Exactly a year and a few weeks ago I wrote a draft article to post on Awate in the form of a letter to Tzigereda. It was a kind of encouragement and response to her after she wrote “Gejeret 1975: Life Under Mengistu’s Derg.” Seeing people criticising her on writing personal stuff as well as a cumulative uproar on what she wrote before, I wanted to do the same to signify there is nothing wrong with narrating personal stuff and the hardship of Gedli. But later on, since mine was a little more personal, I hesitated. Now visiting it from time to time to scoop few words or events from it as I have been doing several times since I wrote it, I decided to post it. It is not only a way of deflating for me, but more importantly a way of sharing and telling, without edulcorating, a true story to the young generation, an example of an experience that a non-tegadalay passively went through. Therefore, here is the letter as I wrote it at that time.
Often, I come across names that ring a bell, probably I know the people, maybe we went to the same high school and who knows, potentially same class. I am not confusing Awate.com for Troy Dunn’s Locator, though it doesn’t hurt. But I am writing to relate some old news: my glimpse from the sidewalk of the Boulevard that Tzegereda trekked for long. As you are well aware now, this could be again misused, politicized. But wait a minute, what misuse are we talking about? Isn’t everything about politicising these days? Even a sneeze is a suspect! How can I prevent today’s youth from reading my abracadabra about the past, my rambling and suffering of the 70’s from finding an exact mirror image (on a convex mirror at that) now 40 years later? I would certainly be tempted to explain the difference, the nuance, and the non-resemblance.
But I know the answer I will be getting: Comparatively, yours was a promenade in bet Ghiorgis (the peripheral park of Asmara). And I likely would reply back defensively saying I was running from the horrific treatment of the Derg soldiers, but you are running for the magnetizing Economic-Attraction. My youth will tell me, yes for that reductionist’s word of yours, that axiom for all the unpronounceable, the word that throws away all concerns including itself into banality! What can I say other that my decision to continue expurgating our dusty nostalgia, the nostalgia that will not settle down. I read Tzegereda’s beautiful narrative. Here is mine.
It was in 1977; the troops of Ziad Barre reached the doors of Dire Dawa triggering the rumors of forceful recruitment of the youth to liberate Ogaden. The news spread overnight in Asmara. Everything happened fast since the Ethiopia Tikdem revolution: The killing of the king of kings, the massacre of the notables, the conversion of the military junta to socialism, the printing of teramaj mezgebe qalat, the ascension of Mengistu HM to his dust freed throne, the martyrdom by white-terror of Guad Tedros in Addis Abeba (was better for him if he had stayed in his chair at Massawa’s seamen’s club) and the baptism of ‘yetaagay dimtz yCHohal (የታጋይ ድምጽ ይጮሃል)’ in his honor. 1977 was the year tegadlo (freedom fighters) liberated a large chunk of Eritrea just leaving the encircled Asmara. Mengistu’s solution or at least the news that was brought by the wind said, he was going to mobilize the youth including those under his control in Eritrea to ship us to south-eastern Ethiopia to liberate Ogaden: his attempt to kill one and weaken another bird with the same stone. Asmara parents were in a panic and found themselves between two hard rocks. They caved-in and chose to let their children trek to their villages of origin. If they return once things settle down, well and good; if they decide to join their brother and sister tegadeltis, better than Ogaden.
