Whenever March 8 arrives, we are reminded of the inequalities and oppressions generated and sustained by dominant patriarchal systems and the celebrations of incessant struggles waged by courageous women.
On that day, news sources and events around the world talk about particular women or women who stood and still stand out in these endless struggles. It is done to rekindle the spirit of renewal and to encourage a new generation of women not to forget.
Perhaps, those nations that have managed to achieve a great deal on translating the ideal of women’s rights to practice may not say a lot on that day. On the other hand, those nations who have succeeded silencing the voices and violating women’s rights, the radio of the Government of Eritrea in particular, will talk about non-existent achievements. It will talk about the role Eritrean women played and how they struggled, endured and broke the chains of double-edged oppression; how they guaranteed equality; how they changed themselves and society’s perception of women’s rights; and more lies.
True to form, Eritrean women have joined forces in the armed liberation struggle for the independence of Eritrea. There are still untold and heroic stories.
They fought against foreign occupation while enduring oppressive patriarchal social systems, traditions and mentalities. They fought alongside their brothers and paid with their own lives. Unfortunately, after the independence of Eritrea in 1991, their true stories have become like a history book written on ice. It has melted away. In Eritrea, the ideal of women¡¦s rights has become a forgotten history. Silence reigns again.
On March 8 however, the Government of Eritrea, trying to act like a guardian of citizens’ rights, will, once again, declare that all is well and that progress is being made.
The people of Eritrea as a whole are living under an undeclared, oppressive and brutal national prison set up by the government party the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Thousands of Eritreans are rotting in dungeons and under harsh prison conditions all over the country. There are many Eritrean women amongst them.
On this day, the INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY – it is appropriate that we remember some of the veteran Eritrean women fighters who have been separated from their children and detained for unknown reasons and in unknown locations. The following is a short profile of four Eritrean women who are still languishing in prison.
They all joined the liberation struggle during the 1970s. They served and gave all they had for the people of Eritrea. They are our brave women.
Unfortunately, during a time when they could have given more and pass their experiences to the new generation, they have been betrayed and thrown to jail by the liberation front and the government they served for so long.
1. Aster Fessehatsion
2. Aster Yohanness
3. Miriam Hagos
4. Senait Debessai
Their short stories follow:
When Aster Fessehatsion joined the armed struggle in 1974, she was a student at Prince Mekonnen High School in Asmara. After completing her military training, she worked in a military office. Between 1976 and 1987, she was a political and a military training commissioner.
In 1984, she married to Mahmoud Sheriffo and gave birth to her son in 1988. She called him “Ibrahim” after a fellow fighter, her superior and martyr Ibrahim Affa.
From 1988 until 1994, she worked in public administration.
Aster was an active participant in the 1st and 2nd Conferences of the EPLF (Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front). During the 3rd Conference in 1994, she was one of the popular organisers. And despite the fact that her name was not included in the secret ballot, she was elected as a new member of the Central Committee. People who know her closely report how disappointed some members of the old guard were. It was during this conference the old EPLF became PFDJ and some friends recall that Aster was not at ease with the changes since it became the only political party that put the whole nation and its institutions under its control.
In 1995 and 1996, while she was working in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security as Head of Social Affairs, she was frozen (with salary but no active duty) for three years.
In 1998, she was refused permission to leave the country after she managed to secure a scholarship grant to the USA. No explanation was given.
In 1999, she was reinstated and became in charge of Public Relations of the Anseba region in Keren.
In mid-2001, she was one of the central committee members who demanded change and signed a letter that was made public. On 18 September 2001, she was detained with a number of her colleagues. To this day, her condition or whereabouts is still unknown.
When Aster Fessehatsion joined the liberation front as young woman, it never crossed her mind that an Eritrean president would, one day, get intoxicated by the blood and sweats of Eritreans and swallow the hope of the nation and his own close friends. She could not have imagined that her own son would, for lack of the rule of law, become an orphan while his parents are (presumably) still alive.
She trusted and she was betrayed. She wanted change and she was jailed. She was crucified.
But still, we don¡¦t think she will ever regret her decisions and what she did to bring about change. It was for these rights she joined the liberation front in the first place. She is playing her part and giving her voice again.
Their son Ibrahim will miss her and his father Mahmoud Sheriffo who is still in prison since 18 September 2001. But let us hope that Ibrahim will, one day, be proud for having parents who gave all they had twice for their people.
When Aster Yohannes joined the liberation movement in Eritrea in 1979, she was a 2nd year Electrical Engineering student at Addis Ababa University.
After a 6-months military training, she took a computer course and started work at Amberbeb military office and stayed there till 1986. She then joined the ground forces.
In 1989, she married Petros Solomon who was one of the influential members
of the central committee but now in prison since 18 September 2001.She has three children: Simon (15); Zerai and Hanna (twins – 14) and Meaza (7).
From 1995 to 1999, Aster worked in Sales Department at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. Before she left for the USA in January 2000 (on a scholarship to study marketing), she served as deputy head and later, as head of the Fisheries department.
A year and 9 months later, her husband Petros Solomon was imprisoned along with his colleagues for demanding change and democratic reform.
Aster kindly asked the Government of Eritrea to send her children to the US. But, the Government refused to co-operate. She later decided to go back to Eritrea to be with her children. Upon her arrival in Asmara Airport, on the 11th of December 2003, she was escorted by secret security guards, and was taken to an unknown location. She did not even see her own children. Prior to her departure from the USA, she was given assurances by the government of Eritrea that nothing would happen to her. It is so shameful for a government to imprison a mother who is returning from abroad to take care of her own children.
