By Zekere Lebonna - Dec 26, 2003   

I was touched by Aklilu Zere?s article "The Birth of Despotism," which appeared at  I also witnessed this horror 30 years back, but mostly as a foot soldier. Unlike Aklilu, I was not privy to the meetings of the polit bureau, but I too have a story to tell.  The Asmera authorities have erected a huge monument for a pair of plastic sandals. The footwear of the Tegadalay. The infamous role of another plastic item has been deliberately forgotten.   What follows is from my recollections, the memories of a former foot soldier. 

The year was 1972. I had just joined the then Selfi Nasnet armed faction led by Isaias. To the nomadic Tigre of the Sahel, we were ?Nas Aseyas?, separate from the other factions: the Sabbe and Obeline.

When I arrived, the three groups were licking their wounds, subsequent to the attack by the then major guerrilla group, the ELF.  By and large, the groups were ethnic- based; nowadays, their leaders would have been called ?war lords? without any compunction. Unlike the Sefli Nasnet group, the other factions' leadership was more benign.

Here is an example. A Tigre combatant from the Sabbe group defected and joined the one under Isaias during the same year. He was soon disillusioned, and raised his concerns to Isaias and his ilk. A meeting of the three armed-groups was soon convened. Standing unarmed before the troops, the ?culprit? was berated by Isaias in Arabic. Simultaneously, translation of Isaias?s insults was made in Tigrina to the Kebessa fighters.  Alone, unarmed and without supplies, the accused was reportedly discharged (terefitu) a few minutes before dusk, and ordered to leave the area. I saw him walking towards to the nearest Sudanese town (Kerora). I am not sure if he made it to Kerora, an eight-hour walk from the camp.

The release of this fighter from Selfi Nasnet was not the norm but an exception. The fate of many combatants in this armed group--the politically active, the war weary, and disillusioned--was mostly incarceration, followed by execution. Isaias spared this person only to avoid the outrage by the other less-regimented and coercive groups. For the most part, the Sabbe and Obeline groups were less paranoid to military infractions.

By contrast, the combatants' life within Selfi Nasnet was very rigid and unhealthy. Foot soldiers were discouraged from casual fraternization. Even under a stable military situation. For most, the daily routine was attending endless criticism and self-criticism sessions and indoctrination lectures. The only reprieve was to be assigned to fetch water and firewood. A small window to whisper rumors and to plan escape projects. This armed faction was always in a state of siege and the buzzword was always to watch for the jahsus (an Arabic word for the a spy).

This paranoia was very debilitating to the organization. Often, the victims of these incessant sessions were summarily executed. Some were driven into madness and the rest were politically silenced. Torture and executions were rampant. I remember a group in Tegih, Sahel who were spared death but were savagely treated. Scalded by hot water and bruised by firewood, their skin showed festering wounds and they suffered ulcers. So much so that they could not wear rough military uniform, and were often strolling wearing loose outfits (jalabiya). Among this group were Berhane Afro and Tekle Rashaida. Like a leper colony, one often observed them sitting under the shade of acacia and Aday trees.

Of all the military gears of a Tegadalay, the plastic rope sends shivers to me, to this day. The plastic rope had a multifunction. It was used to bundle wood collected as well as for mesere nesela (to tie the abu jedid cotton blanket). But it was also a terror weapon used for the same purpose that the Khmer Rouge was using it. Disarmed victims were tied behind their backs with this rope before being led to execution grounds. It was also used to garrote the victims. The mesera nesela was a gruesome "self-reliance" weapon, one which spared the use of scarce bullets. This happened mostly on the riverbanks of the Waddis in the Tegih, Tebih, Arag, Ela Saed, and Alegena areas. Dry riverbeds, easy to dig mass graves. In 1973, the "Menka" movement raised the disappearance of these people, but to no avail. Most of the ?Menka? themselves fell victim soon afterwards.

The selective glorification of the plastic sandal (shida) and the absolute silence on the history of the plastic rope (mesere nesela) must be corrected. It served a lesser purpose than the French guillotine. I hope a museum will accord it a space for people to see during the expected Reconciliation Era.