‘Eritrea is not sweet’ – Personal notes from Mekelle a few months after the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace

A little more than three months after the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I find my self in Mekelle, on the occasion of the 20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies where I present a – suddenly very topical – paper on the importance of territory in understanding Eritrean foreign policy. It is the first time I am in fact in Tigray, that part of Northern Ethiopia that borders Eritrea and whose borders with Eritrea have been a key focal point of the 1998-2000 war, since 1997. Then, I entered Tigray from Eritrea and have rather mixed memories as I have written about elsewhere.

But this time everything is different. Not only is Mekelle a charming and truly welcoming city, full of energy and energetic young people (even if many of them may be unemployed), and a lot of ‘development’ going on. One also runs into the fact that the border with Eritrea is really open at every street corner.

On my first day here, I sit at one of the street coffee stalls and come into conversation with four young local men. The conversation starts around shoes, as two of them demonstrate proudly their ‘American’ boots to me. Then one fishes a, as he says, ‘10 Birr note from Eritrea’ out of his pocket. I correct him and say it is in fact a Nakfa note and he laughs and agrees. Two days ago, he continues, he just went and visited Eritrea, out of curiosity. ‘I do not have any relatives there or anything, but I went to Adigrat and crossed at Zalembassa’ (Zalembassa being one of the two border crossings that are officially open at the moment and where people can cross more or less freely from both sides), he said. He did not dislike what he saw but was surprised about the lack of development. The road was in a very destroyed state on the Eritrean side – quite logically, as this was no-man’s land until very recently – but also overall so many things seemed to be lacking materially. ‘Eritrea is not sweet’ was his overall verdict, meaning it seemed a place where life was difficult and people seemed to carry some invisible heavy burden with them.

In many ways, this seemed a good way to put it. I was reminded of a conversation I had with other Ethiopian youth about two years ago in Gondar, also at a local coffee place. They were all students of tourism at one of the many local and regional universities that have sprung up all over Ethiopia. They spoke good English and were excited about the prospect of one day maybe starting their own tourism agency and show foreigners their beautiful country. At the time I thought if these youth were born in Eritrea, they would now in all likelihood do their national service, or if they were lucky enough to have been admitted to higher education, would have been assigned a subject and be drafted to complete their service afterwards, with a vague ending somewhere in a future that feels to distant to dream about. Here in Ethiopia, youth can go to college and study something they fancy – and while the tourism ventures of my acquaintances might never come to fruition, these youth had a lightness about them that is hard to find in Eritrea. The phrase ‘Eritrea is not sweet’ sumps up part of this state-of-being very well, even if ushered by somebody who only spent a few hours there.

I am also reminded of this gravity that seems to have hung over Eritrea for far too long to remember anything different at the TPLF memorial and museum in Mekelle. As in all these memorial sites in Ethiopia, a comprehensive documentation with photographs from the time fighting against the Derg regime is being displayed – including some pictures from the time when TPLF forces helped the EPLF during a Derg offensive in Sahel – but that is another story. What struck me was one billboard that simply showed joyful TPLF fighters as couples, and most strikingly a couple with a new-born baby in the field. They looked happy and joyful like any other family that just had a child born – and the joy that the picture radiated was quite infectious. It is hard to imagine any EPLF museum every displaying pictures of such a nature, where the lightness of life overtakes struggle and sacrifice even if just for a brief moment (but I am ready to be wronged if a similar kind of museum should be created at any point in the future in Eritrea).

But let’s turn back to the present, and one can encounter numerous Eritreans in Mekelle in various states of happiness and disbelief combined. There is the young Eritrean woman who excitedly speaks into her mobile phone to somebody in Asmara, taking orders of all the things she is to buy in Mekelle and bring back home with her. There is the Eritrean man who enters one of the newer nice hotels in town and says the government must have a lot of money here to afford such a nice building, only to stare in disbelief when the receptionist tells him the hotel is in fact privately owned. Some groups of young men arrive and the first thing they do is get drunk on beer – simply because ‘you can drink ten beer or more, there is no limit’, while in Eritrea most bars run out of beer relatively early in the evening if beer is available at all. Then one can see Eritreans simply driving around town with their video cameras, filming all the construction sites and the new buildings that have sprung up with a sense of amazement.

