Inside Of The World Of The Amiches: Politics, Identity and Exile
For this skinny, lonely young man, life has never been easy. His life is not that of an average young man in his mid-twenties; the cherished years of his youth have been stolen. In his teens, no one told him to “follow his dreams” or “to follow what his heart tells him”, but to survive. His was a perennial tale of survival. His memories are not those of “ever after”. He is a man who is intimately familiar with the brutish face of life.
The roads for him were thorny and cruel. Yet after so many years of ups and downs, he still struggles to keep his dignity and sense of humor. Still he possesses an unshaken belief in God, yet in his eyes one can read his desperate plea: “God, why has Destiny been this malicious to me, why?” His appeal to the heavens encompasses the issues of expulsion, exile, death, identity crisis, extreme poverty and living in a permanent state of limbo.
Recently, Mahdere came to Nairobi from Kakuma refugee camp. The Kakuma camp – a sprawling “city” of tents, shacks, and thatched roof huts in the desert of Northwestern Kenya, – is inhabited by more than 90,000 refugees of various nationalities. He is not settled there permanently. He moves to and from Nairobi. For a person like Mahdere, travel is not a big deal; as a teenager, he was forced to cross the Ethiopian border to Eritrea against his will.
Mahdere was amongst the Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean decent who were victims of mass expulsion by the Ethiopian government at the outset of the Ethio-Eritrean war. At that time, he did not fully grasp the concept of mass expulsion. He had only known one country, Ethiopia, and only one locality, “Cherekos”. He had never doubted his nationality, but Ethiopia disproved his certainty.
He was a boy from Addis Ababa, from a popular locality called Cherekos around Genet Hotel, a kilometer away from Mexico Square. Cherekos is known for its poverty-stricken tales and urban legends. Here, Mahdere was born and raised – by a mother from Arat Kilo, Central Addis Ababa. His outlook on life and identity was molded there, from the dust and the ashes of Cherekos and Addis Ababa.
His entrenched attachment to the soil of Addis Ababa prevented him from understanding why Ethiopia expelled him. “At the time, I was not capable of seizing the full reason behind the expulsion, let alone understanding one’s ‘Eritreaness’. I did not fully understand the real meaning of being an Ethiopian national. For me, it was more meaningful to explain identity related with Cherekos than to the two nations,” he explains. It was only later that he understood why he was evicted from the country of his birth. He soon found himself in “Abashawul”, a locality inside Asmara associated with the city’s poor. Abashawul and “Habesha Geza Menda” reminded him of similar localities in Addis Ababa – “Arogew Qera” of Arat Kilo and “Serategna Sefer” of Piazza.
Before long, he became almost assimilated in Abashawul. Most of his new friends were as poor as him. But one thing excluded him from becoming “The Man from Abashawul”: he speaks Amharic and broken Tigringna. Accordingly, his new friends treated him as only their new friend, not as a part of their integral identity. ”For them, I am not a pure Eritrean or Ethiopian. I am an Amiche,” says Mahdere.
Amiche! What a name….
Mahdere remembers the day when he heard the term “Amiche” for the first time. It was during a playful back-and-forth exchange between youngsters. “Do you know what they are calling you?” one of his new friends asked. “Nope,” he casually replied. His closest friend then affirmed his “Amicheness”. For Mahdere, it was a bolt out of the blue. He had never heard this nickname while he was in Addis. He had never thought of distinctiveness. He had considered himself but another local boy in his new home, Abashawul. Yet Mahdere was not a boy from Abashawul, he was abruptly informed, but an Amiche. True, his friendship with the boys of Abashawul had not altered; their affection to him was immense and their companionship genuine. But he ultimately remained a stranger next door. The term “Amiche” expressed to him more than its face value. “I understood that I was neither of the two, but an Amiche,” explains Mahdere.
