Heaven - so close, yet so far away
The story of an Eritrean freedom fighter on a night mission into the city of Asmara where he was forced to confront his strong emotions of longing and nostalgia
The street was devoid of people. Here and there, moving dark shadows of the stray dogs could be faintly seen. In the quietness, their footsteps sounded as if the enemy was tiptoeing around us to encircle us. We had to be attentive beyond measure. Except for the dim ocher light escaping through the shutters, all windows and doors of the houses looked as if boarded for extreme weather. Their illumination never amounted to anything to fight the blackness of the quiet night.
Most houses in the Mai Temenai area of Asmara are built in a way that as many rooms, or stanzas as they would call them, have a door facing the main road or alleys in between. My comrades and I sat quietly on the steps of such one door facing the main street, Godena 800. My friends seemed to understand what my mind was going through. They discretely gave me a little space. They gazed into the darkness of the deserted streets, waiting to pounce at any moment. They patiently waited until I would surface from these gripping thoughts. Sitting there, I could hear some quiet muffled chatter coming from behind the door. The sound of it in the pitch black night triggered intense emotions inside me; nights like those had plenty of unsettling experiences for myself and my fellow tegadelti brothers. That night’s mission was no more special than many such nights before; however, the contrast to the tranquility of this very night was never so vivid to me.
I am a grown man now but I once was a boy, a young man that was angry at life. My father passed away at the young age of 56 unexpectedly. He was the man that I admired and looked up to. My eldest brothers and my sister tried to give us all, the younger ones, hope. They would say that life would be okay one day. But it wasn’t and it was getting worse. It was a time of uncertainty and terror.
It was a time of resistance in Eritrea; a resistance by Eritreans to being annexed to Ethiopia forcibly. A move that nullified a federal covenant between the two, revoking Eritrea’s historic autonomy before that. We deemed Ethiopia as the invading occupier and Eritrea the brutally crushed victim. The zeal to push and fight back the repression had reached its highest yet. But the intensity of the ruthless crackdown by Ethiopia also followed suit.
The fear of my eldest brothers getting caught in the crossfires of the political chaos was ever-present. These were times when people that left for work in the morning never came home for supper. The fumes of war and the stench of death polluted the air. Death seemed to have sharpened its scythe and was out to harvest many soles. At dawn, almost every day, many a youthful body was found lying lifeless in the streets of the city. Mutilated and exposed, it was meant to show the ruthlessness and unapologetic evil resolve of the occupying government. I could see the anger of the youth and the anguish of mothers all around me. I felt the rage boiling inside me and I became aggressive and very irritable. Ironically, those that shared my simmering fury became my confidants and their company a consolation.
Young boys like myself shared stories of heroism and justified vengeance. We talked endlessly about how our elder brothers and sisters were fighting back. We especially romanticized those that operated covertly in the cities. How they mercilessly dealt with the commanders and leaders of the death squads that raided many Eritrean homes felt so quenching to the indignation that was burning inside us. The urban agents identified their targets and discretely got done away with them. Some could get to the most feared and notoriously reputed high-ranking officials as if it were a walk in the park. They would get close and shoot them right in the temple with surgical precision. One such fighter, Mebrahtu Tekleab, was nicknamed after the famous pink headache tablets: Vinac, for his innocent-looking, small stature, yet a deadly point-blank placement of a bullet to the head. Or like Abraham Tekle, whom everyone, including the Ethiopian soldiers, knew was such an assassin and yet they feared to engage as he roamed the streets of Asmara confidently. These became our heroes. They were the fedayeen.
Fedayeen assassins, Abraham Tekle of the ELF and Mebrahtu Tekleab a.k.a. Vinac of the EPLF
Vinac, tablets for headache relief
So getting opportunities where we could help these urban agents in any of their missions became our new obsession. We started by getting close to them; later on helping with simple tasks such as being their couriers, running around our neighborhoods, passing information and watching for suspicious-looking people, agents or scouts. We did it with so much zeal that we excelled in learning secrecy and assessing situations fast. Slowly we earned their trust.
At this time, everyone in our family was concerned for my brother and me. He is only two years older than I was. Our eldest siblings tried to avoid directly discussing the main concern of who I was associating with for fear of legitimizing it. They would admonish us on how badly we were doing in school instead. They knew school issues were only an indication of what was brewing beneath. My brother was made to attend high school in Emba Derho, a daily walk of eight miles from Mai Temenai; one way. That way his day is done “uneventfully.” And I was to stay with my older sister’s family in the downtown area. The plan was to get us to avoid our neighborhoods as much as possible. So I started spending most of my time in the downtown area of Asmera, in an area aptly known as Babylon. The family plan was that my married older sister, whom I was very close to, would keep a close eye on me. But my family didn’t realize how this would make me one of the crucial assets for the fedayeen.
Babylon at night was one of the noisiest areas in downtown Asmera. Bars would be packed with faithful drunks; one can easily identify them by the count of empty Melotti beer bottles on their tables. The empty bottles meant goods consumed yet to be paid for. It was common for the drunks to claim they only had a fraction of the pints of beer they had downed. This made sure their debt stayed in their face, on their odyssey from sanity to delirium. Fights were common. The competing bars would blast out deafening music, mostly Amharic, to attract passersby. This was meant to suggest this very bar was the place to be tonight. There also were the women of Babylon who attracted all these patrons to the area; many of them were operatives of the movement. Such was the way that all parties forgot the miserable state of affairs of the day in Babylon.
