The Story of Eritrean Liberation Front’s Book of Martyrs
“I wonder if anyone knows or remembers Tedros Tesfai Tedla” Degiga revealed his inner thoughts. “He was an ELF freedom fighter, a personal friend of mine, who blew himself up with a grenade in the Gash area to avoid capture in 1973. Tedros and I joined the front on the same day; we were trained at the same time” he added.
Tedros’ name is entered in the ELF’s Book of Martyrs on page 74, no. 5. “I know it’s hard to see his name listed in the book, but at least I can take solace in the knowledge that his name will be remembered by those who own the book” said Degiga rather musingly. BTW, Degiga is the current chair of EPDP.
As soon as I received ELF’s Book of Martyrs from Goitom Mebrahtu, a seasoned activist and former ELF fighter who lives in London, the first thing I did was to go to page 89 (where martyrs whose names start with the letter ‘N’) to look for an old friend who was uniquely talented and a breath of fresh air. His name was Nerayo Kidane.
What happened to Nerayo Kidane?
The last time I saw Nerayo Kidane was when I ran across him in Asmara in 1971-72. I remember he was huffing and puffing as we exchanged brief greetings in one of the quiet streets around the American Library. He was sticking an ELF pamphlet on the wall which was a dangerous thing to do back then; and he had to dash before the security agents were on to him. He quickly disappeared before we could finish our exchanges. We were teenagers then.
I had known Nerayo since our elementary schooling in Geza Kenisha. He was popular in our community due to his special singing talent.
I particularly remember him singing ‘O Holy Night’ on Christmas Eve in Tigrinya; an image that has remained stuck in my head ever since. Nerayo was so young the choir master would ask him to stand on a chair so the congregation could see him.
Accompanied by the church pianist he would sing to our hearts’ content. I can say that he had such a clear and sweet voice one could hear a pin drop whenever he came on stage.
As Nerayo became a teenager he picked up the guitar and demonstrated that he was naturally talented. In fact, he was gifted with a perfect pitch – he had a rare ability to memorise intricate melodies straightaway and translate them into guitar music without any reference.
Imagine this … he would play, for instance, Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti” with so much ease and gusto, he used to, literally speaking, blow me away. To this day I cannot listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ to the end because it reminds me of Nerayo’s rendition which was better than the original song.
Neguse Tsegai (Frankfurt) and Solomon Ghebrewold (Ulm), both veteran ELF combatants, very well know the story of their comrade, Nerayo Kidane. They told me what happened to him during that fateful day. He was so young with a bright future ahead of him!
As for me, I can only say that Nerayo, my restless friend, taught me how to play the guitar and harmonise during those unforgettable days of our youth.
Here is to friendship, Nerayo. May your soul rest in peace, my dear friend!
BTW, the reason I am mentioning Nerayo Kidane is due to the fact that his name is NOT listed in ELF’s Book of Martyrs. Not yet.
Here is the rest of the story.
“It is appalling that there is no complete catalogue of Eritrean martyrs” says Degiga.
“The price that was paid to liberate Eritrea was simply incalculable; and within Eritrean communities, martyrdom became a political issue in post-independence era, unfortunately” he added.
He further elaborated on the high price that was paid to free Eritrea by saying the following:
“Eritrea saw fallen freedom fighters, as well as civilians who were massacred all over the country during the armed struggle. Yes, number of Eritreans who were slaughtered in various towns and whose demises were not reported officially was astounding. The names of individuals and those who faced punishment en masse were never documented properly. People who died in prisons and camps were not accounted for; and those who succumbed to stress and ill-health among the displaced and those who were driven across the borders ran in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, those who suffered due to lack of medical treatment and those who starved to death were simply overwhelming.”
Degiga said he understood the task in cataloguing everyone who perished during the armed struggle is next to impossible. What’s more, he admitted that many opportunities were missed in documenting not only the names of fallen freedom fighters, but also the history of the armed struggle.
“The important thing is we are trying our level best to improve the book of martyrs that we have started a long time ago” said Degiga. “Collecting data in our communities is very difficult; despite this, we have been ploughing on with the project” he added.
“The reason behind why I am most so proud of my fallen comrades is the fact that they all fell knowing full well the cause was bigger than their individual lives.”
Allow me to Introduce Degiga Properly . . .
