Keren High School Reunion: A Missing Perspective and a Way Forward (Part I)
Author’s Comment: – the appropriate website for this article would have been sweetkeren.net, but I have posted it at Awate.com, as the policies of the former ban articles that may have political influence. I do understand Sweet Keren is a social club and I respect the idea that the reunion focus is on promoting social gathering of old friends. However, I have an important message for the founders and organisers of Keren High School reunion. I am neither demanding the reunion to be politicised in favour of the Eritrean government nor the Eritrean opposition camp, but I am merely requesting the rich history of the school should be narrated as it happened; and perhaps the best people to pass that history to the younger generation would be those who dreamt about the reunification. It ought to be clear to all this article is not intended to spoil or undermine the spirit of the reunification in anyway; on the contrary, it is meant to add value to the reunification by emphasizing on the history of the school and remembering the people who created that history. It is also aimed at encouraging the founders of Keren High School reunion to think better and form a clearer vision for the reunification; one that aspires beyond the reunion of old friends and shares old stories; one that wholeheartedly encompasses the history of the school; one that envisions a future for the school, Keren and its environs. I, therefore, appeal to them in the upcoming second anniversary or in the future to take the reunification a step forward by devoting a time for a workshop and discuss what would be the best way forward. That is my personal view of what the reunification should be about!
I was filled with great joy to learn about the launch of Sweet Keren (http://www.sweetkeren.net/), a website dedicated to reunite old friends from Keren High School. I commend the noble idea of reunification of old friends, as it brings back memories of the past. I greatly appreciate the effort of those who dreamt about the reunification of Keren High School students and who worked hard and tirelessly to make it happen. I also greatly value the effort of those who organised the first gathering in Toronto, July 4 – 6 2008. I congratulate the organising committee and the participants on their success in holding the first gathering, which was reflected so well on the brilliant photos posted on You Tube and the reports of the event.[1,2] I also wish them a happy and successful 2nd anniversary reunification scheduled for July 2 – 4 2010 in Washington, DC.
That said, when I read about the reunification objectives, I immediately realised that there is a key missing element from the process, and that is, the rich history of the school which once dominated by strong Eritrean nationalism and political awareness of the struggle for freedom. A strong Eritrean nationalism was prevalent in the school, and indeed, it was part of the school’s deeply entrenched culture. I have, therefore, chosen not only to focus on my personal experience during the academic year (1983 – 84) that I studied at Keren High School, but more importantly, on telling a small portion of the history of that great school which produced caliber students who contributed their fair share to the arduous long struggle for the liberation and political independence of Eritrea. On narrating the history of the school, I will focus on the period mid-1970s to mid-1980s. The former period based on my observations of Keren High School students’ activities when I was a student at a nearby school, Keren Boys’ Elementary School, and the latter period when myself was a student first at ST. Joseph school and then Keren High school. Telling part of the school’s history is also a tribute and a mark of respect to those great Eritreans who bravely paid the ultimate sacrifice to the liberation of Eritrea. I will also comment on some significant events that took place at the School.
My Schooling Years in the Context of the Prevailing Political Situation – Mid-1970s – Mid 1980s
I started elementary schooling during the academic year 1972 – 73 in my home town Keren. The first year went smoothly and when I was near completion of Grade 2 in 1974 that I encountered the first setback. When students arrived for what would have been a normal school day, we were confronted with a big surprise. We found the Eritrean blue flag flying high on the mast of the school. The school bell rang, and each group went to their classes. Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by heavily armed Ethiopian soldiers. They forced their way into classrooms and ordered everyone, including staff to head to the school’s assembly area. Some students managed to hide in a nearby small tunnel. As I cannot exactly recount how that historical morning unfolded, I consulted the then principal of Keren Boys’ Elementary school, Ustaz Saleh Hamde, which summarised the events of the day as follows:
- I left the school the previous day around 4pm; the security situation in Keren was volatile, and a night curfew was imposed. When I left the school, the Ethiopian flag was flying on the mast. As the school was located near one of the largest Ethiopian army camp situated on top of a hill with a wide view, it is unlikely the operation [lowering Ethiopian flag] was launched before dusk.
- I first learned about the incident when the school care taker came to my home early in the morning. The care taker and myself immediately went to the school, and like everybody, I was surprised to see the Eritrean flag flying on the school’s mast with a load (box) tied to the mast hinge to firmly hold the flag.
