‘They’re Going to Come for Us’: A Teenage Girl Caught in a War’s Riptides

By Salem Solomon Nov. 28, 2018

author parent, courtesy Salem


source https://www.nytimes.com/

My father knew we were next. “They’re going to come for us,” he’d say, after Meles Zenawi, then the prime minister of Ethiopia, told the country on national television in July 1998 that Eritreans weren’t welcome. “If the Ethiopian government says, ‘We don’t like the color of their eyes, and get out,’ ” Zenawi said, “then they should get out.”

That year, my family and I were among the estimated 75,000 Eritreans who were deported from Ethiopia at the start of a two-year border war, followed by a protracted cold war that ended this year in a formal declaration of peace. Twenty years have passed since that conflict uprooted thousands of families like mine. But the costly antipathy between Eritrea and Ethiopia goes back much further. During World War II, both states became battlegrounds in the fight against Italian imperial rule. After the war, the United Nations passed a United States-backed resolution to form a federation between the two countries. In 1962, however, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, stripping its language, culture and ability to self-govern. A decades-long armed struggle for independence followed, and tens of thousands of men and women, including my uncle, lost their lives as resistance fighters to win back Eritrea’s sovereignty.

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I would learn these things much later in life. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I attended a Catholic school and was sheltered from politics. I overheard bits and pieces about the war, but I was more concerned with the latest fashion trends and my first crush. Politics became unavoidable when Eritrea gained independence in 1993. Once, when I returned to Ethiopia from visiting my grandparents in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, a classmate thrust a Nakfa bill, the new Eritrean currency, in my face and told me it was worthless. Another time, I saw a magazine cover with a painting of a woman wearing a traditional scarf in the shape of an old Ethiopian map. A noose around her neck suggested Eritrea’s independence had strangled “Mother Ethiopia.” Friends singled me out to explain political developments because I was Eritrean, but I didn’t know how to answer. After the Ethiopian government announced plans to deport people of Eritrean origin, neighbors began eyeing our property and belongings as if they were creating an inventory before an auction. Some we had known for as long as I could remember; my parents, a surgeon and a nurse, had treated them when they needed care. We felt helpless and betrayed, suddenly isolated in a community we had considered home.

I was a teenager when a loud knock at our door at 4 a.m. upended our lives. One of my brothers and I looked through our front door’s thick glazed glass onto the dimly lit porch. Two men and a woman stood there holding AK-47s. We opened the door, and the armed agents asked for Dr. Solomon. My father, still in his pajamas, appeared. They gave him a few minutes to change. My mom handed him his coat and a gabi — a traditional wrap — to keep warm, but he wasn’t allowed to collect other belongings. I asked the soldiers what was happening. “Where are you guys taking him? Why are you here?” They ignored my questions and took my father away.

We later learned that my father had been taken to a detention facility in the neighborhood’s administration center, along with other Eritreans targeted for deportation. He had voted in the referendum for independence, and that, along with his stature as a doctor and professor at a top university, most likely made him a target. Four days later, they were loaded onto buses, driven to the border and told to get off. My father called us from Adwa, a town in northern Ethiopia, to tell us he was safe. Soon after, he crossed the border and traveled to Asmara, where he would wait for us to join him. Tense days followed back home. My brothers left immediately for Kenya using their Ethiopian passports, but I had trouble securing travel documents with my mother. Even though my birth certificate showed I was born in Addis Ababa, I was denied a passport when we went to the immigration office because my parents were born in Eritrea. Instead, an officer gave me and my mom a “laissez-passer” document and told us we had 10 days to leave the country.

As we prepared to leave, neighbors came to visit. Some offered to help; others offered to buy our furniture or our car. Everything my parents owned was left behind or sold. Their bank accounts were frozen, and my father lost his stake in his medical practice. On the last day, I clung to my childhood best friend, an Eritrean who had not yet been targeted for expulsion. We both sobbed.

Arriving in Eritrea was a culture shock for my brothers and me. While Addis Ababa is a cosmopolitan city, Asmara is smaller and slower; it’s not uncommon to see goats herded down the main roadways. But the most noticeable difference was the presence of uniformed soldiers on street corners. ID checks were common to keep tabs on people and ensure that those required to join the military served.

