Thank you our heroes

Thank you our heroes

Mahmud Saleh

Thank you, our defense forces, you are not slaves; thank you our National Service heroes, you are not chattels; you are the proud Eritrean Defense Forces. I am deeply proud of you and appreciative of the services you are providing to our people and the sacrifices you are enduring under a difficult situation. Let me discuss the term slavery briefly before I proceed to the main matter.

Slavery is defined as:

  1. drudgery or toil
  2. submission to a dominating influence
  3. a: the state of a person who is a chattel of another

b: the practice of slaveholding; (

You may find similar definitions in other areas of study, but most dictionaries will indicate the above 3 categories: 1. Slavery in relationship to the nature of the work you do (according to this, most of us could be classified as slaves, I guess) 2. Slavery in relationship to mental or psychological control over subjects and resulting submissiveness or defeatist attitudes exhibited by the victim- may include modern forms of slavery, such as domestic workers’ abuse, sex traffic victims, debt bondage…etc. 3. The traditional system of slavery, a political and socioeconomic system.

Recently, I have come across an article that explains the objectives of a campaign that has deeply disturbed me. Before I proceed to share my thoughts regarding the campaign, let me say this: We may disagree with the government. Governments come and go; defense forces are of national status and importance, not of partisan domains; and therefore, they should be out of any political rows. We should not use them as pawns in any attacks we may make, in any “creative” approaches we design to awaken the “silent majority” in any fundraising activity, or just to outshine the next door non-profit or NGO. “STOP NATIONAL SERVICE SLAVERY IN ERITREA,” is one of the latest dumb and mad campaigns of the season; a blitz campaign that has reached all types of mass communications, just google it. The officially stated objective is to end slavery in Eritrea. The campaign defines National Slavery as an enslavement and calls upon the world to rally for the emancipation of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of young men and women who fought off Africa’s largest onslaught. The campaign implies that for reasons unknown, these well trained and armed young men and women of National Service have failed to recognize they are slaves, and thus, these well trained and armed members of National Service need enlightened heroes from capitals across Europe to emancipate them. That is how this “stop national service slavery” intends to recruit supporters. It is an outlandish cry. Isn’t it? When a friend brought this to my attention, I tried to study the issues raised by the campaign and its presentation, suppressing my initial reaction. In the end, I have come to the conclusion that the campaign is ill-defined, and tends to give the wrong impression for those who don’t know the culture and history of Eritrea. It appears that the campaign is taking advantage of genuine concerns of Eritreans regarding the nature of the government and calls for comprehensive change in Eritrea. Since the vilification of the National Service program itself is the target of the campaign, calling it slavery, and classifying its participants as slaves, it is appropriate to pose and think. Had the theme of the campaign been highlighting the endlessness nature of National Service, the abuse and misconducts within the program, or calling for a conscription program with an oversight and review by people’s representatives- meaning calling for democratic governance, I would take it as an appropriate and necessary undertaking. But it is not. It is labeling a huge portion of our population as slaves; it is suggesting that our armed forces are bonded and that they are enforcing their enslavement. Slavery is a cruel system. It is identified by a slaveholding society or persons, a total submission of the slaves, and a stratified economic relationship between those slaveholders and the enslaved. Slaves are owned, bought and sold as properties. Slaves don’t believe they are making a sacrifice for the common good; they know they are treated as property and would want to be free when they get the slimmest chance. They would want to use any means they could get to break free. I would like the reader to keep this in mind. If possible, process the following considerations about the National Service:

a, if you think they are owned by masters as property;

b, if you think that, even though are not physically owned, they, however, are dominated psychologically dominated; you think they believe and accept that they are slaves;

