A Long Love Story of Solidarity
by Billion Temesghen
While transcribing the interview I conducted with Dr. Toni Locher, founder of SUKE (Swiss Support Committee for Eritrea), I couldn’t stop my eyes from tearing up. What a history we have and what a friend and partner SUKE has been to the Eritrean struggle and nation. On the 40th anniversary of SUKE, comrade and compatriot Dr. Toni Locher shares his memories.
-I know you started when you were really young. Can you please take us back to those days?
Back then, in the 70s, I was probably 19 or 20 years old and I was in contact with many liberation movements such as the ANC in South Africa and the ex-Portuguese colonies. So I was very much engaged with solidarity groups.
-As a European, why were you interested in these struggles?
I was born in the southern highlands of Switzerland from a farmer family, and traditionally the first male born has to dedicate himself to God. Because those communities were poor, the only way for us to be educated was to be clerics, priests, or missionaries. Therefore, while growing up we were very close to the church and also to cleric missionaries who worked in Africa. They showed us pictures they’d bring back from their trips to Africa and as a result, I became very interested in Africa and also the liberation movements there.
In Zurich in 1968, there was this very famous student movement called the 68 Student Movement. As the so-called “tiers-mondistes”, which means the youngsters interested in the third world, we advocated for the liberation of people under colonization.
Once the liberation organizations in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique succeeded, they started acting as if they had forgotten about their struggles. Our contact with those movements eventually lessened as they began living lavishly.
I was also a delegate of a worldwide Christian student movement and, in 1971, participated in a conference of this union in Addis Ababa. At a reception with Emperor Haile Selassie, we learned that there were many Eritrean youngsters who opposed his rule in Eritrea. What impressed me greatly was that many of them were working as taxi drivers and giving as much as 70% of their income to the liberation front, which was only the ELF at that time.
From 1971 to 1977, I was in contact with both the ELF and EPLF, as well as its offices and members across Europe. And then finally in 1977 I came to Eritrea to visit the field and the liberated areas. My first trip to Sahel!
-How was your trip?
Very impressive, which is why I stood with the EPLF. When comparing the struggles of Southern Africa and the rest of the world, I found that of the EPLF to be incredibly rare. It did not depend on the Soviet Union or any world powers. If anything, the EPLF was actually being suppressed by the Western-backed Ethiopia. It was completely autonomous and self-reliant; an independent movement that had the attention of many young Europeans. We loved the EPLF because at that time we were critical of the Soviet Union and cheering for the Chinese socialism model.
So when I first came I was surprised to see these youngsters making history on their own with the unconditional love and support of their people. Since then I have come to Eritrea almost every year.
-Any anecdotes from your first time in Eritrea?
In July 1977, I met Sebhat Efrem, now the Minister of Mining and Energy, and we went from Afabet to Keren, making it just in time to celebrate the liberation of Keren. It was a wonderful time!
Then Sebhat and I came to the outskirts of Asmara through Elabered and watched the city from a small hill in Zager, a very famous village in the struggle’s history. Back then the EPLF was just a few steps away from liberating the entire country, but then the Soviets came to assist the Derg, and we headed back to our stronghold strong in Sahel. I was there and witnessed it all.
-Can you tell us about SUKE?
We founded SUKE in October 1977 upon my return from Eritrea. We were highly interested in humanitarian matters because after the withdrawal, things got harder for the Eritrean people. The EPLF was doing its best to assist the people in terms of education, medication, and food, and we decided to help as well. As famine devastated Ethiopia in 1984 to 1985, things were a lot better here due to the front’s active role. At the time, SUKE was a part of the efforts to create the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) in Europe. The ERA was a branch of the EPLF and had offices in Himbol and in Europe. As such, SUKE was working in partnership with ERA. Freedom fighters and Eritreans in the diaspora raised funds for civilian humanitarian relief purposes and delivered them to those in need.
In 1980, we had to transport relief goods, including lots of sewing machines, to the field. We took two big trucks and drove all the way to the Mediterranean from Germany, loaded them and ourselves on a ship to Alexandria, Egypt, and then drove through the Egyptian Nubian Desert to Port-Sudan, which was the gateway to the field and liberated areas. It was one of the most spectacular memories of SUKE members and a symbolic gesture of solidarity amongst two peoples. We actually attracted the attention of several European media outlets who covered our story.
I also remember the 25 km-long underground hospital of Orota. I worked closely with Dr. Abrehet, who was a gynecologist as I am, and the only one in the field. Do you know that they had their own pharmacy producing all sorts of pills? It was a massive underground factory. The withdrawal reinforced the need for self-reliance and almost all of the medical issues were solved by the front itself.
I also remember the Second EPLF Congress in 1978. Another very special memory would be my wedding in the field.
-No way! You had the tegadelti ‘I do’?!
Yes, I did! In 1988, my first wife and I went to Era and tied the knot in the field, according to the EPLF standard. It was so special because I connected with my Eritrean self. It was my most emotional and symbolic gesture of solidarity with my Eritrean people. We were even dressed as lowlanders.
-What happened with SUKE after independence?
After independence our projects shifted to meet the national development plan. We are not an NGO, as I don’t believe in such organization but we are more of a solidarity group. We actually support or assist development projects that Eritrea asks for such as the construction of dams such as the Semomo dam near Adi Quala, schools for disabled children, solar energy installation, and support for war veterans to start small businesses as well as village development as in Tekombia. It was impressive to see how veterans were not secluded from the society. The respect and love the Eritrean people has for its freedom fighters is incredible.
-What are SUKE’s plans for the future?
SUKE and its members have been around for 40 years, and now our focus is to reorganize and recruit young members. Many young people of the Diaspora support our cause, so that is the next step for us. We are also interested in cultural exchanges between Eritrean and Swiss people. I recently spoke with members of an Asmara-based music group, and as we speak there is a shipment on its way carrying pianos for the Music School and two other musical associations. Meanwhile some projects are finished and self-reliant while others are still ongoing.
-What do you think about Eritrea’s national development?
Eritrea was doing so well until the TPLF aggression, and when the sanctions followed, it became a secluded nation. The perception the world has about us has slowed down the development stride. It has been difficult for the people and many youngsters leave the country, which I am very sorry to see.
But I know that this difficult period is almost over. The Eritrean history is not a history of withdrawal, it is one of strategic withdrawals. Getting up and moving forward is our strength. It has been hard on the people, especially the youngsters, but sooner or later Eritrea will enjoy a lasting and sustainable development.
-Congratulations on SUKE’s 40th anniversary!
Thank you! We have been in unity with the Eritrean people for 40 years and I am exceedingly grateful. It is an honor to be part of the greatest history of the world. I am a proud Swiss-Eritrean!