…Instead of not throwing stones, I try to throw stones in pairs. For every one I throw at someone else’s glass house, I try to throw one at the equivalent place on my house.
. ..By throwing stones at my house, I discover the weaker windows, places where there is room for improvement and therefore where I need to do some home repair and remodeling. Throwing stones at other people’s glass houses, I express the value I place on my fallible yet evolving, improvable and improving powers of judgment. By pairing the stones aimed at their houses with stones aimed at mine, I actively devalue my natural, inevitable but limiting and limitable self-serving double standards. At least that is the goal, my formula for speaking my mind not obnoxiously.
…I could employ an under-the-radar double standard whereby I throw boulders at other people’s glass and padded pebbles at mine, saying for example that I make the same mistakes too but citing the most trivial examples. [But] out-maneuvering one’s inner weasel is hard work, requiring vigilance because one’s inner-weasel offers to take over, saying “leave the vigilance to me,” the inner-weasel guarding inner-weasel encroachment, the fox watching the hen house. (Dr. Jeremy Sherman)
This narrative is a continuation of the “Era of Chaos”. There are events that should not be forgotten or omitted otherwise a narrative, a story or history without them remains incomplete. How can one forget or omit the American GIs in Eritrea; the Israeli trained commandos; the genocide and complete destruction of Ona and as we say Zemene Kiflitat? If the “Era of Chaos” was seen by the childish eyes of the narrator, the present narration was seen through the eyes of a young student in his formative years thus relatively mature. So please bear with my style of narration which I confess is a product of me as I am a product of the ragged and jagged highland called Kebesa.
…….The sound of the bullet also shook the king and his empire to its foundation. He was not a coward but he was not prepared either. He believed the people of Eritrea would not rebel because he knew the history of the people. He went offensive in no time, politically, diplomatically and militarily. He started sending career and conscript army to Eritrea, brainwashing them with religious prejudices. He told them Eritrean Christians had nothing to do with the revolt. He said it was the Moslems who wanted to sell Eritrea to the Arabs who were rebelling. His army was a ragtag army and they really believed him.
As soon as they arrive in Eritrea they rabidly started asking “Where are the Arabs?” and people responded “Indii” which means “We don’t know”. The conscripts were the worst. They wanted to be recognized as the firsts to capture an Arab. They were asking anybody they saw and met not excluding five years old kids. But the kids also replied “Indii” and run because their mother and all neighborhood women primed them to run away if approached by the Ethiopians. The older soldiers already knew what they suspected. It was a ploy with no merit. They might have believed their king before they arrived in Eritrea but as soon as they saw the people they erased their suspicion. They were older, wiser and already tested in Korea and Congo. They knew how the king himself coned the rightful heir to the throne and became king himself. But they were also afraid of the conscripts for some of them were conspicuously hungry for titles and piece of land and would do anything to further their interest and quicken their rewards. So the older soldiers remained concerned for they did not want to harm any Eritrean for they were men of faith. The woman, as always, noticed the difference between the young conscripts and the older soldiers and advised her sons not to harm the innocent older soldiers.
The woman was not keen to learning foreign languages but she was not restrictive to the men or boys who wanted to learn other languages and to the girls who made their living working for foreigners. She would not hesitate to mock the men, boys or the maids if they flaunted their newly acquired language and would always prohibit anyone using any foreign language in her home. The exception was the English language which she associated with education.
From the beginning she detested the Ethiopian national language. She associated it with a culture of stealing, violence and usurpation. She forbade its learning and usage by anyone she knew. And she knew everyone. For everyone knew her determination and was afraid of her persistent nagging and stern face, no one dared use the language in her presence. And only few managed to master it and mostly were either who dreamed of government job or people of questionable national integrity.
The highland woman called the liberation front “Gedli” meaning struggle and to those who started the front “Tegadelti” meaning strugglers. She used the same word she used to describe her life, unremitting and hard. She had to struggle her whole life and no one was a better witness than herself.
