My favorite book in the bible says: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build…a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccles 3:1-8).
What time is it?
It is a time to love; and a time for peace. It is a time to settle disputes; and turn swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks so none will take up sword against the other nor train for war anymore. Whatever conviction, faith, and principles people have, they have to be marinated in love; otherwise they will be dead. A Facebook friend has lately posted an apt quote on his wall that is attributed to Mrs. Parnell: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Surely, the two must go hand-in-hand, and should not be divorced.
The journey of bringing people together starts with a genuine attempt to understand people, and to creating an environment that is conducive to mutual respect and tolerance. The truth, as the Bible commands, must be spoken in love; for anything, as the Quran says, is beautified by kindness and marred by its lack. A culture of empathy that puts people in their brothers/sisters’ shoes is necessary. There is nothing more important to victims than the acknowledgement of their suffering.
The older I get, the less interested I’m in proving or disproving anything. This does not mean I don’t care about the truth for it is the foundation of every worthwhile human endeavor; but to underscore the importance of understanding. It is what people should aspire and work for. It is understanding that will bring them together; it is what brought ato Kidane Alemayehu and me closer; and work for a noble and lofty goal of ushering in a new age of peace and development in the Horn of Africa.
If my father was alive; he would have been a little older than ato Kidane Alemayehu, but the prevailing political circumstances between Ethiopia and Eritrea would have made it almost impossible for the two to have any sort of relationship. I know my father was an honorable man and so is ato Kidane Alemayehu, and perhaps their understanding of virtue and faith might have enabled them to transcend their difference and become friends.
My father and so many of Eritrea’s best men and women died and gave the best years of their lives to the liberation struggle so many Eritreans like me can have a normal life; and their sacrifice could only be meaningful if Eritreans live a life of normalcy that they were deprived off—a life dedicated to mending fences and not destroying them; a life that lifts people up and not put them down; one that fosters comity and not enmity.
I’m the poster-child of Eritrea; and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to safeguards its hard-earned independence, and honor the enormous sacrifices made during the long liberation struggle. It is the fate of my generation to be entrusted with this huge responsibility. We were taught by selfless Tegadeliti, some dead and others alive. Their only wish was that the younger generation of Eritreans be educated so they can be the ones to live their dreams. The least I should do is try to live up to that legacy, and I’ve every intention to continue doing so.
I was born in the year the ELF was celebrating its 9th anniversary, and the EPLF was just being formed; the two organizations that effectively rallied Eritreans to rise up in arms and fight for their independence. I had the unenviable fate to experience, first-hand, the hardship and suffering Eritreans went through. In 1975, when I was at the tender age of five, Ethiopian soldiers came into my village and committed horrendous atrocities that came to be known as the Wekidiba Massacre. (Please read Fr. Athanasius’s/ Dr. Habtu’s Gebreab’s book, Massacre at Wekidiba, and my review of it at my column http://awate.com/massacre-at-wekidiba-a-survivors-review/).
My family and I were among the few lucky ones who survived the massacre and were able to flee their hometown to seek refuge in neighboring villages. Internally displaced, we spent the next two years in SeHarti where we had to seek shelter in the mountains of Alla every time the Ethiopian military convoys pass through the village. The convoys were notorious for destroying and looting properties, and even worse, killing and abusing people. The expression “Amhara ymetsu alewu: hdemu” (Run away, the Amhara are coming) is deeply embedded in my memory. It was our negarit, our Tornado and Hurricane Warning, that cautioned us of the impending and inevitable carnage and looting.
When the ELF liberated Mendefera, my father, an ELF Tegadelai, known by his younger comrades, as Ayay, made the necessary arrangements for us to come and settle there. It was in Mendefera where I was able to continue my first-grade education, and it is the city that gave me one of my fondest memories of Eritrea. The Ethiopian air-force subjected this small and beautiful provincial city to a daily bombardment; people were forced to change day into night. During the day time, we sought shelter, in hastily and poorly built shelter-bombs, bridges, and the dense trees of Mai-Tekhela where St. George School is located; tried to do other life’s necessities at night.
I vividly recall an incident that brought us close to death. My late brother, Dawit, was taking us to the forest of Mai-Tekhela when we were caught off-guard by the Ethiopian planes which did not hesitate to shoot at us. We got off the road quickly and took shelter under a small tunnel, and my brother hurriedly shoved all of us inside and was the last one to get in after shrapnel hit his leg. He carried that small scar to his grave; it was a constant reminder of how close we came to being annihilated.
