I threw myself at the hangman’s feet,
You are my son, my horror.
Everything’s mixed up for me for ever,
And who is a man, and who is a beast
Will never now be clear…
-Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, 1937
THE FRAMED PICTURES OF THE MISSSING
People in Asmera and other small towns were frequently exposed to this event: a group of soldiers would barge into their rooms to conduct the dreadful fetesha, looking for arms or clandestine documents. The family in the house is in tenterhooks and is expecting the worst. While doing their work in haste, the soldiers will notice the presence of only the parents and small children and harshly ask for the whereabouts of the other older siblings, whose cheaply framed pictures are on the walls. They would often say, “Where are all these goferies?” The typical family of six to seven of the seventies of Asmera has to come up with some ready made answer, but mercifully for them, arrest rarely follows.
When the EPLF gradually started replacing the ever-present camels with the sturdy and reliable Mercedes trucks, the tegadelti named the vehicles adetat. The mothers in Eritrea, and particularly those in the rural areas, were after all famous for their endurance and generosity. The coercive practices of the EPLF notwithstanding, their humble huts did not withhold food and other necessities to the combatants. This was mostly done out of love for their children, what they with endearments used to call dekina, and not for any understood political programs. They both feared and respected their armed children as the serf to the lord, and occasionally would be heard blessing them birkikum yisna’e ezom dekey.
The fate of the missing
After more than a decade, on the patriot saint day of Kidane Mihret, some of those in the framed pictures arrived with the victorious army and were joyfully greeted by their family. Others were not accounted for, and a multitude of families in the urban areas suspecting the worst left no stone unturned to find out the circumstances of their death. The regime issued certificates of martyrdom through the hundreds of kebelles (since renamed zobas) and village administrations. The certificates of martyrdom were soon framed and prominently placed by many households along side the old black and white pictures. But the regime enforced a complete silence about the fate of the rest who were not accounted for.
Those families who fearlessly persisted found their effort to no avail. During one of his yearly sessions with the public in the late 90s, the dictator harshly told the crowd “that he does want to hear about this, and that it is a closed case.” Another resourceful family reportedly approached the late Ali Said and was advised to forget it. We have therefore a lot of mothers and families in Eritrea left in a complete grief.
In many occasions, those who knew the mysterious fate of the victims among the fighters kept to choose silent. The folks in the rural areas, however, were less naïve about the cruel practices of the EPLF, for peasants among them were regularly picked up from their midst by the Kefli Hizbi. This Orwellian named unit also served as the security hand of the EPLF, and woe to the peasants who fall into their hands. Multitude of them have either been made to disappear or were abducted and taken to the dejen Sahel to be imprisoned or do hard labor.
A case in point is the village of Adi Hawesha. A meeting was called by EPLF cadres for the purpose of announcing the war dead. Upon completion of the reading of the list, the peasants of Adi Hawesha were aghast and said, “These were not the only ones who left for bereka.” Then the cadres briefly stated that the villagers should also be aware that the EPLF took measures (segumti tewesiduwom) against some tegadelti offenders. Rural dwellers all over the villages and small hamlets of Eritrea likewise cried and keened silently. If the families of the victims from the urban areas and the peasants were intimidated and helpless, the former EPLF fighter Gual Keshi was not.
Reports available indicate that she had close members of her family who have been made to disappear. Aware of their brutish habits during her guerrilla years, she did not bother about petitioning her former organization. She then opted for a vendetta. In the late 90s, the real erab, (reminds me of the popular song for a woman fighter blaring in Asmera bars) Gual Keshi and her armed squad were conducting their vendetta war in the Kola Seraye region. She soon earned a reputation as a fearsome and clever guerrilla among the peasants. Gual Keshi allegedly hated the Sawa recruits and woe to the one who fell into her hands.
Unlike Wedi Hadera, the protagonist in the novel “Wedi Hadera: Kab Badme Nab Sahel”, Gual Keshi trekked the reverse path. A cruel experience led her however from Sahel to the Kola Seraye. News about her exploits soon disappeared, when the conflict with Ethiopia flared again around her familiar territory. It seems there was no breathing space for her armed squad, when tens of thousands of soldiers of both regimes crowded the region. She might have either disbanded and left for a safe haven or was killed. I recommend Alemseged Tesfai to write a story about this fighter who morphed from tegadalit into a “bandit.”
