Date: Sunday, 10 March 2019
Transcript of the interview of Tesfay Gebreab (TG)
( 14 February 2019)
Interviewer Yared Tesfay (YT)
YT: Our dear esteemed viewers, this is Eritrean Embassy media presenting you with our guest the renowned author Tesfaye Gebreab. We thank him for being our guest for the second time.
As can be recalled we had conducted an interview on a wide range of issues related to the prospect of change in Ethiopia. Upon the release of the interview on social media, it had attracted numerous comments and views.
Lets start with the last question of that interview, which was about your up coming book entitled People of the Sea.
TG: Thank you for inviting me for a second time Yared. At the previous interview I had said the title of the book was ‘People of the Sea’ but that has now changed. It is also possible that it will yet be changed. I am thinking of naming it ‘The book of Asmara” or ‘The Imprint of Asmara’, or even reverting back to its original title. But nonetheless that book has been finished and we are ready to have it printed. Its publication will mainly be in Ethiopia and hope to unveil it at the Millennium Hall in Addis Abeba. I hope to go to Ethiopia for the presentation, as I have yet to go there. I thought that it would be a better to present my friends there with a book, rather than gifts of Bananas and Oranges as is the custom.
YT: Congratulations on behalf of Eritrean Embassy Media and its followers. We will keep an eye on the book.
YG: Yes, Yes, thank you.
YT: Mr Tesfaye, it could be said that your previous writings were forward looking and predications of what was to come. Currently it would seem that current Ethiopian politics seems to be relatively free of the past false narratives. As a writer, what is your view on the current status of Ethiopian politics.
YG: An assessment of the current political affairs of Ethiopia requires a thorough study. Its difficult to make hasty claims about the situation. We are seeing a lot of differing views in Ethiopia and the direction which the politics will take is debatable. People are analysing the situation from their own political perspectives.
As we now have team Lema or in other words, Dr Abiy’s government and a lot of people have raised hopes as a consequence. A lot of people believe that Ethiopia is heading in the right direction and I share that view.
Nonetheless, some differences have started to appear within the Oromo community, which is a bit concerning. If they resolve their differences through the ancient traditions of the Oromo, in my view a solution will be found, not just for Ethiopia but for the entire Horn of Africa.
YT: Any change comes with its own challenges and opportunities. In your view, what do you think the fall out of the divisive or ethnic politics that have been in place for the past 27 years is?
TG: It is debatable whether it is the policy per se or its implementation that has brought about the problems. The problem is not the language based federal system nor the constitution that advocates such a system.
The problem was that the TPLF wanted to be the only beneficiary of the system and it confined the Constitution to the paper it was written on. Therefore, I don’t believe that it was the policy that was the root cause of the problems.
It can be said that a truly language based federal system has not been tried out in Ethiopia. The policy was only on paper and was never practically implemented.
With the coming of Dr Abyi, such a system can be implemented. We shall wait and see if it will continue or not, as there those that want the constitution to be changed and those that don’t want the language based system to be changed. The forth coming elections will determine the outcome.
YT: A new chapter is being opened between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. What do you think the influence will be on the region of this new era of collaboration?
TG: Its a wonderful dream but it remains to be seen if it can actually work. The Horn of Africa is known as the source of major problems.
If we ask ourselves who was responsible for the turmoil in the Horn of Africa, we realise that it is those regimes that were promoting the interest of others at the expense of their own.
If we had made our own choices which are beneficial to us rather than be influenced by others, all these problems would not have come about.
How about now? It seems that there is a great deal of goodwill between Eritrea and Ethiopia. While it is unclear where Sudan stands in all this. Its is well known that the Sudanese government does not have a well defined stand. Its always making blunders and is an unstable government facing problems of its own. It has chosen to side with the TPLF, even when the TPLF now finds itself holed up in Mekele. The Sudanese government is riddled with internal strife and its not really a government that you can say much about.
YT: Let me ask you frankly, your books, you have written numerous books, I had asked you in the past about the accusations levelled at you every so often saying that your books exaggerate greatly. However, recent events have proven your predictions correct. What is your view on this?
TG: You can only be certain of things after they have happened. Its easier to predict that something will not happen, because if it happens its not a issue but if you predict that something will happen and it does not, then it will be embarrassing.
The Arab Spring happened, most were saying that such a movement would not work in Ethiopia. I am aware that one or two politicians had written saying that an Arab Spring style movement could happen in Ethiopia.
