Angelo’s Dangerous Liaison1
In Rome, at Piazza Independenza, a familiar scene repeated itself almost daily. It was the early 80s, a group of Eritrean refugees and Somalis, incidentally both from the former colonies of Italy, would gather around café tables sipping mostly coffee and chatting, but often arguing about politics. This is a familiar trait among both communities. A few yards from them, an old man from Eritrea, wiry and straight backed, paces back and forth not far from his cardboard box shelter located on the sidewalk for he is homeless. He is a veteran of the old colonial wars of Italy. The man had certainly something wrong in his head for he faithfully, and without any reason, throws the Fascist salute. Yet all his adventures for the tri-color of Italy had been for no use. The human detritus in the bar stare at the relic from the old war absentmindedly, not realizing that they are also history’s flotsam from the war of nationalism. It was a surreal atmosphere.
The fact that the old ascari is doing the Fascist salute does not bother them. Nor does this scene perturb the Italians passing by. They often give him some Lire, but ignore him. The Italians and the African refugees have surely forgotten history. There is a parallel to this anecdote about the old ascari in Eritrea with only this difference: the victim, a former university student and of mixed-race origin, ended up fighting for the independence war for Eritrea, that is, Eritrea II.
Angelo, died a few decades ago, and not of natural causes. If by any chance, he is listed among the tens of thousands who died for ghedli, it must not be believed for he had a “spoiled biography in the EPLF. Like countless others, whose deaths have often been attributed to the violent practices of the organization, his death is not a closed case. He was one of the several thousands of children fathered by Italian soldiers/settlers and abandoned to their mothers.
The flight of thousands of Italian-Eritreans to Italy and the rest of the Western world in the turbulent years of the early 70s has been described elsewhere.2 They made a deliberate choice to leave for a safe place and their fatherland. This group comprised the large majority of the Italians and people born from Eritrean mothers., though there were many from the same demographic group who were stuck, or (insabbiati in Italian), as Michela Wrong once pointed out.3 Among the latter who were stranded, an insignificant few chose a different destiny, that is, to fight for the “motherland”. The armed movement in Eritrea, EPLF, had some of them.
To this date nothing seems to have been written about these-type of fighters. A scant look at EPLF’s literature on its “martyrs” leaves one empty-handed. Their minuscule number, and the fact that they were totally absent in the roster of the leadership may help explaining the phenomenon. In comparison, the mulattoes in the MPLA of Angola during the fight for decolonization had a disproportionate presence.
This piece is, therefore, a belated attempt to remember the life of one of the tragic participants. It is hoped other compatriots would follow the trend.
Unlike the multitude of Italians and others of mixed-race who left the country during the mid-70s, Angelo was in Sahel. Everybody can vouch for him. In contrast, the claim of partisan membership in the EPLF of the character Filippo Cicoria also from the mixed-race community has been put in doubt by the author on Eritrea, Michela Wrong. Angelo arrived there because of the nationalist ideology, for he was exposed to it during his brief stay at Haile Selassie I. His sojourn in Sahel mieda was equally brief but a hellish experience. Suffering from swollen legs caused by the roteba (some type of gout), which was common in the region, he dreaded climbing the familiar rocky mountains. The physical pain, however, was more tolerable than the psychological harm inflicted on him in the hands of the EPLF bosses.
Assigned a guard duty, he and few fellow tegadelti were once stationed at one of the tall peaks around the mostly high mountains in the Geli/Arag/Gereger region. Guard duty is mundane and boring in this sparsely populated place in which even agricultural activity is largely absent, but not that particular day. Angelo’s open walkie-talkie was capturing a lot of noise from the Red Sea waterways. Partly because of the high altitude, and the “scientific peculiarity” of the region radio transmissions were loud and clear.
Upon recognizing some of the words as Italian, Angelo supposedly got tempted, and spoke with some of the sea men. His language skill and his innocence were to cost him a lot of abuse and ill treatment in the hands of the senior leadership, such as, Isaias. That was not all. Not long after his arrival from Adis Ababa as a new recruit, he had attracted the ill attention of the war lord of Selfi Nasnet (one of the autonomous armed group before the merger as EPLF.) His independent and combative spirit was a liability in the highly secretive and paranoid organization. It, therefore, led to his complete demoralization and isolation. This harrowing story is, however, not a unique anecdote.
The Northern Highland regions evoked the legendary place of Shangri-la to the author of I Didn’t Do It for You. This imagined place was to the contrary a hellish corner, where the youth mostly led a brute and short life not unlike what Thomas Hobbes famously described life in Middle Age’s Europe. In other words, Sahel had no resemblance to Shangri-la’s “secrets of youth” Yet, thousands of mostly innocent youth made what was to be a one way pilgrimage in the mid-70s. What pushed these people to such extreme measure?
