An Interview with Dawit Mesfin, member of G-13
"We did talk to him man to man. There was no other way to talk to him except the way we did.
- Dawit Mesfin on his meeting with President Isaias Afwerki
Thirteen Eritrean professionals and scholars met in a hotel in Berlin in late September 2000 to brainstorm about the Eritrean reality. At the conclusion of their session, the 13 Eritreans sent a private letter to the President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, itemizing the shortcomings of his leadership style, his administration and the role of the intelligentsia and suggested ways to disentangle Eritrea from the mess it is in. Within days, the letter was leaked and brouhaha ensued in the Eritrean cyber media: the letter was termed the ‘Berlin Manifesto’ and the group labeled ‘G-13’. The president responded by inviting the G-13 to a meeting at a mutually convenient time and place which ended up being either November 23rd or November 24th in Asmara, Eritrea. 11 members of the ‘G-13’ attended the meeting: one has publicly disavowed her association with the group and the other, although supportive and still a member could not attend the meeting.
Shortly after the conclusion of the meeting in Asmara, Dawit Mesfin, a member of the ‘G-13’, agreed to be interviewed by Awate.com. Saleh AA Younis, a columnist at Awate.com, conducted the interview that follows.
DETAILS, DETAILS & SAFETY
When did you travel to Eritrea?
I left London on 20 Nov 2000 and arrived at Asmara airport on the next day.
You have dual citizenship. Did your travel documents reflect those of your native country or your adopted country?
I lived in Germany for many years before I moved to England. I have German citizenship and at the same time I carry an Eritrean ID card. When I travelled to Asmara I had my German passport and Eritrean ID card with me. As I arrived n Asmara I was informed that as long as I have an Eritrean ID card and I am in Eritrea I automatically fall under the Eritrean jurisdiction subject to the laws of Eritrea.
Did you or your family members express concern for your safety or liberty?
Yes, everyone except myself. My family, friends, relatives and even people in government I know advised me not to travel to Eritrea. Of course, I took the necessary precautions by notifying German officials and other agencies about my travel plans and the risks that lay ahead.
THE PRE-MEETING MEETING & OTHER PRIORITIES
Let me take you to the group’s activities now. Did the group have an elected spokesperson?
No. We did have a member who presided over our private meetings during our private deliberations, that is prior to meeting the president. We also had another member who presented our introductory letter during our meeting with the president.
Did you have a list of "talking points"?
Yes, all the issues we raised in the document. We had conferences, continuous conferences on how to go about the meeting with the president. Not to compromise the issues but to defend them. We were very well prepared.
So you travelled to Eritrea on the 21st of November. When did you get to meet President Isaias?
On the 25th. Our meeting was set between the 22nd and the 24th. Unfortunately, he met us outside the given date--a few hours before our departure time.
What did you do between the 21st and the 25th?
For two days we had preparatory meeting. The third day we used to visit relatives and other things. I chose to visit prisoners.
Prisoners that you know?
Yes, prisoners I know. Two of them. I also asked about the whereabouts of a prisoner whose sister campaigned hard for his release in Dehai without any success. I also met with many people including high government officials whose names I am not at liberty to reveal.
Your so-called "Berlin Manifesto" took pains to emphasize that your criticism was directed to the leadership of the GoE [Government of Eritrea] but had strong solidarity with the EDF [Eritrean Defence Forces] and condemned the Ethiopian Government for its criminal act. Did you take advantage of the time you had to visit the EDF?
We did consider visiting the front during our stay two or three times. In fact, we had a member who felt strongly about the visit. Unfortunately, it did not materialize and I will tell you the reason. The reason is we thought it would look awkward, given our position; it would look as if we are being political opportunists. We were concerned that people would think we were trying to exploit the situation. The second time the issue was raised, some members were ready to ask for permission for the visit. By then General Sebhat Ephrem was not available--he was in Sawa for the graduation of military officers. So the only option was to go as individuals not as a group. I do not think any member managed in making a successful escape to the front. Now, in retrospect, I think we made a mistake and we really should have gone to the front regardless of what people thought.
How were you received by common Eritreans--the so-called "Hafash?" Your family members? Your friends?
As an individual, well my family is always my family - they were there for me. I was very surprised that there were Tegadelti friends and family friends who came to meet me at the airport. It was a gratifying feeling. But there were also security people who work at the immigration office--with security badges--including one I knew. It seemed like we were casually approached as if to figure out who came and who did not from the group. In short there were security people around; it was a bit intimidating at first but those are the facts. As for the "hafash" (the masses), much to my surprise, people knew why we were there and they were pleasant. Actually, "haye telazebu" (make peace with the President) was the advice of the elderly and some of the villagers I came across. I thought my friends were going to avoid me for my critical stand and again, much to my surprise, they did not give a hoot whether they were going to be seen in my company or not. In fact, I had a good time with my friends.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
How were you received by President Isaias Afwerki and his advisors?
