WHY ARE THE KUNAMA PEOPLE ALWAYS BEING ACCUSED, MARGINALIZED, PERSECUTED AND THEIR LAND EXPLOITED? Part 2- (RKPHA 2000-2001)
In our previous writings on behalf of the Kunama people, we have repeatedly pointed out how this ethnic group has always been an object of : ACCUSATIONS, MARGINALIZATION and PERSECUTIONS and theirs a preferred LAND for EXPLOITATION by the other Eritrean ethnic groups.
Without again going as far back as the times of the king BAZEN and his wife queen KUNAME, to recall all the atrocities committed on the Kunama people by the then immigrants into the Kunama land, we would like, this time, to limit our research and considerations only to the near present and, above all, concentrate ourselves on our present times.
As it is well-recorded in writings by some historians as well as orally transmitted, through generations, by the Kunama themselves, the next difficult times the Kunama people had to endure, after those of Ras Alula, were when the British had defeated the Italians, succeeded them and taken over the administration of Eritrea.
For reasons up to now, not clearly defined and justified, the British were said to have immediately sequestrated all the fire-arms the Kunama people had been given by the Italians and re-distributed among their neighbouring ethnic groups.
Left defenceless, the Kunama were consequently subjected to all kinds of accusations such as:
a) they were uncooperative with the authorities;
b) very suspicious of and contrary to any kind of integration with the other ethnic groups, particularly with the Tigrigna speaking people and
c) very protective of their land.
Taking into account all those previous bitter experiences the Kunama had, as one of the first races in the Eritrean soil ( if not the only one), due to the evil activities carried out on them by the various late coming ethnic groups, their antagonistic attitudes towards those other races were not only understandable and reasonable but fully justified.
According to a recent research based on and gathered from the Kunama themselves, Ras Alula was said to have decided to eliminate the Kunama people because of a very trivial coincidence.
The story goes that, in those days, all the northern Eritrean populations used to pay their tribute to the lords of Tigray and Ras Alula was one of those appointed rulers by the Emperor Yohannes (1872-1889), with his main headquarters in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
It is recalled that, as the time had come for the representatives of the Beni-Amer and the Nara (Baria) ethnic groups, to pay their tribute, these were on their way to Ras Alula when a groups of Kunama individulas (supposedly) intercepted and robbed them of everything they were carrying.
Asked by Ras Alula for the reason why they had not paid their tribute, the Beni-Amer and the Nara emissaries told him of the incident.
Ras Alula's immediate reaction was said to have been that he would have severely punish the Kunama people by sending a considerable number of his soldiers and he did.
That petty incident was said to have been the only reason which enraged Ras Alula to the point of killing between 100.000 and 150.000 Kunama.
If one considers, therefore, that attempted genocide of the Kunama people by Ras Alula because of that little "a c c u s a t i o n " of which not many Kunama were guilty and aware of, one has to admit that, for the majority of the Kunama people of the time, that war of Ras Alula was not only unjustified but it had come "out of the blue".
How would then one not expect the Kunama people to be suspicious of their rulers and neighbours if "petty events" like that had almost cost them their entire race?
The marginalization of the Kunama ethnic group, both by some rulers` of Eritrea as well as by some of their neighbouring ethnic groups, could be described as "chronic".
During their entire rule, the Italians not only protected but also gave the Kunama, some fire-arms to protect themselves and that is reported by the Kunama people, as the first time in their history that a ruler had taken care of them and their race had enjoyed some peaceful times as they and their land were no longer threatened by their neighbouring ethnic groups.
As soon as the British took over the administration of Eritrea, the question of the Kunama land re-emerged.
It is infact, believed by the Kunama, that their neighbours themselves had been behind and influenced the British to consider the Kunama as the "protected ones" of their precedessors and, therefore, doomed to lose their privileges.
This seems to explain one of the reasons why the British had come into play in bereaving the Kunama of their fire-arms thus actively mingling in the affairs of the ethnic conflicts that took place in the 1940s and 1950s.
The British, as well as all the subsequent authorities in Eritrea, had never understood that the Kunama people have always been, are and will remain both agriculturalists and pastoralists.
This means that they have purposely divided their land into:
a) land reserved for the cultivation of crops;
b) grazing land for their varied and INNUMERABLE livestock;
c) land reserved as communal and sacred (called TARBA) where no trees are cut and no wild animals are hunted; a kind of natural-reserve-land.
