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Eritrea: What the Book of Martyrs Doesn’t Say (Part I)

Eritrea: What the Book of Martyrs Doesn't Say (Part I)

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

In the harrowing story of the G-15’s and journalists’ fate at Era-Ero that the former prison guard Eyob Bahta Habtemariam tells, there is one odd account that throws light on Eritreans’ general attitude towards martyrs and martyrdom that defies simple explanation: he mentions that it was rumored among the guards that some of the dignitaries who had died under the hands of the PFDJ were buried at Meqabir Harbegnatat (Martyrs’/Patriots’ Cemetery) in Ghinda. Imagine the authorities, after some kind of Orwellian deliberation, deciding that the victims indeed deserved martyrs’ burial honor even as they were the ones who had imprisoned, tortured and finally murdered them. If so, by enacting this unexacting ritual, the executioners would be able to reconcile themselves with their victims – an act not alien to the bizarre culture of the revolutionary past. And complementing this act, given the choice, Eritreans from all walks of life would probably prefer for the authorities to bury the dead in Meqabir Harbegnatat rather than in any other obscure place. Only in Eritrea, a nation that has fiercely embraced a culture of martyrdom, would the cruel irony of such an act go unnoticed!

Even if the above mentioned rumor happens to be just a rumor, the fact that it was plausibly circulated among the very people that were guarding the prisoners says a lot. The mere possibility of it could be entertained only because of similar, yet tangible, occurrences that preceded it many times over. We don’t have to imagine this particular scenario to see that the convoluted logic behind it has been working for decades in Eritrea. All that we have to do is ask the following question to fully grasp the pervasive prevalence of this odd phenomenon: how many of those buried in Martyrs Cemetery, enlisted in the Book of Martyrs, acknowledged by Martyrs Certificate or annually commemorated on Martyrs Day have similar harrowing stories to tell as those supposedly buried at Ghinda’s Martyrs Cemetery?

This article will be an attempt to extract some discordant stories out of the façade of uniformity displayed in the lines of graves in Martyrs Cemetery, in the lines of names enlisted in the Book of Martyrs, in the same official Certificate awarded to martyrs’ parents and families and in the same ritual conducted every year come Martyrs Day – a uniformity meant to reflect the one, and only one, great story that ghedli (the revolution) wants to tell.

Silencing the living and the dead

On Martyrs Day, candlelight vigils are reverently held, moments of silence gravely taken, prayers solemnly conducted, poems touchingly read, eulogies lovingly written, speeches eloquently made and the plight of the martyrs’ surviving families uniquely highlighted; and, in addition, wherever possible, burial places of the fallen are visited, wreaths of flowers placed on their tombs, memorial monuments mass-attended, trees in their memories planted, military and civilian parades conducted, etc. And this is all as it should be, so far as this elaborate ritual is not used to obstruct us from the most important thing we ought to do regarding the very people we claim to be honoring on that very day: tell their stories. The warning is not unwarranted since, among Eritreans, the name of martyrs has been frequently invoked to do just the opposite: to silence both the living and the dead so that the real stories of the fallen, ever contradicting the romanticized version of the revolution, would remain untold.

Martyrs Day is all about remembering the fallen. And when we remember the fallen, it is by strictly remaining true to the past; and not by molding the past to fit the present, as the supporters of the regime often do to justify all the horrors under which the country currently finds itself, or to fit the future, as many in the opposition do to justify a vision that was never there to begin with. We should recreate whatever the martyrs had gone through just as it happened then and not as we want it to be. And since their death is a focal point to the story that has to be told, it is important not only to recount the moment of their death but also how and why they ended up there. It is essential that we reconstruct, as close as we could possibly get, the revolutionary journey the martyrs individually took from its starting point to its terminal end. All the rituals that we follow in Martyrs Day are relevant so far as they help us in this noble task of telling their stories as it happened then. Only then would we be able to claim that whatever we do on that day is done in their memory.

