It was in 1990 and the American University auditorium was filled to capacity. Eritrean came all over to participate in the grand congress. A cultural troupe had traveled all the way from Eritrea but more importantly there were commanders of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) making their visit to North America. I was assigned security duty and was waiting anxiously, as was everyone else, for our heroic freedom fighters. The buses carrying the guests came to the side door and we watched as they descended. Suddenly I felt a pang in my heart…one of them looked familiar…but I didn’t think it was possible. I then went outside and stood at the entrance and he looked up and stared straight at me, smiled and waved. His face was familiar. I waved back but only out of respect. I rushed back stage and pulled one of the members of the cultural troupe and pointing to the man that was staring at me… I asked him who he was. He looked over and smiling, he said, Oh, that is Hanjema.
Deciding in my mind that I had mistaken him for someone I had seen on Eritrean videos, I went about my business-doing my security work, sitting participants, keeping children away from the stage area etc. It was only when they introduced the renowned guests to the crowd that my heart stopped. There it was, I heard it with my own ears. They said Amanuel Haile and then with it-Hanjema. So it WAS him, it was my uncle. Hanjema, turns out, was his nickname.
Later on, when we could get close to them, he told me “ሓዲአን ካብደቂ ኣያ ተስፋማሪያምን ፅጌሃፍተይ ሚክዋንኪ ፈሊጠ. ኣይነተን ሚኳንኪ ኢየ ተጠራጢረ”. I knew you were one of Aya Tesfamariam and my sister Tsighe’s daughters”, I just didn’t know which one. That is how we met after almost 18 years. It was in the summer of 1972 that I had last seen him. Soon after, in March 1973 , he would join the liberation Front at the age of 19
Amanu was a true Asmarino-he loved walking the boulevards, loved hanging out with his friends and relatives, loved music and most of all, he was elegant, even in casual wear. When we used to travel to Eritrea, I spent most of my time with my uncles who would take me riding on their bicycles, treat me to ice-cream and take me for endless walks.
Amanu was one them-but stepping out with him meant waiting a long time for him to get ready. He was very picky about what he wore, the shirt had to be just right and his pants had to be perfectly ironed. He was neat, his nails were cut short and clean. I remember how he spent what seemed like hours getting his hair cut short, combed and shaped to perfection. Not a single hair could stand out of line. He would stand in from of the mirror and make sure that he was perfectly groomed before heading out the door. I would sit on his bed and gaze forever…
I remember how he spent as much time on his bike as he did on himself. Polishing every hidden nook and cranny… he wiped and cleaned, shinning his tires and making sure his bike sparkled. And when he propped me in front of him and took me for a ride, I was in heaven. Years later, I realized the trips that seemed so long, were only a couple of blocks away-from ጣባ Taba to አምባጋሊያኖ Embagaliano. But that is how we spent our summer vacations, going from one home to the other. The family was very large and my uncles were very close and inseparable…my grandfather being very strict and protective also kept everyone close to the house.
The summer of 74 in Eritrea was very different in many ways. It would be the last summer for me and my siblings as it had become increasingly dangerous, especially for young Eritreans. The regime change in Ethiopia added to the tensions in Eritrea. That summer, there was also a marked difference in the mood at our family home. Something was different. There was a void. My uncles were no longer around and their names, if they were ever mentioned, they were made in hushed whispers.
When we inquired about their whereabouts, we were told that they went to the village and that they would be back soon. At that time, everything about “them” was shared in secret-and we were considered too young to understand. When my uncle Zerai was imprisoned, they told us that he had done something wrong at school-found out later that he was working with the Front in the city and was under constant suspicion. He was the first to leave from our family.
I had become accustomed to hanging out with my uncles and their friends and now I felt an emptiness, but also grew more curious. My grandmother, bless her heart, was not much of a talker and would never dream of divulging any information if she considered it to be too dangerous for us. But I knew that there was one man that would find a way to tell me the truth and it was my grandfather, Blata Tesfazion Deress. He was a straight shooter and I was his favorite, as I was born in his house. My baby crib remained there long after I was gone. So I sensed that there was something going on and each one of the families was telling us a well-rehearsed story about our uncles, and later on our aunts too. None would budge.