Like she added prayer to all school children and adults to succeed in their education; now she also added a line in her long list of prayers for the success of the strugglers in their quest for freedom and independence.
The king was not idle either. When he saw the people’s resistance to the Ethiopian language he passed a law that all subjects in school be taught in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. But who was going to teach when no Eritrean could speak the language? The only option the king had was to send Ethiopian teachers to Eritrea leaving his vast but poor country without teachers. When he realized his folly he passed a law that no Eritrean can become a teacher unless he or she mastered Amharic. Teachers had no choice but to take crash course in Amharic. But because they were studying it halfheartedly no one mastered the language. The teachers were also mocked by their students inside classrooms and the women outside the school. The king even tried to utilize army officers to teach but had to abandon the idea because he needed them for military missions and was rightfully afraid that teaching might distract them from their primary duties and responsibilities. At last the king was adamant in his beliefs and passed a low that anyone who failed the Amharic language could not be accepted in the only university. Due to this unfair law many bright students were denied university education and had no choice but to join the strugglers for independence.
The attitude of the Eritrean people towards the imperial flag also maddened the king. The people were changed forever when the first and only flag they created and knew was unlawfully taken away never to fly and never to be seen again. They took the action as insulting, belittling and theft. Everyone remembered the day the flag was forbidden to fly. They just said “That day” and they passed the story and history of the flag for they did not know when the flag would fly again even though they were prepared for the journey. In their casual talks they repeated a myth about the strugglers flying the flag in the areas they roam and control. The myth slowly became nostalgia and then romantic and finally obsession. Everyone could not wait to see the flag from the strugglers especially the women who named it “Ita Tsibkti”, meaning “That beautiful”.
The people were not showing solemn respect to the Ethiopian flag when it was raised or lowered accompanied by the Ethiopian anthem. So another law was passed that whoever did not stand still and preferably akimbo during the flag ceremonies to be beaten, arrested and taken to jail. As a consequence the jails were filled in no time with old men and young boys who never knew why they were jailed for they did not know of any law concerning the flag ceremony.
The women were defiant but also did not know of any law that prohibited them from walking during the flag ceremony. But thanks to the older and wiser Ethiopian military personnel they were reprieved from beatings or imprisonment. This did not mean there were no incidents of conscripts beating women but many women retaliated by spraying red hot pepper powder in their eyes and left them screaming and cursing to the delight of the onlookers.
“When are they coming?” “When are we going to see Izom Tsubukat dekina (our beautiful children)?” were also the most anticipated questions from the urban women. The urban men on the other hand seemed depressed and afraid. Some even uttered “Kilikumuna Iyom izom awedat”, meaning “the boys are going to jeopardize our life”. Every time the words were uttered the women responded “Kem atom gida sire zeitiatku” meaning “why don’t you wear pants like them” a reply that could better be described as questioning the men’s masculinity.
The women were always curious. But now they became extraordinarily curious. It is not even exaggeration to say Eritrean woman is created to be curious like some wise people reiterated; curiosity is imprinted in her genes. But no one knew for sure if it was curiosity or anxiety that disturbed the woman. The struggle started to be filled not by old and wise men but by city and town boys, the very boys she singlehandedly and communally with other women nurtured and rose. She was worried whether she equipped the boys with the right stuff they needed to struggle and survive; whether the boys would follow her advices. She was always hopeful person but she never relied on it. She was a believer in hard work and used hope only as supplement. In the cities and towns she mothered her boys beyond what was necessary. She was persistent and relentless in her nurturing. She raised them not to mimic the weak men she saw and observed. She persistently encouraged them to be men of principle, values and peace. But ones the boys left and were on their own she did not have control over their doings. It could be because she knew boy’s weaknesses by instinct or it could also be the stigma she feared her whole life if her boys turn out not to be good. She did not fear of their eminent death for she buried many of her babies. In short she did not want them to sacrifice principle for power for she witnessed what men could do to acquire power and what they did ones they got power. Deep in her heart she wanted them to do what she did her whole life: to be decent and to fulfill their duties without complaining; to earn respect; to love unity, peace and harmony and to be fair with everyone. She wanted them to remember every advice and admonitions she inculcated in their mind. Every night she would not go to bed without praying for them. She also prayed to God not to take her before seeing them.
