Is This What We Really Want?
[This is an article written by TeKa, and Ethiopian sed that germinated in Eritrea. TeKa shares his life story loaded with some advise to his Ethiopian compatriots–Editor]
My name is TeKa, an Ethiopian born and raised, mainly, in Asmara, Eritrea. I am not a writer (you can tell), I am just another concerned Ethiopian who is looking for some answers to what is happening in Ethiopia.
To give you some perspective on why I sound so angry and frustrated with the current events, I will narrate briefly my life story. I understand that some may want to crucify me for saying certain things that they do not want to hear, and some, for sure, will agree with me. I am not here for a popularity contest. Anyone may say whatever they want to say if they do not agree with me, I am fine with it. Today I am here to tell my story because I am sad, lost, confused and frustrated.
I know my story is similar to many of you and, perhaps, you and I could come up with some way to bring our people that so desperately are seeking for some sane leadership and some real unity together. My story maybe peculiar in some ways, but I know there are many similar stories out there that would tell the effects of any war. I acknowledge that the war that I was basically part of, brought death to many Ethiopians including (then) Eritreans as well. This war affected everybody. The farmers in Ethiopia had to forfeit their simple but quiet lives and were forced to fight a war that it should not have started in the first place. The farmers in Eritrea were also deprived of their normal lives by the constant war and bombardment. Their young children were no longer allowed to go to school and were forced/volunteered to fight a fight maybe of none of their choices.
I was born in Asmara from two wonderful Ethiopians. My father descends from Wollo (Amhara), while my mother is from Adwa (Tigrai). I always felt proud and unique for being just that: an Ethiopian.
The fact that I was born from both an Amhara and a Tigrean gave me the chance to fluently speak both languages. Growing up in the military camps in Asmara, 12th Brigade, Forto, and then Kagnew Station, was interesting and nurturing to say the least.
Life in the military camps in Asmara:
Most of the people who lived in the military camps in Asmara were the Army and their families. Most of the soldiers were married to women from Tigray and, to some extent, from Eritrea. There were very few wives that descended from the central highlands of Ethiopia or beyond, obviously by convenience. There was such an amazing camaraderie that I have never seen anywhere else. People truly liked and helped each other. If somehow children misbehaved outside his home, it was up to any parent who happened to be at that place and time to discipline them. Even though the Army was among the least paying jobs, to some extent we never had to worry about anything. Life in the military camps was simple and exciting that none of us would change for anything else. We had ample opportunity to play all kind of sports. And, as a result of that, we were good at many sports including football (soccer). Military camps have in fact produced some of the finest national soccer players such as Gizachew Berhe (my Abro Adeg), Samuel Ejegu and many that I forgot their names. During these times, no one cared who came from Amhara or Tigray or Oromia or Somalia, etc. Regardless everybody loved and respected each other genuinely. We never gave a damn about who is from where. All we knew was that we were all Ethiopians.
Back in the late 1960 EC (1977-1978), situations in Eritrea and particularly in Asmara went from bad to worse. It was the time when EPLF gained lots of ground and was threatening to take over the whole “province”.
Just about the same time, in 1968 EC (1975) to be exact, my beloved father was killed in a battle near Keren, just a few kilometers South of Asmara. It was Meskerem 6, 1968 EC (September 16, 1975). I was just finishing my primary school. That period was very hard, especially for my mother.
My father had been killed at one of the very first skirmishes between the Ethiopian Government and the “Rebels”. My father was supposed to lead a squadron of armored vehicles and a few soldiers who were tasked to accompany a military convoy that was heading to the city of Keren. My father and his squad got ambushed few kilometers north of Keren by the Rebels. The fight lasted almost 24 hours which at the end of the battle, the rebels had to run away, but not without causing heavy causalities. 11 men died including my father on that day, my father was the last to be killed. He was hit by a single bullet right on his head at the end of the battle. Now when I think about it, I believe that he was hit by a sniper because the fight had stopped when he was hit. I vividly remember the day that my father had to leave for this particular mission. He had to wake up early morning at around 4 am. I remember the soft chat between my mother and my father while my mother was preparing him breakfast and making coffee for him. Once he was done with his breakfast and had a cup of coffee, he bid my mother goodbye. I was awake and listening while he was leaving and closed the door behind him. That would be the last time I heard his voice and felt the presence of my father alive. Hours later, he would be killed.