It was September 1st, how can I forget that memorable day! I got my Harambe shoes and traditional afro pick (መሰንተር) ready. Unlike other times my mother didn’t cry when I was leaving, I guess because it was for my safety. My father accompanied me to Godaif. He gave me the 60 birr he had in his pocket, his watch, and a stick (በትሪ). I was very touched; he probably thought I might not come back. He asked a retired policeman from HazHaz, an old acquaintance of his, going to Dekemhare, to act as my guardian angel. We were a little more than half a dozen people on the trek and the elders had to decide quickly which way to go. Tegadlo`s night-buses were available between Zgb & Dekemhare, but who–in plain daylight in his right mind–would dare walk that corridor of scorched earth to Zgb, a street of death, corpses, IED’s (ፈንጂ) and the nervous Derg military watching from the heights of Tselot and adi Hawsha! Therefore, we decided to go straight south through adiguAdad to merHano and then to Dekemhare. The trek was long, the counties empty, the land completely barren, not even a rabbit of the name. We got few mini and stagnating streams here and there to quench our thirst. The discussion among us was on who (Jebha/ELF or ShaAbia/EPLF) controls this and that village; we were walking almost at the line of demarcation of the two fronts, far on our right Serae region occupied by the ELF and far on our left Akeleguzai, held by the EPLF. Since we were going to the EPLF-controlled area, everyone appeared verbally less sympathy to the rival ELF.
Deep inside, I had a little penchant towards the ELF. I knew about them since childhood when everybody was identifying them by the name ‘shiftas’. One of them was my mom’s cousin (BTW by 1977 he had changed camp with EPLF, later martyred, HT your face is embedded in my memory). I use to hear my mother saying, ወዲ ዓወተ እንድዩ ብቆልዕኡ ወሲድዎ ነዚ ሓወይ (the son of Awate took my brother at a young age). At that time, for me, the ‘shiftas’ were mixtures of tough, scary hairy, but likable guys. I cannot forget, in the early seventies, those who were killed by hanging in the livestock market of Edaga Hamus; in particular one hairy gallant man who the king’s mouth claimed he had committed thefts and crimes near ዓርበረቡዕ ነፋሲት ጉልዒ area; I overheard my father and neighbors saying the given reason was a pretext. Certain images never stop coming back at the slightest trigger, a dark box for example. Who will forget that British made hanging cube with rectangular arch guiding the ropes?
Back to my trek: Anyway we didn`t encounter any freedom fighters till we arrived near Dekemhare. It took us all day, but despite the papules and blisters under my feet, we were there safely. My honorable guardian angel took me to the doorsteps of my aunt. Arriving at Dekemhare was the biggest discovery for me; it was the first time I see tegadeltis in the wild in that number (I had encountered 1 or 2 who used to come on a mission in Massawa in an uncle’s place; I was not supposed to know or talk to them). Numerous tegadeltis had arrived in Dekemhare to celebrate the anniversary of the liberation struggle. My two little cousins were very happy to see an elder brother coming from Asmara and especially on that exciting period and that special day; they didn`t let me rest. I had to take them to the marketplace to watch the roar of the guns heralding the birth of Eritrean revolution. The night ended with pain on my feet and on my ears.
I was planning to stay recovering few more days, but unfortunately for me, a Debtera from our village staying in my Aunt’s house decided to go back at dawn, and I was left with no other choice but to follow him. My only consolation from the pain was that sweet and tasty shahi (tea) prepared on a wood fire, that I sipped on the way, on that never-detergent-washed blue-black galvanized kettle with reverberating lid from the steam, covered with layers of soot on the outside and by gluey adhering leaves on the inside. After few hours of trekking through again dry and desolate counties we arrived at our village. It was a complete climatic and human drought; only elder people were seen in the village, barely any young person of my age. I went to my deceased grandfathers’ hidmo (ህድሞ, a troglodytic house) where my younger uncle was living; except one emaciated ox, no cows or goats that I used to see years back were present. The family, my uncle, his wife and his little single son (now a martyr) were taken by surprise seeing their nephew, now a man, at the doorstep of their hidmo. Though it was a great pleasure and emotional to see me, the atmosphere turned quickly to worry and anxiety; they felt so sad for not having any food to offer me. They thought the small piece of Dagusa (millet) bread that they could share was unpalatable for me. No shop in the village to buy anything with the 20 Birr that I immediately, by a reaction, shared with them. And no comforting explanation that I had amply eaten on the way could console them. Aggravating their discomfort, no one from the neighborhood came to see me; everybody had that dignified feeling of shame for not being able to provide. I never minded sleeping with my dagusa filled stomach, but that witty debtera who understood the situation came that evening asking me to follow him and pleading not to ask any more question on the magical power of debtera in stopping rain and charming the girls to run after you and the sort of things I had bombarded him with that morning. I followed him and guess where he takes me? To a mourning (ተዝካር); a family was silently mourning their deceased by inviting only the priests. To keep it quiet, the table (መኣዲ meadi) was prepared in the wushate (ውሻጠ kitchen). I have never felt so uncomfortable; I felt like a greedy intruder and couldn’t even eat correctly. In addition, the priests who knew my parents and my grandfather, their leading priest before he died, were not at ease with my presence, I a secular or Judas among the `apostles`!
