A young boy from Asmara remembers the day EPLF freedom fighters liberated his city, heralding the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia after 30 years of war.
I was hurriedly munching on my qtcha and shahi (flat bread and tea) breakfast in the kitchen. It was an early Friday morning in May. I was rushing to get to school. Although it was about 7 in the morning, the Hagai (summer) Sub-Saharan sun had come out bright and hot. For such a bright morning, I had not noticed how eerily quiet it was. The last two weeks have been full of muted whispers and quiet chatter everywhere among our neighbors. Especially the last few days, distant artillery hums, dampened booms and faint tremors were intermittently present. Every adult was on the edge.
Tigisti, our cousin who was staying with our family at the time, suddenly came running back to the house. My mother and everyone gathered around her and inquired if she was ok. While trying to catch her breath, “Soldiers!” she gasped. “There are soldiers everywhere. They are on the move, trudging along on the road toward Keren.” She just left the house to go to her work place at the Labor Office. When she got to the main road, she came across many soldiers striding up the road with their guns facing down and with their heavy bags weighing on them. No one knew what this meant. It could mean anything.
A year back, a major operation was set underway by tegadelti (Eritrean freedom fighters) to seize the port city of Mtswa’e or Bats’e (Massawa). This bloody and ambitious expedition by tegadelti, aptly named “Operation Fenql” (to Uproot), liberated the city. As Bats’e was the main entry point of all goods and commodities to the northern part of Ethiopia, this campaign had managed to cut the main artery that fed the city of Asmara. Practically, Asmara was a city under siege. It was a terrible time for the residents of the city and all the small towns and villages that surrounded it. Food and basic necessities were scarce. At first, people turned for help towards each other but eventually everyone was left in the same boat. Many mothers and fathers spent their days outside the offices or grain stores of relief organizations pleading to get some rations to feed their families. Many families hit rock bottom and it was hard for the entire population. Those that could afford it and who had relatives in Addis Ababa bought air tickets to go there and left all the misery behind. In fact, the only way in or out of Asmara was through Asmara Airport.
Aware of the airport and its importance, tegadelti had to complete the siege and make it as tight as possible to suffocate the Ethiopian army that had since accumulated in and around Asmara from many parts of Eritrea. They started shelling the airport from higher grounds, a dozen or so miles outside of Asmara. 130mm howitzer shells could be heard being fired with a deep thud, followed with eerie shrieks overhead and ending up with low short rumble several seconds later. This meant scouts may have reported that airplanes had just landed or they noticed troop movement in the area and called in for a bombing. The area however, was not that far from the residential areas of Sembel, Godaif and Gejeret. Some shells did land in those areas and have killed or maimed civilians. This meant people from these neighborhoods had to immediately leave their houses and belongings behind and look for shelter in the safer parts of the city. Many went to stay with relatives. This was what happened to my cousins’ family. Not only did the constant bombardment displace them, but because of the size of their family, they had to split up and stay with several relatives all over Asmara. This was to avoid burdening any one single family. With no transportation or reliable phone lines, sometimes it would take weeks before they found out how their family members were doing or even learning about their whereabouts. It was a exceptionally difficult year.
A week back from this specific morning was when tegadelti started the final push towards the capital, Asmara. The battle started in the environs of the town of Deq’mehāre, about 20 miles south of Asmara. Everyone was on edge on how this whole ordeal would end. The sounds of the heavy artillery guns from the battle field could be heard. They were getting closer and closer, louder and louder by the day. People pondered and reasoned and weighed on: would the battle carry on all the way to Asmara or would the tegadelti be pushed back as they were in 1977? If they make it in to the city, would the Ethiopians keep fighting until the charming little city was destroyed and many of her citizens killed? Or would it be over before that? Would the soldiers retaliate on the residents as they have done for decades? Where would be the safest place for families when the battle arrived? Mothers and fathers were worried and tense; and yet they were excited. It would also mean they would finally see their tegadelti sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. It was a wish of a lifetime for many of them. But again they would reflect: would my brother make it home; or could my daughter have fallen?
Mama Nigisti, our aunt, anxiously walked in from Church. She had gone early to pray at the Kidane Mehret Orthodox Church as it was the very patron saint’s day according to the Orthodox Church calendar: May 16th. She walked in very upset. Everyone turned toward her, curious to hear what news she had. “We just saw a soldier outside of the church compound” she said. “He put an Ethiopian flag around his head and he uttered a few words like ‘Mother Ethiopia…‘” She continued with horror in her face, “He put the muzzle of his kalashin into his mouth and shot himself dead.” Everyone was left staring at each other: what was happening?
