The Meaning of Independence Day for Refugees in Mai Ayni Camp, Ethiopia | The Center for Victims of Torture

The Meaning of Independence Day for Refugees in Mai Ayni Camp, Ethiopia

Monday, June 6, 2016

Maki Katoh is country director, CVT Ethiopia.

“25 Years: Pride for the Fools, Sadness for the Wise” said the banner hanging over the Eritrean flag and  music band at the center stage, and a crowd of refugees gathered  for the 25th Eritrean Independence Day event in the Mai Ayni refugee camp in Ethiopia. I had the opportunity to attend this event on May 24, 2016, and I was struck by the size of the crowd and the messages. Elsewhere around the venue were banners stating “We refuse slavery, we are for freedom,” “You Eritreans to full liberation, let us start with unity,” and “No one remains under the control of a dictator forever.” The great crowd gathered for the occasion, though excited, was also solemn. The celebration—or rather, a commemoration—started with an opening speech setting the tone for the day: Eritrea may have been an independent country for the last 25 years, but the Eritrean people have not gained their full freedom.

The Eritrean Independence Day is an anniversary of the day on which the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) moved into the capital Asmara, defeating the Ethiopian force and putting an end to the 30-year independence war. This was in spite of the fact that the Eritrean authorities did not declare Eritrea an independent state until April 27, 1993—nearly two years later—following the national referendum that resulted in 99.83% of the Eritreans voting for their nation to become separated from Ethiopia.

For the Eritreans, the independence is not a mere declaration given at an officious ceremony. It is a hard-earned victory gained through relentless, fearless and visionary battles waged against a much larger and better equipped military. Isaias Afwerki, a much respected and beloved freedom fighter who led EPLF’s effort in the struggle, became the independent Eritrea’s first president. On this day, however, the refugees at Mai Ayni did not have many praising words to share about this hero-turned-dictator.

Pictured: a singer at the event.

There is caution about being the one to openly criticize authorities, either due to deferential cultural values or out of plain fear  – the refugees conveyed the message in veiled, albeit unmistakable, language.  “You ask me to prepare the canvas, but is it for a marriage, or is it for a funeral? We are celebrating the birthday, in this desolate camp” recited one poet. “I have a beautiful daughter, she is so precious to me, but I might as well marry her away, before they come and desecrate her” sang a musician.

There was a quiz competition that featured a number of questions regarding independence struggle, inspirational leaders, historical moments, triumphs, as well as more recent events of tragedies. The audience listened carefully and gave answers confidently. They cherished the proud moments, expressed anger at the betrayals and disappointments, but most of all, they were intent on keeping the memories alive and passing them on to the young ones. “Twenty-five years is a long time. A newborn baby would have grown up, graduated from university, and become a man” stated one speaker. The youth, who usually have the semblance of being restless and indifferent—many of whom were born at the tail end of or after the independence struggle—paid serious attention.

Many of the organizers wore a T-shirt that said “Where is your brother?” quoting the title of the 36-page letter issued by four Eritrean Catholic bishops on the independence day two years ago, addressing a number of predicaments the Eritreans are facing and appealing the faithful to find solutions. The letter is regarded as a well-organized, accurate and articulate account of reality as well as a respectful expression of the authors’ opinions and pleas. The challenges cited in the letter remain relevant today.  The refugees seem to be struggling to find the right way to express their emotions—their resentment and despair, their resignation and aspiration, their pride and shame, their admiration for the forefathers and abomination of the current regime.

A joyful, if sentimental, moment was also found during this event. A music band played a song commonly played during the independence struggle, and women with long skirts and large white gauze scarves came to dance in a circle to the all-too-familiar Tigrigna rhythm at the center stage. Two Saho women joined them, wearing strikingly red dress and scarves, as did a lone man with a kufi. The deep, slow and insistent tempo echoed the strong heartbeat of a proud society—not a faint pulse of a fallen and dying soldier or the quick pounding footsteps of a running refugee. For the duration of the music and dance, they were not the helpless refugees but the proud members of the truly independent and free Eritrea.

In Tigray region of Ethiopia, where the Mai Ayni refugee camp is located, the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) was also fighting the Derg regime as EPLF sought Eritrean independence. Sharing the language, culture and religion, Ethiopian Tigrigna is often considered brothers and sisters of their Eritrean counterparts. “We will never forget the hospitality of the Ethiopian people and its government” stated another banner. And recently, it was Ethiopians’ turn to celebrate the Fall of Derg Day to commemorate the day on which the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front—a merger of TPLF and various other ethnic-based groups—entered Addis Ababa, and toppled its own dictatorial government. 


CVT’s work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.


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