I am not aware of any of them showing any interest in our visit. Actually, it felt as if the president himself was hesitant to meet us. The meeting was held on the 25th at 2:00 in the afternoon. Despite our effort in contacting his office on the 22nd, we did not get any reply in time. On the 23rd we learned that he left for the IGAD meeting; and his office declined to tell us of his schedule--in fact, his secretary said she didn’t know when he was coming back. The only reason I knew he left town is a friend of mine saw him on his way to the airport and a journalist friend of mine confirmed his departure. In any event, we met the day after he came back from his IGAD meeting at 2:00 - no, actually, at 3:00 in the afternoon of the 25th. We met in Denden--the old Officer’s Club.
Did the security people search you before you went in to meet him?
No. They didn't even ask for an ID card. [Although]They had no way of knowing who we were. Someone showed us the room and we walked in and waited. I think being casual is the norm. Besides, I also realized that the president knew most of the group members personally.
How long was the meeting?
About an hour and a half.
Who was there besides the G-11 and the President?
No one else. I was surprised, actually; I actually thought that the president would be accompanied by his close new advisers such as Hagos, Yemane, Zemheret …etc.
You mean there wasn’t even a secretary to take notes?
No one. I don’t think the president wanted to document the event.
INSIDE THE LION’S DEN
What was the atmosphere of the meeting?
The president was wearing very casual clothes and a pair of sandals. At first he seemed a bit nervous. He went around shaking hands and said hello. He sat down and said "inquaE bdeHan meSa'kum" (welcome). And of course, he chaired the meeting. Soon after, according to our plan, we wasted no time to read our letter first.
A letter that we prepared while we were going through our preparations in Asmara.
What was the content of your letter?
I do not wish to go over our letter in its entirety but in essence it explained how our group came into existence; that we represent no political group but ourselves; that we are not a political group. It also re-iterated our concerns as expressed in the document and that we stand by the issues we raised in the letter. Our letter explicitly expressed our willingness to help our government and our country as much as possible. And of course, it expressed our displeasure at the unfortunate leaking of the original letter to the public and we categorically denied that the group had anything to do with its leak. In fact, we stressed that the letter was sent under registered mail to the president and a copy was submitted to Ambassador Semere in Washington DC three days prior to its leak.
Did the letter also express dissatisfaction at the way you were treated by the government media?
When we talk about the government media can you tell us what exactly was said about you? And in what periodicals?
It was in most of the local newspapers. The two government-owned newspapers that I know of are "Hadas Eritra" and "Eritrea Profile." Many more, I think, are heavily self-censored and present biased views. They took turns in flogging us. I am not sure if any major pieces were written by the information ministry, so to speak, but letters to the editor that blasted us as traitors--pretty much what you hear in Dehai, were plentiful. I believe our case was also raised on the radio.
Did you get a chance to defend yourselves in the Eritrean media?
There was a plan to see reporters from Eri TV. I know of a member who approached the TV crew to inform them that we were available for interviews - of course after our meeting with the President, for we had decided it would be meaningless to meet with the media before our meeting with the president. I think they were apprehensive of our stand and showed no interest in us.
Do you mean ‘meaningless’ or did you think it would be ‘provocative’ to meet with the media before you met with the president?
We would have had invaluable information to share with the public but realizing how tightly controlled our mass media is I sort of knew beforehand that it was a hopeless case to defend ourselves publicly through them.
Was it disappointing not to have access to the media?
I think they were not interested in the same way that the president was not interested. As far as the public was concerned, from the people I talked to, they were hungry for news about what the so-called ‘G13’ was doing. I think the ‘ignore-them’ strategy that was adopted by the president and the government media was designed to see us go through a roller-coaster ride and leave town exhausted. Fortunately we stuck right through it - we stayed. In fact, I was scheduled to leave on the 24th but I had to extend my stay by two more days. Besides, we did not want people to think we were teAbeyti (acting uppity.) The most interesting thing that happened after the meeting was everybody wanted to know how the meeting went. I was stopped by some friends as I drove to my place. At home I was also met by a group of people eagerly waiting to learn about the meeting outcome and the telephone continuously rang off its hook. But I was too busy packing and I had no time to brief them on what transpired in the meeting.
And why was it necessary to point out to the president that the government press is writing critical notes about you?
Personally, this wasn't that important to me. You see, the media pretty much follow his acts and await signals to go ahead with which news to cover. We just wanted to make it clear to the president that the media does a good job in scaring concerned and critical citizens away. It was more or less to indicate that the government hasn't prepared a forum for criticism and diversified opinions, which I believe it should as soon as possible.
2 MONTHS OF MEETINGS, 2000 MILES OF TRAVEL, & THEN
Let’s go back to the meeting. You read the letter. Then what?