Remembering the dead
A strange ritual has endured in Eritrea despite the magnitude of the havoc caused by the regime. The fact that this ritual has been fanatically observed both by the Isaias regime, his diehard supporters and the opposition makes it extremely absurd. This ritual in our land seems to have monopolized the place of all the other traditional events like the teskar and other colorful Eritrean customs that are now being frowned upon.
These cultures were relentlessly attacked and derided long before the usurpation of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Patriarch Antonios’ spiritual authority. On the other hand, the regime and its die hard supporters have in tandem been orchestrating a ceaseless campaign to ensure that many in the country (they have no option), and in the Diaspora attend all type of official events. Its political purpose to retain loyalty has not relegated the other task, which is filling its huge coffers. And yet there was not any discernable protest at all.
In the highlands of Eritrea, and particularly among the Christians, the ceremonies for death and its aftermath were quite long and closely observed. When close relatives were not able to participate in a burial ceremony of a dear one, either because of weather factors or poor transport facilities, the village of the deceased would arrange kal’ay kebri, and in lieu of a coffin, a bed would be placed prominently at the kir’at or the village square. Unless dire circumstances forbid it, the family of the dying person has either to be around him or observe the proper rituals not long after. If these are absent, death would not be considered Good Death and was dreaded by many.
Some have rightly criticized the government for either destroying or tampering with some of our ancient customs, but the observance of the “Martyrs’ Day” has remained a taboo. Any attempt to inquire is considered a sacrilege by all Eritrean political groups. Instead, some have complained and questioned the “incorrectness” of the day of the observance of the martyrs. They believe Isaias and his clique have manipulated it in order to rewrite history, and that could possibly be true. After all, it was the practice of many dictators all over the world.
In one instance, a writer at Awate.com once challenged the appropriateness of holding lighted candles and pointed out its Christian religious influence. The same web site appears to have skipped commemorating the officially held day and decided instead to dwell on exposing the ongoing gross violations in the country. The regime’s supporters were quick to notice this and were relentless in their diatribe.
In the early years of the ghedli era, the death of fighters was handled differently by the two armed organizations. Jebha was in the habit of informing the close kin of the dead initially but found it unviable when the rate of casualties grew fast as a result of the major onslaughts of the Derg and the civil war with the EPLF. Since its inception, the EPLF on the other hand kept the death of combatants secret not only from the unfortunate families themselves but in many occasions even from its army. The dubious case of the death of the prominent EPLF leader Ibrahim Affa is a good example.
During the guerrilla years, when asked by anxious families, the EPLF in many occasions had intimidated and refused to divulge any information. Deceitful in their true nature, they did not refrain from committing a brazen lie. Many of the deceased were claimed by the front as alive and stationed in other parts of the fighting theater. The contempt of the EPLF had no borders.
The mothers of the missing
I am sure most of you, who hail from Asmera, and other small towns remember the colorful scarves that our adetat used to cover their heads around the 60s and 70s. The utilitarian purpose of this habit seems to have been replaced by the adere head cloth introduced since the early 80s into our region. When I recall this, what clicks into my mind is the Mothers of the Disappeared, or Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo, who were activist mothers in Argentina. When thousands of the militant left and other innocents perished during the Dirty War under the military junta many were afraid and opted to be silent.
A dozen or so mothers and grandmothers, however, dared the regime to account for the whereabouts of their children. Clad in white scarves with the names of the missing embroidered on them, they gathered every Thursday afternoon in the Plaza De Mayo of Buenos Aires. The brutish junta was not amused with this protest and soon made some of the same mothers disappear too. They remained defiant, gradually penetrated the largely male political space and gained a growing sympathy both in the country and the rest of the world. The edifice of the impenetrable appearing military cabal cracked due to the public space forced open by the peaceful protesters.
Fate has served the adetat in Eritrea worse than what occurred even during the Derg period. In his book Red Tears, Dawit Woldegiorgis, the prominent Derg member and governor in Eritrea recalls the heart wrenching story of meeting many bereaved mothers begging for information about their children and their close kin. Dawit recollects being touched when the mothers begged him for a closure even if it was bad news.