One day, as my grandfather and I sat on the veranda as we had done so many times after dinner, I summoned the courage to whisper their names to him. I expected that he would hit and roof, but he didn’t. He looked straight in my eyes and I was about to faint with fear…but he then squinted and let me see a small careful smile. He knew that he was my last resort as no one was going to dare tell us anything. And so the history lesson began and that is when he told me about the Eritrean struggle for independence, about the front and about my aunts and uncles. It was a huge burden to keep the secret until we left Asmara. From that point on, the struggle became a part of our lives and knowing my uncles and aunts were there, as with all other Eritrean families who had children in ሜዳ -the field, the struggle became even more personal.
Our summer vacations in Asmara were quite memorable. Amanu and my uncles would always gather at my grandfather’s house and spend most of their time together. They were inseparable… they shared everything. So it came as no surprise that they would follow each other and join the liberation fronts. It was not uncommon for siblings to be in the field at the same time see each other.. The days were filled with endless stories and laughter, but they also played music. Santana’s Samba Pati was a favorite and while the guitars played, we sat around and hummed for them. When independence came and some of them returned, Amanu came back, married with a child. He would have three more after. The family was elated when they all returned in 1991 and over the years, we repeated our childhood routines many times over.
Amanu hawey was a teacher in many ways-and you learned without really knowing that he was teaching you. He made every encounter fun and filled with laughter. Amanu took me and whoever else came to visit, all over Eritrea. From Adi Begio and Tserona, the battlefronts after the 1998-2000 Ethiopian war of aggression and occupation, to Agordat, Barentu, Keren, Massawa, Tessenei and Sawa , these places were the first of several trips across Eritrea that I took over the last few years. My first taste of Haikota’s gingered coffee was shared with him. He seemed to know every inch of the country and wherever he was stationed, I went. My favorite stay was when he was stationed in Assab, as that gave me the opportunity to meet many of the forces under his command and visit gimbar Bure-the Bure Front several times.
One of the things that Amanu thought me is ተጸዋርነት-TeSewarinet…resilience-most importantly psychological resilience-to bear more, to push, strive harder. It was during one of our very bumpy trips to Gash Barka when someone complained of back pain from being bounced around in the car. In his own sarcastic way, he turned to the backseat and grinned, ተጸዋርነት ክሃትትኢዩ -it will require a little bit of resilience… and throughout the trip, as the car swerved in the sand and bounced off rocks, we told each other the same…. ተጸዋርነት ክሃትትኢዩ!
When I received the name and address of my Martyrs family and decided to visit them during my trip to Eritrea. Amanu and my uncle Musa went with me. It was a trip that should have taken us just a few hours, but ended up being an all-day affair. I told him that the family lived in Haddish Adi. We got up early in the morning and began our trip to the Anseba region towards Elabered. Amanu wanted us to have breakfast in Balwa, a small village on the way to Keren, he said there was a place there that he frequented on his trips and wanted to introduce me to his friends there.
When we arrived at Balwa, he led us straight to the street side joint. It seemed quite and didn’t look like anyone was there. Amanu headed towards the house and called out to the owners. They appeared grinning from ear to ear, they were happy to see him. They hugged each other and then he introduced us to them. “ድህልቲ ከምዚ አንዳደቀስኪ ደኣ ከመይ ገሪኪ ኪትነብሪ ትሃስቢ”, Amanu poked fun at them for sleeping in late. The morning sun was bright and he found us a shaded corner.
He picked our breakfasts and coffee, and spent the rest of the time inquiring about their well-being, their families, their children etc. The women asked about his comrades. They seemed to know them all by name and were genuinely concerned about those who they had not seen. He explained that they were in other remote regions of the country and assured them of their well-being. After breakfast, as we got ready to leave, we took pictures with them and all the other guests there, as they too became part of our conversations and the search for my Martyrs family. They told him to not be a stranger, ደሃይግበር-stay in touch as they waved us goodbye.
On our way to Elabered, he told me that there was another place that he would show me on our back. He stopped the car several times to let me take pictures of the surrounding mountains as he explained their importance during the struggle. He would stare at them in amazement and wonder out loud how they had managed to climb them then. ከተማ ኣቲና ተበላሺና-We came back to the cities and now we are not as fit and healthy as we were back then, he would often comment. He did not like the sedentary lifestyle and much preferred to be active.