Then the president read his. He took a piece of paper out of his pocket that he said he had just typed it in his home computer. You will have to excuse me now for I am not prepared to disclose the contents of the president’s letter.
I cannot say. What I can say is that the president’s letter prompted us to discuss issues that we were not prepared to address. I can also say that the discussion that followed for the rest of the hour was mostly on who and how the letter was leaked.
For about an hour?!
I think the leak was more important to the president than the actual issues raised in our document.
Let’s discuss the atmosphere of the meeting. Did he look visibly upset or was the discussion of the leak a way to keep you off-guard?
I think it was a deliberate act to change the subject. I know for a fact that he knows that we did not do it. I was quite surprised to hear him tell us that he got an open letter in an email format. This is strange because we sent him a letter via DHL which we sent him at least 3 days before it appeared in Dehai. As I have already mentioned it, Ambassador Semere in Washington DC received it as well; we have got receipts to prove that.
I think the president was visibly annoyed why we did not contact him privately. He asked, "why didn't you come and see me? You know my door is always open." It was clear to me that what he meant by that was why we didn't visit him individually? His wish was to go and see him one by one, not collectively. He admonished us for the way we approached him, that is, according to him the "networking" or "grouping" of people is not helpful to our people. Perhaps he meant that groups pose threat to his politics.
How did you respond to that?
We informed the president that it wasn't so. We said the door is not as open as he thinks it is. Actually, it was mentioned it was not appropriate; that we were surprised we were being told off because we were sharing our concerns with him regarding things that people in the streets, in their households and abroad and in the government talk about but don't share with him. We argued that he should praise us rather than condemn us. Such accusations from him engaged us to take turns in defending ourselves rather than address the issues and time was ticking. Can you imagine, we were defending our position?! Looking back, I think it was a calculated thing to get us off-guard. One could tell, he was very relaxed by then.
So, he was in his element then?
Oh, yes, because now he was in total control. He was putting us on the defensive.
He would charge and we would defend. And we had done defending, he would charge again. It was very clever.
How was the meeting concluded?
This is the most difficult part. He agreed in principle that the issues raised in our document were valid and of course, their validity depended on ‘truth’ and ‘evidenced matters’, as he put it. He echoed his sentiment that the public should be well-informed and engaged but that seemed a bit far-fetched for he did not specify how that could be done. As we made an effort to engage him on the real issues he sort of made it clear that he did not want to get into a political 'Enklil' (going round and round). At that point I understood, sorry to say, that he was not ready to deal substantive issues but side issues. That was the most difficult part to digest - quite a let-down. And of course, there are other facts and procedural matters that I do not wish to raise at this point.
The most important thing that happened was that "the issues mentioned"--broadly speaking, not specifically, were valid issues. That we had to present sufficient information and evidence to persuade people. First we are accused there is no evidence and didn’t know what we were talking about; then we are told that they are important issues that should be discussed in public fora. The public has to be informed--but it has to be information based on evidence. Until then, we could talk about the leak.
RUMORS LEAKED BY THE PRESIDENT’S OFFICE?
Speaking of leaks, I want to ask you to confirm or deny two rumors. Since they are not very flattering to ‘G-13’, we can assume the source was the president’s office. Rumor 1: Is it true that the group requested for a joint communique- with the President, which the president declined?
No. It is not. We did think about that in our discussion prior to the meeting. What we said to him was, "we want to reach a positive outcome that is helpful to our country. About issues that concern our nation; if nothing else but to discredit the enemy. But we were not going to compromise our principles."
Another rumor is that the group informed the President that they wish to have a follow-up meeting to which he sarcastically responded "and why would you want my permission for that." Is that true?
There were things said, plenty of them, but I don't remember this one particularly. In our group meeting a follow-up meeting has been proposed but we still need to iron out a few details. We certainly don't need the president’s permission for that; we have already proven that. I hope our next meeting is going to be in Asmara, of course, with a larger group.
Is it fair to say that the only agreement the G-11 and the president reached was to investigate who was behind the leaking of the original G-13 letter?
No. It was a positive thing that a group of Eritreans had a dialog with the president but apart from that, as far as I am concerned, our mission was not fully accomplished.
A GATECRASHING EXPERIENCE
Let's talk about the Press Release the Group issued. A writer to Awate.com equated it to groveling in front of a medieval court. I would like to ask you to look at this meeting objectively, if you could. If, after the conclusion of a meeting designed to iron out misunderstanding and improve communication, one of the parties involved issued a press release like the one the Group did, would you characterize that meeting as a failure or a debacle?
No, far from it. I wouldn’t say we were triumphant. Because clearly we did not succeed in presenting issues that were close to our heart. From that perspective, we clearly failed.
