Ona: Nine-Meter Shroud

As we push towards reconciliation, we have to expose the wounds of the past that always pop-up to hinder the journey. Real reconciliation should not be considered for the sake of political expedience alone. The festering wounds need to be recognized and healed to reach a meaningful and lasting peace. Reconciliation requires a holistic approach. In that spirit, I am sharing with you a chapter from my book “Of Kings And Bandits” in a humble attempt to shed light on the cost of wars (Saleh “Gadi” Johar, April 13, 2015). The republishing of this piece is intended to remind any visitor to “Gira Fiori”  that the town carries wounds that were either addresses nor healed, yet the PFDJ is cutting it deeper – July 6, 2018)

Jemal was seven years old when for the first time he saw dead bodies hanging in the marketplace. He was on his way home when he saw the bodies dangling on nooses; he ran home as fast as he could and never went out for the rest of the day. He couldn’t sleep that night thinking someone would come and get him, the hazy image of the six bodies with no other details remained in his memory.

That was before the six-day war ended and now three years had passed since the war, another event that stayed imprinted in Jemal’s memory, reminding him of what happens to people whose countries go to war. A few months after the six-day war he saw Palestinian refugees pass through Keren on their way to Tessenei. He didn’t know of their final destination or why they needed to pass through Keren until much later. The refugees had found themselves stranded in different places west of the Jordan River and couldn’t cross to their homes in the West bank and the Gaza Strip that was occupied by Israel. They traveled south to Jeddah, sailed across the Red Sea to the port of Massawa in Eritrea and from there they took a bus to Asmera, passed by Keren and continued to the Sudan. The next leg of their journey took them to Egypt. Many could have hoped to enter Palestine through Sinai, but it was also occupied, together with the Suez Canal. Not so many made it back; like birds that lost their nests, many remained scattered along the way, all over the countries of the region.

That sight of Palestinian refugees had been compounded by Eritrean villagers who began to flock to Keren, bringing horror stories with them. Janhoi’s fighter planes and his troops bombed and murdered the villagers and burned their crops. In an exodus that would continue for a long time, thousands more escaped to refugee camps in the Sudan. Jemal couldn’t understand why any human being would purposely torch villages.

Now Jemal was a ninth grader and all of the fifteen years of his life hadn’t prepared him for what was yet to come. He never thought he would witness more massacres and gruesome scenes, worse than what he had already seen.

On the weekend, angry soldiers savagely beat up the people in the streets. Jebha guerrillas had ambushed an army convoy in a hilly area close to Keren and a battle had ensued. The convoy reached a sharp turn on the highway and the rebels sprayed it with heavy gunfire, blasting the leading vehicle. It burned and blocked the road. Soldiers jumped off the trucks and started to return fire. Rebel mortars made the soldiers disperse in confusion. The rebels had been looking for a prize target and one of the two sharpshooters spotted the officer with dark glasses as he crawled towards the rocks to take cover. Laying flat in between two boulders, the sharpshooter trained his gun on him and pulled the trigger, shooting the decorated officer. General Teshome, the commander of the second division of the army, died of the gunshot to his heart. The rebels retreated as fast as they came and disappeared behind the hills. Helicopters that arrived a bit too late failed to locate the rebels and ended up carrying the bodies of the soldiers they had come to rescue.

The army closed the Asmera road for the whole day and the news about the general’s death spread quickly. Angry soldiers went on a rampage unleashing their rage at anyone they found on the street. No one knew how Colonel Welana, the commander of the Keren garrison would react, but everyone had a hunch he would avenge the death of his commanding general with brutal force.

COLONEL WELANA PLANNED HIS REVENGE for ten days after which his troops cordoned Besekdira, Gebrrebi’s village, and ordered everyone to go inside the village mosque. Soldiers cocked their guns, aimed through the door and windows and sprayed the villagers with bullets, ripping them apart. Blood flooded the floor and submerged the bodies of the innocent victims. Lifeless bodies of women, children, and the old sprawled there, as the soldiers checked for any sign of a breathing soul to finish it off. Only a few survived the slaughter by staying buried beneath the dead. Gebrrebi’s father, mother and several of his relatives perished in that massacre. The troops had wasted two hundred and sixty people before returning to town to celebrate.

In only ten minutes they annihilated all of Gebrrebi’s relatives and left the place a ghost village whose few survivors discovered they had forgotten how to cry.