The men, who dared to come out that late, were mostly close to the authorities; mostly Ethiopians, but yes Eritreans as well. With curfew hours often unpredictably in place, many Eritreans, especially the young, knew better than to stay out late. Others included those that were too weak to part themselves from their beloved Melotti bottle. But in the mix, there were those men and women that stayed in the shadows and came out at the opportune time. These were whom I was mutinously bound to help. As the Revolution demanded, they acted the characters the play required as if they were genuine Babylon citizens.
The proximity of my sister’s house to Babylon made me the ideal choice to run a stash-house for the fedayeen. From my own sister’s house, I would like to think unbeknownst to her, I dispensed the tools of the trade of assassins. Yes, in my mid-teens, older men would come to my sister’s house and knock on the door. They asked for me. My sister would watch in bewilderment as we pulled away from the door and have discrete conversations. She would observe how they would listen to me with great intent; a young stocky little kid being in the presence and plans of these justice dispensers. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and she was scared not to push me to the edge.
However, This would not last. Government scouts and agents intensified their crackdown. Even innocent-looking young boys and girls like myself were no longer safe. The revolutionary fervor had infected almost every young adult of the time. Thus, the authorities would not take any chances with anyone. It was becoming hard even to walk to school.
Right around that time, ELF and EPLF, the two armed guerrilla movements for independence, had become very powerful and effective that most Eritrean territories were liberated. The city was encircled and under siege. City people would travel to the neighboring villages to meet with the freedom fighters. Almost every Eritrean household had somebody in the struggle for freedom. So I decided to go to be a fighter and formally join them. I ran away from home and went to Serejeqa, a village 12 miles from Asmera. The fighters laughed and told me that I was too young and that I need to consume a sackful of wheat before I could join them, (“quntal sirnay beli’Eka mtsa’e.” as they would say it.) I didn’t want to go back but my eldest brother showed up desperately looking for me. I could tell he was crying in despair. He was relieved to see me but mad at me for what I did. He took me back home promising me a new bicycle or a watch, whatever I wanted. On the way home, it was my turn to cry as I wanted to stay; this reminds me of how I was still a boy.
A year passed but this time around, it was no longer up to my discretion to stay. The situation dramatically got worse in the city. The scale of the crackdown by the authorities was massive. Everyone was a target. This time, my older brother and I had to run away for good. My younger brother was not so lucky however; because they could not get to us two, he was arrested and sent to the famous Sembel prison for a year. He was only fourteen.
Soon, I became a tegadalay, a guerrilla fighter for independence. My superiors took note of my experience in the city and made sure it was put to good use. That was why then that I found myself sneaking back into the city as an operative. Although I was a banished citizen, a fugitive to the occupiers, yet, their presence demanded that I stay close to them and my city. My knowledge of the neighborhoods, the communities, the people, the streets, the roads, the checkpoints, the army barracks and supply depots dictated I come back here again and again. I had to watch their movements, their gathering, their encampments. I had to keep track of their leaders and the constantly shuffled top figures.
It was during one of those clandestine operations then, that I found myself outside this door this very night. We were scouting our exit route from the city. We had to wait for an opportune time to go around the checkpoint on the road out to Keren. We kept on checking from time to time by sending one of our comrades to assess the situation while the rest of us stayed and waited for his word.
We were in my old neighborhood. So much emotion was going through my head. I could see how my street looked deserted. I could feel the fear of all the residents and felt for them. I remembered the weak and elderly of my community; especially those that were left with no children as most have left their homes for good. Many young left for exile, while many were imprisoned or killed in the streets. And many like myself joined the struggle. Over the years, I have witnessed many of them fall heroically for the cause. I knew which families would love to hear from these brave souls or would give everything to hear from someone who was with them; just to let them know their daughter or son was doing fine. This night was never the time for that however.
But I couldn’t stop the urge in me to go and sit at the front steps of this specific door. It was my home. I wanted to find out how my family was doing. How my brothers and sisters that I left behind were doing. How my mother was doing. Yes! It was her voice that I heard that night. I heard her voice. I heard her soft voice that I missed painfully, slowly floating through the darkness of the night. I could hear Genet! Genetey, my heaven! Her nurturing voice eased through the sealed door; the door that seemed to say, “It is not time to welcome you yet. There will be a time one day. Just not today!”
Truly, I felt Heaven was so close, yet so far away.
I rose and my comrades noticed I was ready. They had decided to give me a few minutes to collect myself. Our scout had just come back signaling it was time.
This is the story of our uncle, Yemane Tekeste (Wedi Tekeste), who was wounded 16 times during the armed struggle for independence but fortunately made it to liberation day as a trained physician in the 52nd Division. He saw our grandmother Genet and they enjoyed many years together in independent Eritrea until his passing in 2006. Genetey is still with us.
Genet means “heaven” in Tgrnya
Yemane (Wedi Tekeste), right, as a freedom fighter with a comrade