Saturday 30 December 2017

ERITREA: Gash-Barka Region Where The Persecuted Kunama People Live Is Breadbasket Of Eritrea

The Kunama are a Nilotic ethnic inhabiting Eritrea and Ethiopia. Although they are one of the smallest populations in Eritrea, constituting only 2% of the population, 80% of Kunama live in the country.

Most of the estimated 100,000 Kunama live in the remote and isolated area between the Gash and Setit rivers near the border with Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian-Eritrean War (1998–2000) forced some 4,000 Kunama to flee their homes to Ethiopia. As refugees they reside in the tense area just over the border with Eritrea and in proximity to the contested border village of Badme.

In the 2007 Ethiopian census, however, the number of Kunama in Tigray has dropped to 2,976 as the remaining 2,000 or so members of this ethnic group have migrated into the other Regions of Ethiopia.

The Kunama speak the Kunama language. It belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family, and is closely related to the Nara language. Although some Kunama still practice traditional beliefs, most have adopted Christianity and Islam.

The fertile plains of the Gash-Setit, also known as the Gash-Barka, region where the Kunama live are sometimes referred to as the breadbasket of Eritrea.

Formerly nomadic, today they are farmers and pastoralists. Historically, the Kunama have been dominated by other ethnic groups and they are often forced from their traditional lands.

The official policy of the Government of Eritrea is that all land is state property and the Government encourages large commercial farms.

Award-winning documentary film Home Across Lands chronicles the journey of newly arrived Kunama refugees as they strive to become self-reliant, invested participants in their new home.

Guiding their transition is the resettlement agency, International Institute of Rhode Island, that connects them to the resources they need as they work to establish a new community and better life for their families.

Analysis of classic genetic markers and DNA polymorphisms by Excoffier et al (1987) found that the Kunama are most closely related to the Sara people of Chad.

Both populations speak languages from the Nilo-Saharan family.

They are also similar to West African populations, but biologically distinct from the surrounding Cushitic and Ethiopian Semitic Afro-Asiatic-speaking groups.

According to Trombetta et al. (2015), around 65% of Kunama are carriers of the E1b1b paternal haplogroup. Of these, 20% bear the V32 subclade, to which belong 60% of the Tigre Semitic speakers in Eritrea.

This points to substantial gene flow from neighbouring Afro-Asiatic-speaking males into the Kunama's ancestral Nilotic community. Cruciani et al. (2010) observed that the remaining Kunama individuals are primarily carriers of the A (10%) and B (15%) lineages, which are instead common among Nilotes.

The Kunama language has been included in the proposed Nilo-Saharan language family, though it is distantly related to the other languages, if at all.

Kunama is spoken by the Kunama people of western Eritrea and just across the Ethiopian border.

The language has several dialects including: Barka, Marda, Aimara, Odasa, Tika, Lakatakura, Sokodasa, Takazze-Selit and Tigray. Ilit and Bitama are not mutually intelligible and so may be considered distinct languages.

Though the Kunama people have their own ancient and past history and culture, we would like to mention some of it, beginning in the 19th century.

Under the Italian colonial era, the Italians and the Swedish missionaries introduced the western culture and religion (Christianity), in the Kunama communities and played important roles, particularly within the Kunama society in general.

The Italian missionaries introduced Catholicism, whereas the Swedish missionaries preached Protestantism, among the Kunama people.

These missionaries wrote many different books and made researches on the Kunama people, on their history and culture and made it known to the wider world.

But today, the international community, including governmental and non-governmental humanitarian organizations, are ignoring the discrimination, the injustices and the plights, the Kunama people are being subjected to, and the misery they are facing, in their native land, due to the oppressive policies of the present PFDJ’s regime.

The present plights of the Kunama people, are being ignored, not only by the international community, but also by those same Italian and Swedish missionaries.

Today, these two groups have become unable, or unwilling, to make even simple appeals, on behalf of the Kunama people.

