“Massacre At Wekidiba”: A Survivor’s Book Review
A review of a new Book by Dr. Habtu Gebreab (Aka, Fr. Athanasius)
Some events are destined to be part of the collective psyche of a nation. No time or healing can blot out the indelible imprints they leave behind. They remain an integral part of a society either in their physical, cultural or psychological manifestations. Not much is, for example, known about the Turkish rule in Eritrea but its legacy has become part of the vernacular used to describe a reign of terror unrivaled in Eritrean history. The Ottoman Turks have earned the unenviable appellation of “Gzat Turki”; an expression which invokes bitter memories of cruelty and naked aggression. The Ethiopians who are undeniably our own kith and kin, however, might have surpassed the “Gzat Turki” in their barbarous, cruel and indiscriminate killings and mistreatments of innocent Eritreans. No self-respecting people would forget the atrocities which were committed in Ad-EBrahim, Ona, Geleb, Omhager, Wekidiba, Hergigo, She’eb and many others places. Sadly and regrettably, twenty years after Eritrea gained its independence; no serious and meaningful attempt has been made to tell the tragedies which befell many innocent Eritrean communities. But, true to the adage of better late than never, Abba Athanasius’ new book is a much-needed and much-appreciated serious work which fills the unhealthy vacuum and deafening silence in Eritrea’s modern history and literature.
“Massacre At Wekidiba” tells the story of the crime against humanity that was perpetrated by the new Ethiopian regime of Menghistu Haile Mariam on January 31 – February 1, 1975, and, then, for the second time, on February 28, 1976. This much needed book is particularly dear to me; and it has already started helping me close one of the many gaping holes which have pained and haunted me throughout my life. Unlike many children my age, I had to silently wrestle with the most vexing questions of life, “Why us? Why would God allow this to happen to us?” early on without any intellectual and emotional preparations. But, nothing beats the loving army of a virtuous mother, the good example set by an honorable father and the tapping on shoulders of caring older siblings. To them, I owe whatever is decent, good and beautiful that I’ve in my life.
I just turned five when one Saturday morning, the Ethiopian army, like a dark cloud descended upon my village of Wekidiba and killed several members of my extended families—the Wekidiba family. This event, in retrospect, had the greatest impact in my life. The sudden and unexpected uprootedness from my ancestral village had something to do with my perpetual feeling of alienation and a heightened sensitivity to injustice, but, most of all, the inherent distrust of the idea of a permanent home and any form of government that is not small and limited. I’m a perpetual refuge at heart; an emotional Bedouin drifting on an endless sea with no Beilul, Dahlak or Massawa in sight. Perhaps, my life-anchorage with my “medaHnti” was buried in Wekidiba. It is my humble desire that, one day, I rejoin my roots there permanently. According to Kebra Negast, the son of Negist Saba, Menelik I, had said these immortal words which still reverberate through the ages, “for no man hates the place where he was born, and everyone loves the things of his native country.”
The book, “Massacre At Wekidiba” is unique in many ways; I’m not aware of any book on Eritrea which has attempted to humanize the tragedies of the long conflict which had profoundly affected three generations of Eritreans. This genre, in of itself, is a major contribution to Eritrean literature and history and needs to be developed further. The telling of these stories is a true indication of our collective sense of justice and moral outrage; and a way of unequivocally affirming the solemn oath of not letting it happen again. It is the way we collectively cry out “Never Again, Never Again and Never Again.” But, more importantly, it shows what kind of society we want to be and what lessons we’ve drawn from our horrific experience. What we forget and what we remember is equally important. In a way, we’re very fortunate that this undertaking has been commenced by a trained historian (Professor of History) and an ordained Tewahdo priest. The author has done a marvelous job of depicting the inner-play of human forces where, in the most unimaginable apocalyptic tragedies, glints of human compassion even compel the gung-ho soldiers to demonstrate the best of humanity: love and mercy. “Strangely, the same soldier who spared the life of the baby told weizero Asmeret that people were being killed right and left and advised her to stay put in the house.” (pg. 58)
To me the best way to live any religion, but more so, to evangelize the carrying of the Cross is to show love and understanding and I believe the good Abba Athanasius Gebreab has done that. I’m not ashamed to say that I have shed many tears as I relived the tragedy which has snatched the lives of so many of my extended family—the Wekidiba family—but, I was not, in any way, angry at the Ethiopians who, I’ve learned over the years, and the book wisely reaffirms, were victims themselves. That I believe is the genius of the good priest and the importance of the book in helping us understand our past so we can have a better chance of a better future. In implicit and explicit terms, the book does an excellent job of informing us to keep your eyes on the ball and on what matters most. There is no justice without mercy; reconciliation without forgiveness; and truth without understanding. But, all noble efforts start with the acknowledgement of the truth: the massacre that took place and that some of us were fortunate to survive.