When we couldn’t find my Martyrs family, he decided to call upon the Administrator in Eden-a small town outside Keren. He had found out that all the local Administrators were meeting there and he believed he could get better information from them. While they held their meeting, we roamed the streets of Keren and shopped. After lunch, we headed back to Eden and as luck would have it, one of the Administrators in attendance was that of Haddish Adi. He got in the car with us and we made our way up the mountain to the village-it looked like it was in the skies.
As we approached the church in the main courtyard, Amanu was shaking his head and laughing at me. I didn’t know what he was laughing at. Turns out, my Martyrs family lived a couple of doors away from his in laws- What a coincidence, but he was laughing at our wasted day searching. He left us and went to check on his in laws while we headed to my new family’s home. He would join us later. Amanu was happy with the program and the relationship that we were able to build with them. For him, he could visit them every time he came to visit his in laws-and promised to do so. The trip back to Asmara was filled with laughter as he poked fun at me. Next time, he said, get the name of the village and the subzone.
No doubt this month has been filled with emotions for Eritreans all over the world. Watchimg the historic documentaries and the lives of the freedom fighters, the many challenges they faced etc. brought back lots of memories, but also allowed Eritreans to appreciate the enormous sacrifices made by those who fought for Eritrea’s liberation. The theme for the commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of the demise of the Wikaw Command, “Sahel-the country and Hizbawi Gimbar-the Peoples Front as government”, was truly fitting.
The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF)-Hizbawi Gimbar as if is affectionately know as, was miraculous in every way. It was essentially a “government in the jungle”, as it provided basic health, education and other services, not just for the fighters, but also for the populations in the liberated areas. From underground hospitals, factories to mechanic shops and more. The Front was truly self reliant and its fighters were imaginative and ingenious. They bore hardships that no ordinary human being could possibly bear and their military strategy for victory is not only unparalleled, but also impossible to repeat today-as that generation was a unique generation.
The untimely death of Amanu and his colleagues, Brigadier General Mebrahtu Tecleab, Kubur Tegadalay Desu Tesfazion on 20 March 2014 was a devastating news for the nation and for their families…They were heading to Sahil to participate in the 30th Anniversary of Wikaw-they were heading back to the place that had been their home for so many years, the place that bore their youthful histories, that kept the secrets of their voyages, that nurtured them and healed them. They were going home…
For me, it was not just a loss of a beloved uncle, but also a dear friend and confidante…But from the moment I found out about the tragic accident, I told myself that he did not belong to me or the family. Amanu belonged to Sahil, and Sahil had reclaimed her son. I was always proud of him, and now more so after his death, as I am finding out, with the rest of the world, about his history and his life as a freedom fighter with Hizbawi Gimbar. I regret never asking him to tell me about his life back in Sahil…but then again, I doubt that he would have told me anything-it is not in the EPLF culture to talk about oneself…
If it weren’t for the sacrifices that were made, and are still being made by Eritrea’s sons and daughters everywhere, Eritrea would not be the self reliant, dignified proud nation that it is today. During the struggle, there was a song that captured the essence of the ተጋዳላይ-the freedom fighter…and the enormous sacrifice, cost of liberation of Eritrea. መስዋአቲ ዋጋ ናይሃርነት አዩ ኣብ ቃልሲ -Meswaeti Waga Harnet’yu ab Kalsi…
Much can be said of the sacrifice required in nation building and economic development. The men and women of Eritrea, the new Warsay generation and Yikaalo, the older experienced, war hardened veterans, are once again making huge sacrifices, as nation building requires them to do so. Amanu was of the Yikaalo generation. Until his death, he served the people of Eritrea for over 40 years, with love…and lots of laughter.
May all of Eritrea’s Martyrs rest in peace and may the people and government of Eritrea find solace in the unparalleled legacies of courage, sacrifice and valor that they leave behind.
ዘለኣለማዊ ዝኽሪ ንሰማአታትና-ቢሂሊናን ብግብሪ!
ወትሩ ኣወት ንሃፋሽ!
Hanjema, i remember him playing billiardo with us abalat hagerawi agelgilot, in Assab we never felt that he was a commander because he would hungout with anybody who is fun/ asmarino regardless of their title or position in the army.
RIP , hanjema