Though, starting by the Italians, the Kunama land had been declared as "STATE LAND", the Kunama themselves retain that such independent and unilateral decision and forced imposition of it on their land is a clear USURPATION OF THEIR TRADITIONAL LAND DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM and that it is a policy which has to be absolutely REVERSED.
Many Kunama tell that, when the other ethnic groups realized that, though they had been given extra fire-arms by the British, they could not entirely defeat and subdue the Kunama people, they were said to have asked the British authorities to mediate and broker a peace deal between them and the Kunama people.
It is said that the Kunama had accepted the peace offer and sent their elders to stipulate a contract.
At the meeting, the Kunama representatives said they were ready to break a peace deal with their neighbours but only under the conditions that, neither the Beni-Amer, the Nara (Baria)
nor the Tigrigna speaking populations would be putting their feet on the Kunama soil.
The other ethnic groups were said to have categorically rejected that offer as they had always been interested particularly in the Kunama land.
The Kunama were immediately accused of:
"not co-operating" with the government as well as being:
"over-protective" of their land and opposed to any kind of compromise as to sharing their "fertile" land with their neighbours.
Reacting to those accusations, one of the Kunama elders was reported to have argued that,
as the Kunama people have never tried to "go to their neighbours' territories to ask for a share of their land, why should the others do".
The Kunama People have never understood nor played politics like the other ethnic groups have.
Their basic democratic system of communal living knows neither hierarchy in their society nor any kind of serious power-conflicts within their own society.
Should there be any, these are internally settled.
To accuse the Kunama, therefore, of "not-cooperating " with the various authorities in Eritrea, is the same as accusing them of "not-playing politics".
Because of their social structure and the geographical remoteness of their territory, the Kunama people have always played a neutral role in the Eritrean politics and this is often and wrongly seen and interpreted by the various Eritrean authorities as well as by their neighbours as a negative, passive or even as an opposing attitude to the Eritrean affairs.
The Kunama people are, however, extremely sensitive as soon as they realize that either their race or their land are put at stake.
During the times approaching the Eritreans' decision whether to go back under the Italian administration (pro Italia), federate to or unite with Ethiopia (union) or seek for their independence, the Kunama people were cought uninformed and unprepared.
The majority of them could not absolutely understand the reasons why there was so much turbulance in their land.
We still vividly remember how we, as kids, had to go into hidings in the mountains of Sosona because of the attacks against us Kunama coming, as we were then told, from the people of the Hamasien region.
There were continuous skirmishes against the Kunama in many parts of their land.
A considerable number of Kunama villages were set ablaze.
The ordinary Kunama were totally dis-oriented as they could not figure out why they were being attacked if the whole movement was just to decide on the future of Eritrea.
In retrospect the Kunama came to understand that the "Amashene" (the Tigrigna speaking population from the Hamasien region), taking advantage of the confused situation of Eritrea and the existing divisions among the various ethnic groups, had singled out the Kunama in order to carry out their retaliatory activities for the past rivalries and disappointments.
That war, defined by the Kunama as the "war of Sosona", was bitterly and decisively fought by them for the last time.
They were successful adopting very simple fighting strategies.
The British had also had their hands in creating and developing conflicts between the Kunama and the mixed populations residing in the south-western parts of the Kunama land, led by the well-known cattle raider HAMID Idris Awate.
As far as the Kunama people are concerned, the activities of this man (as they will be widely explained in a separate paper) had deep and very negative consequences on the Kunama people, as the beginning of the armed struggle for the independence of Eritrea was arbitrarily attributed to that same man whom the Kunama people consider to be their "WORST ENEMY".
Many Kunama have vivid memories of HAMID Idris Awate who had committed so many atrocities against them and eventually succeeded in emptying entire Kunama villages around the areas of Biakundi, Anali and Ugaro.
These fertile Kunama areas are, today, mostly inhabited by the Tigrigna speaking highland Eritreans who are said to have, not only outnumbered and squeezed the Kunama into confined zones, but they have also the effrontery to chase out any Kunama person who travels back there to claim his or her lost ancestral land.
Starting from the 1960s up to our present times, the story of the Kunama people could be said to have literally repeated itself.
As already pointed out, HAMID Idris Awate had been "arbitrarily and politically" picked up, by a group of Beni-Amer and Nara (Baria) people, at that time living in and operating from Cairo (Egypt).
They were members of the Eritrean movement called: "RABIT-AL-ISLAMIA" and these people had ordered that HAMID Idris Awate, at that time known to be a courageous person with good shooting abilities, officially opened (by firing presumebly the first bullet in the air) the armed-struggle movement for the liberation of Eritrea.
To a very considerable number of Kunama, who had not only known HAMID Idris Awate personally, but they had also had to abbandon their land and villages set ablaze by him and their entire cattle raided and sold in the market places of Kassala (Sudan), the news of this same HAMID Idris Awate, been chosen as the leader of a national liberation movement was not only very surprising but profoundly shocking.
Who could have then expected the majority of the Kunama to accept the leadership of a man who had been their murdere and follow him in a liberation movement of which he had not the slightest idea?
HAMID Idris Awate was too much involved, embroilled in and concerned with the local tribal intrigues to be able to elevate himself to the national level
Although he was said to have later tried to "mend fences" with the Kunama people, his influence on his followers, as far as the tribal matters were concerned, were to be shown in later years.
The first members of the JABHA-AL-TAHRIR armed-struggle group, infact, waged more wars against and killings of the Kunama people than they did against the Ethiopean army.
Consider only the " unjustified and cold-blooded killing", in 1967, of the innocent prominent Kunama people like:
1. CELESTINO ADANA,
2. CASSIANO KONTALLE and
3. FRUT TALLA
in the plains of "DARASA-MENA-KUTU in the vicinity of the Kunama villages of Mariti and Karkasha which, in turn, was totally burnt down by the same group, few days later.
A Kunama person called Amos perished in that tragedy with seven of his family members.
The number of the innocent Kunama killed by certain members of the Jabha-Al-Tahrir group during the armed-struggle times, has reached and passed the thousands.
If one asked the same and the usual question:
WHY WERE THE KUNAMA PEOPLE SINGLED OUT FOR SUCH KILLINGS?
The answer too would be the same and the usual one and that is:
BECAUSE OF NOT PLAYING POLITICS or, as Jabha-Al-Tahrir argued:
BECAUSE THE KUNAMA PEOPLE WERE SIDING WITH THE ETHIOPEAN GOVERNMENT.
The Jabha-Al-Tahrir leaders had never tried to understand the reasons why many Kunama were very suspicious of that fighting group.
Those leaders had never kept in mind that, that group, for many Kunama was an extension of the person and evil deeds of HAMID Idris Awate and those extremists of the Jabha-Al-Tahrir members who had carried out those Kunama killings proved the fears and justified the suspicions of the Kunama people.
Some Kunama were able to identify the names and the ethnicity of all those Jabha-Al-Tahrir leaders who were responsible for and operating in the Kunama region against the Kunama people. They are to be considered accountable for those killings.
When some Kunama people, after the sad events of 1976, had asked and obtained some fire-arms from the Ethiopean government to protect themselves against the continuous, unprovoked and indiscriminate killings of their people, the Jabha-Al-Tahrir leaders interpreted that decision of the Kunama as: "SIDING WITH THE ETHIOPEAN GOVERNMENT".
More persecutions and killings of the Kunama people were intensified by that armed- group athough a lot of young Kunama had, by that time, joined the movement, fought along side and offered their lives for their country.
Consider the following three young men who were among the first Kunama who had joined the Jabha-Al-Tahrir armed-struggle group and fell, in 1966, fighting against the Ethiopean army, for the first time in Kunama land:
1. ARKUBE ALLAI
2. DANNIK ANDAGALA
3. MANTAI IDRIS.
As far as the ideological and political differences existing among the various Eritrean armed-struggle groups, the Kunama people, both those in the fields as well as those in the rural areas, villages and towns were and are not any different than the other Eritrean ethnic groups.
The Kunama people voted neither pro nor against the unity with Ethiopia:
They were neither "COMMANDOS" nor had they taken any part in leading the way or somehow co-operating with the Ethiopean army in their excursions in the lowland of Eritrea, where they carried out innumerable exsecusions of thousands of innocent Eritrean civilians.
The Kunama people never played a double role.