The openly committed social mischief, the ever increasing confiscation of their native and ancestral land, the oppression.

The indiscriminate detentions, imprisonments and killings, the present PFDJ’s regime’s local authorities, are carrying out on the Kunama people, are being, either ignorantly or deliberately , overlooked, both by the missionaries and by the humanitarian organizations alike.

There is realization of such injustices upon the Kunama people, in their native land, even on the part of some individuals within the PFDJ’s regime itself, but even those individuals lack of civil-courage, to come out and confront the regime, on behalf of the Kunama people.

Some others, do acquiesce,in such injustices, by simply generalizing that the regime is using the same measures of injustices upon all Eritrean people, in the whole of Eritrea .

Today, under the current PFDJ’s regime, and in their own native and ancestral territory, the Kunama people are suffering much more intensively than under all other past Eritrean authorities, as the followings main areas of discrimination they are enduring will show:

1.- ethnic/racial discrimination;

2.- culturo-linguistic discrimination and oppression;

3.- economic discrimination;

4.- confiscation of the Kunama rural and of

5.- urban land, in the cities, like

Barentu (Biara), Bimbilna, Boshoka, Dokinbia, Shambakko, Tessenei (Sinai), Ugaro and in many other Kunama villages and countryside. Barentu, Biara, (white-water), in Kunama, Barentu/Barenku, (white-water), in Baria and Maitada/Maitzada, in Beni-Amer/Tigre languages,had been established, as a Kunama regional capital town and seat of the first Italian colonial administrator of the Kunama land, in 1937, and is known and has been kept as the Kunama regional capital town, ever since.

After the liberation of Eritrea , in 1991, the current PFDJ’s regime began its initial land confiscation, in the Kunama regional capital town itself.

In 1994, the PFDJ’s regime officially declared that land belonged to the State. Following that declaration, the regime’s local authorities began driving the Kunama people out of their residences in down town Biara, (Barentu).

The pretext the regime’s local authorities used to drive the Kunama out of their urban residences, was as follows:

1.- the claim that the land belonged to the State;

2.- that the city was not constructed under a master-plan;

3.- that the buildings were not constructed on the basis of the master plan, e.g. apartments, villas, services and so on;

4.- that anyone wishing to make such types of constructions, had to submit his/her bank account to the regime’s local authorities.

5.- that all new constructions in the town, had to be taxed, though the land belonged to the Kunama native owners;

6.- that any one below 40 years of age, had to complete first the national military service, before being allowed to get permission.

Hence any one who was not able to fulfill the above criteria was compelled to leave his/her area and such policy is persistent up to these very days.

A.- Social and economic discrimination and oppression:

the measures taken, by the regime’s local authorities,on the Kunama people, in Biara and in other Kunama towns:

1.- Those Kunama who had been living in areas where houses known as services were located, e.g. Tardoni and Jambukur, were ordered to, either urgently construct the types of houses they had been ordered to, or vacate the area, immediately.

2.- Those who had been living in Appartments and Villas, in areas like Auasa were ordered to dislodge and the regime’s authorities gave the land to top regime’s administrators, to the regime’s officials and to rich Tigrigngna investors.

Auasa, is an area where many Kunama people had been living for many years, but the regime’s local authorities pushed every one out of that place.

Those who had refused to leave that area, the municipality was called to go in and destroy their houses.

To those who had been pushed out of their apartments and villas, the regime’s officials gave smaller plots of land, after they had been ordered to pay taxation, and this, only to those who had completed the national military service, but yet, without being compensated for their previous pieces of land.

This type of unstructured rule is practiced only in the Kunama land and areas, especially in:

Biara, (Barentu),





Sinai, (Tessenei) and


Biara, (Barentu) and its outskirts are totally surrounded by military camps.

The areas of Prima-Kanteri or primo cantiere,Marafarata, Lausi, Duta, Gulul, Balak, Shilibo, which are small localities surrounding Biara (Barentu), have been turned into military camps.

The following table shows the names of those places, of their occupiers and what they are being used for.