If the above is true, the Book of Martyrs (or the Martyrs Certificate or the Martyrs Cemetery or Martyrs Day Commemoration) would be the last place to look for stories of all the fallen enlisted there. To the contrary, by lumping together the victim and the victimizer, the rebel and the enabler, the voluntarily conscripted and the rounded up, the adult soldier and the child soldier, the victim of the enemy and of the civil war, the voluntarily killed in action and the forced and coerced to death, the trench-shot and the prison-executed, the sectarian and the nationalist, the religion-motivated and the Marxist, the ideology driven and the patriot, the well-motivated and the resigned, etc, it tries to erase all the history that could have been told: the sectarian strife, the civil wars, the various uprisings, the trauma of child soldiers, the plight of the peasants, the identity crisis of a generation, the rampant anti-intellectualism, the feudal anarchy, the triumph of totalitarianism, the lack of any justifiable cause, etc. By doing that, not only does the Book attempt to erase the rudderless, discordant and violent past, but it also projects an unwarranted harmonious future (as the fruit of ghedli).

By lumping together all the discordant stories into one, the Book of Martyrs is telling us that there is one, and only one, story to tell – that of an ideal revolution of heroic Eritreans fighting together, with a single purpose, to set Eritrea free; neither the sectarian, violent past nor the discordant, aimless goal is to be told. Anything that mars that romantic picture has to be systematically suppressed. And the Book does a wonderful job of doing just that.

In the name of Martyrs

It was Samuel Johnson who famously said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” There is no better place to see that than among Eritreans. This malady comes in its various forms, the most frequently used being invoking the name of martyrs to serve one’s own nationalist ends. The reason is obvious: it is so emotionally loaded that the mere mention of martyrs’ names silences the rest. Here is a variation of what I said in a stanza that I wrote in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism:

In the name of martyrs:

Fools defile martyrs’ names

by vandalizing their tombs.

And the worst types:

by invoking their names

to silence the rest.

During the border war, many Eritreans were justifiably enraged when they heard that soldiers of the Ethiopian army vandalized a martyrs’ cemetery somewhere in the Barentu area. But what I am asserting above is, despicable as that act may be, a more despicable one is to invoke the name of martyrs to silence the rest; for the implications of the latter on the Eritrean psyche is more insidious and systematic. And the subject matter that we are not supposed to venture is vast. If we are to talk about the past, about the history of ghedli, obviously there is no way we could do that without talking about those who shaped it, many of them dead. If we are to talk about the “cause” of ghedli, there is no way we could do that without mentioning all those martyred for that very cause. And, consequently, if we question ghedli-provided account of its own history or cause, then we are the ones who are supposed to be defiling the names of martyrs. Thus, by simply invoking the name of martyrs (ziban suwuat!), the whole traumatic past and the cause for which the whole nation went through such a trauma for the last five decades is rendered off limits.

But let there be no doubt that the main goal of nationalists is to primarily silence the dead, for the dead could speak only through the voices of the living. Whoever tells their stories is being their voice. It is indeed ironic to see martyrs’ name invoked ad nausea by nationalists to muzzle none other than the voice of the martyrs themselves. If one is indeed interested in serving the name of martyrs, the first thing that he/she should do is unreservedly delve deep into their past. The two most relevant questions that should be asked, and that every parent, relative, friend and fellow countryman would like to know, are the circumstances of their death and the cause for which they died. “How did he/she die?” and “What did he/she die for?” would be the first two thoughts that would come up in a concerned one’s head. And if so, we wouldn’t be simply interested in the circumstances of the terminal end only, one that is often reduced to some kind of a heroic deed against the enemy, but also in the torturous road that led to it; we would like to recreate the whole context wherein such a deed finds itself embedded.