The sunrise next day gave me the chance to run away to my aunt who was in a much better situation living in a village just two rivers away. I stayed and enjoyed few days there, but had to go back to my village where the big news was awaiting for me. Two EPLF and two ELF fighters had arrived separately in the village! The EPLFers were on a mission to discuss with the village on a land dispute. The village, as everybody in the area, happened to be 100% pro-EPLF; therefore, the two EPLFers were officially and happily well received with smiling faces by the village representatives. The ELFers on the other hand came-by because one of them (now martyred) was from the same village, a single child to one of my numerous aunties, a widowed mother who chose years before, to come live in her parent’s village. The other ELF was wedi-metaHt (ወዲ መታሕት) a great tall guy with a sweet Tigrayt accent. Obviously, my cousin and his colleague were not well received. Not that surprising! But what was out of bound was being ignored by even his closest relatives. Perhaps it was also an evasion from the lack of means to provide. The relative`s worry was not receiving him as he deserves, but bringing their son in-line; trying in vain to persuade him and his colleague get converted to EPLF. I don`t think they dared say it directly to him unless through his mother. His mother’s happiness of seeing her only son face to face and her apprehension of the whole situation was expressed by the tears that never stopped from flowing from her smiling eyes without the slightest physical sign of cry. I was confronted with the embodiment of all injustice. The atmosphere was intolerable for the 2 ELFers and they decided to leave ASAP the next day. For me, it also ruined the ephemeral affinity I had started to develop with the EPLFers. One of them was just 3 years my school-senior and went to the same junior high as me. Although few years had passed, I still was wearing the white ‘sarian’ (ሳርያን) junior high school uniform we used to wear. With these two, we talked at length about it and about school life, the funny English teacher we had in common. I also mentioned to them my surprise at getting dictation of our then history teacher (Haileab, I think), his too daring mention in a class of `the liberation front of Eritrea is known as ELF ጀብሃ` while he was teaching us the history of liberation Fronts in Africa, Frelimo, Zanu etc.
The EPLFers wanted me to stay with them that day to attend the bayto (ባይቶ, open-air city hall) meeting and hinted at the possibility of me following them as well. I wasn’t ready at all at that kind of departure; it gave me goosebumps. I eluded them and that same day without warning picked my stick and followed the steps of the ELFers to my aunt’s village that also happened to be this cousin’s dead father’s village. I reached them at the second river. We sat there talking. I got questioned in return for my visible absence of enthusiasm to join the struggle, on the purpose of the EPLFers visit and what I thought about the whole situation. But our discussion turned quickly into how again this adamantly Pro-EPLF village was going to react. Wedi-metaHt insisted to request official reception as any tegadalay deserves. And he did, to no avail. He was furious, never seen someone so mad; his sweet accent turned into a desperate roar. Imagine my cousin trying to explain the unexplainable and defending his indefensible village and confronting his colleague who cannot understand the un-understandable, the disdain of the village officials to ELF, and to their own blood. Nonchalantly, they went to pass the night in an uncle’s house which happened to be on the back of my aunt’s house. The uncle had nothing to eat let alone to offer. Destitute touched there too! Then they decided to contact me explaining the situation. They asked me to do something; my cousin the ELFer didn’t want to talk to my aunt directly; saying my aunt (distantly his as well) doesn’t deserve to see their angered and desperate face. Therefore, I asked her to help on their behalf. My aunt and her husband were very understanding and generous people and gave me layers of injera admixed with delicious shiro inside an agelgl (ኣገልግል, a woven food storage) not only for the two fighters but also for all the family. They were very thankful.
