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Paulos Natnael’s “The Fighter’s Letter”: A Book Review

Book Title: The Fighter’s Letter
Author: Paulos Natnael
Publisher: Red Sea Press & African World Press
ISBN: 978-1-56902-410-2 (HB), 978-1-56902-411-9 (PB)
Pages: 289

The Fighter’s Letter will mark Paulos Natnael’s debut as a serious writer with a knack for story-telling. For over two decades, Paulos has written countless articles on Eritrean politics, but The Fighter’s Letter is like nothing we have seen before. The book artfully combines the familiar Paulosesque no-none-sense and no-beating-around-the bush approach with the mastery of story-telling where the aroma of awel bun (first coffee) pervades the ambiance throughout the ritual; and it is Bereka time (the last coffee) before you know it. The Fighter’s Letter serves an authentic and much needed Ethio-Eritrean coffee from someone who, as a young man in his last teen years, was part of the conflict as a volunteer freedom fighter.

Coffee-making is like writing; it is an art. It is the mark of genius for any writer who succeeds in making the familiar new and the new familiar. I knew most of the characters, the landscape, and the events, but the familiarity is such an integral part of the narration that I remained engaged throughout the bonfire of ideas, characters, conflicts and events; had to defy nature and stay glued to my seat. I have had the privilege of reading great and engaging books over the years, but The Fighter’s Letter was my story, an Eritrean story, an Ethiopian story, and above all, a human story; I was emotionally and intellectually lost in it. The beauty of this kind of literature is that it helps us immerse ourselves in ourselves and rediscover those important and transformative powers of empathy and sympathy. It is compassion that gives impetus to understanding and any judgment devoid of it will be hollow of justice, fairness and harmony. The politics of truth, reconciliation and normalization of relations with us and our neighbors will require a lot of empathy and understanding, and the few books that are being published, by both Eritreans and Ethiopians, should pave the way. The Fighter’s Letter has done its part.

The ultimate goal of The Fighter’s Letter is to enhance our understanding of the recent past while still maintaining the integrity of the truth. For example, the late Melake Tekle is portrayed throughout the book as a selfless fighter and bono fide hero who put the interest of others and the nation above himself; but it was also him, in 1975, who, as a privileged leader, had let more qualified Sudanese doctors attend to him while the rest of the ELF fighters were being treated by “barefoot doctors who served as medics in the military units but has no formal medical training.”

In an edifying moment, the book shows that there are no sinners without a future and no saints without a past. People rising beyond their inherent fallibility, follies, flaws and weaknesses is the source of their greatness. The great Melake came at a crossroad and chose sacrifice; and his story is being told to the young generation by people like Paulos Natnael who fought alongside him. There were few sinners who had squandered the future and left without redeeming their names, and the late Abdella Idris, according to The Fighter’s Letter, was the most notorious of all.

The Fighter’s Letter is a historical novel with a tall order of describing the “chaotic Ethio-Eritrean social and political landscape from the mid 1970s.” For majority of Ethiopians and Eritreans the period is so close and personal that one doubts if any writer would succeed in this endeavor; but Paulos Natnael has achieved a reasonable success. I knew Paulos through his writings in the good-old-days of Dehai and have always appreciated his propensity of not mincing words or twisting the truth to cater to audience’s sensibilities. He has always stricken me as a fair-minded individual with a strong penchant for telling the truth. It was with this expectation that I embarked on reading his book; I knew he would offer a compelling story that will enhance our understanding of the last four decades, or, at least, offer us an interesting perspective that will surely provoke us to engage in a serious discourse on a part of our history that is still a big part of us.

The Fighter’s Letter is a story of a family, nation, and region told from the perspective of a family that experienced the lofty aspirations and hopes of the revolution and its impressive successes and dismal failures. The impact of the revolution is felt in every aspect of the family’s life even among those who were thousands of miles away from home. The fighter’s family, Daniel’s family, is a modern Asmera family from the protestant enclave of Geza-Kenisha with a deep sense of its history and identity. The family traces its pedigree to the heart of Hamasien, the seat of the Deqi Teshm Dynasty, who were the traditional rulers of Mereb Mlash with blood ties beyond it.

Ironically, this duality mirrors the seemingly irreconcilable conservatism of the past and the openness of modernity that characterized the Eritrean revolution.

Modern Asmera, the birth place of Eritrean national consciousness, became the city where “Eritrean youths listened to Pop, R&B, Country, and Rock & Roll music that blared twenty-four hours a day from Kagnew. They dressed in bell-bottom trousers, half-unbuttoned shirts, and sported the new hair fashion: Afro. They watched Hollywood and Italian movies in the theaters and on television, although not many had access to the later. Cafes and teashops were always full of high school kids with that sort of Western influence. The traditional Eritrean way of life, the hard life of the farmer was rejected as backward. People from the rural areas were ridiculed and shunned by the young. The young didn’t want to associate with anything rural.”

