By Zekere Lebonna - Jan 07, 2004
A few years ago,
the Ministry of Tourism came up with a glossy brochure to entice tourists to
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
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
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
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
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.