Reflections on the Eritrean Black September
A reminder of our collective silence
By Suleiman A. Hussein
Every year, we are reminded of September 18, 2001, the events that followed, and the brief period when some semblance of freedom of expression seemed to be part of the post-independence political life in Eritrea. We are also reminded of how things have changed in our country during the two decades that followed the day that our once promising young nation formally joined the club of countries with tyrannical rule.
It is to be remembered that while the G15, like every other prisoner of conscience in Eritrea were neither formally charged nor brought to court, the main accusation labeled against them was that of a threat to national security. And now that the the Eritrean and the Ethiopian governments have turned into close allies, the alleged threat to national security must have simply ceased. As for the rest of us, ordinary Eritreans, who have always been for peace, and celebrate the coming of it, the ongoing peace process between the two countries constitutes yet another reminder of what is wrong with Eritrea.
September 18, is not just about the G15 who were arrested and detained incommunicado to this date, with some reportedly already dead or the journalists who were rounded a couple of days later or the then nascent independent press that was completely shut down or the elders who in accordance to the centuries old Eritrean tradition had tried to mediate between the two parties but who were arrested and detained instead, many of whom died in prison or those former freedom fighters, religious and community leaders who before all this, were arrested over a period several years before the events of September the 18thand unaccounted for to this date, or even their families who were made to suffer and continue to suffer simply for been the sons, daughters, wives and husband of those who chose to speak up against the dictatorial tendency of the government at its very earliest stage and be the voice of the people.
It is mainly about us Eritreans, about our collective conscience that is being continuously tested, and our frightening silence that is causing not only more of this to happen but worse again, it has made us completely powerless to act and stop the systematic erosion of our values and the undoing of a country we have paid dearly to liberate. It has shaken the moral foundation of our young nation.
The great American civil rights activist Martin Luther King once said:
‘’Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’’
How true this is in the Eritrean context; it this is exactly what is happening to us and unless we realise it, it is unlikely that things would change in any way or anytime soon.
The Black September in 2001 will thus remain to be the constant reminder of our collective silence and the tested conscience.
Those who were arrested and didn’t get a day at court, and who, God knows how many of them are still alive, are heroes and will so remain. Many of them actually knew what their fate would be but wanted to break the cycle of fear and empower the people of Eritrea so that Eritreans can start being in charge of their own destiny. It was the day the myth was gone for good, it was the day the tyranny that was hidden for so long was finally exposed.
September 18, 2015 is significant in many ways. It is certainly not the first time when people with views critical to the government in Eritrea were arrested. To the contrary, the ruling party has been arbitrarily arresting, detaining and torturing political dissidents since the early nineties or even since before Eritrea had become an independent nation. Some of these were kidnapped from as far as the Sudan and taken to Eritrea some 23 years ago and their whereabouts have remained unknown to this date.
Hundreds of teachers who taught at various Islamic schools in the country were kidnapped and never to be heard of.
Others were detained, tortured and stripped of any citizenship rights simply for being Jehovah witnesses. This seemingly targeted attaints are not only against the principle of religious freedom but also a fundamental human rights violations and deliberate policy to intimidate and silence citizens.
Why do we remember September 18 then?
While all previous violations were carried out somewhat in in secret, the G11 were arrested in broad light and meant to be the first step of a series of actions aimed at suppressing the nascent reform movement that was gaining momentum among the wider population.
While all other victims were either ordinary citizens, low profile members of the ruling party or leaders belonging to other political organisations, the G11 were high ranking government officers, elected leaders of the ruling and sole party in the country, and army officers who also belong to the ruling party. They happened at a time when there appeared to be some high hopes for the establishment of the rule of law and the democratisationof the country. The G15 were the leaders of the movement for change within the ruling party who chose to put their lives at risk to save a country they had fought to liberate. They had dared to say enough is enough and that after all the suffering they went through during the successive foreign occupation and sacrifices to end it, under no pretext or justification should the Eritrean people be ruled without their consent and must be allowed to elect their own leaders in a free and fair election.
September 18 is not only the day when the G15 were arrested but it is also mainly the day when the entire movement for change was officially arrested.
It was only the beginning of a dark period in post-independence Eritrea which we live in.
The downward journey that began on September 18, 2001 continues to this date at an even greater speed endangering the very existence of our young nation that we brought into being with so much sacrifice.
It is the day that constantly reminds us that as long as the silence continues, it is us the people rather than the ones in jail who are the true prisoners. And the downward journey will only come to an end when the silence ends.
Suleiman A. Hussein