Those who had joined the Ethiopean military, compelled by circumstances, remained faithful to their decisions.
Those who had joined the various and, very often, bitter enemies Eritrean armed-struggle groups remained there till the end.
Why is it then that, even after the Eritrean independence, the same ethnic groups with which the Kunama fought along, are today, turning against and causing them the same territorial problems that have always chracterized the conflicting relationships between the Kunama people and the other ehtnic groups, particularly, the Eritrean Tigrians?
What was the use, for the Kunama people, to have joined the various Eritrean armed- struggle groups, fought bitterly and got independence if, today, they are at the brink of again fighting for the liberation of their territory, survival of their race and livestock?
One should always remember how sensitive the Kunama are when they are unjustly treated,
provoked or maltreated. They are patient but not passive or inactive.
Since the independence of Eritrea, the Kunama land has become a favourite market for the Tigrigna speaking highland populations, to rush in, buy a piece of land, build a house,a villa, open a hotel, a restaurant, give these Tigrigna names, distort or totally re-name Kunama territories, villages and towns (eg. Addi-Keshi, Addi-Berbere and so on); chase out the Kunama people whenever they try to oppose this intense and carefully calculated TIGRIGNALIZATION of their LAND and CULTURE.
In the Kunama countryside, the newly-become pastoralists Tigrigna-speaking highland Eritreans show no regards for the Kunama people (supported, unfortunately, by their kinds in the regional administrative quarters), for their crop-fields, harvest and so forth.
It is continuously reported that the Tigrigna shepherds and cow-men deliberately, let their livestock trample and feed on the crops that the Kunama bauers gather and, according to their tradition, store in the vicinities of their crop-fields.
A lot of those Kunama crop and crop-fields damaging Tigrian shepherds have often been cought on spot.
There are innumerable of similar cases being reported by the Kunama to the authorities in Barentu.
The usual procedures to settle these unpleasant incidents are that, the civil servant in charge would often order the two quarrelling parties to provide eye-witnesses who could substantiate their claims and accusations.
The very bewildering reality is that, every Tigrigna-speaking person is said to be not only ready to witness and support his or her kind, but he or she would come up with even counter-accusations such as, that the Kunama bauer, shepherd, man or woman had attempted, unprovoked, to use physical force against the Tigrigna person.
Due to such incidents and one-sided decision-makings, a lot of Kunama are said to have even been jailed.
On the other hand, the SDO (senior district officer), his vice, the commander of the city-police force, the civil servants and many of the government officials, in Barentu, are all Tigrigna-speaking highland Eritreans. This means that, the quarrels between the Kunama people and the Tigrigna speaking city-dwellers, bauers, shepherds and merchants are, more than often, decided in favour of their own ehtnic group.
Some of those government officials are said to be very aware of such injustices but, for unknown reasons, they would not take any measures to combat them.
These clear discriminatory judgements are demoralizing the Kunama very profoundly.
They are reminiscences of the old tactics of accusing and marginalizing the Kunama people, forcefully possessing and exploiting of their land and, a new and more damaging method: TIGRIGNALIZING of the whole of the Kunama culture.
The well-known Italian declaration of "TERRENO DEMANIALE" (STATE LAND), with which the Kunama land had been baptized, is literally observed there.
The well-off Eritrean Tigrians are buying or occupying every piece of the Kunama land they can lay their hands on. This is obviously facilitated by their kinds in the region's offices.
According to the policy of the present Eritrean government, the whole of the Eritrean land belongs to the state (Eritrean Constitution: Art. 23; Sub-art. 2).
Based on this policy, the city authorities in Barentu are removing every Kunama individual or family who is not able to buy a piece of land and build him/herself a house in accordance with the regulations of the local urban planning.
Without speculating how on earth an ordinary Kunama, who had been living in Barentu for so many years not knowing any kind of regular monthly salary, could afford to purchase or build
himself a dwelling place as required by the city authorities, let us just make a little comparison to clarify some points.
To start with, how far does this policy of "STATE LAND" APPLY TO IN ERITREA?
It would be, infact, very interesting to experience whether a Kunama person who happened to like living in Addi-Mongonti (Serae), another in Gura (Akele-Guzai) and a third one in Addi-Nfas (Hamasien), and decided to buy a piece of land and build himself a house or a villa, would not face any objection whatsoever from those villagers who, according to their tradition, practice the so-called "RSTI", meaning, a "personal/family or group/owned land".
