Eritrea and Ethiopia - Muslims Want Peace and Security
War and have continued on the African continent for scores of years, their ferocity tragically undiminished. After the colonial powers such as Britain, France and the Netherlands withdrew in the 1950s and '60s, most African countries fell into the hands of communist or fascist dictatorships. Most of these post-colonial regimes followed a policy of systematic intimidation of Muslims, and indeed are still doing so. One of the countries where war and have reigned uninterrupted for many years due to such policies is Eritrea, which spent nearly two centuries under Ottoman rule from the middle of the sixteenth century.
Eritrea: Africa's Strategic Point
Eritrea lies to the north of Ethiopia, along the straits where Africa comes closest to the continent of Asia. It has been a key location for thousands of years, both commercially and militarily. As with much of Africa, this country too emerged as the result of colonialist European nations dividing it up between themselves, with no heed for the needs or wishes of the local population.
Anyone holding Eritrea controlled the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and thus all traffic between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Eritrea represented a port opening onto the sea for Ethiopia.
On account of Eritrea's strategic importance, the British rented it to the Americans as a communications base during World War II, and the United States used it for the next 25 years, based on a defense agreement between itself and Ethiopia. This was one of the most important such bases in the world and played a major role in forwarding information to Washington during the Korean War. Alongside its strategic importance, its rich reserves of gold and minerals, and likely oil and gas reserves, made Eritrea even more valuable for those powers interested in the region.
Before World War II, the population of Eritrea was around 1 million. According to Western sources it is now in the area of 2.5 million, although according to resistance organizations active in the area a figure of 3.5 million would be more accurate. Most of the population consists of Muslims.
The Struggle of Eritrean Muslims
After the end of Ottoman rule Eritrea was occupied by Italy, and by a U.N. decision of 1952 it became a federal state linked to Ethiopia. However, the people refused to accept that situation, which ended in widespread public uprisings. On Nov. 14, 1962, the Emperor Haile Selassie announced that he had assimilated Eritrea, using the internal in Ethiopia as an excuse. With the Selassie period, there began a policy of oppression and torture of Muslims. Many Muslims who opposed the Ethiopian regime were killed.
As a result of Ethiopia's campaign of violence and terror, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans were forced to leave their lands between 1967 and the early 1970s. These women, children and old people, who formed one of the largest refugee groups in history, were abandoned and left to die. This followed the death of some 200,000 people from famine, itself the result of wrongheaded agricultural policies.
As a result of all this, Haile Selassie's regime was overthrown by a coup in 1974. The administration was taken over by a junta with Marxist views, although this made no difference to the Muslims. A Marxist dictatorship was set up to replace a fascist one. Muslims continued to suffer oppression, torture, arrests and hardships.
Haile Selassie's successor, the Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam, followed a policy of violence throughout his own period of rule. He did not limit himself to murdering those whose views differed from his own, but eliminated a large part of the population at large during his 17 years in power. The anti-Islamic line pursued in the region was continued by Mengistu, who spread terror through the whole country. During Mengistu's rule, 10,000 mosques were demolished, and a half-a-million Muslims were forced to seek shelter in neighboring Sudan. A similar number sought asylum in Somalia. In May 1991, power again changed hands in Ethiopia, although Mengistu had left a terrible toll in his wake:
Israeli Support for the Ethiopian Regime
One of the reasons for the endless conflict, anarchy and war in Eritrea, one of the poorest regions in the world despite its socio-economic and geo-strategic importance, is the strategy of countries that dominate regional policies there, which is based on their own interests, totally ignoring the needs and demands of the people living in this region. Israel comes first among these countries.
In his book The Israeli Connection: Who Arms Israel and Why? Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi of Israel's Haifa University characterizes the activities by his country all over the world as "Israel's world war." As prominent Israeli newspaper columnist Nahum Barnea has noted, "Israel will become the Western vanguard in the war against the Islamic enemy.'"38
Israel still has two exceedingly important strategic bases in Eritrea, one in the Dahlak islands, the other in the Mahel Agar mountains near the Sudanese border. Israel's close relations with Ethiopia began in the 1950s. The Israeli-Ethiopian alliance began in 1952 with civilian trade relations, and developed into a dialogue at the highest levels when an Israeli representative began meeting Emperor Haile Selassie and his most senior officials in 1956. Israel began to provide military aid, intelligence and training to the Selassie regime and its army, in order to put down radical movements in the region and Muslims who rise up and attack Christian Ethiopians. Professor Hallahmi describes the ideological basis of the Ethiopian-Israeli alliance in these terms:
According to Hallahmi's book, the 3,100-man counter-insurgency team, known as the "Emergency Police," set up by Selassie to put down uprisings in Eritrea was specially trained by Israeli experts. Following a military trip to Ethiopia led by Gen. Haim Bar-Lev in 1971, Halep and Fatima two strategically important Ethiopian islands, were opened to use by the Israeli Navy.
The Eritrean Muslims were well aware of the alliance they were facing, of course. Abu Halid, leader of the Muslim Eritrean forces, discussed it during an interview in 1970 which was covered by the Turkish press:
The Israeli officers who trained the Ethiopian commandoes and anti-terrorist teams were also important in keeping Haile Selassie in power. According to Gen. Matityahu Peled, formerly the most senior official in the Israeli army, Selassie was saved from three attempted coups by sraeli agents who were particularly influential in the Addis Ababa secret police.