The next morning, they let me know of their decision to leave that day further south to areas sympathetic to them. On my part, I got again another practical lesson on the tortuousness of Gedli Boulevard that left me get bitter and bitter. My next encounter with tegadeltis came a week or so after in the same village, a group of EPLFers including a lady, led by a well-known tegadalay judge (name retained) came to discuss the village’s territorial issue with a neighboring village. My first cousin who hadn’t joined yet the struggle, but one of the fervent diehard EPLFers of the village asked me to go with him at the closed meeting saying it will be a good experience for me. Out of curiosity, I went; I was always wearing my junior high uniform. No one noticed me at first, and then minutes later the lady tegadalit saw me and stood to ask who I was. My cousin started to explain. She reprimanded him immediately asking him to mind his business and asked me to leave immediately repeating I shouldn’t attend such meeting, the villages affair was none of my business. I heeded without voicing a word, but inside I was boiling saying ‘tsinHi anti gezaf meAkor (ጽንሒ ኣንቲ ገዛፍ መዓኮር)’. When I went back home weeks later, I told the story to my mom where she added, way weday! eway entay d’a weriduwa eza wnchar (ዋይ ወደይ፣ እዋይ እንታይ ድኣ ወሪድዋ እዛ ወንጫር)! But frankly, this was a small scratch on my chicks that angered me over the moment, but compared to what I related earlier, was just an amusing memory.
My story needs to end here. Finally, after almost a month stay, I got fed up, got sick cerebrally and physically, missed my mother, I was homesick and returned to Asmara after few more days of twists and turns through Segeneiti and its waiting list for the night bus, then to Zgb and its zillions corpse eating hyenas, the bad escarpments between Tzelot and Gul’I, to arrive safely at the church of Kidane Mehret of maiChehot. Arriving there, I kissed the exterior wall of the church that morning, and I felt good. The story of Mengistu sending us to Ogaden had subsided. I was able to continue my study.
Few more things on Segeneiti; it was a town where so many tegadeltis paid their life to liberate it. At the time I was there, many wounded and sick tegadeltis were still around. The bus ticket was sold by the tegadeltis who interviewed every person. They were strict on youngsters like me. For instance, they refused a guy standing before me to go back to Asmara because he should serve instead. I was asked the same questions. I answered with an excuse that I only came to see my mom’s corn fields and remove weeds. He looked at me and chuckled, and I insisted on going back to help my mom. He looked at my frail young body, shook his head still chucking and gave me a ticket. I was so happy.
That was my periscopic view of the tortuous and painful Boulevard that I glimpsed, and that led to our independence. Unfortunately, despite independence, we appear to be still in that tortuous Boulevard. It looks we haven’t given enough reflection for what went wrong and how to learn from it to be able to come closer from our respective corners. The only way out of our problem is to take a few steps each time towards each other’s direction with a responsible and compassionate understanding and tolerance of each other. We can only come together if and only if we recognize and admit how far apart we stand at present. Of course, the onus is on the Eritrean leadership to think beyond its determination not to flinch on what it perceives is the only avenue forward, without looking back, without self-interrogation.
Despite all my repulsive observations, the norm was to swallow the bitter truth and join as the objectives of the struggle outweighed the hardship. It was the case for many. I was not the only sneaky observer of what was going wrong. Why didn’t I join the movement then? Well, when you are not ready to join, the stream becomes an ocean to cross, the rock a mountain to climb and the slightest reason becomes the most valid one to hold-on, a single remaining boy to a mother, for instance.
Recognition, admiration, and tribute to those who saw no obstacles, those who saw flowers on the thorns, to the ‘shiftas’ (ሽፍታ), the wenCharat (ወንጫራት) and the Tseguar Danga (ጸጓር ዳንጋ), those who gave their lives and their living to make that dream a reality.
Happy New Year, best wishes for all, for Eritrea and our region in general.