Think of the various ways that martyrs died to see that no single story would do service to the past: some fighting the Ethiopian army – some voluntarily, some forced and some clueless; some in the various civil wars, the grandest of which was that between Shaebia and Jebha; some in internal uprisings such as Falul (thousands of which perished both under the hands of Jebha and Shaebia); some in internal witch hunts meant to get rid of undesirable elements, such as Menqai, Yemin, Christians and others; some in the hands of halewa sewra for various reasons, many of which were of minor infractions; etc. Each death would require a different context that the Book of Martyrs, in its “unifying” mission, would never be able to provide.

Stories condemned to remain untold

The first category that attracts attention in the Book of Martyrs, all within its own language of enumeration, would obviously be that of the missing. These are considered to be such unredeemable heretics that they cannot be accommodated within the revolutionary logic of the Book. The fear is that, if they are included, the one and only story that the Book wants to tell would be seriously jeopardized.

Many families of the missing have been enraged that their sons and daughters were not to be found in the Book, and this is understandable given the society’s deference to the Book as to what heroism and nationalism are all about. What these families don’t realize though is that the Book, by excluding their beloved ones, is doing them a great favor: inadvertently, it is telling part of their stories; and, for that, the most important part: that they were dissenters. Much remains to be told, but the Book, by omitting their names, has wetted the appetite of many inquisitive minds to further inquire on their fate.

In contrast to the missing, it is in fact the stories of those who have made it to the Book that remain entirely untold. The trick is, once all of the stories are lumped together to tell one great story, no particular story would ever be told. Let me relate three examples the likes of which the Book of Martyrs wants to suppress, thus skillfully obstructing us from listening to the martyrs’ stories as shouted out from their graves:

(a) Restless, rebellious students

A student, fired up by the revolutionary fever of that era, joined Jebha in the seventies, only to be caught up in the Falul uprising. He escaped imprisonment or death in the hands of Jebha when he reluctantly joined Shaebia for lack of a better option. From there, Shaebia carted him off, with the rest of other Falul insurgents, to the Massawa Front because it was unwilling to integrate them among its units lest they infect others with their rebellious spirit. In one of the most shameful moments of ghedli’s history, the Falul insurgents were sent to the Massawa front to commit mass suicide. There, he died with the rest, buried in a sea of salt at Salina. A few years after independence, Shaebia knocked at the door of his family home and gave his parents Martyr’s Certificate. What could be more despicable than their son’s killers showing up at their front door to give their son all the honors accorded to a martyr? Would that Martyrs Certificate, proudly hang on the wall, be able to display the irony of it all? Would the parents ever come to realize what this “patriotic” gesture was primarily intended for?

The students are the only population group that enthusiastically joined ghedli in mass, but without having any clue as to what was waiting for them in mieda. They were soon to find out, and their enthusiasm didn’t last long after that. Almost all the dissents and uprisings in ghedli were conducted by this population group. Many of the dissenters were to perish in the hands of sectarian Jebha and totalitarian Shaebia. The archaic and feudal world of Jebha and the brutal totalitarian world of Shaebia had no room for inquisitive and restless students who had come to know the true nature of ghedli far too late to make any difference. And the more educated one happened to be, the more suspect he became. And to be a university student, God forbid, was to commit the greatest sin of all, and hence the first in line to perish under the hands of halewa sewra. Would the Book of Martyrs that has meticulously enlisted thousands and thousands of students in its pages be able to tell the tragedy of this naive generation that set out in search of an ideal world that was never there?