The term “Amiche” was a late discovery for Mahdere, but Binyam Fisha had heard it before 1991 while he was in Addis Ababa. It was the time of the Dergue regime; the civil war was at its pinnacle. Binyam, 40, was born and grew up in Addis Ababa’s “22 Mazoria” district. Now he resides in the capital of Southern Sudan, Juba. Binyam states, “This is name given to Eritreans who were born in Ethiopia. The term overtly entails the process of being assembled in Ethiopia.” The term “Amiche” is also given to those people who are born of the union between an Eritrean parent and an Ethiopian mother or father. The term is derived from an abbreviation of Automotive Manufacturing Company of Ethiopia (AMCE), a car assembly factory in Addis Ababa. The parts of the AMCE cars are produced in Italy, but the majority of the assembly work is done in Ethiopia. Just as the foreign parts of the car were assembled in Ethiopia, so too, goes the analogy, the body parts of Amiches were from elsewhere
Jennifer Riggan, PHD, Director of International Studies at Arcadia University has studied the Amiches. She explains to Addis Neger, via email, “Being an Amiche is a hybrid identity and a composite one that draws in creative and diverse ways on meanings of being Eritrean and being Ethiopian, as well as more localized identities associated with village of origin, town or neighborhood or city of residence and family stories”.
“Amiches have a very strong sense of identity as Amiches and, as different from other Eritreans and Ethiopians, have a strong sense of solidarity and commonality with other Amiches,” says Dr Riggan. “At the same time, it is different from a more institutionalized identity, such as a religious, national or ethnic identity. It is a lived, experienced identity rather than one that is codified and carried out through state, cultural or other institutional forms.”
Some call the Amiches the “tenth tribe of Eritrea”. There are many Amiches who consider this identity as a source of pride. They call themselves “the beautiful people”. Dr Riggan states, ” An Amiche identity is a powerful and very interesting one, but also a transitory and temporary one. It is experience-based and situational.”
Some Amiches bring this identity to the life of the cyber world. “I love being Amiche” is an Amiche Facebook page founded by Eyerusalem Haile. The fans of this page are Amiches living in various parts of the world; its members are growing daily. Together, they discuss things that were once dear to them. Certain issues bind the group – namely, their stories of expulsion and life in exile.
There is no official numbers available on the Amiches. Yet during the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, almost 75 thousand Eritrean-Ethiopians were evicted.
Who Was Deported?
The Ethiopian government started the eviction of many Eritreans following the outbreak of the border war. The first operation focused on those who were accused of helping the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and accordingly considered a threat to national security. Some Ethiopian residents of Eritrean descent participated in the referendum for independence, while others did not. Unofficial figures make the number of people who have an Eritrean heritage lives in Ethiopia is greater than 250 thousand. Some participated in the referendum, and some did not. 57,710 residents in Ethiopia voted in the 1993 Eritrean referendum on independence–57,466 (99.5%) voted ‘yes’; 204 voted ‘no. The expulsion is not exclusively for those people who were participated in the referendum.
In 1999, the expulsion reached an average rate of 1500 per week. Between June 1998 and February 1999, when hostilities resumed, a total of 54,000 people of Eritrean origin were detained and expelled, according to Amnesty International. The report stated that the expulsion was “carried out in an inhumane manner that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to Amnesty International’s investigation.”
Many of them had been living in Ethiopia for a long period of time. They created wealth, had families and attached themselves to the people of Ethiopia. The majority had Ethiopian nationality. A survey completed by those among the first batch of evictees showed that most of the deportees were born in Ethiopia or spent a major part of their lives in that country. “59% of them lived in Ethiopia for 25 to 60 years. Nearly all of them held Ethiopian passports or identification cards bearing the words “Citizenship: Ethiopian.”
Those expelled came from many walks of life. One group of 250 evictees, interviewed by a UN delegation, included many people over age 60 and people retired from business or civil service. There were teachers, mechanics, shop owners and managers, lecturers, a physician, and two Catholic priests. Many of the men had been born in Ethiopia, had never been to Eritrea, and did not speak Tigrinya – the main language of Eritrea.
The expulsion resulted in many personal social and economic crises. However, more than the loss of their property, the majority of the group felt deep sorrow in finding themselves and their families on donors’ hands. “Imagine how it was heartbreaking, getting those people who once had a well-equipped life to stand in line to receive bed sheets and other basic needs,” say an Addis Neger source who worked with the first group of evictees in Asmara.