My father took a job teaching at Asmara University’s medical school, and we moved into cramped university housing. My mother continued to practice nursing, and my brothers arrived from Kenya and enrolled at the university. Thirty years of war had hardened Eritrea, and the border war only deepened the scars. I knew just how close we were to conflict when, one day, I saw a fighter jet fly low overhead, roaring so loud that it shook the window panes.

When I began 11th grade, I tried to assimilate, but the cultural differences were pronounced. Deportees were called amiche, a reference to Italian cars assembled in Ethiopia with parts manufactured in Eritrea. I was an outspoken student, accustomed to raising my hand and proudly answering questions. In Asmara, that drew angry stares from my classmates, who weren’t used to a young woman speaking her mind. As I was finishing that school year, Ethiopian troops advanced to Barentu, a town 90 miles west of Asmara. The entire country was mobilizing, and thousands of high school students, myself included, were sent to military training in Gahtelay — a desert town of makeshift encampments constructed after the main camp, Sawa, had become a target for Ethiopian airstrikes.

For three months we slept on a riverbed, protected from wind-driven sands by bedsheets strung together and held up with sticks. Every day before dawn we marched in plastic sandals, sometimes stopping to pull inch-long acacia thorns out of our feet. We learned how to fire AK-47s and handle grenades. Dust storms coated us from head to toe, and we endured temperatures well above 100 degrees. I tried to help keep morale up and would sing, on request, songs by Usher and Celine Dion during breaks. At one point, I fell down during a drill and was treated at a clinic for dehydration. Every night, I would lie down on the riverbed and look up at the sky. I prayed to see a shooting star, a sign that someone was watching out for me.

Soon after we finished our training, it was rendered moot. Ethiopia’s advances came to a sudden halt when a peace agreement was signed. Our round of recruits, the 13th, was called the “peace round,” but the cold war between Eritrea and Ethiopia continued until this summer’s peace declaration by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki.

The border conflict kept many families separated for nearly 20 years. In addition to the people like me who were deported from Ethiopia, some 70,000 Ethiopians were expelled from Eritrea. What all deportees share is a knowledge of how fragile nationality and identity can be. We were born in a country and believed we had basic birthrights as citizens. Instead, we learned that ruling politicians can make any excuse to take those rights away — even not liking the color of our eyes.

Lately I’ve been overcome with nostalgia for my days with the most amazing woman in my life, my mother. We had been apart for almost five years when I saw her last fall from August to September when I visited Eritrea. And now, all of a sudden, as months go by, I find myself feeling homesick again. This Mother’s Day entry should give me some sort of outlet to express how much I appreciate the story of this incredible woman who built my family’s foundation from humble beginnings.\

The Story of A Strong Eritrean Mother: There Through Thick and Thin

May 12, 2013

source https://www.africa-talks.com/


My mother, Abnet Embaye, was born in Dekemhare, a small town located in the southeast of the capital city, Asmara. Her parents were Embaye Woldemichael and Tebletse Gebray. Originally from the capital city, my grandfather worked at the headquarters of the railway station in the payroll and accounting department so the family temporarily moved around the country to small towns when he travelled for work. My mother grew up at a time when Ethiopia forcefully annexed Eritrea and attempted to undermine the intellectual strength of the country by shifting all higher education to its capital in Addis Ababa. The goal was to co-opt the energy and intelligence of the best and the brightest of the country. During this time, Haile Selasie, the emperor of Ethiopia, held campaigns calling all high school students to migrate to Ethiopia. Advertisements on radio and newspapers targeted young students and provided opportunities in Ethiopia. Amharic, the official language in Ethiopia, was forcefully introduced in the curriculum in Eritrean high schools.