c/ Think if they would hesitate to use their weapons to free themselves if they felt they were enslaved. First off, let me tell you that I am writing this from my experience. I grew up in war. I understand the scars of war. I also understand that when your enemies fail to defeat you physically, they aim for your mental toughness; they know what makes a soldier a good soldier is not the gears he/she carries, but his/her mental preparedness and toughness. They aim to conquer you psychologically. During my years as a liberation fighter, I was at the receiving end of all types of propaganda intended to shake our steadfastness. They would use pamphlets and the radio telling us we were petrodollar wonbediewoch (petrodollar bandits) as if we were accomplishing Arabs’ dirty mission of subduing Abyssinia. They told us we were slaves of Issayas. They doubted that the fighters’ (your parents, as in ወለድኹም) endurance could be attributed to human resilience. Ethiopian commanders thought the toughness of the fighters was due to doping or drunkenness. Fighters who abandoned us and surrendered to the Ethiopians also did not help; they lied to their captors convincing them to continue the same propaganda. All in all it was boring lies. And it did not work; we got used to it. Do you see similar problem with the opposition propaganda? A smart propagandist thinks his opponent is smarter than him. A smart justice fighter should think that Eritrean people are immune to exaggerated and fabricated tactics. A justice fighter should not insult Eritreans’ intelligence. A justice fighter should not underestimate the astuteness of members of our defense forces. A justice fighter, definitely, would not call our National Service members slaves. I have great expectations from our young people. I hope you don’t repeat the same futile tactics the traditional opposition has been making for years. Those tactics have worn out; they are not going to work even if you push them to the limit. Because they do not have a receptive ear. Just ask yourself a question: this is how I see/understand it; do Eritreans inside the country see/understand it that way? If not how can I formulate my message in order for it to get a receptive ear? This includes your language, your stand on issues Eritreans inside the country consider existential: sovereignty, unity… and what you have. Therefore, when I write this piece, I am mindful of the role Eritrean youth is playing and I am grateful to your efforts. This article should not be considered as playing down, or discouraging your fight. But we need to talk seriously when serious issues are raised. That’s how we can widen the horizons of our views. While doing my little research about this campaign, I ran in to an article written by Luam Estefanos and posted on on January 20, 2014, which, I think, summarizes the theme of “Stop slavery” campaign. (The campaign’s website is: My thoughts are directed mainly to the campaign, but I will use some of the ideas Luam put forward which echo why the campaign defines National Service as slavery. I admire Luam for coming forward to share her thoughts with us. My focus will be on the ideas of the campaign and not on her, personally, (I do not know her). I look forward to reading other stimulating articles from her. “I‘ve been tamed to accept servitude and captivity systematically…….. but it took us some time to understand the full extent of the slavery, disguised as national service. It is only now that we have come to realize that we were nothing but mere slaves of the PFDJ regime.” (Luam, emphasis mine) “The war with Ethiopia has been used to justify…..Instead of encouraging and motivating people to redevelop and rebuild Eritrea by securing peace, law and order, the regime decided to repay our selfless contributions and sacrifices by condemning us to an eternity of slavery, brute and suffering. “ (Luam, emphasis mine). Yes, I agree with you, Luam, on the fact that since the end of the war in 2000, there exist conditions for nation building on the political front, too. I hear and read the regime’s explanation as to why it is not adhering to the time limit set for the program, dismissing young people who completed their compulsory 18 months service with honor. The regime explains the program has extended indefinitely for reasons of national security and nation building. It is appropriate to argue that nation building also includes building political infrastructure. Laying down bricks of institutional foundations is as important as laying down bricks for dams and roads. It is as important as laying down the basis for the rule of law. Definitely, there is legitimacy in your criticism, if you are calling for change in all fronts, including the endlessness of National Service. In addition to pressurizing your government, I feel Eritrea would be better served if you told Ethiopia equivocally to get started implementing the ruling of the Arbitration Court. Refusal of Ethiopia has been a formidable armor for the Eritrean government in absorbing all sorts of accusation, political or humanitarian. Ethiopia’s refusal of border demarcation is keeping our young people inside Eritrea not to turn their focus on peace time problems: democracy and human right issues. The extension of service period of the program and how our young men and women in uniform weigh on matters related to