As for this source, who spoke to our reporter on terms of anonymity in Jinja town, 73 km away from Kampala, Uganda, the event clearly gripped the hearts of the people. “When we received the first evicted people at Asmara University, our grievances were so deep. Many of them were confused; they could not believe what happened to them,” he adds. Worst of all, the majority of family members were separated. According to UNICEF surveys conducted in two accommodating stations in June 1998, 63 percent of households were evicted, leaving their children behind. The first batch of evictees was temporarily housed in Asmara University. Accommodating so many people presented an immense challenge.
A decade has now passed since the last forced expulsion. But the expulsion has irreversibly changed the lives of many. Countless Amiches experienced one or more setbacks economic, social and psychological.
The Burden of Being Amiche
Asmara is beautiful but, many claim, it is also lifeless. The hardest thing for Mahdere in this beautiful city was to integrate with its native people. Most of the dwellers of Asmara are socially conservative and closed. For the Amiches coming from the moderately liberal Addis Ababa, the restrictions seemed outlandish. Language also presented another obvious barrier to integration with the people of Asmara.
“You can identify the Amiches even by pinpointing their style of walking,” explains Binyam. The Amiches also listen to Amharic music. In small cities like Keren, the Amiches were known for the Amharic music they used to play in the bars. Even at the height of the border war, the Amiches did not abandon their habit of playing Amharic music. But the regime in Asmara did not share their enthusiasm, eventually prohibiting Amharic music from being played in public places. “In relation with the expulsion from Ethiopia, most of the Amiches were psychologically traumatized,” says Binyam.
Mahdere was uprooted from where he built his worldview without his consent. The route by which he arrived in Asmara was paved with humiliation. He has not forgotten that. Today, his heart inclines towards “Eritreaness”. But “Eritreaness” is also an imperfect fit. “After I heard the term ‘Amiche’ from my Abashawul friends, I felt bareness, even though my friends did not change the way they approached me,” says Mahdere. “I realized that Eritrea is not my home as Ethiopia once was.”
Mahdere considers his time in Asmara as one of the toughest times of his youth. He did not have a job, and the income from his family and his father was not enough to make ends meet. Yet this is the normal Amiche life in Asmara – uprooted, and economically stricken.
The Amiches who managed to evade military conscription often actively involved in the black jobs of Asmara. Some females even became prostitutes. Others are blamed for the theft that started to spread after the coming of the Amiches. “They are accused of theft, cheating and the group fighting,” says Betsega Sahele, a Nairobi resident who formerly lived in Asmara. Such prejudices and allegations forced them to form their own circles, building strong attachments to one another.
The regime in Eritrea requires citizens aged 18 to 40 to participate in the country’s National Service Program of forced military conscription. No one knows when the national service ends. This program remains part of the Eritrean regime’s plan to militarize the state of Eritrea, molding its citizens under the militarized Eritrean nationalistic eye of the incumbent.
“Ethiopian” and “Eritrean” nationalism are not mutually complimentary; rather, both have a competing national discourse. The Eritrean nationalism was sewn alongside the struggle for independence from Ethiopia; the leaders of the Eritrean political elites are ultra radical Eritrean nationalists.
But the “traditional” Ethiopian nationalistic discourses consider the Eritrean nationalism as treasonous. Historically, the Ethiopian nationalism discourse does not offer any recognition of the Eritrean version of nationalism. The identity of the Amiches was built along the seams of two polar antagonists crafting their identity. But the identity of the Amiches has not been recognized in political discourse either in Ethiopia or Eritrea. Neither country’s political space seems to have a place for it.
Dr. Riggan, however, sees points of commonality. “There are certainly versions of each national narrative that are not complimentary and see the other nationalism as a threat. But what is more interesting, I think, is that each nationalism is in the process of being negotiated and reworked,” notes Dr. Jennifer Riggan.
“In both countries, a traditional, compelling, government-sponsored narrative of the nation is being challenged by a variety of forces. This is a threat to both governments and to the ruling elite in both countries. I think Amiches found very creative ways to draw from both narratives in ways that the official versions do not allow for,” says Dr. Riggan.