The shocking news arrived in Keren, where the people couldn’t explain what had happened, on the eve of the Eid holiday. Just like Jemal, they were still not aware of what was in store. Eid was not even an official holiday in Janhoi’s calendar, though half the Eritrean population was Muslim. On that day, December 1, 1970, Muslims didn’t know how to celebrate when the blood of the victims of Besekdira was still fresh. Muslim students were given the day off while Christians stayed in school.

Jemal and a few friends took a long stroll in that hazy cool morning. They had walked all the way to the west of town passing under the foot of the Tigu fortress, which seemed calm except for some movement of army vehicles. They passed the old hospital building and the new one built by Mr. Hugh and then the government house from which Degiat ruled the region. Degiat had become senile and Janhoi appointed him a councilor at the royal court, a position the king reserved for old hands who were no longer useful; time always shows its cruelty Jemal thought.

Across the street they crossed through the middle of the public park and exited on the looped road from where they headed back towards the town center—they had planned to have tea at Ajak’s teashop.

The streets had been unusually empty and there weren’t any noticeable movements of soldiers on the way either. In the distance, they could hear the noise of army trucks headed north on the Sahel road. The Ethiopian flag on the Tigu fortress flapped gently. They continued their stroll.

They stopped at the cinema hall to check what was showing; the poster announced a Western movie starring Clint Eastwood: IL Buono, IL Brutto, IL Cattivo. Though he had watched that movie twice before, Jemal was thinking of watching it again that afternoon. For the rest of the morning an old black and white Egyptian movie that had shown for at least a dozen times was on—Jemal thought it was uninteresting.

Jemal and his friends moved forward joking and laughing at no particular thing. Suddenly they heard crack-crack-crack, a sound of distant gunfire coming from the northern part of town. They stopped to listen. The sound of the gunfire became louder and louder and at one time, it seemed so close to where they were. Then the deafening sound of machine gun fire started to blast from the Tigu fortress. Looking towards Tigu, Jemal could see smoke rising to the sky. Everything went silent except for the gunfire and machine gun blasts. Everyone in the streets tried to find the reason for the gunfire but failed.

They hurried towards the town center and stopped by an open area where some crowds were forming. A thick black smoke went up from the hills over Ona, a village about a kilometer away from Keren on the road to Sahel. They hurried towards that direction, to the edge of town close to the goldsmiths’ market where they had displayed Fekres’ body two years earlier. Unable to see anything, they moved to another place close to the elementary school for better visibility. Ona was ablaze: it was burning. Besekdira could have been a prelude to a greater massacre.

Jemal saw soldiers who appeared the size of ants running towards the neighboring village of Waliko on the hills of Ona; they were chasing and shooting at people. It was difficult to tell if the villagers were falling, jumping to the ravines or simply dying where they dropped. The firing went on for about an hour. The smoke grew bigger and bigger and formed a thick umbrella of clouds. The huts of Ona were ablaze and the smoke from the other side of the hill—the location of the bulk of the village—became thicker. No one spoke but everyone repeated words muttered to themselves in disbelief. They were killing the people of Ona. They set Ona ablaze and Jemal felt a burning sensation in his chest, then dryness, and a scream that tried to force its way out of his throat but instead went down to his stomach and bloated his guts. Beads of tears formed in his eyes; Jemal resisted and had to prevent them from flowing. He felt sadness. He felt rage. He felt disgust. He hated himself because he couldn’t do anything; Janhoi’s soldiers were burning Ona and killing its people as he watched helplessly.

On the side of the street, a few shopkeepers locked their shops and hastily moved away. Others took their wares inside in preparation to close the doors. No one talked but all looked at each other, communicating solemnly through their eyes and worried looks. What would follow next? Will anyone escape that fate? No one wanted to die in the streets, a bad way to die. If he could not escape it, Jemal wanted to go home and await death in his house, with his family, with his loved ones.

Moments later, the streets cleared out completely and it looked like a ghost town. A few people moved aimlessly to one direction and then to another, looking up and down as if expecting something to drop from the sky. The door of the sky was shut that day—even mercy didn’t find its way down.

The chaotic scene continued. Jemal and his friends hurried to their neighborhood just like everybody else. No one uttered a word on the way—there was nothing to say; the noise of gunfire had discouraged their ears from picking up any other sounds.

