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  • Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors, and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora
  • David Bozzini (bio)
Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors, and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora, by Tricia Redeker Hepner Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009; pp. 249. $55 cloth/$22.50 paper.

Over the last decade, the Eritrean police state has practiced blatant repression, even to the extent of eating "its own children," as the famous expression sadly goes. In short, government purges sweep national heroes and loyalists from the party-state leadership, and ordinary citizens and National Service members are subjected to arbitrary violence. Tricia Redeker Hepner witnessed such events while carrying out fieldwork research in Eritrea in 2001; thereafter, she followed the echoes and reverberations of the government's increasingly repressive politics within the Eritrean diaspora in the United States. [End Page 141]

The result of her research is an impressive study of the social history of Eritrean political dynamics that roots the current Eritrean political situation in the transnational history of the country's nation-building process over the last four decades. Hepner's book revolves particularly around the various contributions made by the Eritrean diaspora to the struggle for independence and its attempts to participate in postindependence governance and reconstruction (xii). Hepner builds her arguments around the extensive contemporary debates and the conceptual framework of political transnationalism, reminding us that Eritrea comprises an exemplary case of the transnational nation-state. The author's objective in exploring the complexity of Eritrean political transnationalism is to elucidate its ambivalent dimensions. Along these lines, Hepner convincingly demonstrates "the contradictory nature of transnationalism as both an emancipating and repressive force" (104). This represents a major contribution to the theory of transnational political processes.

The author skillfully traces the uncertainties, the mistrust, and the conflicts that shape the rugged terrain of Eritrean politics. As she puts it at the beginning of the book, "The contemporary dilemmas associated with transnational political struggle and the encounter between territorial nationalism and globally constructed models of political and social power" (xiii) represent her main concern. More precisely, she recounts the major conflicts and tensions over identity, nationalism, and the various political agendas of the armed movements, particularly the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPFL), and the different groups scattered across Eritrea and the United States during the historical evolution of the struggle for independence and the building of the independent state. In highlighting the significant internal heterogeneity of these organizations, Hepner also provides a timely analysis of the unceasing cycles of consolidation and disintegration of the major historical political factions, including the current ruling party.

Based on a variety of sources, including ethnographic accounts and the fruits of archival research, this study navigates a sophisticated blend of microhistories and global processes. Here, multisited research perspectives truly reveal the heuristic potential of transnational studies to explain long-lasting sociopolitical processes. This well-written and touching book clarifies historical legacies, continuities, and transformations, as well as the emergence of new processes. But at the same time, Hepner avoids the [End Page 142] common trap of overemphasizing connections at the expense of the ruptures and cracks also present in these processes.

Hepner's narrative is chronological: the six chapters of her book provide an analysis of crucial political events that occurred between the 1970s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. The author, thus, takes up the challenge of drawing continuities and ruptures across four discrete periods: the various stages of the armed struggle for Eritrean independence; the immediate postindependence period, marked by euphoric state-building processes, the EPLF's accession to power, and its transformation into the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ); the Ethio-Eritrean War (1998-2000); and finally the current postwar political descent into repression and violence. The chapters are extensively documented with rich ethnographic and archival materials that pull the reader close to the reality that is being analyzed. The author's careful and well-balanced analyses of these materials allow her to explain the various subjective political positions and "different interpretations of the past and present" (xiii) that are necessary to unveil the multifarious and ceaseless tensions occurring among...


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