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Eritrean ‘Manjus’-Lioness of the Jungle

By Bethlehem Teame

The girl keeps checking her wristwatch now and then. Maybe it is something she ate at lunch, but unusually her stomach is not at ease. There was this unidentified frightening vibe hovering over her and she felt it in her stomach. She is not one who believes in superstition but something is definitely not right today. She checked her watch again. Only a few minutes were left until the last class was done.

Something inside her was bugging her to hurry home, making her restless and unable to focus on what the teacher was saying.

The uneasiness was intensifying by the minute. The bell rang, officially ending the school activities for the day. As she made her way back home, with quick and abrupt steps, the unease and dreadful feeling remained with her. One corner to her house and her fear was confirmed; neighbors were running about hither and thither, women wailing, children crying and youngsters running around with their faces reflecting pent-up anger.

She knew it right there and then. Something was wrong. Fear seized her whole body, her heart was racing, and her knees were weak. Everything she saw was wobbling and nothing was firm anymore. For a moment, she thought she was dissolving into something and that something was swallowing her, she tried to open her eyes and stay on her feet but her eyes seemed to close on their own accord.

That’s when strong hands seized her and held her firm. She opened her eyes. It took her a while to remember where she was, lying in her parent’s bedroom. The comforting scent of her mother’s perfume still lingered but her mother wasn’t there, someone else was fanning a cold breeze for her.

She tried to get up but was encouraged to stay lying down. She recognized the voice of her best friend’s elder brother. But she couldn’t stay still, because that sinking feeling she had earlier was still bugging her. Something strange was happening, something unpleasant. Women were still wailing and children crying and shrieking in fear, men from the neighborhood were swearing in anger. She jumped out of bed and ran out of the house before anyone could stop her.

People gathered in the verandah; she pushed the crowd aside and saw what they were watching sadly. There lay the bodies of her mother and her brothers. All were bloody and cold, and very much dead. She blinked thinking she was hallucinating but this was no hallucination.

She shook her head in denial, unable to accept what she was seeing. She closed her eyes hoping it was a bad dream, a nightmare that she would wake from. She opened her eyes again and saw her mother’s protective hands in their attempt to protect her youngest son until the last minute. They were both shot in the heart. Her mother tried to protect her son. Even in death she had tried to keep him safe.

Her older brother was shot in the head, blood covering his handsome face. She darted her eyes sideways and saw the message, the message the soldiers of the Derg left behind, “this is the fate of everyone who plots against the motherland, Ethiopia.”

“No, no this is not happening. This is a dream and I have to wake up now,” she said to herself. She fell unconscious again. When she awoke, she was numb and tears streamed down her cheeks. Her eyes were open but she didn’t see anything or anyone around her except that awful sight she saw earlier.

People were gathering around her and they all were saying something to her but she didn’t hear anything. All she could hear was her mother bidding her a good day when she was leaving for school earlier that day and her brothers’ mischievous laughter.

Pain and misery flooded her and all she wanted was to die next to her family. She has no one to turn to, her father joined the armed struggle two years ago and they get some cryptic messages about his wellbeing rarely. Her whole family was massacred because of a crime they didn’t commit, just because their father believed in a great cause and fought for it. Bitter tears filled her eyes and anger consumed her deep down.

Somebody handed her a glass of water. She shook her head in objection. “You need to gather yourself together and be strong” shouted a woman nearby. The woman forced some water into her mouth and brought a tray of food to her. The woman tried to spoon-feed her but she was not willing to open her mouth. She has no energy or will to breathe, let alone eat. She wanted to cry until she cried herself to death. Then she could join her family. She ran inside to her room where she used to share with her brother, she found his pajamas carelessly folded on his bed. She held them so tight, remembering his life. She rocked from side to side crying out loud. “Were you scared little bro? Did you cry in pain? Did it happen quick?” she asked her brother in anguish picturing the whole thing and how her little brother must have acted. “Take me with you, I want to die too” she wailed in distress. Someone entered the room but she didn’t bother to see who it was, the same hands that supported her earlier tried to calm her again. But she was beyond consolation and she was crying a river. “Let me die, I want to die” she started to sob. But he spoke to her harshly, “Live, live and show your enemies what your anger can do, live and avenge your family’s death. Live and show your enemies what their fate would be for conquering our land and murdering us at whim.” Live!” he shouted.

