As the strugglers grew in numbers their task also grew in quantity, quality and complexities, needing new approaches and new strategies. As a Gardner knows the plant he tends, those who started the struggle thought they knew the struggle no matter how the circumstances changed. Before, when they were few, they knew one another; trusted one another; reached in consensus with no valuable time wasted and all meetings ended with no bickering. Now the newly joined teacher asked for more explanations; the university student demanded analysis; the high school student requested definitions and not to be left behind the elementary school student raised side issues. Relationships also changed. City boys and young men congregated together leaving the village boys alone by themselves. City boys took the field as Babylon square. Town boys trusted only town boys. Town inferiority was the cause. Not to be left behind village boys and young men, relying on their number, strength, experience and above all their sharp instincts started dominating every meeting and its outcome. Rural and sedentary attitudes were hard to shake. It was a payback for feeling distained. The struggle started to look like Babel and the organization like the Tower of Babel.
The most contentious issue was leadership. Armed struggle required military organization. Military organization needed hierarchy. Hierarchy required rank and files. Rank required wisdom, courage, stamina, skill, experience and education. To be at the bottom of the hierarchy required obedience, trust and little ignorance which was very scarce in that land. Everyone who joined the struggle considered himself intelligent, bold and important and refused to be ignored.
Teacher wanted to lead because he thought military leadership was not different than leading school children. University student wanted to lead because he thought military leadership could not be harder than university subjects. City boy wanted to lead because he thought military leadership could not be different than captaining neighborhood soccer team. All those who aspired for power were thinking with their heads not their hearts.
The majority who were village boys and men felt belittled and were upset because their seniority and experience were not considered valuable. They were true men who relied on their heart and were calm, collected and slow to judge. They were upset with the newcomers but not to the extent of hatred. They compromised when it was necessary and were firm when needed. They valued education and those who were educated but were careful not to let them disrupt the struggle. Time and hardships were good educators and bit by bit all were taught. With time situations started to settle and as the strugglers’ numbers swelled with new arrivals many of those who wished leadership got their wishes albeit slow because leadership was not a pie and not for everyone.
Then an idea came like a ghost. It hovered over the strugglers because they had no clue what it was and what it meant. It was big and sounded mean. The idea was espoused by members of the political wing who resided outside Eritrea in the neighboring countries and whose main job was to garner support for the struggle and nurture recognition for Eritrea as country and if possible to raise funds for the strugglers. They were essential to the struggle and were well respected and trusted by the strugglers. They were also highly educated with sufficient political background.
Because nobody wanted to upset the king of Ethiopia who was firmly supported by the USA and Israel and also well respected by the Arab kings, the political wingers had hard time convincing any country. But they had time, relative luxury and access to books and information that the strugglers lack. They read as much as they could and made themselves enlightened and kept in touch with the world and everything that went in it. They followed events as they occur through media which were abundant. They heard more news, true or false, about their own country more than the strugglers who actually lived in their country. They became bookish and sounded different. They acquired new terminologies and started force feeding the strugglers. The strugglers had no choice but to please, obey and follow their feeders and eyes to the outside world for they were sure if they resisted they would be completely cut off from the outside world and the meager but important fund would dry.
The big idea they espoused ( which some said was forcefully suggested albeit with good intentions, other disagreed and said it was suggested for a show of arrogance to the front) was to emulate or replicate the Algerian experience and eventual success against the French rule by organizing the fighters on the basis of the region they came from. They claimed it was the best and universal tactic that could be utilized by every front in any country. And the objective proof they provided was the unimaginable success of the Algerians in defeating the mighty and nasty French Legionnaires.
Their idea was not without merit even though the proponents were unfairly and blankly judged, prosecuted and their names blemished in later days. Criticism would have been apt. But condemnation and damnation was abominable for they were humans who followed their human instincts. Throughout history even nowadays, human beings [not excluding corporations] emulated things done by others if they believe it will have positive effects in their endeavor, life or businesses. To be original is very costly and the outcome uncertain. In revolutions it means loss of life and destruction of property.
Algeria was considered by the French not as colony but as administrative zone. Many French not excluding intellectuals and philosophers like the Nobel Prize winner and who was born in Algeria, Albert Camus took Algeria as part of France as many Ethiopians took Eritrea as part of Ethiopia and even called it their daughter. Strategy wise Algeria is very close to France, only the Mediterranean Sea in between which meant nothing for the mighty French naval force. Eritrea was also situated north of Ethiopia which was very convenient for troop and supply deployment. Both Algeria and Eritrea have ragged mountains and flat lands and both were inhabited by many tribes or ethnic groups.
Taking the similarities and the legendary organization and success of the Algerians, it was no wonder or folly to try to emulate the experience. The only point of contention was what worked in Algeria for and by the Algerians might not work for Eritrea and Eritreans. But without trying how could one know one’s own folly?