To this day, her condition or whereabouts is still unknown.
Miriam Hagos was born in Ethiopia. She started work after completing Commercial School in Addis Ababa. She left for Sweden in the beginning of the 70s and then traveled to the USA in 1973. There, she became a prominent member of Associations of Eritrean Students in North America.
In the summer of 1977, she joined the armed liberation struggle in Eritrea and after military training began work with the news department.
Miriam was the type of person who speaks her mind. She would criticize openly and suggest changes. It was difficult for her to interact or deal with a culture that did not encourage openness. Soon, she was put under surveillance and, like many others, suffered a great deal for harboring petty bourgeois tendencies.
Between the years 1979 and 1981, she was put in prison for two years. She suffered kidney problems and had difficulties with her eye-sight. Having served her sentence, she was asked (by one of the superiors) how she found her revolutionary training. She replied back by saying that she was in prison and not, as he intended her to feel, in training. He said that she has not learned a lesson yet, and he returned her to prison for some more months.
When she was released and asked the same old question, she replied back by saying, “I was in training.”
Such methods of punishment are still used to this day. Just asking reasons for their imprisonment, anyone can suffer with heavy consequence.
Eritrea has reached a point where is absolutely no respect for rights of a person. You cannot ask questions, you cannot fight for your right and all you can do is do as you are told. Miriam had to go through such brutality so many times. After working for a short period at the transport department, she was transferred to social affairs department. She was given imprisoned for more time and for the same old excuses. She was then released and moved to the news department.
There she met and married Zerai Haile, a fellow fighter who also joined the movement from North America. In 1985, she had a daughter and called her Deborah. She raised her daughter under difficult conditions. After the independence of Eritrea, she worked as the Head for cinema management.
On the 26th of September 2001, three Eritrean ex-ambassadors who resigned from their posts by criticizing their government organized a meeting in New York (the USA). They were: Haile Menkorios, Hebret Berhe and Adhanom Ghebremariam. Zerai Haile, Miriam’s husband was living in the United States since 1996, and It is reported that he was one of those people who disrupted the meeting, and verbally abused the three ex-ambassadors. He was in support of the PFDJ. Not only that, but in 2001, Zerai Haile wanted to disassociate himself from his wife and the mother of his child due to Miriam¡¦s firm stand on the current Eritrean affairs, and he divorced her through his power of attorney.
When Miriam heard what had happened and what her ex-husband did at the meeting in New York, she expressed her displeasure and her disappointment over the phone. Those who know them say that Zerai was furious and angry at Miriam and he was heard saying that ¡§she would face the consequences¡¨. What was contained within their private lives came out in the open. People who know say that Miriam was reported by her ex-husband and was put in prison on 6th of October 2001, because she showed (however indirectly) her support for those who asked for change.
Senait was born in Asmara, Eritrea. Right after the Dergue took power, she left for Sudan. Her paper was made ready for her to migrate to the USA, but she chose to join the armed struggle. At first, right after the military training, she was assigned with the medical department. For much of time however, she was in the culture department. Senait was a humble and hard working person. She loved playing the guitar and singing. She was very popular with the song that had the following words: “All of me to you”. Fired by her words, the fighters used to add: “All of me is yours; my blood and my bones are yours; for you my nation; for you my people”. In 1987, Senait married a fellow fighter Beyene Russom. Her daughters are: Weini (14); Miriam (13) and Maina (7) In 1994, she was elected as a member of central committee of the National Union of Eritrean Women.
When her husband became Eritrea’s Ambassador to Kenya, she moved to Nairobi with him. There, she completed her high school studies. And when she returned to Asmara to started working with the Ministry of Tourism. The UNDP provided her with funds to continue her evening classes in accounting. When she was taken to prison for unknown reasons, she was with her brother Erimias Debessai (papayo). During that period, she was on her 2nd year at university.
Those who know Senait say that her husband is a violent person and she suffered a great deal of domestic violence. Her husband did not also want her progress with her education. And a time came when she filed for a divorce. Her husband missed three appointments, and finally, the matter was referred to court and the hearing was made for 20th of November 2003. Five days before the hearing, on the 15th of November 2003, Senait and her brother Ermias (who was released from prison some months back) were put in prison.
For lack of the rule of law, what Senait fought with her sweat, blood and her youth for so many years came back to haunt her and that¡¦s why she finds herself locked up in a dungeon.
In all their measure, the rays of March 8, in the form of justice, equality and rights are not yet glowing in full – in Eritrea.
Our brave women – like all Eritrean fighters and civilians who fought and are still fighting for democratic change and justice, for equality and rights have been betrayed.
The partial achievements they made while fighting the Dergue and other entrenched social injustices have been snatched by the PFDJ. The objectives, hopes and beliefs for which most of their young lives was spent has been hijacked. They witnessed the emergence of the Eritrea they could never have imagined. It is an Eritrea that is being controlled by few individuals who have no interest in Eritrea’s stable future.
This would have been something one would expect from an enemy but never from one’s fellow fighters. This is betrayal on a grand scale.
They endured so much for so long and gave all they had with the hope that their nation would have peace and social justice. Now, they are shedding tears of deep sorrow. But they are women of strong spirit and they will rise when the time for healing wounds arrives. They will not be as cruel as those who broke their promises and betrayed their future. They will still have time to teach them lessons of care and courage.
I am deeply grateful for those who helped and gave their full support in the preparation of this document.