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Hollow Existence

‘Fanakowa geriso etetaso, Hakowa Uya lesumala katowana’.
(Whatever the case, daybreak will bring things to light)

My name is Yona Germano Nati. I was born in Aligidir, in the Gash-Barka region of Eritrea near the Sudan border. To the east lies the town of Tessenei which is only 11 miles away from my place of birth. If you can visualise the bread-basket-ring of Eritrea (Tessenei, Haicota, Bisha, Akurdet, Barentu, Badumma, Boshoka, Dokinbia, Om Hajer) then you can easily make out my roots. I am a proud Eritrean Kunama whose story bears various pockmarks that defined my character and my identity. No matter how interesting, I am not going to delve into the history of Gash-Barka vis-à-vis the Eritrean struggle for independence in this brief account; neither am I going to recount the ups and downs of my personal history and that of the proud Kunamas who lived through, as far as I can remember, a gruesome existence. However, let me just underscore the fact that I am mindful of the stoic traditions, rich customs and cultural legacy of my people; and with that in mind I would like to move on to ‘the other story’ of my hollow existence with the aim of staying relevant to the campaign against my father’s unjust incarceration.

In order to give the other story a context, allow me to mention ‘Barentu’ whose existence reflects the life the Kunamas, as well as the Nara people, had to sustain for decades and yet how they managed to deal with their plight with stoicism and fortitude. Think of Barentu as a former fort for the Italian forces and a base for the European missionaries before the armed struggle started. Barentu was, and still is, a centre of many agricultural ventures which attracted thousands of freeloaders and land-grabbers who exploited and side-lined the local population. Again, Barentu used to be the garrison for the Eritrean police commandos which induced certain conformities resulting in confusions. The Ethiopian army had a large presence there which created ad hoc configurations of local militias that were exploited; and at times the militias stood up to units of marauding highlanders and freedom fighters. Yes, Barentu was a fierce battleground that witnessed repeated EPLF attacks and many Ethiopian counterattacks that totally disrupted and destroyed the local way of life. When one thinks of the collective punishments the Kunamas received, the abuse and insolence they endured, the refugee life they were forced to lead and more, is indeed an emotionally draining experience. I would say those occurrences pretty much describe the life of an average Kunama.

In 1995 I took part in the third round of the National Service in Sawa. After six months of military training thousands of us were made to trek the rough country for one month – Hawashayt, Zara, Felket, Mai Himet, Marsa Teklay, Nakfa, Af’Abet, Keren and more. During the 30-day foot journey we visited renowned fronts and significant camps such as Ararib, Hishkeb, Amberber and Arag – areas of great historical significance to Eritreans. Such locations illustrate the arduous stories of the Eritrean struggle for independence and remain stark reminders of the sacrifices made by our liberation fighters and the contributions my own father made in the armed struggle.

Sawa was just an open space and only a makeshift camp then. I spent the ensuing year of national service in many Kunama villages such as Boshoka, Karkon and Ambori. I also remember the time I spent in Mensura and the fond memories it left in me. After I finished my national service I started teaching in Shambakko which I enjoyed very much. I admit I used to see the beauty of ‘la patria’, life, friendship, and other humane qualities we were beginning to champion as Eritreans during the post-independence era before the president turned into a malicious man, not only with inactive, inept but also with corrupt conscience. In 1998, we, those of us who took part in the 1st – 4th rounds of Sawa training, were suddenly recalled and spread out in the southern border to carry out ‘development projects’. I am not sure whether it was coincidental or intentional, the Badumma war erupted soon after our deployment.

The war was intense and many young people died in defence of Eritrea. We were patriotic soldiers and we did what we had to do to fulfil our duties. Although the war was utter inferno, spending time with my fellow Warsay brethren at the frontline was always inspiring. Now that I am older, every now and then I look back to assess the battles that took place in and around Badumma, battleground right in the heart of the Kunama land. Of course, there are times that I lament why the Kunama land and its people had to bear the major brunt of the previous battles and that very brutal border conflict.