The urban elite, and particularly the students, left for ghedli partly in protest against the revoking of the two official languages of Tigrigna and Arabic in Federated Eritrea and the feudal system in Ethiopia. What awaited them in the rebel territory was nonetheless by far worse: a total denial of self-expression. In other words, they switched old Ethiopia for a dystopia. Was the place they migrated in droves then an ideal place to converse, debate and write, even given the war environment? Was it an alternative venue for achieving the highest form of art, literature and knowledge? To the contrary, intolerance, fear and constant surveillance were the norm that embraced them.
Listening to even the ordinary music and news broadcast from the American Kagnew Station in Asmera was discouraged and frowned upon. Woe to the person who thinks of keeping a diary! The fact that ghedli history was largely arid and empty is the direct result of the inhospitable political climate. Predictably, the social landscape of the mieda of Eritrea could only support the existence of mute like ghosts inappropriately called “fighters”. Thousands of years after the invention of writing and hundreds of years after the invention of the printing machine, any unofficial item of reading and text was strictly monitored by the EPLF. This phenomenon was excellently described by Aklilu Zere in his article Nsu.
Some naive observers may, however, dispute this assertion, and point out to a few novels, paintings and the voluminous documents found in the Research and Documentation Center in Asmera. These are mostly what critiques call socialist realism type of art works and ideological cant that were favored in both the former Soviet Union and in communist China, whose adverse impact is still felt. Designed for propaganda purposes, these art works one might say are dull, deceptive and a far poor quality than the mesmerizing cave drawings of the free spirited prehistoric people. Likewise, the shoddy art and literature of the caves of Sahel was the product of repressed souls. In spite of this fact, a famous novelist romantically described these notorious Sahel valleys as “the kindness caves” in his book Towards Asmera. In reality, these places were simply clinics and flour mills that were available mainly for the EPLF fighters, and not some Mother Teresa orphanages.
The rebel regime whose habit to discourage any sort of independent thinking and hostility to self-expression was famous, it nonetheless was obsessed with documenting and manipulating the “past”. While smothering freedom of expression, the EPLF established cultural troupes, a film, a photograph and a radio section. While keeping the average rebel recruit in total darkness, EPLF publications were often splashed with the image of the torch and children learning how to read. This practice should have been instantly recognized as indoctrination in the rest of the world, and particularly in the West, yet it earned Eritrean nationalism and the EPLF much laurels. This patronizing attitude of the various foreign scholars and writers was completely lost to the Eritrean public.
Rest his soul poor Angelo! Though the Sahel, being a place of all horrors, is not a good resting place, hiis body was possibly dumped in unmarked grave without the statues of praying angels that were familiar to his paternal ancestors. No flowers for his “tomb” in all the Souls ‘Day since he passed away. In his last moment before his death, did Angelo shout “awet n‘hafash” in Tigrigna as it is alleged for many, or did he instead say “per niente” in his father’s tongue?
Thousands of our fathers, and grandfathers and great grandfathers died foolishly for the first colony of Italy. The unmarked graves in Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia, and the tombs labeled as unknown in some cemeteries in Eritrea, are a testimony to it. Decades after the Italian colonial debacle, fate also pushed a few of our mixed-race compatriots to meet a similar end for a “re-invented” Eritrea. This time led by people indigenous to the country; they were, however, a small elite.
Angelo was one of the early victims of the land. The land, whose geographical features and other factors help radio transmissions from all over the world to be heard as loud and clear, has a counterpart to its “scientific peculiarity”: a political peculiarity. Its subjects talk in whispers.
In Asmera, the statue of the poet Alexander Pushkin, who had a mixed-race parentage, rests on the best real estate locations. The irony in this is that Pushkin himself was the object of censure by the Tsar in power then. The broad public had neither heard of him before nor read any of his poems before suddenly materializing in their country. Save for the few elite, even most of the fighters, who hailed from the universities of Adis Abeba and Asmera, were completely ignorant of him. They knew Angelo, however. Most of his cohorts have died in the war, a few have survived it, and the rest are all scattered all over the world. The survivors have so far silenced themselves.
This is a troubling recollection of a victim and a fellow human being from the Hobbesian world. The ubiquitous label “martyr” is deliberately avoided here. In the likelihood that Angelo died from the Derg’s bullet, his victimization and abuse remains the same. The current debate about the legal concept of the “innocent” and the “criminal” political entrepreneurs of the mieda in Eritrea, including the lofty concept of “innocent until proven guilty” in the diaspora websites are confounding, insincere and downright deceptive. The Hobbesian world, which is the ghedli we know, is totally inimical to it.
 The writer borrowed the phrase “Dangerous Liaison” from the article by Barrera, J titled: Dangerous Liaison: Colonial Concubinage in Eritrea, 189-1941.
 Omer Tedros in “Former Italian “Asmarinos” hold their revanchist rally in the seaside town of Rimini, Italy at Asmarino.com.
 Wrong, M, I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation p. 25.