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Tragic Tales Of Eritrean Families: Mengistab Gebretinsae

It was in the eightie that I first met Mengistab Gebretinsae when he visited our house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When I was very young, I have been to his house in Asmara, with my mother and spent time with his children, but I don’t remember much of those days. I just knew that I have a “cousin” called Mengistab, and that his wife was Letekidan and his children Mulugeta, Essey and Ruta. I still don’t know his exact relations to my family. To my mother, a typical Eritrean mother, everyone her area was our cousin or uncle and we would call them Akoy, haweboy, ayay, etc. Sometimes she went through logarithmic calculations and complicated mathematics to prove that someone is her cousin.  (Ayakha zemuy n letefriel wede amoa koynu; abaya nletefriel dima mis aboy qomena deki akotat iyom!) You must be a genealogist to understand her.

Mengistab had just arrived from Asmara, and as a typical visitor from Asmara at that time, he brought along the famed sweaters (Golfo) made by Anbessa Sweater factory, dates, and biscuits made in Dekemehare and other stuff. He was a famouse and well paid experienced welder (batlamera); he has worked at Jianni Garage (Enda Jianni) in Asmara building buses and trucks. When the economic and political situation went bad in those terrible years in Eritrea, he fled to Ethiopia to look for work to provide for his family.  Since he was a highly skilled welder, it didn’t take him much to find a job, he started working in one of the big garages in Addis Ababa. Mengistab established himself quickly and in a short time rented a decent apartment and brought all his family, including his two younger brothers, Kibrom and Haile, and his young sister Rishan.

Mengistab’s skills became highly sought after and he earned good amount of money when in those years, a person earning 40 Birr an hour was considered rich and that kind of income was rare. People used to say, Buzuh iyu zkihfelo.

I waited for Sundays eagerly because on that day, Mengistab would visit our house and would tip me with 5 Birr, ‘moqshishka’ he would say! For my age, a child of around 13, 5 Birr was a fortune: three movies—one Indian, one American and a Chinese Karate movie—, gelato, sambusa and ice candy. I bought I went to teashops, bought butter bread and chewing gums on my way home and  still I would have extra money left in my pocket! I played bigfoot (Jetoni), bought post cards with the picture of Amitabh Bachan, Mithun, Darmendra or Vinod mehra and other famous Indian movie stars, with some changes to spare! I loved my generous cousin Mengistab who gave “Moqshish” that I spent like a king among my peers.

After a few years, Mengistab and his partner opened their own big Garage in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Business was booming and soon he becomes one of the richest Eritreans at that time and a well known person among his friends and acquaintances all over Ethiopia; and I began to work in his garage as an apprentice.

I was awe stricken in my first day in the garage when I found the place full of buses, trucks, dismantled cars and metal of every kind. Mengistab called one of the well known welders, a certain Fasil, and told him that I will be his assistant or redat (apprentice). I was a skinny teenager and my nick name was “spaghetti.” The heavy metals, the steel sheets and tools intimidated me. I have never seen a glowing welding torch lights before and the noise of the hammer on the anvil confused me. Fasil my trainer was not helpful either. Bring me the drill! Fetch for me size 4 iron! Tell so and so to twist the iron sheet by heavy iron number 3! Ribaltini habeni, masa gerka belo, puntare giberlu ab angolo, mola gerka tsirebo, neti guardisione fithayo, lamera kusri selsete gerka lihamo, trapano gerka ankulo dehar bloni qutsri hamushte gerka bdado isero, kiyabe dicha oto nabzi ablo… and more. It was all so confusing to my bookish scrawny character. I was a young boy who hardly picked a screw driver before. But my time in the garage is full of good memories and many more funny moments that I still cherish to this day. (More on that some other days.)

Mengistab prospered and he built a large house in Addis Ababa. He brought his parents from the Eritrean countryside and supported a lot of his people either by helping them financially or giving them employment and technical training his ever growing transport bus making enterprise. For some time, the situation was quite good for this family. He had three more children after he arrived in Addis and his tightly-knit family lived a happily.

In 1991 when the Deg regime collapsed, and Ethiopia and Eritrea become liberated from 17 years of military communist dictatorships, tens of thousands of Eritreans who lived in Ethiopia were jubilant and excited. They saw Ethiopia, where they resided, liberated from the murderous Derg regime. And above all, they were euphoric to be able to see Eritrea, their native land also freed and get its legitimate right after more than half a century of bitter struggle and endless bloodsheds.

To be an Eritrean in Derg/ESAPA’S Ethiopia was to live in constant fear of arrest, torture even executions; and Eritreans in Ethiopia have more reasons to be ecstatic in that unforgettable May of 1991. But the excitement, the jubilation, and the uncontrolled emotions of many Eritreans in Ethiopia didn’t take long to be dashed. A short time after May 1991, the mafia gangster Shabia clique begun to show its true colors. It begun kidnapping,  murdering in broad daylight and to snatch Eritreans from their houses and work places from all over Ethiopia, and especially from Addis Ababa. At first many Eritreans dismissed the news about the kidnapping and killing of Eritrean nationals by the EPLF. They thought that it must be a rumor or smear campaign spread by the remnants of the Derg and other anti-Eritrean elements. But the news of abductions of Eritreans and, worse, of assassinations of Eritreans by EPLF elimination  squads begun to spread like wild fire.

