It has been about forty years since I saw you last. I am writing this open letter because instead of the usual intent of letters, which tend to be private and intimate; why this open letter, well, because you are Eritrea’s father. Eritrea’s grandfather. Eritrea’s big brother. Open letter because there is 93 years-worth of story to tell that’s embodied in you our Eritrea’s Father. Our beloved father, I’ve heard some unthinkable happenings to your person from your own Eritrean sons and daughters. To those whom you helped toward the culmination of our Eritrea’s independence. I know you are going to be taken aback by my letter today, because I now have a more complete picture about you papa more than I ever did before I left home to fight for my people. Barely fifteen when I joined ghedli, I used to hear in whispers from our neighbors and from when you sometimes took me to our Cotton factory in Gejeret. I could see the neighboring residents of Gejeret had a great deal of reverence for you. Do you remember Aboy Tesfay who used to come to have a tea with you. During your conversations, I used to eavesdrop, and your talks always seemed to gravitate toward the occupying force of Haile Selassie of our country Eritrea. You and aboy Tesfay used to devise a plan in how you were going to line up supply for the Fedayeen when they were to do some operations. I understood neither of the underlined terms then, but when I left for ghedli things became clearer what it was you went to jail for.
One time when you left me to tend after your office, Abboy Tesfay came looking for you but you had stepped out for some business venture of sorts. So, the story he told me about you left me speechless – your bravery and courage was boundlessly beyond compare. The story went something like this. You were caught red-handed helping the Fedayeen, consequently imprisoned. And during the court proceedings, as it turned out the prosecutor did such a lousy job and was so no match to your defense lawyer, consequently you were able to gain your freedom on legal grounds. What I am hearing now, your own Eritrean sons and daughters putting you in jail without the due process of law is astounding to say the least. The enemy Eritreans fought against gave you your day in court while our own is doing the complete opposite. Over here with my friends, you surely remember Saleh, weddi abboy Osman who lived around the corner from enda Mohamed Berhan beAl shahi, few houses down from enda aboy Hali. Saleh, like his older brother Abruaheem, continues to be a star in playing soccer. He is here with me treating me like his younger brother and are, by the way, best friends with my brother Hussein. I am always the spectator type, so I watch him and many other of his friends play soccer. You may not know Tedros, from May Anbesa, about a block from tmhirti enda Shweden, right there near enda ustaaz Beshir (aka, Madrast al Dia’a), the latter of which I hear is the reason why you are being imprisoned, to which I will come back to momentarily. Let me first, however, tell you about my friends here. I have some friends who knew you in Gejeret. Nura gual aboy Abdu. Solomon weddi aboy Kahsay, all speak highly of you…of your character…of your relentless determination to see the freedom of our people.
DeQQi Gejeret remember you fondly, some of whom, you literally saved their lives from the Dergue’s Affans who would come in their vans to hunt young Eritreans and you would hide them in our factory. These stories of bravery that I used to hear during my formative years shaped my character. Word has it that Yousuf weddi Hali received a wrath of the Derg of Ethiopia’s soldiers when they came looking for you and they heard you had hidden some of the Fedayeen weapons in our house. I didn’t understand it then, but I know now, Yousuf paid for it with his left eye permanently damaged from the hit he received by the butt of the Torserawit’s gun. These incidents and the stories that I heard growing up left me maturing way too early than some of my good friends in Akhriya who were preoccupied with playing Jettoni (Calcho Pallina) and playing Raminos and venti uno or soccer; none of which I found appealing, save the last one that I loved being a spectator and continue to be so now.
Papa, I was so mesmerized by the stories I used to hear about you and by extension about the aspirations of Eritreans for territorial integrity and freedom to be free from occupation, I was compelled to leave for ghedli to do my share and when need be to pay the ultimate price. You’ve survived it all, I have no reason to believe you wouldn’t now, because you are Eritrea’s father. Change for the better is afoot. I am compelled to tell your story because you cannot be defined by Madrasat al Dia’a. The latter was just the vehicle to larger social and political ailments that our Eritrea and its people are suffering from. I left Akhriya for good when it was endearingly known by enda ustaz Beshir. I see that now the legacy of ustaaz beshir is being passed on to the proceeding generations because it was made into an institution, hence, I suppose for the change of its name to Madrasat al Dia’a. I gather it is now run by board of directors, many of whom are now in jail, including you, as its chair.
When I heard you stood your grounds as a board leader of the school in question, telling the authority that this school was not going to be nationalized because it is a school built by the community here in Akhriya and made to flourish over the last five decades…I turned on my grave gleefully, saying to myself, that’s my papa. My papa, never squeamish, always steadfastly standing on the side of truth wherever that truth might lead, even if it took you to the dungeon. You’ve done it during Haile Selassie era, you’ve done it during the Derg era, by golly, why not now even when your own Eritrean sons and daughters are the ones who are doing this unbecoming act upon one of their own Eritrean father who fought the good fight and along the way faced so many run ins and faced countless subsequent wraths of occupiers of our land.
