The loss of ground truth – or: once upon a time in Adi Keih, Eritrea …

In an as yet unpublished piece of work, Mark Duffield from the aptly named Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol, explores several stages in the move away from fieldwork. Mark makes the point that fieldwork has moved from being ‘an art of being in the world’ to an endeavour that produces a growing distance from the world through the emergence of remote technologies and other simulated alternatives. I wish to take up this argument and observation, but from a different angle: I am not so much concerned here with the general move towards remote technologies, growing reliance on algorithmic simulations and the general devaluing of ground-truth (a term I borrow from Mark Duffield) – though these are all valid and in many ways frightening observations about the dynamics of the contemporary phase of neoliberal globalisation and its repercussions for on-site fieldwork in many places of the globe.

I am concerned here with how those dynamics are being increasingly facilitated or rather enforced by governments on the one hand, and aided by various sections of the international community on the other. I take my own experience around fieldwork in and out of Eritrea as the example to make a wider point about the loss of ground-truth and what its repercussions may be. It seems an opportune time to discuss this issue, as – following the June 2014 United Nations Human Rights Council’s establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights abuses in Eritrea – on 26 September the members of this Commission have been appointed. It remains to be seen whether the team will actually be given permission to work and investigate in Eritrea or whether – like in most reports about the goings-on in Eritrea, Eritrean refugees abroad will once again be the main source of information. Refugee populations can of course provide vital information and data, but the tendency to treat this data as the ultimate truth is not only bound to lead to a rather skewed picture, but aids the phantasy that one can actually know what is happening in places one cannot visit. This then leads to generalisations like ‘the North Korea of Africa’ when speaking about Eritrea, a term that in itself should make anybody who believes every place has a unique history and culture shudder but that is being repeated widely in reports and even some academic work. And how much do those making that claim know about North Korea in the first place, one wonders?

There was a time not so long ago, when one could actually freely travel to and conduct fieldwork in Eritrea. The process of obtaining a visa was quite straightforward and the Eritrean government put few spanners into one’s movement. In fact, when I last visited Adi Keih and Senafe in 2001, it was the UNMEE mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea that I needed to get permission from, as Senafe was within the demilitarized zone that UNMEE soldiers controlled at the time. But permission was forthcoming with the only caveat that overnight I needed to return to Adi Keih, outside the demilitarized zone. I had been to the area around Senafe before in relation to various instances of fieldwork, including during the time of the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a time when the Eritrean government was keen to have outside witnesses for the human wave attacks carried out by Ethiopian soldiers that left battlefields akin to those of World War I. A particular form of ground-truth one could call those visits, as a visit to any frontline in any war is of course always partially staged, but still gives the visitor, I would claim, a more comprehensive sense of what is going on than a satellite picture or other remote representations.

My ground-based knowledge of Adi Keih and the area around Senafe, even if by then quite out-dated, led to me sitting in the offices of an Israeli NGO as an expert in 2013 in order to support claims by a number of Eritrean refugees from precisely this area that they are indeed of Eritrean nationality and not Ethiopians, as the Israeli authorities claimed. The question of nationality was a vital determinant at the time of whether a person could stay in Israel (with Eritreans having the right to remain albeit with few other rights) or was in danger of being deported. And indeed I could say with confidence that those Eritreans I encountered there were indeed from Eritrea, as we shared common memories and stories from around Senafe that for an outsider would have been incomprehensible. Whether that helped the Eritreans I engaged with then in the long run within an Israeli asylum system that still treated them as ‘hostile infiltrators’ rather than rightful refugees is another question.

Those and other encounters with Eritrean refugees in Israel, and their sometimes surprising claims – such as ‘Asmara is an empty city now, all young people have fled’ made me return to Eritrea in 2011 as I felt more and more that what Eritrean refugees told me needed to be complemented by some ground-truth from Eritrea itself. As I suspected, Asmara was far from an empty city but full of young and not-so-young people who had different reasons to stay and different stories to tell. The same was true for other places I visited, including Keren, Massawa and Ghinda. I have written a more comprehensive account of my impressions and interpretations of that visit elsewhere, here I just want to dwell on what type of ground-truth this visit provided – and failed to provide. As somebody who had in the past been based at the University of Asmara before its closure, I was keen to visit the new college of social sciences that replaced parts of it and is now based in Adi Keih. To do so I needed a travel permission from the Eritrean government that I did not receive. I was, I was informed, allowed to go to ‘sites relevant for tourism as determined by a government list’ and that list failed to include Adi Keih – I could go to Mendefera instead. I thus had to make do with a few lengthy telephone conversations with key personnel in Adi Keih – conversations that of course I could have conducted from anywhere in the world, and it was quite ironic that they actually took place from Asmara. This is exemplary for a wider dynamic in the loss of ground-truth – the increase in blind spots that researchers are not allowed to enter freely any longer. At times, doing so regardless can have serious consequences, in particular for researchers who are natives of the country where they conduct their research. This came to light recently with the case of a Tajik PhD student at the University of Toronto, who was detained while conducting academic research in Tajikistan and accused of espionage – meanwhile he has been freed following an international campaign led by his PhD supervisor, but not everybody might be so lucky.

So what is there to do for those who still believe in ground-truth that can only be obtained through immersing oneself with the ground and its frictions, and who refuse to accept that data gathered from afar, be it via technology or through fieldwork among for example refugee populations, provides a good enough understanding? While I did not manage to visit Adi Keih and only have third party accounts and my own memories to consult, I at the same time believe my visit to Eritrea and the parts I have visited has been a vital component for my ongoing engagement with Eritrean refugees.

And I strongly believe we as researchers should not give up on ground-truth, on the demand for access to the world beyond the remote, the easily gatherable, even if this is bound to become even more messy in the future. The least we should try to do – to end as I began with a comment made by Mark Duffield in a recent workshop – is to explore the tensions in relation to ground-friction, interrogate the social-media-isation of conflict and far away tragedies, and shine some light onto the internationally no-go-areas in whatever ways possible. In other words: Reclaim fieldwork as an ‘art of being in the world’!

The article I wrote on my last visit to Eritrea in 2011 has been published in Review of African Political Economy (2012), 39: 133, ‘Beyond the siege state – tracing hybridity during a recent visit to Eritrea’, see: (feel free to email me for a copy of the article)

The workshop at which Mark Duffield made the comments mentioned above was the inaugural workshop for the ESRC-funded project Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community held at Manchester on 24 September 2014.

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