Agena’e Seyoum

Part IV
By  Woldeyesus Ammar
To:  Haile Woldetensae (Deru’e),
Prisoner No.:      –
Location: Unknown

Eritrea, East Africa
Cc.  Seyoum Ogbamichael (Haresta

Dear Haile,

18 September 2005: it is already four years since you have been unlawfully and unjustly jailed together with many other compatriots. Please convey words of encouragement and solidarity to all of them – men and women, young and old: all put behind bars under framed-up charges.  And I trust you will not forget to pass the same message to Wedi Bashay (Tekleberhan Ghebresadiq) and Woldemariam Bahlbi who are languishing in the prisons  of ‘new Eritrea’ since they were kidnapped  from Kassala on 26 April 1992. 


It is of course a sacred duty of genuine Eritrean patriots to express profound solidarity with you prisoners at occasions like the one at hand. However, the economic, social, political, humanitarian and human condition in the country has degenerated to such a distressing level that the difference between your situation and the situation of the rest of the population is hard to distinguish. In fact it may end up being one and the same – if it is not already there. It may also be news to you that the nation is being emptied of its population at a fast rate. You know the old caseloads of refugees did not return home. Now, the entire youth is on the move to flee the country in order to escape death in prisons and detention camps, death in the trenches or forced labour camps, death of hunger, death of curable diseases in a land that is now without sufficient  foodstuffs and medicines. Even many of those trying to escape untimely death are not succeeding: some are killed by frontier security, others die in the deserts and the high seas. To tell you the tragedy in a nutshell,  Eritrea and Eritreans are under a very bad serious  that must come to an end very soon; otherwise the consequence will be indescribable. 


Old Friend Haile,

You might have read  Part I of the writing under this heading when it was posted on 7 August 2001 in because you were still a free person in Asmara.  But it is evident that you had no possibility of reading Part II in September 2002 or Part III in September 2003 that intended to mark, with sadness, your first and second years in prison. Other than observing your 4th year in prison, today’s Part IV aims:-

1)      To bring to mind what you, Haile, stood  for, at least between July 2000 and September 2001.

2)      Tries to remind how much you and your generation members were involved in the task of liberation struggle. 


Theme: Reconciliation

When it was posted only six weeks before your arrest for years ago, the optimistic Part I wanted to inform that the much needed reconciliation in Eritrea was on its way. Taking note of your and Seyoum Harestay’s contributions for reconciliation during the first half of 2001, I tried to record what I thought was a historic trend, and had to put in these terms: Whatever the past had them do and think in separate [ELF-EPLF] camps, Seyoum and Haile are today speaking the same language [of reconciliation] and seeking the same destiny for the nation. And as it was the case in the long past [when they were student activists], they are again at the forefront agitating for change of mind among Eritreans urging them to wake up to receive a new Eritrea, different from the one of the yesteryears.” 


Unfortunately, Haile, the progress has been intolerably slow. In fact little has been done in the field of reconciliation since you left the scene. You might  or you might not have heard that many of your old comrades distanced themselves, as you did, from the club of criminals – the PFDJ. Some of them joined the opposition camp and some went hiding. Also since September 2001, the old opposition has been joined by others, among them the perennial Hawileitos (to borrow the right word from Awate editorials) and fence-sitters. And unfortunately for the struggle to change and democratize Eritrea, all of the above  chose to improvise their own nebulous movements, ‘third-waves’ and associations. In the end, all failed to help the opposition move any inch forward except increasing our chatter by a few more decibels.


Haile, your old comrades are still co-habiting in the opposition camp. But, frankly speaking, you will not be proud of their steps. I say this because, first, it took them nearly three years to start talking in your language of reconciliation of August 2001. That was sad. Secondly, they let themselves  be infected – and willingly so – by an incapacitating virus that was endemic in our arena. I need not dwell much on the slowness of their metamorphosis from  G-15 reformism to EPLF-DP and then to DP. Worse than that  tortoise pace, they, like the rest of us, failed to work together. They  already count several factions (DP, EPMx, EPMy, EPP) or may be more  – a situation that pained the entire nation opposed to the dictatorship. (I hope your sojourn where you are today will not be that long to oblige me to tell you this depressing story in another installment.) 