Others simply arrive at hotels and pay up front for a month or more to stay and try during that time to get a visa to a destination abroad, preferably Europe or the US, via some family they have in the diaspora. It is a coming and going, thus far good-natured and with a stake for both sides. There is the local Tigrayan businessman who is on the phone to somebody in Keren in Eritrea, getting a run down of the local cost of goods needed for construction, making a note and pondering how best to sell his bags of cements and other items to his customers there.

In the other direction some fancy electronic devises make their way from Eritrea to Mekelle to be sold here, as do fashionable clothes and used shoes – a new used shoe market run by Eritreans exists in a part of town. Thus far all is quite ad-hoc and unregulated, but this will of course not be the case forever.

Fittingly, while still in Mekelle getting a glimpse of some of the dynamics that the border opening has created, a piece I wrote for the Horn of Africa Bulletin as a first stab at thinking what it may mean for the future finally came out – more than six weeks since it had been written, but still valid not last in concern over the lack of institutionalisation of the ties between both countries, concerning trade and other areas. On the streets of Mekelle, one can change Nakfa for Birr but ‘Nakfa is very expensive’, as one of the money changers says (180 Birr to 100 Nakfa on 5 October on the street). Too easily it seems to be forgotten that grievances around the fact that the Nakfa-Birr exchange rate, once Eritrea introduced its own currency in 1997, was then seen as predominately advantageous to Eritrea, a feeling that fed into the grievances that eventually led to all-out war.

For now, it might indeed be the time to simply embrace the peace agreement and celebrate to hear so many Eritrean voices on the streets of Mekelle. Time to celebrate the sliver of new found optimism among the Eritreans who visit Mekelle, stock up on items they find hard to get in Eritrea, and return. But eventually a clearer roadmap for the future for people on both sides of the border will be needed.

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September 11th – what’s in a date? Remembering the victims of the Chilean dictatorship and celebrating peace in the Horn of Africa

September 11th has come to symbolise to most people in ‘Western’ countries if not globally the date of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other buildings in the US by a group of terrorists in 2001, and has been remembered as such ever since. At these memorial ceremonies, the names of those who perished are read out, a powerful performance against forgetting. It is one of those events where many people the world over remember exactly where they were or what they did when they heard the news, and some of the iconic pictures of the day, not only those of planes hitting the twin towers, but also those of people who made it out, almost looking like statues covered in ash, I can still vividly remember.

Demand for justice by Chilean visitors at the Berlin exhibition opening of José Giribás on torture in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

And yes, I know where I was on the day: I was in the flat of friends who had moved away from Berlin but still had their flat, using this as a working space to finish the writing of my PhD that I submitted later that year. I got a phone call telling me ‘switch on the TV’ and I was a bit annoyed at first, as what could be so important to detract me from my research, and then it took me a while to figure out how to switch on the TV that was not my own. But when I managed I sat there in disbelief, a disbelief I shared with the millions the world over who looked at the same pictures as me.

But there are other September 11th dates that changed the lives of countless people from normal to horror, but have no yearly ceremony where names of those who perished are being read out. In fact, the fate of many of those who perished that day or in its aftermath remains unknown. I speak about September 11th 1973 in Santiago de Chile, where a certain General Pinochet, supported and encouraged by the United States, organised a brutal coup against the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Almost immediately following the coup, Pinochet’s henchmen, benefitting from the expertise of the CIA and others, filled prisons and transformed normal buildings into detention centres, including the National Stadium in Santiago, where so-called political prisoners were herded into. These were journalists, musicians, artists, union members, part of Allende’s bodyguard or sections of the army who defied the coup, but also simply normal people who were perceived as not supporting the right-wing coup that was to determine Chilean politics for more than a decade. Many were tortured and/or killed, including being thrown from aeroplanes into the ocean so no traces would be left– and all with active support and agreement of powers like the US.