The mission was successful because we managed, as a group, to get the president’s attention. This has never been done before, as you know. Through that we also managed to get public attention. Everybody knew about what we were in Asmara for. That was a success. To me that was a very first step towards ‘ironing out misunderstanding’ as you put it. We did talk to him man to man. There is no other way to talk to him except the way we did. Actually we got him to listen and he acknowledged that he read our letter with utmost interest repeatedly during our discussion. Even though he didn't appreciate our position but he listened. The mission was successful from that aspect. To get outspoken people like me to see him and meet with him, which is contrary to what most loyalists' wish was a success. I think a myth was broken. Smashed. All the myth builders were embarrassed. More importantly, this was a gatecrashing experience. It was like a popular football game and people are waiting outside the stadium and they manage to bring down the gates and get in. Last but not least, not only did we get his attention but the attention of people very close to him. They were very interested and they looked at the matter very positively.
THE UN: MID-WIFE OR FUNERAL DIRECTOR?
Let’s talk about something unrelated to your visit but I’ll ask it because you've had an opportunity to meet with the president, however briefly and, besides you just came back from home. What is the morale of our people? What, in their opinion, is the status of the "peace process"? Are they resigned to a "no peace, no war" outcome? Is there a war fever in preparation for the "4th Offensive"? Are they optimistic about peace?
They are very hopeful. In Asmara you see nothing but the UNMEE. You see the white four-wheel drives everywhere. The trust is not in our government but the UN. There is some sign of health in the economy. At least UNMEE officials are renting villas, hiring local citizens and spending money. It may sound exaggerated but it seems to me that our people have more hope in God above and of course the UN rather than in the government.
Are you optimistic about the future of Eritrea?
I cannot say I am either optimistic or pessimistic. I know for a fact that the president is not ready for change. But I have seen people--people from within--who are ready for change. The liberal-minded and people who can confront the president are on the move. That gives me hope. We outsiders cannot do much. It is the insiders--the liberals--that have to do something. My view is those who are sidelined now, have to get together and confront the president as soon as possible - they are the hope for my optimism. Issues of democracy, reconciliation should be sped up. I hope the preparations for the upcoming elections will soon be set in motion. I haven't seen anything--nothing-to indicate there is any preparation being made at the government level to introduce democracy.
Some analysts say that the breakthrough to the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict is either (1) a UN-mandated Demarcation that looks like International Court arbitration or (2) an International Court arbitration that looks like a UN-mandated demarcation giving both Eritrea and Ethiopia an opportunity to claim victory. The smart money says that the Clinton Administration is eager to bring this to fruition before they leave office. Would that kind of a last-minute, "surprise" deal strike you as likely, feasible or impossible? (Editors’ Note: The interview was conducted before the latest news announcement about the proposed peace signing ceremony in Algiers on December 12, 2000)
Very likely, actually. It is all based on pretense; it is not based on fairness, convictions, or issues of right or wrong. It is all a political game. A great deal of maneuvering and face saving.
Once a peace deal is achieved, is it your view that Eritrea (and Ethiopia for that matter) will concentrate on reconciling their people or declaring war on the temporarily neglected opposition?
Indirectly, that will be the case, I suspect. The current rulers will definitely come up with a system that will preserve their dynasty. And this will be done. Their focus will change from external enemy to internal enemy. I believe they will play their games and given their monopoly of the media, they can easily persuade the masses. The opposition have to work twice as hard...there are things that can be done from the outside. The opposition groups have to find ways and means--writing in Tigrigna and Arabic--to disseminate information. They have followers inside but they have to be able to penetrate inside our people’s minds. They have to do a much better job. If their focus is on citizens who are outside Eritrea then they will be confined to remain outside the country. Their heavy focus should be to talk to the people inside Eritrea not once, not ten times but a hundred times. It is very easy for the government to try to discredit the group and it will. The opposition groups shouldn't wait for an invitation from the government. They have to impose their presence on the Eritrean people, politically, intellectually and more - they owe it to our people. The power of the Internet is amazing and a lot can be accomplished by using it effectively. Although Awate.com is not pre-installed in people's Internet access in Asmara (Dehai and Visafric are advertised), eventually people will find ways to get the information.
Parting shots? Regrets?
I thank Awate.com for allowing me to have this interview.
My decision on whether I remain with the group is dependent on the next meeting. It is normal, there is a tug-of-war, everyone wants to pull and push people to a certain belief and values within the group. So far, so good - the group’s performance is more than I expected. I would like it to continue to exist as a pressure group; if we cannot do it, there is no reason to continue. I am hopeful, though. We have come a long way. To witness the fact that people in Eritrea, generally speaking, are more enlightened and open-minded than Eritreans outside is encouraging. For me, the next meeting is very crucial. We will have to do better. By the way, the views expressed above are just mine; they do not represent that of the group.