I was confused and unsure of the future. Since I was the eldest of the remaining siblings in the house (my eldest sister had just married), I felt the responsibility to take care of my mother, my brother, and sisters. It was one of the darkest moments of my whole life. I did not know what was coming next. My mother almost lost it and could not bear the fact that she became a widow at such a young age of 38.
A couple years later, the war in Eritrea got worse, food became scarce, fuel was nonexistent, and water was rationed. Life outside the military camps was miserable. And, as a result, all schools were closed. It was at this critical time when my friends (Dereje Kebede, Leulseged Fantu, Asmelash Wasihu, Daniel Reda etc) and I joined the youth league to help out our troops (Ethiopian) in any way that we could. My mother also started working at the Kagnew Hospital, for free, just like many other military wives.
I was around 13 or 14 years old when for the first time I saw dead or mutilated human bodies. The 2nd Division that was part of the Ethiopian Army stationed in Eritrea seemed to be overwhelmed by the massive number of injuries and causalities that it received during these days and was not able to provide the basic medical attention to its wounded soldiers. To help out with this crisis, as young patriots and as reliable and trustworthy children (boys and girls) of the military, my friends and I volunteered to be trained as 1st responders (1st aid providers) and started working at Kagnew and other Military hospitals all around the city. Like I said above, at the end of 1960s EC and beginning of 1970s EC ( 1977-1978), the situation became very scary. The then Ethiopian government deployed a massive number of militias to try to stop the advance of the rebels. The battle was fierce. The militias had joined the seasoned regular Ethiopian soldiers (very few left by then) and were confronted with determined and well-trained rebel fighters. Carnage was the word of the day in every single battle. The number of wounded soldiers coming to the hospital where I was assigned at (Kagnew Station) was overwhelming. I had never seen human blood flowing with such ferocity ever before. There was only one doctor (Dr. Gaga) for all of this and maybe a couple of nurses. There was also a handful of what they used to be called “Health Officers”. Besides that, it was just us, children of the youth league (Ye Wetatoch Mahber). I probably was the youngest of them. We were there to help out selflessly. We never asked for any pay or any compensation. All we wanted was to help out with the critical medical staff shortage that the Army was facing during these tough times. We sometimes did not have any sleep for days. Remember, I was maybe 14 years old. Most of my friends were around that age. The oldest ones could not have been more than 18 or 19 years old. We took our patriotic duty seriously and, hopefully, we delivered. We truly believed we were doing the right thing.
My lifetime’s nightmare:
While I was working in the hospital, I remember one of these scary and frustrating nights. It was a rainy night in particular. I was supposed to work the night shift. The military trucks (mostly American made Dodge Three Quarters and Jeeps) kept “dumping” injured soldiers right in front of the main gate of Kagnew hospital. It had been raining the whole day. By evening, there was still a light but a stubborn shower of rain coming down. I remember noticing that the grass on the hospital’s lawn turning slowly reddish from the blood flowing from the wounded. The hospital was full beyond its capacity. Hence, because of lack of space, the newly arriving injured soldiers did not have a choice but to be “dumped” below the palm trees (that used to adorn the hospital’s entry) until help arrived, which sometimes would never come or, if it did, it would be too late for many. Since we were trained on just the basics of first aid, we were not supposed to touch anyone who was injured on the head or chest. We were instructed to only assist the ones that were injured on their limbs. We were also advised not to waste our time on the very badly injured ones. (Translation: let them die, do not waste your time). It was preferred to attempt to save only the savable ones. So, this particular night was the night that perhaps changed my life forever. As the rain kept pouring, so did the blood from the injured ones who were resting with agony on the grass. I started to smell the blood (I still do), the grass turned red, and the cry for help of the wounded kept going even louder, which still rings in my ears many years later. At this point, I just snapped and thought that I was awakening from a bad dream. As I got overwhelmed by the terror right in front of my eyes, I started running home.