Aside from that, I have a piece of good news for you related to the subject of reconciliation: people have forgiven you and your old comrades for the sins you committed or are perceived to have committed while serving the diabolic compatriot that misled you all throughout the years. In our camp, we have been trying to convince each other that there is no point to keep  accusing others of past misdeeds and miscalculations once they decide to renounce the arrogant dictator and his exclusionist policies. To give  you an example, no one in the past four years raised or commented about the foul language that you, Haile, used against the rest of us during the third congress of your organization after liberation. Instead, everyone in the opposition has been focused on your positive contributions, including the following:


  • Eritreans in the opposition camp did not want to forget  that you, Haile Deru’e, won for yourself the honour of being  the first insider to publicly challenge the dictatorship by your 15 July 2000 address at the PFDJ festival in Frankfurt when you told your submissive audience in a language similar to this: “We have been lying to you. You should have stopped us from lying to you all the time!!” (BTW, I was pleased to   have had the opportunity of reporting your bold statement then,  ironically in Dehai, when news of your new position came out through secondary sources.)
  •  People still recall your position in the autumn 2000 meetings of the PFDJ leadership. Others give you credit for encouraging some of our perennially timid intellectuals to protest and come out with a rare  statement like the ‘Berlin Manifesto’ of G-13 .
  • Webmasters have not stopped inviting Eritreans to continue tuning to video records of your 2000-2001 utterances.
  • Myself, I have not stopped re-reading the press interviews you gave during the short-lived ‘spring of free press’ in Asmara. In particular,  I feel good while re-reading the monumental early August 2001 statement you released saying almost all what we the ‘old’ opposition had been saying and stand for. In that historic document, issued only  five weeks before your incarceration, you said as follows, even though in slightly different words that had to suit your presence in an repressive environment:


1.            Those of us in power have no right and no justification and no right to deny credit to all those who deserved it in the 50-year struggle, and Eritreans of all political colours  must as of now have equal share in the fruits of victory and the burden of building our common  future.

2.            It is high time for those of us in temporary state control to accept Arabic and Tigrinia as the two official languages [as our compatriots in the several ELF offshoots have been calling for   without fail].

3.            It is time to be prepared to revisit the constitution in order to fill major missing issues and rectify faulty conclusions, including the issue of land ownership.

4.            It is time to stop accusing Eritreans in the opposition of being “traitors” and “fifth columnists” before they are brought to a court of law….

5.            In short, it is time to stop being exclusionist and instead give room to reconciliation, full participation and mutual respect in order to deliver freedom, justice and equality  to all citizens and segments of our diverse society



 Haile: This photo of June 1965 is a gift for you. Can you see yourself between two persons wearing eye-classes at center-right? Abdurahman Mehri is immediately above you, keeping away from you in the dark Isayas and his current agricultgure minister, Arefaine. Hope you recognize the rest of us. (About 10 of that year’s 12th graders are missing, including Woldedawit Temesgen and Seyoum (who left to the field three months earlier); Mussie Tesfamichael, Michael Ghaber and others.) More photos when we meet. And make sure you stay alive!

Brother Haile,

People saw logic, truth, sincerity and hope in that language in mid-2001. It was the right language and the right position, and it is still crying for action in Eritrea which is bedeviled at all levels by the chauvinist politics of Isayas and his unrepentant disciples. The winds of polarization have been blowing with added strength from all corners in our land and communities. Today, it is becoming almost hard to say which group is more exclusionist and more chauvinist than the other. I see polarization everywhere. The only thing sensible Eritreans know for sure is that the one who is keeping you in prison is the ONLY source of all miseries in our land  and that his exit will usher in an environment in which we will be able to work out the best solution suitable for our common destiny.


We Shall Reverse Polarization 

 I am sorry to repeat  telling you that the process of polarization – instigated by the old exclusionist and chauvinist policies that you could not stop on time – has gone much deeper than  expected in our body politic and the only worry one can have is that it may take quite a while complete the reverse process – depolarization. The encouraging news today is that we are all getting conscious of the need of starting that reverse process now. And it will be  only a matter of time before it is done successfully.


By the way, while discussing about these matters, I never fail to remember what you told newspaper people in the late 1980s. For instance, in one of his writings published in 1989,  Lionel Cliff, a good friend of your organization at that time,, quoted that your (Haile Deru’e’s) biggest worry after liberation was  how to contain “Tigrigna chauvinism [prevalent] in the EPLF”. And I assume that what you meant was this: ‘it is not the fault of any membership of an organization to go wrong but the fault of the leadership that oriented its members in that direction and to that attitude’.  I could also trust the writer to have quoted you correctly because I knew many instances of same language from you in the old good days, as I have tried to point out some in an earlier writing (see a few paragraphs of Part III of ‘Agena’e Seyoum, Brave Deru’e, annexed at the end of this article for ease of reference).