The proponents were respected and feared leaders and were heard. Their plan was enacted and what was once, diverse, effective and beautiful front was divided into five regional mini fronts and each front was composed of only people from that region. The mini fronts were in effect exclusionary. Whereas before, one only needs to join the only front that existed and embraced any Eritrean, now one had to go only to the mini front that embraced only people from same region. Without critical thinking the learned men introduced sickness of regionalism in a land that never had experience with division. The four mini fronts represented regions in the lowland where all the inhabitants were of Moslem faith and the fifth front represented the highland whose inhabitants were of Christian faith. If a Christian highlander wanted to join a front he could only join the fifth front. With a stroke of dis ingenuity and naivety the front was divided into two distinctive faiths.
The naïveté of those learned men was they wanted to shorten and not to improve the journey from afar. Romanticism and blind optimism had clouded their judgments. Revolutionary books were to blame. It is an affliction of people with ample time but not hard tasks in their hand. On the contrary the strugglers never thought the journey to free Eritrea to be smooth, short or easy. In their beliefs and reasoning they looked just like the village which raised and nurtured them. They joined the struggle believing in their heart they would not be alive when the journey reach its destination. They always said they were fighting for the coming generation and not for self-interest. They took themselves out of the picture. They took their own death and suffering before they died as imminent and sure. Everyone who joined was a martyr by choice and readiness. They were not fatalists, for their nature and upbringing abhors and condemns the practice. They were realists. The reasoning behind their determination was they all knew how powerful the Ethiopian army was. They knew how popular the king was throughout the world. They knew Ethiopia was tenfold bigger and richer than Eritrea. They knew the population of Ethiopia was twenty fold that of Eritrea. Unlike the USA that was fighting a far distanced war in Vietnam; they knew the Ethiopian army did not have to travel far from Ethiopia to strike Eritrea. Eritrea and Ethiopia shared a common border. They knew the decks were stacked against them. But they also knew and believed in their inner strength and resiliency. They knew the woman and the village would stand by their side till death. They knew their people would pray to God on their behalf. They were trained to be patient, exceedingly and annoyingly patient like the woman. They were trained to believe only people with patience win. They also had unwavering and almost literal confidence in their land, a carbon copy belief of the woman. The rock, the stone, the boulder would shelter them from flying bullets. The caves would shelter them during bombing. The river would supply them with enough water to survive. They believed the trees with their trunks, branches and leaves would camouflage them from the eyes of the enemy. They believed the moon and stars would give them enough biased light and guidance during night while denying the opportunity to the enemy. They knew the camel and the donkey would volunteer to transport their goods and would do a better job than the enemy’s Macs and Jeeps which constantly jam in sand and mud and would never negotiate a steep hill. They knew the hyenas, the dogs and the birds would signal them during imminent dangers. They were realists not idealists; believers not doubters. But because they were also obedient they fell into abyss by trustingly following the learned men’s instructions. In that land no one believed that own brother would hoodwink another brother so it was trust not foolishness that trapped them.
Hearing their situation, the King was ecstatic and elated because what his mighty army and air force could not accomplish, the strugglers dug their own grave.
Throughout their history the people of Eritrea had never experienced internal division. They were peaceful by nature and always preached peace. “Irki”, reconciliation and “selam”, peace were the most common words uttered at all times, by all the people of all ages and sexes. During prayer even in times of scarcity and hunger their primary prayer to God was to give them peace and reconciliation first. They attributed any disaster to lack of peace.
The strugglers were also peaceful by nature and nurture. They accepted the division of the front into regional fronts believing it would facilitate thus reduce suffering and damage to their people and country. When they noticed the change in attitude and relationship among the fronts they became nerved, angry and sad. The whole country succumbed into state of shock. The men said in a sleigh “aybelnan do. Kola yigoyi imber neikidm” meaning “a child can run but cannot win.” The women said “izi rigum nigus idu aitiulom” meaning “the cursed king have hand in our kids’ organization.” They would not accept it was done out of their volition. If it was not the king then it must had been the devil. They started special prayer for peace and reconciliation among the divided strugglers.
What do you do to a falling house? The king had two choices: to watch the house fall by itself or to assist it falls quickly. He chose the latter. The king was running out of patience and could not wait to see his enemies (he called them outlaws) disintegrate so he could give attention to his famishing folks at home. The war was costing him dearly both in terms of money, uneasiness among his folks but above all his carefully groomed reputation. Nothing upsets a king more than tarnished reputation and malcontent of his own people. All kings took their own folks for granted. Grumbling and criticisms are for other folks. That is why kings were always decisively cruel to their own folks.