Another Exile: Amiche Exodus
Many Amiches who were unable to begin a new life in Asmara left Eritrea by crossing its borders – either to Ethiopia or the Sudan. But crossing these borders is incredibly demanding—requiring a large sum of money, extensive travel on foot and luck enough to escape the border guards. The unfortunate ones who are caught are either arrested or shot and killed. The brokers, who receive 4000 USD per head for arranging the exodus, necessarily have different routes of escape. The Teseney- Kesela route is one of the ways out.
Binyam was one of the Amiches who escaped in this way. Binyam was not expelled from Ethiopia like most other Amiches. He voluntarily went to Asmara in 1991, after the fall of the previous government. He used to sell goods – electronics, cigarettes and chewing gum – in Asmara by bringing them from Addis Ababa. When the border conflict broke out, Binyam was in Asmara; the border was closed and many were expelled. Binyam was forced to stay.
Binyam was married and a father of two. He continued his business in order to support his family, until he was called for national military service. He did not want to enter he service and leave his wife, who was expecting their third child, behind. “I was left with only two options,” says Binyam, “Either to join the service or to leave the country.”
According to Binyam, leaving the country was not easily accomplished. It involved passing many checkpoints and snipers. Nevertheless, he traveled from Asmara to Teseney by bus. Then, traveling on foot for 17 hours, he passed the checkpoints on the border. “The path we chose was relatively safe,” remembers Binyam. “Because there were not many snipers on the way, the leaders who knew this path charged a lot of money.”
He paid the 1500 dollars he was asked, and reached the Sudanese border town of Kesela. “When I reached Kesela, I was arrested because I was identified as an alien,” says Binyam. He recalls that he had 3000 Euros and 200 dollars in his pocket. “I was strip-searched and taken to a police colonel for interrogation. The only money notes they could identify were the dollar notes, so they took the 200 USD and released me with my 3000 Euros.” Binyam, is grateful for this stroke of luck. He then traveled to different African cities then traveled through many African cities – Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Luwanda, Kampala– before finally settling in Juba.
Mahdere, who is now living in Kenya, used to help Amiches and Eritreans to cross the borders long before doing so himself. That was his business, and he eased his hard life in Asmara with the money he earned. He was first introduced to this business with the help of Michael, the “Cool Guy of Kombishtato”. Although Michael lived in the Abashawul area, he spent most of his time in “Kombishatato” and, as a result of this in combination with his outgoing character, he was named after it.
Mahdere and Michael met at Mahdere’s favorite cafeteria, “Berehet Cafe”. One afternoon, when Mahdere was sitting in the cafeteria, Michael approached him, asking, “Amiche, you are not yet used to the town?” From that moment on, their friendship grew. They spent most of their time together, traveling in the city from place to place – “Kambolo”, “Travolo”, “Fiat”, “Sanfranchesco”, “Akria” and others. Mahdere was unfamiliar with going to the movies in Addis, but soon he became a fan of “Cinema A merino” and “Cinema Capital” in Asmara; Michael paid and Mahdere enjoyed.
One day, they went together to visit Asmara’s masterpiece – the Cathedral Combishtato – near to Ambassador Hotel. Michael led Mahdere to a one-storey building and ordered him to “get in quickly”. Mahdere recounts, “After I had passed the gate of the building, I waited for him – leaning my back against the wall of the building”. Mahdere remembers that after Michael came out of the building, “he told me to follow him and walked ahead of me, faster”.
They entered a small room behind the building. There, three young men sat in silence. Michael did not talk much; he simply said, “Come here tomorrow, early in the morning. Goodbye.” After one of the young men handed him something that remained hidden from view, Michael again ordered Mahdere to “leave the building with care”. They left the building cautiously. Mahdere then realized that the income of the “Cool Guy” was the result of smuggling people out of Eritrea.
The main role of the Cool Guy was to help his clients get out of Asmara; his colleagues arranged the rest. If successful, his clients would make it to either the border of Ethiopia or the Sudan. The hassles beyond the borders were left to the escapees. Most of those who escaped were youngsters who, tired of military service, had fled Sawa (the military training camp) in hopes of finding a better life. Among these are Amiches who have also had enough of the beautiful but lifeless Asmara. Because government control is so strong, helping these youngsters to escape is not an easy task. It involves traveling in the midst of the valley of death.