Once in the neighborhood, Jemal and his friends stayed around in the street for the rest of the day, trying to make sense of what they had witnessed. Hours later, still, what happened seemed so unreal. Jemal hoped it was a dream and somehow, someone would wake him up. But it wasn’t. Jemal’s mother had appeared at the door worried and begged him to get inside, forgetting he is no longer a child to be ordered in!

She looked distressed, “It is not safe outside,” she said helplessly, trying to hide half her worry. Having stayed in the house all day, she didn’t have the slightest idea how unsafe it had become. Assuring her he would be fine, Jemal walked to the alley through the steel gate. He went to the secluded area where he spent evenings during the hours of the curfew, the alley that Ambess the dog had once ruled.

The boys sat there all gloomy until they heard sounds of military Jeeps going up and down the street. Peeking through a nail hole in the gate Jemal saw swarms of soldiers nervously standing by the corner of the street and toting their guns. They must have come straight from the killing fields of Ona. They were dusty and heavily armed and they seemed to be salivating like a hyena waiting to devour its prey.

A few minutes before six, an old man hurried towards his home racing against time to make it before the curfew time. Jemal thought he wouldn’t be able to make it in time anyway. Maybe that is why the soldiers shouted and stopped him. They questioned and searched him; Jemal could hear their muted voices, faint threats. Then, when they couldn’t find anything, they chastised him for breaking the curfew law. He pleaded to continue on his way. “I have a few minutes left, I can get home in time,” he reasoned. One of the soldiers slapped him and the second one kicked him with his boots. Then all five soldiers took turns in the beating. The man looked wasted, a total wreck, a litter. “Go!” their leader screamed at him, “Run before I stop your breathing with a bullet.”

In fear, and to save his dear life, even a legless person would try to outrun a cheetah; the old man seemed to have regained life—he attempted to spring up but crumpled, too beaten up to do anything. He began to crawl. One of the soldiers aimed his gun at the crawling man. Jemal saw the soldier’s finger on the trigger of his Uzi, he thought he would pull the trigger but the man had already passed out in the middle of the street. A while earlier he would have been grateful to the soldiers for allowing him to go, not minding their cruelty; or he could have imagined they were the last persons he would ever see. They waved to a truck and loaded the unconscious man on it. Jemal had no doubt he would end up dead in a ditch somewhere.

A moment later Jemal heard a burst of an Uzi gun behind the building. Everything went silent. He could still see the tail of the truck on which the soldiers loaded the man. The soldier who had his finger on the trigger moments earlier jumped off the truck and it left.

Janhoi’s men had the authority do what they pleased; the rest of the population was either Jebha or their collaborators whose lives could be wasted at whim. The soldiers had to prove their authority repeatedly, even if it was to themselves.

Jemal and his friends talked somberly about what had happened a few meters from where they sat locked behind a steel gate. Jemal’s tears pushed to come out; he failed to prevent them. He went to a corner to be alone for a minute; crying in solitude. The flow of tears relieved him.

The next day, shops stayed closed and people avoided the streets.

By the third day, some shops opened, but the road to Ona and the surrounding areas remained closed by a heavy military presence. Vultures glided on the skies over Ona and the smoke refused to clear up. The dark clouds stayed on the sky.

COLONEL WELANA MUST HAVE FELT RELIEVED. He avenged the death of his commander by torching two villages and massacring their inhabitants. The massacre of Besekdira was not enough to satiate his thirst for revenge and blood; on the next day he ordered his troops to annihilate the village of Ona as well. This time his troops killed over six hundred people. The colonel had been determined to have as many souls as possible accompany General Teshome to the grave.

For three days after the massacre, Colonel Welana denied the people permission to bury the dead of Ona as vultures and hyenas feasted on their bodies.

On the fourth day after the massacre, Jemal returned to school and he looked at Ona from his first floor classroom window and he couldn’t turn his eyes away. It was so close it felt like he could throw a stone and hit a charred tree on the hills of the beleaguered village. Suddenly a crowd appeared in the distance, he could see them walking towards Ona. The whole class came to the windows to have a look, the Filipina teacher unconsciously walked out of the class to find out what was going on and the students followed her out. “Permission obtained! Permission obtained!” shouted a student, “Go to bury the dead!”

The elders of the town requested for an audience with the Colonel and begged him to allow them to bury the dead. Expensive gifts and bribe money had relaxed Colonel Welana a little, he finally yielded.

“If the rebels do anything here, Ona’s fate awaits Keren,” he threatened, “You need to convince your bandit children to stop. Now go. You have until curfew time to finish burying the bandits of Ona,” he told them.