it could be seen within this framework. I don’t believe you would have called it slavery had the program been run according to its initiating law and objectives. If you call the program slavery, you are talking about an inherent nature of a system; regardless of whether it is regulated or not, it is bad; it is slavery. However, if your objective is to stop the endlessness nature of the program, you are tackling a technical problem; therefore, you have to raise all the problems that have made it to extend endlessly, among them, Ethiopian refusal of the border demarcation. Fairness demands you speak to the Ethiopians straight to their face, too. Here is the main point: regardless of the reasons, its extension by itself could not be construed as a form of slavery. And, those brave young men and women could not be thought of or classified as enslaved or bonded persons; they are members of the Eritrean Defense Forces, armed to the teeth. They would not wait for some sort of NGO to emancipate them; certainly, they would not ask you to campaign for their liberation. They know how to use their weapons, unless you are going to have us believe that tens of thousands of armed young people are enforcing their enslavement! ታንክታትን ሚሳይላትን ዝዓጠቑ በራዩ/ጊልያታት ንወነንቶም ይሕልዉ ኣለዉ ትብሉና ኣለኹ። “ነቲ ዘገብሮም ዘሎ ስርዓት ከርግኡ ከርተት ይብሉ ኣለዉ… እመኑና… ሓቂ እዩ” ዘመስል ቋንቋ ተስምዑና ኣለኹም! ናይ ዘመንና ስግንጢር እዩ። “Even after surviving all that the expectation is to remain silent and disappear into a new type of slavery. Not me!I refuse to shut up and continue to serve through 2%…I refuse to be slave anymore I risked my life to set myself free, so I will live free.” (Luam, emphasis mine) With the above statement, you seem to shudder all the “STOP NATIONAL SERVICE SLAVERY” slogan. Now you are trying to target yet another part of our people, people who are not in the National Service, those who live abroad. Not only active members of National Service, you are also designating those diasporas who are paying 2% of their income to the government as slaves; folks who have no physical presence in Eritrea where the national service (you call it slavery) is practiced. It is not that confusing to suspect that there is something fishy about your campaign. For your information, I have not paid 2%, but I have no right to call those who pay it slaves. You see the problem: you are telling us that a huge part of our diaspora compatriots who have all the legal weapons available to them are also remotely enslaved. This is a bit arrogant, the result of a sudden enlightening spark as you told us in your article: “we only understood it too late in the day.” Those who pay do it believing they are doing the right thing, Luam. I would prefer persuading them why paying 2% is not right. Motivate them to see things differently; do not insult them. Because calling them slaves is not going to help your cause of rallying Eritreans- that’s if your cause is to pressure the government to end endless national service. “…… telling us we were not slaves but veterans and unashamedly persuade the brothers and sisters we left behind to continue serving not their nation, but the interests of a regime and the elite members of the clique that continues to enslave us and condemn us to nothingness” (Luam, emphasis mine). “Like their dancing on the corpses of our fallen brothers and sisters hasn’t been enough, like taking pride for the roads and dams we built for free wasn’t enough, as though being denied basic rights isn’t sacrificing all, like gambling with our lives isn’t the ultimate low …they are telling us we should consider it an honour!” (Luam, emphasis mine). “… Had we seen a glimpse of hope rather than our situation and that of our people deteriorate by the day, had we seen the fruits of our exploited labour take Eritrea forward, things may have been different.”( Luam, emphasis mine) Meaning? If it was run according to the objective and time limit envisioned, perhaps, you would not call it slavery? Is the program itself slavery, under any condition or it has become slavery because it has turned out to be endless, or you call it slavery because you feel it does not work, that the National Service members are simply toiling for few chosen elite of the regime? How about the 2% payer Diasporas? Why are they classified as slaves if your subject is National service? You will need to reconcile some of your ideas, Luam. Recognizing your right to call yourself and your service to our country the way you think it fits, allow me, though, to call you our veteran; thank you for the service and sacrifice you made to our nation. It is not your fault how misused and mismanaged the program is. It is not your fault that you feel the way you feel. But you have a responsibility at least to try to frame things the way they should be; for instance, just campaigning against endless national service would be appropriate rather than stretching it to slavery for a shocking experience; because by insulting tens of thousands who believe they are doing the right thing you are exacting the opposite effect. By calling the vast portion of our people slaves, you are saying that those who had given their life on duty are also dead slaves. If the program is slavery; the participants are slaves; therefore, those who died on duty are also slaves- an extremely poignant way of advancing your grievance- contrary to what most