I did take part not only in the Badumma war, but I was also deployed to the Zalambesa and Tsorona fronts in Debub, east of Shambakko. I confess that I lost my innocence at those fronts as well as so many of my friends. There I was, in independent Eritrea, going through the same experience as my battle-hardened father. In order to deflect fond memories of my dear father which dampen my spirit copiously, I choose to remember our meraHti ganta and meraHti Hayli (platoon and company leaders) I used to look up to … Hasebela, Daniel (completely disfigured), wedi Ismail, wedi Bashai, wedi Gere, wedi tKul, Zerai and many more … staunch and heroic military figures – sadly, many of them never returned; may their souls rest in peace. What a tangled web did Eritrea weave when the top leaders took us for granted and led us to a conflict that could have been avoided! They squeezed us empty, and then they tried to fill us with small-minded hogwash.

Memories of my friends who perished in the war remind me of the sacred hope to which I give refuge in my exiled heart. Tears will not fall on their graves … but I hope tears of joy will be shed in their memory, during the great embrace with their ghosts when we, the living, celebrate the rebirth of our country.

Dear reader,

I have tried to steer clear of personal stories but I was somehow driven by the context of my story rather than the substance of the intended account. ‘The other story’ was meant to address questions concerning social justice in general and my father’s unjust, incommunicado detention in particular. I did try to ask questions that are relevant to my father’s absence, but silently. In many of the paragraphs I asked no questions at all. I wonder why I put real issues on the back-burner when my conscience dwells in my father’s cell. I do think of all the blood-letting and my father’s unending plight – major sticking points in my life. Perhaps that has something to do with my Hollow Existence.

Now I see the world of Eritrea, shaped by the PFDJ escapades, is filled with force that tries to do everything while justice is relegated to doing nothing. My father’s unjust imprisonment and incommunicado detention is a case in point. Yes, I see the PFDJ members, like the morally indifferent pack, are like dogs tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes. They are acting irrationally – duped into believing my father and his comrades committed ‘treason’. Why did they turn Eritrea into a lunatic asylum for the sane? When will Eritrea rise up to dispense eyesight to the visionless PFDJ crowd?

Dear father,

You stood firm when others buckled. Wherever I go, there you are! I remember you more fondly than ever now that my son is named after you; I see, like a shadow, following me everywhere. I realise you are just a human, mortal and of course, fallible like all of us. But I see in your spirit something I hope to see in myself. That is why I respect you and look up to you. When your sense of right and wrong beckoned, you, together with your other colleagues, responded by sharing your ideals via the open letter. That is why I say you will always be remembered by the conscientious; and you will remain part of the Eritrean history. On the other hand, I feel sorry for President Isaias Afwerki for he gave your call a deaf ear by putting you in jail instead; and that is why history is not going to be kind to him!

Years after I suffered the quiet anguish of your unjust imprisonment, a former prison guard announced, rather pitilessly and unconcernedly, that you passed away while in prison. That I do not believe because I did not attend your funeral either in physical or abstract worlds. I do not know who conducted the ancestral rites; I do not know who wrapped your body in a shroud; I do not know who put the final nail in the coffin; I do not know who dug your grave; I do not know who lay earth over your eternal bed; I do not know whether any of your comrades gave either a eulogy or ‘awet nHafash’ cry at your funeral. What I know is you are not going to be a forever-prisoner. Father, I hope you understand I am desperately rummaging around for a proper sense of closure, don’t you?

Fanakowa geriso etetaso, Hakowa Uya lesumala katowana.

The story is written in collaboration with Free Our Parents – Eritrea
POCs: Dawit Mesfin and Tsedal Yohannes

About Yona Germano Nati

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  • Ahmed Raji

    I still remember the calm, thoughtful and uncharacteristically (considering EPLF culture) polite man I met in 1993 in his office in Barentu. Germano was the administrator of Gash-Setit at the time and was receiving a multi-agency delegation of UN officials who had come to canvas the situation in anticipation of a programme for the return of Eritrean refugees from Sudan. And when years later things came to a head in the spring of 2001, I was not surprised that Germano had chosen to be on the right side of history.

  • Tesfabirhan WR

    Dear Yona,

    I read it in patience. Your narration takes the soul deep into human dignity. I read the pain your body is carrying. I read the spirit of humanity and dedication. I read the dedication paid in every phase of a genuine human kind. I read your father through your lines. You might not have talked at length but through contemplation, it is not hard to read who was your father. You brought to us again though he is our hero always.