The whole town mobilized for the job though no one had an idea what to expect once there. Jemal joined the students and went to Ona taking a shortcut, crawling from under the barbed wire fence of the school. They crossed the open space to the citrus gardens and to the dry Daari River. Some students climbed the hills towards Ona; Jemal and his friend Khalid went through the highway that passed the village and found mounds of charred substances still smoking.

The village had been razed to the ground and one couldn’t tell whether the many heaps were debris of charred huts or remains of animals and people. A strange suffocating odor of noxious gases filled the village—burned huts, grain, animals and people. It smelled of meat being grilled, the village smelled of death. For the first time the stench of death didn’t carry the smell of DDT.

The day death arrived at Ona, most of the men had left to Keren for the holiday prayer or for work. Women, children, the old and the sick remained in the village wishing to celebrate Eid. Most of the scattered remains were shot at close range and the bodies had no pieces of jewelry, coin or anything of value left on them. Charred bodies, blood soaked bodies, bodies of children and bodies of women with open bellies, were strewn around, some burned while sleeping, others charred in squatting positions. A near-death tired baby with closed eyes still sucked the breast of his dead mother among piles of bloated bodies that let out a putrid odor. Jemal saw the ripped ear lobe of the mother, an obvious sign of a fiercely snatched tellal, a pricy crescent-shaped golden earring. Janhoi’s army didn’t only shoot the people; they robbed Ona of its meager wealth. The woman must have fished it out from a safe place to wear it on the holiday when the villagers put on bright clothes. White. The color of death. Some clothes shined under the sun and flapped with each gust of wind and each breeze that carried the stench of death.

The students combed far areas around the villages in search of bodies. A heap one thought was of wood would suddenly reveal a charred body. If not for the shape and probably some skin, a strand of thinly braided hair, an unburned part of the skull, it was hard to tell the human remains from the rest. Jemal saw bodies sprayed with bullets at the bottom of ravines, they were probably trying to escape death. Maybe they were shot by the ant-sized soldiers that he saw the day of the massacre.

Spotting a half burned house, Khalid and Jemal approached to check. Inside, under what used to be a bed, the body of a woman had turned to charcoal. She must have been crawling on all fours, she could have been hiding under the bed when the merciless shot hit, or maybe she just suffocated and died. They removed the charred bed frame and prepared to lift the body. Jemal held the body by the hand and Khalid lifted it by the leg but suddenly the leg snapped off and remained in his hands. Jemal felt a sudden nausea and he threw up. His stomach lurched and retched; he could only spit some acidic, yellowish liquid. It was then that Hamid the Muezzin , the prayer caller, came to his rescue and stared at him in disgust.

Ashamed for not being strong enough, Jemal faked courage while Khalid tried to put on a brave face. Hamid didn’t seem to be bothered with how the boys felt; he didn’t feel sorry for them. It seemed he would rather have them see life in its ugliest form. He brought a large piece of a fabric and showed them how to lift charred bodies. Sliding a plywood panel under it, he lifted the body and dropped it on the fabric. He told them to pick the pieces that looked like body parts and add them to the pile on the fabric which they tied and moved to a fresh grave. The Muezzin looked at them, “You need to throw your feelings away. Be strong!” He said.

Jemal didn’t understand why he had to say that.

It became emotionally difficult to cope with the sight and Jemal felt dizzy. He walked to a tree and sat there for a while to regain his breath, but he found that undoable. He sprang up feeling ashamed for even trying to rest.

People with shovels and pickaxes were busy digging graves. No one told the other where to dig: people just dug holes everywhere and lowered the closest body they could find into it, or just dumped it there. But it was getting late and they didn’t have enough time to bury the bodies in separate graves. They frantically began to dig mass graves by the entrance to the village; curfew time was approaching fast and Colonel Welana’s orders dictated that the burial should be finished before curfew time at six in the evening.

A little after three o’clock, two long and deep meandering ditches had been dug and the people laid rows of bodies in them. Mr. Hugh’s Land Rover pulled close by, carrying boys from the Lalemba orphanage. They unloaded bundles of white Abu Jedid fabric, kefen, affordable clothing for the poor and a burial shroud for the dead. The townspeople had already brought many bundles, but it was running short. Jemal busied himself cutting the shroud into nine-meter pieces; the people of Ona deserved a clean shroud on their final voyage. The rows of bodies by the side of the mass grave made them look like Egyptian mummies.

