Government in Perpetual Crisis

Government in Perpetual Crisis

By Dawit Mesfin

Presented at Brussels ‘Eritrea and the On-going Refugee Crisis’  Conference 

October 19th, 2017

Had I been given the opportunity to choose a topic of discussion for this conference instead of having one assigned to me by the organisers, I would have probably chosen a story that depicts the journey of my life which, partly, mirrors the story of Eritrea.  Basically, I would have described the highs and lows of my life experiences.  I would have shared with the audience how I was spared from joining the armed struggle; how I turned into a refugee in the mid ’70s; how I started my own family in Mannheim, Germany and lastly, why I have not returned to Eritrea after independence.

Let me go back to the task at hand for now.  This account may not be part of the current refugee crisis per se, but it is certainly part of the on-going crisis which is producing refugees year in and year out. The task I have been given is to explain how Eritrea ended up having a government that is in perpetual crisis – a huge undertaking for a ten-minute presentation.  Let me tell you a story instead that is somehow related to the subject matter – one that depicts a picture of what Eritrea is like from a different perspective, so to speak.   This is the story of the selfless Eritrean mothers of Rome and the Mannheimer Cadres.

Eritrean Mothers of Rome

To Eritreans nothing was more sacred than gaining independence during the armed struggle. Like a well-oiled system, the EPLF (the fighting force) mobilised the majority of Eritreans living abroad in networks of mass organisations that provided services, financial and material support to the combatants.  The system built around the Eritreans Mothers of Rome was one of the sturdiest strongholds of the EPLF. Basically, the mothers, rather selflessly, gave up their own personal interests in order to advance the cause of the EPLF.

The majority of Eritreans who lived and worked in Italy prior to independence were women.  Almost all worked as domestic workers. The majority had either little or no education; and many of them were childless.   Moreover, in a cruel twist of fate, they ended up becoming the sacrificial lambs of the armed struggle.  Seeing the way ahead, the mothers were ready to answer the call of the times, study living philosophy in the course of actual struggle.  Although they lacked formal education, they mustered enough courage to walk along the 'Commissars' to turn Marxist philosophy into a sharper ideological weapon.  All the mothers could marshal was a set of terminologies whose concepts they failed to fully comprehend - concepts such as mass and class struggles, bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie ... etc.  However, they were so committed they became the most significant donors to the cause.

Fast-forwarding the story, after years of intense and costly struggle, Eritrea finally gained its independence. I clearly remember 24 May, 1991 – the images of that very day when our combatants rolled into towns as the enemy beat a retreat.  I was in Mannheim then.  The event was surreal.  And the elated community members celebrated for days on end.  We all thought that historic event would usher in a new era for all of us.  Yes, we thought we would be heading home soon.  However, it turned out that the conclusion of that tumultuous journey was not what Eritreans expected, to say the least; all those who sacrificed for the cause were left to their fate.  What happened to the Eritrean mothers of Rome?

Eritrean mothers of Rome, like many others all over Italy, who embodied the national ideal of steadfastness and rootedness to the land, were among those who longed to go back after independence - those who put their personal interest on hold, those who campaigned with all their might, those who contributed a percentage of their income regularly.   Unfortunately, the majority never made it back to Eritrea.  They were impeded from returning by the impenetrable bureaucracy that the new leaders introduced in the country.  Moreover, the signals the mothers had received were that the country was not ready to integrate them back into the Eritrean society.  Sadly, they quietly became aware of the fact that independence was slowly turning into a hollow reality for them.  Their dream was to build a home in Eritrea one day where they would serenely spend the last part of their long journey in their country.  Now, 26 years after independence, and with no end in sight, many of them are still dreaming of going back home at some point.  Many died in Italy and others are still lost at the strange confluences of duplicities.

Such experiences demonstrate that the self-absorbed government does neither have a plan nor a structure in place that accommodates self-reliant citizens with the potential to invest into the country’s economy.  It simply neglected the mothers.  That very neglect offended the basic values of Eritrea's essence. Under normal circumstances, the government would assume the responsibility to provide safe settings for long-lost citizens and facilitate safe return for the self-sufficient mothers who were ready and willing to return home.

The Case of the Mannheimer Cadres

As already mentioned, the much anticipated mass return migration of diaspora Eritreans to the land of their birth did not materialise as expected.  A similar occurrence was observed with returnees from Germany who were supported by German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) to return to Eritrea to help in the reconstruction efforts of the country.  The project was fully financed by the German government. Many labelled it as an enabling strategy for resettlement then.  Regrettably, the project failed and the majority of the returnees who took part in in the project had to return back to Germany.

Manneim, the Square City, is Baden-Wurttemberg’s second-largest city after Stuttgart which is located at the confluence of the Rhine and the Neckar.  The emblem of the city of Mannheim is the cylindrical Wasserturm (water tower), which is located in Friedrichsplatz. The beautiful fountain and the park around it remain etched on my memory.  However, my first memory of Mannheim was not the Wasserturm, but the existence of the multitudes of ‘guest workers’ from Greece, Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia, and how the city managed the shaping of the coexistence of these different cultures.  Like the 'guest workers' of Mannheim, I, like many fellow Eritreans, got off to a good start in life with the opportunity the city bestowed on me.  My three children were born in Mannheim. I will always be indebted to the city for standing by me in my hour of need. 

There is a dark side to this story of Mannheim though.  The Eritrean community of Mannheim was ruled by a group of hard-nosed, brash, militant clique bent on making one’s life miserable if he or she did not toe the EPLF line.  They ‘policed’ the community punitively.  I often catch myself thinking of this group of activists who acted along the lines of ‘Eritrea or death’.  Much to everyone’s surprise, after independence none of the agents returned back to Eritrea.  Now they live a life delineated with painful experiences.  An empty life indeed!  Yes, 26 years later, the country is still not ‘ready’ for them.  There is just something obvious about emptiness, even when one tries to convince himself/herself otherwise.

If one can truly understand the dilemma of the Mothers of Rome and the Mannheimer Cadres, then it becomes evident why Eritreans are continually fleeing the country in droves.