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A Community in Crisis

A Community in Crisis-the Irob dilema

“I am stuck in the middle of a large deep lake and do not know how to swim. I am not sure how I got here, but I remember that I have lost most of my elderly children to God, Young adults and middle aged men and women to Shabia and my youngest and brightest children to a false dream in search of a better life across the deadly ocean and deserts. Some of my children who made it across seem to spend so much time arguing amongst themselves over immaterial issues that they look like exact copy of a dysfunctional family and I am afraid that they have forgotten about me. I see so many people standing around the lake watching me and discussing how I should be saved and who is best equipped to help me; I can hear so many absurd ideas on mobile phones and through internet that I am no longer sure that all of them are my own children; as some of their suggestions are to simply take out all the water from the lake and then pull me out. Well, it has been over thirteen years of talk and I am still stuck here. I see some hands extending, but not even one of them is jumping in to save me”

If Irob was a mother, the above is what I imagined she would say to us. The point is, if those among us who “know how to swim”, do not jump in and pull her out, the chance of saving her will severely be limited. It is our collective responsibility to step up and do something about our community. The challenges we face are enormous and multi-faceted and can only be dealt with a thoughtful and collective force that unites our people around ideologically pragmatic, politically mature, socially responsible and economically practical method that would be translated into improving the day to day lives of our people. 

Issues 1: External Pressures

Uninvited Guests into our community

The Irob community has had many guests, all uninvited and unwelcomed during the past half century. All came telling us that they were there to improve our lives while the real purpose was to find their own hiding place from more powerful militaries. They all have caused tremendous disruption in our community and absolutely nothing positive while they ruled us by gun as we then became enemies of all the central Ethiopian governments; guilty by association. I will have more to say on this topic in the future.

The impact of Eritrean invasion on Irob Community

Mahatma Gandhi, the great nonviolent struggle practitioner was clear about fighting for one’s right when he said, “Many people mistake non-violence as compromise or avoidance of conflict. It is not. On the other hand, it is standing up for what is right (truth) and justice. Fighting a violent war is better than accepting injustice.  So, really there is no contradiction in fighting a just war, and believing in non-violence. Both are duties to be carried out to preserve justice and truth”. Conflict is never an easy thing, and in our case it seems to linger longer, impacting our everyday lives. In 1998, to no fault of ours the president, of Eritrea a trigger happy ex guerilla leader ordered a vicious military campaign against our nation in general and our Irob people in particular. Our people survived two years of cruel and merciless dictator’s rage and his undisciplined army’s daily abuse. What took place after a war that we supposedly were victorious; if there ever is a real victory in war, let alone a war between people so closely linked by blood and history. The Ethiopian leaders rather than moving back into the line that both the Eritrean and Ethiopian people have always known to be the boundary and telling the Eritrean government and the world that they have achieved their goal of retaking their land and that they have no interest in continuing the war, agreed to go to an international court, that ultimately embarrassed the people of Ethiopia for the most unjust and unjustifiable verdict. It is our responsibility as a community to keep reminding the Ethiopia government to do their responsibility of protecting the people and the national boundary and more importantly to fight through information and if forced, by any means available to them.

Abduction of innocent Irobs by the Eritrean government

The Irob community has lost so many people to the Eritrean invasion, but there is nothing more painful than the fact that the Eritrean government has abducted more than one hundred of our innocent family members and refused to release them or even admit abducting them. These are fathers of children who are growing as orphans, husbands and wives raising children as single parents. The Irob community must not give up on these members and should continue to organize and demand the international community and the Ethiopian government to push the Eritrean government’s criminal act to be reversed. While some work is being done by few individuals and Irob cyber groups, much more work remains to be done. Our fight should never stop until the last of our brothers and sisters has returned home.

The Impact of Militarization on the Irob Community

The Irob people understand the necessity of a defense force on the boarder to protect not only our people but the nation itself. Having witnessed the consequences of not having a ready military on the border the Irob people fully support the Ethiopian military. Unfortunately though, militarization of our community has caused fragmentation of our families, cheated our young girls out of their youth, and even our married women deceived into confusion partly because of the hopelessness in their economic future, but partly because of the nature of the military. No matter how disciplined a military is, there is always the “here and now pleasure” mentality of a soldier that has caused so much destruction in our community. Another challenge that is manifesting itself in the relationship between the military and the Irob community is energy problem. It has become impossible to find fire wood in Irob to cook the meager daily food. The military has the right to use wood from anywhere and from anyone and that alone is brining certain power issue to the floor.  If the wereda and regional governments would simply conduct a study as to how many young girls and married women are entangled in this unfortunate circle of miserable and hopeless life, it would shock any reasonable person. It is late, but not too later to do something about this; the sooner the better.

