Finding meaning in life in the midst of conflict to build a future of peace in the Horn of Africa
Just about all of my close friends had left the country on an evacuation a couple of weeks before 23 May 2000. After carefully planning how we were going to celebrate the 9th anniversary of Independence, I found myself basically alone, not in the mood to celebrate Independence Day on Liberation Avenue, as thousands traditionally do on the eve of a day that symbolizes our very existence.
Two weeks before Independence Day, the American Embassy had called for an evacuation that included European nationals. The third offensive of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict had just started; Ethiopian troops had advanced into the country, taking control of some major towns within Eritrean borders. Some of my friends who were born and raised abroad just like I was were suppose to join me in military service. Not only did I see these friends off at the airport, I also saw off my two closest cousins and my youngest brother. In a few weeks time, I was due to start military service. Mandatory for all Eritrean nationals, including women, I had already anticipated that I would respect my call for duty upon completing high school; I just didn’t anticipate starting my military service when thousands of youth and students were going to war, preparing to join the front lines.
The advancement of thousands of Ethiopian troops within our borders came as a surprise; thousands of Eritreans were displaced from their homes immediately. University students were outraged by these developments, refusing to sit for their exams as thousands of their brothers and sisters were in the trenches defending their country’s sovereignty. All of a sudden, what was supposed to be routine military service for me had turned into a call of life and death, death meaning the loss of my country, which had gained its independence after 65,000 Eritrean youth gallantly died for freedom.
It’s important to understand the decades of struggle leading up to independence. Following World War II, the fate of Italy’s colonies fell into the hands of the allied forces. Libya and Somalia were able to receive their independence without any hassle. When it came to my country however, the situation was much different. What was once characterized by Mussolini as “the heart of the new Roman Empire”, Eritrea’s fate after the defeat of the Italian fascist was put into the hands of another imperialist force, the British Military Administration.
Strategically located on the Red Sea, the super powers of that time were not interested in what the Eritrean people wanted. Instead, they wanted to make sure that the right to self-determination and national independence were not granted. The General Assembly of the United Nations decided to tolerate a deal by the colonial powers at the expense of the Eritrean population in 1950, when the UN federated Eritrea to Ethiopia through Resolution 390(V), deeming it as “an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown.” In the coming years, Eritrea—a small, relatively advanced European colony—was fixed onto a far larger feudal kingdom ruled by an autocrat Emperor that had no intention of respecting the rights of Ethiopian nationals, let alone the rights of Eritrean nationals. A couple of years later, Emperor Haile Selassie dismantled the federation by completely annexing Eritrea as a province of Ethiopia.
Throughout the 1950s, Eritreans protested vigorously against this injustice but to no avail. Eritreans took to the streets, and in 1957, students mounted mass demonstrations against annexation; hundreds of students were imprisoned and/or executed. On September 1st, 1961 the armed liberation struggle was officially launched as Idris Hamid Awate with 10 other guerrillas fired the first shots on a police station in western Eritrea. This was the start of a 30 year bloody liberation struggle, the epitome of the Eritrean identity.
The Eritrean armed liberation struggle was not just characterized by armed guerilla warfare and the liberation of towns. It was a struggle characterized by unmatched resilience against both of the major superpowers of that time. Despite the enemy being armed to the teeth, first by the United States when Emperor Haile Selassie was in power, and then by the Soviet Union when Mengistu Haile Mariam came into power, they just couldn’t break the resilience of the Eritrean people who were outnumbered and with no major allies supporting their just cause.
Eritrea’s liberation struggle was also characterized as one of the most advanced social movements within a liberation struggle. Before gaining independence, Eritrea’s freedom fighters were also vigorously working on establishing a viable nation. Freedom fighters from 9 ethnic groups and two major religions put away their differences and unified not only to bring independence but to also build a society and national culture of equality and social justice. Youth from different class and educational backgrounds took their skills to the field, becoming teachers, foot doctors and administrators of positive social change. The rights of women were heavily advocated for, not just through campaigns but also through the active participation of women in all matters of the struggle. Gender discrimination and stereotyping was broken as women took up arms, books and medical bags to mobilize and treat a population heavily victimized by war, disease and famine. Through the active participation of women, youth, students, farmers, pastoralists and workers, the Eritrean people determined their fate towards equality, equity, social justice and national prosperity.
Front lines, trenches and the villages of innocent civilians were constantly carpet bombed. Displaced persons, drought, hunger, massacres and refugees leaving the country in droves to escape routine arrests and executions were commonplace. I, however, never witnessed these things with my own eyes. I was born in the Middle East and soon after, my mother took me and my siblings to the United States.