Degiga is his nom de guerre; his real name is Tesfai Woldemichael Haile. He joined the ELF at a young age in 1973. He is pleasant, full of humour and resolute in his principles. He spent all his life, including his time in the US, in the struggle for justice. Until now he is at the forefront of the struggle for change in Eritrea.
Knowing Degiga can be compared to knowing the journey the ELF took during and after the armed struggle. Just because the journey of the ELF fighters was interrupted in the battlefields of Eritrea, it does not mean Eritreans have forgotten their accomplishments in the 60s and 70s – because their story is the story heroism and martyrdom.
Once again, one way of remembering the history of the ELF is by going over life histories of its former fighters.
Degiga had to stop his university education at the age of twenty in order join the ELF in 1973. To give context to that era, it is to be remembered during that time, under the new EPLF leadership (under Isaias Afwerki), leaders of “leftist Menqa’E faction” were summarily executed and many more members were imprisoned. A year later, in February-September 1974, the Ethiopian revolution, led by the Derg (the military Junta), deposed Emperor Haile Selassie.
During that era, thousands of youngsters who were ready to give their lives to the cause were joining the ELF in droves from all walks of life.
Stories of his Youth
I asked Degiga to share some stories of his childhood in Asmara with me.
“The last time I saw Asmara was on 12 Feb 1973. I never went back to Asmara since then. I remember seeing its glow from faraway places during the armed struggle, but that was it. However, although I never returned to Asmara, my childhood recollections are always with me” he replied.
He said Asmara defined his life as a young person. He talked about the love and selflessness of his beloved parents whom he did not bid farewell when he left home to join the front. That is still a sore spot with him.
Degiga still remembers his friends and life in his old neighbourhood which was his world of worlds; he remembers sneaking out with his mates to go to ‘Mai Bauzan’ to swim, the murky natural pool in the perimeter of Asmara. He also remembers going out window-shopping in the streets of Asmara for hours.
Additionally, he fondly remembers his mother who never stopped looking for him after he vanished from home. “My dear father, may God bless his soul, travelled all over Eritrea in search of me – Tesenei, Aliet, Forto, around Sawa. I never forget the day he found me in the battlefield, and stayed with me for a couple of days” he mused.
One of the memories that stand out is when he and his friends from Santa Famiglia, Asmara University, began to cultivate their nationalism.
“There were some students who played big roles in promoting Eritrean nationalism amongst us. One of them was Ghirmay Ghebreselassie (Qeshi) who led the first assembly in campus. ‘We have to do something to support the struggle as students’, he argued” said Degiga. It was then that Degiga and his friends embarked on their patriotic journey. In fact, that is how the majority of Santa Famiglia students ended up joining the ELF at that time.
Degiga remembers Fatna the most – the daughter of the Eritrean Mufti. She was so courageous she stood up to counter the governor’s speech. Asrate Kassa was the much dreaded governor at the time.
“Fatna used to take part in student protests – there were many demonstrations taking place then. One day she was taken in by the security forces” recalled Degiga.
“Disturbed by the imprisonment of Fatna, a group of us started marching from Santa Famiglia towards Haz-Haz prison. On our way to Haz-Haz, when we reached Agazian Elementary/Junior School, we were surrounded by the police and taken to prison. I remember Ghirmay (Qeshi), Ghilazghi Tesfamariam, Netsereab Kflay, Dawit Solomon … there were others who were jailed with me. Our parents were made to jump through hoops to have us released,” Degiga described the political situation of the time.
Indeed, young people were so driven by patriotism they used to evade parental controls in order to take part in rallies and clashes with the police. Students were being picked up by the security agents all over the city. The students’ response was trek across the countryside to join the fronts.
Degiga is such a good story teller he manages to render a vivid picture of what was taking place in the heads of young people of that era, and how life was like in the battlefields. Most of all, one could tell he treasures the stories of his fallen comrades. That is why he took part in the collection and consolidation of the initial book of ELF martyrs.
The Story of ELF’s Book of Martyrs
When I asked Degiga how the project of collecting the names of ELF martyrs did come about, he started by saying: “At the outset, the aim of the project was not to mourn over the martyrdom of our fallen fighters but to remember them with pride and gratitude.”
