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Hamed Idris Awate 1915-1962 – Biography of a Hero

It is hard to find a biography on an Eritrean in Tigrigna or most other Eritrean languages. There are some reasons why this is so. Tigrigna was used as a medium of instruction in Eritrean schools in the 1940’s. On a small scale, it was used for the same purpose when the Swedish Missionary Society decided to use local languages in the schools it opened in the Eritrean highlands in the late 19th century. In the 1920’s, the same society started publishing a religious magazine, Melekti Selam. Similarly, the Italians used Tigrigna when they published a leaflet named Nay Elet Were (Daily News). Other than these attempts, Tigrigna was not used for mass communication, or for classroom instruction, on a wide scale until the 1940s.

In 1942, the British Military Administration in Eritrea began publishing Nay Ertra Semunawi Gazeta, the Tigrigna weekly, whose editor was Woldeab Woldemariam. Tigrigna continued to be used as the language of instruction in primary schools until Ethiopia banned Tigrigna and Arabic from Eritrean schools, with Amharic taking their place. Through this measure, Eritreans’ rights to use their language as a means of instruction (guaranteed by the Constitution of 1950) were violated. Tigrigna and Arabic, however, continued to be used as languages of communication for some years, while flourishing Tigrigna literature retreated and readership was rolled back. Hence, the few books in Tigrigna on any literary genre, not only biography.

Mr. Haileselassie Woldu, the author of Hamed Idris Awate 1915-1962, written in Tigrigna, has taken the initiative and provided a biography of Hamed Idris Awate. Hopefully, it will inspire Eritrean writers to follow suit and tell the important stories of other notable Eritreans.

Until the publication of Hamed Idris Awate 1915-1962, the only biography I could find in Tigrigna was a book about an Eritrean educator: Haxir Zanta Hiywet Memhir Yishaq Teweldemedhin: Qalsi Anxar Dinqurna (A Short Biography of Memhir Yishaq Teweldemedhin: War on Illiteracy) by Memhir Yishaq Yosief. It is the only biography I know written in Tigrigna.

Dr. Abraham Negash, in The Origin and Development of Tigrinya Language Publications (1886 – 1991) Volume One, lists and categorizes books written in Tigrigna between 1886 and 1991. He classifies the books under the following sections: religion, health, law, education, language, social issues, biography, technology, history and geography, economics, and philosophy. Under biography, he has 11 books, of which 10 are of Italian priests or religious figures linked with the Catholic Church. The only biography on an Eritrean is the one by Memhir Yishaq Yosief published in 1986. According to Dr. Ghirmai Negash, an Eritrean scholar who has researched and written about Tigrigna literature, the book by Memhir Yishaq Yosief led to much trouble for the author during the time of the Dergue since there was no freedom of expression. The fear of persecution, thus, could be another reason why people did not write books in Tigrigna during Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea.

One of the first things to notice about Hamed Idris Awate 1915- 1962 is that it has taken long to compile. Mr. Haileselassie Woldu began researching Awate’s story in 1983, when the author was a reporter for Dimxi Hafash Ertra (the Voice of the Eritrean Masses), the EPLF’s radio station during the armed struggle. His research has taken him to Washington, DC, many places in Sudan, and numerous locations across Eritrea. He visited the places where Hamid engaged police squads sent to hunt down and arrest him, and also interviewed the people who knew Hamid intimately, including some of his comrades and fellow fighters, who provided valuable insights and helped make the book informative.

The author also interviewed important historical figures from Eritrea, including leaders, activists, and politicians, such as Woldeab Woldemariam, Sheik Ibrahim Sultan, and others. Although the research could have been more extensive than the books mentioned in the bibliography, the author tried his best to make use of the books written by Eritrean and British authors. Moreover, his bibliography lists magazines, newspapers, police report, letters, and Government of Eritrea minutes. A report on Hamid’s surrender to British authorities is even attached in the appendix.