Strange enough it made sense. What he said made sense and it carried deep meaning. She looked at him square in the eye as the realization and the weight of his words sank deep.

Of course she should live; live to see the monsters who murdered her whole family and many innocent people vanish from her country. Live to see her country liberated and free. She should live to help liberate Eritrea, and ensure families could gather up around a dining table and share a meal freely and happily. The girl knew that anything worth having is worth fighting for. She knew she shouldn’t just sit down and wait for others to do the job. She had to contribute her share in making this dream a reality. She wanted to show those barbarians who massacred her family what a determined Eritrean would do.

Just like that she was appeased and gained her strength back. Parallel to her studies she learned how to act and speak like the villagers from her father’s home village because she had to pass the checkpoints of the Derg officers without attracting their attention. In the evenings, her best friend’s brother briefed her on the history and mission of the EPLF. He was a member of the clandestine fighters that helped in disseminating important information to and from the liberation fighters. He created awareness among the masses and cultivated support for the armed struggle, recruiting new members and helping them move out into the field. As she came to know later, he was the link man. But nobody suspected him. In fact, he had the aura of a person who was aloof and naïve.

The fight for independence gave her a new hope in life and a reason to live. The man told her to stay in Asmara and fight through underground activities but she won’t listen to it. She wants to raise a weapon, a gun against those who tortured and massacred her people, those who invaded her country and abused everyone. The girl went to the countryside, to the place where her father was born, masquerading as a resident who was returning to her home after visiting relatives in Asmara.

She was only seventeen but shouldered a big responsibility. Leaving the playful days of her youth behind she embarked on a tough journey that demanded her life. Determined as she was, she tried her best to pass the checkpoints without blowing her cover. The road was bumpy, full of ups and downs, the journey was very long and exhausting, the temperature was hot and merciless but she endured it all, thinking it was a small sacrifice to her eternal mission. She didn’t complain as most her age would, leaving comforts behind, the adventures of her youthful years not as important. She knew deep down that all the sacrifices would help guarantee freedom for future generations. Families would not be separated, tortured and massacred when independence was won and this motivated her, helped her to oversee the discomforts of the road or what awaited ahead. After a long and tedious journey, the girl reached her destination. She sigh with relief. Although she wouldn’t admit it she was scared every time the bus stopped at the checkpoints.

Now that she reached her father’s hometown she relaxed a bit and stretched. She asked one of the villagers standing by for directions to her grandparents and the woman offered to take her there herself.
Upon reaching the house of her grandparents whom she had only met a few times she couldn’t control the pent-up emotions buried inside. She was crying as she announced her arrival to her surprised grandparents and their neighbors. She couldn’t control her emotions.

Her grandparents and everyone else rushed to welcome her but they also knew she was the bearer of bad news. The death of her family and the cruelty of their death was a shock to her old grandparents but they couldn’t even cry and mourn the death of their beloved ones properly, afraid it might be interpreted otherwise by the officials of the Derg and their spies. Village life seemed much more terrible than city life, everything was done in fear and seemed to rule firmly. But despite this numbing feeling of fear the people were courageous and contributed their best to the fight for independence this way or the other.

Preparations for her departure were made in secret; she was to leave the village at nightfall with two other youngsters from the village whose house had been set on fire by the soldiers of the Derg, accused of supporting the ‘wonbedie’ – the rebels. Her grandmother didn’t shed any tears as she did her farewell, but instead encouraged and motivated her. ‘Only if I could be young like you, I would fight and eliminate these barbarians out of my land.’

‘Avenge your family’s death’ she whispered to her fighting the tears that threatened to spill out of her eyes. Saying farewell to her remaining family was the hardest thing to do. The prospect that she might not see them ever again made the parting unbearable.

