By Lily F. Ghebrai
United in the Spirit of Autonomy
I could probably count on one hand, the number of Americans I’ve met who have even heard of Eritrea. “How do you pronounce that?” they ask me. “How old is it?” others inquire. My personal favorite is, “Oh, do you mean Ethiopia?” No, I don’t.
I don’t quite mind Eritrea’s anonymity too much. It makes me happy to educate and inform others about my country. It also provides me with the perfect opportunity to break the stereotypes and presumptions surrounding this region of the world – the mysterious, yet no less demonized, horn of Africa.
I must say, however, that I am fortunate to live in a city that has a sensitive awareness of its immigrant communities. Seattle’s recognition and careful preservation of its diversity has created an environment where cultural exchange is not only tolerated, it is embraced. But of course, this cultural mingling has its unfortunate limitations; people do not always have the will, interest, or time to venture into unknown social territories. Indeed, on an interpersonal level, cross-cultural conversations are often times forgone for convenience and comfort. In other words, we simply smile in acknowledgement of each other, and we’re off on our separate ways.
Do we not understand the power of dialogue anymore – the importance of breaking cultural, socioeconomic, and ethnic barriers to facilitate understanding between our diverse communities? I have always been a believer of the impact of story telling; the bewitching effect of narratives to inspire change, understanding, and introspection. It is for these reasons that I set out on a literary journey to reconcile my Eritrean heritage with my American values, and to find a common ground between the two identities. In my quest for understanding, I had the unique privilege of documenting the tales of many noble Eritrean immigrants, whose remarkable stories have contributed immensely to our city’s cultural wealth. This is my recount of one experience in particular. Perhaps after reading this story, you might find yourselves a little more inclined, interested, and willing to start your own dialogues.
I was raised by Eritrean soldiers, organizers, and activists. My parents, relatives, and family friends were all involved in the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, which culminated with Eritrea’s Independence in 1993. The Eritrean Independence movement stretched from 1961-1991, and has been commonly identified as one of the bloodiest, and deadliest conflicts on the African continent.
Growing up in a household run by ex-freedom fighters, I can recall many captivating – yet extremely unconventional – bedtime stories. My parents recounted heroic Eritrean tales of patriotism, brotherhood, and courage, which in turn shaped some my dearest values: democracy, freedom, and perseverance.
Over the years, it became increasingly evident that the values my parents imbued in me were essentially congruent with the values that founded this great nation. The Eritrean struggle for independence is comparable in many ways to the American Revolution, and as result, Eritreans and Americans share a common appreciation for one of life’s most valuable, and vulnerable treasures; freedom. Both Eritreans and Americans understand that freedom has never been handed to complacent people; freedom must be fought for.
One Saturday morning in July, I had the pleasure of meeting Matti, 57, an Eritrean veteran who is also my father’s best friend from the war. My decision to interview him over coffee, stemmed from my desire to better identify the undeniable connection between the tenacious Eritrean and American spirits. Matti was a political artist and activist in Eritrea, painting evocative portraits of the war and displaying them in exhibitions all over the world. Through his art, he wanted to spread the news of the Independence movement, display the ferocity of the Eritrean people, and the courage of the fighters. Matti carefully described to me the series of events that prompted him to leave his comfortable life, and join the resistance movement.
It was 1978, a particularly difficult year for Eritreans on the frontlines. 22-year-old Matti was working for Malloti Brewery, an Italian company for which he transported goods throughout Eritrea. Although Matti made a decent living and had a promising career, he knew that he was never safe. Matti described this tumultuous year as the “red terror.” He told me that the Ethiopian government was massacring Eritrean youth by the hundreds, in an effort to quell any sort of legitimate uprising. Despite these threats to his life, Matti, like many other Eritrean youth, organized themselves to help the fighters. The youth had created a cell system; a close-knit group of 7 people that was responsible for transporting sustenance, supplies, and information to the Eritrean soldiers. Matti’s cell was hugely successful, and their efforts were far-reaching. Matti’s twin brother worked for a distribution company, and allowed Matti’s cell to sneak into the warehouse and take supplies to bring to the frontlines. However, one quiet evening in 1979, as members of his cell went to deliver clothing and shoes, they were caught by Ethiopia soldiers, immediately imprisoned, and later killed. Matti was the only survivor.
