Eritrea's Disappeared: The Death of A Former School mate Print E-mail
By Zekere Lebonna - Jan 07, 2004   

A few years ago, the Ministry of Tourism came up with a glossy brochure to entice tourists to Eritrea. It had this catchy phrase: "Three seasons in two hours". The mid altitude regions of Bahri Bara and Merara were the center of attention. Located across Durfo, Bahri Bara is a few kilometers away from Asmera. The area, blessed with two seasons of rainfall, is lush with vegetation. The former Italian owned orchards and coffee plantations add to the beauty of the scenery. But this beautiful landscape has been harboring some ugly scenes perpetrated on countless disappeared Eritreans.


In the early 70s, Bahri Bara was a corridor to infiltrate Asmera for the partisans of both the ELF and EPLF. Operating far from their base areas, these military organizations were ruthlessly competing for this strategic place which is located close to the nerve center of the enemy. Recruiting from most of the highland urban regions was also a competing factor. After the close military disaster with the Commnados in the Ala region, the Selfi Nasnet units did not venture out from this refuge.


If Sahel was the killing fields for many Eritreans, Bahri Bara was also not less significant. Recruits from Asmera and other small towns would be assembled here. Prior to the arduous trek to the mountains of the Sahel, rudimentary military training was given to them, from the get go, by veteran guerrilla units. It is here that the terror was initiated - Mind you, we are not talking about the conduct of drill sergeants, a common feature of all armies.


What the Eritrean recruits encounter is a deadly environment of guerrilla units, constantly on the alert from the attack of the larger ELF units, the Ethiopian Commandos that was largely composed of Eritreans, and other paramilitary organizations (such as Nech Lebash). These units were under constant pressure, and tended to be easily irritated. To worsen matters, the secretive culture of the Left sort was slowly getting the ascendancy. People in general, peasant or combatant, must be "watched" was the motto. The platoon entrusted with the task was then led by Woldemichael Haile, a former veteran of the ELF.


The state of euphoria for the recruits from the Kebessa, after exiting Asmera started dissipating. A few days of forced march, and the constant talk about possible spies in their midst, does its job. The perpetual allusion to informers, the beatings and clandestine killings, traumatize the green recruits. When the survivors of this ordeal made  it to Sahel, they arrive subdued and traumatized. The escorts were more like cattle rustlers than fellow comrades. Tekie Berhe was a victim of this, when he passed away, a few hours from Tebih in Sahel. It was 1972.


This particular incident was alarming to the writer. We met a caravan of wood laden donkeys on their way to the Kebessa. It was early in the morning of a foggy season. The wood cutters were courteous and friendly to our escorts. By contrast, the guerrillas were curt and abusive. After admonishing the poor farmers for depleting the forest, they  dispatched them with the following warning: "If you disclose our movements, we will nip your ears (Several years back this method of punishment was reportedly meted out to Tigrayan laborers in the Durfo area). I was shocked by this incident. Wood cutting and charcoal burning were non farm incomes for the poor farmers of Adi Shuma and Karneshem. Th confrontational posture of the combatants and the subdued manner of the farmers was very unnerving. To me, the combatants resembled more like custodians of feudal manors than Robin Hood.


The naive recruits often asked about the famous "base area". The veteran escorts' replie were either rude or dismissive about it. Innocent questions about the nearest dry weather road or town was fatal. Whoever asked that sort of question may be marked as a potential spy or deserter. Almost blindfolded they would simply plod on indifferent to the geography and inhabitants of the regions they passed through. No wonder the 30 years of Eritrean resistance had almost nothing to show in a memoir or diary form.


In the early 70s two detachments (hailetat) of the EPLF were around the Kebessa region. This caused tension in Asmera. Soon, Commando units of the Ethiopian army arrived and a battle occurred at Grat Awli. The EPLF detachments were forced to retreat with their wounded and scores of recruits. Unused to the forced march after that battle, tired, thirsty and famished, they were demoralized. A few simply defected to the garrisons around Dongollo.


I remember Tekle Wedi Keshi. He was my former school-mate at Godaif Elementary School. Suffering from foot blisters and haggard, I saw him being prodded on by some of our Ganta leaders. We were resting on a narrow forest trail (mengedi gebar) near Adi Shuma. I gazed at him, but did not show any acknowledgement or words of encouragement.


Our detachment reached the Adi Shuma locality in rapid retreat. Tekle's situation worsened. Unable to put up with the walk, he was lagging behind with a few other strugglers. I overheard the Ganta leaders accusing him of faking it, and of having studied at Abadina College (An Ethiopian Police Academy). In fact, the morons, were confusing it with Alemaya College (An Ethiopian Agricultural college in Harer, Ethiopia). This was ominous, for they suspected him of being a spy.


Late in the night at Adi Shuma, Wedi Keshi's hands were tied behind his back. Our detachment left him and his guards and retreated to the Semhar area to recuperate. When the Ganta leaders later joined us, my former school-mate was not amongst them. To allay our fears, word went around that he was left with a peasant household (ms gebar gedifnayo). A code word for summary executions to many. This deceptive language was dreaded by everyone in those days.


The fate of the disappeared during the liberation era was not reported. A few who dared to raise it to the Dictator at one of  his "Town Meetings" were told "these cases are closed", and were warned not to raise it again. This is an attempt to portray one of these victims: Tekle wedi Keshi, from Kushet, a village close to Asmera.


Zekere Lebonna

< Prev   Next >


Donate through Mail

To Scramble The Horn of Africa

? Copyright 2000-2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written consent from the