By Aaron Berhane Yesterday was a sad day for me and many Eritrean journalists. We lost a hero, a fighter, a fighter for the freedom of the press. A ma...
By Aaron Berhane
Yesterday was a sad day for me and many Eritrean journalists. We lost a hero, a fighter, a fighter for the freedom of the press. A man who founded a newspaper to fight for justice, a man who was never afraid to express his views, a man who was a voice for the voiceless: the people who live in remote areas, the youth in the national service. A man who always prioritized the interest of his people before him, even though he knew it would cost him everything, but he didn’t care. A man who was always willing to speak his mind and tackle corrupt leaders.
I’ll bet you knew him. An eloquent writer, a bold and ambitious man — Milkias Mihreteab. He passed away at 52. His life was cut short because of an illness that had been torturing him for years.
He co-founded Kestedebena newspaper on November 24, 1998 with his friends Medhanie Haile, Yosief Alazar and Habteab Yemane.
Kestedebena means rainbow, and they named the paper this in order to include all facets of Eritrean life, like different colours of the rainbow. Milkias ran the newspaper as editor-in-chief and Medhanie Haile was his deputy. Because of their firm commitment, the circulation of the newspaper grew from its first issue of 5000 copies to 20,000, from biweekly to twice a week when it ended its publication involuntarily in September 2001 along with the whole independent press of the country.
The secret of Kestedebena’s success was Milkias’s bold approach to issues that were very important for the public. He wrote about the crippled transport system of Asmara, the inflated charge of taxi drivers, and the refusal of the regime to tackle the basic needs of the people.
In his editorials, there was no crucial issue that he left unexplored. What stood out for me, though, was the editorial he wrote that criticized the foreign policy of the Eritrean government. The title read “Either be a mountain or lean to a mountain.”
Seeing the shrewd approach of the Ethipian prime minister Meles Zenawi with the international community, Milkias wanted Eritrea to change its diplomatic tactics in order to be heard globally. He called on the Eritrean government to master the language of diplomacy in how it interacted with foreign super powers like the USA — either to be a mountain or lean to it to save the people and the country.
I always enjoyed reading his unfiltered approach on issues that sometimes I didn’t have the courage to speak up about myself. When I realized the self-reliance mantra drummed by the regime, I knew it was false. Milkias spotted that too and poured his ideas onto paper.
A mutual friend, Medhanie Haile, introduced me to Milkias first in 1997, while Medhanie was working as a sports reporter for my newspaper Setit, the newspaper I co-founded and edited. Instantly we hit it off.
Milkias was sociable, funny and intelligent. He liked to joke around but also to talk about serious issues. Whenever he met me on campus or outside, he always had good things to say about my newspaper or the articles I had written.
A year after our introduction, he launched Kestedebena with his friends. He used to say that they started Kestedebena because they had been inspired by Setit newspaper. To become the voice of the people rather than working for the ministry of Justice. He studied law but never wanted to work with his field.
The love he had for his country and his people was visible. You could hear it when he talked and read it when he wrote. There was nothing that would make him happier than seeing progress in the country — whether it was in the economy, education, health or construction. Unfortunately, that progress had been put on hold, and he could no longer talk about progress but only about relapse.
The other excellent quality Milkias had was his ability to admit his mistakes when he made one, and he was never too shy to admit to them. There was one incident that rocked our relationship for a week. One of the contributing cartoonists submitted a cartoon that criticized Kestedebena newspaper for serving the interests of the American government. The cartoonist didn’t mention the name of Kestedebena, but it was easy for readers to know especially if they followed the coverage of the paper that week. I didn’t select the cartoon, and it never crossed my mind to publish it, but to my disappointment it was published. It was a total mistake. I took full responsibility. Three days later, as a retaliation, Milkias wrote over 1000 words to attack me and my colleagues and published this column in his newspaper. To avoid the escalation of the case, we chose not to respond, but I stated that we would handle the issue legally. We never intended to sue him or his newspaper for defamation.
Two days after he published the inflammatory article, he saw me entering Bar Lidya, the bar and coffee shop in which I used to often hang out when I had an appointment near the University of Asmara. He followed me. Before I saw him, I heard his voice, “Masterey, I am so sorry.” I turned around, and it was him. As a matter of respect, he often called his friends “masterey” (my boss).
“I am so sorry. I crossed the line. I was supposed to focus on the cartoonist, not on you or your paper,” he said, regretfully.
“No, actually, I am sorry too,” I said. “I was not supposed to publish such a cartoon, but it slipped out.”
“So, you will not sue us?”
“Only if you pay for this coffee.” We both laughed.
That’s the beauty of his character. He was always straightforward and very honest. We both moved on, holding no grudges.
He was one of the few lucky journalists like me who escaped the grip of the regime at the end of 2001. Since then he lived in Washington, DC, and pursued his struggles by blogging at Asmarino, Awate and other websites until his health hindered him.
Whenever I went to Washington DC, I used to meet him to catch up and remember our colleagues who have been in jail since 2001. The last time I met him in person was in 2012. We spent the evening together remembering the old times, our fellow journalists, the contributions they made to their country, the ambition they had, and what could have been accomplished if the crackdown hadn’t happened.
One by one we remembered all our former colleagues, particularly those reported dead: Medhanie Haile, deputy editor of Kestedebena; Matewos Habteab, editor-in-chief of Meklih; and Fessehaye Yohannes, a talented playwright and journalist.
“Do you think this news could be true?” I asked. I never forgot what he said then.
“I don’t want to believe it, but it could be true,” he said. “If we get sick often here despite breathing fresh air, how could we expect them to be alive if they have been kept in a shipping container for years?”
He was right. Year after year, we have only received worsening news. Yusuf Mohamed Ali, editor-in-chief of Tsigienay; Dawit Habtemichael, deputy editor of Mekalih; and Said Abdelkadir, editor-in-chief of Admas have all died. And we know nothing about the wellbeing of Seyoum Tsehaye, Amanuel Asrat, Dawit Isaak, Temesgen Gebreyesus and many others who were arrested in September 2001.
What frustrated him most, though, was that he was not able to do as much as he would have wished to advocate for his colleagues’ release. He never reconciled with himself and he used to take it personally as if all of this were his fault. He didn’t have the peace of mind like many of us.
Now, the hero is gone. But his legacy to journalism, his contribution to his country, and his love for his people will live forever. Rest in peace, my friend!