To this day, many of those involved in torture and letting people disappear were never held to account, causing protest in Chile and beyond each year on the coup-anniversary. A recent project aimed at the preservation of historical memory in Chile was created by Berlin-based Chilean photographer José Giribás Marambio. He was one of those lucky enough to be able to flee after the coup, and under the German title Über Folter spricht man nicht (Don’t talk about torture) photographed survivors of the Chilean torture chambers as well as some of the torture sites. In a number of exhibitions in Cologne and Berlin, one in Berlin at the Bundespressekonferenz (the Federal Press Conference) building opened on 11 September 2018, the now elderly survivors of past torture and degradation look dignified at the spectator. Their presence reminds us that the perpetrators were not classified as terrorists or even criminals, but as noble servants of a legitimate state with Western support, not as the henchman of a criminal dictatorship that they in fact were. José also travelled to some of the buildings where torture and executions took place around Santiago and beyond. A few are museums or sites of remembrance in today’s Chile, like Villa Grimaldi that I once visited when it was just made into such a site, others have returned to nice-looking villas where people live (a normal life?), and others are in a state of disrepair and degradation that past victims try to ‘save’ and turn into sites of remembrance. José’s exhibition is a powerful statement not only against historical forgetting, but also of the duplicity of Western powers in acts that were truly terrorist in the real sense of the word, even if never described as such.

To end, and turning back to my own activities when September 11th, 2001 happened, when I was finalising my PhD on revolution and nation building in Eritrea, leads to yet another reading of a different September 11th as a potentially important date, this time hopefully a more celebratory one. Eritrea has for the past 18 years been in limbo, trapped in a no-war-no-peace conflict with Ethiopa that destabilised the whole Horn of Africa, a situation as such partly convenient for those engaged in the war on terror, but that is another story. Yesterday’s September 11th, the start of the Ethiopian Orthodox new year, also marked the celebration of, finally after all these years, the re-opening of the common border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, celebrated not only by both heads of state and local people, but equally soldiers from both sides of what was until recently a bloody divide. September 11th clearly is a date for true reflection on the state of the world more generally, and not least on the suffering misplaced power politics can cause.

José’s exhibition can be seen at the following locations:

Kunsträume der Michael Horbach-Stiftung | Wormser Str. 23, 50677 Cologne, 09.09. to 21.10.2018.

Haus der Bundespressekonferenz | Schiffbauerdamm 40, 10117 Berlin, 11.09. to 25.09.2018

Galerie Tapir | Neue Hochstraße 8, 13347 Berlin, 30.09. to 21.10.2018

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Goodbye UK – and thank you for the music

Goodbye UK – and thank you for the music: this was this year’s title of a series of concerts that happen every summer in Berlin under the broad scheme ‘Water music’ – because the concerts take place every weekend for three weeks on one of the city’s most beautiful terraces overlooking the river Spree. It always has a particular theme, mostly from places far rather than near, such as African island music or Indian rap. This year, the theme was Brexit, and all gigs were either from British bands and musicians or from musicians from all over the world who were inspired or influenced by British music traditWassermusik Goodbye UK and thanks you for the Musicions or composed their music jointly with British musicians.

Food stalls sold British staples like pulled pork sandwiches and chips, and drinks partly were sold at an ‘Exit-bar’. I saw great concerts that included the Zombies, where the highlight was a total replay of their legendary 1968 album Odyssey and Oracle, a masterpiece that had its 50th birthday this year. And I was at the last concert in the series, featuring Scritti Politti who started his musical career as a young communist living in a London squat to later have people like Miles Davis playing on his albums. So far so good and yes, thank you for the music (even is this is a song by Abba but ditto, music is there to speak across countries and continents).

The format of the event features two concerts followed by a movie screening on another part of the beautiful terrace from where one has a direct view onto the building of the German chancellery – and on the last night one could see the lights on well after midnight in Angela Merkel’s office. Her helicopter flew past the first gig of the evening by Bas Jan, when she returned from a meeting with Russian President Putin that was held on the outskirts of Berlin. Noticed also by Bas Jan, the link between music and politics thus was always near, not only in the title of this year’s event.