To some extent, a few Eritreans started to feel bit apprehensive and  uneasy. But the large majorities of Eritreans in Ethiopia were totally in a mood of euphoria and high elations. They were joyful of the independence and they couldn’t accept or fathom what is going on in front of their eyes. Like millions of Eritreans they were drugged, blinded, duped, confused. They didn’t see the reality because of they were intoxicated by the sweet poison and fatal venom known as freedom: Natsnet. Many Eritreans had no clue that their life and their nation’s life and future will be changed beyond recognition, forever. Millions of Eritreans had no idea that an unheard of and a previously unseen kind of monster was about to devour tens of thousands of people and usher the nation on its first year of the journey, into darkness and slavery that equals no other in modern history. My dear and loving cousin, the good man Mengistab Gebretinsae, didn’t escape the monster’s endless lust for Eritrean blood.

One afternoon, in 1991, while he was with his family in his house in Mekanisa, someone knocked the gate. The maid opened the gate and there stood a beautiful lady wearing a traditional garment (Tilfi zuria) asking for Mengistab. The maid, naively (how could she know) said that Mengistab was inside and she would let him know. Mengistab came to the gate to ask the lady what she wanted. The beautiful woizero politely said that she was buying a new bus and pleaded with him to go and check it for her. She said that as a woman she didn’t know anything about buses or technical matters and that she wanted his expert advise before she spend her money on buying the bus. So she beseeched him and said she would pay him for his services. Mengistab was not willing to go out at first, but the lady begged him so much that he softened and agreed to go with her. The lady said, she has car and that she will bring him back to his house afterwards.

Mengistab told his wife Letekidan, “one moment, I will be back soon……. Hansab keltife kimetsi iye.” That was the last time anyone saw him alive! It was a trap by the murderous and bestial EPLF kidnapping squad. For reasons no one knows till this day, he was abducted and taken away on an airplane with many other to Eritrean; some eyewitnesses said that the aircraft carried a Red Cross sign.

Mengistab didn’t return back to his family. Hours, days weeks and months, went by. The horrible ordeal of his family is difficult to imagine.

What happened to him? Is he killed? Seized for ransom? Fled? Jailed somewhere?

A great and an inconceivable pain and misfortune befall his family. The wife couldn’t run the garage and it has to be closed—a typical Eritrean wife is dependent on her husband’s income and every thing else—who is going to pay the bills? Who is going to pay the creditors? What about the salaries of the garage employees? What about the money in his  bank account. That was Mengistab’ tragic end!

The ill-fated wife Letekidan and her children were condemned to live in terror and immense sorrow—all cause by the brutal and fascistic Higdef gangs. Like any family of the disappeared, Letekidan looked for her dear husband, the father of her six children, all over Ethiopia and Eritrea. She roamed the country: Nakfa, Keren, Massawa, Asmara, Mendefera and Adi-Khuala in hopeless pursuit of her dear husband Mengistab Gebretinsae to no avail. His children grew up without a father. How would poor Letekidan reply when they ask her about their father? What do they say when someone asks the children where their father was?

Similar to Kalthoum whose story I told you in my previous article, the PFDJ made a widow of Letekidan as well. Both wronged women don’t know whether their husbands are dead or alive. Only the Almighty and the ever powerful God knows what really happened to Mohammed Said and Mengisteab Gebretinsae—and countless Eritreans—who were made to disappear by the Eritrean regime.

Only the merciful God—and the every  powerful—can to stop this enormous calamity and disaster that unfolded itself on Eritrea and Eritreans. It has been twenty years now. When one sees the heinous and unbelievable crimes and sadistic acts of the Eritrean regime against its own citizens, one couldn’t help but feel like the Iraqi mother Um Hamza.

Um Hamza (Hamza’s mom) is an old Iraqi shia woman. It was during the days of the butcher Saddam Hussein that she was told that her eldest son and the pearl of her eyes was murdered by Saddam Hussein’s security agents. She has this curse to say: “May Allah subhanu wa taala destroy your house, and may your house be barren for thousands of years! May Allah kill you and rot you in hell hundreds of times over!”

You can imagine the deep anguish and anger of a mother. There is no worse punishment for a mother than to see he child taken away.

One day, our land will be free. It will be liberated from the demonic gangs who are now mercilessly ruling it. Like anything else in this world, Eritreans will have their time too. They will see justice and live without fear of being kidnapped, abducted, disappeared or killed. We might even have a national holiday to help us reflect and pray for the disappeared, the vanished and the missing. We might name it, meaalti be aremenawi mengsti higdef nay zitseweru.

May the Almighty God help us witness that day.
May the ever compassionate God have mercy on us.
May the ever powerful Almighty God give strength and energy to the families of the disappeared Eritreans to cope with their calamities. Amen!

About Milkias Mehreteab Yohannes

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