……...in Part I, I described how the aspirations of the Eritrean people have been dashed by PFDJ over the last 20 years and how the national service has ended up becoming a modern day slavery. I believe the Ethio-Eritrean border war, commented on by readers of Part I, has been used by PFDJ as an excuse, but as to who started it is beyond the theme of my article for now. In Part II, I continue to reflect on my own experience while inside Eritrea including the closure of the University of Asmara.
By the end of year 2000, an opportunity came along for an overseas study for undergraduate and graduate programs. It was rumored that the Eritrean authorities had to spend the money given to the nation by UNDP. Not sure of the accuracy of that rumor but they decided to send students to South Africa for undergraduate and postgraduate programs. I was among those who got that opportunity. But then, we were asked to produce a 150,000 Nakfa guarantee for return after completing the intended study program. This created shock-waves. “…after years in school and then the national service, and now 150,000 Nakfa!” Students who came back from the war front lines found out that their government, the PFDJ, did not trust them despite the determination they showed in protecting the country with their lives. The memory of colleagues including fresh graduates, who died in the war, was very vivid at the time. But PFDJ officials and the likes, including Dr Wolde-ab Issak, did not bother about the effect of their policies on student moral and nationalism.
The return-guarantee requirement was later dropped for undisclosed reasons but it did left scars in our minds and on our families’ relationships. I know family relationships that are broken to this day as some members were not willing to risk money or property to guarantee their next of kin’s return from South Africa. I know how difficult decision it was for anyone involved given the unpredictability of PFDJ policies within the country and abroad. Under PFDJ, this scenario is similar to that of someone abandoning the national service from his/her military post and then his/her family member being arrested for it.
Many students were indeed sent to South Africa for a scholarship which was a remote controlled program by PFDJ. They managed it like what they do with their high school program in Sawa. When we departed from Eritrea, we were told what to study and there was no proper orientation. Some of us ended up in colleges and universities that did not provide the type of study we were assigned to. Many students were made to wait idle for 6 month, doing nothing, until another university was identified. Some of us were forced to join study programs we were not interested in and this created unnecessary stress. The worst of these was when students were told to finish their program of study on the originally prescribed time without considering problems the students were facing. As a result of these, some students were forced to return to Eritrea before completing their study program: wastage of money and precious time.
Things went from bad to worse when Mr Gerahtu Tesfamicael was assigned Eritrean ambassador to South Africa. Instead of trying to solve problems, he created more confusion among students. Innocent-looking Mr Gerahtu made personal friends among students to spy on student loyalties (looking innocent and making friends is his special talent). He managed to suspend stipend of many students. Some students who applied for entry visas to travel to Europe or America were abducted from their residences and deported back to Eritrea. This is something that one would not expect but PFDJ are good in doing evil. They managed to corrupt South African security personnel for their evil activities. It was also worth noting the request made by Eritrean authorities to the South African academic institutions not to issue student certificates and diplomas on completion of the study programs. Although some of those institutions refused such a request, others did not and the certificates and diplomas were actually sent back to Eritrea. That means some students were forced to return under the arrangement described.
There were many PFDJ sponsored propaganda meetings held during my two years M.Sc. program in South Africa, one of which was with Isayas Afeworki, the Eritrean president in Durban in July 2002. I was one of the students who asked the president about the deteriorating situation in our home country, concerning the national service in particular. The president was in the country for other purpose and an arrangement was made for the students to meet him. In my humble question, referring to the social effects of the national service on parents and participant’s own families, I indicated that the program could be handled better. After explaining how the program was run, the president told us that each national service participant was paid 1300 Nakfa per month. It was a white lie.
We, the students in the Durban meeting, knew that the president’s response to my question was a deception and sarcasm as most of us were members of the national service program before we came to South Africa. That meeting was also the occasion when we were told not to come back home if we chose to do so as the government could hire expats from Asian countries. It was a very discouraging message and it was a clear indication that the authorities were not interested to build the capacity of the nation. Last week, 13 years after our Durban meeting, I heard the president make sarcastic pronouncements about the constitution that was drafted and approved by the people and then shelved away by him. He tried to act as if he understands the importance of a constitution better than anybody else. All these things show how irresponsible and blatant liars president Isayas and his PFDJ clique were then and are today when they communicate with the people.