The closing movie, by accident or planning was Control, the brilliant 2007 film by Anton Corbijn about Joy Division and its charismatic singer and songwriter Ian Curtis, the film ending with his suicide at the age of 23, driven by various demons Curtis did not manage to live with. Was this irony, I wondered when I left the screening, that it all ended on a suicide note, or was that giving too much meaning to the theme of Brexit that directly or indirectly was the underlying theme of this year’s event? In any case, it left a feeling of sadness and nostalgia.

I thought I had said everything I might have to say about Brexit in a number of previous blogs, and while I still find it highly bewildering how a country in the past known for its pragmatism tears itself apart largely driven by a of bunch of gold-plated Tory politician coupled with an equally dysfunctional Labour stance when it comes to Brexit , I had decided that for my own sanity I stand aside from the everyday engagement with this madness. I am a paid up member of the3million, and find it important this public voice exists. But unlike many of my fellow EU citizens in the UK, the UK is not my ‘home’. It is where I work in a job I love dearly, but it does not destroy my life or the life of anybody in my family if I am made to or decide to leave.

Apparently, the state we are in is all down to (the rhetoric) of ‘the will of the people’, a phrase I always found rather insulting: ‘We’ (and in particular those EU citizens who made the UK truly their ‘home’) are also part of the people, as are UK citizens living in the EU, but we did not have a vote even if for many their future has been turned upside down. Quite a few of my colleagues and fellow-sufferers have left, often in circumstances that were traumatic for them or their children, and I can count myself lucky to have the luxury of sitting on the fence and waiting for the edifice to cash (or being rescued last minute), thus I should not complain. I could walk away every day if shit hits the fan, sad, yes, but not overly destructive for me personally. Nevertheless, leaving the screening of Control I felt the depression that had taken hold of me in the first year after the Brexit vote slowly creeping back in – not so much because my own future might be at stake, but reflecting the state of world politics more generally, and the possibility of global solidarity versus narrowly defined national interest.

The prime figure for this inward-turn is the figure of migrant or refugee in all its facets, real of imagined, and any case made in their favour usually does not rest on universal rights but utilitarian calculations, be it in relation to Brexit or beyond. Take one of the new initiatives to help EU citizens in the UK, who proclaim to speak on my behalf but I find rather patronizing: For the record, I did not come to the UK because I saw it as some golden land of opportunity for a better future, like allegedly the migrants and refugees from ‘Africa’ that are usually portrayed in equally patronising terms. I made us of a right I have under EU treaties that the UK has signed to work in any other EU member state. This right has been taken away by a unilateral vote in one member state, leaving me with the only security – that could easily be overturned by a future UK government but I leave that aside here – of ‘settled status’.

Yes, I could apply for this status and would fulfil its requirements easily. But I regard it as an insult that the UK government expects me to apply for a document that gives me fewer rights than those under which I came, and asks me to pay a fee for the privilege out of which the Home Office, it has now turned out, makes a handsome profit. Maybe this is ‘the will of the people’, but it is not an action of a law abiding democracy as I used to understand it. Many liberal thinkers have warned us of exactly that: to interpret ‘the will of the people’ in narrow terms that can easily be incited and used as tools for demagogy and undemocratic means – and, one could add in a Bourdieuan sense, that cements the power of a small, unaccountable elite.

So maybe it is Goodbye UK, as why would one wish to live in a polity where perceived legal guarantees can that easily be undermined? But then there is always the music …

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Ten days that shook the Horn: As Eritrea and Ethiopia make peace, what now for Eritrea?

It does not happen very often: while I was at an aikido retreat in the Swiss Jura, with very limited network coverage to follow news of any kind, the architecture of the Horn of Africa, and in particular the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, was thoroughly transformed, potentially.


Asmara, Liberation Day Celebration 24 May 2001. Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

It all happened at breath-taking speed and, following the many commentaries written since, has not only taken me by surprise. The pictures of joy, celebration and jubilation from Asmara and Addis Ababa sent a joyous jolt down my spine as well – after all, I had not that long ago written a piece that expressed a faint hope for an end of hostilities between both countries following the first overtones for peace by Ethiopian PM Dr Abiy Ahmed in June.