    Be proud for you have such a hero father and yet the struggle is not finished. I am quite sure you have already put yourself in the justice seekers camp to end the tyranny that prohibited our heroes to live as their dreams.

    Hawka
    tes

  • Amanuel Hidrat

    Dear Yona,

    Your story is heartbreaking. We can only pray for your father and the rest with him to be alive enduring the hardship of PFDJ prison. Your words and your plea are powerful that gives strength to the struggle of justice seekers. Eritrea will not forget him, his courage and the sacrifice he made for the sake of justice. Him and his colleagues will surely remain in the heart of his country men whether they are alive or not.

    with respect,
    Amanuel Hidrat

  • ghezaehagos

    “… Tears will not fall on their graves … but I hope tears of joy will be shed in their memory, during the great embrace with their ghosts when we, the living, celebrate the rebirth of our country…”
    Dear Yona,
    We thank you for sharing this heartbreaking story with us. It takes courage; and heart. You are a brave man, like your esteemed father. There are very few among us who did the right thing and you have every right to be feel proud of you father.
    With utmost respect,
    Ghezae Hagos

  • Hagos Berhane

    This land we call Eritrea; has caused so much pain and suffering and it will continue to produce very healthy statistics for the number of refugees as far as the UN is concerned. I was one some 40 years or so. Yona painted a picture that we all ought to look at, bleak, miserable and sad status of affairs. So many people incarcerated, purpose built prisons full to the brim, equal number of youth fleeing the country in droves, talk about brain drain, our country seems to be on autopilot. Unfortunately; until this moment in time, we are nowhere nearer removing this cruel and rotten regime. What makes our reaction to injustice different? how did the PFDJ managed to stay in power for ever so long whilist commuting crimes against humanity in the process? Why are, our point of views different on matters that does not warrant any argument or discussion? We permitted Iseyas to incarcerate independence heros, we excused him when he took us to a bloody war for no apparent reason, in effect; we allowed this regim to spread it’s roots so deep? The are so many “Whys” than this stage permits., the tell tell signs have always been there, few took notice, few tried to warn us, but as always, we decided to react differently. Yona; you are a hero, son of a hero, I would like to thank you for sharing your story with us. Yes indeed, the sun will shine, and I pray it shines very soon for the innocents who suffering in the jails of Iseyas.

  • Kokhob Selam

    Dear Yona,

    I have nothing to say as Mohamuday, Hayata,T,T, Semere every one under this post has said it all. But what I have done while reading was considering myself as Yona the son of the hero and just read. read it and analyze it.I became proud and optimistic after asking myself. what a wonderful world I am in, I ask. what a wonderful people are here around me, I talk to myself. by doing so I visited your soul. I became you. I love your heart, I love your father more. I drop my idea that says ,” why they were not hearing us, why they try to reform when we told them otherwise, why they stay under this devil” instead I learn that was just a journey to go through.

    we are all with you and in fact we are you. we are you !! borhter.

  • Mahmud Saleh

    Dear Yona
    Your father is the son, brother and father of all justice seekers. He had taken the right decision when he had embarked on the long journey of liberating his land and people; and he took the right decision when he stood up for the rule of law. I hope he is alive; I hope he sees free Eritrea; and if he, as reported, departed us; he died a great death. You live once, and dying with a settled conscience is the goal every decent person prays for.
    I met Germano on several occasions, I did not work under his leadership; but I had friends who worked with him. My impression about him, obtained directly or indirectly, is positive. He was gentle, considerate, patient, and dedicated. He was known for his humble and humorous relations with his subordinates. My friends, mostly folks who worked with him in the department of public administration or “Jamahir” during the years of the liberation struggle, would tell me how happy they were working under his leadership. They would fondly mention him as a team player.
    Germano is known for working to mend the relation of Kunama people with the revolution; EPLF moved to Kunama land after the last civil war in the early eighties, and relations there had already been bad. He worked hard to win the trust of the people. And indeed he did so. I had the opportunity to live around Barentu in late eighties; but my first glimpse of Kunama people in their natural setting was in mid eighties. I found the Kunama people to be great people with beautiful smiles, as big and bright as the sun. And a heart that nurtured whoever respected them. I remember in 1984 when a friend of mine who had been assigned in Awgaro taking me with him under the cover of darkness to occupied villages. I remember the porridge, the tea, and yes, the Degga. I met Kunama elders who were clandestine village vigilantes. I was so scared for coming so close to enemy camps and fortifications, but my friend was as relaxed as he was in his staging post in Awgaro. I remember when we entered our hideout destination, the clandestine committee had already been gathered there; a couple motioned us to seat and reached for our guns and gears welcoming us in a thatched hut, I was uncomfortable, but my friend motioned to me to relax. He was right; we did have a good night. What I didn’t know was that there was a vigilante squad guarding us; watching over our safety.
    Thank you Yona for your service; and thanks for the testimony you gave regarding those brave veteran and National Service folks who defended their nation honorably. The start of war is always political, and as you said it was an avoidable war, that has been my belief in 1988, and that’s my belief today. Your next leg of journey should doing everything possible to warn people from the dangers wars bring. Wars consume the young and the bright. That’s what the last war did; those who ordered it are still enjoying life, raising their kids; sending dissidents to the dungeons.
    Another little advice I may give you is to be strong, not to measure Eritrea’s potential for change by the current trends. Join folks who believe in the potential of their people, don’t waste yourself into failed strategies of the struggle; your generation needs to map out their own meaningful ways of bringing change. Your father understood that if you can’t win the people you can’t dream of declaring victory. That’s why he spent years under the nose of enemy educating his people.
    At the end, justice will prevail; we will surely see the renaissance of the memories of your father and his comrades whom I grew up looking up to as father models.
    Additionally, you are an excellent writer; I hope to see this and other stories in a book; please do so.

  • T..T.

    Yona,

    You and all of your family members must be in agony over the manufactured lies and the false accusation against your father. As you may have notice here at the awate.com, Eritreans take one of two ways, either shameless or fearless to defend their positions. A friend of mine at a quick glance of discussions that were going on between Hayat Adem and Nitricc, remarked that the discussions were reflective of who they were and which side they were defending. He described that people like Nitricc were always angry and shameless to defend the brazen and shameful policy of Isayas. On the other hand, the people like Hayat Adem found them to be cool and fearless defending the truth and only the whole truth on the ground.

    Don’t worry, the whole of Eritrea and its people are always on the side of the truth. I hope you are not here to share your concerns only but also to brush off and remove the fluffs of lies against your father and his comrades through continued discussions. But beware, the shameless Isayasists are out there too to mingle with responses name calling, such as Agame, Hussus, Woyane, traitor, etc., because they are always angry and the name calling is part of their way of politics.

  • Gherhi Libu

    Dear Yona, I feel deep sympathy for you at the personal level. I hope one day you get to see your father or at least have proper closure but I prefer the former for you as you do too.

    You said many words of Eritrean patriotism and freedom fighters relentless endurance for the sake of what we call ‘independence.’

    I am always curious, why are nearly all Eritreans, young, old, male, female, educated, uneducated, urban, villager not seeing a problem with the idea of Eritrea in the first place? A mere 40 or 50 years ago, the nation did not exist. But people were dying for it as if it was there for eternity to die for like the land of Canaan. Where is the center of gravity in Eritrea? What will people gravitate to? Highlanders flock to the lowlands as land grabbers, as they are known. Because they don’t have enough for themselves. What is the total population of the Kunama people? 50K? Hidarb about 15K? Bilen in the tens of thousands? Tigrinya 1.5 million? I don’t know, there is no census. My point is that the Tigrinya people (other than those from the environs of Asmara north) couldn’t careless for Eritrea anymore and that is why they are leaving in droves. There are more armed post independence kids than the freedom fighters who are old now. So the post independence generation can whack the wacko in no time and take over but they do not see anything that looks like a nation or state in Eritrea. They would rather die trying to get to Europe than in Eritrea.