(b) Rounded up peasants

In the early 80’s, a peasant was rounded up in one of those notorious giffas and taken to Sahel under the point of a gun, leaving a bride, a new-born child and elderly parents behind. Prior to his forced conscription, he was living in a peasant’s world entirely centered in his village. All he was interested was tending his farm and taking care of his family. The idea of Eritrea rarely came to his mind, if ever; he didn’t even know how to pronounce it right, let alone to have a clear concept of what it was all about. All the way to Sahel, with a gun pointed at his back, all he could think of was of his forsaken bride, his helpless child and his elderly parents that badly needed care in their old age. Like the many peasants who were forced to live and die in Sahel trenches, he was always thinking of finding a way to escape. He knew of many who made it and many others who died attempting it. But before he could enact his plan, he died in one of those many bloody battles fought defending Sahel. Would a Martyr’s Certificate, pompously given to his widowed wife and his orphaned son, be able to tell his story? Would he really be happy if his story is to be told simply as an act of patriotism? Would he even want to be identified as a “martyr”, rather than as a “victim of sewra”?

And the story of the forcibly conscripted peasant was not an anomaly, but the norm. The numbers are staggering: tens of thousands of them. In fact, during the entire 80’s, Shaebia was able to survive the onslaught of the Ethiopian offensive by making a fodder out of peasants [in Jebha, it started earlier, in the mid 70’s]. Wave after wave of rounded up peasants were put in trenches to defend wave after wave of Ethiopian offensive. The numbers tell it all: even though they were reluctant participants in ghedli, the peasant population groups paid the highest price of all population groups. Thousands of them were also able to escape. Many others were caught in the attempt to escape and were executed. Still many others thought that it was the lesser evil of the options available to them then and were resigned to their fate. Many more were actively looking for a way out but never found the opportunity; most of those were to die in the numerous battles they were thrown in to defend Sahel. Would a Book of Martyrs able to tell us the various sad trajectories the lives of the peasants took before they came to their tragic ends?

(c) Child soldiers

A child was born of teghadelti parents that were martyred soon after his birth. He became one of the many war orphans who grew up behind the trenches in a make shift orphanage. He lived through a traumatic childhood in a midst of an abnormal world of death and destruction. He knew of no other world than that of ghedli; to him the cause was a given, having never heard of alternative ideas. The little normalcy he knew came from his schooling, with a glimpse of the other world beyond the trenches. But even that didn’t last long. He was attending Biet Timhrti Sewra (the Revolutionary School) until he was 15 years old, when he was suddenly pulled out of school with the rest to defend Sahel from one of Ethiopia’s relentless werar. He died there defending the dejen. Of course, the ailing grandparents would be the proud recipients of three Certificates for two generations of martyrs – a son, daughter in law and grandson. But would these three Certificates, even when hang in juxtaposition to one another on the wall, be able to tell the story of the orphaned child soldier? Would the grandparents ever come to know what their grandson went through before his life was aborted at young age?

The story of child soldiers is one that has remained untold, with the former teghadelti at most in denial. But lately, there has been a few of them coming out of this self-imposed silence to tell us the dark side of the often romanticized Biet Timhrti Sewra. As recently as few months ago, Meriem Omer from Sweden, one that served for 16 years in the fields, talked to BBC about joining the EPLF at the age of 13 and how, after going through a few months of training, she became a full combatant (Life as a girl soldier in Eritrea ). This raises not only the question of child soldiers, but also contradicts that pristine picture of children with exercise books learning under the bunkers that Shaebia wants to project. In fact, another former fighter (Yosief Fessahaye, Biet Timhrti Sewra, Incubator … in, 03/09/2009; in Tigrigna) draws a grim picture of Biet Timhirti Sewra. He remembers it as an “incubator” where children were first bred and then fed to the fighting machine as early age as possible. Many were taken away to the trenches without proper military training to defend the dejen while still underage; and, not surprisingly, many never made it back.

