In Memoriam: Milkias M. Yohannes as a Quintessence of the ‘Eritrean Spring of Free Press’

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Last Friday (26.03.2021), we heard an obituary of a dear friend, a champion of his type, the indomitable Milkias Mihreteab Yohannes, Co-founder and Former Editor-in-Chief of Keste-Debena (a banned Eritrean newspaper).

He died in the United States at the age of 51 due to bad health with which he has been grappling since July of last year. His untimely departure has sent shockwaves in the transnational Eritrean diaspora communities. As we mourn his death, we also pay tribute to his stellar contribution to the ideals of a free and open society, for which he will be remembered for generations.

Among close friends, Milkais was passionately known as Abuye and/or Masterie/ማስተሬ. Both are Amharic words, denoting his Shegerian background. Born in Asmara, he was raised in Addis Ababa, Sheger. Masterie is a rendition of “My Master,” while Abuye may more or less mean an older brother. He would call anyone whom he considers a fiend. Masterie. It ended up becoming, probably his most known nickname. In that context, he would also call a friend, “Master Chang Ling!” – supposedly inspired by his childhood memories of martial arts movies of Chinese origin. That is why some of his friends also teased him by calling: “The Great Master.” For those who know his stellar contribution to the short-lived “Spring of the Eritrean Free Press,” it was a befitting nickname.

I have known him since 1993, when we meet for the first time at the University of Asmara as third year law students. For one year, we shared an overcrowded student dormitory, then known as Dogali Dormitory in front of the university’s main cafeteria. Habteab Yemane and Dawit Araya (Sheki) are among several others who shared the same dormitory with him and me.

During his time as Editor-in-Chief of Keste-Debena, he was known for his solid criticism of government policy and practice, by which reason he has been imprisoned multiple times, fleeing the country in 2001, shortly before the closure of all private newspapers of the day and the unlawful imprisonment of their writers and editors. Some of the persecutory experience he went through before fleeing the country was most recently retold by another former journalist of the free press, Akheder Ahmedin.

Since October 2001, he was living in the United States. His arrival in the Washington Metropolitan Area was met with a great shock and disbelief. At the time, unlike now, the area was the strongest bastion of supporters and apologists (mostly confused zombies) of the Eritrean regime from whom he has fled miraculously. His life in exile, like many of us, was understandably full of challenges, not to mention the perennial anxiety of “conditional belonging,” in which one is torn apart between a struggle of “integrating fully” in their “newly found home” and the ever-lasting aspiration of going back home for good.

Out of many, Masterie will be remembered for generations for the opinion pieces he wrote under his assumed name of Ateshim Gonets. A question I always wanted to ask him, which I didn’t, was: how he chose the second part of the pseudonym (Gonets). In spite of his Shegerian background, his mastery of the Tigrinya language was exceptional. In fact, I wish this tribute were written in Tigrinya, the language in which I dream and do most of my deeper thought processes, especially in a time like this. By writing it in English, I hope I am doing Masterie a small favour, by re-telling his living legacy more widely (albeit incomplete). I am sure there are others who may know Masterie better than I do, but I hope that this brief reflection may help in generating an idea for a gradual documentation of the momentous legacy he has left with us. On the same day I read his obituary, I also learned about the launch of a new initiative by PEN Eritrea, a “soon-to-be digital archive” of Eritrea’s banned private newspapers. How I wish Masterie knew this before his untimely departure.

In terms of his commitment to the ideals of a free and open society, Masterie was way beyond his time. As is the case with many other such thinkers, oftentimes he was misunderstood by many, but highly regarded by his breed of free thinkers. His life will continue to inspire us, by serving as a recurrent reminder of one of the quintessential lessons of the human experience: the moment you start speaking truth to power you should be ready to pay heavy sacrifices.

Masterie’s life was unmistakably marked by a Shegerian way of life and exceptional sense of humour. He would crack a killer joke even from his own most depressing situation, a trait, I would stay, is not very common in many people. I remember how he once made a witty remark of circumstances related to his own detention without trial at the notorious Sixth Police Station.

At personal level, other than my friendship with Masterie, I also have a very strong attachment to Keste-Debena, it being the first newspaper in which I was introduced in 1999 to the wonderful world of writing (in its public sense) and eventually also to activism. I owe my foundational years of maturity in public intellectualism (which is still a work-in-progress) to Keste-Debena and the people behind it, Masterie being one of them. We will preserve his legacy.

Michael G. Andegeorgis, the Former Director of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS), a true friend who stood by Masterie up to the eleventh hour, describes Masterie as a person of extraordinarily beautiful soul. For those who want to help, Michael and his family have set up a “go fund me” link to cater for funeral and memorial expenses.

Rest In Power Masterie!

29.03.2021

(Photo credit: Alex T. Foto)