I take this opportunity to pay my tribute to my fellow student, Hussein Mohammed, who put forward a question to the president at the Durban meeting, and died later tragically. He asked the president about his father’s arrest and disappearance. He was polite in stating the question. I am sure anyone of us would ask the same question at the time if our parent was taken away by security personnel and disappear. He just wanted to know if the president knew about it and when his father would be brought to court if he did anything wrong. The president’s response was hostile and threatening. Although Hussein’s death was in a car accident, he suffered tremendously as a result of what followed. His stipend was suspended and he couldn’t continue to finish his study program. As for me, by then I had already completed my master’s program and was planning to return to Eritrea. Despite all the challenges I had gone through and the fact that the Eritrean president showed up his ugly personality in the meeting described above, I was still blindly optimistic about my country and returned back. I thought I would contribute and make a difference in the lives of my countrymen especially the young.
I returned to the University of Asmara at the end of 2002 and started to work as a lecturer. By then, my friends whom I left in Asmara working as journalists including Mattewos Habteab, Medhanie Haile and Yusuf Mohamed Ali were already imprisoned (and their fate remains unknown to this date). These men were brilliant, young and motivated new graduates from the University of Asmara and, like many other innocent Eritreans, they were taken away from the society because they believed in freedom. It was also the aftermath of the mass arrest of the University students. After their release from Wia, the students were traumatized and were not in a proper mental status to learn. I found the students calm and non-responsive. Under ideal and western-world standards, they should have been de-briefed and rehabilitated first (I do not know which type of world PFDJ belongs to!). I do not wish these type of cruelty to the sons and daughters of PFDJ supports so that their parents would see what PFDJ stands for but these are facts of everyday live in PFDJ’s Eritrea today.
Like any other staff at the university, despite the obvious challenges, I continued to carry-on teaching. The university was already under threat of closure. Some Eritrean expats from the diaspora who used to work for the university had left. Dr. Welde-ab Issak, the then president of the university, did not return from an overseas trip in 2004. Following this, the academic administration and the non-academic management offices became rivals; one reporting to the office of the minister of education and the other to the president’s office; one giving promotion to academic staff and the other withdrawing it. None of them bothered of the threat of closure of the university, the future of the staff or the students. Money of us felt helpless and PFDJ managed to fully infiltrate the university at all levels.
I did not know where Dr. Wolde-Ab Isaac has been since he left the University of Asmara. But last year, I found out that he was working for a certain US college in California, and as I expected, as an acting president. This power hungry person always goes for administrative posts despite his qualification in science. I do not mean this is a taboo but from my experience, Dr Wolde-ab does not have administrative qualities. He would be better suited for a military general than an academician or administrator. He was an arrogant person who did not have any relationship with his staff or the students and was better known for intimidation of staff at the University and demobilization of government employees without compensation in other government institutions.
While at the University of Asmara, Dr Wolde-ab did not care about academic issues. I don’t remember him chairing a discussion on academic issues during the time I worked as a lecturer but only PFDJ sponsored functions. Every time someone approaches him with a question, he does his best in belittling the individual by going into side issue instead of addressing the concerns raised. No one denies that he is an excellent orator but he uses his talent only to intimidate others. When I spoke about him to people who knew him while he was at the Uppsala University in Sweden, their response was, “…well, what do you expect from Wolde-ab”, no surprise at all.
Back to my personal issues: in 2004, I was offered an opportunity to pursue a PhD program at the University of Cape Town where I obtained my master’s degree before. But then the management at the University of Asmara refused to let me go. As we all know, the immigration office in Eritrea considers exit visa applications if accompanied by employer’s institutional letter of support. They use such kind of bureaucracy and tactics to legitimize their suppressive administration, and hence I could not get that letter. When I came back from South Africa at the end of 2002, I was called at the university’s management office to tell about my experience. I believe my honest communication at the time was taken out of context and above all, I was questioning the wisdom of the country’s president while in South Africa.
In 2006, after 4 years of working for the university, I was again refused permission to leave for a PhD scholarship. To make matters worse, the University was officially closed in September of that same year and the academic staff were told to report to the other colleges run by the military. We, the staff were required to sign a document to guarantee compliance with the working environment at the MaiNefhi College or at the other sister colleges. That signing included bringing a parent or a spouse to sign to guarantee compliance. It was a serious matter as we all knew the intension of the authorities. On top of all these non-academic and degrading procedures, the working environment became so bad and unbearable for the staff and the students who were brought there. It was under these circumstances that I was forced to leave my family and my country by taking a dangerous route into the Sudan.
……..Part III will follow
Peace and Prosperity to the Eritrean people!!