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The Literature of Resistance

So many people, some of them out of innocent ignorance and others out of deliberate negligence, believe that the struggle of the Eritrean people for independence was fought only with a rifle and a tank. Nothing could be more incongruous understanding and annoying remark as regards to the armed and political struggle of the Eritrean people other than this. The role of the gun in the struggle of the Eritrean people for independence, though decisive, came as a voice of a lonely people who were denied their fundamental right for self determination and as choice when all the peaceful means were blocked.

It’s true that while the struggle of the Eritrean people for independence started as a peaceful demand for the right of self determination, resistance to the occupation and domination by outsiders has been the tradition of the Eritrean people since time immemorial. Armed struggle therefore comes as no wonder for people who were betrayed by the principles of the international community and abused by the powerful states of the post World War II.

It would be absurd to imagine that the resistance was solely through the act of violence. Literature has played an important role in the armed and political struggle of the people starting before the society has developed the skills of recording physically.

All over the society, oral tradition is full of songs and poems that where recited on public occasions either to praise heroes who stood for their people or criticize cowards that betrayed their people or to condemn the brutality of colonizers. Such was when wise men advised with regret the great Ras Weldemichael after he fell in to the trap that was prepared for him by the Tigrayan chiefs and warned other leaders from such a danger through an oral poem that is still recited by some elders. Not only this, poems were the most effective way of mobilizing the people against any danger at that time. I just picked Ras Weldemichael randomly, but there are so many examples substantiating the fact that literature was part of the political struggle of the Eritrean people.

By the late 19th century with the advent of European colonialism, literature came to the forefront as effective way of expressing hatred to colonialism. The poems of Degiat Bahta Hagos and Zemach Wed Ekud, the heroic leaders who died fighting the Italian colonialists in Halay and in Prison in the infamous Nakura Island respectively are few from the many examples. Until this time, as the literary status of the society was at its lowest level, none of it was recorded. Of course, so many other oral literatures might also have been forgotten.

The late forties up to late fifties and early sixties marked a new era on not only the political situation of Eritrea and its people, but also the Eritrean literature. After the defeat of the fascist Italian colonial state in the Horn by allied forces in 1941, Eritrea was given to Great Britain as a captured enemy territory until its fate was to be decided. In 1952, after the four great powers have failed to agree on the future of Eritrea, the UN, under great pressure and influence from the United States of America and its allies, decided to federate Eritrea with the American puppet in the region, Ethiopia. As the then secretary of State of the US John Foster Dulles has said, this decision was taken not only against the principles of the UN, but also against the Whishes of the Eritrean people and the conscience of the American government to safeguard the American interest in the region.

This abusive betrayal by the international community in general and the then US administration in particular has left an intractable black spot in the political history of the Eritrean people. Adding insult to injury, when the backward feudal Ethiopian state abrogated the practically misspelled and unworkable federal arrangement, the chief protector of the agreement-the UN sat passively. Worse, when the feudal government occupied Eritrea, the first thing it did was, suppress the pillars of democracy and the very political culture of the Eritrean people for once and ever seriously damaging the political tradition of the Eritrean people.

It was at this time that the Eritrean literature reached a new stage of sophistication in its history. Unfortunately, the suppression of freedom of speech by the feudal state forced it to seek sanctuary in polemics and double meaning. The songs of Atobrahan Seghid, Alamin Abdeletif, Tewelde Reda and other great singers of the time are all political songs shrouded in love poems, manifestation of the sophistication of literary work of the time. These artists have played an important role in raising the political consciousness of the people and the youth particularly. It also laid ground for the radical literature of the Armed Struggle.

By the late sixties, literature and particularly singing and poetry entered a new era. The “field” or the part of the country where the armed struggle was being waged was open for free exercise of freedom. There from among the freedom fighters some of the best poets and artists of the country were born to confirm and transform the role of literature in the armed and political struggle of Eritrea to another stage. The role literature played in the armed struggle is unparalleled. Revolutionary songs that made thousands of young people compel themselves to die for their country and people are still popular across the country.

It would be doing disservice to try or actually explain the role of literature in the struggle of the Eritrean people for independence within this piece of article.

But such self reservation has made many people overlook the importance of literature in our struggle for the right to self determination. And so many others remain to date unaware of its role at all simply because we have not said what we should about our struggle for freedom generally and less about the role of the pen and the Kirar particularly. Because the guns have spoken for themselves, everybody knows about their role; and now it’s about time we started talking about the silent traces of the pen.

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