It is with a sense of responsibility and privilege that I review a book that tells my story—the story of my village—and by extension, the story of my country, Eritrea, and the protracted conflict that had enormous impact on the lives of many people in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Nothing enrages me more than to hear some good-intentioned Ethiopians deny the massacre that I and my family and many other Eritreans had experienced. Our homes were burned down and our hastily dug graves were not marked down, but our scars and wounds are real and still visible; and we live in a perpetual fear of forgetting those loved ones who were not lucky enough to survive the massacre. The people of Wekidiba, like the rest of their countrymen and women, are strong and resilient, “but, if one looks closely, one cannot help but discover the deep scars beneath the surface. Ato Paulos Menghistu [a teacher in Asmera] is a case in point.” (Pg. 82)
Now that I think of it, this should not be a review, but a way to express my gratitude to Abba Athanasius for easing our burden and paying some of our debt. The book might give a closure to so many people who did not perform the obligatory burial and mourning rituals. The rituals are so highly regarded in Eritrea that Aboys Sheqa Ghebreamlak and Mishghina Yifterelu had to risk their lives and return to Wekidiba from Adi Segdo to bury their family members. “Why don’t we go back to Wekidiba together? I will bury my brother Negassi Hailemikael and you will bury your nephew Qeshi Temnewo. Are we going to let hyenas eat their remains?” said Sheqa Ghebreamlak to aboy Mishghina. Both men arrived at Wekidiba and as they approached the house of aboy Gerezghier Ghebreselassie, they were met by the Ethiopian soldiers who asked them what they were doing. Aboy Sheqa Ghebreamlak responded with his characteristic courage, “We have come to bury our brothers whom you have killed so that dogs won’t eat their remains.” As the conversation heated up, one of the soldiers bayoneted his stomach and another clubbed him on his head and the third one gunned him down and finished him off. (pg. 93)
“The wanton massacres and atrocities that would characterize Ethiopia’s brutal military occupation of Eritrea and the carnage it unleashed against the inhabitants,” has touched every life in Eritrea. There are many stories waiting to be told in Eritrea and it is incumbent upon all Eritreans to rise to the occasion and contribute in recording and preserving these monumental events that have affected many generations of Eritreans. The author has invested enormous resources over a period of ten years to track down survivors and interview them. “The sources for the project are mainly interviews conducted with several survivors and eyewitnesses of the massacre. The interviews took place in three different continents, but the bulk of them took place in Wekidiba and Asmera.” (pg. 12) This book is my story, it is our story, engagingly told by a sensitive soul who seems to be inspired by the pursuit of justice, but one who is acutely aware that lofty aim cannot be attained without the truth.
Growing up, I’ve heard the same stories from my mother, older siblings and my extended Wekidiba families and I can say with confidence that the author has done a terrific job of accurately depicting the tragedies which afflicted many families of Wekidiba. Fortunately or not, I’m fairly endowed with a good memory and have vivid recollections of that fateful Saturday morning—just turned five years old—when a shroud of darkness engulfed our village and “most of the villagers were gripped with the extreme trepidation as the angel of death descended upon them,” (Pg. 76) or, in the words of the New York Times, when “the Ethiopian Second Division began an attack about 8:30 a.m. against a village three miles from Asmara where guerillas may be hiding.” (Pg. 131) I also fondly remember, my “Asilo” (kindergarten) teacher, the late Memhr Mesmer who was savagely killed along with others on that day. Although, I’ve heard Wekidibans mention his name over the years, I didn’t know he was from Geleb, another lowland village which witnessed a similar fate. It rejoices my heart to learn that he was finally put to rest in his ancestral village; thanks to his wife and family.