Eritreans see the role of their defense forces! Remember: this issue goes deep down to who we are as people, to our culture and history and to the sacrifice every family is making. Our culture celebrates those who display altruistic traits, those who come forward for the good of their nation and their community. Eritreans thank their heroes; they don’t call them slaves. Let me be clear: a campaign such as this, demeaning the Eritrean person, insulting the intelligence of our people and their defense forces could not emanate from the brains of someone like you who had seen the role of our hero National Service members; it could only come from parties who want to see the dismantling of Eritrea’s defense capabilities, of course, from Woyane and the likes. If the point is about the endlessness nature of the program, yes, it needs to change; our country as a whole needs change; but I refuse to label you an ex-slave. Nations which do not respect their veterans are doomed. I personally faced disrespectful attitudes towards veterans. There are still individuals who mock the sacrifices of our veterans unabashedly. Luam (in the spirit of our culture, I will call you, ልዋም ጓለይ), Small nations like ours need National Service or conscription. As stated before, though, the program needs change; the nation as a whole needs change. Our call should be for the establishment of people’s government which could be mandated with issues of peace and war including revising the National Service program. Currently, midlevel commanders of our defense forces are members of the National Service. They know exactly why they are where they are. They truly believe, as well as I do, they are doing national duty, defending our nation and participating in its public works. We should respect our veterans saying thank you for your service. If we were in an ideal world, we would not need defense forces, hence, would not be speaking of veterans. I have a brother, cousins and nephews who have been in the national service; well, for more than 14 years. Some of them fought in the border battles, a couple of my close relatives died defending their nation. I am not calling them dead slaves. Every now and then, I meet young men and women who left the service. All of them speak of the fact that the program needs changes- needs to be regulated by elected body, meaning political change. But all of them also tell me they never felt they were slaves and they do not consider themselves exslaves. Needless to say, we all know the decisive role our heroes of National Service (not slaves) played in saving our country. Here again, I understand, the length of time is unacceptable, but that by itself does not help you defend your definition of National Service as slavery. The choice of your title and subtitle and your use of Abe’s quote implies you are being used as a piercing spear, as a lightning bolt to agitate western law makers, traditional Eritrean enemies, irresponsible opportunist activists who care less about our country in their pursuit to see Issayas gone. That’s just a suspicion. I hope I am wrong and that your intention is to openly condemn endless national service. If that is the case, I agree with you; it’s been too long for many of our young men and women. But calling them slaves goes too far. Nations have adopted or changed existing laws of conscription to answer the immediacy of national calamity. In doing so, it’s not unusual for countries to struggle on how to mobilize their resource, including human resources. Threats may be unlimited but resource is limited. Had a national assembly/parliament/congress extended the national service indefinitely, we wouldn’t have been talking about a national service that has gone awry. Again, our problem is not the program itself, but the nature of the government and its policies. The regime’s refusal to yield power to people is choking the entire country and affecting all sectors of the nation, including National Service. Another point that you seem to highlight is abuses. Naturally, military life is dictated by stiff rules. Our National Service members may have suffered unduly oppressive measures, may have fallen victims to predatory crimes. That should be unveiled and campaigned against. This is a recurrent problem even in militaries of countries with strong civilian oversight and strong legal institutions. Here in the US, a country with rich tradition of strong congressional oversight, for instance, news of abuses and misconducts inside the military is all common. Therefore, I am not against any reasonable voice. You have a right and a duty to disclose any abuses that you may have experienced or know your fellow national service fellows have gone through. Still, this does not equate National Service with slavery. The young people you are targeting have been courted for long with an exact language. It has not worked. Thousands of young men and women crossed the border to Ethiopia and Sudan; but we did not see them swelling the ranks of those who had called them slaves. The word slavery is very sensitive; it’s too technical to abuse for propaganda purpose. It invokes a certain type of treatment and system you have never known. That’s why even those who work day and night to dismantle our nation use terms and phrases like: conscription, forced labor, endless national service…etc. I live in a country