After days of training and guidance, Mahdere became Michael’s aid. The role he was given was brokering agreements between the Amiches who came from Ethiopia and people who could help them escape. The income was good, but assisting troubled youngsters wishing to embark upon such an unsafe journey proved challenging for Mahdere. Yet he had little choice. “The surprising thing was that I used to find at least two persons a day who wanted to escape,” says Mahdere. “It was as if the whole nation was moving out.”
Finally, Mahdere also decided to leave Eritrea. Even if he stayed in Asmara, he knew that he could not freely move between Abashawul and Kombishtato forever; eventually, he would be forced to go to Sawa. “I decided to leave Asmara before that happened,” says Mahdere. He chose Ethiopia as his exile destination, but soon after crossing the border he became preoccupied with the question of identity. “Where do I belong?” he wondered.
“Even though the question was always there while I was in Asmara, I could ignore it – until I reach Axum,” explains Mahdere. While his fellow refugees remained in Shimelba refugee camp, Mahdere continued on to Addis Ababa. After only a few days in Addis Ababa, he went to Kenya. Many Amiches have followed Mahdere’s route.
Dispersion in East Africa
Amiches can be found dispersed among all the Eastern African capitals – Addis Ababa, Asmara, Khartoum, Juba, Nairobi, and Kampala.
Looking at Nairobi from Moi’s Avenue, the city appears divided into two parts: West Land and East Land. The Western part of the city is greener, with thick forest in some areas. People who live here are mostly well-to-do Kenyans, Indians and other foreigners; most embassies and offices of international organizations are found in this part of the city. The palace of the President, the state house, and the popular trading center called “Yaya Center” are also found here. So too, the attractive recreation and marketing center, Village Market”, the famous night club, “West Land”, and one of the Habesha (Ethiopian or Eritrean) dwelling places called “Harlingham” are all here in the Western part of the city, West Land.
Harlingham is only three kilometers away from the stunning Ouhuru Park. The green nature of the area makes the voyage pleasant. The roadside trees are very old and give it grace. Heading towards the Yaya Trading Centre, Harlingham is found in the hilly part of the road. On both sides of the road there are many Habeshas – mostly Eritreans – living. The peaceful environment here attracts not only Habeshas with good incomes, but also those with less income who share rent by living together. The presence of the Medhanialem (Holy Savior) Church there is another reason for many Habeshas to choose this place. Moreover, for those who are addicted to Habesha cuisine, the “Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant” is not very far away.
If you are new to the area, when observing the Habeshas, you will notice another group among them – the Amiches. Let us then take a look at the Eastern part of Nairobi, where many Amiches live with the Amiche, Mahidere Gilay. He knows these places of Nairobi very well, just like he knows Cherekos and “Aba Shawl” in Addis. Contrary to the Western part of the city, the Eastern part of Nairobi has very few green areas. The area instead contains many slums and an open-air market. The big areas, like “Eastligh Buruburu” and “Ou Moja”, are found in the same direction. Hailieselassie Road, then Jogo Road leads to Buruburu and Oumaja, while Muranga Road leads to Eastligh, the biggest trading center for Somalis, and a place to live for other Habeshas. You may also find many Habeshas if you go to “Chaired” area, a place where Amharic signposts line the roadsides.
Asmara Hotel is seen above all; this is the area where the Eritreans live. Even though there are many Ethiopians around, their number is significantly less. Many are living off the income of small restaurants and bars. Instead of Kiswahilli and English, Tigrigna and Amharic are primarily spoken here in Chaired.
Other places, like “Kariakor” and “Pangani” are favored by the Habesha Diaspora, but none host so many Habeshas as Eastligh. Eastligh is a place where Somalis have the upper hand in business, comparable in many ways with Addis Ababa’s Merkato. But the amount of foreign currency exchanged every day would be unimaginable in Merkato even in a year. In this chaotic marketplace, Habeshas have their own contributing role. The second, the ninth, the tenth, and the eleventh sections of the market are owned by Habeshas. Amharic signposts like “Mimi Shop”, “Teddy Music Shop”, and “Cultural Artifacts Shop” dominate the ninth and tenth avenues.