Some observers were reminded of the euphoria that greeted the end of the Eritrean war for independence and the overthrow of the Ethiopian Derg government in 1991, with large crowds of people dancing in the streets and expressing their joy by various means. But we all know how short this new period of deep friendship and cooperation was to last – a mere seven years, thus maybe this is not the best of comparisons.

In the present, the joint singing of a declaration on 9 July 2018 during Dr Abiy Ahmed’s visit to Asmara marked the re-establishment of formal relations between both countries. It also paved the way for the re-opening of embassies, the restoration of flights and telephone links between both countries, and for Ethiopia to use port facilities in Eritrea again (spare a thought for Djibouti, but that is another matter). Eventually, the border between both countries will also be demarcated on the ground.

Dr Abiy’s visit was reciprocated by a return visit of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki last Saturday, during which the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital was dusted off and reopened. Flights between both countries are to resume this Wednesday, and telephone lines have already been re-opened, reportedly leading to complete strangers calling each other to share the excitement on both sides of the divide.

Thus on the face of it, Eritrea’s stance during those 16 long years since the verdict of the Boundary Commission that was to end the state of war, its insistence that it was ready for peace and that it was Ethiopia who was holding this up through intransigence and the refusal to withdraw its troops from land declared Eritrean, seems vindicated – as sources close to the Eritrean government have not failed to point out. Nobody on the Eritrean side mentions that this acceptance also includes the tacit acknowledgement that Eritrea was responsible for starting the war, as that is also part of the Commission’s ruling.

That nobody seems in the mood to dwell on the past too deeply is in many ways a good thing for a continent and its leaders, who too often carry long memories of past wrongs and grievances, often not only for generations but over centuries. After all it took a while for Eritrean President Afwerki to respond to various efforts of his Ethiopian counterpart to grab the hand outstretched for peace – initially continuing to insist on the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops first before any conversations or actual encounters could take place.

This leaves the question what next, in particular for Eritrea, the country to benefit most from this renewed relationship. Eritrea has in the past years been in the headlines for the large numbers of people who flee the country – mostly due to indefinite national service obligations that should in theory end after 18 months, but were extended with the prevailing state of war as the main justification. Thus will the Eritrean leadership grasp this opportunity and set them free after 18 months? Just imagine, the graduation ceremony in Sawa at the end of their 18 months of service as a real celebration of the start of a new life, a life where citizenship obligations can be aligned with the pursuit of a normal life, the start of a family if desired, the development of a professional career – instead of being determined by a ‘no war no peace’ scenario that has treated such ambitions as a form of betrayal. This to be followed by the availability of exit visas for those who wish to travel (and have completed their 18 months of service) would do wonders to change the political dynamics within Eritrea and in relation to the outside world. Wider political change will undoubtedly follow, in its own time.

Thus far, we know very little about the concrete actions that may follow the initial euphoria, and a number of wise commentators have pointed out some of the potentially disturbing parallels to 1991: In both scenarios, major developments were brought about by charismatic leaders, but institutionalised arrangements to create an underbelly for the euphoria these brought with them remained wanting.

What might be a more worrying tendency is the fact that a blame culture has started to emerge, not least from the Eritrean side: The narrative now blames TPLF stalwarts and Tigrayan networks that captured the Ethiopian state for the long years of suffering – in a not dissimilar vain as the Derg government was blamed for all past wrongs in 1991. This is not only ahistorical but dangerous, as for peace to prevail between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Ethiopia needs to be at peace with itself. A new beginning is seldom served by old patterns of blame – which in the case of Eritrea and Tigray have a rather unhelpful ancient history. And we should not forget, the two countries that went to war in 1998 were until the outbreak of that war characterised by deep economic and social ties, even if undercurrents of tensions were also present for those who wanted to see them.

