Eritreans for more than half a century have lost their beloved ones without even knowing an iota of information how, why, when and where they died. This piece discusses the topic in three sections based on chronological events: deaths during the struggle period and today; people killed by the rebels and the government; and death in migration.
Part one: Fighters and soldiers of the armed struggle and the government
As families are dismantled and fragmented in Eritrea, the suffering for many families takes different forms. During the 30-year armed struggle for independence and even at the present, it has always been the practice of the EPLF and later the Eritrean government to keep secret the death of fighters and soldiers in its ranks and files. It is forbidden to inform families of the death of their beloved ones. The death of the fighters and soldiers were kept secret until the revolution or the Eritrean government decided to notify the families of the deceased, often years after the war ends. Families of those who died during the struggle for independence had to wait until 1992, more than a year after the war ended, for the EPLF to announce the names of the deceased. Many families knew of the deaths of their beloved ones in advance but they could not mourn, find closure and move on because it is considered a crime to seek information about the whereabouts of loved ones in the army through unofficial channels. It was also punishable to informally disclose to civilians the status of missing or killed fighters or soldiers.
Many fighters from the armed struggle had to pretend not to know anything about the whereabouts of their siblings and relatives even though they had seen them being buried, saw them die or heard they had died. They struggled to remain silent so that other family members do not know about the deaths. Similarly many families in the villages and towns had known about the deaths of their beloved but could not mourn them and move on. As a result, those who hold the information and their families suffer emotionally and psychologically. Particularly parents who get the sad news of the death of their beloved ones but cannot grieve suffer the most.
With the so called national service scheme thousands of families have been affected by this phenomena. In some instances the sons and deceased who did not get the dignified burial have died in the same way as with their parents and their family members have to pass through the same terrible experience of not being able to mourn their death and move on as it was the case with the family members of their parents. Usually the information provided to the family members regarding the death of beloved ones include date and place of death but not the burial place. Hence people are unable to know the burial place of their beloved ones. There were some cases where some people were able to know burial places of their beloved ones. Yet it is forbidden to visit the burial place of the deceased. There were cases that some people attempted to exhume the bodies of their beloved ones with the intent of performing funeral rituals and bury them in their own village or localities. But such attempts were prevented by the government as they are considered illegal. This has left all these bodies scattered in unknown places.
However, some of the bodies have been exhumed by the government and buried in specially designated cemeteries known as martyrs’ cemeteries. But it is not possible to identify the bodies in these cemeteries. The funeral procession and rituals constitute part of the closure and moving on process in the Eritrean society. According dignified burial to the deceased and duly grieving their deaths are preconditions for the timely and full closure and moving on for family members. Therefore as these conditions do not exist in Eritrea, the Eritrean families are being denied of these rights and opportunities for decades. And it is not yet known when it will end.