She was also the first one to hear any information on the activities of the strugglers. She received almost accurate information from far villages, close to where the strugglers roam from trusted witnesses, village women. The women there always made sure that other women and in particular city and town women receive the news. City and town women preferred eye witnessed news they would also sublimely send enquiries about what the strugglers eat; what they wear; how they looked; how they behaved; were they respectful; their attitude towards others; whether they looked hungry; whether they misused their weapons and many more. The women’s’ heartbeats went up and down with the news they heard; with good news they became elated and were not afraid to tell and flaunt it; with bad news they became depressed but they hid it. The women were so into it, one could not separate them from the struggle and the strugglers.
One day she received news on the amount of stuff they carried in their emaciated body, their rations, bullets, guns and tree leaves for camouflage. She was hit with delight and sorrow at the same time. She was sad to hear they were not fed well but she was delighted about the load they carried without complaint. The later reminded her of herself: the mother of burden. She was proud her son did not abhor burden like the men she knew. It was also an indication of his determination to carry any burden that comes by in his journey. She even blurted a taboo: “He is my son after all” instead of the customary “He is the son of his father”. As for his emaciated body she dreamt of one day that she would be able to feed him but for then she prayed to her God not to forget her sons of their daily bread.
The king was in a high gear drunk with power for money and weaponry started to flood his country from the USA and US satellites countries. He also got military trainers and advisors who taught him of the importance of numerical superiority in battles and wars. Heeding to their advice he ordered more military personnel to be deployed in Eritrea until the ratio became ten thousands to one.
Processes that started right rarely fail as processes that started wrong rarely succeed. The Eritrean men who volunteered to carry arms and sacrifice for their country and people also understood it would not be a smooth journey. From the start they were ready for the journey. All those who started the armed struggle were village young men. They were raised and nurtured by village culture that demanded foresight, patience, resilience and sacrifice. They also had an insurmountable ally: women.
None of them had high education as opposed to those who volunteered to lead the political and diplomatic wing of the struggle but who resided outside of Eritrea. Aside their education they were also village men who were selected by the British for higher education in Cairo, Beirut and Lebanon.
None of them had any ideological inclination. Their plan was as simple as the life they knew. Their plan and its program emanated from their heart. They were drilled in childhood to trust their heart and not their mind. Wisdom was closely attached to what comes from the heart. “Libi yeblun” meaning “he does not have heart” was meant to be foolish (as opposed to cruel) and irresponsible and everyone would try to avoid the insult.
Simple things work and are beautiful. Clarity is the main ingredient in simplicity. Nature is simple and beautiful. Those who avoid simplicity are foolish because they rely on their mind and not their heart. There is no simplicity in complex ideas even though it is a mistake to say there is no complexity in simple ideas. Simple ideas are understood by all. People always liked what they understood. Simple things and ideas always create faithful followers. It is also wrong to complicate simple ideas because complexity does not add value.
Guided and assisted by simplicity (the only thing they knew), the strugglers described their intent and mission in few but clear messages. They repeatedly said “we are struggling to make Eritrea independent and its people free”. No one pressed them to explain in detail because both the people who received the message and the strugglers who delivered the message had one heart. What came from the strugglers’ heart was immediately accepted by the people’s heart.
The first mission of the Ethiopian soldiers was to find, capture and hang the strugglers. And every time they went for that mission they came back empty handed, tired and exasperated. No one told them the number of the strugglers but they deduced the number themselves from their own number. They thought they at least numbered half their number. Some soldiers even started myth that the strugglers were like shadows and fairies: then you saw them, and then you didn’t.