It was around 11 pm. I started running away from the hospital as fast as I could and did not slow down until I reached home, nor did I look back. My mother had just finished her shift and was already in bed. My brother and sisters were too young to be part of this horrific experience and were already asleep. I knocked the door frantically. As soon as my mother opened the door for me and saw my ghostly face, she immediately knew what was going on. All she said was “I know Tesfish… too many? Hmmm?” . And she silently dried my hair up and said, “Try to sleep now and do not think about it”. I tried to sleep…The cry for help from the wounded soldiers and the smell of fresh blood would not let me sleep, though. It felt that the bed sheet, the pillow, the house, my body, everything smelled like blood. The smell stayed with me until this day.
I saw the ugly face of war first hand at a very young age. In my very young age, I saw more horrific war scenes in real time. Cleaning up and readying dead soldiers (Megenez) for burial was the creepiest one of my whole experience, though. It got even creepier when I found my own dad’s military badge in the same hospital’s morgue that his body was cleaned up for burial a year or so ago. When I found the kind of badge that my dad used to have in one of the drawers inside the morgue where I was working that night, I picked it up curiously and, to my amazement and sadness, as I looked at the back, I read my dad’s initials “KD”, for Kassa Desalegn with his distinct handwriting. This incident is by far the creepiest and the saddest part of my experience. I silently put it in my pocket and took it home. My mom still has it.
Growing up in Asmara as “Yewetader Lij”
My experience growing up in Asmara was wild. I experienced everything from loss of my beloved father to being treated as a “Donkey (Adgi)” simply because I spoke mainly Amharic. The ironic part of my being called Adgi (Donkey) was that I was the smartest of my class all the way from elementary up until I left Asmara when I was in 9th grade. It never made sense to me. However, I also had very good Asmarino friends that I still love to death. It was a confusing time for a boy of my age. (One thing I know is, once you befriend with an Eritrean, it remains a true friendship. They have this unique quality of being loyal. I have seen this through my lifetime Eritrean friends).
My brave mother, my smart, always funny, and graceful mom, my hero.. oh, where shall I even start, if there was anyone as fiercely committed to defeating SheAbeya, and help keep the unity of Ethiopia, it would be my mother. She took it personally. She believed that they, the “Shiftas” (the Rebels) were on the wrong side of history and hated the fact that they killed her husband who was her friend and her companion, at such young age (my father was only 38 years old when he got killed). Yes, she took it personally. She never forgave them, ever. Though, she sometimes, in her usual wisdom, acknowledges that he might have also killed some “Shifta” (rebel) too. During those difficult and dark times, she committed herself to help the wounded soldiers to the fullest of her ability. She never cared if she had to clean them up, feed them, wash their bloodied uniforms etc. Even though sometime later, the Army decided to give her (and others like her) some monthly allowance for her work, she basically worked for free for a long time. I cannot tell you how the wounded soldiers (patients) in the hospital loved her and respected her. She treated them like her own children. Sometimes, she would just call them Tesfish (just the way she calls me) because she says, they always reminded her of me because of their tender age. She devoted her time and soul to them. She believed strongly on “oneness” of Ethiopia, which she still believes.
Years later, EPRDF defeated the Derg and took control of Addis Ababa. At the same time, EPLF took control of Asmara, and of course, Eritrea. It is worth mentioning that the Ethiopian army fought bravely and selflessly until they realized that this war was unwinnable, mainly because of the corrupt system that they were led by. They really believed that they were fighting for One Ethiopia. No one is talking these days about the bravery of these young souls that gave their lives for a cause that they believed. Not to undermine the commitment, bravery, and selflessness of the rebels that they had to fight against as well, the Ethiopian army lost the war because it lost focus and sight due to the prolonged and ill-managed war.