The general consensus was that the TPLF was too strong to be removed. I had written in my book “The memoirs of a journalist” that the Ethiopian regime was already defeated and that its insides were rotten and all it was waiting for was something to push it over. There were those that thought my views were hilarious as they thought that the TPLF would never fall.
Its easy to claim that the TPLF would not fall, what is hard is to make the claim that the TPLF would fall based on your insider knowledge that the regime was rotten to its core.
YT: In your books you have mentioned Bereket Simon, and we are aware of the current situation with him, what are your observations?
TG: What I wanted to primarily show about Bereket Simon in my book “The memoirs of a journalist” was his pride, it was not my intention to smear his reputation. I wanted to show that he was not fit for the leadership role he had, that he was arrogant and that that he took no heed of the people. He was always sticking his nose in affairs that did not concern him to stir up trouble.
What was quite obvious was Bereket Simon’s arrogance which he displayed to the very end. In the paper he presented at Meklle recently, he claimed that the people of Amhara, especially the peasants were expressing their love for him. Ironically when he was arrested, the people did not demonstrate in his support but on the contrary they expressed their happiness about his arrest. So where were those he claimed that supported him? He could not see himself for what he was.
He had no constituency. What was he doing in the Amhara region? He had been asked by individuals and those in the media as to what he was doing in Bahr Dar and as the people there did not want him. His purpose there was to carry out the wishes of Melese Zenawi, who has since died and Bereket Simon can be considered amongst the living dead.
In the end, we heard that he was reduced to choosing between which prison he would rather been incarcerated in.
This raises the issue of what the TPLF actually was, what kind of persons were its members, what was its inner workings. This was not clear to the youth at the time.
YT: For example?
TG: What kind of people were leading the TPLF? What was their character like? This was not clear until the book “The memoirs of a journalist” was published. The book provided information to the youth about those that led the TPLF.
When the youth became aware of the shortcomings of the TPLF, it began to challenge them.
My book was the first to expose the TPLF, but other books have since been written by people like Ermias Leggese based on that book, that have further exposed the TPLF.
Especially the Oromo youth have been able to understand the inner workings of the TPLf from the various books that have been written.
YT: You had indicated to me that you would be translating the book “Gefi” ( Attrocities) into Amharic. Why did you choose this book? Is it because there isn’t material about such matters in Ethiopia?
TG: Before the book was printed, Zemhirt Yohannes mentioned it to me. He wanted me to take a serious look at it. When I did, I realised that the book contained history that I had never been aware of.
Those of us who were born and raised in Ethiopia, when we were in Ethiopia were led to believe that Haile Selassie was a saintly figure. We were aware of the brutality of the Dergue, who was known for massacring both Eritreans and Ethiopians indiscriminately.
We used to be told that Haile Selassie administered the country by praying hidden in a barrel and that wherever he went he was greeted with flowers. I was not naive enough to believe all that I used to hear about Haile Selassie, even as a child. But I was of the opinion that Haile Selassie committed less atrocities on Eritreans than Mengistu. I did not believe that he was as brutal as Mengistu, but a slightly benevolent brute. But when I read ‘Gefi’, I realised that Haile Selassie’s brutality was either on par with that of Mengistu or greater.
Haile Sleassie’s deviousness made him a very dangerous person. In the book written by Zewde Reta entitled “Eritrea’s case”, in the introduction Haile Selassie poses a question where he claims that he did no wrong against the Eritrean people but if the people feel that they have been wronged, they should say so. Its a good question, and this book gives a response.
As I grew up among them, I know Ethiopians are of the mind that Ethiopia’s gratuity towards Eritrea was reciprocated with destruction. When I read the book, I realised that what Zimhiret Yohannes said was true and that the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia should read it and I translated it into Amharic within two months.
It was 610 pages but I condensed it to 366 pages and it has now been printed and has been made available in Ethiopia and other places. It has also been translated into English and should be printed soon.
The main issue is that Ethiopians should be made aware of what Haile Selassie and Mengistu did in Eritrea. Peace and friendship should be based on the awareness of history. Without awareness and acknowledgement, there can be no peace and friendship.
People of Ethiopia should be made aware of what previous Ethiopian governments did in Eritrea. Ethiopians should know why their brothers in Eritrea struggled, why they went through all the hardships that they did.
I am of the opinion that this book will enhance the efforts of Dr Abyi’s attempt to bring about a lasting peace, that is why I have presented it as a gift.
I am aware that those that have read the book in Ethiopia have acknowledged that the stories are extremely harrowing.
YT: When we see it from a different point of view, don’t you think that such a book could be seen as provocative and undermining the peace process?
TG: Where are you standing while discussing peace? We are discussing peace while standing next to an open grave.
Things have to be clear. I am of the opinion that not only the recent history but older history, history that happened 400 years ago should also be written.
When we look at the experiences of others in the world, for example the history of the Nazis is being written by the Germans themselves. Ethiopians should not wait for others to write this history. Amharas should have written about the atrocities that befell the Oromo’s at the their hands.
The pain of the Oromo people should be heard by others, the pain of the people of southern Ethiopia should be heard by the Amhara. The atrocities committed on the Amhara should be acknowledged by the Oromos.
I believe that rather than deny the dark history, they themselves should make it public. Most of the history is about war, about one side defeating the other at various fronts. Such history is written by both Eritreans and Ethiopians and is well known. But this story ( in the book Gefi) is not known at all.
Let alone Ethiopians knowing the harrowing stories, not even Eritreans are aware of them. Take what happened at Ona. When you ask what happened at Ona and Gelb you are told that there were atrocities committed but they don’t tell you the details.
In the book there are accounts of Eritreans committing atrocities on Eritreans. If we take the example of Shebe, where hundreds were run over by Ethiopian tanks, we are told that there were two ex-EPLF fighters with the Ethiopians, who looting gold artefacts from the dead, to send to their families.
YT: They were turncoats?
TG: Yes they were turncoats. Of all the atrocities, the one committed at Geleb was the most extreme. What they did was to kill all the men and put the women in two huts. They selected the young women and raped them all through the night. At dawn, they burnt everyone, women, children everyone no one was spared. This was done by an Eritrean.
YT: What is his name?
TG: He was Lieutenant Kahsahye and later was killed after he had become a Colonel while fighting with the Ethiopians.
This unbelievable atrocity was committed by Sergeant Kahsaye who was an Eritrea.
The account of Eritreans committing atrocities at Hazemo is also included in the stories. The book is very balanced. We are not talking about one particular ethnic group but about the regime. In the regime there were Amharas, Eritreans, Oromos all groups were there.
I found the book to be very balanced. It is important that people understand that the book is not about the atrocities committed by the Amhara in Eritrea but that it is about the atrocities committed by the different Ethiopian regimes. It is about the atrocities committed by the governments of Haile Selassie and Mengistu. In these governments there were Eritrean individuals.
I would like to say that his book is very balanced and should be read by both Eritreans and Ethiopians.
YT: Good. There are some that are giving wrong interpretations to the current peace process and the 7 points that have been agreed on. How much does the people of Ethiopia know about Eritrea? What you have been saying so far might be helpful but in general we have some seen some writings or images that can be seen to be a stumbling block to the peace process. So, what is the level of awareness of the people of Ethiopia about Eritrea?
TG: This is a very relevant question. When we talk about the people of Ethiopia, we are talking about 100 million people, of politicians, intellectuals and the ordinary. It can be said that most of the people are far removed from sources of reliable information. That is why the media and books play an important role. There are even some who don’t even know that Eritrea and Ethiopia are two separate countries.
There are some who think that Eritrea and Ethiopia should go back to their pre 1991 status at any cost. As extreme as it may sound this is not the most surprising thing you might hear. There are others who are surprised that the two are separate as they are not aware of the speration. There are others who think that all those who speak Tigrynia are Tegarus and are one.
There are those who think that Eritreans follow only the Orthodox religion. The Amhara Region had sent a delegation to Eritrea recently. The delegation had only one Orthdox priest as a religious representative. They did not bother to send a Moslem representative. To them, Eritrea consists only of the highlands, which has the Debre Bizen monastery.
There was a representative of the Sidama of Ethiopia who had come from London to participate in the Oromo Libration Front’s 4th Congress. On are way to the congress around Afabet we came across a small village. We stopped and I asked a little shepherd boy what the village was called. As the boy did not speak Tigrynia he could not understand me. The Sidam representative was very surprised to see an Eritrean who could not speak Tigrynia and thought that we had crossed into the Sudan.
Eritrea is home to 9 ethnic groups. None are forced to learn Tigrynia and they are taught in their own language. Eritrea is the fruit of the struggles of all 9 ethnic groups and not just one.
Ethiopians think that Eritrea is only about the Tigrynia. Truth be said, Ethiopians don’t really know Eritrea. They are not aware of the layout of the land, the culture and the people.
Introducing Eritrea to Ethiopians should be done by Eritreans, whether it be through books, arts or other mediums.