It is always difficult to fight in other people’s land let alone as a foe, even as a friend. Everything in that land looks and feels strange, menacing and unwelcoming. No matter how long you stay, you will never feel as comfortable as in your land. The Eritrean strugglers were in their land, surrounded by familiar landscape and its entire elements chief among them the people. In your land no one will be willing to hand you to the enemy. Every one contributes to your protection and survival because without you their existence changes meaning and destiny as your destiny and meaning changes in other people’s land. Village people led by the woman, the Monk and the Sheik, the graves of the ancestors, herding dogs and house cats, monkeys of the plateau, birds of the sky, snakes of the grass, lizards of the rock, Hyenas of the night, frogs of down, fire flies of darkness, leaves of palm trees, waters of the river, sand of the desert, the sun, moon and stars of the sky, shadows of the mountains, trails and tracks of hills and echoes of rift valleys, all in unity try to shield and protect you from any harm. Even mosquitoes seem to harm the foe more than the people of its land. And that was exactly what they did to the strugglers in Eritrea. Those elements won’t stop only at doing that. They will also try to scare and confuse the foe. The bird will violently flap its wings, the snake will prepare its fangs, the sun will hide behind clouds, the moon and starts will dim their light, the shadows will come and go like a pendulum, the echoes will sound loud, the dogs will howl, the hyenas will laugh, the lizards will shake their necks, and the cat will angrily meow signs to confuse the enemy but at the same time to give signals to its children to run or to fight whichever the situation calls for. When the Ethiopian soldiers likened the strugglers to shadows they were not far from telling the truth they felt in their heart. Italian soldiers must have felt the same when they invaded Ethiopia.
The king was disappointed with the news he was getting. But his reaction was more disappointing than his disappointment for he ordered more missions with more soldiers that again and again failed to quash the strugglers.
All kings think big because they think they are big. Kings would not even accept small failure for they think it belittles their bigness. A small failure is shameful for a king. For a king success or failure must be seismically big to be flaunted and registered in history for everyone to see and read. Albeit his physical smallness, the king of Ethiopia was like all other kings: big dreamer and big planner.
The US was also not a passive partner to Ethiopia and its emperor. They assisted him militarily, monetarily and morally. Big powers do not assist without getting rewards. Their assistance was always pittance to what they gained. In a way, big powers resembled kings in their desires and thoughts. They always think big and are never satisfied with small gains. One would correctly say “That’s why they are called big or super powers”.
Americans demanded a military base in Eritrea and got it. The king had misgivings for they did not choose Ethiopia but again he was massively shrewd and put conditions for the Americans: not to invest in anything in Eritrea. Instead he demanded that he be paid for the service instead of the rightful dwellers whose land would be used by the unwelcomed and uninvited foreigners.
Americans always arrive in fanfare and showmanship for good things or bad things. They would not share what they had with others except weapons. They chose Asmara as the center of their command and built their own military base in a prime area of the city. They would have easily took and improve the fort built by the Italians. But Americans did not trust things they did not built themselves partly due to arrogance and partly due to disdain developed during their lengthy isolation.
Whereas the Italians built lasting structures using natural ingredients and using their own God given hands, the Americans brought fabricated houses from their country and installed them in the base. They named the base Kagnew station for reasons only they knew. Except for the few lucky gardeners and chefs no local was allowed inside the station which was heavily guarded twenty four hours. Only few Americans used facilities outside the base otherwise they lived their own lives like hermits and no one knew how or why.