- With the arrival of students, soldiers descended from the hill and surrounded the school. Explosive detective squad diffused the box which was found to be filled with sand. The bomb threat turned out to be a hoax! The army ordered staff and students to gather at the school’s assembly area. They lowered the Eritrean flag, and raised the Ethiopian flag while students were singing the Ethiopian national anthem.
- The army commander discussed the incident with me in my office, and came out of the office convinced that it was a complicated operation far beyond the thinking of elementary level students. He then gave a speech to the assembly.
- Staff and students alike were reassured by the commander who encouraged them to go about their business. The commander added, this is the work of bandits who are trying to destabilise the situation and create a rift between the government and the people, and we will not allow it to happen again. The army acted in the interest of your security, reassured the gathering.
- The situation resolved peacefully, Alhamdu-Allah. The outcome could have been much worse.
End of quote.
It is highly believed the operation was planned and executed by Keren High School students, and I am sure some of those who dreamt about Keren High School reunion know exactly the secrets of the whole operation. For me, as a kid studying in Grade 2, the incident was very terrifying, yet it was inspiring to the senior students, who had some appreciation for the freedom struggle. According to Ustaz Hamde, about half of the students didn’t return to the school since that day, which represented one of the biggest drops in students’ number in the history of the school. The incident further enhanced Eritrean nationalism and political awareness within the school environment.
I interrupted my education as of that day, since the political situation was not conducive to attend school with some tranquillity. The fact that the school was located close to one of the heavily fortified Ethiopian army camps added deep anxiety and fear to go back to the school. During 1974 – 76, I was learning Quran on a full-time basis. Two years later, and exactly during the academic year 1976 – 77, I went back to the same school and resumed Grade 2. The key person, who encouraged me to go back to school, was Shiek Mohamed-Omer Idris, the very person who was teaching me Quran. The Shiek felt uneasy about many of us learning only Quran. In fact, I do remember him telling me my performance in learning Quran went down since I left school. He was putting pressure on me to return to school, and I did! That was good advice by a great Sheik. May Allah reward him for all his good deeds?
I successfully finished Grade 2, but a war broke out between the EPLF and the Ethiopian forces by the beginning of the summer holiday. The freedom fighters emerged victorious out of the war, and understandably this had some ramifications for the continuation of education; fortunately, I didn’t interrupt my education. After a year and four months, Keren was re-occupied by the colonising Ethiopian forces, and this also caused some disruptions to the smooth running of education. Following this early bumpy start, I had fairly productive years until I completed Grade 9. In 1984, the Ethiopian government announced a compulsory national military service to enlist Eritreans as well. This decision caused anxiety among Eritrean students, because joining the Ethiopian army and fighting against Eritrean freedom fighters didn’t sound right to the ears of many Eritreans. Many students increasingly became worried about being conscripted into the army and fled to the Sudan; others voluntarily or involuntarily joined the EPLF. Although I did not receive called-up (papers), I decided to flee Eritrea in September 1984 and crossed border into neighbouring Sudan. That was my first experience of what refugee’s life is like and what to come.
The important question is then, what is the aim of relating the history of my education to the different situations I encountered? In answering this question, it would be appropriate to firstly say that the majority of Eritreans have faced varying level and different types of setbacks in their effort of pursuing education. My case is not different to those of the majority, and in fact, it is just one example of the many cases Eritreans had to endure; it is still happening to numerous Eritreans who cross the border to neighbouring countries and then go into exile as far as Australia, USA, Canada and Europe. By telling my academic story, I am attempting to pass a message to the younger generation that many Eritreans have faced a lot of difficulties yet they have worked relentlessly hard to succeed and achieve their aspirations in life through steadfastness. The younger generation who settled or born in peaceful and politically stable countries should not take the opportunities offered to them for granted. I encourage them to be self-confident, endeavour to achieve their full potential and build a bright future for themselves.
Now back to the chronology of events that took place at Keren High school commencing with the mid-1970s: To put matters into perspective, this period was marked by significant political upheaval. The vibrant Football league tournament in Keren came to an end in late 1973 to early 1974, being influenced by the general political situation in the country. The siege of Asmara in 1975 by ELF Fedaien (that lasted for a month) brought further upheaval to a country already suffering from political instability; the dare twin operations by ELF which freed prisoners from Asmara and Adi koila prisons in 1975 also added publicity to the struggle for freedom. The relevant question is then how these tremendous developments reflected on the day-to-day operation of the school? Certainly, many Keren High School students were affected by the political unrest in the whole country. Some joined the fight for freedom and others exiled into neighbouring countries and beyond. The exodus of students to the rebel field continued until Keren was liberated by the EPLF in 1977. In the light of this, mid 1970s was an era marked by high moral and enthusiasm to join the revolution.