Economic Underdevelopment in Irob; Need for a New Paradigm

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural.  It is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.  And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity.  It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”  – Nelson Mandela

We have been in poverty for a very long time and do not seem to find a way out of it. Small localized living economies with two distinctive engines are possibilities in Irob region. On the one hand renewable energy such as solar and wind and on the other, rainwater harvesting that will change the physical environment of Irob land. For this kind of development, support of both government, church, international community and individual investors in our land is needed. The regional and wereda government should encourage investment and offer ready study of all possible investment fields and incentives to people interested in reviving our land. There is no better land for us than the Irob land and every one of us should do at least one thing in Irob. Government should still be an engine of economic growth in such impoverished community where there is no private money to speak of. Unfortunately, we also need another element that we seem to have lost; discipline and a sense of community of our people. The Irob Diaspora should play a positive role in the economic development of Irob. The question for every Irob Diaspora member today should be, what have I done for Irob so far? 

“Filset” of Irob youth; reasons and consequences

In 2010 alone, over one thousand youth has left their families in search for a better life, with so many of them perishing in deserts and seas or in the hands of traffickers. Irob young people are leaving a community that does not offer them any hope for economic prosperity. This author participated in meetings with Irob groups in Dawhan, Mekele and Addis Abeba in 2010 where there was an open discussion that included as to who was responsible for this tragedy. One of the opinions that were expressed at these meetings was this “filset” was due to the unmet dreams and aspirations of a better economic future. This is very different than the fabricated misinformation of irresponsible few who claimed that these young people are running away to escape from as they put it, “worse than the derg dictatorship”. The truth is, there are “mafia” like traffickers who are benefiting from the blood of our youngsters. It is this author’s position that the regional and wereda governments are responsible for the protection of these youngsters and should work towards a promising future for the next generation. The government is also responsible to focus on improving the economic and social reality of the community and providing hope for the future generation in Irob community; what is being done is not enough. All of us; community members, especially those of us who had better opportunity must take a lead in assisting our youth for a better future through education.

II.         Issue II. Internal Pressures: Second Look at Ourselves;

Post War Impacts on our community

It is difficult to conduct development by a community that has suffered so much violence, has not been assisted properly to deal with what comes with both property and human losses. We cannot hope to build a strong community when the foundation of such a community; the family, has been disintegrated to such a level and so many households are headed by young single mothers who are forced into “Malab Are” and the men keep producing children with every possible partner, including married ones with no responsibility to raise their children. Add to this the destructive military behaviors in our community we should loudly scream S.O.S. If we do not think that our community is in trouble, we might as well be in a coma.

Irob Culture and Norms: Where Are We heading:

We have a community at a cross roads that sometimes looks as if it is on a verge of a death bed and at times tends to give us hope that it is on a “take off” level to rise up again. I am convinced that both scenarios are real and how we deal with it will tip the balance towards one side or the other. On a cultural level, it is clear as to what steps we need to take; strengthen our identity at every level. Celebrate our culture and transform it from an oral tradition into a written and yet keep tagging along the oral and the beautiful traditions such as; Masene, Tine-eyan Tine, Hora and others. Our democratic traditions and method of Socratic Dialogue should be restarted and strengthened. The young educated Irobs all over the world and especially those in the country start to conduct research on Irob traditions and start writing them down and publishing books. As in all of Africa, when one elder dies in Irob, it is like losing a library. Let’s start to write before our elders are all gone. While I am at it, let me recognize people like Memhir Berhe Zigta for their contribution towards this goal.

The Issue of Language and Our Identity

Please see my article on the “What is in the name any way”. I am so pleased that the people who matter most; those who live in Irob district, made a rational decision and did not disappoint us. The name of our language will remain as is; Saho. Let me also acknowledge the progress we have made under the current government when it comes to our language; for the first time in our history our children will be taught in their mother’s tongue; Saho. If we could now start to use their original Saho names for places rather than their new baptismal names such as: Sangade, not Sengede, Mosi Gade and not Iddamosa, Adgadi Are and not Idalgeda…

The Irob Elite and Confusion of Politics and Politicking:

It is now more than three years since I finished reading a translation of a book that describes the life of Mgs. De Jacobis and his mission in Abyssinia. There are many things written about the Irob people in this book, but I was so amazed as how well he understood us. Speaking of his introduction to the Irob people he writes, “Habla-Mariam (the father of Tecla-Gioghis) having given them notice of my arrival, I was introduced at once to the senate, or council of the Ancients and the conference began”. Mind you this is in the 1830s and our elders conducted themselves in a representative democracy. Should we ask as how well we are doing today? We must be engaged in the current political system, but not simply following whatever comes from “Laleway Akal” as some of our people seem to have learned very well. We must look for the interest of Irob people, which I believe is consistent with the interest of people of Ethiopia in general and people of Tigray in particular. As it is naive to always say yes, so is to simply say no for the sake of opposing the current administration.