The book has 12 chapters, and can be divided into two parts. Chapters 1 to 6 deal with Awate’s life story, from his birth in 1915 until his surrender to the British Commander of Police in Eritrea, Colonel Cracknel in 1951. The second part deals with Hamed’s life during the federation of Eritrea and Ethiopia and his martyrdom at 47 in 1962.

In the first six chapters, based on interviews, Mr. Haileselassie Woldu details Hamed’s life until he was 36. Probably because his informants lacked information about Hamed’s childhood, the book has no information about this period in his life. After a few pages discussing Hamed’s father, Idris Awate, the book describes Hamed’s life as a young man and his skills as a sharp shooter. It then describes his time as an Ascari in Ethiopia in the mid- 1930s, followed by his life as a “shifta”, and then his surrender to Colonel Cracknel in 1951.

The first part of the book relies heavily on interviews and various available documents. Since interviews were made with people who knew Hamed closely, they provide information which could not have been obtained from other sources. For this reason, one feels that the interviews form the backbone of the book, especially the first part of the book. Without the interviews, there could be no account of Hamid’s life.

However, the author could have made better use of available documents or sources. For example, chapter 2 would have benefitted from Italian sources on the invasion of Ethiopia, in which Hamed was personally involved. The author also could have used Semunawi Gazeta articles in his discussion of shifta activities. Further, he could have turned to several other books about Eritrea in the 1940s, written by Eritrean and other authors, which would have strengthened chapters 3 and 4.

The second part is much better in its use of sources other than the interviews. In it, the author uses several different kinds of documents, including Hamed’s letter to the authorities in Asmara (in Italian). However, even in this section, interviews are vital as they portray Hamed in different roles, providing a comprehensive picture of the man, including his thoughts, beliefs, methods, weaknesses, and strengths. One of the author’s strengths is his detailed account of Hamed Idris Awate, including information that many people would find hard to believe. Mr. Haileselassie does not attempt to hide or manipulate facts.

Several points make the book an excellent biography. First, it is very informative. Little has been published about Hamed Idris Awate prior to the publication of the book. We see Hamed the man, the fighter, and the leader, including his weaknesses. In some cases, Mr. Haileselassie provides information about Hamed that helps us see him in a different, even potentially negative, light. Such information shows that heroes are often not very different from common people, yet they rise to meet the challenges that face a nation or society. Also, the interviews, documents, and police records allow us to see the man in his totality.

Second, Mr. Haileselassie interviewed not only Hamed’s comrades, but also his former adversaries and enemies, including those who wanted to see him dead. This provides another important perspective and provides a fuller account of the man and his story. From the interviews, one notices that, after many years, his Eritrean adversaries had a change of mind and came to see him as a freedom fighter. They were brought to Hamed’s side and embraced him as a hero, not as a shifta, reflecting the triumph of his vision.

Third, and most important, the book shows Hamed as broad-minded nationalist, who fought for Eritrea’s independence, someone who shared the broad-mindedness of Woldeab Woldeariam, Sheik Ibrahim Sultan, and other Eritrean leaders, who shunned religious divisions and tried to bring all Eritreans, irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background, under the same vision of independence.

Quite simply, the book is impressive, and the author should be congratulated for writing such an excellent book. However, I believe a few things should have been considered. First, the book uses some words which may confuse readers. As just one example, Mr. Haileselassie uses wetehaderat (soldiers), several times in the book which implies the involvement of the Ethiopian army in the attempt to crush the revolution. However, each time the context is closely read the word refers to Eritrean police. I think this should have been thought out and corrected before the publication of the book.

Second, the author should have taken his audience into account. He repeatedly uses some unfamiliar military words (or Tigre or Arabic phrases or expressions). The author should have explained these (e.g. in footnotes or endnotes) as he sometimes did when his sources use such unfamiliar words. In addition, he should have avoided using such words, phrases or expressions himself in his book.

If anyone wants to understand how the armed struggle began and know the people behind the initiative, Hamed Idris Awate 1915-1962 is the best place to start. People will enjoy it immensely and get vital insight into a key period of Eritrea’s history.

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