whose name is synonymous with slavery and I can tell you what we have in Eritrea is not slavery. So, what is it? What we have in Eritrea is a situation where citizens are making a conscious decision to burden long years of national service. They sense an ever gathering threat to the very existence of their country; they see low hanging clouds to the south of the border, and therefore, they appear to have made a volunteer sacrifice just like their parents did during the liberation struggle. You may pressure the government to solve the security/ border situation. However, given the present situation, I do not see how an Eritrean who had seen his buddies fall for securing their country’s existence would think his service was servitude. This is a typical Eritrean trait. When we feel squeezed, we tend to embrace resoluteness. Now, if you view this critically and interpret resilience as conformity or submissiveness, you will only be addressing westerners and few Eritrean audience. Reason: calling our brave young men and women slaves does not sit well with the majority of Eritreans. I am confident that if they feel they are kept as slaves, they will turn their tanks towards Denden Palace and chase Issayas in the streets of Asmara. They may do it. If they do it, it’s not because they have been enslaved, but because they feel it is the right time. There is time when you display altruistic character and sacrifice, and there is time when you demand your rights. The reason why they have not done so, up to now, is because of the scars of the border war. In addition, the government’s continuous bombardment of “the world is against us” type propaganda may have played a role. The opposition’s opportunistic internal quarrels and readiness of some of its parts to serve Ethiopian interest more than Eritrean interest have had potentially a negative effect. That is what happens when people perceive a collective danger, they fear change amid unknown future. They reason out that bearing the long service is the best course of action to secure the sovereignty of Eritrea, till an organic change ripens from within. Again, this is a typically expected Eritrean nature; it’s called resilience, not slavery. ምንብርካኽ ወይ ባርያ ምዃን ዘይኮነ ጽንዓት ይበሃል። ባህልና እዩ እንታይ ይገበር ልዋም። The campaign may have also been driven by political or just financial interest. I have observed many groups/personalities appear and call for certain causes. Some of them kept their neutral position and campaigned for political change and/or against human right abuses. I appreciate what they do. I am referring to people who have saved lives, media personalities who have advocated for democratic change and electronic media outlets which have done a great deal in allowing us to express our views. However, there are entities who roam the opposition field with an outrageous slogans in order to capture our attention; they do everything including tarnishing our culture just to stand out. It is not unexpected that they came up with a new strategy this time- recruiting young people who could talk or write in the first person voice; “I was there…I know it…” presentation. So, we see, “Eritrea is a slave country; 21st century slavery…stop slavery…” in an attempt to win a sympathetic attention from westerners who suffer recurrence of guilty feeling. By featuring concocted and /or distorted sad stories, they want to create a state of shock and awe so that they could cash in. They may register under different captivating names, as NGOs or non-profits status. They thrive where there is genuine anxieties of citizens and where these citizens are not blessed with an environment where they can express their views. They flourish when and where human tragedies strike. It appears their daily income is dependent on how uglier they could make Eritrea look. Some are driven by politics of grudge; and others, their actions compel us to suspect they might be in the payroll of Eritrea’s archenemies. Remember: just because we seek justice does not mean we should do it at any cost, at the cost of our nation. Member of our National Service will tell these entities why they are there. They will tell these “organizations” that they are not slaves; they will tell them that they have honor stories. They will tell them they are proud of their service. They will give them a simple example that these “activists” want to deemphasize, here it is: In the last border war, Ethiopians had all battle advantages: elements of initiative and surprise, a greater economy and a greater potential for mobilizing resources and reserves, unmatched firepower and logistical capabilities, aerial/electronic surveillance (capabilities of monitoring Eritrean positions in real time), tacit support from international community, and the fear factor itself- knowing that they were facing the legendary EPLF made Ethiopian commanders unearth every possible tactical advantage; while, on the contrary, our commanders where bathing in overconfidence. Despite the fact that all military disadvantages were stacked against Eritrea, thanks to our national service members, today, we are talking about democratization and not about re-liberating Eritrea from Weyane. It is true. Regretfully, some Eritreans may want us to believe that Eritrea was saved simply because Wayane did not want to occupy it. Really? Eritrea was saved by its Defense Forces, by