And You Are Not Allowed to Die, Haile!

A few weeks before your imprisonment, you said you were ready to pay even your life to change Eritrea’s unbearable situation under a homegrown dictator. While knowing that it is within the possibilities that they may kill you, I still refuse to  accept the rumour that you might be already dead or you may die before the sun shines over the land again. I say you are not allowed to die before you take part in repairing the damage done to the very soul of this nation: to its once unshakeable confidence in itself, its old resolve to build a just and prosperous nation and the determination to work in unison and remain in one piece. Do not also forget that will need sometime together to revisit the small events of the old days. And although we did not meet for over three decades, still we will not lack topics for lively old age chats that I am proposing. For example:


–               We must have time to talk about what we can, after 44 years, still remember and comment on the degree of our nascent nationalist awareness when we first met in grade 9 in  September 1961 at Prince Makonnen Secondary School in Asmara while, coincidentally, the Giant Hamid Idris Awate was also doing a related thing at Mount Adal during that very September of 1961!

–               We will talk of all the small things we did together in Asmara between September 1961 and June 1965, including all  the demos that we, young boys and girls in that school, arranged for the rest of Asmara.

–               For initiating a chat about our Addis days, I have photos of our Entoto meeting of November 1965 at which we created a quasi-association of ‘former Prince Makonnen students in Ethiopia’ as a cover for our ELF cells in the University.

–               And I am sure you will remember the Gurage teashop in front of Berhanena Selam Printing Press in Addis where our cell  met at 8 pm of every Tuesday.

–               Do you still remember, as I do, the event and the name of the Gambian from the  Brussels-based World Assembly of Youth who came to Addis for OAU meeting in 1966 at which, to the embarrassment of the Ethiopian officials and security, he distributed our 60 envelopes containing ELF statement to all OAU Heads of State and delegations? You are not allowed to forget that because it was a matter kept secret from the rest of the  cell and handled only by two cell members: you and I.

–               I need not say much about the “things” that Ghilai Ghirmai  promised to bring for two of us for a serious action that did not, anyhow, take place. Instead, let me mention your last day in Addis. It was Sunday, 4 December 1966 when you and Mussie Tesfamichael left to Asmara by bus on your way to ELF in the field after five or six of us spent the previous night in a hotel in Markato (I think the same Start Hotel where we spent with Isayas before seeing him off at the bus station six week earlier – on 17 October 1966.) I recall you were in charge of our cell’s research group and when departure hour came, you handed the documents to me, including a very important book taken out that night from the reserve shelf of the Haile Selassie I University library. After 39 years, Spencer Trimingham’s book, Islam in Ethiopia, with valuable information on Eritrea, is still with me – and on it is written your and Mussie Tesfamichael’s departure day.  I can give it back to you – nHalalka, or for returning it, with our compliments, to its rightful owner, the Addis Ababa University Library at the Sidist kilo campus.


Therefore, there is more than one reason for you stay alive, Haile. And if the expected unity of internal and external opposition takes too much time to happen and rescue the nation, including you the prisoners, then it is up to you to think of other ways of escaping death, which you must.  How about thinking of the heroic exploits of your old schoolmate Abdallah Hassan who conquered the high walls of prison in Asmara 35+ years ago? Or what about what heroic Saeed Saleh and Seyoum Ogbamichael planned from inside and outside the Adi Quala prison 30 years back to free 1,000 inmates, including you and Seyoum? Or what about doing what Semere Tekeste did very recently? Think about staying alive: you are not allowed to die.


(Excerpted below are few sections of  Part III in which stress was made on the efforts and contributions Haile Deru’e and Seyoum Ogbamichael made to promote tolerance and reconciliation among Eritreans since early years.)

Agena’e Seyoum!Bravo Deru’e !(Part III)

By Woldeyesus Ammar

Sep 15, 2003, 08:56



First, Why Interested in Seyoum and Deru’e?

…..There was another quality that I highly valued and for which I thought Seyoum always deserved the word Agena’e, and Haile Deru’e the appellation Bravo. It was not mentioned in my parts one/two under this title. I will say it today: it is about the value that Eritrean patriots usually give to friends who share their concerns on  the fearsome divisions in our society and then try to do something to narrow them down. I will try to compare what they thought 40 years back and what they think today. Let me start with Haile Deru’e because he is away from us all in a gloomy dungeon – or he may no more be alive,  we cannot tell.