The highland people were curious people. Their curiosity was also mildly spiced with suspicions. The women had hard time with the Americans’ life and she was the one who said “They are like hermits”. Some men who knew her susceptibility added fire to her glowing curiosity by saying “Americans have dug tunnels for the devil to use” and in no time the women started associating the Americans with the devil. “That is why they don’t let anyone in the base” became the most heard argument concerning the Americans. Her physical descriptions of the Americans were direct, objective and simple. “Americawyan kem imba gezefti iyom” meaning Americans are big like the mountains; “makina America gezefti iyen” meaning American cars are big. But her behavioral description of the Americans who she never came close with, were bizarre and naive. “amerikawyan tsululat” meaning Americans are crazy; “kuwankom aisman iyu” meaning no one can understand their language; “amerikawyan a-iruk seitan iyom”, meaning Americans are friends of the devil.
The Americans installed radar dishes on the outskirt of Asmara. The reaction toward the radars was divided gender wise. The men just said “izi om kiketluna iyom gelemele amtsi om” meaning the Americans brought these things to kill us and walked far away from the radar installations. To this comment the women replied “intay gernayom iyom ziketluna?” meaning what wrong did we do for them to kill us? And walked just close to the fence of the installation and occasionally stopped to see what the dishes were and what their function was and said “Tikmi khuluwen alowo imber aimtekeluwon” meaning unless they have uses the Americans would not have installed them. The women called the radar dishes “shehani” meaning plate, after the plates she served food for her guests. She also used them as directional references to village people who wanted to visit her in the city, like “when you see the plates, you are close to the city”. The color of the dishes might also have positive impression on her for she madly loved anything white. Her curiosity was never answered because no local knew the purpose of the radars until late.
The cars the Americans brought and drove were big comparing to those cars brought and driven by the Italians. American cars were big because the Americans who drove them were big. The Americans were big because they were marines. No one knew whether they were big because they were marines or they were marines because they were big. The Americans also came in black and white, the blacks slightly bigger than the whites but both much bigger than any Eritrean in the land.
The Americans did not leave permanent impression on the women for they never interacted with anybody but American. They were much disciplined and meticulously dressed in military attires than the British or the Italian soldiers. They never interfered in people’s lives because their mission prohibited them from any interactions. Except the FM radio station they installed for their joy and benefit they did not built anything for their legacy or for the locals to use.
If the men and women did not remember the Americans for any achievement, city boys and girls always remembered them for introducing them to western music. Every city boy and girl romantically remembered Wolf man Jack and his voice. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Three dog nights, the young rascals, Jackson five, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Eta Jones, and Marvin Gay became house hold names. Women started to mock their children by saying “Dekei musica tsululat iyom zisem u” meaning my children are listening to crazy music.
The monks were not happy with the phenomenon and completely disagreed with the women’s light assessment (the monks called it negligence) towards what the monks called “musica seitan” meaning devil’s music. The monks sternly admonished the women and indoctrinated the women to banish American music from their home.
In Eritrea, women loved and understood music more than the men, including the monks who day in day out praised God in hymnals using drums and cymbals. The women’s attitude towards the American music was neutral at best. They knew any music was harmless. They were also sure their boys did not understand the words only the lyrics and tunes of the music. Even older women seemed to like Aretha Franklin’s r-e-s-p-e-c-t and Spanish Harlem by saying “Aye dimtsa kitiim” meaning she has a sweet sound. They also liked Tom Jones’s “She is a lady” but only after they asked the meaning of it. To Dylan’s songs they said “Intay de a woriduo neti afinchi u”, meaning what happened to his nose. They did not like Jimmy Hendricks’s music and said “Izi nai Tsululat Iyu” meaning this is crazy people’s music. To Michael Jackson’s songs they said “Meskin kola, ade do yeblun iu ziderf” meaning pity boy is he singing because he is an orphan without mother? As for Janis Joplin they just said “wechachit” meaning a screamer.
Elvis Presley had influenced so many people around the world. So do the Beatles. In Eritrea the name Elvis had evolved into many grammatical branches, it ceased being a name. “Elvisu” means he became Elvis. “Aitalves” means do not be chic. “Elvis temer ia” means she married a handsome man. These idioms did not die with the death of Elvis. They continued until this day.