“Every Eritrean was treated like a subhuman. We were impatient and wanted to see freedom in the country. Although I was getting paid well, every day I was scared for my life.” Matti explained. He paused for a moment, and took a sip of his latte. “Rather than die barehanded, it is better to die defending your country.”
This mentally is what incited Matti to join the fight for Independence, despite the harsh realities of the war; Eritreans were outnumbered 10 to 1, and Eritrean troops lacked the technology and weaponry to match that of US-backed Ethiopia. Amidst all these grave disadvantages, Matti hopped on an Asmara bus that was headed to Sahel, the central location for the resistance movement and training camp. In order to avoid Ethiopian suspicions, Matti dressed in very simple clothing claiming, “he was a villager going to a funeral.” With Eritrea under occupation by Ethiopian forces, even the simplest daily tasks required permits or identification passes. These permits and passes were then verified at military checkpoints throughout the country. Fortunately, the Ethiopian soldiers believed Matti’s story, despite his lack of documentation corroborating his attendance at the funeral. The soldiers allowed Matti take his seat without any further interrogation, and soon he was off to Sahel to begin his military training.
“This was perhaps the hardest time of my life,” Matti confessed as he let out a chuckle of relief, vaguely laced with nostalgia. He took another sip of his coffee. He then removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and proceeded to wipe his kind, tired eyes – trickling like a gentle stream, purging years of pain from the waters of eternal happiness. He continued, “Upon my his arrival at Sahel, I was overwhelmed with hope and joy. When I looked around, I saw myself standing among 2000 other youth from all over Eritrea. People had walked to Sahel from Dekemhare and Mendefera in the South, from Nak’fa in the North, and from Massawa in the west. Among the crowds of people were men, women, Muslims, and Christians. Children from every ethnic group were there as well.” Matti asserted heartily. He smiled at me, and then looked up at the sky, eyeing the angelic clouds with admiration. With his gaze still locked on the blue and white, marble portrait of the sky, he continued, “This was the proudest moment in my entire life. Standing there with my fellow Eritreans, united for one cause. I knew that even if we died, we died together, fighting for each other.”
The training camp living conditions he described made me shudder in horror; there was little food – only a small meal of tasteless porridge for the entire day, and barely any water. Matti told me that this basic meal was the minimum amount of calories necessary to keep the soldiers from starving, but was all that could be afforded to them. The young trainees travelled many miles on foot, from camp to camp. They spent their days sleeping and their nights traveling, to avoid capture by Ethiopian soldiers. This training persisted for four months after which fighters to-be were placed in their respective service areas. “You contribute what you can contribute. It’s part of the fight. Whether you are in the trenches or behind the trenches, wherever they needed you, that is where you had to go,” he retorted.
As I sat and listened to Matti, I was immediately stricken by the conviction and overwhelming pride in his voice. Never had I heard someone speak of a deeply perilous and tumultuous time, with such fervor and fondness. I began to ponder the root of this ferocious pride, which seemed to encompass all Eritreans – civilians, soldiers, children, family members of the martyred, and the diaspora generation. I contemplated how such different experiences still led to an indivisibly united people? In an effort to resolve my own painful miscomprehension, I asked Matti to describe the morale of the Eritrean people during the war, and how that possibly contributed to their formidable spirit as a country.
“We were tired of being treated like second-class citizens. We were enraged! We were ready to fight, no matter what the cost, to see an independent Eritrea. Everyone in the country had one motive, one goal.” Matti stated passionately. I took some time to digest what he had just told me. Of course the people wanted independence, but what baffled me was how Eritrea, the true underdog in this story, prevailed in the end. After all, Eritrean soldiers were outnumbered 10 to 1. Eritrea was also denied foreign economic, diplomatic, and military assistance, as a result of political tensions with the West. Thus, how could a country against such unfavorable odds, win independence from its much larger, much better equip aggressor? This seemed to somehow defy my logic.