Name of the place: Occupied by: Used for:

1 Prima-Kanteri operation 2 underground prison area

2 Marafarata division 74 military base

3 Lausi operation 2 military training camp

4 Duta operation 2 military police camp

5 Gulul operation 2 military hospital, police station
and underground prison.

6 Balak division 21 head office

7 Shilabo operation 2 administrative office

Land confiscation in other parts of the Kunama land:

The land confiscation is not limited only in Biara, (Barentu), but also in other parts of the Kunama land and in small villages, in particular and in the whole of the Kunama land, in general.

The Kunama people are being confiscated of their native and ancestral land, individually, communally, and ethnically, by the regional administrative offices, by the ranked military officials, and by the regime’s regional and local authorities.

During the Ethio-Eritrean 1998-2000 border-conflict, all inhabitants of Fode and of Anugulu, fled en-masse, to Ethiopia and are currently living in Shimelba refugee-camp, in the Ethiopian State of Tigray.

The villages of Anugulu and Fode are situated in two of the most fertile areas of the Kunama land, of which the Kunama are very proud.

Those fertile areas have now been confiscated, by the regime’s local authorities, and given to the former inhabitants of Addi-Bare, in the Badumma Plains, who have now been resettled in the villages of Anugulu and Fode.

The Kunama is a culturally knit society, which has very little or no cultural affinities with other Eritrean ethnic-groups.

Religiously, in the Kunama society, there are Christians:

Catholics and Protestants, as well as Muslims, but the majority of the Kunama rural population, are adherents of their traditional Kunama Belief, which has its origin from and based on Judaism.

The Kunama Belief is monotheistic, the doctrine that admits, venerates and adores, only one God, Anna.

In the Kunama traditional religious matters, there are a number of different places of worship, which are often frequented and where various traditional events are commemorated and practiced, at different times and occasions.

Such places are retained as holy ones, and highly respected by the Kunama society.

Today, those places have been completely turned into military camps, by the local authorities of the current regime.

The Kunama people, therefore are prevented from gathering in those places and performing the religious duties of their Traditional Belief.

Whenever the Kunama people do gather and attempt to fulfill their religious duties, the regime’s authorities use the occasion for detaining the Kunama boys and girls and conscripting them into the armed forces.

Hence the Kunama are being discouraged from gathering in those holy places of worship or of celebration, and therefore also forced to let their Traditional Belief and their religious duties and practices go extinct.

Tuka, is a widely-known Kunama traditional festivity, which encompasses several rituals, such as circumcisions of the Kunama girls, and so-known, “bringing into the Kunama cultural ways”, of the Kunama boys.

The event is celebrated accompanied and combined with recollections of the Kunama people’s bravados, and choreographed with young Kunama people, wearing the skins of different wild animals and covering their heads and faces with the heads of those animals and imitating the movements of those same animals.

The whole celebration has the dual meanings and purpose of pageantry and of entertainment, at the same time.

Other forms of the Kunama cultural elements too are recalled and performed during Tuka, of which celebrations, last almost a year around.

The main day of Tuka, which is held in a locality with the same name, and where the Kunama people from all over the Kunama land do gather and participate.

The popular Kunama dance, called anna or ukunda is danced all day long, in a joyous atmosphere, catalyzed by the abundant availability of aifa, the Kunama alcoholic drink which is freely served to all participants.

It is the responsibility and the task of the Kara or Karaua kinship, to call for, organize and run the Tuka, festivities.

In Kundura, traditional dances are performed by the Kunama young people, gathered in the village of Kona, from many other villages of the district, accompanied with the sound of horns, played by the young people themselves.

Cultural orientations, blessings and pieces of advice are given by the village’s elders, Kundura too has a dual purpose: cultural and religious.

Shatta, during the celebration of this cultural event, the young men, dance, wearing only local pants, which are, in fact forbidden, but they would instead deliberately wear, and challenge the Shatta manna or Shatta chief, an elderly man who would punish the culprits, whipping them on their naked upper-bodies.