A couple of months after both rebel groups took their respective capital cities, I happened to be selected by the defunct remnant management of the Derg era Cement Corporation to go to England to study Ceramic Technology and later work in Awassa. So, during the first year of the transition period, I was in England.
As soon as EPLF took control of Asmara, their first act was to deport anyone who had the slightest drop of Ethiopian blood (though many Eritrean friends of mine deny that). Therefore, my whole family was forced out of Asmara and left to the Midlands, to a land that they have never been before. My mother had to leave the city she lived for over three decades and my siblings had to leave the only place they knew in their entire lives. It took my family more than a week to arrive in Addis Ababa. I learned later that the journey was no fun. They had been strip-searched and harassed by EPLF foot soldiers. Forget what EPLF supporters would like you to believe, yes the inhuman deportation started then, in 1983 (EC) (1991). The deportees were forced to take their golden teeth and give it to the EPLF soldiers; they were not allowed to carry any money at all. To make things even worse, many of these deported Ethiopian citizens did not have any place to stay after they made it to the capital city and other main cities on the way (Adigrat, Woldiya. Dessie, etc..). For this same reason, I was against deporting Eritreans after the Ethiopian-Eritrea war broke out. I knew how hard and it would be for someone who grew up in Addis to suddenly be told: “you no longer belong here”. That was a mistake and inhuman as well. But, let’s be honest, this kind of action started way back by the same Eritrean leadership that cried foul when the other side did the same. Regardless, though, none of this makes the expelling of Eritreans from Ethiopia right by any measure.
Life in Addis for the dislocated:
Addis was not necessarily friendly to all of the dislocated Ethiopians from Eritrea. Approximately 90% of them had to live under horrible conditions in the streets of Addis in makeshift shelters by the side of the roads. Most of them had children and elders that they had to take care of. As we all remember, in the early years of EPRDF’s rule, it was a common phenomenon to see families living under plastic makeshift shacks. Thanks to the residents of Addis and to the international community, these people were able to get at least some aid (food and other essentials).
My mother and my siblings were fortunate in so many ways. Since my loving cousins (Desta, Tade and Assefu, I owe you a lot for this!) lived in Addis at that time, they did not have to go to any shelter. My cousins were able to take them in and shelter them for a few months. Besides, since few weeks after EPRDF took control of Addis, as I said before, I was sent to England to get some training for the new ceramic plant which was to be erected in Awassa, my monthly salary was available for them to use it as they see it fit.
However, who would forget the scene in Addis during those times when all the streets of Addis were swamped with dislocated families, known as Tefenaqayoch (The Dislocated). This was twenty-seven years ago!! And the worst part was the fact that, though my mom continued working for the newly formed government (until she retired), once she started living in Addis since she (like all Tigrean women) always dresses the distinct Tagrawayti way. This made her be singled out everywhere she went and would sometimes get the ugly look. One day, she came back home very angry because someone called her “Anchi Woyane”. What that person did not know, however, was that brave woman he called “Woyane” did more than most Addis-Ababans to help the losing war against the rebels. But ironically, she is still the enemy!
Why am I telling you my personal story in this critical time?
After 27 years, here we go again! We are witnessing another round of dislocation of people from the very place that they called home for decades. After almost three decades of that horrible page of our history, we are still killing each other based purely on ethnicity. The reason why I told you my story was to give you some enlightenment of the horror of this kind of situation creates. I wanted everybody to think twice before they resort to arms. War is no fun, folks! It destroys villages, lives, families, dreams, hopes, history. It destroys everything. It divides families, it breaks villages, it devastates economies. It is no good for no one.
After 27 years, we are again beating the drum of war between two brothers. The Amharas are getting ready to take back what they believe it is theirs by force, meaning war. The Tigreans are getting ready to defend their turf. Oromos are being slaughtered in Benshangul, Tigreans are being harassed and killed mercilessly mainly in many Amhara cities, Non-Sidamos are being harassed and killed in Hawassa and environs. The only city that seemed to be safe, Addis Ababa, is no longer safe. People are resorting to atrocious means of treating others that they believe do not belong to their ethnic group everywhere.