We stayed at the Azenda neighborhood, but my school, Islamiya, was at the other end of town, the bloko Asmera. Imagine a child going to school from 7 pm to 11 pm. The surreal abnormality was only mitigated by the fact that Eritrea was a place where “it took a village to raise a child.” Every Eritrean was our protector, and we never felt insecure. My first-grade friend, Ibrahim, who taught me few Saho words, was my nocturnal companion. Our sojourn in Mendefera came to an end when the Ethiopians, with the help of the Soviets, Cubans, and many others, drove the ELF and the EPLF out of the liberated towns; and that was when my family and I finally fled Eritrea for good.
The story of modern Eritrea is my story and I’ve all scars to show for it. Like all Eritreans of my generation, I know many great Tegadelti, young and barely out of high-school, who took the time to play with us, their younger siblings, and inculcate in us the love of country and help us understand the importance of the noble ideas that they were ready to die for. In fact many of them have heroically fallen in action; some are living with amputated limbs, and even worse, some are living with amputated souls to see their country being betrayed by the very comrades they fought alongside with.
This is the history and this is the reality of our being, and I’m deeply rooted in it. But it should not constrain me from deciding where I should go and how big I can dream. The destiny of Eritrea and the destiny of my people are closely interlinked with the region and its people, and it is this realization that I believe should inspire all of us to work towards regional integration. Rectifying the situation in Eritrea should be Eritreans’ top priority; and working towards regional integration reinforces and compliments this important undertaking.
Let me quote here a short passage from my forthcoming book, on the Tewahdo Church:
“To a degree, understanding the history of the Red Sea, and its commercial and political importance is at the heart of the perceived threats and conflicts in the region. One way to amicably resolve this lingering conflict is to develop a comprehensive regional strategy that will eventually lead to regional integration. The people of the Horn of Africa have more in common than any other region in sub-Saharan Africa, and these transcendental linkages of history, commerce, and culture should be the linchpin of a future regional integration. The trust deficit, among the nations of the Horn of Africa, has made any kind of meaningful collaboration as elusive as a mirage in the Danakil Deserts.
A new chapter based on comity, mutual respect, and most of all, enlightened self-interest must be written by a new breed of leaders determined to change the status quo. More importantly, the new leaders must be imbued with big and inclusive ideas, which envision a limitless world beyond the artificial boundaries of a bygone colonial era. Nations and boundaries are tools designed to help so people can work on the perennial concerns of peace, justice, development and human dignity. There is a need for all concerned parties to recognize the Biblical exhortation, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Eph 2:3-4).
The transition from conflict to cooperation, from bullets to ballots, and from disintegration to integration is possible and realistic. Knowledge and wisdom must guide the ships of statecrafts.”
All of these are possible if people will only muster the courage to see their past and current demons eye-to-eye. The truth is that no war in human history has been fought without the demonization of the other side. It is not the universally used tactic of war and mobilization that should be our primary concern, but the causes that give rise to it and the justifications that sustain it. The Ethiopians have demonized Eritrea’s just and heroic struggle, and Eritreans have done the same, but it is preposterous to give them moral equivalency. No Eritrean has gone to Ethiopia to conquer or subjugate Ethiopians or deprive them of their linguistic and cultural heritage. The best way to sanitize the ugly past is to ensure it never happens again, but this cannot be accomplished by denying it. Acknowledging it is half the victory. It is time we catalogue all the wrongs committed so they can serve as cautionary tales.
I remember when the “border war” broke out in 1998, and the former Eritrean Ambassador to the US, Mr. Semere Russom, a man who can spit words beyond the legal speed, came to Dallas for fundraising; I objected to his language that demonized the Tgirayans, and I was subjected to some ridicule. I didn’t support the war and my rationale was simple: it was a war of choice. Besides, Weyanai meyto, Warsay meyto: iti Hazen dey natey iyu. Whether a Weyanay or Warsay die, I will be the one to mourn them.) As an Eritrean who is very proud of his Habesha, Hamasenay, and Tewahdo heritage, I’m incapable of not loving myself; and therefore I love the Tigrayans. To reiterate what I’ve always said: if I want to understand a Tigrayan, all I need to do is look at myself in the mirror. I love, respect, and cherish my three thousand years of Habesha history, its legends, myth, fables, and folktales and I refuse to apologize for it. I am a Habesha whose home is Eritrea and that identity is as sacrosanct as it can be.