The more the upper bodies of the young-men bleed, the more cheers do they get from their female admirers. Shatta is only a feast of display of endurance, courage and bravado.

Indoda, is a tradition held solely before the season of the major rainfall, where, following the pleas of the Kunama communities, the ngora manne or the chiefs of the rain,would accept gifts, in compensation for the prayers and supplications they elevate to Anna or God, for the rain to fall, for the protection of the crop-fields and harvest, and prevention of locusts, of other insects and of birds, damaging agriculture.

Sangga-nena, means bones-reconciler, and as such, those individuals are highly respected and their activities too, are highly appreciated and honored.

They use solely peaceful means to mediate and settle homicidal discords, between the culprit, murderer, and the innocent, parties.

This is a uniquely Kunama tradition, and which has no parallels in all of the other Eritrean different nationalities, and it is a Kunama traditional and cultural value which excludes and supersedes all forms of formal court procedures.

The PFDJ regime’s local authorities in the Kunama land, have been literally hunting those Kunama individuals, sangga-nene, and they have either detained and imprisoned them or forced them flee their native land and the country.

This is, not only an obvious discrimination, oppression and suppression of one of the highest and unique Kunama cultural values, but they are also very deliberate attempts to create conflicts and bring about unhealed and permanent divisions and hatred within Kunama communities and within the Kunama people as a whole.

Ana-ila the cutting of hair, is a ritual performed, when the young Kunama have reached a certain age and therefore are considered to be brought up and into adulthood. Until that time, the young Kunama, are known as gaishafna,the carriers of a distinctive hair-style, denoting adolescence.

Gathered by the various elders, from various villages, and accompanied by many of the young Kunama who have already gone through that ritual and are therefore known as amfura or young-adult, the gaishafna, are led to places called Agisha or Alai-sagila, and through training and tests, are brought up to adulthood, with which they drop also their gaishafna hair-style and status.

As pointed out previously, because the PFDJ’ regime’s authorities in the Kunama land, keep targeting such gathering of the Kunama people, to arrest and forcefully conscript the young Kunama into the armed-forces, such cultural events, celebrations and rituals are being forced to be abandoned.

These too are very deliberately coordinated activities, by the regime’s authorities, to oppress and suppress the Kunama people’s traditional and cultural values and force them into the regime’s ideologies.

Purposes of forcefully building a united Eritrean society, with the final aim of creating an Eritrean national identity, which fundamentally, and practically, is the imposition of, and therefore, it reflects the Eritrean-Tigrian ethnic-culture, and cultural values.

It is to be noted that these are also fundamental violations of the human and cultural rights of the Indigenous Peoples, in multi-ethnic, multi-culturo-linguistic and multi-religious countries and nations, like that of the Eritrean nation and society.

Though it is one of the prime inhabitants of Eritrea , today, the Kunama ethic-group and nationality is considered and looked down upon, as a second citizen, even in its own native and ancestral land.

As a proof of such rampant a violation of the native ethnic-groups’ territorial rights, let us point out that, as soon as the PFDJ’s regime assumed power in the independent Eritrea, it reshuffled the territories of the Eritrean different nationalities in general, but it literally dismembered the Kunama land.

With its new nomenclature of Gash-Barka region, which, by the way, are the imposed names of two rivers, one of which, Gash stands for the Kunama land. It is the name of the river that runs through the Kunama land and which is known to and called by the Kunama people as Sona.

The same river is called Mereb, in the highland Tigrian regions, but as it reaches the Kunama land, it is called Sona.

Similarly, the same river is known to and called, by the Sudanese, as Gash, as it reaches and dissipates itself in the Derudeb desert, in the Sudanese Kassala state.

Why then, has Gash become a synonymous of the Kunama land, is everyone’s guess.

Today, the Kunama land, has very arbitrarily been divided, by the PFDJ’s regime, into La-alai, (upper) and Tahatai, (lower) Gash.

