The Catapult – 2 – March of the Dark Brigade

Dear Morning,

“… tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death”

The quote is from Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the light brigade”. It says that, though the soldiers knew someone had made a mistake, their role was not to comment or to question but to obey and give up their life. They charged into the ‘valley of death’, the poem narrates a true story from the Crimean War (from nearly a couple of centuries ago, not the recent Crimean crisis).

Can so few lines encapsulate so aptly the situation of so many in Eritrea today? We normally may admire a valiant self-sacrificial charge in extreme situations where the whole endeavour might be lost otherwise. Isn’t it true of humans that we’re quick to praise sacrifice, yet are hard pressed to be the sacrificial offering ourselves? I once heard it said that “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die”. Let not these words be misconstrued as a rally to sacrificial fervour, I wish only to prompt the reader into truly considering what sacrifice means. In this vein, let me ask you, is it sacrifice and worthy of praise if you have no choice in the matter?

Presumably, one who volunteered for a cause and gave their life for it is usually seen as a hero or at least remembered in grateful terms (here I’m thinking of a just cause, whatever that may philosophically be). This initiative for the sacrifice might come from a proxy, such as a commander. To have something tangible in mind, so to speak, let us consider those icons of sacrifice during the battle for Massawa, who charged the bridge and gave up their lives so that the offensive may be successful. The story goes they took the initiative, but if it had come from a commander that would be an instance of a proxy initiative because, I think it’s safe to assume, they volunteered to fight to the death for freedom by joining the liberation movement and would take whatever position they would be assigned. But what if they hadn’t? What if they had been enlisted by force and then ordered to charge the bridge? In fact, the reality of the battle was such that if not them directly, their platoon or company was probably ordered to capture the position. Strategically that still might have been a sound judgement by a commander, and assuming unmotivated soldiers still managed to achieve the same result, would they be seen as heroes?

It is important to understand that I am not considering how each of us might feel about the situation or the reverence we might endow on their memory. I am exploring how we think of the role someone inhabits. I am asking you to think about this with me: the people would be the same and with the same knowledge that they will die, the action would be the same and the outcome would be the same. However, in one scenario the soldiers are in the role of the stereotypical hero, in the other they are obedient, even if fully aware, pawns. Here I shall not go deeper into the consideration of the value and dignity, or lack thereof, of blind obedience, save to share the example of Kazou Ishiguro’s character of Stevens from his 1989 book ‘The Remains of the Day’: Stevens is a proud butler who continues to obey even when it slowly becomes apparent that his employer is a Nazi sympathiser, or when he blindly fires colleagues for being Jews, or misses his father’s funeral because being perfect at his job requires him to be at work rather than burying his father. Stevens is even apologetic, in the excusing sense, of his master. Stevens is a character we feel sorry for, and the book is about regret: perhaps he should’ve questioned the role he inhabited and what it required of him.

Steven’s character helps us think of obedience, and the slow realisation of the un-praiseworthiness of the action someone might be asked, or demanded, to do. Combine that with the awareness of someone who didn’t volunteer to perform the action or inhabit the role. Enter the Eritrean population, reluctant butlers… though reluctant brigade might be more apt. Eritrea is heavily militarised, almost all of its citizens are conscripts. Unlike the individuals who with their tanks drove into their certain death for a cause however, today’s Eritrean conscripts are assigned the role of the sacrificial pawn. This sacrifice might not be, although it often is, of blood but of time and life spent in servitude and deadly poverty. The dark brigade knows there’s nothing but destruction ahead, it knows those who made the decision of going this route have made a vicious mistake (‘blunder’ seems too innocent, whereas innocence here does not apply), yet this militarised population keeps going along, obeying. I call it the dark brigade. Even if in Tennyson’s poem ‘light’ refers to the mobility of the unit, I am using ‘dark’ in the racial sense. Eritreans are racialised as ‘black’ because of our dark skin and African-ness and this plays a not insignificant role in our current predicament. For although we may find those who join us in voicing our grief, the assigned race and geographical position still plays an important factor in decisions taken by those who stand to profit from our continued oppressive militarisation.

The dark brigade has by now realised and knows the sinister nature of those it is made to serve, and it’s not made to charge but rather to march along in any way and direction it is told to, even in perpetual servitude. But must it continue to obey? Once the narrative of heroism’s sheen is exposed to be but an old tactic to blind the people into submission, once the role is understood and the purpose unveiled… does the dark brigade continue to march into its valley of death?

 

Yours sincerely,

Sham

 

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The Catapult – 1 – YPFDJ in Holland

Dear Morning,

On April 16th 2017 the YPFDJ’s (Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice) European Organising Committee published a statement about the events around its planned 13th Annual Conference. The statement, published on the Eritrean Ministry of Information’s website, was concerning the interruption of the YPFDJ conference by the Mayor of the host city Veldhoven, Netherlands.