The liberation of Keren resulted in the complete closure of the School. Its existence ceased between 1977 and 1978, as all government schools were replaced with a single school, named ‘Nharnet School’, offering classes from Grade 1 – 8 in 1977 – 78 and up to Grade 9 in the following academic year. Without indulging into the political rivalry of ELF & EPLF of the time – which many Keren High School students felt victims of – it suffices for the scope of this article to mention the infamous meeting held at Keren Municipality. Students in Grade 9 and above had to confront two tough choices – either join the EPLF or leave Keren, as the town was liberated by the EPLF. That announcement marked the formal closure of the school. Unfortunately, 1978 – 79 was another sad year when all the liberated towns were retaken by the Ethiopian occupying forces. As a result of the war and its attendant problems, government schools didn’t operate fully until 1980. With the re-occupation of Keren, I moved to St. Joseph School where I studied until Grade 8, and as I mentioned earlier, I studied Grade 9 at Keren High School during 1983 – 84. By mid-1980s, Keren High School gradually recovered but nowhere near the level of the mid-1970s.
There were many significant events that occurred at the school which is worth mentioning. Here, I will describe only two of them. The first took place in 1973; it was a very interesting students’ initiative designed to assist disadvantaged fellow students who used to travel long distances from Keren surroundings in the pursue of knowledge. Junior students (Grade 7 – 9) from Keren High School came up with an idea of holding theatrical performances. They approached the late Ustaz Idris Henet, and discussed with him their plan. As many of us know, Ustaz Henet was a very approachable pro students teacher, and he didn’t hesitate to take the matter to the then School Principal, Mana Gebay.The plan fully endorsed by the Principal and the students secured permission to go ahead with their plan. The first show was performed at the school, and the event attracted a significant crowd mainly students from the same school. The students were jubilant with their first success and decided to perform the show again at Cinema Empero (Keren’s only cinema). The second show which was open to everyone attracted larger crowd, including Ethiopian soldiers. Part of the money raised donated to the school to buy books, and the remaining used to buy clothes for the needy students. According to my source who currently lives in Melbourne, Australia and who was one of the leaders of the show, the event raised sufficient money to buy clothes for 46 students (equally allocated between male and female), and to purchase a significant number of books. That was a remarkable achievement, considering the age of the students who made the event. Unfortunately, it was a one-off show because of interference order by ELF. The ELF, through its secret members, warned the students who participated in the show to stop their activities. While the letters sent by the ELF contained an acknowledgement of the noble idea of helping fellow students and the school, it was critical of entertaining enemy soldiers. The students abided by the order, as some of them already had involvement in pro-ELF clandestine activities.
The second remarkable event that I would like to describe is the night when the EPLF fighters in 1976 took about 30 typewriters on a night raid at Keren High School, secretly organised and brilliantly orchestrated by a teacher from the school. Prior to the EPLF’s raid, the ELF expressed interest in taking the typewriters. An ELF security officer contacted two teachers from the school, asking them to meet him outside Keren. The teachers met with the officer at the specified place and time, and he explained the desire of ELF to obtain the typewriters. After a marathon discussion, the teachers convinced the ELF officer to abandon the plan for two reasons. Firstly, it will be a huge blow to the school’s operation without the typewriters. Secondly, the storekeeper is a new teacher recently transferred from Kebessa, and therefore, we cannot be a 100% sure who he is. At this stage, it will be risky to approach him and discuss with him the matter. Somehow the information was leaked, and the storekeeper teacher knew about the plan. It was not long after that the EPLF raided the school and took the typewriters. Two things worth mentioning here: – first, there was no any evidence to suggest that the storekeeper teacher was a secret member of EPLF; and secondly, despite the information was leaked, the safety of the two teachers was not compromised. That was a happy end of the story.