Unfortunately, knowing the character of the Tigrigna-speaking people of those regions, no Kunama person would ever dare put them to test. The probability is that, such Kunama person would immediately be gunned down. By the way, getting gunned down so trivially happened not in any of the above-mentioned or in other Tigrigna villages, but right in the heart of the Kunama land.
Consider the case of those two Kunama brothers who were recently chased and gunned down, in bright daylight, by the Tigrigna-speaking local police and civilians in Shambakko, following a quarrel due to their refusal to sell their goods for the price those policemen had dictated to and requested for.
The question of the Eritrean "land belonging to the state", is not yet clearly answered whether it applies to the whole or just part of Eritrea.
We are, infact, not sure if, in the three highland Eritrean regions of Akele-Guzai, Hamasien and Serae, wher the principle of "RSTI" is so traditionally deep-rooted, well-practiced and fiercely protected, this new land policy is and will be literally applied to.
If so, whether it has been accepted and practiced literally by the regional and local authorities as well as by the villagers in the "KEBESA" countryside.
We believe that, the present Eritrean government has got a lot of difficult teaching to do to convince, first of all, its own Tigrigna people to accept and adhere to this revolutionary idea before letting it be mis-understood, mis-interpreted and mis-used by these same people who might be trying to apply it only partly or only in carefully selected parts of Eritrea (eg. Kunama land). Should, this old colonial law of the "TERRENO DEMANIALE" somehow be restricted only to the lowlands of Eritrea, particularly to the Kunama land, then we must state that, all the Kunama land which had so far been confiscated or marketed by the regional and local authorities and purchased or occupied by the non-natives of the Gash/Setit region should and will be declared "ILLEGAL".
Observing all that is taking place today, in Kunama villages, towns and countryside, because of the arrogant attitudes and aggressive behaviour of the Tigrigna-speaking highland populations, one has to draw the conclusion that, the main ruling body of the present Eritrean government, is not only very aware of and tolerates this arrogance of their ethnic group towards the Kunama people, but they are also repeatedly encouraging them to invade the Kunama villages, towns and countryside and spread intimidation and fear among the entire Kunama people. If the present Eritrean government were concerned not only to facilitate, provide and protect the interests of its own Tigrigna-speaking ethnic group, it would have surely anticipated and used appropriate measures to control the massive and continuous influx of the highland Tigrians into the Kunama land.
Curiously enough, the government itself had set the first example by resettling a lot of the
re-impatriated families of its own supporters and ethnic group members.
The govrnment is also aware how in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society like that of Eritrea, a sudden demographic and political unbalance can be very detrimental and could, consequently, cause a civil war. WHERE IS THIS ALL LEADING US UP TO THEN?
Referring to the main theme of this writing, we believe that, as far as the Kunama people are concerned, the present Eritrean government today, is repeating the same old mistakes of the previous rulers of Eritrea, as regard to the Kunama people, by letting its own Tigrigna-speaking people and civil servants:
a) to play the role of the "ELITE ETHNIC GROUP" in Kunama land;
b) nominating or appointing prejudiced and one-sided Tigrigna-speaking government officials and civil servants who, in most cases, decide in dis-favour whenever the Kunama people report injustices against them by the Tigrians;
c) condoning the ever-growing marginalization of the Kunama urban-dwellers who are, very often, driven out of their own urban centres in order to make room for the "ELITE" Tigrigna-speaking people. The Kunama in the countryside are faced with constant threat of invasion of their crop-fields and grazing lands by the Eritrean Tigrian peasants. Such sad list of the plights of the Kunama people , today, could be endlessly made, reported and substantiated, but as the Latins used to say: "intelligenti pauca", meaning: "to the intelligent little is enough".
Knowing the character and the feelings of our Kunama people, we the Kunama abroad, as spokespersons of our brothers back home, would like to remind, both the present Eritrean government, the regional and local authorities in Barentu and in the whole of the Kunama land that, similar events in the past had always led the Kunama people to react very violently and that similar events at the present and in the future times will not be any different in causing anger among the Kunama people unless drastic measures are immediately taken to correct the current course of events in Kunama land.