Part of La-alai Gash, has been annexed to the neighboring Tigrigngna region of Serae, and another part of it to the Tigrigngna region of Hamasien, with which, traditionally, the Kunama land, had never shared its geographical borders.

With its general nomenclature of Gash-Barka, the PFDJ’s regime has created, in the Baria populations’ territory, lying between the Kunama territory and the Beni-Amer populations’ territory of Barka, geographically very disruptive and ethnically very volatile scenarios.

In order, for those populations to go back to their respective territories and live peacefully, with themselves and with their neighboring populations, as they used to do, in ancient times.

The present land divisions, names and land administrations, arbitrarily and unjustly conjured out by the present PFDJ’s regime of Ato Isaias Afworki, have to disappear with it own disappearance.

The southern geographical borders of the Kunama people’s ethnic land from east to west, have very specifically and clearly been spelled out by EEBC, Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission which stated that, the south-western sector of the Cunama territory begins at Khor Om Hagar.

At the Sudanese border and extends to the junction of the Mareb and the Mai Ambesa.

In the south-eastern sector of the Cunama territory, the Commission determines that the eastern border of the Kunama territory between the Setit and the Mareb coincides with the classical signature of the border as marked on the maps.

Though the traditional geographical borders of the Kunama territory, in north-eastern and north-western sectors are clearly known to and defined by the Kunama populations.

Inhabiting those areas, the present PFDJ’s regime had the audacity to cut, the Kunama territory bordering with the Sudan, delimiting, defining and giving it to Tigre without specifying why, and who those Tigre populations, today inhabiting those Kunama areas are, for, the adjective/qualifier Tigre.

Itself is understood and properly applied to, only by those populations and folk-groups, which do know that they speak one and the same, so-called Tigre language, but yet, they do actually know that they are populations of different ethnic origins, at times confronted with unidentified territorial delimitations and therefore encountering problems of rightful settlements.

After the independence of the Eritrean state, the regime, started providing different settlement sites, in the Kunama land, where, mostly Tigrians refugees, returning from The Sudan, were settled.

Those Tigrians were very purposefully settled, mostly in the vast and fertile areas of Gulluj, in the Kunama Tika region, and in other similar localities, in the neighboring Kunama Aimasa region.

Technically speaking, those Tigrians and other not-native settlers in the Kunama land, are still refugees, but in their own native country.

After the Ethio-Eritrean 1998-2000 border conflict, many Kunama ethnic-members fled to the neighboring Ethiopian State of Tigray.

Due to that motive, increased discrimination, flagrant abuses and all kinds of injustices, were exercised, by the regime’s local authorities, upon the remaining Kunama ethnic-members.

Many educated Kunama, intellectuals, ordinary Kunama ethnic-members, men, women, boys, girls, farmers, shepherds, old and young people were hunted, jailed, tortured, and killed, accused of a petty reasons and false accusations, such as Kunama people supporting and helping the Ethiopian government.

Many of those Kunama who had fled to Ethiopia and many of those still living at home, are often being accused of supporting and helping the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama, (DMLEK) and subjected to indiscriminate and continuous spying activities, persecutions, detentions, imprisonment, torture, killings and disappearances.

Today, the Kunama is being hunted, by the regime’s authorities in the Kunama land, individually, collectively and as members of an ethnic-group, which, in their eyes, is to be systematically ethnic-cleansed.

The fact that the US government has opened its doors, for the resettlement of the Kunama refugees in the USA, following the open persecution they are being subjected to, by the PFDJ’s regime, at home and also in their refugee-camps, in Ethiopia, is being defined, by the Eritrean regime’s officials, like Ato Kahsay Berhe, the ex-governor of the Gash-Barka region, as Kunama being.

This is only a frustrated reaction, resulting from the grudges the PFDJ’s regime and its officials, bear to the US government, accusing the present Eritrean PFDJ’s regime of being a disruptive force, and a spoiler of peace in the Horn of Africa.

Tourism Observer

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