And yet the revolution was fought in the name of cultural and linguistic identity; and it was these young people who were among the 64,000 Eritreans who paid the ultimate price. It is in these seemingly contradictory ideas where the author shows an amazing ability to shed light without rendering too much judgment. In one of the best passages, the author attributes the proverbial failure of the ELF to its inability to reconcile the new with the old:

“The tradition of Hto-r’yto (questions and opinions) in the ELF, although frustrating to the veteran fighters and commanders and the leadership in general, was a very democratic tradition which allowed the rank and file to ask questions not only about their daily lives but also about the policies and direction of the ELF and the revolution in general. In fact, the Hto-r’yto was a contentious session between the commanders who for the most part, were illiterate veteran fighters, versus the relatively educated newcomers. It was exacerbated by the fact that the newcomers were mostly Christian and the veteran fighters mostly Muslim. Not only were the veterans unable to match the intellectual curiosity of the newcomers, they were completely unwilling. The reason being the veterans saw themselves as soldiers following orders from higher-ups, no questions asked; while the newcomers saw themselves as freedom fighters temporarily using military strategy to reach their aim: the independence of Eritrea. The newcomers never accepted being soldiers, and simply following orders was out of the question for them. These opposite views bred conflict.”

The book makes it clear that the ELF was a dysfunctional organization with an enormous potential to be a force of good had it run its course. It should have been reformed; but it fell primarily under the weight of its mediocre leadership who could not see beyond the tip of their parochial nose. The last straw that broke ELF’s back was EPLF’s “duplicity” that eventually led to the civil war. The EPLF’s duplicity and betrayal became evident when it conspired with an external power, the TPLF, to drive the ELF out of Eritrea, thus, fulfilling a long awaited prophecy of jebha kem chew kthaqQ ya, (ELF will melt away like salt), dubbed as tnbit Isayas, Isaias’s prophecy by ELFites.

With all its flaws and deficiencies, the ELF was a democratic organization better in tune with the traditions of the Eritrean people. “In the ELF, current affairs such as the civil war and other issues were debated freely and openly. That tradition was never discouraged, even in the middle of the civil war. One of the issues ELF fighters raised at Hatsina, for example, involved the notification of the family of the deceased or the martyred fighters. They wanted to know why the ELF no longer notified the families and instead allowed rumors to fly around.”

When was the last time the so-called Transitional Government of Eritrea exercised this kind of decency?

Perhaps our solution lies in combining the organizational prowess and militaristic discipline of the EPLF with the democratic and open culture of the ELF. For once, remaining closer to the center would do us great good. There is a lot we can learn from our recent past. Our goal should be to understand, if we are to be part of the solution. Read The Fighter’s Letter!

Buy the book at: Africa World Press or Amazon

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  • Guest

    Yeah right, Mr. Nitricc. As if you know what you are ‘talking about’. Clearly, you don’t seem to understand Eritrea and all the issues that I have so far raised. I am not even sure that your understanding, I mean your grasp, of the language of communication is up to par. A Mai Nefhi grad ends up not only with his/her belly inflated, but also his/her ego inflated with a false sense of the self. Mr. Nitricc, you are a case in point.

  • Nitricc

    obviously i am dealing with angry individual who is void to reason. if PIA bad for your cause, well wait when the likes of YG come to power and you shall find it out. i am telling you for the best interest of Eritrea, all citizens should be treated equal and we have work to do, if you going sit here and unload your anger nothing will be done. in fact you are chasing away people who want to work with you. you can say what ever you want but PIA never abandoned you. the opposite is true, he took care of as best as he can. the truth. you have a choice, work to harmonize the nation for the best interest of the country or sit there and unload your anger. your choice.

  • Nitricc

    Mr. guest your logic is getting away from you. the toothless history says the high land christens involved to the bloody war because their lowland and muslim brothers were in a point of eradication by the Ethiopians. that is the truth. the highlanders had it good and they had reason to involve but they did for the sake of one Eritrea. again please keep you pie hole shut and think. as far as TPDM, well it lis smart idea which ever you might think. if the Ethiopians want to attack us, well the they must pass through the buffer system, TPDM and second Eritrea invested with young Ethiopians while the dumb weyane trying to invest on old, corrupted and grudge driven Eritreans. so, having TPDM i see it as an advantage not as a weakness. having said that; your out look is negative and outdated. think fresh and progressive.

  • selam

    I have read this book and it is a nice story telling but to suggest ELF was a democratic organisation is beyond any reason to say saudi arbia has a democratic government and i could care less what this disillusioned person explain history on his own way except the fact that he was wrong about ELF being democratic. As far as initiating to reconcile with our neighbour is nice except the fact that weyane and HGDEF know deep that way is not good for their continuity

  • Ted

    Writing angry, not cool. You got worked up just by book review and a couple of quotes.

