for sure see the huge contributions in the project of our young and promising history professor. Yet, readers like me can also expect Mesfin to take almost all the responsibility for possible mistakes, biases and omissions. Professor Awet may be blamed only for a few unnecessary repeat of already told stories and a repeat of at least one whole paragraph in the book. But responsibility for mistakes like writing Debri Sala (Monastery of Sala) instead of the correct Debr Sala (Mount Sala in Tigre) can only go back to Mesfin who knows the Tigre language better.
And finally, I thank you both Mesfin and Professor Awet for having produced the book to be part of the still poor Eritrean archives about the national liberation war.