With a single certificate that invokes the name of martyrs, among other things, Shaebia intends to wipe out all the crimes it committed in the past. It is intended to silence the parents, in particular, and the rest of us, in general. Once their son/daughter is acknowledged as a martyr who has died for a noble cause, the parents are not supposed to embark on further inquiry that may sully the name of their beloved. But in an ideal world, parents would want to know the itinerary their children took within the opaque world of ghedli and the various harrowing experiences they have gone through in that journey. In the above given example, the student’s revolutionary journey, starting from his home town to Jebha, from Jebha to Falul, from Falul to Shaebia, and finally to his destination for a mass burial in Salina, with all the itinerary stops telling their own harrowing stories, were being wiped out by a simple Marty’s Certificate. So is it with case of the peasant. By glamorizing tcheguar danga, Shaebia is trying to hide the horrors under which the peasants had lived for more than a decade under its relentless giffa, and thereby hoping to erase any suspicion we may have about the involuntary, coercive nature of ghedli. So is it with the case of the child soldier. When children are romanticized for taking the burden of the revolution, the nadir has been reached and thereafter nothing would be left of its presumed ideals. It could be only a revolution that refused to mature, given decades of extension in its life, that would try to make something revolutionary out of children’s immaturity – only a few steps behind from turning itself into a Lord’s Army.

Victim and victimizer

One of the most effective ways that the Book of Martyrs does its job of effacing the past is by wiping out all the major categorical distinctions that tell an alternative story of what went on in mieda than the romanticized one it wants us instead to know. Below, I will mention just two out of many – the victim-victimizer and the volunteer-forced distinctions – that cut across the individuals’ stories told above. In these particular instances, by telling us that there is just one story to tell, the Book is trying to hide two defining characteristics of ghedli: its violent past and its involuntary nature.

The paradoxes of the Book of Martyrs are many. But there is one that beats them all in its sheer audacity: imagine a Book that puts the names of victims and their executioners side by side and tells you to commemorate the martyrdom of both come Martyrs Day every year.

Think of all those who died in mass uprisings (ex; rebellious students), of all those who were forced to serve with a gun pointed at their heads (ex: the peasants) and of all those who didn’t know better (ex: the child soldiers), and you will see that the victim-victimizer dichotomy holding across the board. However hard the romanticizing ones try to put a positive twist in these stories, all of these population groups happen to be victims of ghedli. Now think of all those individuals that were killed by the hands of halewa sewra for various reasons and still made it to the Book of Martyrs and you will have an unambiguous picture of this cruel irony – “reconciliation” vintage ghedli, one that can only be achieved at the graveyard!

Given the bloody history of ghedli, the Martyrs Certificates that carry this cruel irony should be too many to count. Here is one: a Jebha teghdalit that was killed by Shaebia in a civil war makes it to the list of martyrs compiled by none other than Shaebia itself. Maybe this could be explained away as some sort of magnanimity of the conqueror over the vanquished. But not so easily explainable would be all those who perished under the hands of halewa sewra and still made it to the Book. These cannot be explained away as victims of civil war, where the blame could be spread to both sides, or hoodwinked as “killed while fighting the enemy”, as in the case of Falul in the Massawa front. That is why the Book of Martyrs is irony at its best when it enlists those directly killed by sewra itself, for it is that very hand that did the killing that is now doing the enlisting.

So much horror has taken place in the Eritrean revolution, and many of those who were at the giving end of the stick in the torture chambers of ghedli have passed away as those who were murdered within those very prison walls as a result of malnutrition, poor health, torture or execution. But the Book of Martyrs doesn’t discriminate at which end of the stick you happened to be when you died. And there is no doubt that the parents of these victimizers, as the parents of the victims, have received Martyr’s Certificate for having fulfilled their “patriotic duty”. One could even imagine two neighbors joining hands in commemorating the deaths of their sons, one’s son being a direct victim of the other’s son and both parents oblivious of what had happened then – a microcosm of the overall obliviousness of the larger society. What could be more farcically tragic than this? Once I wrote the following stanza to capture this paradox:

Reconciled in death

When a victim and his killer
appear in the same Book of Martyrs,
nationalism becomes the only logic
that reconciles impossible contradictions
by reducing them to ashes.