The king chose his most trusted, highly decorated and a distant relative general by the name Teshome Irgetu to finish the divided house of the strugglers. The king and the general knew a falling house was a hazard. A push might cause the house to fall on the pusher or bring it to stand on itself, either way, unwanted results. The strugglers were not idle during their turbulent period. They were stinging the Ethiopian army from all corners of Eritrea. The division for sure had weakened their spirit but not their resolve. The division also brought new phenomena called competition between the regional fronts. Men and boys were their ranks and as expected men and boys thrived in competition. Their competition was pointed towards the enemy not among themselves.
General Toshome did not waste time because like every old general he was not interested in new projects. He did not have time to know facts partly due to his mind were not in military affairs for a long time. He did not give chance to the general in charge of the Army in Eritrea to brief him on the situation because he was not his equal by blood and rank. They were separated by two stars and dissimilar genes. He was proud general who did not hesitate to impress the king. He also believed he could once for all quash and end the rebellion. Escorted by fifty thousand soldiers he headed straight to the bastion of the strugglers, the western lowland, against the mature advice of the subordinate general.
When the General and the escorting army reached their destination they could find nothing out of ordinary. They also did not encounter any resistance on their way to the lowland. He stayed for a week doing nothing and ordered half the soldiers to stay where they were and half to escort him back to Asmara, the city, to revive his spirit and energy.
There was also no event on their way back until they reached a valley not far from the city. On the valley were some dozen strugglers waiting to surprise the general even though the convoy and not the general was their target. Fighting ensued and the unlucky general was killed in the fighting. The strugglers did not know who they killed for their mission was only to show their presence, shoot one or two scarce and valuable bullets and run. But unfortunately they did more than they planned and run away to safety.
The king was immediately notified of the death of the general. He called it massacre and the gravest crime punishable by the worst kind of death. He ordered the soldiers who were left in the lowland bastion to revenge. No details were given. No targets were specified.
There was a village close to where the soldiers had installed a command post. Ona was the name. Ona had seven hundred inhabitants, all farmers and herdsmen. It was Friday, a Moslem Holyday, and because all the inhabitants of the village were Moslems was a quiet, solemn and calm day like every other Holyday. The army led by the commandos arrived early in the morning and surrounded the village. The army chief instructed the commandos to stay on the outskirt of the village and guard the area.
No one was spared in Ona. All pregnant women were slaughtered with bayonets first to their belly and then to their necks. All men were shot at point blank. All children were thrown into burning hats. All young boys and girls were smashed to death. All Cows, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys and hens were shot. All huts and houses were burned to ashes. All the burning started with the Mosque. By mid-day Ona, a once beautiful, calm, breathy and inconsequential village was gone forever.
Dark crimson cloud of sadness blanketed the land, the heart of the people and everything else with life.
“Tnusat ziketlu”, “those who kill the pregnant!” became the rallying cry of the women. Women give life, not bodies. Everyone in that land believed woman gives life. Killing the pregnant women was killing the life producing woman. Life was bigger than body for the people. It was sacred given by God and only be taken by God. The people never saw and were incapable of seeing body of a person. It was the life and soul they saw.
All women felt the bayonet that killed the women of Ona. They felt their heart pierced and their flesh torn. Their body shivered in trance imagining the awful death of the children of Ona encountered at the hand of the barbarians. They sobbed for the dead men and dead animals.
Everything with life was touched. Mother earth moved and shook. Leaves wilted and the sky was covered with crimson clouds. Light rays coming from the sun dimmed and changed colors dominated by gray. The moon and the stars were not to be seen that night. Dogs from neighboring villages howled. Owls hooted. Hyenas stopped laughing. Birds sang song of sadness.
No one was left untouched including the commandoes.
The news was told by the commandos themselves who unwittingly witnessed but did nothing to stop the massacre and were left traumatized and confused with no one to rely upon. Right then, contrary to military rules and regulations, told their Ethiopian commanders that they would not sit still if encountered similar situations. Many of them resigned and few immediately joined the strugglers. Those who for varying reasons chose to stay lived in fear shame and isolation from their own kinds.
Everyone was looking for help but no one was getting it and no one was capable of giving it. Help became a rarity in the land of the kind. Everyone was in need of support and consolation. Even the, Monks, Sheiks and elders could not help. They themselves were in need for help. Even help was governed by demand-supply rules. The demand for help was overwhelming thus affected the supply of it. Even fools were unable to give help.
What they lacked from one another asked God in their prayers. Every one prayed. In the land of the Stoics, normally it was the women who begged God to intervene in times of hardships. They prayed in open fields; in the Churches; in the Mosques; in their homes not in silence but in loud voices. The men just stood silent or prayed in hiding. Not then. Not after what happened to Ona. Everyone prayed including men and children, in open, in secret. They prayed for the slaughtered pregnant women and children for they were the most helpless. They prayed for the unborn babies. They prayed for all the children, adults and elderly.