The Israeli agents did little to intervene against the Marxist coup staged to overthrow Selassie in 1974. That was because the new regime would be one entirely in accordance with their own standards, and would continue to wage the war against the Eritrean Muslims. As Professor Hallahmi puts it, "The continuing ties with Israelis were explained by the common stance of the two countries against Islamic groups in the region."41
The work of the Israeli experts on Ethiopian territory continued apace under the Marxist Mengistu regime. They continued to train the Ethiopian anti-insurgency teams and to provide weapons for the regime. This alliance, founded on an enmity towards Islam, was strengthened further in 1990 when Israel sent fragmentation bombs to the regime to be used against "separatist militants."
Eritrean Independence Failed to End the Oppression
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc showed that the communist Mengistu regime in Ethiopia had also run its course. In 1991, the opposition led by such figures as Isaias Afeworki and Meles Zenawi overthrew the communist government. Zenawi took power, but was unable to stand against the Eritrean peoples' demands for independence, and as the result of a referendum on April 25, 1993, Eritrea ceased to be a part of Ethiopia and won its independence.
Afeworki emerged as the new Eritrean leader in the wake of independence, although new internal and foreign policy problems arose at the same time. Afeworki called to mind the cruel Mengistu regime as he initiated a wave of terror against believers. The pressure from Afeworki, who assumed the posts of head of state and parliament speaker, spurred the Eritrean opposition to take up arms. Fierce conflict began between Eritrean troops and the opposition forces, particularly in mountainous areas.
The severity of the oppression, particularly of Muslims, took on terrible dimensions during the Afeworki period. Non-judicial detentions and executions followed one after the other. Islamic schools were closed down and mosques demolished. Arabic ceased to be the official language, and hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes and took shelter in Sudan. Anyone who criticized the Afeworki regime felt its wrath.
Not only did Afeworki implement oppressive policies against his own people, but he also acted hostilely towards neighboring countries. He brought Eritrea to the brink of war with its neighbors Yemen and Djibouti, and was also hostile to Sudan, another neighbor. He even adopted the same attitude towards Ethiopia, which shared many of the same political and strategic policies, and eventually occupied Ethiopian soil. Until the ceasefire of June 18, 2000, the invasion of Ethiopia resulted in hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes and land, tens of thousands of deaths, and in thousands of people living at starvation levels due to an economic embargo.
The Latest Situation in Eritrea
The border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia that began in 1999 ended in a ceasefire a year later with the intervention of the Organization of African Unity. However, despite the fact that both sides were in terrible economic difficulties and their peoples were living on the edge of starvation, it is astonishing that they still spent millions of dollars on arms. Essential infrastructure elements such as ports, electric power stations and airports were utterly destroyed, millions of people were forced to migrate, and damage totalling millions of dollars was inflicted in the fighting. Up to a million dollars, desperately needed by the people of the region, was squandered on weapons. In this way both sides, both allies of Israel, formed a profitable market for U.S. and Israeli arms manufacturers and were able to distract the world's attention from their oppression of Muslims by turning it in the direction of the war instead.
The violence continues even today. Muslims in Eritrea are still arrested for no reason, sentenced to death by unjust courts, murdered by death squads, and all forms of opposition are prohibited. Muslims are thus unable to live freely according to their religion, their freedom of worship is restricted, the losses among the population grow day by day and policies of oppression, fear and intimidation continue unabated. Schools that might teach Muslim children about their religion are closed down, and mosques where people might pray are demolished. Tens of thousands of Muslims are forced to migrate, and the million or so refugees who have fled the persecution of the regime are trying to survive in conditions of hunger and famine.
These cruel practices call to mind the unfair and unjust measures that have been inflicted on Muslims throughout history. In the Qur'an Allah reveals that the character of cruel rulers has been the same down the ages. These, their wicked natures, and their persecution of women, children and the elderly have never changed. As Allah says in the Qur'an, "How many generations before them We destroyed who had greater force than them ...?" (Surah Qaf: 36), generally speaking those of the past were even worse then those of the present when it comes to cruelty. One of the cruel rulers referred to in the Qur'an is the ancient Egyptian Pharoah:
Pharaoh exalted himself arrogantly in the land and divided its people into camps, oppressing one group of them by slaughtering their sons and letting their women live. He was one of the corrupters. (Surat al-Qasas: 4)
As Allah informs us in the verse, Pharaoh oppressed and inflicted severe torments on his people. We must not forget, however, that it is revealed in the Qur'an that those who grow arrogant, who commit cruelties, will be despised in this world and face terrible suffering in the next. In the same way that they received their just deserts for their cruelty in the past, the cruel of today will also face the justice of Allah, Who reveals the fate of those Who deny Him in these words:
There are only grounds against those who wrong people and act as tyrants in the earth without any right to do so. Such people will have a painful punishment. (Surat ash-Shura: 42)
39- Kaplan, I, et. al. Area Handbook for Ethiopia, Washington, D.C.; Goverment Printing House, 1971, cited in Benjamin Beit Hallahmi, The Israeli Connection:Who Israel Arms and Why, Pantheon Books, 1987, p. 50.