In contrast, innumerable adetat of Eritrea have for the last many decades been silently mourning for their disappeared ones in the hands of ghedli and, in many instances, together with their siblings from the same family who fell in battles. Unlike their sisters in Argentina who successfully exposed the regime, the adetat in Eritrea are still living in terror and in disquieting silence.
Lately, we have been getting a lot of reports about the disappeared and the alleged “suicide” deaths of considerable people in a series by none other than the courageous Lt.Kidane at awate.com and also others at Asena.com. The reports caution that their exposes may be the tip of what is believed to be a large scale killing. The source for these reports appears to be entirely from ordinary fighters of the EPLF.
In retrospect, two parallel accounts by two senior veterans of the EPLF have been available for some time. The credible sources for similar crimes by the late Teklay (Aden) was mostly ignored or buried under. This prominent official of Halewa Sewra that served as the abattoir in the Sahel jumped off the babur sewra and confessed about atrocities committed by the EPLF to the Derg media in the late seventies. People like him can be easily compared to the hateful Yagoda, and Yezhov during the Stalin era. According to him, several thousands of people were tortured and eliminated in the hands of Halewa Sewra during the 70s. But among the regime and its supporters, and to some extent the gullible public, his defection to Ethiopia made his revelation suspicious. Most chose to ignore his claims as a traitor’s.
Yet his assertions were to surface more than a decade later by another veteran, Adhanom Ghebremarian, who also jumped off from the cattle trucks of the same babur sewra a few years back. He was likewise instantly labeled a traitor by the regime supporters This EPLF veteran, and lately an opposition politician, made a long interview with a youth organization sympathetic to his organization about countless murders by the EPLF not dissimilar to his predecessor.
Willfully giving up our language
All kinds of calamities, mostly attributed to the regime, have been stalking the country for many years. Yet, indignation and outrage from the public has apparently not been close to it. Exasperated, some writers bemoan the state of anesthesia enveloping the public realm. The explanation should be obvious. Unbeknownst to us, we have been dutifully serving the regime. Lexicon such as “liberation”, “martyr” etc., used ad nausea by both the regime and us is dampening our literary resistance and discourse. Is the regime we hate not after all the only true “epitome” of the dearly cherished words? You may react to this with in the horror and protest your innocence. Your protestations notwithstanding, in the fight against totalitarian state, the least expected is borrowing and sharing words with the regime we hate. The call for a “paradigm shift” in our political outlooks would not have remained a cliché if we had also attempted to reexamine some of the language and rituals practiced by us, led by the high priests of the state.
All the Horses of the Apocalypse may have been sighted in our forsaken land. The number of the disappeared in the hands of the ghedli (could be a sizable percentage of those who died either from actual combat or other causes), child soldiers, forced conscription, incarceration of innocent parents and the elderly have been the habit of the regime for many years. In addition, forced requisition of food from the already vulnerable peasant and pastoral societies by the fronts were also widely known. The closure of markets for grain, the establishments of check points to stop grain from moving to other localities and the open confiscation of “surplus” crops in these times has disturbed a growing number of people, and rightly so.
Nonetheless, until we openly decouple ourselves from the innocuous looking rituals and customs mainly orchestrated by the Isaias regime, we will remain accomplices of all dastardly deeds at home. The quest for self-extrication from the culture imposed on us since the ghedli period is therefore paramount. For example, embracing wholeheartedly the concept “martyr” and the event of “Martyrs’ Day”, whose origin is clearly associated with ghedli and its managers will color the lens. As one writer in his critique on post Mao writers stated, “All use an ideological lens that flattens the perspective and homogenizes the background, indeed starches the clothing, tidies the towns square, and re-colors the sky .“ We speak the regime’s language, and therefore tend to be incoherent and slur. Unbeknownst to us, our peculiar behavior often results in taking injurious political position, and leaves us stuck in a swamp.
If we had wailed and cried when our traditional customs were under assault, we would have touched the hearts and confidence of our people. We should not blame the numbed and exhausted public for their collaboration and silence when their village institutions were systematically attacked. If there were serious protests and outcries of this nature, the need for the now constantly invoked of the implementation of the ratified “constitution” among some circles would possibly not have happened. We have squandered the auspicious moment.
