June 20, Eritrea’s Martyrs’ Day, is a day of deep significance to Eritreans worldwide. June 20 is a day when we remind ourselves of the promises we made to our martyrs in safeguarding our sovereignty, building a prosperous country and, most of all, looking after the families they left behind.
Tens of thousands of Eritreans gave their life for its independence and territorial integrity, leaving a memory of a noble cause in the hearts of their fellow compatriots.
Over 85,000 martyrs in a small population of less than five million is simply huge, implying that virtually every family has lost a close relative for Eritrea’s freedom. No wonder the sacrifice is deeply felt!
What is truly wondrous, however, is the sense of responsibility and rededication Eritreans show every year on June 20 to remain truthful to the pledge of their fallen heroes and heroines and the liberating vision that guided Eritrea’s bitter thirty years long struggle for independence and the shorter but just as significant war in defense of the country’s sovereignty.
To honor these valiant souls, Eritreans all over the world hold various commemorative events.
In Asmara, prayer services are conducted at St. Michael’s Church and Al-Khulafae Al-Rashideen Mosque. In the evening, street lights are put out and candle lanterns are lit.
A distinct feature of Martyrs’ Day commemorations is the candlelight vigil. People from all walks of life go out into the streets holding candles and wax tapers, and congregate in a gathering at the Bahti Meskerem Square, where a number of artistic works are displayed during the course of the ceremony. Others stay at home and light candles with portraits of martyrs and certificates of patriotism.
No nation, perhaps, has penned more poems and songs in honor of its martyrs than Eritrea. The artists vary greatly: some are veteran fighters, others are young generation artists. But their message is profound and consistent – respect and gratitude for Eritrea’s tens of thousands of martyrs, strong commitment to support and look after their families and a repeat determination to build a nation worthy of their sacrifices. They all call on the fallen heroes to ‘Rest in Peace.’
A septuagenarian father, who lived abroad before coming home for good in 2003, has two of his five children who fell for the glory of the nation and one is serving in the national service. Not very long ago, we were talking about the significance of Martyrs’ Day and he said:
“Every family in this country has sacrificed at least one for the cause of freedom, and each year as June 20 comes, the nation gathers to honor and remember its heroes. But is remembering enough? When I think of my sons and thousands like them who fell for the good of their people, I ask myself whether we are living up to their trust. Their pledge was building a free and prosperous country. Are we trying to do that?”
He further said that we should be transparent in our actions and do everything in our power to move our development forward, and that we need to harmonize our efforts for the good of our people.
“If each one of us contributes just a small part, our combined efforts can bring about miracles. So I would like to stress on the point that Martyrs’ Day should not be a day of sadness, instead it has to be a day when we resolve to speed up the momentum gathered in nation building and bring the mission that our martyrs entrusted us to its completion,” he recommended.
Last Thursday, I ventured into a good friend of mine who had just been to a Martyrs’ Day commemorative event at the Eritreo-German hall. She told me that she had witnessed a rather astonish episode during the event.
According to her, well-known singer Tesfay (Fihira) was performing one of his songs pertaining to the auspicious day and abruptly cut the song short and talked about how Martyrs’ Day should not be a day of sadness and solemnity, but rather one of rejoicing and celebration. In saying so, he started performing a different song with a vibrant guayla tune.
In his song Fihira stressed that we should not be weeping but rather celebrate what our Martyrs have done for us with jubilation as long as we step up our efforts in bringing their dream of a free and prosperous Eritrea to reality.
The late legendary Eritrean singer, Yemane (Baria) had also admonished against bitter sadness:
May you find strength parents of heroes
Don’t mourn bitterly, for your conscience not to wear out
Let our enemy shrivel, instead of you
On the contrary, be honored and proud
It’s because of your children
That light is abound, peace is abound…
In the Eritrean society, where the dead are mourned with grave solemnity, it is common to observe Martyrs’ Day with an equally solemn commemoration. Families and friends go to the Patriots’ Cemetery to visit the graves and converse with their loved heroes and heroines. Mothers shed tears of pride, love and longing. Children chant songs promising they will carry on the legacy entrusted to the. So on and so on.
Yakob Abrehaley, who runs his family’s business in Asmara, is the youngest of a family of four. Meaza, the first-born of the family, and her younger brother, Abesari, both martyred during the armed struggle. Esau, Yakob’s twin brother, was killed during Ethiopia’s war of aggression in 2000. Now, Yakob looks after his ageing parents.
He said that every year on Martyrs’ Day he goes to the Patriots’ Cemetery and “talk to Esau and assure him that the national sovereignty he fell for is still intact and that I’m ready to carry on his legacy if situations require it.”
Yakob said that he named his firstborn Esau.
“I wanted him to know that his name represents someone dear to my heart, because that’s what martyrs are to Eritreans: always in their heart,” Yakob said.
All the above attest to the particularly strong attachment Eritrea has for its finest men and women who gave their lives for its independence; and hence the constant reminder that they should rest in peace:
With our blood and voices
We have made independence a reality
Rest in peace martyrs!
Your flag is hoisted high
Our enemies have been overcome
And reigning is us, your owners
Rest in peace, Martyrs!