There was no room for innovation or candor then—but hope hasn’t died
CAPE TOWN—Bereket Ghezae (his real name), 55, joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front shortly before they won the 30-year war for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia, and he fought in the Border War with Ethiopia at the end of that decade. In 2001, he left on a scholarship to South Africa. He has not been home since.
Bereket, who grew up under military occupation in Asmara, was in Bahr Dar, Ethiopia, studying advanced mathematics in a pedagogical sciences program when EPLF fighters entered the city in February 1991. The Eritreans were there in support of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was driving toward the Ethiopian capital in a final effort to oust the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Three months later both victorious fronts would turn their attention to state-building, one in Asmara, the other in Addis Ababa.
When he met the fighters, Bereket decided that being a part of this was more important than finishing his education, so he joined on the spot. He and other recruits were sent north for training and then assigned to where they were most needed. In his case this meant teaching math at Bet Soira, the front’s “revolution school” for war orphans and children of fighters at its rear base area deep in the Sahel Mountains.
When the fighting stopped, Bereket took his young charges in tow and set about returning them one by one to relatives in Keren, Asmara and other highland towns. When he was done, he went back to the EPLF school, which was moved to Keren, to finish the academic year. In 1992, he returned to school himself at the newly reopened University of Asmara.
Over the next six years, he attended intermittently, but he was set to graduate in July 1998 when war broke out again with Ethiopia and he was recalled to the army. He was posted to Corps 2001, a unit dug in at the border outside the town of Zal Embassa. “Like any other Eritrean I accepted the call,” he said.
He returned to the university in 1999 to graduate under pressure from his parents who had seen him get this close to a diploma twice only to go off to war, but once the ceremony was done he was sent to Barka to cut down trees to build trenches, and he balked. This had nothing to do with his skills and looked more like punishment than redeployment.
He had been doing the bookkeeping and auditing for the battalion, but he frequently argued with his commanders, often over petty issues. What became obvious from his accounts is that Bereket has little patience for incompetence and even less for blind authority exercised by incompetent people. In this respect, his resistance was not politically motivated, but of course it was taken to be, and he began paying the price.
When his auditing duties were taken from him and he was assigned to do reconnaissance out in front of the trenches—almost certainly a suicide mission—he left for Asmara and did not return.
After a break at home, he applied for work at the Ministry of Marine Resources in Massawa, explaining his absence from the frontlines by saying he had been caring for his parents while his siblings were fighting. He was hired and sent to the southern coastal town of Tio for thirteen months to manage a project there.
Bereket was still with the ministry in 2001 when its head, former minister of both defense and foreign affairs and hero of the liberation struggle Petros Solomon, was arrested with ten others for signing an open letter critical of the president’s conduct of the war and his resistance to democratization. For Bereket, this confirmed his worst fears of the direction the regime was taking.
Coincidentally, he learned that his high grade point average at the University of Asmara qualified him for a World Bank-sponsored scholarship to study in South Africa. In November he left for the University of Stellenbosch.
The day he arrived he was asked if he was married. When he and three other foreign students said they were, his hosts asked how could they survive without their spouses?
To Bereket, this seemed a funny question as he, like most Eritreans, had grown accustomed to going for long periods with a chronically disrupted family life. But he wasted no time accepting an offer of help and, within weeks, his wife Feven got a formal invitation from the university to come.
She had done her national service in the 1990s and served with Bereket near Zal Embassa during the Border War, working in supply and logistics. They had married in 1999. After she got pregnant, she remained in service until her sixth month and then was officially demobilized.
Her release paper from service made it possible for her to get exit visas for herself and her children—two by then—and they flew to South Africa soon after the invitation arrived. The next two years were a shock for being so normal, but they were very happy.
“Stellenbosch was very good for us,” said Bereket.
A local church offered support to the families of foreign students, and they made friends quickly. Church members organized weekly outings for foreign students’ wives and children, introducing them to one another and to South Africa. The congregation also helped cover school costs when the Eritrean government cut the program two years later after students began voicing public criticism of the regime’s human rights policies.
“It was very nice,” said Feven. “We met so many people from different cultures.”
But with the drop in subsidies, it became increasingly difficult to afford Stellenbosch, so at the end of 2003 they moved to Muisenberg, closer to Cape Town, while Bereket finished his master’s degree and searched for jobs. He came close to getting one with Maersk Sealand for which his advanced study in maritime economics qualified him, but his uncertain asylum status got in the way. The company didn’t want to take a chance on him if he might not be there.
Faced with this, he turned to petty trading, “throwing my degree aside,” he said, to work as a street vendor selling clothing, T-shirts and bags. But ever the idea-man, he soon saw and seized an opportunity to expand his business and help other vendors by organizing a supply chain and opening a small shop.
Next came a clothing shop in Cape Town, which Feven ran. Then a Green Market Square restaurant, a coffee shop and an internet café. In 2008 he got formal refugee status. Today, the family is prospering. Their two boys, now 14 and 15, are doing well in school, especially in math and science. But through their trials and their success, both Feven and Bereket long for home.
“I don’t want to live in any other country,” said Feven. “That’s why we stay in Africa.”
“I would go back tomorrow,” added Bereket. “But I have to smell the fruits of real change—freedom of movement, free expression. I don’t need any more than that.”