The huge appetite for the little “gods” in Asmera resulted from the precious sacrifices obediently made in the past. When the regime arrested the VOA journalist for describing the grief of the mothers after the late disclosure of the war dead, its decision was not based on a vacuum. We spoiled it for many decades when even circumstances allowing we did not ask for accounting the war dead.
When we substituted the Martyr’s Day for the Good Death of our indigenous old culture, we were eagerly participating as technicians in the anesthesia room of the regime. We were also akinly responsible for eroding the culture and social fabric of the society. When the regime stated that the mothers were ululating for the war dead during the latest Ethio-Eritrea war and Aklilu was imprisoned for contradicting it, it was simply cashing what some people termed the “blank checks.”
We can not easily exculpate ourselves from the ugly statement of the regime, for we were also culpable. “National sovereignty” and “state security” are not anymore the impeccable excuses used as a lethal arsenal by the authorities and their cohorts. They have gradually been deflated. It is not a sacrilege to introspect the issue of the “martyrs.” What is a blasphemy is for us to continue the old rituals, where many adetat are required to attend the obligatory official ceremonies for the “martyr” children (some thousands of whom were forcefully abducted from them), but have remained terrified to raise the subject of the disappeared. What makes the event a paradox is when the mothers of the victims have to attend the temple of the annually convened memorials. What is most unforgivable is when a people docilely trades its famous and ancient culture of keening and mourning for the bogus “memorial” of a totalitarian state – a “memorial” that has not yet diminished the war-mongering appetite of the state.
Closure for adetat and all
In order for some kind of catharsis to occur, the search for a separate public space must be made in earnest. Many of us have found the behavior of many of the victimized youth from Eritrea who participate in the regime’s countless “festivals” in the West incomprehensible and suggested alternative solutions. Likewise, the search for a different plaza and environment for the public mourning of our grieving mothers is equally important. This circumstances reminds me of a picture I chanced to see on early 20th century Abyssinia.
A man’s hand is handcuffed to the wrist of another and you assume both to have committed some crime in the country. But when you read the caption, a shock hits you. The pair in the picture happen to be a creditor who resorted to the law and his delinquent debtor. A miscarriage of justice in old Abyssinia, you might say. In the legal system of the then mostly medieval Ethiopia, the creditor was scorned, and the commercial law was abhorrent. The scene of victimized mothers observing “martyrs” day with the murderous state every year in contemporary Eritrea is, however, more scandalous.
It may be too late for those mothers who have already died in sorrow. And for those still clinging to life adetat, the precious images on the framed pictures are quickly fading away and the closure they were desperately remains out of reach. As if in conspiracy, the deafening secrecy of the state is getting the helping hand of their rapidly dimming eye sights and the bare low watt bulbs ubiquitous in many Eritrea’s towns that light their rooms.
I urge my fellow readers to bow to Anna Akhmatova for her excellent epigram. Her few stanzas demolished the book Mother completely. I once adored Maxim Gorky for this novel, whose hero was the pious and proletarian mother Plehanova. The image of this warm and nurturing woman in cold and wintry Russia has not left me. She is rarely far from the samovar in the house and fixed tea for the secretly conspiring revolutionaries that included her son. She probably did not anticipate the monstrous nature of the people sheltered in her house. For the Bolshevik clique that soon rose to power were the originators of totalitarianism, a mechanism that destroyed the family fabric everywhere and the prominent role of mothers. The adetat in Eritrea have likewise been in similar circumstances for decades. And yet we are often observed crowing about our “unique” and “exceptional” country while simultaneously surrendering the uniqueness and exceptionality of the family and children to the predator state.
Finally, here is an alternative ritual I urge everybody to practice for those who plan to either boycott the government organized martyrs’ day or feel “guilty” for some perceived disrespect towards the dead. Like a Buddhist mantra repeat the above seditious poem by Akhmatova for the umpteenth time and note who the target of the mother’s curse implies by extension: our murderous generation. Who in his right mind would blame the Eritrean mother if she were to retract her old blessing, and say birki’kum yiseber.