Eritreans remember the sacrifice of their fallen brothers and sisters each day of the year. However, 20 June remains a special day to all nationals around the world. Martyr’s Day touches all layers of society, young, old, everyone relate to the day as each family has lost at least one member of his or her family either during the thirty years of war of independence or during the 1998-2000 border war.
Some would probably not understand why we need to revive memories of lost ones. Actually, it is not just about reviving memories but paying tribute, remembering the heavy sacrifice paid to ensure a future for generations to come by bringing independence and the right of self-determination of one people. A nation born from its heroes cannot be forgotten and 20 June continues to bring the society together.
This year, while in the diaspora candle vigil and different events were organized; here in Eritrea, as tradition dictates, the commemoration started on Sunday the 18th where in the morning hours, wearing red shirts with the emblem of Martyr’s Day and a red hat, residents of Asmara, representatives of ministries, health professionals and civil servants, accompanied the First Lady to mass sport event running starting from Shida all the way to Bahti Meskerem Square. With about 500 adult participants and 600 children from grass roots clubs, this year’s event was a success. Amateur runners were handed prizes by the First Lady, Saba Hailu, and the sponsor of the event, Olympic champion Zeresenay Tadesse. Professional athletes were also present during a running race. A beautiful sunny morning bringing everyone under one umbrella to commemorate the Martyrs. Meanwhile, this past weekend different events such as tree planting were organized nationwide and the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) organized a cleaning day at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Asmara.
Monday morning, memorial services, in memory of Eritrean fallen heroes, were held both at the Saint Michael’s Church and in Al- Khulafa Al-Rashideen Mosque in Asmara where thousands took part. Later on, while walking around the city, I noticed that shop owners were putting the national flag at their door, the seeds and fruits market area was decorated with the beautiful green, red, yellow and blue colors. Members of NUEW were preparing the exhibition in front of the Cathedral while the lantern for candles were installed and lit in the afternoon hours by members of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS).
Shops and offices were closing doors in the afternoon and people were getting ready for the beginning of the candle light march on Independence Avenue. Kids all over the city were drawing the map of Eritrea and symbols of Martyrs Day while residents passing by gave them Nakfa as encouragement. Women and youngsters were selling candles on the side of the streets while people were rushing to get candles. The stage was beautifully decorated with a painting illustrating candles and the symbolic yellow olive leaves while songs echoed in the air awaiting the procession of people holding lit candles marching from Shida towards Bahti Meskerem square.
Groups of kids were rushing to get the best seats holding candles. Mothers and fathers were whispering to their children the meaning of Martyr’s Day. Young couples and elderly people were present to pay tribute to the fallen heroes. Diaspora visiting the country were present. Music was on and slowly while the sun set, silence prevailed slowly in the crowd under the background sound of singer Wedi Shilan; “Meswati hawelti enda mber silesi elelta mber nib’at deykone” or “martyrdom is something tangible, not just a simple death but being grateful rather than crying”.
The marching band arrived at the square followed by foot doctors in their white gowns and youth in their blue uniform. Thousands followed where only the light of the candles were visible in the street. After a minute of silence, Major General Romodan Osman Awlyay, Governor of the Central region, gave a speech to the crowd and called upon the people of Eritrea to be thankful for the sacrifice made by our fallen heroes and understand their responsibility. The candle vigil ceremony continued with different songs in Tigrigna and Tigre languages and a musical drama called “Berhan Semae’ti” or the light of the martyr which means remembering the light and not crying over the loss of the fallen heroes.
A woman with her three children was crying throughout the candle vigil ceremony and she explained to me that her husband is a martyr and how it was important for her to make sure that her children pay tribute to their father and all other Eritrean martyrs. However, crying isn’t the way to pay tribute to Eritrean fallen heroes but instead help them rest in peace by showing respect, remember the good achieved by them and take on the responsibility. This year’s theme focused mainly on this approach and was reflected in songs, drama and poems. In fact, a beautiful drama depicted a mother who was lying in her bed crying while the angel martyrs were resting in peace and her martyr son cannot find peace because of his mother’s sorrows. At the end of the performance the mother said “by crying losing your light, I won’t” while a remake of the legendary singer Tesfay Mehari, Fihira, was sung in a musical drama where actors were holding the sword of defense while children in white were protected. “Haben iyu hagos iyu nay suwat, dekey adjokhum”, literally translated as “it’s pride, it’s happiness of our martyr and our children, be strong”. A wonderful candle vigil ceremony on the eve which came to an end in the evening hours.
Eritreans at home, on the streets, at work lit candles while watching documentaries on EriTV before sleeping a few hours and join a morning march at 5:30am on Tuesday, 20 June. Despite the chilly weather and the few rain spells, residents of the capital city took part in the march from Bahti Meskerem square to the National Martyrs Cemetery.
The ceremony started with the laying of wreathes of flowers at the cemetery. Wreathes were laid by President Isaias Afwerki, Al-Amin Mohammed Seid, PFDJ Secretary, and General Filipos Woldeyannes, Chief of staff of the Eritrean Armed Forces. NUEW’s President, Mrs. Tekea Tesfamichael and Governor of the Central Region, Major General Romodan Osman Awlyay.
The ceremony continued with the arrival of President Isaias at the square followed by Ministers, PFDJ officials, national civil societies, religious leaders and members of the diplomatic corps. After a minute of silence, the Commissioner of Sport and Culture, Ambassador Zemede Tekle called upon the President to deliver his keynote speech. President Isaias expressed the responsibility that each citizen carries in ensuring that the sacrifice of the life of Eritrean fallen heroes paid to the children of Eritrea an independent nation is remembered. He reminded all of the challenges being faced and the new phase of development with strong focus on water resources. He added that Martyr’s Day is not a day of mourning but a day of pride and commemoration.
After his brief speech the official commemoration continued through cultural performance. The stage was decorated with a replica of the symbolic mosque of Nakfa. During the performances, the theme of remembrance in happiness rather than sorrow was repeated. The singer, Melake Abraham, expressed it beautifully by saying “I won’t cry but will discuss and share thoughts about our martyrs”. Another theatrical show got my particular attention and that of the crowd. Some women could not hold it and had tears dropping to their cheeks. It was this young boy who was trying to understand what Martyrs’ Day was about and couldn’t get the answer he wanted. While asking himself, two angel martyrs talked to him and explained to him what martyrdom meant and what sacrifices have been made by the people. The two continued by encouraging the little boy to be great and achieve what has always been the dreams of those who sacrificed their lives for him to live in a free nation. This very touching performance gave an end to the official ceremony.
Time to depose flowers to loved ones at the cemetery while others would go and visit friends or parents who have lost their children as a sign of empathy and sharing the day together. Eritreans all around the world paid a minute of silence in unison at 1pm Asmara time under the ring of the local radio Dimtsi Hafash.
Another year of remembrance of Eritrea’s fallen heroes. A remembrance of the sacrifices. A remembrance of the responsibility every citizen holds. A remembrance with pride and gratitude rather than mourning to allow our fallen heroes to rest in peace.
Eternal Glory to our Martyrs!