But while all this is certainly the case, then and now, I am more hopeful: Emotions are important for political developments and breakthroughs, and in this case the emotions of the people on the ground, even if they were not asked or told about the plans of their leaders, have been quite overwhelming. While no institutions are in place that would pass the test of democratic accountability as commonly understood, the sense of joy and relieve of a majority of people should not be underestimated – something did really break free here and there is hope that this makes peace irreversible. In the past, I have heard the phrase ‘the war is between our leaderships not between our people’ in too many conversations with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the divide, without the hope that they, the ordinary people, could do much to overcome the stalemate. Now that the stalemate is broken, it seems impossible to imagine a return to hostilities – regardless of where the actual line of border demarcation falls, as a regime of easy border crossings makes that line, including the line around the symbolic hamlet of Badme, mostly irrelevant.

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Reflections at the start of Refugee Week: The end of Europe as a community of values – not caused by Brexit but the journey of the Aquarius?

Remember 2015? Then, a perceived unprecedented number of refugees and migrants entered Europe, more than one million people according to available data, while almost 4000 drowned on their journeys. We saw long queues of people stranded at the borders of mainly Eastern European countries, pictures that for many evoked scenes of refugee movements after WWII.

Berlin, refugee football competition photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

But the year 2015 also saw a courageous German chancellor, Angela Merkel, deciding against many in her own political party to open German borders and do the morally right thing: let those stranded in, to be welcomed and processed in Germany. Yes, initially the German asylum system as well as many of its welfare institutions were somehow overwhelmed, but the slogan ‘we will manage’ and a wave of bottom up solidarity by German citizens, NGOs and the business sector seemed to vindicate that optimism, and localised solutions were mostly found for those in peril. And in fact, Germany has managed pretty well, even if right-wing propaganda suggests otherwise.

The situation now, three years later, could hardly be more different. In a general election last year, a right wing party got a by German standards high percentage (almost 13%) of the vote, and the poisonous agenda of its anti-immigration stance has started not only to infiltrate but to distort and poison all wider public debates. In fact, it has captured public discourse in a way that almost no topic makes the national news, but daily shots at migrants, refugees and in particular at Merkel’s humane response to the events of 2015 dominate – even if actual arrivals of refugees and migrants has been paltry since 2016. But now a rift goes through German politics including right through Merkel’s own party – her right-wing interior minister advocates in favour of turning refugees away from German borders unilaterally, while Merkel works for a joint EU solution – and the rift might bring down the government and her chancellorship to a premature end. This unilateral move would not only contravene EU laws on the freedom of movement (the same laws Brexiteers object to), but more importantly make the right-wing fringe suddenly the driving force in German policy, with wider implications for the EU as a whole.

It could ultimately mean the end of the European values that Merkel tried to uphold and defend quite courageously in 2015 – even if even then EU borders were already deadly for too many. The symbol of a visible breakdown of these values can be seen in the recent journey of the Aquarius, a migrant rescue ship that carried 629 people and was forbidden to enter the nearest port in Italy by Italy’s new government that includes a far-right anti-immigration party that vowed to close all Italian ports to ships carrying refugees, in addition to starting deportations – a policy move not dissimilar to the ‘hostile environment’ policy Teresa May introduced as Home Secretary when she among other things sent buses across the land basically telling refuges and migrants to get lost, or else!

For the Aquarius a solution was eventually found in that Spain’s new socialist government agreed to accept the vessel – even if that involved a transfer and arduous journey for those on board. Not surprisingly, the Aquarius has since been followed by two other ships in similar limbo, and a general solution is nowhere to be seen. These latest events demonstrate once more the inability of Europe to act as a community of values, and to agree on a system that shares the care for refugees and migrants among all members states in a way that does the least harm. In fact, the UK was a front-runner in jeopardising any such system, with its refusal to take in refugees at the height of the Syrian war. Maybe Brexit voters should re-consider, now that the rest of Europe seems to follow the UK’s ‘putting up the drawbridge’ example? Instead of having ‘jungle-camps’ in places like Calais, keep refugees circling around on ships until the decide to turn back?

This is not the first time that ‘Europe kills’, literally or figuratively, as the number of drowned refugees each year attests to. And to now put the sole blame on Italy’s new right-wing government is not entirely fair – but rather disingenuous. Italy has in many ways been left alone to deal with refugee arrivals for far too long, and many of its coastal and island communities have in fact been marvellously welcoming, often sharing meagre resources.