Someone said that there was an announcement on the radio. The whole morning, people had been scouring the air waves to see if the tegadelti’s radio station, Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Masses), would shed some light on what was going on. No one had paid attention to the local Ethiopian radio. After a few static crackles, the station came clear and the announcer could be heard speaking in Amharic. It was a General in charge of the 2nd Ethiopian Revolutionary Army. He announced that they would lay down their arms unilaterally and that they would not be held responsible for any destruction and bloodshed that may ensue if their capitulation was not accepted by Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. It was a good news! Everyone was relieved.
Suddenly, a loud explosion shook the house. Everyone ducked. Moments later, we could hear chatter outside and saw people pointing at something. We ran out and could see a thick plume of black smoke with bright red flames about a mile away. It was far but we could see it was violent as sparks flew from the base of the sky-high dark cloud. Later we would hear that some Ethiopian soldiers desperately started blowing up munitions against their officers’ plea. We ran back to the house. It was still dangerous - so dangerous that the Catholic Church in the area sent out word insisting that people come to their underground store rooms for safety. Many went there.
Our neighbors came to our house and we all hunkered down together; parents and children huddled together. My mother asked all of us to pray and we did.
Now silence came. An eerie strange silence of being in limbo. An hour went by. Another came and went. It was quiet everywhere. The neighbors either left for the bunkers at the Catholic church or locked themselves in their homes. No cars could be heard. Not many dared to make any noise. Who could be prowling outside? A disillusioned or rogue soldier may be.
There was a vacuum. An emptiness that forms when humans don’t know who is in control. This emptiness can intoxicate men and women and subject them to unrestrained fantasies. They can take away what does not belong to them; they may harm a fellow human with impunity; accountability all of a sudden becomes foreign. They regress. They forget that nature had always a way of putting something to fill in the gap, the emptiness, the power vacuum. But for the timid and helpless, may this hour pass ever so swiftly. It felt like a life time.
A hum! A very faint hum could be heard in the air. It felt like it was coming from a very far place. It was undisturbed as everything else was quiet. It felt like it was slowly growing louder. Everyone could be seen looking up toward the ceiling as if the hum was coming from it; we were all trying to make sense of what it was and where it was coming from. The young like myself got restless. We went outside to the back of the house and we could hear it coming from the general direction of the city center about a mile or two to the southeast. In my young head, I calculated: that was where the Ethiopian soldiers were getting away from.
I found myself outside in the street trying to track the source of the hum. I didn’t want to go through the main Asmara-Keren road the soldiers were on. I ran through the small neighborhood avenues and alleys. I ran and ran. I didn’t check where my little brother was; nor did I check with anyone in the family. I just ran.
Finally I came out on the main road. I could see more people running towards the hum, now significantly louder. I joined them and we ran and ran. I ran past the Sitiawan Catholic Church. Past the Mai Bela bridge, I could see Asmara Stadium to my left and on my right the farm fields of the Department of Agriculture. The hum got louder. When I got close to the Catholic Church of Heroes, which we called qdus Yosef (Saint Joseph), I knew what it was!
It reminded me of the heydays of the clash of the popular football clubs Cipollini and E.L.P.A. at Asmara Stadium; the stadium affectionately known as Cicero A’by, after the ancient Roman orator. When a goal was scored, the crowd would let out a burst of roar that traveled distances. At a distance, the hum sounded just like that but it was just not a burst but an ever-growing, engulfing continuous wave of sound whose crescendo seemed infinitely out of reach. I ran past the Mobil gas station to my right and Sabarguma mineral water factory to my left. The intensity of the sound at this point was electrifying because I remember it was distinctively a joyous sound. One couldn’t wait to see what had gotten into the people that were making the noise.
I remember it clearly. By now, I was near the gate of the TB clinic; samba neqersa people used to call it in its Amharic name. To my right, I could see the towering hill of Forto. The road soon would veer on to a wide left turn with Mekane-Genet Hospital straight ahead at the dead end. I could feel that the deafening cheering sound of thousands of people was just round that bend and getting closer. All of a sudden the tide of noise had a rumble in it. The ground was shaking. I was not sure what it was and hesitated for a split second… until it appeared around the bend rolling down like an avalanche to swallow me whole.
What I saw will always remain imprinted in my memory. It looked like a giant, fully bloomed, round dahlia flower whose every strand of petal was a cheering young human. It was a Russian T-55 tank completely covered with people singing and cheering on top of it and on top of each other. One can only recognize it because of its tracks and its protruding gun barrel. But the rest of its body was completely covered by ecstatic and blissful human beings. I could make out one or two figures within the crowd: figures with controlled emotions, who seem fully aware of the situation, studying the road ahead with intent. They wore khakis and a tanker’s helmets. They looked weary but alert. I could see them fighting the urge to let loose and enjoy the moment but the unfair self discipline kept them in control. I was in complete awe: a weapon that once sent shear terror down one’s spine had become the ride of one’s life - because of who was steering them now.
We knew it was going to be different from here on. Tegadelti are here! Everything else blurred for a while after that. I was in the fold; I was in the hum!