Right around the time when some administrative change seemed imminent, I told my friends that I wished for someone from the Oromo region to take the lead. I said that because it was way overdue for an Oromo to lead the country, and because it was simply practical. When Abiy Ahmed was elected after so much speculation, I was truly elated and relieved. I thought our troubles were behind us. Especially once he started talking about unity, “Medemer”, Ethiopianness etc, my hopes rose to the highest level. I told my friends electing Abiy Ahmed as the PM was the right move. I thought that move would alleviate the tense situation in Oromia and elsewhere. However, a few weeks past, I started to be concerned about the public response to his election. It seemed as if Jesus had come down to earth and especially to Ethiopia to save the country. I cautioned my friends and family on how negative it is to praise this young leader unconditionally without being tested. I cautioned them about the unrestrained adulation and praise that is only seen in some dictatorial systems. I asked them to be careful not to lead this guy into a Cult to Personality.
A few weeks later, I sadly realized we had made the wrong choice. I started to listen to his words carefully. I witnessed that his words were also carefully crafted to suit to the specific audience, and not to reflect his true beliefs. I started noticing that he loved to be loved and adored. I noticed that he does not have the wisdom necessary to lead this great country. I noticed that he knows how to hit the right cord depending who is the audience. I started seeing that he has the right words to say based where he is and who is listening. The fact that he was quick to make a statement after the so-called “assassination attempt”, the fact that he was absolutely silent after the hero of GERD was murdered, after his appalling reply to a question by a concerned citizen who asked him what was being done about the murder of Simegnih Bekele made me to really think twice about this leader, the PM. Every action, step, or decision he takes makes me wonder whether he really wants Ethiopia to stay united. It is obvious and for anyone to see how the federal government and its cronies are trying to bully the Tigrai Regional administration in particular and Tegarus in general.
It seems to be that civil war is imminent unless some wise leadership shows up miraculously. So far, I do not see any hope that this is going to happen. All sides are bracing for the worst and are posturing to square it off.
I just told you what I went through during my childhood so that you, the people who are beating the drum of war and, you, the people who are spreading hatred for whatever reason, are aware what you are wishing for. I bet you, the ones who are screaming to your lungs for war, to see the innocent get slaughtered each other would never dare be there in the front line. You, the coward ones, the ones who cry foul every chance you have in any available mass media are the ones who would be hiding in your mothers-skirts when the real horror starts. Yes, you, the ones who are spreading lies, distorting history, tell made up stories so eloquently would not be the ones who would be fighting the fight. Because YOU are cowards by your very nature! It would be the poor and the innocent who would die for you while you hide in Addis or Bahirdar or wherever you find a hideout.
So, please stop it. It is getting out of hand and is going to be irreversible. My message for the sane ones is to please do and say something before it is way too late. I beg you in the name of my father and others like him who gave their priceless life for their country, on all sides. I am begging you on the name of myself and others who had to grow up without any father figure in their lives. Let’s please create a situation where more children lose their fathers and grow fatherless, more women become widows at a tender age, like my mother who never saw another man ever again. And she was only 38 years old when my father was martyred.
If we are to bring peace and keep our historical unity, leave singling out some ethnic groups, like the people of Tigrai. They have suffered enough already. It is insane even to think that we will stand as one people without these people that have suffered and sacrificed more than its share.
How can we talk about Ethiopia without including the humble and brave people of Amhara, Tigray, or Afar etc. Where is the UNITY?
Remember Rwanda? Are we waiting to see until our country becomes “Rwandanized”? Is this what we wish for our people? If things stand as they are, this is what is awaiting Ethiopia.
Be careful of what we all wish for!! At this crucial time, we have a choice to make: Acknowledge that we are one and only one but also diverse. Our diversity has been the glue to our unity and the source of our pride, beauty, and strength for hundreds of years. Or disintegrate and become many small new African nations with no substantial power in the world arena and in the African affairs. We will become other many “Djibouti” in Africa.
Our people have more wisdom than we give them credit for, and hopefully, sanity will prevail!!!