“How did the Eritrean people come together for a battle, that looked as if the odds were forever stacked against them? What could inspire such camaraderie among a people?” I asked disconcertedly.
Matti could sense my miscomprehension, and let out a gentle laugh. The kind of laugh you would hear from a teacher; patient, yet amused by his student’s utter bewilderment. Matti leaned in closer, “if there is anything I want you to understand, it is the mentality of the Eritrean people during those tragic decades. It was unparalleled in strength, and courage. Eritreans often said, ‘even if I pass, I fight so that my brothers, my sisters, my neighbors, and my fellow Eritreans can have independence’. Each man and woman would take a bullet just so other people could see the light that they never had the opportunity to enjoy. We didn’t fight for certain races, ethnic groups, or religions; but for the entirety of the Eritrean people. I didn’t just fight for my mother and father, but for the people that I didn’t even know. That is what you need to understand.”
I sat there in silence as I replayed his words in my head. It became clear to me that Eritrea is a very unique nation. Matti truly exemplified the significant nature of brotherhood, and just how deeply this love is embedded in the Eritrean social fabric. It was at this moment that I started combining my own knowledge of Eritrean history, with Matti’s experiences. It seemed to me that this exceptional camaraderie was born out of a common narrative. Indeed, it was a mutual struggle and mutual pain that not only united the Eritrean people against all odds, but also forever redefined the meaning of nationalism, to include “oneness.” Suddenly, the key to Eritrea’s success became simple; it is the sacred belief that we are one. I am you, you are me, and together we are Eritrea.
Matti eyed me carefully, and as if he were watching my youthful ignorance slowly fade away. I stared back at him, suddenly dumbfounded to be sitting here with someone who had such profound, transformative experiences; someone who had been a part of something larger and more transcendent than himself; something that may have validated his raison d’être. Something I could not fully conceptualize at the green age of 20. I was intimidated.
“Where were you on May 24th, 1991? What were you doing when you first heard that Eritrea had won the war?” I finally asked, hoping to steer the focus away from my transparent naïveté. Matti looked out the window again and stared longingly at the glistening summer sky, as if he were expecting the illuminated clouds to unveil a precious secret. “I was with my cultural group, as we were preparing for our next art exhibit in Nakfa, up in northern Eritrea. The news of independence spread across the country like wildfire. I remember feeling so relieved.”
“Relieved?” I thought to myself. What an interesting way to describe independence.
He continued, “The stress is on the brain. You can feel the pain when there is a bombardment of planes on your city, and when there isn’t. This difference is the feeling of freedom. It is like day and night.” His words had an electrifying effect on me, as I sat there entranced, suddenly plunged into deep in thought. This freedom that he so eloquently depicted, can only be truly appreciated when there is an absence of freedom. It is like yin and yang. “Like day and night,” as he put it. I started contemplating this notion; having grown up in the United States, do I truly know and understand freedom? I have never had to forsake my independence as an American, but could this blessing suggest that I never really knew the true value of, well, my values?
I began to speculate about Matti’s life prior to his time in the war. Did he have a family – perhaps a wife that was waiting for him, or a worried mother?
“What was it like coming home after all those years?” I asked inquisitively.
Matti took a moment to remove his glasses and clean them with his shirt, as he inaudibly mumbled to himself. “Was he trying to dig up a forgotten memory?” I wondered. He then took another moment to finish off the last of his latte, as I waited. It appeared as if Matti had gotten lost on the treacherous voyage to the deep depths of his memory banks. I sat there awkwardly, not knowing whether to repeat my question or simply await his answer. Finally, with the poise and worldliness of a true veteran, he spoke.
“When our friends were martyred, we never cried, we never showed our tears. But coming home after 15 years of fighting, I couldn’t help but cry. I saw my family, and my home. The house looked the same, nothing changed. My mother even kept clothes folded in my drawer, and my bed sheets were still in the same place. It was as if I never left.”