    • Guest

      You are still licking your wounds and squirming from the total drubbing you have so far suffered. Nothing will sooth your bruised ego as you can’t handle the heat that is coming to you and your cult. The base and the foundation of your cult, HGDEF, is not and will not be spared. Let me spell it out as you seem to be very dense and obtuse. What I am saying is that the base of the fascist cult otherwise known as HGDEF is Kebessa and its Christian population. And, so far as I am concerned, I am going to tell it without sugar-coating it; without mincing words; without lacing it with a politically correct utterances. That you can literally bank on and take it to the bank. If that makes me “sound angry” to you and your HGDEF’s cult members and other chauvinists, I can’t tell you how proud and accomplished that makes me feel. I know for a fact who is fuming here, not for anything but for the utter lack of refuting my arguments.

      • Ted

        I stand corrected. You are one pissed off dude. I believe change is needed for all Eritreans to live harmoniously. And i don’t share your grievance that Eritrea’s problem can be solved based on religion or region although i fell sorry you feel that way. Let’s work together where capable people can lead Eritrea with out their religious beliefs or origin.

        • Amanuel Hidrat

          Hi Ted,

          What is the purpose of communicating each other if you don’t share his grievance and vice versa? The problem of Eritrean politics is precisely that. We don’t listen each other and we don’t accommodate the psychological needs of each other. Think about it..

          Amanuel Hidrat

          • Ted

            Hi Amanuel, I truly feel the grievance of the of Ex- ELF members . I wish things were different as i want to see ELF as a political party inside the country. Things that bothers me is labeling ELF as their own regional or religious organization. It is an insult to people(Christians/ Muslim; highland / low land) who died for Eritrean cause.
            Ms. Guest primary grievance is EPLF being christian organization. We all want change not just Ibrahim vs Aberham nonsense.

          • Amanuel Hidrat

            Selam Ted,

            In socio-politics, there are various grievances (a) civil liberty grievance (b) political grievance (c) social group grievances. You touched one of the three grievances – the political grievance expressed by ELFites who were denied in the political process of our nation and nation building. I appreciate your sympathy towards them. There are also civil “liberty grievances” and “social-group grievances” that has to be addressed equally. If we disregard these grievances we are playing with our social fabric – the fabric that hold us together and make us to live in peaceful co-existence. We have to handle our grievances carefully. Our Social grievances are comprised of political, economical, and psychological in nature and require holistic approach to address them. Again think about it, At least let us listen each other and accommodate our socio-political needs.

            Amanuel Hidrat

          • Ted

            My ears and heart is open not only listen but also be part of the solution. When a Muslim Eritreans feels disadvantaged that is the beginning of the end for Eritrea. Mr Guest, you try to bundles up two completely different things as one. 1) hate for Kebessa and its Christian chauvinist population and 2) hate for EPLF. EPLF is not going to be staying for ever, sooner or later they will be gone and hopefully taking your grievance with them. But i seriously doubt that. You used the EPLF card as a cover. I am not saying you don’t have the right to feel that way but be clear on issues affect us all. If it helps, i sincerely apologize to you on the behalf christian Eritreans knowing we can’t be whole with out you.

          • Amanuel Hidrat

            Haw Ted,

            Your answer mean to Guest but you put it in my thread as if you are replying to me. However, I like of becoming magnanimous this time. Once we make our feeling reciprocal then the solution is not that difficult.

            Amnanuel Hidrat

          • Ted

            Thank you for becoming magnanimous. Since Mr Guest accused me being chauvinist christian and you advice me to take note, i am trying address that.

        • Microscope

          Now we know who you really are !
          You are just one con Artist dude. BOY !
          your true nature and colour is coming out and
          showing itself……
          My thanks to guest who showed us your behind !

      • Nitricc

        Watch out, what you wish for. If PFDJ are bad for the muslims and lowlanders, then wait when the Tigryans and the Christian highlanders make it up, creating a formodable force. then i wonder what you will say then. so, when you are venting unjustly; it could get worst. for me this is main reason i oppose any peace between Eritrea and our cousins to the south for now. i want Eritrea to fix her self first, clean out house and put it in order before we talk to our cousins. if not, once the Tigryans and highlander christians make out, the muslims and lowlanders will be marginalized.
        so, Mr. Guest, you better work to better your people and for a better Eritrea than dishing out anger and uncalled for accusations. Eritreans paid huge price to create a just and equal treating Eritrea.
        be part of the solution.

  • Semere Andom

    Hi Sem:
    Thanks for this. It is about time the Eritrean story is told in a more wholistically. Such kind of books are the anti-dote of the shrewd erasure of the people’s history. These historical books also need to be translated to Tigriniya, Arabic and Tigrayt lest they remain the exclusive domain of only those who can read in English.
    We are lucky that we live in this modern world, were we can digitally document everything he crimes and the stories of those who participated in the struggle. We are late comers so most of the people who started/witnessed the early years of the revolution are still alive. Otherwise our history would have been faceless.

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