Dr. Fikak Habtes is originally from Gheleb, an area known for its cultural and religious richness. He survived the Ona Massacre perpetrated by the Ethiopian army and is now living in Springfield, Illinois, USA. Highly esteemed in his American community, Dr. Fikak is strongly connected to his Eritrean heritage. Because of his affection for Eritrea he has now come home, alongside his colleagues, to deliver a sincere gift, a parcel of monetary assistance and plenty of affection from Eritreans in the USA to disadvantaged members of the Eritrean Community. His life and achievements are an inspiration to many young Eritreans in diaspora and, today, Dr. Fikak Habtes talks to Q&A.
- Thank you for your time Dr. Habtes.
Hello, I am Dr. Fikak Habtes. I came from Springfield, Illinois. I was a professor at the University of Illinois for a while and then I was appointed at a senior position in the health assessment screen by the Governor. I was also an Executive Vice President of the University and a member of the Illinois Department of Transpiration. But I am most proud to have been part of the Eritrean Relief Association and to now be President of the Eritrean Development Foundation. I am also a member of the EPLF Higdef Vision Pal talk Room, a humanitarian group of Eritreans who don’t know one another but work together for national causes.
- You say that despite all that you’ve done throughout your life you are most proud of being involved in activities related to Eritrea. Why is that and when did you start being so involved?
I started getting involved when I was young. In 1965, when I was twelve years old, a group of freedom fighters, including some of the seniors, came by our village and I remember how I then swore to assist the liberation movement. I took part in the ‘Hafash Wudubat’ clandestine groups and after Independence I have been involved in different activities. I have lived in the USA for more than 40 years but I never felt detached from my country and my people. The sovereignty of Eritrea is something that has been engraved in me since I was a kid. And it will be the same until I die.
- Can you tell us about the EPLF HIGDEF VISION?
Chat rooms are mostly frequented by lonely people. But we Eritrean members of the group changed it to a discussion platform. It is not just us; there are many more Eritreans who have turned such platforms to do similar activities. The EPLF HIGDEF VISION is a pal-talk platform where several issues regarding the Eritrean Community both inside and outside Eritrea are discussed. One of the things we are all devoted to is helping our community in ways we can. We suggest projects and extend opinions and raise funds to help disadvantaged people that need assistance. We don’t know one another as every user is registered under a nickname, but we pitch in some money, raise funds and send the sum to Eritrea where it is given to those who need it most.
- How do you make sure that the collected sum is delivered to beneficiaries?
We don’t know. We simply trust. When anyone of the group shares an idea of helping someone we all pitch in some and when the money is finally collected one or two of us come to Eritrea and deliver the collected sum to its destination. A lot of times we deliver them directly to the people who need help. For example, recently we saw on TV a story of a woman who raised four daughters with genealogical problems. They are grown women but they are incapable to move. The group then came together, raised some funds for the Eritrean mother and delivered it directly to her.
- And how do you feel?
It feels great to be part of a group that has the same vision and to eventually make a difference. For many Eritreans, including me, it is not about self-satisfaction but a shared responsibility that we carry as children of this land even if we live abroad. War did nobody any good. People were exiled, others left their houses to fight and free their country, many lost their lives and many got disabled. So even though it is not the greatest sum, those who are capable should make a difference for those who sacrificed so much for us to have a better place. Our group has carried out projects to assist war disabled and other disadvantaged civilians. It is not a choice we can contemplate upon. The least we can do for our disabled is to think of ways of improving their livelihood. And again it is not much; it is the least of what we can do.
- When you deliver the contribution, either in cash or kind, do you directly deliver it to the beneficiary?
Directly; there are no sideways as to how we extend our help.
Your pal-talk activities are mostly philanthropic but what about the other groups you are part of? After Independence the new version of ERC became the Eritrean Development Foundation. What does this foundation do?
Generally, we carry out different kinds of projects. We incline towards what needs to be done and what we can do as a community in the diaspora. We have a structure through which we connect to several offices and organizations in the country and see ways of support. We support the National Development Plan. For example, we worked with the National Union of Eritrean Women and other local units.
- Do you have a salary?
We don’t. I have been involved all my life and never got a penny. Likewise, all of the nationals involved don’t have any profit. We do this after work hours. Being together with fellow Eritreans and talking about the nation and what we can do to feel part of our people becomes, in time, a cherished duty.
- Do you involve younger generations?
We try to involve as many as we can. It is easier to involve your kids when they are still young because when they grow up the weight of life hits them. My daughter, Besserat, for instance, was deeply involved with several activities linking her to the homeland but now she has to also focus on her life and her profession; so she is not as involved as she used to. However, I would like to commend young Eritreans in the diaspora. They are Eritreans at home and Americans outside home, whether it is school or work. In the process it would be only natural for them to experience some crisis of identity but they always hold strongly onto their roots and that definitely makes me proud. Many might not be as involved in many activities as we, the previous generations, are but they undeniably feel the connection to Eritrea. Parents do make sure that their children know about what Eritreans went through and what sacrifices were made and are being made for the sovereignty of our country.
- Can you tell us about your personal experience as a survivor of the Ona massacre?
I think it will be easier if I make my experience as a kid a point of reference. All Eritreans will know what I mean because we all share that background. I have a bad memory that haunts me to this day. I remember how, when I was a kid, shepherds in our village put what their dogs hunted over fire and give it to their dogs. The smell of fried skin would emit some sort of burned odor that I vividly remember. I am a survivor of the Ona massacre; one of the few actually. In December 1970, Ethiopian soldiers came and burned many of its inhabitants. Burned humans smelled like what the shepherds fried for their hunter dogs. I still smell it. And it terrifies me.
After days of fire I got up and walked through burned corpses until I found one woman holding a beautiful young girl. I still remember this girl. She had what seemed to me like a smile and her eyes didn’t move at all. She had a colorful traditional scarf over her. I saw her and I thought ‘How dare she smile?’ I approached that woman who was sitting and holding her on her side and screamed “Does this look like a joke to you?” The woman replied: “She is among the dead, son.” I remember running away aimlessly, and to this day my soul shakes at the thought of not being able to apologize to that woman for screaming at her dead daughter.
These memories haunt me even today. Many Eritreans have freighting experiences just like me. We saw our loved ones being burned, killed and hanged in front of us. The fear and atrocity inflicted on my people and the injustice we were made victims of is massive.
This people are the strongest and most resilient I have ever known. We are so hopeful and we trust each other. We rely on each other no matter our differences and we all, young or old, believe that after all of these years and all of these sacrifices, home will one day be the greatest place on earth!
- Thank you Dr. Habtes.
Thank you, many greetings and much love to all Eritreans!