its hero National Service men and women; Ethiopia did its best to push through Eritrean lines till the last hour. Actually, it was forced to sign the Algiers agreement as it was. Had Ethiopia been on a stronger position, it would simply have declared Badme out of any settlement negotiation. You cannot win Eritrean people by belittling their armed forces. Simply: there is a strong relationship between the essence of Eritrea and its armed forces. These same Eritreans who are quick to undermine our armed forces blame our heroes for not taking out Issaya!! At any rate, it is ludicrous to call those brave young people who defended our nation slaves. It is equally unwarranted to defile the names and purposes of the participants of the program just because it has been prolonged; or as you put it, you have known it now it was slavery. Slavery is a terrible system. You would not need someone to tell you it was slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s target in the quote you used was the slave holding society of the South which was grappling with the idea of recruiting slaves to the depleted ranks of Confederate Army. The South was not sure if the armed slaves would defend the goals of the secession which were to keep slavery in place. He was explaining that once slaves were armed they would help the cause of the North, to end slavery. He was trying to remind the white folks that unless they tried it they would not feel it, that slavery was terrible, and that a slave would not want to be enslaved if he had the opportunity and means to get free. He was also trying to reach to the hearts of those who were juggling with the ideas of improvising the system versus abolishing it; he was stirring up a moral issue in his desire to emancipate slaves. Now, compare it with your assertion that National Service is a form of slavery. You are telling us, for the first time in human history, a huge part of a society, commandeering tanks, piloting fighter planes and navy frigates are securing the system that is enslaving them. Well, you will have to tell us what it is that is keeping them, armed to teeth, from resorting to their master or masters? Why are these “enslaved” young men and women mulling around Denden Palace, guarding the president, supposedly, their master? Please don’t tell me they are DEMHIT. How about the new classification of People’s Army? Are they slaves too? I don’t think they are in the program willingly. How about veteran tegadelti who are serving with meager salaries who would like to leave? How about the other sectors of our society: the teachers, the police, the doctors? Slavery is not a jock, it is an ugly system. I understand the modern forms of slavery, too. None of them befits our heroes and heroines. If the National Service is a system of slavery, then Eritrean society is a willingly bonded or enslaved society. Yes, that means, veteran liberation fighters are also slaves; all parents are slaves because they are sending their sons and daughters to enslavement. Those who target only National Service members are parties which like to see Eritrea’s defense capability diminished, because, nowadays, it is hard to separate National Service members from the regular army. These members of EDF do not expect anyone to emancipate them. Even if that were the case, an unarmed NGO could not liberate well-armed” slaves”. You can express your views on where they seem to be wrong for deciding to endure the length of time. You have every right to criticize the government and its policies, but you have no right to classify a huge part of our people as slaves. If they feel they are enslaved, they will turn the government inside out within a day. They have the means; you don’t. Calling these young men and women slaves may gain you a notoriety from unsuspecting few, but won’t give you a needed traction for the stated purpose of your campaign, because that’s not how the majority of Eritreans, even the genuine opposition, see our men and women in uniform. Final thoughts: we learn as we grow and participate in the issue relevant to the hour. I have learned a lot from your article. Luam, I feel confident you will contribute positively in changing the situation for the better. However, that’s going to be effective only if you stick to principles regardless of their momentary inconvenience. We should not seek to exaggerate things for temporary “shock and awe” effects. What you and me do will directly affect the situation inside. If our activities reflect the reality inside our country, if our attitude and language is respectful, we will find reception; and that will affect change positively. On the other hand, if we exaggerate or make up stories, we will be dismissed. We will be judged by what we write, say, or do. I believe you do not question the intelligence of the Eritrea people. Change is going to come, it will come from within. Change will come only if Eritreans perceive their sovereignty will be secured. Western donors may not understand this, but it is ingrained in our psychic, and will remain to be the case for the immediate generations. You cannot persuade them to hasten the advent of change by campaigns dubbed “You are slaves.” I am not surprised if they will question you who you are to tell them they are slaves. I am wondering too.


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