“After the war of attrition (between the ELF and EPLF), the majority of the ELF combatants were hard-pressed to move to Sudan” he said. “With them they brought documents they could salvage to Korekon; many of the documents were in the hands of combatants who worked at the Archive Centre. At that time many of our documents went missing. Therefore, the documents that contained the names of some of our fallen comrades that we managed to salvage are included in this book”, he said.
“The person who was instrumental in salvaging the names that went into our Martyrs Book was Brother Abdella Hassen. He was the chairman of the provisional council; later he became head of the military office of ELF-RC” said Degiga. “Abdella managed to recover two documents that contained names of our martyred combatants; the third document he recovered contained names of prisoners and captives”, he added.
According to Degiga, Abdella Hassen made sure the documents were handed over to Ibrahim Mohamed Ali who was a member of ELF-RC’s executive committee. The rest of the names that were later added to the list were collected form here and there.
“It is with a heavy heart that I tell you that the names of the undocumented fallen combatants are more than the ones whose names we managed to salvage”, he said.
He added that at times the battles were so fierce, and the combatants were always on the move that they had no time to document the names, place and date of martyrdom of the fighters that were falling.
As echoed by Degiga, the time and energy that was invested in preparing this book of martyrs cannot be compared to the huge work that still awaits him and his colleagues. They started the project knowing full well what they were getting into. As described in the book’s foreword, this is just the beginning, and it does in no way signify the completion of the project.
“The colleague who worked the hardest in realising the completion of this version of the book is none other than Brother Menghisteab Asmerom, our former EPDP chair” said Degiga with much respect and appreciation.
Degiga, as humble as he is, put his name at the bottom of the list of those who contributed towards the project.
“A Marty never Dies”
If we go through the pages of ELF’s Book of Martyrs, we find the names of those who fell not only in Ruba Anseba, SheKay Ruba, Ruba Barka, but also in OmHajer, Barentu, Mendefera, Agordat, Hashnit, Hal-Hal, Golij, and more. It is no exaggeration to say that readers who find names of family members listed in the book would pause to say a prayer.
We find the name of Ghebrehiwet Ghebreselassie on page 170, entry 23. He fell on 12th Feb 1976 in Hagaz. Those who do not know him may simply overlook his name as they skim through the pages. Degiga acknowledged Ghebrehiwet as the hero who changed the face of the struggle.
It is to be remembered that the unit Ghebrehiwet was leading ambushed and killed the commander of the 2nd Division, Gen. Teshome Ergetu, on 21 November 1970, near Keren. “Until that time” said Degiga, “the combatants were referred to as bandits, not as Tegadelti (freedom fighters)” he added.
Degiga also feels sad that the names of many urban guerrillas who fell in action are not included in the book.
“I had a friend called Araya Tesfaselassie” said Degiga. We were in the same YMCA club when we were young. Araya used to go to Haile Selassie First Secondary School. He and I joined the front on the same day” he added.
“Araya always wanted to be an urban guerrilla. And in 1975 he became one. When he was instructed to cut his hair before going on his mission, it was me who shaved his hair in the village of Hazega” recounted Degiga.
“I was certain Araya was going to complete his mission successfully and return to base. I never knew he was going to fall. Somehow, the security people found out of his whereabouts and they were on to him; he fought till the end in Asmara, at the city centre” reminisced Degiga.
It is true that Araya’s name has not been included in the Book of Martyrs. Perhaps it will be included in the next edition.
On the other hand, even though the book is incomplete, we still find ELF heroes like Abdu Mahmuday and Abraham Tekle. “But that is not enough” said Degiga.
When the ELF fighters entered Sudan, the organisation was split into three factions. And the list of martyrs could not be stored in one place. “That is why” said Degiga, “ELF’s documents were scattered; and some went missing.” Many of the fighters are old now, and others are frail and in poor health. “In fact,” said Degiga, “some have passed away; and with them the names of our martyrs and our history are gone forever!”
ELF Book of Martyrs is published in 1996. That was a long time ago. Besides, the listed names of fighters who fell in action are only 6,000. It is estimated that this is at least a third of the actual figure. “We have collected names of our martyrs since 1996 that are waiting to be included in the next edition” said Degiga.
However, he did not say when the next edition of ELF Book of Martyrs will be published.
“We should not disregard this part of our history. Let alone including their names in our Book of Martyrs, our fallen comrades deserve much more than that … because a martyr never dies” he said before concluding our discussion.