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Haaretz: Tamara Baraaz on a Futile Goose Chase

“…the effort to invisibilise countries like Eritrea grows from an international strategy to maintain power and control over others. It perpetuates hegemonic discourse, which, of course, is not really discourse at all…”-(Samuel Mahaffy)

For the last 20 years, Eritrea has endured a persistent, superficial and derogatory image in the mainstream media, where Eritrea’s rich cultures and traditions, time tested values and principles, are undermined and ridiculed by self-serving interest groups. Tamara Baraaz’s 7 April 2019 article, “Eritrea’s Capital Is Lovely. But Scratch the Surface and You’ll Find a Terrifying Reality”, posted in the Haaretz, is a recent example. Readers would be mystified after reading the sensational headline, as they would be expecting to find evidence of a “terrifying reality” within. What they will find instead, is a regurgitation of the debunked and tired old narratives on Eritrea. Somehow entering Eritrea under false pretenses and speaking to a couple of non-descript individuals is supposed to pass for credible research, and reporting. Three things stand out in Baraaz’s article: Lack of context, complete lack of knowledge and understanding of Eritrean society, and outright lies.

There is so much written about Eritrea in the media, academia and hundreds of blogs, yet the information on Eritrea remains sparse, as most of the reports are based on what has been a carefully constructed narrative on the country and its people by the hegemonic powers and their surrogates. Each one copying from the other and adding a twist. Beverly G. Hawk, in “Africa’s Media Image”, explains this phenomenon:

“…The public is saturated with news: newspapers, radio, television networks, and cable. The proliferation of news sources in recent years, however, has not created diversity of news content about Africa…the homogeneous composition of news organizations assures the replication of familiar images…. Africa is truly “covered” by the Western press in the sense that important stories go unreported. Hence, invisibility is a crucial issue to be addressed in the assessment of African coverage…”

There are over 3 million Eritreans in Eritrea, over 20,000 in Israel, and a huge Eritrean Diaspora, yet Tamara Baraaz relies on two notorious quislings to write her story. In Eritrea where several government institutions, foreign Embassies, and UN agencies are found, Tamara Baraaz chose to insult her readers by presenting the views of two Eritreans, who seem to provide her the sound bites that fit her self-contradicting predetermined article. Baraaz also quotes extensively from the debunked and rejected “UN Report” on Eritrea to populate her otherwise shallow and hollow piece. Why travel all the way to Eritrea to just repeat tired narratives? Must be suffering from some kind of “white savior” complex.

The bulk of information in Baraaz’s article is not fact-based, but rather the points of view of a handful of detached individuals who have an ax to grind. Her true intentions are revealed when she tells the readers that she has contacts in Asmara who are supposedly members of an anti-government underground, yet can only present two persons, with no redeeming qualities. One of her contacts exposes the reality of the so-called movement. She writes:

“…Tesfai says he can be truly open only with close friends whom he’s gotten to know over a long, gradual period: I can count them on fewer than the fingers of one hand. …”

For someone who is supposedly a part of an underground movement, he sure doesn’t have many who share his sentiments or that he trusts. Like the many cyber NGOs established since 2001, his movement seems to be a one-man operation with no real constituents…relying on foreigners for alms and platform.

Baraaz mentions the Eritrean National Service throughout the article, but fails to provide context to what she presents as its shortcomings. Had she done her homework, she would have found out that the Eritrean National Service Program bears striking similarity with that in Israel. But her warped sense of superiority blinds her view. Excerpts from, “A Portrait of the Israeli Soldier”, a 1986 book by Reuven Gal, might help her understand what National Service in Eritrea entails.

Reuvan Gal highlighted important aspects of National Service in Israel:

“…major feature of the  IDF is that since its foundation, it has been a national service: a full-scale draft system beginning with a conscript’s compulsory service and continuing with a universal reserve service which practically involves almost every family in the state. In fact, military service in Israel is so deeply rooted in society that it is almost taken for granted. The importance of serving in the IDF is perhaps the only issue that has full consensus among the Israeli population…”

“…The duration of this  compulsory service, generally, is three years for the men and two years for the women. However, there are many exceptions to these rules. First, in many of the special units in the IDF, there is a requirement for a longer period of service–sometimes four or five years or even more…”

“…. Israeli youngsters  spend their most important years after high school in full military activity, with minimal monetary compensation (comparable to about $25 per month) and with total commitment of time and energies to this activity…”

“…The legal  requirement of all Israelis to participate in military service makes it, in short, a fact of life, not an option…”

“…The Israeli military,  being a true civil military, is different…Its norms and ethics come from its people and return to them. The sources from which they derive are the historical, cultural and societal essence of the people of Israel…”