    The time has finally come for us Eritreans to look beyond the borders created by Menelik and the Italians, for the sake of their convenience at the time, not in essence establishing a new nation. The British stayed in Eritrea for a very short period of time but they understood our issues better than our fathers at that time did. They proposed the best scenario, you all know it. But Egypt had to step in and assist in the most ridiculous armed struggle in humanity. Let’s not repeat history. You can call me a unionist, but I see myself more of a realist.

    • Peace!

      Gherhi Libu,

      I hope the issue is as simple as you seem to think otherwise it would have been settled decades ago. The current tragedies are not new, specially to low landers. Indeed the country is in precariouse situation, not because of the absence of capacity it needs to sustain as a sovereign state, but ostensibly, it is because of the absence of good governance, and that does not mean Eritrea cannot be the same country as it was in 90s.

      Peace!

  • Hayat Adem

    Dear Yona:
    All is not in vain as you are not already only asking the questions but you are also living the questions. It would have been double sad if you father had been jailed without asking those questions because many have been put in his place without knowing how they offended the regime. It would have been triple sad if you were not asking those questions because many families have lost their beloved ones to incommunicado but still give inexcusable justifications believing pfdj leaders might know committed important crimes they were not made known to them. Your father committed his life to the struggle and stayed all the way because he thought that was the call. But when he saw crimes being done by the very Front he served, he didn’t keep quite. You too served your country in the way you thought was the best and when you saw evil and injustice, you are now fighting a different struggle. At the end justice will prevail. You will prevail. Readers, Please put names and faces on compelling stories and personal accounts such as this.
    Hayat

  • Semere Andom

    Dear Yona:

    Your father’s story epitomizes the untold suffering that every Eritrean family has endured under PFDJ. Many in the G-15 like your father had the option to bail out, but instead, they consciously, sagaciously and with full knowledge of the repercussions decided to join their brethren in their predicament. I remember the interview you had with Assenna when your father said, “kem sebay” before he walked away.

    It is not that the PFDJ supporters believe your father and his friends committed crimes against the nation, like us, they too know intimately that the G-15 were within their right to ask the president of the country, that they had the moral and legal responsibility to keep him accountable and that everything they wrote and said was legal and moral. They know that well, so does IA, the COC, and the Chief Officer of Crimes. So it is prudent for us not to spend our time trying to persuade the dogs tied to the cart as you aptly called them that our political prisoners are innocent, we have to tell them instead that they have committed crimes, and they need to repent or we will hold them responsible for crime against the Eritrean human. I think we need to tell them to release them and not beg them to bring them to court of law, they cannot do that, there is no court of law in their land. Our clarity is very crucial.

    PFDJ has lots of power on us, but we can break away, they are not invincible as they want to appear to be

    One thing that is missing is, you guys the children of the G-15 need to create an organization to keep the light of your parents always on, rekindling a light once it has been put off is easier said than done. You need to use your suffering as a force of good so that their legacy is not in vain, so future families and children would not go through what you are going through, so future wives would not be widowed like your mothers. You have the power, ironically by the vice of your suffering, the virtue of the bravery of your loved ones to create such an organization to do good for the society, to cement the legacy of your parents. PFDJ’s murdered does not stop when the victim is deceased, they murder their rightful legacy, and they silence their loved once to make them subservient. Without mentioning names, PFDJ is littered with people whose loved ones had being killed by PFDJ and that is the worst thing that people can do.

    Hope for their release in once piece, but write their history, even write their epitaph that capture their bravery that will come handy that when we immortalize them in the monuments that eloquently speak to their sacrifice we can. Write it in Tigrinya, write it in Kunama, and write it in Arabic. Make their words and actions indelible as the love you have for them

    Sem

  • Haile Zeru

    Hi YONA,

    This is a heart, mind, gripping account of existence. I am immensely sad for us the living for coming short on everything our people require from us. At the same time I am proud for what your father and the other 14 of his comrades did and say.
    I am sure, from your writing, you will instill a sense of pride in your son. The legacy of Your father is a monument that will guide all future generations of Eritrea.
    I wish you gave the article a different title though. The “Hollow Existence” is that of Issayas Afewerki and his yes-men generals that are watching and executing the distraction of our people. I hope I missed something. But I would suggest the change of the title.

    Regards,