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Portraying Eritrea’s Brutal Past Through Art

By :- Mussie Efriem

Eritrea commemorates its fallen heroes on June 20th, Martyrs’ Day, a day dedicated to Eritrea’s heroes who gave their lives in the war for independence. The day is a reminder of the brutal realities the Eritrean people endured. We assemble with our loved ones in public places late at night, confident that we will return home safely. The comfort of our homes, the joy of reuniting with loved ones after a long day – these are all freedoms secured by the selfless actions of our martyrs.

On Martyrs’ Day, parents and grandparents tell their children and grandchildren stories, sharing their experiences as freedom fighters. They take them to the streets holding candles and tell them the history of our dauntless heroes. Veteran fighters take center stage at various events, their voices resonating with the triumphs and challenges of the struggle. Their firsthand accounts breathe life into history, ensuring the weight of their comrades’ sacrifice is never forgotten.

The spirit of Martyrs’ Day permeates the media. Songs imbued with the sorrow and the fire of national pride, fill the airwaves. Poems, penned with both grief and gratitude, grace the memorial parade. These artistic expressions ensure the stories of the martyrs find a voice that resonates with all. As night falls, a poignant ritual unfolds across Eritrea. Homes and streets flicker with the warm glow of candlelight. These flickering flames are more than just a symbol of remembrance; they represent the unwavering spirit of a nation that cherishes its heroes. Through these powerful traditions, Martyrs’ Day transcends a single date. It becomes a living testament to the enduring power of sacrifice and a reminder of the heroes who paved the way for a brighter future.

Eritrea’s Martyrs’ Day commemorates not only the sacrifices made on the battlefield but also the innocent lives lost in the struggle for liberation, civilian fathers and mothers, sons and daughters who never returned home. The cost was high, and countless Eritrean families have been forever changed by their sacrifice. The generations in the Ethiopian colonization era remember the dark days under the successive Haileselassie and Derg regimes. Eritrean towns and villages became grim scenes of mass shootings and civilian massacres, acts of brutal revenge for losses on the battlefield. The weight of this history is heavy, a stark reminder of the tyranny we fought so valiantly to overcome. The weight of history presses heavily on this day, forcing us to remember not just the glorious victories but also the senseless atrocities committed against our people.

One such atrocity that is forever etched in the memory of Asmara is the killing of innocent football fans in the 1980s. In a horrific incident near Kidane Mihret, at the heart of Asmara, a group of young people who gathered to watch a football match on television were gunned down in cold blood. This act of brutality shattered not just the lives of those directly affected, but also the spirit of a city yearning for normalcy. The daily civilian mass shootings that occurred in the majority of Eritrean towns and villages was one of the enemy’s brutal reactions to the Eritrean people. In Ona, a village two km from Keren, and surrounding villages, Ethiopian soldiers massacred the inhabitants, looted their properties and burned their houses in retaliation of the killing of Major General Teshome Ergetu, commander of the second division that was stationed in Eritrea. On that dreadful Tuesday morning, no one was spared. Human beings and animals were targeted. Families burned in flames in their homes. Ona turned into a hell on earth. The blood of the defenseless civilians covered the ground and the sky turned dark with smoke. More than 800 people died, including pregnant women, children and the elderly.

Besikdra, located 20 kilometers north-east of Keren, was also among the villages that experienced mass killing. In that village the army opened fire at the people in the village mosque and killed 120 people. The people fled their homes and went to the mosque to seek refuge who had sought sanctuary in what because they thought it was the safest place. Overall, 220 Eritreans of all ages were killed in the village. A lot of similar stories took place in Keren, Geleb and Shieb. The story of Rora biet Gebru in Keren, which the enemies burnt, and on another day killed 45 people who were accused of having a hand in helping the EPLF. In Geleb, the enemy hung 26 men and burned women alive. On 12 May 1988, She’eb witnessed a brutal killing of its inhabitants; Over 80 innocent civilians, including women and children, were run down by tanks. Their bodies couldn’t even be buried. There was no way out of the situation, and no one could escape from the shelling of fires targeting innocent civilians. A number of people were shot while trying to escape the bloody scene. As a result, 400 civilians were massacred by Ethiopian soldiers. There is hardly any place in Eritrea that hasn’t witnessed the bloodshed of its innocent people. People were hoarded into churches and mosques and killed there. Sometimes people were burnt alive in their homes and places of worship.

In Gash Barka, the scars of the Dergue’s brutality are visible. Agordat’s “Black Sunday” and the Omhajer massacres stand as grim reminders of the regime’s callous disregard for innocent life. Southern Red Sea wasn’t spared either. The Derg’s reign of terror extended to Assab and other towns, leaving a trail of suffering in its wake. The horrors of Haile Selassie regime also cast a long shadow. The Hazemo massacre in Southern region during the 1970s stands as a chilling testament to the emperor’s ruthlessness. The sheer scale of devastation is almost incomprehensible. Over 170 villages were utterly destroyed during the combined reigns of Haile Selassie and Mengistu. These weren’t just statistics; they were communities ripped apart, families devastated, and dreams extinguished. Every village and every life lost are the sacrifice made to liberate Eritrea and defend its sovereignty.

Ghidey Ghebremichael, an artist, has been studying the atrocities committed by colonial powers and has continued to present them through sculptures in order to bring to light the pitiless deeds perpetrated against innocent Eritreans. Mr. Ghidey is one of the most dedicated citizens who annually commemorate Martyrs’ Day by displaying various artistic works on Asmara’s main street, Harenet Avenue, in front of the Ministry of Education. For the past 23 years, Mr. Gidey has been showing pieces depicting the horrible mass killings and agonies caused by colonizers.

This year’s exhibition differed slightly from the previous one. Mr. Gidey, through months of meticulous research, crafted a documentary that delves into the stories of individuals brutally killed during Eritrea’s struggle for independence. His research relied heavily on police documents at that time. The documentary isn’t easy to watch because it is filled with accounts of unimaginable brutality. However, Mr. Gidey believes it’s crucial for the younger generation to understand the sacrifices made for Eritrea’s self-determination and the value of their hard-won freedom. It’s an essential part of Eritrea’s history. Sharing this narrative with the world honors the immense sacrifices paid by the Eritrean people in their fight for independence. Mr. Gdey says: “We must never forget the years of fear and oppression as well as the constant threat of violence that haunted our daily existence.” As a survivor who escaped death, Mr. Gidey witnessed this.

Mr. Gdey describes Martyrs’ Day as a powerful wake-up call that reminds us of the invaluable treasures that our heroes have given us. Because of their sacrifice, we can walk down the street without fear of bombs dropping from the sky. We may breathe freely, without fear of arrest or worse. He adds that the history he witnessed stimulates a burning desire within him to ensure that the younger generation and the rest of the world are aware of Eritrea’s history of resistance. June 20 serves as a powerful motivator for each and every Eritrean to assume responsibility. We must build a nation that honors our heroes’ sacrifice, a nation that thrives in peace and security. With every flickering candle on Martyrs’ Day, we rekindle not only the memory of our fallen heroes, but also the unwavering resolve to protect their legacy.

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