“…Military service  in Israel is not perceived as compulsory, even though it is.… It is a normative part of the Israeli ethos–an integral phase in the life of any Israeli youth…”

“…The traditional  involvement of the IDF in various activities which are not strictly military (education, settlements, agriculture, working with juvenile delinquents, etc.) further increases the general impression that much of the work of the IDF soldier does not fall within typical military behavior…”

Reuvan Gal might as well be writing about the Eritrean National Service Program, but with a few caveats. While the Israeli army benefitted from US financial largesse and Diaspora contributions throughout its formative years, and is today, still subsidized to the tune of $8 Billion annually by the US government, Eritrea has no such patron. In addition, weakening the National Service Program was also the primary agenda of Eritrea’s enemies, and the anti-Eritrea campaigns of the last 20 years sought to block development aid to Eritrea, stop Diaspora remittances and isolate Eritrea economically and politically.

Eritrea also suffered from international injustice, including the refusal to end Ethiopia’s 20 year-long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories, and the 9 year-long illegal and unjust UN sanctions, conditions that negatively affected Eritrea’s economy and prolonged the National Service, important context that Baraaz omits to mention in her article. So if the Israeli conscripts make more shekels than the Eritrean conscripts, it is with good reason. The nation can only pay what it can afford.

There is a sense of mutual responsibility for the development of Eritrea ingrained in the hearts and minds of all Eritreans, with the exception of a few self-serving quislings. The people of Eritrea everywhere fought in unison to liberate their nation and are working in unison to develop their war torn nation. Bazaaz seems to be on a mission to break that bond, something her predecessors have tried and failed to do. She insults the intelligence of her readers, and Eritreans in particular, with her condescending presentation of Eritrea’s youth…worse, she relies on Eritrean quislings for information.

For example, one of her contacts in Asmara tells her that Eritrean youth are:

“…frustrated young people who have never done anything in life other than being in the military…”

In most countries, including Israel, military personnel are highly revered and considered as heroes, so why does Baraaz want to belittle the Eritrean military personnel? Eritrea’s youth, like those in Israel, are honing new skills (human capital), expanding their social networks (social capital), and gaining an increased understanding of Eritrea’s diverse cultures and traditions, which in turn strengthen the unity of the people. Life lessons that no university can offer.

Eritrea’s youth defend Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and are at the forefront of Eritrea’s economic development. Engaged in the arduous task of rehabilitating and rebuilding their nation, they are building roads, clinics, hospitals, dams and other vital infrastructures throughput the country. They serve as teachers, health providers and more. The people of Eritrea, recipients of their services, are very appreciative and proud. Just as in Israel, “conscription is human capital formation”. It is not in the culture of Eritreans to shy away from hard work, tell lies and undermine the work done by Eritrea’s finest. Eritrea’s youth are a product of their rich and cultured environment, and it all starts at home, and as she says, “in Eritrea the family is the strongest thing”.

Speaking of lies, Tamara Baraaz wrote:

“..Photographs of President Afwerki with his Ethiopian counterpart Sahle- Work Zewde during the reconciliation talks can still be seen in restaurants and shops in Asmara…”

That is an outright lie…there are NO pictures of the two in any Eritrean restaurant or shop in Asmara.

Tamara Baraaz must be confusing the state of single mothers in Israel with those in Eritrea. Eritrea’s gallant women continue to be the backbone of Eritrean society, and that includes the youth. As in Israel, there are some who do not want to serve, but there are hundreds of thousands that do. Here is a July 2016 VICE report about Israeli conscripts:

“…Every year a sizable minority try to get out of conscription…If you leave the country to avoid the draft, you can be arrested if you ever return, even on vacation…”

As for paternity testing in Eritrea, it has never been banned. This is an outright lie. In the absence of a test (if technically not available) the law defers to the mother’s testimony… If available, then DNA evidence is conclusive. France and Germany and many others have laws that ban or restrict paternity testing for one reason or the other….why insinuate some kind of wrong doing by the government and why insult Eritrean women to do that? Go figure!

As David R. K. Adler once wrote:

“…The plight of migrants is fertile ground for white savior journalists…”

Tamara Baraaz is one such wrongheaded journalist who exploits refugees and asylum seekers for a story. Baraaz did not bother to investigate western asylum quotas, scholarships, and diversity visas etc. that have been used to lure young Eritreans out of Eritrea. Nor does she write about the plight of Eritreans in Israel; their alienation, detention and suffering. Yet, in pursuit of an anti-GoE angle, she sneaks into Eritrea for a story to pad her “do-good portfolio”.

Allow me to end with her own statement:

“…The atmosphere on Asmara’s main boulevard betrays no signs of the tensions and experiences described by Dr. Mekonnen…”

As they say…consider the source!

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