As a teenager, my mother vaguely remembers this phenomenon but surprisingly recalls the time with a wistful smile when she talks about it. One day, she said a neatly dressed nurse named Sister Meqdes Worq-yegzaw came to the Red Sea high school where my mother was studying commerce to recruit girls to join nursing school in Addis Ababa. The sight of this nurse and her dazzling white outfit mesmerized my mother. The nurse came to deliver a message from the emperor; it was a big deal and everyone knew about it. The mission was to recruit girls from Keren and Massawa and bring them to St. Paul’s School of Nursing in Ethiopia. This opportunity was open for high school students as young as 14 and my mom was determined to go. As a teenager and a girl in particular, it wasn’t easy for my mom to leave home. She met with a lot of resistance from her family because of the distance from home and my grandfather thought because she had a solid ground studying commerce she should stick to it and become a secretary in an office. But this shy and reserved young girl  couldn’t stop dreaming about becoming a nurse. She couldn’t get the image of the pretty nurse, her uniform, her elegance, and sophistication out of her head. It was what she wanted to become and, after months of persuasion, she joined a group of other teenage girls, one of which was my father’s sister, to go to nursing school.

In St. Paul’s School of Nursing, she was able to receive her nursing diploma which was the start of many diplomas and certificates she would ultimately acquire as a nurse. As part of one of her fist assignments, she was sent to Jima, Ethiopia, to practice as a staff nurse soon to be promoted to the role of head nurse. At this time, she had already met my father who was studying to become a medical doctor. They met when my father came to pick up his sister, my aunt, who was studying at St. Paul’s. Working in rural places as a nurse would take my mother to places where she left marks in the hearts of everyone she met. I still get messages from friends who know her through work or through my father and speak highly of what she has done for them. She then went to continue work in Weldia Hospital as a matron overlooking staff activities, management and so on. In 1979, she moved to Addis Ababa where she specialized in Mothers and Children Healthcare and she began working at Cherqos Health Center for a span of 10 years. Here she was able to branch out and sometimes help in midwife tasks but she mainly focused on the antenatal unit and continued to work in Teklehaimanot Hospital as an MCH district coordinator. Following that, from 1993-1998, she was the head nurse at the Zewditu Hospital in Ethiopia for the Mothers and Children Health Care center. At this point in her career, she had a lot of respect from her colleagues and took the lead on different projects in the district. As she moved up the ranks during her career, she had four kids and never complained a day or took time off to think about herself. Throughout our childhood, she was always there picking us up from school and helping us with homework. I remember when she used to come to school, my friends sometimes would ask me, “Is that your mother?” I would say “Yeah,” secretly feeling so proud just because she drove a car. Now that I look back, her role and confidence and modern ways set her apart for the time.

When Eritrea gained its independence in 1991, she took a personal initiative to contribute in the country’s development through her work in different clinics going back and forth from Ethiopia to Eritrea. She worked in the small town of Keren and then she would later come to work in Asmara. The women and children she cared for say she was prepared to offer help at any hour. The rap on the door late at night from a neighbor in need was a regular occurrence and my mom wouldn’t hesitate to welcome a mother whose child was suffering from fever or dehydration. That is the generosity and character my mother has taught me growing up. Her work never stopped when she left the office. She formed friendships with people who needed her most. Even during weekends, you might walk in for a coffee break with friends and she would check their blood pressure and make sure they were feeling well. In 1998, when war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the government of Ethiopia started deporting thousands of people of Eritrean origin. I remember when three soldiers came looking for my father at five o’clock in the morning because he, a medical doctor, was considered a national threat. My parents were noticing the change way before deportation and told us that we were planning to leave anyway and that we shouldn’t be shocked by this. Two months before the war broke out, my dad was already making connections at the University of Asmara with plans to move for good.

Despite having their bank accounts frozen and losing everything they had earned over decades, my parents weren’t ones to mope about or feel sorry for themselves. Instead, shortly after deportation, my dad was named as a professor at the University of Asmara and eventually opened his own medical practice in downtown Asmara. My mother became head nurse in a government clinic.

In 2005, my father passed away due to complications related to a brain infection which was detected when it was too late. Throughout, my mom has kept our family together because of her unwavering strength and exemplary patience. Our family has had difficult times since moving to Eritrea. I will never forget the day she was dragged away by two military police who had come asking for my brother because he went missing from his unit. My mother has been hauled to prison twice for the same reason and kept in behind bars in horrible conditions. My mom doesn’t hold any political views and continues her work without a complaint. Always upbeat, she works at Sembel Hospital tirelessly. I hope and aspire to be the woman that she is and dedicate not only today but everyday to her. I also hope to see her smiling face again and hope to introduce her to my family in America one day.



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