I was nine years old, living in California, when the news reached to my family that Eritrea’s freedom fighters were at the brink of liberating the whole country. It was then my mother started to say that we would soon be returning home. Within a year, 24 May 1991 to be exact, our prayers were answered and Eritrea was fully liberated. After conducting a referendum to let the people democratically decide whether they wanted independence or not, 99.8% voted ‘YES’ to independence. On 24 May 1993, Eritrea became officially independent and a member of the United Nations. From then until 1998, Eritrea’s economic growth rate was at a steady 7% as the people worked vigilantly to rebuild their country in new found peace. Unfortunately however, in 1998, the same year that my family moved back to Eritrea, a border conflict ignited between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Political analysts have come up with different reasons as to why this border conflict ignited, but one thing is absolutely certain to the Eritrean national: the border conflict was another attempt from Ethiopia to undermine Eritrea’s sovereignty as an independent state and nation.
The couple of days before I was to depart to military training, I woke up with a new revelation. My mother had asked me if I really wanted to go. I told her “Of course I want to go; it is my duty to go …my life is not worth more than my fellow comrades.” I was initially shocked with my answer, but my mother didn’t dare question the definite voice I had replied to her in. She never again questioned my wanting to go nor did she try to convince me not to. After returning from military service some 4 months later, my mother told me how her relatives and best friends kept on telling her that she was crazy for letting me go. She also told me that she didn’t have any regrets because she knew I was going to be all right.
The first day I arrived at the military training camp, I quickly contemplated the situation I was in. Due to my weak command of Tigrinya, my mother tongue, I couldn’t fully understand the instructions being given by the trainers, and it was so hot that I thought that my shidas—durable rubber sandals that were even worn by our liberation fighters—were going to melt to my feet. I had never been camping before, and all of a sudden I was to survive in the outback. I realized the very difficult situation I was in and immediately decided that I was going to make the absolute best out of the experience. To stress myself out would have been mental suicide; I instead decided to persevere with the support and company of my fellow comrades.
My life revelation came with the idea that I could easily meet death. Although my closest friends had evacuated, conveniently derailing their chances of seeing the battlefield, I found the meaning of my life when I joined thousands of youth and students who looked death in the eye, ready to take on the same path of our glorious martyrs who died so we would have a country to call our own. I don’t have any other citizenship besides being Eritrean; my friends who have dual citizenship were able to take advantage of the situation by flying to the convenience of the developed world. I, on the other hand, found meaning in the company of my fellow brothers and sisters from different parts of the country, of different ethnicities and of different religions. I learned that life entails hard work, endurance, and sacrifice for the right to live.
I never ended up participating in combat because the 3rd offensive didn’t last long enough for me to go to the trenches. The border conflict saw more than 90,000 deaths, nineteen thousand of which were Eritrean. A few months after I completed my military training and returned to the capital city of Asmara to join university, a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed. A couple of years after that, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission made the final and binding decision on the exact location of the common border, and until this day Ethiopia refuses to abide by the Algiers Peace Agreement. This has unfortunately caused the youth of Eritrea to be held hostage in a “no-war-no-peace” situation. The threat of war is constantly in the air, and relations between the countries are at their worst.
My life hasn’t built up towards a career in the military. On the contrary, my experience, toppled with the legacy of my forefathers and foremothers that I have vowed to live up to, has led me on a path of youth activism, active citizenship and peacebuilding. Especially in terms of peacebuilding, the challenges are overwhelming. The Horn of Africa is riddled with both inter and intra-state conflicts. Not many people understand the linkage between the conflicts of the Horn, or how all of the conflicts are not in isolation of each other. Even fewer people understand how, instead of being instigators of conflict, young people can play a leading role in establishing peace and sustainable development throughout the region.
Despite the huge dynamics that characterize the conflicts in the Horn of Africa, nationals of the Horn all want the same things: peace, security, social justice, democracy, educational opportunities, job opportunities, health services, equally and to not be treated as 2nd rate citizens. All of these basic rights are exactly what young people are fighting for, and hardly are their voices being heard.
Through my organization, the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, I have been able to organize and attend many forums that advocate for youth to discuss and plan out initiatives for peace, sustainable development, and active youth citizenship. After gaining much experience and developing its network throughout the region, my organization established a regional youth peace initiative, namely the Horn of Africa Youth Initiative (HAYI). Results haven’t been fully achieved. In fact, the challenges by far outweigh the achievements. Still, I know that it takes hard work, persistence and resilience in order to see anything come out of noble efforts. Peace and social justice will not be given to us on a silver platter; if future generations are to live in peace, it takes the active citizenship of the youth of today to work hard for it. Will I see peace in the Horn of Africa during my life time? I really don’t know. Either way, I think I’m going to be all right.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.