The main beneficiary of the Beatle mania was a business man called Alem Meharena. He sold in the tens of thousands of turtlenecks and became the richest man in the poor country.
American music also influenced the hairdo of city boys. Those who had soft hair mimicked Elvis. Those who had curly hair mimicked the Jackson Five. Those who had very hard hair flattened their hair during the “Flat” era. American music and musicians were universal and fair. No one was left behind to complain.
But at the end the American left Eritrea exactly the same way they came: in secret. They dismantled all their installations by nights and took them away. They left without leaving any trace. The women said “Americawyan zeinatom aywesdun natom kea aihibun” meaning Americans do not take what is not theirs and will not give what is theirs. But the women also missed the radar dishes and said “Izi meriet shil ilu” meaning without the radar dishes the land looked bare.
The king was not happy about the American departure from Eritrea. Even though at first he was ambivalent and not happy with their demand for base in Eritrea (he felt they belittled Ethiopia by choosing Eritrea), later as the strugglers started getting stronger the presence of Americans gave him a sense of security. He firmly but naively believed the Americans would not sit idle if the strugglers siege the city where the bulk of the Ethiopian military logistics was stored.
The unique nature of Americans was they only stood for themselves and their interest. Other nations’ or people’s interests were secondary to theirs. They came to Eritrea not only for its strategic location but also of its much developed infrastructure. They knew the Italians had invested their labor, skills and intellect to build the country and thoughtfully built infrastructure was fundamental exigency to military and intelligence strategies and missions. Why would they go where nothing was developed? They learnt their lessons when they went to Korea and Vietnam. Americans rarely repeat big mistakes. This does not mean they did not make mistakes over and over again. But they did not repeat the same mistake. Their mistakes were always fresh mistakes. They were not in Eritrea as benevolent. That was why during their stay they never invested penny towards the welfare of Eritrea or its people. But credit to them unlike the British they did not took anything that did not belong to them. But what pleased the woman was they also never interfered with her village values.
American actions and behaviors always baffled many people. No one understood the puritan nature and heritage of Americans. To save one American, they would not hesitate to send an Army accompanied by sophisticated armaments. Because of their pioneer heritage they would also not hesitate or delay to help other people in dire need. It was in normal situation that many people or nations that misunderstood and blamed Americans. Their small mistakes were interpreted as giant mistake by others. Their innocent mistakes were exaggerated as deliberate mistakes. Even their silences were interpreted as noisy.
Part of this could be that other people and nations did not expect Americans to make mistakes. They did not expect the same from the British when they were the superpower or the Russians because they believed that the British were naturally shrewd and the Russians bullies by nurture. Not with the USA. They just wanted Americans to be kind giants or sweet daddies. They forgot that America had interest like any other nation and American people also had their interest to protect and achieve like everyone else.
When the Americans noticed the sadness and fear of the king of Ethiopia, they encouraged him to establish true and good relationship with Israel for the Israelis had excellent military and intelligence capability and also they were looking for any friend because the Arab nations refused to recognize or make peace or friendship with them.
For the nation of Israel to have a good relationship with Ethiopia was a heavenly sent gift but the king was hesitant because he did not want to upset the Arab kings who had cordial and kingly relationship with him albeit his occasional Arab bashing. Kings understood other kings and the Arab kings did not take his bashing seriously. But if he followed the American advice and made open and good relationship with Israel, that could signal an imminent kingly divorce from his brethren in crowns in the Arab countries. The king was not afraid of divorce but the effect of it. The Arab kings might withhold the money they used to give the king and pour petro dollars to the Eritrean strugglers thus making them strong and challenging. But he had to choose. Time was of an essence to him. He could not wait and see. Kings could not wait. Waiting was for commoners.
Kings were also not trained to choose because training kings to choose was tantamount to diminishing their status. Kings did not have to choose between good and bad or sacred and evil or even war and peace. If they choose they could have them both. Could they get them was another issue.
Part II of III will follow