Some of you might have rightly criticized me for not showing the same unequivocal love towards the Amhara that I’ve for the Tigrayans. First, the Tigrayans have not done us wrong; in fact they were Eritrea’s best ally in the struggle, and the wrong detour that was taken by Isaias and Meles during the “border war” will be easily corrected when we start empowering people. The Amhara are Habesha too and that is why, as children, we also used to sing: iti qedem si Tlyan ygezana nay lomi gedede Habesha kemana. (In the old, we were ruled by the Italians but what is even worse now is that we are being ruled by Habesha like us.) This was to lament the right of self-rule that eluded us.
Forgiveness and reconciliation is an evolutionary process; and people must be allowed to take baby-steps. Perhaps, my friend, ato Kidane Alemayehu, was right when he described me as a “work-in-progress” in our early meetings. But, I’ve to say this: acknowledgement of suffering at the hands of Amhara, the Amhara monarchy or the regime, would greatly expedite the journey of reconciliation. There are even some Amhara Ethiopians who have the audacity to portray Haile Selassie as a benevolent elder statesman who did no wrong in Eritrea. Insult over injury! Tell it to the thousands of Muslim Eritreans who had to flee their home even before yours truly was born. I understand that someone’s hero is someone else villain; but have some sensitivity to those Eritreans who experienced his oppression and cruelty first-hand.
For starters, I would encourage all Amhara Ethiopians to ask themselves who the Tigrayans, the Ormoas, and the Ogadenis were fighting against? The Eritreans, Tigrayans, Oromos, and Ogadenis are not that stupid to blame the poor peasants of Gondar, Gojam, Wallo or Shewa, but they had to identify an enemy that was the cause of their real and perceived suffering. Being Amhara was the gold-standard of Ethiopianness, and speaking Amharic, with its evident glass-ceiling, was the only ticket to be part of the system. None-Amhara Ethiopians could no longer tolerate their relegation to a second-class status in their own country. The Tigrayans were even prohibited to spell the name of their region as Tigray; a phenomenon that was rightly characterized as “Politics of Y” by the historian Alemseged Abbay.
Demonizing a whole group of people is certainly wrong, but history shows how effective it is to mobilize the masses. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Casting the enemy as Amhara might have been wrong but certainly not the grievances and the struggle that emanated from them.
Truth and reconciliation go hand-in-hand and this is where the rubber meets the road. History matters; and that is why we need responsible and thoughtful people to come to the forefront and lead. But, when everything else fails, enlightened self-interest should guide regional cooperation. The Horn of Africa is one of the least developed and most conflict-ridden regions in Africa. No one benefits from the continuance of the status quo, and we need to change and think differently.
A final word to those who are quick to judge and defame others, I say a bit of self-restraint and giving people the benefit of the doubt is a good thing. Even if you think I am a “hater of Amhara” and a “bigot,” which I am not, you should not look a gift horse in the mouth. With an enemy like me, you don’t need friends. I wish the many Eritrea-hating and bigoted Ethiopians would have the wisdom to support Eritrea’s cause. And to those who have expressed outrage at non-existent bigotry; although misplaced, I encourage you to hold on to it.
To set the record straight, when Aya Kidane Alemayehu and I call each other, I reciprocate the courtesy and say, “indemen allu.” I’ve learned to enjoy Amharic dancing, but not necessarily the music, although I could see myself enjoying traditional Amharic music. Don’t read too much into it, the only music I listen to when I am exercising is Eritrean and Tigrayan; I barely listen to even American music. Amharic is one of the closest two languages to Tigrinya; but, narrowly defined, it is not mine, and as such I’m not obligated to love or cherish it. The best I can do at this time is remaining neutral as I do with Swahili or German. If there is a need for me to learn Amharic or Somali, I will. Languages are tools of communication and they are inherently good; but the danger lies in the politics of language. It is the politics of the Amharic language that Eritreans revolted and fought against and for that no self-respecting Eritrean will ever apologize.
Nothing animates me more than justice and I am always supportive of any legal and peaceful means that serves it. I don’t think there is any statute of limitation that nullifies any desire on the part of victims to seek due compensation for their suffering.
Semere T Habtemariam is the current chairman of the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Center, and the author of “Hearts Like Birds” and the forthcoming book on the History and Faith of the Orthodox Tewahdo Church of Eritrea and Ethiopia. He can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org