For me and my friends, it has become a tradition to play football every June 20th. This particular day of the month is when Eritrea remembers its fallen heroes. For us, playing football is the way we remember our beloved martyrs. It is because of them that we enjoy our independence; it is because of them we have a chance to go out there and play our hearts out.
The most rebellious spirits to ever shake this planet had touched hands with their creator as soon as their bodies, once buried all over the war field, are collected and buried in their new nation Eritrea to the adulation of millions of their people. The final gunshots have been shot for the martyrs formerly known as The Eritrean Tegedelti. That was June 20th 1991. Since then, Eritreans at home and abroad have commemorated Martyrs’ Day on June 20. Like every year, this year also, candle vigils and memorial services were carried out in honor of Eritrean martyrs.
Growing up, besides playing football, we lit up candles and attended patriotic services in remembrance of those who had given their lives for this nation. But on what assurance did we know that these gifts had really been made? Only the survivors— the living—could attest to it. In order to know that a person had truly laid down his life for his friends or comrades, one would have to hear it from the ones living. The late known martyrs— those who voluntarily sought death and rejoiced in the fact— had been our Warsay’s. Their predecessors, Yikealo, had endured torture and death in order to make Eritrea independent. They have no modern equivalents in the world today. About people who set out to lose their lives, then, there seems to hang an air of fanaticism: a gigantic sense of pride attractively fused with a masochistic tendency to self-abnegation. That is the Eritrean way! Walking towards Harnet Avenue, one notices the city is not its usual bright self. Every café, shop, cinema and the likes are closed and the whole city is in total blackout…..for a reason!
Personally, words aren’t enough to describe and serenade what these courageous men and women have done for their nation. Simplicity was but one part of the complex sum of Eritrean freedom fighters defiance but in this basic rhyme they set down the definite statement of their unique gift for the struggle they embodied. Their acts of bravery leave their people speechless and heartbroken. Although no sculptured marble could ever rise up to their memory, nor can any engraved stone bear record of their deeds properly, their remembrance will be as lasting as the land they honored. The price was paid to keep Eritrea’s sovereignty intact just as a price was paid through death and suffering to bring about independence. Hence, it is every Eritrean’s duty to remember their martyrs not by lightning candles, planting trees and making pledges only, but also by honoring their trust; that of rebuilding Eritrea and making it a land of peace and justice.
What ended our struggle with victory against all odds was the mismatch between the two forces. On the one hand, you had the best trained and the largest army in Africa, which was well-equipped with all types of weapons bought at the expense of a starving people. The famine of biblical dimension did not deter the enemy from arming its soldiers to the teeth to fight a long and bloody war. On the other side, you had Eritrean freedom fighters,-few but tactical and resistant to the point of flirtatious stubbornness.
The Freedom fighters’ resilience during the armed struggle was an ability approaching God-like – they strode to the capital with courage and determination knowing independence was about to be achieved. It was a time to no longer look back but to push forward; sovereignty was within touching distance and, boy, did they push and push. The enemy did not know what hit them-their tanks were dismantled, and their ships sunk under the non-stop attack of Eritrea’s heroes. To the tegadelti (freedom fighters), assaults meant the sacrifice of lives. If they had to assail the enemy, it should be done when success seemed assured, and the resultant victory was worth the cost.
I do believe that what the Ethiopian army learned at various battles fought against the Eritrean freedom fighters was that the tegadelti could manifest superhuman endurance if they wanted. I have seen many pictures of our freedom fighters pouring their sweat to preserve their blood-sturdy youth carrying heavy logs up along mountain chains under the hottest of weathers.
The enemy moved accompanied by tanks, Stalin organs, migs and bags of lies and propaganda.
The Kitaw was supposed to punish the freedom fighters for their insolence, the Nebelbal was supposed to consume with a blazing fire those who resisted; the Tewerwari was the panzer division or a deployment force. Alas, all disappeared in the hands of Sahel trained wonders, along with their bizarre names and funny ideas.
Resistance was the only Eritrean weapon that the enemy dreaded. What is the use of napalm and ten-barreled mortars if the one you are tackling knows how to resist. It is the resistance of the scorpion which, after an atomic blast in its surrounding, continues to crawl stinging right and left.
A lot has been said about the endurance and fortitude of the Eritrean army in front of a superior firepower and huge army, aided and supported first by the Russians then the Cubans and lastly by the Yemenis.
The enemy, coming from more verdant and guest-friendly terrain, thought it was fighting on two fronts: the people and the land.
The Ethiopian soldiers wore boots, ate canned food, had helicopters to take them to the nearest hospital or clinic when wounded, drank beer and had sweetheart (at the point of a gun) in every village or town under their control.
The freedom fighters wore thong sandals, ate weddiaker (sorghum mixed with weevils), mostly walked into the nearest FSU (Front Surgical Unit) on foot, drank contaminated water and eschewed all kinds of frivolities and easy life.
It was simply a bitter pill to swallow for the Derg soldiers that they would never henceforth defeat the Eritrean freedom forces. “What do they have that we don’t have?” shouted Mengistu. But nobody dared tell him that those boys and girls over there had endurance and fortitude in large quantity, something that he couldn’t obtain by traveling to the Soviet Union or East Germany.
Endurance, self-sacrifice and fortitude are commodities that are out of stock in this decadent world, but our tegadelti were made out of these traits. They proved it when they relentlessly defended Nakfa and Sahel. And in the battle to win Massawa, they redefined the art of war and made it their own creation, and when they strode with absolute confidence to the streets of Asmara to the ululation of their people, our tegadelti were finally home and our martyrs finally had a land to rest on.
In the process, what the enemy that fought us for thirty years didn’t know or want to know was that for every kill it made, a martyr was being created acting as leaven that helped thousands of potential candidates to pop up in the minds of the people. You see, the martyr doesn’t die; he lives to create more like him/her.