In Eritrean culture, parents never throw away the belongings of their children, because it means to separate themselves emotionally and spiritually from their kids.
Matti continued, “Seeing the neighborhood again touched me the most. All the people who raised me came over to congratulate me and celebrate. One Italian woman, who had lived in my neighborhood since the colonial era, always used to say, ‘my children are back from the fight!’ It was the best day of my life.” Stunned by his words once again, I paused to absorb what I had just heard. This man sacrificed so much to liberate his country. His love for Eritrea and dedication to its independence was apparent in the passionate way that he spoke. This conversation was not a simple interview to regurgitate facts and dates. This was an oral spectacle! His words danced around wildly in my impressionable mind. His powerful speech vicariously transported me to a time of hope and light, which shone on the faces of millions of liberated Eritreans. I was utterly moved. My brief reflection confounded me once again, as new questions began to arise: If Matti feels so strongly about what he did for his country, why did he move to the United States? Moreover, what are his dreams for his children, who are now here in America?
“If you spent years fighting for your country’s independence, why did you move to America? Don’t you want to be back in Eritrea, enjoying the fruits of your labor?” I questioned jokingly.
Matti replied in his usual slow and thoughtful manner, “I wanted my kids to be educated in America, because in Eritrea there were very few educational opportunities. But we still have to work hard to achieve our goals in this country. I have to fight twice as hard as any American, because of my accent and my color. So I never want my kids to take their education for granted either. I also never want them to lose their roots. If you don’t know your roots, you don’t know who you are.”
His response deeply resonated with me, as my parents also immigrated to America for their children’s educational futures. During the occupation, Eritreans were denied the right to attend school. The Ethiopian government wanted to prevent any gathering of youth and intellectuals, in an attempt to crush social upheaval. Thus, Eritreans have always had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and education, and have since enforced these values in the upbringing of their children.
At this moment, he got up to go the restroom. I began ruminating on Matti’s story; it was captivating, inspiring, and extremely heartfelt. He spoke of Eritrea like one would of an old passionate, love; the flames of his amour burning slowly in his heart, forever etched in his mind, never to be extinguished. However, I couldn’t help but feel that a link was amiss. The bridge between the two lands had yet to be crossed. Indeed, I was missing the connection – the very reason I chose to write this story.
When he returned, I asked him, “Matti, given what you’ve told me, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the following question. How are Americans and Eritreans alike? Is there, if anything, a unifying quality that is characteristic of both the American and Eritrean spirit?” Matti flashed a smile, and looked at me as if he’d been waiting for this question the whole time.
In classic Matti fashion, slow, careful, and considerate, he replied, “I can get whatever I want by working hard. After fighting in a war, I know that now. If 3 million Eritreans can fight 25 million Ethiopians, you know that hard work can beat unforgiving odds. In America, the same idea holds, and that is why I love it here; you have the freedom to work as hard as you can, to achieve anything you want. That is why our kids are doing well here, because we moved to a country that not only recognizes, but also appreciates hard work. And this is a quality that is found in the DNA of all Eritreans.” Matti replied jovially.
He continued, “America is the land for all the immigrants and foreigners who escaped persecution, torture, and death. America is also the land of opportunity. People come here to pursue education, to freely practice religion, to open a business, and to provide a better future for their families. America offers the promise of freedom, and for those who work hard, it offers the promise of a better life. Hard work and freedom; these are two qualities that define both Eritrean and Americans.” Matti smiled warmly, as he beamed at the crystal sky. His gaze was appreciative, as if the faces of his martyred friends and comrades were imprinted on the clouds. Matti’s eyes began to water again as he silently saluted his fallen brothers and sisters. As he watched the glorious spectacle above, Matti’s eyes twinkled, reflecting the smiles and cheers of millions of liberated Eritreans.
All art in this Playback article is by Matti
Lily Ghebrai has written a previous Playback article on her parents. She is a student at Middlebury College and is co-founder and treasurer of the college's chapter of Amnesty International. She is an intern at K & L Gates Law Office.