Mr. Hugh’s Lalemba charity had inaugurated a new hospital a few months earlier. Now he was in Ona, distressed like everyone else as sweat mixed with dust left patches of mud on his khaki shirt; of all the foreigners in Keren, he was the only one Jemal saw at Ona.

Some wounded villagers had survived for three days in hiding. Mr. Hugh took them to his new hospital on the back of his Land Rover; a few must have died en route. But his efforts didn’t go well with Colonel Welana, the butcher of Besekdira and Ona. He wanted Mr. Hugh out of Keren immediately. The colonel didn’t want any foreigner around to witness when he carried out his next massacre.

The sun seemed to be in defiance and refused to set down. It was there with its shy heat, its lights blocked. It was getting dark, yet it could have been daytime. Jemal had been there for almost six hours that felt like six years. He gazed again at the sun that lurked behind the clouds; it seemed it would never move away.

Finally it moved towards its hiding place, leaving behind some dark clouds with dull amber linings. It shined through the dust that engulfed the village. Jemal wondered about the smoke that didn’t have any visible source apart from the stubborn debris of the once sturdy tree trunks, pillars that supported the roof of the huts and now refused to collapse or burn down. Jemal looked at his hands, clothes, and the land around him—everything was covered in soot.

The men digging the holes were widening the sides. Someone stretched inside the holes to check if the holes were wide enough for the comfort of the dead! He rolled from one side to the other and nodded in approval before climbing out. Jemal stepped backwards, a few steps, and looked at the holes whose mouths were ready to swallow anything thrown into them, like that of a monster. He remembered the pits where the helpless birds he caught were thrown in by workers to be swallowed by the snakes, and the meandering grave appeared like a snake ready to swallow the victims of Ona.

It was getting late. Around three-hundred bodies had already been buried in separate graves, and around that many bodies were lying around waiting for burial in the mass graves. Wondering why he bothered to count, Jemal had stopped when he counted close to three-hundred more bodies.

About a dozen people jumped into the hole and raised their hands to receive the bodies. No one spoke but everyone understood what the other said. The crowd rushed to carry the bodies and lower them to the hands of the men waiting inside the grave. They laid them on their sides facing north. Rows of bodies shrouded in white cloth filled the grave. Dozens of shovels started to throw dirt and bury them. Slowly, dirt covered all the visible white Abu Jedid shrouds. Dust rose and blinded the people. The burial was over.

A little after five in the afternoon the Muezzin led a short prayer for the dead. Thereafter, the crowd, exhausted, distressed and angry, started to walk away through the picturesque Ertola citrus gardens and towards the town center. The trees, as if in mourning, didn’t move. There was no wind and no air around, just empty space. Like stray zombies on the full moon, the dust-covered crowd streaked away from Ona. No one spoke. No one cried. No one paced faster than the other did. Like the tic-tock of a clock, people lifted one leg and then the other. Jemal looked around; he saw dried clay figures that pretended to be humans, walking. Has he turned into clay? Did it matter if he could also face the fate of the villagers of Ona anytime? What if someday he ended up in a hole buried close to someone he didn’t even know? What happens inside the grave? He didn’t expect an answer from anyone—it was Jemal’s tired imagination going wild. He realized that and stopped by the garden fence and cried. Warm tears washed the dust and left streaks of mud over his cheeks. He thought he screamed but didn’t hear himself.

The dust on the road became stuffier. Jemal started to walk again and reached an open area. Over the empty land he looked towards the hill from where some of the rounds that rained on Ona were fired. He saw the Ethiopian flag waving—he wondered what Colonel Welana, the engineer of the atrocities, was doing at that moment.

On the foothill of the Tigu fortress, his school looked empty and deserted. Why go to school anyway, Jemal asked himself. A voice echoed in his ears and changed the subject on him. It seemed to say, ‘This has to be avenged!’

When Jemal reached the asphalted street, the steps of the people became audible; they walked in a shamble, their feet making a strange screeching sound. The doors of the houses on the street were closed. So was the door of Jemal’s house.

Just as he was about to knock, as if she knew he was there, Jemal’s mother opened the door. She tousled his hair but didn’t say a word. That day, he had perfected the talent of listening to people speak through their eyes. He heard her. Jemal doesn’t remember if he washed up that night, he thought he went straight to bed. Something cried in his ears for the whole night: Justice! Justice! Justice!

Of Kings And Bandits is available at <>


Related Posts