Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors, and Exiles

The first ethnography of the Eritrean struggle for independence documents the transnational dimensions of revolution and nation-building from the dual perspective of both Eritrea and its U.S. diaspora.

Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors, and Exiles
Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora

Tricia Redeker Hepner

2009 | 272 pages | Cloth $65.00 | Paper $22.50
Anthropology | Political Science
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Eritrea and Exile
Chapter 2. A Tale of Two Fronts: Nationalism and Political Identity in the ELF and EPLF	
Chapter 3. Transnational Tegadelti: Fighters and Exiles in the 1970s
Chapter 4. Eritrea in Exile: Refugees and Community Building in the United States
Chapter 5. Ties That Bind and Sometimes Choke: Transnational	Dissonance in Eritrea and Exile
Chapter 6. A Painful Paradox: Transnational Civil Society and the Sovereign State	

Glossary of Tigrinya Terms and Phrases

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


As a multisited study undertaken in both Eritrea and the United States, this book represents an effort to move beyond the insularism and exceptionalism characterizing both Eritrean studies and Eritrean nationalism itself. Because Eritrea has largely been inaccessible to researchers for much of its recent history, few sustained ethnographic analyses of Eritrea or its diasporas yet exist. The majority of research to date has focused, rather narrowly, on the historical and political conditions surrounding the thirty-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia (1961-91). Many scholars have written with a particular objective in mind, that is, to legitimize (or dismiss) Eritrean nationalist claims. Few contemporary and critical ethnographic studies have yet appeared, including those addressing the diaspora as a key sector of the Eritrean nation-state. Moreover, the Eritrean leadership has long cultivated an image of Eritrea as inscrutable, misunderstood, and perpetually threatened by enemies within and without. Reinforcing and perhaps even exploiting the classic view of the Horn of Africa as a world apart, this image underpins nationalist narratives of isolation and the turn toward authoritarianism.

Among the first generation of anthropologists to study the country after independence, I am convinced that ethnography is needed perhaps nowhere so urgently as it is in Eritrea today. As access to information and the country itself becomes increasingly restricted, it is vital to record and reconstruct people's actual encounters with the past, present, and future. As anthropologist Donald Donham (1999b) has shown for Ethiopia, revolutionary movements rapidly repress diverse, locally constructed understandings, smoothing the ineffable contingencies of political transformation into homogenized, linear inevitabilities. Recovering the multidimensional human experiences that accompany dramatic change is vital for a richer and more accurate comprehension of the sociopolitical conditions that follow. Moreover, analytical abstractions from the Eritrean case are valuable precisely because they enable new contextualizations, defusing the exceptionalist logic that feeds intolerance, xenophobia, and militarization.

The approach taken in this book is therefore one of witnessing the subjective life experiences of Eritrean people. Many of these experiences seem to brush history against the grain, thus countering official, homogenizing nationalist narratives that euphemize and justify the tragedies of war, political repression, forced migration, and human rights abuses. However, this was not the original intention of this study. Rather, my goal was to interpret the successes and challenges of what in the mid-1990s still seemed to most observers a progressive and deeply inspiring African liberation movement and to chart the development of a euphoric new state once referred to as a leader in the (erstwhile) African Renaissance. In particular, I hoped to account for how the Eritrean diaspora in the United States had contributed to the independence movement historically and to assess their participation in nation building relative to the new government's goals and policies.

One of my initial hypotheses was that exile communities had considerable power and autonomy vis-à-vis the party-state. However, I soon discovered that the former revolutionary guerrilla movement, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), and now the government of Eritrea (known as the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice, or PFDJ), and had long been at the center of transnational relationships, and indeed bore down heavily from above as well as laterally through its own deterritorialized institutions, policies, and the people who carried out state functions and party orders. In developing a more complex understanding of how the Eritrean state and its transnational society related to one another, I realized I had underestimated the role of the state as a major structural force shaping transnational institutions and the communities and people who participated in them (or, conversely, rejected them). I had also not anticipated the intense fragmentation within exile communities or the repressive elements of transnationalism that so disempowered people even as they pursued spaces for resistance and autonomy. I was also surprised to discover that the rising debates about democracy and civil society that emerged following the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia were expressing as much about the historic grievances lodged deep within Eritrean society and culture and the nationalist revolution itself as they were about the dilemmas facing Eritrea as a new state in a rapidly globalizing world. Those historic grievances were soon overlaid by newer ones related to the retrenchment of nationalism and the intensified militarism and repression that arose after 2001, precipitating a new level of violence by the state and pushing more and more soldiers to become traitors and exiles despite the state's forceful appeals to honor the glorious sacrifices of the martyrs with obedience and self-sacrifice.

Clearly, crafting an analysis of Eritrea and exile is rife with challenges. Some of these are related to the objective difficulties of researching and writing about a relatively closed, postrevolutionary society where inquiry and discussion are potentially dangerous pursuits for both the researcher and the researched. Other challenges are related to the as yet unknown quality of Eritrean history, culture, and society. Not only are sources (whether archival or ethnographic) often difficult to access, but also the unfamiliarity of Eritrea to most audiences usually requires that substantial background information be provided in order to make sense of contemporary conditions. Finally, because Eritrea's quest for national identity and statehood has been so marked by internal conflicts and power struggles, multiple clashing narratives of the past and present compete at every turn, rendering truth and fact maddeningly elusive.

In many ways, this is a work of critical social history, structured by anthropological methods and analysis. While my chief concern is actually the contemporary dilemmas associated with transnational political struggle and the encounter between territorial nationalism and globally constructed models of political and social power, I discovered through the course of field research that none of these made much sense unless carefully situated within the historical context of the Eritrean revolution and forced migration. Scholars have pointed out the necessity of historicizing transnationalism and the context of forced migration in order to better understand the implications of transnational processes for migrating communities and sending and receiving states. Similarly, some Africanists (like Mahmoud Mamdani 1996) have argued that current claims to democratization and civil society require a historical analysis in order to comprehend how analogies and differences between Africa and the North/West have been constructed. In addition, taking a historical approach can be an effective research strategy under conditions of political instability and in settings where trust between research participants is compromised. Addressing events or debates that occurred in the past allowed people to discuss issues or answer questions that had a direct bearing on current events, but in a way that seemed safer due to the removal from the immediate present. It also helped me identify the way in which competing narratives or clashing views on the present had emerged out of conflicts within the historic nationalist movement itself.

Finally, a historical focus speaks to the anguish I observed among so many Eritreans as they wrestled with the same dilemmas in their communities and relationship to the Eritrean nation-state that my research aimed to address in a different way. While most Eritreans with whom I spoke at length revealed a well-developed consciousness of the national past as they had personally experienced it, a collective disorientation also clouded their gaze, engendering confusion, misunderstanding, and hostility within the diaspora and transnational social field. The sense of fragmentation Eritreans seemed to feel, and particularly those whose lives had been rent asunder by both war and exile, appeared to me to find its coherence only by reaching back to a time—if ever it existed—when the pieces were not yet so broken, when dreams of neither unity nor independence had been achieved and certainly not transformed into the stuff of fear and nightmares.

In assembling the pieces and narratives I have gathered among Eritreans into my own narrative, I have been continually reminded how all cultural processes, all histories, all political struggles, and all texts are essentially composites of competing memories of the past and dynamic perspectives on the present. Eritreans, both those in exile and those at home, have remembered events and narrated them to me and to one another in ways that serve contemporary political purposes. Moreover, my own memories of Eritrea intervene continually, forcing me to respond to those of my counterparts and perhaps betraying my own political and humanitarian concerns. Throughout this study I have tried to carefully balance the different interpretations of the past and present I discovered and to avoid deliberately staking a position on what does or does not constitute truth. It is hardly an original proposition that truth, fact, and objectivity are all relative, and perhaps nowhere is this more salient than during times of massive social and political upheaval, such as during revolutions and wars. It is my hope that the narrative I contribute here may possibly help Eritreans to view their own in new ways.

This is a pragmatic analytical strategy attuned to a complicated, emotionally fraught subject more than it is a theoretical commitment to postmodernism, however. I want to carefully avoid the sense in which "narratives" are formed and articulated in a space that is somehow distanced from concrete political experiences. Narratives, for Eritreans and others, are not just stories to be told and retold. Nor are all narratives equal. Each is a perspective that emerges from a unique location within a collective, yet differentiated, political undertaking. Some are formed within the very grip of violence and dislocation, others from the communal comfort of university campuses, yet all are structured by the intense pressures of collective and individual survival. The tales of exhilaration recounted by radicalized students living in the United States, far from the trauma of war at home, are no less Eritrean than those that recall the smells and sounds of solitary confinement in a prison cell. But they are most certainly different tales indeed.