In light of this, the necessary question is, why the School’s history is not receiving the deserved due attention? The fear I believe is, politics will disunite old friends rather than brining them together. It is natural to disagree on political issues, but it is unacceptable not to manage disagreements, especially for those who live in democratic nations. It shows we haven’t matured enough to accommodate the views of one another. I particularly can’t understand why the students’ secret political activism should be ignored, as it was part and parcel of the school’s history that everyone should be proud of and pass to the younger generation. To quote two respected and ardent human rights campaigners: – Saleh Johar said, “Keren is characterized by its historical defiance to injustice. Take away that element of defiance and you are left with a dull, insignificant town.” Petros Tesfagiorgis, in a different context but reiterating the same message said, “The history of EPLF that had ignored [Osman] Saleh Sabe is a history amputated. To attribute EPLF history to Isaias Afeworki alone is another historical injustice.” The above quotes are intended to deliver one important message, and that is, history must be narrated as it happened! I accept the idea of not indulging into current political discourse. In fact, I am not suggesting Keren High School gathering should be used as a forum for political dialogue and activities; my request is far from that, and it is a simple demand not to forget the School’s history in its entirety.
The way forward…
For the reunification process to be more meaningful and effective, it is necessary encompasses a clear vision for the future; a viable project that many can enthusiastically contribute towards would be the re-building of the shattered School. We need to come up with practical ideas and take concrete measures today to modernise the school to cope with the 21st century requirements. This, of course, will only be realised when an opportunity exists for development. It will be of less significance and limited outcome if the aims of the reunification are only reviving old friendship, sharing old stories, socialising and then packing home. That would be a shallow vision! Whilst past friendship is important, the emphasis of the reunification should be on the future. Past events must inform present and future directions. There is nothing wrong with building your own region, considering that in a decentralised future democratic Eritrea, building your own region will be allowed, so plan for it now. At the moment, many educated Eritreans are not given the opportunity to contribute in building their own region in particular and the nation in general.
I recommend the following issues for discussions in the second/future gathering:
- What can we do to revive the vibrant history of the school and the town? What humanitarian projects can we initiate? What is our vision and plan for the town we all loved dearly and we call home town? What can we do to help the people who have become frail?
- Document the history of the School as well as the town. When was the school established? How the school evolved? When was the first group graduated? List of those who excelled academically and entered University. How many students from the school paid with their lives for the liberation of Eritrea and national independence?
- How can we plan today and contribute towards establishing Keren University in an era when education takes its right place in future democratic Eritrea
- Establish Keren High School fund dedicated to finance humanitarian and development projects, based on priorities and urgency once conducive conditions are created. This fund could coordinate with the UK-based ‘Keren and Its Environs Benevolent Fund UK’. Development funds will be essential to build the town’s frail economy.
Most of the recommendations are presented in question format, so participants can give their input.
I am of the view we need to strike a sensible balance. It is a great idea to bring back past memories, but it is equally important to tell history as it happened. There is unhealthy trend in Eritrean community groups, civic societies, and Associations in the sense that they can’t categorically distinguish between right and wrong. It is in this context that I have written this critique about Keren High School reunion, and I hope it shouldn’t be classified as: – we do nothing but we criticise those who try their best to do something. I will participate in future Keren High School reunion, and I will strictly abide by the policies and rules of Sweet Keren, although I have clearly spelt out my view about the reunification. Also, my focus on the school’s history in its entirety should not be interpreted in a negative way. I have written this article in good faith, strongly believing it will be a compliment to others’ contributions in compiling the history of the school. The good thing is, people need to be organised for a purpose, and that in itself, is a great thing; I commend it.
The worrisome predicament is, most Eritreans today live in an era marked by confusion. To narrate a history is politics; to help refugees is politics; to reject injustice is politics; to say no to oppression and repressive laws is politics; to demand freedom of speech and association is politics; to speak on behalf of the voiceless and defenceless people living under oppression is politics; to demand equality for all Eritrean citizens is politics; and the list goes on and on. On the contrary, to be silent to any sort of atrocities and injustice have become the norm! We have become too gutless to stand up to injustice, and as a result, we have lost our proud history, which was characterised by defiance to foreign occupations and their attendant injustices. Keren has lost its fighting spirit and militancy; it has become submissive to injustice. Yes, Keren has become a dull town to reiterate Saleh Johr’s expression, and the only option all decent Eritreans have been left with is to revive their proud history by being defiant to any sort of injustice! Defiance to injustice was the key factor in fighting brutal Ethiopian occupation and in liberating Eritrea.
PS In part (II), I will shed light on the school’s sports activities and describe similarities and differences between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s.
 Ustaz Mahmoud Kanoni was already transferred to Asmara.
 The source of this information is a teacher from Keren High School; he is well and alive, but I prefer not to disclose his identity.