Those who have taken decision as to always oppose the current government are misguided just as those who always seem to say yes to “Laleway Akal”. It is this author’s strong opinion that neither blind followers nor the total opponents of the government are the people to address the needs and aspirations of our people. Some of those who vehemently oppose the government seem to romanticize the old “Fanno” period of our “blessed” Asimba Mountain. Many of them have passed their retirement age and seem to be looking for a revenge for literally losing the fight during the guerrilla warfare and their ability to think rationally can now begin to be questioned. They will not change themselves or the lives of our people as they are consumed with a romantic notion of their revolutionary past and hatred of those who defeated them in the field. As their predecessors before them, they seem to have forgotten about the consequence of their action to our people. Although reality of the political landscape has changed, their political strategy is designed as if we are in the seventies and their advocacy and secrecy looks exactly as if one would see in Addis in the mid-seventies. The best example is the article written about Irob youth and claiming that the youth are actually running away from what they called worse than the derg dictatorship. We must ask if these people have totally lost their mind. Have they ever been in Ethiopia during the derg administration? Some of them have decided to say anything and everything against the government and get some needed attention in their lives. This author would respects and accepts their individual right to voice their opinion written or otherwise. Unfortunately though, this behavior does not contribute one iota of positive result to the Irob people and that their individual frustration should not be made to look as if they represent the Irob people in general and the Irob diaspora in particular.

Relationship between the Irob Community and the Government

It would be great to see some experiment in the principles “Of the People, By the People, For the People” in our leaders at every level. The EPRDF government is not without shortcoming; there are many areas that reasonable people can disagree with the current government, but it is this author’s opinion that it should be balanced and presented in a rational and pragmatic manner. Yes, the government has miserably failed to speak up for our abducted Irobs, failed to protect our youngsters disappearing to a wrong “promise land”, and yes, the government has failed to implement a system of conflict resolution to stop massive internal small individual conflicts that is derailing our old tradition by focusing on judicial system that does not always present the best solution. Disputes should be encouraged to be resolved through “simagile”. As a good friend of mine pointed out, “failure on the part of the government to capitalize on the existing informal Irob institutions is a serious blunder”. For any hope of moving our people out of poverty, should include stopping the alcoholic destruction of our people by putting a limit on the time of consumption and number of local “Malab industry”. We cannot have fathers and sons getting drunk in a “Malab are” and hope to produce a work force that can do what we dream of doing for our community.

All these and other shortcomings of the government can be argued for and against. There is a middle ground where you oppose what you see as wrong and work with what you see as right. We have had tremendous progress in the area of expanding education, improving communication system in Irob and these positive actions need to be encouraged. Reason must dictate our stand rather than an age old “purity of unchangeable and arrogant political position that says “will fight until death”.  Pragmatic approach is the sane way to follow rather than a revenge mentality of those who have forgotten how old they are or what it was that they decided to fight against in the first place. The state government bears some responsibility of making the “playing field” equal. The current leaders of our government went to the mountain to ensure equality of the people of Tigray with those who acted as if power was given to them by God to rule forever with an iron fist. The current leadership now bears serious responsibility to live up to our dreams and aspirations as Irob people, if given equal access to the federal and regional resources we would do well and show what they are made of. They have always excelled in all relevant areas when they have been given an opportunity. How come then that not one individual with any real influence can be seen in the political arena in either Tigray or Ethiopia. We must ask why?

Issue III: What Now

The challenges are multifaceted; both external and internal. If all the key players take principled position and appropriate actions, the community will survive, stabilize, and ultimately flourish. As a community we need to have discipline and reclaim our sense of community as a people. The government must provide security of our people: we demand that our national identity, our boarder security and safety of our people including those abducted by Eritrea are addressed immediately. Regional and wereda governments must do more in the area of investment by providing attractive incentives especially to Irobs both in the country and those outside.

Our church leaders need to think of going back to the basics and work hard to heal a wounded community spiritually and socially. While the church’s social services have been lifesaving, attention must be paid to the spiritual needs of our people as well.

Our Irob elite/educated must learn to be able to work together for a greater good. Assist in creating and strengthening an all Irob organization to facilitate the flow of material and manpower that will provide assistance to our community. Young Irobs within the cyber space need to be more focused on tangible and result oriented issues. Yes, we must limit our verbal (cyber) dialogue that leads to nowhere.

Seyoum Berhe


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