Haile Deru’e:

In the summer and autumn of 1966 in Addis Ababa, Haile Wolde-Tinsae (we did not know him as Deru’e that time) and Martyr Mussie Tesfamichael started taking tobacco and finally spitting the ‘safa’ the way it is done in the Eritrean lowlands. Both were not yet smokers. One day, I asked Haile why he was taking ‘safa’ (tobacco). His innocent answer was something like this: “With this nationalist feelings we have we will one day find ourselves with the fighters in the Eritrean lowlands. I think I will have some problem there at least in the  initial period. Taking ‘safa’ and spitting it the way the other fighters do will make me look like everybody, and that should help.”

 It was a simple gesture, yes, and today many could say ‘so what?’ but in reality the act reflected positive consciousness in him; it meant that Haile at that tender age already started to care about social sensitivities and divisions. It was also sometime in 1965-66 that Haile asked me to write for him a poem of sorts in Tigre about the Asmara Theatrical Association (Mat’ a) which was on a visit to Addis Ababa. Haile read that poem for a large audience at what was called the Christmas Hall of Haile Selassie University where the Eritrean musicians sung highly patriotic songs of the day. His simple reasoning was: “We should not start and end such big Eritrean events only in Tigrinia. At least Tigre should come up in our social gatherings”.

 Two decades later, this time [round] speaking with some authority, Haile Deru’e started voicing the old concerns he was reflecting in his youth. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor of Canada in the late 1980’s, I read an article in which Haile expressed his fears about an existing ethnic chauvinism in his organization, EPLF. Lionel Cliff, a French writer and friend of the EPLF also wrote in the Third World Quarterly magazine of October 1989 (page 17) that Haile was much worried about “Tigrigna chauvinism in the EPLF”. According to the French writer, Haile considered the chauvinism promoted in and by his organization as a serious obstacle to nation-building in Eritrea after its liberation.

Seyoum Ogbamichael:

After all the demonization campaign unleashed against Seyoum Harestai during [2002-2003], one would assume that there are some innocent readers whose opinion towards him had been adversely affected. Well, that is the aim of all campaigns: to distort truth to a large extent possible and create a new negative image for the targeted object. Based on the language of the campaign, I am sure the mention of the name ‘Seyoum’ could nowadays ring in the ears of some as ‘a sectarian person’, a ‘Kebessan chauvnism’ not different from Isayas, anti-unity, anti-Islam, anti-Arabic…. name it. And all these is said against someone who, to my knowledge, had a clear record in fighting chauvinism, and contributed more than a single person’s share in trying to play down forces of polarization in the society.  

It is amazing how we forget or ignore important developments in the life of our struggle, say for instance the polarizing Falul phenomenon of the latter part of the 1970’s. But first, let me tell you something that Isayas and Seyoum do know and only the two could still remember. The time was in late August 1965 in a hideout inside Asmara where Seyoum and Woldedawit Temesghen (upon arrival from the field) were engaged in explaining issues to their visitors and recruiting cell members for the ELF in the city. In one of those sessions, Isayas Afeworki asked the two ELF envoys this question: “How possible is it going to be for us Christians to struggle and live among so many Moslems in this ELF? Did you find it possible?” The response was given by Seyoum who used many words to assuage the fears expressed in the question. Seyoum added something like this: “In the final analysis, we are not going to count how many Moslems or Christians are fighting for the just cause. Whoever feels fighting will fight and that is fine. No Christian or Moslem will be discriminated of his/her  religious or regional identity as long as the national cause remains our common goal”. Isayas at that time appeared to have received the full message and officially became part of an ELF cell.

Now back to our Falul phenomenon of 1975-77 and Seyoum’s lasting lessons to the young generation through various means including through his  messages broadcast over ELF’s radio programme from Omdurman in 1977.  Those comments of sword-like sharpness against ethnic chauvinism and lawlessness within one’s organization were contained in the form of poems one of which was entitled: ‘Hahu bel Falulai, Nab Sri’etna Na’anai’ [with clear message to ‘Isayas-and-followers’ as well as to elements of similar attitude in the ELF of the day]. The poem underlined the importance of the following:

  • The supremacy of law;
  • The allegiance and commitment that had to be given to commonly agreed programmes and structures;
  • The need for the new generation of fighters (mainly Kebessans) to avoid the wrong path trodden by Isayas and instead try to understand the nature of the struggle and give due respect to the achievements of the ELF for the common good of a united Eritrean nation…….


And Isayas Afeworki?

(… It can be read in the full text of Part III).


W. Ammar

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