It is in many ways a sad beginning for refugee week. I continue to believe in the wider dynamics of bottom up solidarity, like those shown for example on Italian and Greek islands, or at German railway stations, in its parks and homes, and in so many other places all over Europe. But it might also be time to acknowledge that if we are living at a juncture where the consensus that we have a moral duty towards the suffering stranger is evaporating, other means of political action might urgently be needed. Otherwise, our own humanity is at risk.

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Memories of a journey to Senafe – in light of the recent Ethiopian peace offer to Eritrea

It was May 2001. Not so long ago the fighting phase of the 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia had ended, and now a UN peacekeeping mission (UNMEE) was on the ground in order to ensure the 20 kilometres security zone inside Eritrea remained that: a zone without soldiers and army-weapons. Of course, this was sort of impossible, as most Eritreans belonged to the army in some function or other, and many people wore army fatigues as their everyday closing, whether active soldiers or not.

Senafe 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

We were in Asmara then and wanted to travel to Senafe. One needed a permit, not from the Eritrean government side but from the UNMEE office, as Senafe was inside the security zone, in fact almost at the border. It was also forbidden to stay over night, thus the nearest place one could stay was Adi Keih. The UNMEE permit was easy enough to get, and off we went.

After having checked into a hotel in Adi Keih, we drove off in the direction of Senafe. I had met a few of the people I had known there in Asmara, people who had fled or were evacuated when fighting reached the area. New health and education facilities in Senafe lay in ruins, and the little hotel where I used to stay and where the owner made the best spaghetti with chillies ever was burned to the ground. People started slowly to return from the adjacent countryside, some de-mining activities were under way, but overall Senafe looked like a ghost town.

Demining around Senafe 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

Slogans on the wall, partly in English, told everybody in no clear terms what the Ethiopian army who had passed through thought about the Eritreans as a treacherous friend turned enemy. On and on we drove, as the only time papers were checked was when we entered the UNMEE security zone. Suddenly we seemed to be in what was possibly (and in all likelihood) already Ethiopia. It was eerie and spooky, the only living creatures were some stray dogs who went through the shells of former houses in search for food.

We thus turned around, visited a de-mining project on the way back to Adi Keih, and chatted to some Canadian UNMEE troops who had not really much to do, so they started clearing the rubble from one of the destroyed primary schools that they would later help to rebuild.

This was the last time I was in Senafe. Future visits were made impossible not by UNMEE (who stayed in the country until 2008) nor by renewed fighting, nor the fact that the Ethiopian side failed to implement the cessation of hostilities agreement that was to be final and binding, in particular failed to withdraw its troops from Badme, one of the symbolic flashpoints of the war. No, it was made impossible by new Eritrean travel restrictions that accelerated over time and prescribed a limited number of places foreigners were allowed to visit with a required travel permit – for security reasons, or so the official narrative goes.

Senafe 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

The recent announcement by the new Ethiopian PM, to end the stalemate on the border issue with Eritrea that includes the offer of Ethiopian troop withdrawals from areas such as Badme, I thus warmly welcome. Of course, we have all grown sceptical and cynical, and esteemed colleagues and friends have already given their dismissive interpretation to the announcement – the Ethiopians do not mean it yet again; nothing will change from the Eritrean side and so forth – and sadly that may turn out to be true.

Also, we should remember that the (physical and symbolic) border between Eritrea and Ethiopia did not overnight suddenly become a point of contestation, when the actual war broke out. Rather, one could go back a long time in history to find between the supposedly ‘one people’ now artificially divided a sense of hatred and suspicion on both sides – be it in the assumed superiority felt by some Eritrean highlanders towards their Tigrayans counterparts; be it in the pleasure with which Ethiopian border guards harassed Eritreans on their way to Tigray post Eritrean independence – witnessed by myself for the last time in 1997, when travelling with fellow Eritreans from Asmara to Adigrat.