YT: When we mention Fenkil it conjures up an image of an outstanding major military operation. A world renowned operation that is taught as an example around the World. However, we have seen a distorted narrative coming from the Ethiopian side whether through books or social media. How do you describe this phenomena?
TG: My new book covers this subject matter quite well.
TG: Ethiopian high ranking military officials and generals have been writing various books. The books written by those notorious generals in particular, have a lot of errors and false information. Among the false information perpetuated is the claim that Iran, Egypt and Iraq had participated in the battle of Fenkil. Where did this come from?
They claim that Shaebia’s spy network had infiltrated them to the very top and they attribute their defeat to the betrayal of their high command. I cannot say much about this here because I have dedicated one whole chapter to this in my forth coming book and I would rather invite those who are listening to this interview to read the book.
YT: So it means we will wait for it with great anticipation. I would like to ask you about what should be done to develop our region.
TG: Why is the Horn of Africa considered to be the source of problems? Why is it in constant turmoil? Is it an issue of resources or its strategic location? Whose interest is bringing about all these issues? These questions need to be answered.
History, especially in Ethiopia has been written at will. In times gone by the monarch was portrayed as an appointment of God and this fairytale has been perpetuated for a long time and is responsible for some of the issues we face.
The portrayal as the Red Sea as the blood/lifeline of Ethiopia, Eritrea being made to be the neck of Ethiopia without which Ethiopia cannot exist, has brought about its own issues.
There were no such things as, lifeline/blood, neck, appointee of God etc. These issues have to addressed and errors in the history need to be corrected in my opinion.
YT: In one of your writings that had been translated, you recount an incident where during the 1998-2000 war while in Ethiopia you heard Wedi Tikul’s song called ‘Marchedisawit’. What were you trying to say? I wanted to hear from you what you were trying to say about the other songs like ‘Fiori’ ‘Fiyamenta’
TG: The key thing here is that, those who don’t know the language are fools, as they would even laugh as you are insulting them.
When I came here, I went to a wedding where they were dancing to the song ‘Fiyamenta’ and they were saying “Fiyamenta my darling”. When I heard that, I got angry.
Who was Fiyamenta? She was a prostitute character in a novel. She used to chase the Ethiopian soldiers and had no nationalistic sentiments. She was a bad character in the book when you see it from an Eritrean point of view.
So when you see Eritreans gathered and dancing about Fiyamneta as if they had no one else, its greatly annoying.
My intention was to highlight such issues that emanate from the lack of understanding of the language and the fact that they never read the book ‘Oromai’. They were ignorant of what the character of Fiaymenta was, they were simply enamoured with the song and the name ‘Fiyamenta.
It was the same case in Ethiopia, they were dancing to a song about Eritrean victory while the two countries were at war in Badme. When I told them what the song was about they were shocked.
When my article about Fiyamenta came out, it was no longer played in public. It had been used as ringtones for mobiles and all that has stopped now. People need to be made aware about these things.
YT: recently there has been a surge of interests from Ethiopian artists to perform here in Eritrea. An Eritrean cultural troupe is currently in Ethiopia. As a writer and researcher, in your opinion how do you think the Ethiopian artists should prepare before they come, in connection with what we were discussing?
TG: They need to be familiar about the sentiments of the Eritreans. If they come here and sing about Emperor Menlik then the whole thing is futile.
They should not be singing Fiaymenta, they should be sensitive to the peoples sentiment. The Eritreans should also not go over there and sing about their victories in Nakfa and how they decimated the Ethiopian forces.
It is my belief that performances whether they are here or there, have to be in tune with the audiences sentiment.
YT: Mr Tesfaye, if your willing if you can tell us about your upcoming plans.
TG: My job is to write books. I have written a new book and called it, the Book of Asmara, but the name might change tomorrow. The title is not important and will not delay its publication.
I feel the new book is important to Eritreans and Ethiopians, especially Eritreans.
YT: You say Eritrea is conducive to your writing. Can you tell me where you wrote it?
TG: Yes, I wrote it in various places, and if I told you the names, you would not know the places. I was in Aguma, Do you know Aguma?
YT: I don’t know it.
TG: You see.
TY: So, you will be going back to Ethiopia? After how long are you going back?
TG I think about 18 years.
YT: Thank you very much for giving me this second opportunity. I wish you all the best.
TG: I thank you for inviting me and hope that we will do a third one.
YT: You have promised to come to London, but we are not sure when you will pay us a visit.
TG: I am ready anytime as I am free now.
YT: Our esteemed viewers, we were with author and researcher Tesfaye Gebreab, take care till next time.