The victim-victimizer paradox doesn’t end there. In a revolution like ours that took a totalitarian turn long ago and decades to materialize, often it was the victimized ones that take their turn to be the victimizers. And how is the Book of Martyrs supposed to capture such a harrowing ambiguity? How could it make a distinction between the victimized and the victimizer enacted in one body that could only be enlisted under one name, that being the very ambiguity of ghedli itself?

By suppressing the victimized-victimizer dichotomy that was prevalent throughout the sewra, the book of Martyrs is also aiming at preserving another myth: that the Eritrean revolution has been voluntary in its participation. But nothing could be further from the truth. If you go back to the three examples given above, it is easy to see that there is nothing voluntary about Falul insurgents ending up in a mass grave at Salina that Shaebia had nefariously dug for them, about kidnapped peasants that perished in mass in the trenches of Sahel while still looking for ways out of their predicament or resigned to their fate and about child soldiers that knew of no other world than that of Shaebia and too immature to decide on their own. So all we need is a little bit of addition to demolish this myth: (a) The tens of thousands of peasants that made the bulk of ghedli were rounded up from their villages. (b) It didn’t take long for most of those urbanites that joined ghedli voluntarily to change their minds, as the number of uprisings, dissents and defections clearly show. (c) And then there were those who were resigned to their fate for lack of a better option. Now, if we add up all these groups, what clearly comes out as salient is the involuntary nature of ghedli. Those who joined ghedli voluntarily and remained believers to the bitter end happen to be in the minority.


The Book of Martyrs is ruthless both in its inclusion and omission in the task of the only and one story it wants to tell. For instance, by including all the Falul insurgents that died in the Massawa front, it absolves Shaebia of any involvement in their death. The Book buries all the evidence that would implicate Shaebia in this barbaric act by the simple act of inclusion in its enlisting.

So is it with its act of omission. Even the martyred child soldiers are not spared from its cold-blooded calculation of omission. Yosief Fessahaye mentions one odd phenomenon that throws light on the ruthless logic that defines the Book of Martyrdom: that, at the beginning, Shaebia was reluctant to enlist many of those martyred child soldiers in the Book of Martyrs. Could it be that, by omitting their names, Shaebia was trying to avoid scrutiny, given that the battle sites they died at and their ages at the time they met their death would simply give it away?

It is not only the parents and families of martyrs that find themselves at the losing end of this cruel game; the whole of Eritrea is. Had we asked the story behind each and every one that ended up in the Book of Martyrs and those that didn’t make it, the horrors of ghedli wouldn’t have been repeated now. After all, it is the stories of each and every one of those dead that make the history of the nation.

But it is not only the present that is at stake; the future too as it risk. It often comes in the form of that ubiquitous “hidri suwuatna” that promises a lot without its invokers having any clue as to what that hidri could have been – that is, if there ever was one to begin with. Eritreans simply fill it in with their variable wish, and then attribute that hidri to the martyred. The ramifications of such retrospective attribution are tremendous, in that it keeps the nation in complete denial of the recalcitrant problems it has been facing for the past seven decades. Instead of facing their demons once and for all, hidri suwuatna has become the last refuge of disillusioned nationalists; they vainly attempt to extract a noble cause that would sustain their nation in the future in a rather bleak landscape absent of any discernable objectives. In fact, what joins the past, the present and the future is the utter lack of any justifiable cause in the project called, “Eritrea”.

In this part of the article (Part I), I have been trying to provide a different reading of the Book of Martyrs than the only and one story it wants to tell by categorizing those enlisted there in a way that doesn’t fit the official story. In Part II, I will focus on a different aspect of that Book: the absence of any justifiable cause for the death of so many. The Book advises us to seek the “cause” in the numbers of the dead only; to ask further is considered tantamount to treason. The larger the number of the dead, the worthier the cause – again, without providing us any clue as to what that cause could have been that keeps increasing in value with the piling up of corpses. In Part II, it will be this logic of numbers underpinning the culture of martyrdom the Book exploits that will be put under scrutiny.