Senafe area 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

But the time may have come to put this aside, to remember the equally strong bonds and connections among peoples from both sides of the border, and at least give the Ethiopian initiative a chance. Little comment has come from the Eritrean side thus far, and overcoming the stalemate with Ethiopia would without doubt lead to political change in Eritrea that many in its current leadership are bound to strongly resist. But change will come eventually, and for once there might be a chance, however slim, that this rather courageous announcement from the new Ethiopian government will accelerate such change. If that makes the Horn of Africa as a whole a more peaceful environment, in the current geopolitical climate, is another question. But who knows, maybe I find myself on a trip to Senafe and beyond again sooner than I imagined possible.

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In light of the election victory of Victor Urbán: Post-socialist politics of solidarity revisited

In February 2008 I was invited to a curious event in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic. The event, entitled The relevance of research institutions to development cooperation, brought together academics from key institutions where Development Studies as a subject was taught in Western Europe – and I was representing what was then IDPM and is now the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. With me were academics from other Development Studies institutions across Western Europe, joined by colleagues from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. The latter, described as ‘New Donors’ at the time, all to different degrees had started or were about to start programmes in Development Studies in order to become ‘better’ New Donors, and hoped for advise and practical recommendations from us, their Western European counterparts. Why am I reminded of this event now?LegaciesC1

This is the case for two reasons: One reason is the decisive victory of Victor Urbán in the recent Hungarian elections, based partly on the simple message to keep foreigners out, close borders and focus on restoring the greatness of Hungary as a nation. This was commented upon by a German politician with the words that those countries in Eastern Europe (meaning Hungary but also referring to Poland and the Czech Republic in particular, all characterised by similar dynamics) had more than 40 years of development to catch up with and while one could not condone such narrow-minded views that focus solely on national restoration, one could surely understand those views – well, the Cold War ended in 1989, not yesterday!

The second reason is a book review of my 2014 book Legacies of Socialist Solidarity that has just come out in the Journal of Development Studies, written by a scholar of Eastern European background now based at Maynooth University in the Republic of Ireland. Her review stands out in that it is the only of numerous reviews of my book that reminds the reader of the multiple acts of solidarity and exchange, of what I call a form of ‘socialist cosmopolitanism’ in some of my own work, that characterised the period of socialism in Eastern Europe. Far from being ‘lost years’, this was for many a period of development alternatives and different forms of solidarity and engagement with the ‘Third World’. Yes, like Western development aid it was messy and characterised as much by self-interest as by ‘true’ solidarity. But, as I also discuss at length in my book, the East was not this blank slate, a space best described by non-development that was now brought back into the brave new world of the ‘end of history’ narrative following in the footsteps of Fukuyama.

Already when I attended the above mentioned event in Olomouc the term ‘New Donor’ irritated me greatly as a fundamentally misguided description of the past and the present. I am truly grateful to Ela Drążkiewicz, the reviewer of my book, for focusing on this misconception in her review, a misconception that defined Eastern European aid providers as emerging in contrast to Western players who were traditional donors (and who were to be seen as THE model, as the framing of the event in Olomouc as one example demonstrated). Yes, when Eastern European states joined the EU in the early 2000s, they were required to establish Official Development Assistance structures that would replicate OECD/DAC models, as Drążkiewicz points out. And their labelling as ‘New Donors’ made their inferiority visible for everybody to see, being presented as lacking experience and as needing to follow the guidance of the ‘mature’ Western donors.

In my book I come to the conclusion that the legacies of what was before, the rich history of socialist countries’ involvement in development cooperation and the ‘Third World’ more generally often only lives on in the lives of individuals who were part of it – and election results like that in Hungary seem to vindicate such an interpretation, as hardly any political party exists in many former socialist Eastern European countries that advocates a different interpretation of history and solidarity, and gains broader electoral approval. Nevertheless, and this is the second point I am grateful for in the review, we should be vary of those who simply prioritise Western approaches to foreign aid practice over socialist ones, or other conceptions of development alternatives – and by extension indirectly accept xenophobia, anti-immigration resentment and anti-solidarity policies. In times not only of election victories like those in Hungary but also Brexit and renewed vilification of certain countries based on Cold War rhetoric, a reminder that different forms of solidarity, whether inspired by socialist, humanist or cosmopolitan beliefs, is badly needed.

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