Japanese Journalist who trained freedom fighters karate visits post-independence Eritrea (Part II and Final)
In the first part of this interview, Mr. Chiba has shared memories of his stay in Eritrea as an assistant journalist and his later experiences as a karate instructor. There, he recalls how he came to Eritrea and how he was moved by the fighting and the can do sprit of every freedom fighter. He also explained his motive to come back to Eritrea not as a journalist but rather as a karate instructor and the conditions under which such training was conducted. Let’s explore more of this and his views of post-independence Eritrea in the second part of the interview. Through out the interview, Mr. Chiba has used Tigrigna terms tegadalay (male freedom fighter) and tegadalit (female freedom fighter). And the term tegadelti generally refers to the freedom fighters which comprised male and female fighters. So, in this interview “tegadelti” is interchangeably used with freedom fighters.
What were your observations about the relationships the freedom fighters maintained between one another? Were there respect among the tegadalay and tegadalit?
I was very surprised to see such an extraordinary respect between the tegadalay and tegadalit. They set my tent under a tree so that MiG fighters may not spot or target my tent form the sky. And I was there for three months. Sometimes high positioned leaders and also low ranked freedom fighters used to pop into my tent. I could not differentiate who is the leader and who is the ordinary tegadaly and tegadalit. Everybody was the same and equal even the top leaders were behaving and eating the same food.
One could be very curious to know what sort of food you were eating during your stay on the mountains. What could you tell us about this?
That is very interesting. Without eating food of good quality and quantity one could not get enough power. Thus, I was expecting to have nice food. But, they gave me a slice of bread and half rotten and smelling fish powder. However, I did not complain for leaders together with the low ranking tegadelti were eating this same food. Hence, I could not ask for special food. I was just forced to eat the same food the tegadelti were eating and I finally vomited. At that point, I began to complain after eating this for about a month. And I asked for a better food so that I can walk properly for day by day, with the ever increasing vomiting, my legs were becoming bit by bit legs of a crab. So, they started giving me spaghetti which was indeed a sort of relief. However, a tegadaly chef put the smelling fish powder onto the pasta which again made me vomit. So I again asked for just the spaghetti and some salt without the fish powder. After that energy comes, but the food was still humble. My body was bit by bit becoming the same of that of the tegadelti.
What else do you remember from experiences like that and the overall situation? Were there heavy bombardments?
We could not conduct training in the morning hours due to bombardments. Very big jet fighters were coming over just 200 meters above the ground. When I just heard the sound, I saw a very big and shining silver colored jet fighter for the first time and I was very afraid. A tegadalit asked me “My teacher, are you afraid?” but, I did not want to tell the truth that I was afraid. Then, she informed me not to expose mirrors and white colored things outside the tent for it would be easy to be noticed by the jet fighters. She also told me not to be worried unless the airplanes are over the head. After that I felt a little bit relaxed even if the jet fighters come. There were also so many big rocks and so many places to hide which made me very relaxed. I was very impressed by the strong sprit of the tegadelti and I did not get panicked. This strong sprit made me confident that I was dead sure these people will one day get their independence.
Another thing which impressed me most is the site of very beautiful stars at night. I have never seen so many shooting stars moving here and there. In short, I have never seen such a milk way.
Were you just a teacher or you had learned some from the Tegadelti?
I was expecting just teaching. But, honestly speaking, I realized that I could learn a lot from the life style of tegadalay and tegadalit and their experiences under the hardest conditions on the mountains; and there by strengthened my karate skills or otherwise I could not get a chance to do it so anywhere in town. I can say my karate skills were very strengthened by the experiences on the mountains. That is why my position in Africa as a karate instructor is strengthened and that very experiences gave me the strongest confidence as a karate man. I am now the best karate teacher in Harare, Zimbabwe and I can go anywhere to train karate owing to the experiences I gained on the mountains some thirty years ago. So, I must appreciate the tegadaly and tegadalit and generally the committed members of the EPLF.
You know the tegadelti since the period of struggle for independence, and now you have met some of them in the post-independence period. Do you see any sort of change in their pattern of life?
It has been about 32 years since I left Eritrea in 1980. Some of the tegadelti are now over 60 years old. Some of these tegadelti welcomed me at the airport and they all remembered me. The face at that time, on the mountains, during the struggle period was a little bit sharp and now they are very gentle. Otherwise, they have not been changed in their approach. They are very happy and kind. When I met my former student, a tegadaly, who welcomed me at the airport, I forgot his face. But, I discovered that the feeling is just the same. My stay in Asmara has already been 80 days. I have met Buruno and Sbhat and the attitude and the atmosphere as leaders is still the same. I recall that when I finished the karate training in 1980, I was waiting for my flight in Khartoum for about a week. While I was resting there in the office of the EPLF, somebody whom I did not know before came and stood in front of me and he said, “Thank you very much! Mr. Chiba. You did very well,” he gave me a nice sprit and the EPLF offered me a suit as a gift. I still have that gift. I later discovered that he was Isaias Afwerki. He just came by himself like an ordinary man.
This time, I came here to participate in the ceremony of Operation Fenkil. I met the President there and he still remembered me. I also learned that all the leaders still live in an ordinary house as ordinary people. I did not see here leaders behaving like a king against slaves forgetting the ordinary masses. That is completely different from other countries. I have now realized the spirit is still the same even after 32 years.
When I heard your independence in 1991, I really wanted to come but I could not. Though I cherished the memories of EPLF in my hurt, I could not come by that time for I had to make a living in Zimbabwe. In my visit to Eritrea in the post -independence period, I may have got disappointed to see the EPLF leaders have changed too much like in other countries. To tell you the truth, I was very much worried until I reached to the airport. Fortunately, I have discovered the leaders are as good as before. That moved me very much. What is more is that your currency is also very much different from currencies of other states for the pictures on your currency are of ordinary people.
You have continued the profession of karate teaching. Considering your earlier experiences and the fact that you have seen the post-independence Eritrea in person, is Eritrea anywhere in your picture?
After the celebrations of Operation Fenkil and the special welcoming, I planned to teach the young generation the spirit of karate. I am expecting to let me come again. And my ultimate plan is to shift from Harare to Asmara and to permanently settle in Eritrea. I want to start again the same thing of what I did 32 years ago. I could decide my future by this visit to Eritrea.