The YPFDJ is the youth branch of the PFDJ (the only party in power since Eritrea’s independence), operating mainly in the diaspora. Its counter-part within the country is the National Union of Eritreans Youth and Students (NUEYS), of which membership is mandatory for all youth whilst in school and before joining the indefinite military service. The YPFDJ has often been compared with the Hitler-Jugend, the Fascist Opera Nazionale Balilla or the Soviet Komsomol, and it certainly shares in the fact that it is part and parcel of the authoritarian party. YPFDJ is well known for being a key instrument of the PFDJ and for disseminating its propaganda as well as recruiting young Eritreans in the diaspora. Although it fronts as a youth organisation, a large number of its members are adults well above their mid-30s. Much like the 20th century organisations mentioned, it too has ‘enforcers’ who call themselves ‘Eri Bloods’ and serve to intimidate people who speak against Isaias Afweki (the party chairman and unelected president of Eritrea since independence in 1991) and their party. Despite all this, the organisation serves to advocate the interests of the party by lobbying in the name of democracy, justice and human rights. Isaias Afwerki’s regime, of which the YPFDJ is an important component in the diaspora, has been accused of crimes against humanity including slavery; Eritreans who flee the country continuously criticise his government for violating many of their basic human rights.

The statement claims the Dutch authorities violated the “basic rights of assembly and freedom of expression” of the conference participants. The statement repeatedly emphasised the fact that the participants of the conference are Eritrean-European, in order to establish that European authorities are violating the rights of fellow European citizens. These are, however, Eritreans that are being criticised by their fellow Eritreans for not acknowledging the human rights violations happening in the country. In Eritrea there is no right of assembly, any gathering may be deemed illegal and the participants arrested with no explanation or trial. There is also lack of freedom of expression: leaving aside the well-known fact of absence of free press in the country and prominent cases of journalists arrested arbitrarily, anyone found saying anything against the government may be arrested and made to disappear. That Eritreans supporting a regime which denies such rights complain about the lack of their ability to enjoy them is sadly ironic. It is evident they recognise the importance of these rights, and yet they gather in conferences organised by the sole ruling party in Eritrea whose leader, Isaias Afwerki, denied the existence of free press on TV.

The organisers of the conference also accused the Dutch authorities of abusing their power and to have acted unconstitutionally. The organisers must have missed this irony too, as the ratified yet not implemented Eritrean constitution is not in effect in the country. This instrument designed to safeguard the Eritrean people from the abuse of power they suffer daily from the PFDJ has been shelved ever since it was drafted in 1997. Many of the human rights Eritreans are supposed to enjoy are actually written down in the Eritrean constitution, yet no rule of law governs the country and those running the country have been abusing their power since 1991.

The YPFDJ accused activists like Mirjam Van Reisen and the Dutch media of instigating regime change in Eritrea and of choreographing the Eritrean demonstrators. Claims like these try to nullify the voices of Eritreans who are discontented with the PFDJ regime, in an attempt to paint an image of lack of real opposition against the government. Of course, the statement itself is contradictory: it claims that the protestors were recently arrived asylum seekers, and yet it also claims that the protestors were scornful and obsessed individuals who campaigned against the government for 20 years. Of particular note, at one point the statement asserts that Van Reisen advised the protestors via social media and the evidence of this has “been fully recorded”. This sentence is a commonly used euphemism by the PFDJ government to intimidate Eritreans. It says “You’ve done something we don’t like and you should know we will not forget nor forgive.” It puts pressure on those Eritreans to ingratiate themselves to the PFDJ in order to make up for the supposed transgression by doing and saying things that might not be in their interest. Within the country it results in people being silent in fear while their rights are being violated.

The participants were made to evacuate the venue by the Mayor of Veldhoven in the late evening, and the YPFDJ organisers raise a complaint about being left stranded and dumbfounded in the middle of the night. They also claim that the protesters that showed up to demonstrate against the conference were recently arrived asylum seekers. These asylum seekers had to cross the Eritrean border in journeys that take days as they try to stay hidden from the border guards who have a shoot to kill policy, not to mention their trip through desert and sea to reach a safe place. It is admirable that the organisers care about people being stranded, though it begs the question: how many times must these asylum seekers have been left stranded, literally, by the shores of North Africa and Europe, dumbfounded by their suffering and that of their friends, family and fellow travellers? How many times were they hopeless, lost in the middle of the night? They were escaping from Eritrea because they could not enjoy human rights such as freedom of movement, which the organisers of the conference wanted to enjoy too. A message Eritreans get from their government is indeed: “being an aggressor and committing violence by a few people can pay off to reach one’s goal of disrupting meetings of law abiding citizens”; a message which the organisers believe was aimed at them by the Dutch authorities.

The statement condemns the actions of the Dutch authorities of committing treachery towards them, for denying them such basic human rights and putting their safety in danger. In a hypocritical move, during another conference the YPFDJ held in Stockholm on May 1st 2017, the organisers violently pulled a young Eritrean lady from their midst, abused her verbally and denied her the right to ask questions to the speakers in the event, an event that welcomed “all Eritreans” in its poster. To make matters worse, one of the men who forcibly removed her from the venue robbed her of her notebook and kicked her when she screamed as they tried to drag her into an empty room. Such was the care given by the organisers, which were the same for both events, for human rights such as those of speech and expression, or safety of Eritreans.

The YPFDJ organisers promise to seek redress for the injustice they claim to have suffered. If we are to judge by the published statement and those of the speakers in Stockholm, the organisers and the participants who praise Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ have perhaps felt a fraction of a sample of what it feels like to be denied assembly and other rights. If through the events of Veldhoven they’ve felt a new appreciation of these rights, maybe in the future their sympathies will lie with those who lack them every day.

 

Sincerely yours,

Sham