Monks and Sheiks cursed the king. They were not able to do it in public but they did it in silence. The hermits damned and cursed the king and his army in open and in loud voices for all the trees, the mountains, the valleys, the hyenas, the birds, the gazelles, the snakes, the lizards to hear in far off place where they lived in isolation from people.
The massacre shook the unshakable people. For generations they bore hunger, famine, sickness, disease, locusts, lack of water, draught and other hardships that killed their loved ones and their livestock with patience and stoicism. But then the cause was Mother Nature. They did not have qualms with nature. They were natural people. They believed Mother Nature sustained and sometimes withheld sustenance which they attributed to their own weaknesses and vises and not Mother Nature. They also knew that Mother Nature was kind and never cruel. It would never leave you without options.
The maids who were working all over the Arab world and Italy were inconsolable. By that time their number had swelled to thousands thanks to their popularity propagated by the Italians. The novo riche Arabs wanted them. The Kings and Sultans needed them. The Italians in Rome, Milan, Torino, Napoli and even Palermo wanted them. They were honest, hardworking, clean and direct. They were also known for their quick language learning ability. They were received in honor, unreserved for maids, and were accepted and treated as family members where ever they went.
When they heard the tragedy at Ona the world collapsed on them. As Stoic custom dictated they could not share their suffering with strangers. No matter how they were received in homes they served they did not share their deep feelings with their employers. As girls they were taught to suck it up. But this tragedy was too much to bear alone. Collective grief is an easy grief because everyone around you is in the same situation. Grief magnifies in the absence of close person. Even telephone conversation with other maids could not lessen their pain. Wounded soul cannot heal another wounded soul. Like their kinds at home they felt somehow responsible. They cursed their relative luxury in foreign countries. Just like in back home no one provided help while every maid dreamed of help. Many were bedridden but refused help from their employers who were willing to help their prized maids. Telephone traffic jammed the anarchic system back home because every one of them was calling to learn more of the tragedy. They took more time to heal for wounded soul healed slower when far from home.
The massacre of Ona changed young boys and girls alike and forever. They both became rebellious against any authority, friends and foes alike. The young started relying on one another rather than on their parents or teachers. The most conspicuous change came to the girls. Contrary to their upbringing and contrary to what the custom dictated they rebelled in open for everyone to see and hear. They expressed their determination by saying “I am not weak”; “I will contribute the same like my brothers”; “from now on I will wear pants like boys”; “I do not want to be an experiment to the enemy”; “My job is not only to produce children”; “The boys are human, I am human, we are equal”; “I will play role in liberating my country”; ”I will not let my brother die alone”; “I do not want others to suffer for me.
The strugglers took the responsibility squarely on their shoulder and attributed their division as the main cause. They regretted they were not available when they were most needed. They felt they betrayed their trust to the people of Eritrea and in particular to the dead people of Ona. They believed their presence would have saved some life. They would have distracted the soldiers by engaging them in fight and some lives would have been spared. No struggler was left untouched by bottomless guilt. They felt powerless, aimless and good for nothing. Their collective moral hit the ground and despair shrouded their soul.
Middle school pupils joined high school students in never seen or heard before event: violent demonstration. Throwing stone was their favorite game when they were growing and assisted by it fought against the city police and the soldiers who came to help the police. The American GIs were ordered to stay inside their camp. The Ethiopian soldiers were amazed and perplexed on the actions of the youngsters. They did not know how to react. They were war soldiers. They already heard what was done at Ona and some of the soldiers did not want to repeat the atrocity. The commandoes were also watching and were ready to intervene if any harm fell onto the children.
Every Eritrean was changed forever. The village consciousness was replaced by national consciousness. Killing village people was killing everyone. On the grave and ashes of the village Ona, arose the village of Eritrea. Eritrea symbolized the big village. Village was their symbol of being and nucleolus of life. Without village the people were naught. They started feeling the same way with Eritrea. If Eritrea did not exist, they felt they will not exist. Eritrea became the symbol of their being and meaning of their life. New feeling is hard to resist. New feeling is hard to contain. New feeling is hard to destroy. New feeling paves new highway of life. Eritreans started thinking nationally even though they still equated the nation to a big village.
True to his nature and stature, the king was still not satisfied. No king is satisfied. Kings always want more: more pillaging; more blood; more gold; more palaces; more territories; more garments; more slaves. But he seemed satisfied with the soldiers who decimated Ona and based on his dictum “It is the land I need, not the people”, ordered them to displace all the people in the lowland, the bastion of the struggle. A soldier’s duty is to obey his king and they obeyed. They started chasing people from their land, the land they inhabited unmolested by any one for thousands of years for they were peaceful and calm people who could induce tears from the hardest hearts. But not from the Ethiopian soldiers. Half a million of them left the only place they knew and loved and headed west towards the Sudan. They became the first to be followed by many in the years to come.