Her grandfather was an old frail man but that moment he sounded like a boy in his twenties as he tried to pass on some techniques he knew on how to handle a gun. Using his cane to demonstrate, he gave her some techniques hoping she would make a great warrior. They showered her with a rain of blessings, beseeching the heavens to always keep an eye on her.

Through shortcuts and secret paths the girl reached her destination, a destination where she could start her life afresh. For the first time in six months she breathed a sigh of relief in the liberated lands of her country. Sitting on a big rock she stared ahead at the vast land stretched ahead of her, the beautiful land and its friendly peace-loving people. She asked out loud to the vast land ahead of her, ‘Do you know how many people have died for you and how much blood has been shed for you? How mothers are tortured and abused while their children are killed in front of their eyes? Do you realize the sacrifice that has been made for you? The precious lives you have demanded? Just for you!’

“Manjus!” somebody from her unit called out for her. Manjus, meaning “kiddo”, came to be her nickname among her comrades. She was the youngest in her unit and despite their effort to assign her in a relatively safer place other than the battlefield their effort was to no avail. She wanted to fight and nothing else, absolutely nothing would stop her. Her determination was reflected in everything and anything she did, and her ultimate determination was to fight to liberate her country. Her determination cost her so many punishments but finally they all gave in to her request to join in the fight and that made her the youngest member of her unit and she was christened ‘Manjus’. Life as a ‘Manjus’ was tough but as the youngest one she was a bit spoiled and she met a lot of brothers and sisters in the absence of her family. The sound of her rich and deep laughter that eluded her for a long time was now her special signature. Her loud hoot of laughter was so contagious it spread quickly like a rapid fire, any comrade within a radius of her presence and laughter had to laugh without even knowing what she was laughing about. Slowly, with the passage of time her deep wounds started to heal although they left hideous scars behind. Every now and then she would remember that hateful day when she came running from school only to see her whole family murdered in cold blood for no crime at all other than being born Eritreans.

She remembered how her family didn’t get a proper burial and mourning, she missed her little brother and her mother’s warm, loving embrace, her older brother’s protectiveness. She might be called a ‘Manjhus’ but when it came to the battlefield she was a lioness of the jungle. She ran, jumped, fought and roared like a lioness. In battlefield she was fearless and fearsome and never wavered in the face of danger. She charged forward with determination and purpose, for the same purpose her father left home leaving his family unprotected, the same purpose her mother and brothers shed their blood, the same purpose she left home and her grandparents, the same purpose her comrades were paying their lives and their blood, for the same reason limbs and eyes were being paid, yeah for the same purpose of liberating Eritrea and make it an independent nation.

Manjus was no superwoman, she was all flesh and blood, and she hurt, cried and agonized. She was shot two times but this didn’t sag her sprit or falter her steps but motivated her even more. Every time she was hospitalized she heard that first sound that opened her eyes and gave her a purpose in life, “Live, live and show your enemies what your anger can do, live and avenge your family’s death. Live and show your enemies what their fate would be for conquering our land and murdering us at whim.”

“Live!” And this would fill her with brand new energy and determination. She was ready to pay her youth, parts of her body, blood and her own life to secure liberation and freedom so that no other person would come from school to see his/her parents killed with the enemy bullets, no family would have to be separated, no one would be tortured, imprisoned and killed.

Manjus dreamt of meeting her father and a life of happiness and peace with him but she didn’t raise her hopes up either. Manjus knew how unpredictable life was, especially in the fields, life was never sure here, this moment one might be alive and the next he/she was a martyr, a hero and a heroine who paid their dear life for a great cause. But she never stopped praying for the heaven to keep an eye over her father. She wanted to see his face at least once. One sweet day her prayers were answered. She met her father. Manjus met her father and her best friend’s brother who told her to ‘live’ in the liberated areas of Eritrea, both fighting for what they believed in. Her father changed a lot and he seemed to have aged greatly when compared to the loving and caring father in her memory, but again a lot had happened since they saw each other. She had longed for this day next to Eritrea’s liberation from the yoke of colonization. Father and daughter cried in each other’s arms, they cried in sorrow, they cried in happiness and they cried in determination and promise.

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