My friends and I are puzzled by what has become of our country. The country for which we paid the ultimate price for. We are happy that you stood for freedom of Eritreans to choose to attend schools of their choices. This is about choice and choice is fundamentally about freedom to choose. Though me and betsotay are deeply disturbed and saddened that you are facing such harsh treatment when you are now in your nineties, but nobody is surprised about your position, because you are the champion of truth who doesn’t flinch to speak truth to power. Nevertheless, the least we expected from our compatriots is to respect our elders in general and individuals like you in particular. In fact, we are so puzzled by the predicament you find yourself in that this is the time when political scientists, historians, anthropologists should come flocking to your home to learn our history from you – The lived history where political events shaped you and how you shaped it in return as you continue to shape it now. You are a living primary source from whom they can learn a great deal. You should be the cherished jewel from whom they can unearth the trough of the diamonds, the best part, so our younger generation can learn what their forefathers did, how much they sacrificed to bring Eritrea into the family of nations. Papa, let me tell you about recent events on this side of the world and Amm Taha, the ever story teller left us teary eyes, tears of pride, tears of joy that made us proud you have lived this for good measure, but first, I must tell you about the occasion for the gathering for contex.
It was September 1st National Holiday. Yes, we have holidays here, too, papa. The day in which the first bullet of freedom was fired is the day in which every Eritrean shows up. I saw all of the dignitaries like abboy Ibrahim Sultan and abboy Woldeab Woldemariam; I saw ayya AbdulQadir Kebire. I saw Ibrahim Affa. I saw Jemal Abdunnasir. I saw Haile; I saw Petros; I saw Naizghi… I saw and saw and saw. I saw Eritreans from all corners…from Afar to Sahel to Barka; from the highland to semhar to Akeleguzai to Hamassien; from Seraye to Log Chuwa – from all corners of Eritrea; I saw our Eritrean sisters who paid the ultimate price dignifying the occasion by their gravitas, proud of the dignified life they lived, swore to live by, and were ultimately martyred for. Here is what Amm Taha told the crowd: In one of the official policy related gatherings in which you were in attendance, the official told the attendees about the health risks that were becoming public safety matter in SAWA camps, where the young men and women were facing of some serious sexually transmitted diseases. The Official’s panacea for this potential public health crisis was for parents to give condoms – I guess like tooth brush and tooth paste. After listening carefully, you asked for permission to speak and you obliterated the man’s argument by saying something like this: “You (meaning the officials) made the policy of SAWA where you take our children at the ages of 16 and 17 to the camp for their national service, where there is no parental control. You (meaning the officials) allow loads of beer to be consumed at the SAWA camp because we see trucks leaving Asmara with these supplies. Wouldn’t that be a perfect recipe for what you are describing Mr. Official. እንታይ ግበሩ ኢኹም ትብሉና ዘለኹም? Your loved ones and your friends who were at the gathering later told you that you know questioning and embarrassing the official is going to put you in jail. Your retort, classic Aboy Musayesk was: አነስ ክእሰርየ ደሐን፡ ንስኻትኩምካብ እሕሕ ምባል አይትቆጠቡ ኢልካዮም.
So many anecdotal stories, so logically thought through when it comes out of your mouth, it hits the nerve center of whatever issue being raised. I miss you papa as I miss so many things about Eritrea, but your country needs you now more than ever as we will see each other sooner or later.
I’ve seen the valleys. I’ve seen the molehills and the mountains. I’ve seen the rivers. I’ve seen the trails. I’ve seen the deserts and the seas. Every part of Eritrea I set my foot on. My flesh and my bones, my sweat and my tears have been spread throughout the land. Eritrea is my land. You cannot separate the landscape from those of us who have been buried in its entire proper. Marked graves and unmarked cemeteries. Unceremoniously our bodies were buried out of respect for human dignity, our remains were never left behind to be exposed to wild beasts or to the elements. It was always in that one meter Aleba. We respond to the kind of mishap and missteps that we see at home in a visceral way. There is no place where we the martyrs have not been buried in. Every part of Eritrea we can be found. You may not see us but we are always present. You may not feel our presence but we feel every move you make, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. The latter is the space you always occupy papa, of which we are all proud of you the Father of Eritrea. We shake our heads at their errant ways. When one Eritrean is hurt all of us the martyrs feel the pain. We are eternally, call it condemned, but we call it our lucky ticket, for which we are eternally grateful and eternally blissful. We are watching! I am so lucky to have had your gene papa. What you have started is going to change Eritrea for the better. The following communal prayer we the martyred Eritreans dedicate to you the living to do good by your people.
Your martyred son,
Selahaddin Musa Mohammed Nur
P.S. Papa, while you are in confinement, the following poem by Audre Lorde that we are dedicating to you and the living brothers and sisters of ours there in Eritrea. Here, we use it as our collective and communal prayer vigil; this we thought would give you some solace and comfort. Believe it or not papa, this communal prayer, all of us Eritreans here love beyond compare. We have Anmists, Muslims, Christians, agnostics, and Atheists – amidst it all, we get along mighty fine. Here it is, enjoy!
a litany for survival: by audre lorde
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive