A Story of Suffering and Hope on World Refugee Day 2023

Published: 21 June 2023

This is a summary of Hyab Yohannes' reflections, presented as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's World Refugee Day Lecture, jointly presented by Alison Phipps, Hannah Thomas, and Hyab Yohannes.

Note: This is a summary of Hyab Yohannes' reflections, presented as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's World Refugee Day Lecture, jointly presented by Alison Phipps, Hannah Thomas, and Hyab Yohannes, on 20 June 2023.

On November 30, 1970, in Beskdira, residents gathered in an attempt to welcome Ethiopian soldiers and dissuade them from burning down their village. The soldiers initially pretended to engage in peaceful dialogue, but then took the villagers hostage at gunpoint for several hours. Eventually, the soldiers attempted to divide the villagers into groups based on religion, with the intention of carrying out a discriminatory massacre. However, the villagers refused to be separated and stood together, willing to die together. When asked about their religion, they bravely replied:

We are both Christians and Muslims, but above all, we are sisters and brothers. Our blood and flesh are the same, attesting to our common humanity. We plead for our innocence and implore you not to kill us. However, if the only choices available are death or division, we are willing to die together.

The troops ignored the villagers’ plea and forced them into the mosque. They placed their machine guns at the door and windows, and indiscriminately massacred them. The brutal attack resulted in the death of over 120 innocent civilians, while some were fortunate enough to survive by hiding beneath the pile of bodies. The apocalyptic images of the massacre, destruction of the village, and the suffering of its inhabitants remain fresh in the minds of many. The message from the survivors of the massacre is clear: ‘Our hope lies in our children's ability to build a statue that will honour the memory of our ancestors’. It appears that they have lost hope in their own government's sincerity to honour the sisters and brothers whose blood have become the seed of a collective political consciousness for the liberation of the country.

I chose to donate some quartz stones brought by a friend from inside the Beskdira mosque, where hundreds of people lost their lives, to the Scottish Crannog Centre. My intention was to provide the stones with a new place to reside and to share their story of suffering and hope. The Crannog Centre holds artefacts that date back over 2,500 years and precolonial remains that remind us of, as I suggested elsewhere, ‘the unfinished project of humanity that was interrupted by colonization’. Through archaeological evidence and imaginative work, the Crannog symbolizes the emergence of a new type of humanity – one that is non-exclusive, non-violent, and, most importantly, restorative. I hope that the stones will prompt visitors to contemplate what it is like to live under colonial regimes and imagine life amidst the ruins of coloniality.

For Eritreans, World Refugee Day coincides with Eritrea's Martyr's Day – a day of mourning for those who died in the liberation and protection of their country. Those of us living in exile remember a double loss on June 20th. While we honour the sacrifice of our martyrs, our continued displacement reveals that martyrdom alone has not achieved our quest for freedom. Unfortunately, the vulnerability, violability and disposability of our people have become normalised, both at home and abroad. While the stones accompany us, speaking to us in silence through their presence and the memories they hold, the seemingly endless forced displacement, the suffering and death inflicted on our people continues to devastate us. For those of us who have indefinitely left our homelands, it often feels like we are suspended in a perpetual state of time-space sequestration. This feeling of suspension outside human place and time is rooted in the trauma of our past, the necropolitics of the present, and the projection of violence into the future.

Achille Mbembe warns that the sovereign’s grip on the ‘subjugation of life to the power of death’ is causing irreparable loss, weariness, and inaudibility to humanity. When life itself is at stake, living becomes ‘incomplete death’ that persists across time and space, as Fanon famously reminds us. As fellow human beings, it appears to me, our task is to rebel against the perishability of life and the everyday reality of coloniality. Despite this existential challenge, I am hopeful that a new, non-exclusive humanism is possible. My hope lies in our continued yearning to be free from incomplete death and the everyday reality of coloniality, which threaten us with constitutively exclusive perishability. On World Refugee Day, we are reminded to hold onto hope and never let it go. With this in mind, I would like to end this reflection with these lines from Mirikitani's poem, The Prisons of Silence:

From this cell of history

this mute grave,

we birth our rage.

First published: 21 June 2023