Let us now move from Nairobi to the capital city of Southern Sudan, Juba. Let us begin our tour from Bridge Hotel, a hotel that was built around the Nile River. You will see many Habeshas here and there – in “Kongo kongno”, “Gebel kuju”, “New and Old Kestemes” and elsewhere throughout the town you will find these Habeshas. If you visit Kush Hotel, found on Juba Road, you will see many Habeshas having their tea and chat. The waiters may be familiar from Addis Ababa. The capital city, in fact, has quite a number of Habeshas working at different levels – from advising higher government officials to chauffers, merchants, taxi conducturs (woyala) waiters and waitresses. Amiches also live here, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ethiopians and Eritreans. Binyam is among them; he will tell us his story – the result of the extraordinary luck denied to so many others.
The Sad Fortune
Some of the Amiches who evicted from Ethiopia were forced to participate in the war of Badme (the point where the border conflict began) after undergoing insufficient military training. Most of the Amiches expelled from Ethiopia were forced to go to Sawa training camp within six months of their arrival. The eighth and ninth batches of military trainees were mostly Amiches. These trainees were taken immediately to the war in Badme. Most of them were killed. According to an anonymous source in Jinja, Uganda who closely followed the issue, the sad thing about the Amiches was that “both parties did not trust them.”
“Think of these Amiches, especially the young ones who used to think they were Ethiopians. Most of them knew only Addis Ababa as a city,” continues the source. “What would you feel if you found yourself a soldier for a country to which you do not belong? Could there be others who feel as crazy as we did?” asks the source.
Mahdere lived with the histories of such people. “An eighteen-year-old boy was evicted from Addis Ababa with his father, for a reason he could not understand very well. He was taken to Sawa after six months of stay in Eritrea. He died at the war front, but his father discovered his death three years after his death. Why has this happened to this young boy?” asks Mahdere.
From Being the “Tenth Tribe” to Their Own World
Some consider the Amiches as merely confused. But when Addis Neger’s reporters moved in different Eastern African cities, we discovered that Amiches play an important social role. Amiches serve as a unifying force between Ethiopians and Eritreans. Accordingly, they seek to defend both Ethiopia and Eritrea from the prejudices held against one another.
In Juba, Kampala and Nairobi, visit the bars owned by Habeshas when the equatorial sun sets. You can hear Eritrean Abraham Afeworki’s song; you may also hear Ethiopian singer Teddy Afro’s famous song, “Kab Dahlak” (the song is about an Ethiopian who is separated from his love in Eritrea because of the war between the two countries) and others like “Addis Ababa bête” (Addis Ababa, my home). In the middle of the bar, you will see young men drinking their lager bears and smoking. One can be sure that they are thinking of their past and present life in time to the musical rhythms”
When most Amiches hear such music, they feel nostalgic for Addis Ababa. Some will recall the images of Addis Ababa that they saw ten years ago. Amiches share a great love for their childhood home of Addis Ababa; the manner in which they were forced to leave causes them to remember only the city’s good parts. But, almost inevitably, a bar fight interrupts their thoughts.
In every East African city, when Ethiopians and Eritreans gather in the same nightclubs, there is potential for a fight. The Habeshas can dance to the same rhythms now, but they could just as easily fight later. “When Ethiopians and Eritreans fight, the Amiches appear in the middle to mediate. They are called ‘peacekeepers’ in Juba,” explains Binyam.
Like Ethiopians and Eritreans, the Amiches are also spread throughout the world in exile. They are also known for the love and friendship they have with one another. This relationship between them and their exiles from both countries sometimes causes them to yearn for a country of their own. On the “I love being Amiche” Facebook page, a man comments, “I wish there was one state where all Amiches live.” But the Amiches know that they alone cannot fulfill this wish.
For now, Mahdere seems to have found a solution to his identity question. “I am happier to be called a man of Cherekos and Abashawul, than to be called either an Ethiopian or Eritrean,” he says. A member of the Facebook fan page, Solomon Zeray, offers his thoughts in a poem:
If it fails to change despite our effort
Then why do we care?
Amiche and the dollar can live anywhere.
Reports : Subi Alemu, Maseresha Mammo