The scorched earth policy that the Ethiopian army savagely implemented was understood by many Eritreans as a genocidal strategy of acquiring Eritrea without its people. An unnamed Ethiopian soldier who spoke Tigrinya shamelessly defended the killing policy when asked by his victim, aboy Gerezghier, “Are you going to kill us?” He responded, “bsenki neQuts yneded rHus.” [Meaning: we’ve to kill the whole innocent crew in order to get the guilty few.] (Pg. 64) “The mass killing that was underway in Wekidiba had very little to do with guilt or innocence. It was just another ugly manifestation of the tenor of the times.” (Pg.64) Many, “perhaps the majority of the people, [who] decided to stay in their homes, confident that their innocence would save them” soon came to learn the inevitable truth: they were guilty for being Eritreans.
A popular Tigrinya song in the aftermath of the Wekidiba massacre aptly encapsulates the widespread sentiments of the people: wedi Tedla ne’aba telay: wedeana ‘zi rgum amHaray:. (Son of Tedla, come quick, the Amharas are wiping us out. Herui is the son of the first elected president of Eritrea, Tedla Bairu and was the then vice chairman of the Eritrean Liberation Front.)
The massacre of Wekidiba was a turning point in Eritrean history and its liberation struggle. The previous massacres mainly took place in the predominantly Muslims-populated lowlands in a divide-and-conquer strategy with an effective and conspicuously anti-Muslim and anti-Arab overtone. There were significant number of Christians in the highlands who subscribed into the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab propaganda; but, Wekidiba would rapidly change all of that. The massacre of Wekidiba opened the floodgate; and many Christian youth joined the Eritrean liberation fronts en masse, so much so, that Muslim Eritreans who had been fighting the Ethiopians for over a decade started referring to them—humorously and sometimes sarcastically—“Sewret BBC or Sewret 75.” (The Revolution inspired by BBC News or the Revolution of 1975.)
The Wedidiba massacre was a culmination of the violence that wreaked havoc in Asmera in January of 1975. These events proved beyond any shadow of a doubt to all Eritreans—rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, peasant and elite, urban and rural—that “they were all targets of the Ethiopian occupying army” who were predominantly Christians and had the audacity to desecrate the Holy of Holies of the Debre Qusqwam Tewahdo Church and kill the innocent people who sought refuge there. Ironically, Qusqwam is the place in Egypt where the Holy Family sought refuge when persecuted by King Herod; and the name has (and rightfully so) a special meaning to Tewahdo Christians. Historically, no one would dare touch, even a bonafide criminal who sought refuge in a church in the Holy of Holies where only the priests and the king were allowed. The Ethiopians profaned the most sacred heritage of Christian Eritreans and inadvertently sealed the deal in favor of Eritrean nationalism.
No one exemplifies this metamorphosis than the wife of the late Memhr Mesmer who was proudly known as an Ethiopia, but in the post-Wekidiba Massacre and the slaying of her beloved husband, the first thing she got rid of was her name. She is now known as Lu’ul. Ethiopia became Lu’ul, the root-word for Lu-ulawnet: sovereignty. Not surprisingly, Lu’ulawnet, National Sovereignty, became the rallying cry of the liberation struggle.
The “Massacre At Wekidiba” is the microcosmic story of a nation. By telling the story of Wedkidiba, Father Athanasius has told the story of a nation and how the Ethiopians through their excesses have enormously contributed to the growth and consolidation of Eritrean nationalism. It is a must read story for every human being who cares about justice and injustice. My four children (except the youngest one) will be required to finish reading this book before the end of summer 2013. I hope, they will finally understand why their dad sometimes, “acts weird” and is “obsessed with everything Eritrean.”
There was nothing normal about our upbringing and we can’t possibly be expected to be normal. We were burdened by our circumstances and our outlook in life is shaped by it, but, nevertheless, we have an obligation and an opportunity to make it right and normal for the next generation of Eritreans. The best way to honor those who have gone before us is to ensure their posterity is normal and mend fences with ourselves and our neighbors. Let the healing begin.
The book, as great as it is, could have been made more complete, had it incorporated the other side of the story. I don’t know how many of the soldiers of the Second Division have survived the war, but the author does not mention if he had made any attempt to reach out to them. Their input could have greatly enhanced our understanding.
The book can be purchased from the publisher: