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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

From University to a Battle in Sahel – An Autobiography of an Ethiopian as a Fighter in the Eritrean Struggle

A Book Review 

In 2018, Abiyu Birile (widely known by his nickname “Gera”) published an interesting 590  pages long autobiographical book titled: “በሀገር ፍቅር ጉዞ” – loosely translated as “A Journey  in Patriotism”, which have caused many surprises among its readers. Some of the reasons for the

fervor among its readers, based on the few feedback attached to the book, is the fact that the author, who is an Ethiopian, has taken part in the revolutionary struggle in Eritrea, which most in  Ethiopia incorrectly thought or percept it as if it was an uprising against Ethiopians. Ironic as this might seem, for many Eritreans who are familiar with the 1961-91 chronology of the long war between the past  Ethiopian regimes and the Eritrean revolutionist movements for independence, it is just all too common for many Ethiopians, including POWs, to join the Eritrean struggle after being convinced of its just cause  

Providing a long and descriptive interview with an Ethiopian media outlet, the author of this book has once disclosed that he would want to visit Eritrea and meet some of his former  comrades and brothers in arms, including the current president of the country, Isaias Afwerki. As it is  shown in the picture above, it seems that the author finally did just that after 47 long years, meeting his past comrades, and a review about his marvelous book seems almost the right time  to couple this historical event

 

Reading this book one can easily spot how honest the author is, genuinely narrating all the good,  the bad and the ugly conditions of that era. He did not withhold information to paint a flowery  picture. He even confidently tells his personal stories of fear, weaknesses, and mishaps during  his childhood and in his adult life. This honesty of the author might stem from his background of being brought-up in the Ethiopian countryside, and is the element that beautifies his writing. A frankness that is unusual in our region, mainly among contemporary Ethiopian writers, who paint an incorrect picture of the Eritrean revolutionary history or present a distorted and twisted narration of it 

A university student in Ethiopia turned fugitive and prisoner in Somalia, the author later landed in the deserts of Eritrea, where the genesis of the EPLF’s revolutionary struggle was incubated by extraordinary minds and souls who have postponed their education for higher purposes. During his stay at the epic center of the Eritrean struggle, the author also met others Ethiopian fighters who have prominence in the history of Ethiopian history, such as: 

Roba, Gashaw, Eskender, Roble, Wubshet, Retta, Abebe, Teferi, Tsehaye, Jigsa, Haile and  Berhane-Meskel.  

While Gera touches upon important milestones in the history of Eritrea and Ethiopia, his story in this book starts with his humble and colorful description of his birth and upbringing in the then small village called Gish Abay, in the province of Gojam, Ethiopia. He describes this place to be very green, has an abundance of underground water, and he considers it to be the source of the 

Blue Nile. He grew up there with his mother and father, who he mentions repeatedly throughout his book for the love and encouragement they have nurtured in his upbringing. He attended school first in his village Gish Abay, then in Finote Selam and later in Debre Markos, all in the province of Gojam, and he became the only one in the province to make it to a University after  scoring high in his 12th grade matriculation.  

Despite the greenery, big rivers, resourcefulness and rich environment of his village he grew up with a typical poverty of the countryside; he blames the mismanagement of the local administration for the poor living condition of his countrymen. The province is known for popular uprisings in the past, starting from Damot and Bichena, mainly due to the  mismanagements and unfair taxations, in addition to the population being hostile to the then monarchy of the country that has killed its heroic leader, Belai Zeleke  

Such an uprising that he closely witnessed took place in a village called Quarit when the people  dismissed the administrator and local leaders, and elected from its own to lead its uprising.  According to the author, the uprising was contained by the bombardment of the village by the Air Force of Emperor Haile Selassie, which the author also blames for igniting the war in Eritrea by dissolving the Federation and annexing the latter into Ethiopia. It takes a higher level of courage and honesty for an Ethiopian writer to criticize his/her own former leader for causing the  bloody and long war in Eritrea  

His University experience in Addis Ababa was full of realization of the general condition of his  country. He took part in the student movement against oppression, and he decided to quit his third year education, despite his high grades, and escape from the country to Somali.  

He spent his time in a different town in Somalia as a prisoner encountering a group of Eritreans, who have had influence on his political thinking and willingness to join the revolutionary struggle. Some of them would bring books in the prison cells and would have book reading and analysis sessions. The EPLF had apparently made contacts with Somali authorities to release  the Eritrean prisoners, which he became a beneficiary of  

Upon his release, Gera and a few of his Ethiopian friends, made a daring decision in their lives, to join the Eritrean Revolutionaries instead of migrating to a third country. The center of his book revolves around this decision and the experiences he garnered by making this decision. The journey began in 1972 navigating the Red Sea in a small boat. His description of this trip seems like a scene from a movie, having to overcome many nerve-racking obstructions in the middle of the sea. The boat is operated by traditional operators, many of them from the Afar region, who are experts of the sea and who navigated using the constellation of stars as their compasses. The demeanor of these sailors gave him assurance to face any challenges coming forward from that time forward  

Before they landed in their final destination, Geregir Sudan, near the borderline of the Northern  tip of Eritrea with Southern Sudan, they stopped by in Kamara Island, near Yemen. In this island, they were accorded welcome by Eritrean fighters and they met prominent figures in the history  of the Eritrean struggle, Woldeab Woldemariam and Usman Saleh Sabbe. This was kind of an icebreaker for Gera and his friends into the Eritrean struggle, which was a unique experience; the Eritrean fighters were also equally amazed to find Ethiopians that are willing to join them 

The Eritrean struggle or revolution is unique and real; it was a real struggle that was much  different from the revolution read in a book or understood in theory, according to the author. The enlightened youth who was willing to make changes on grassroots level has finally to submerge him/herself in the daunting realities of the masses. The very first step in this journey was to land in a remote and desert part of the country and having to walk throughout the day and night to reach the heart of the struggle. That in itself was testing their courage and determination;  many gave-up and lost their lives along the way. The love of the people and the country was  what kept these souls alive  

With very few hundreds of volunteers, the EPLF used Geregir Sudan as its sanctuary to initiate a formidable movement that amalgamated the talent of the enlightened with the toil of the masses;  it is here where the author and his friends joined this struggle

ንሕናን ዕላ ማናን (Who We Are and Our Objectives) was published to clarify and explain the purpose of the struggle to the  masses of the nation. With a very difficult environment and unimaginable shortage of basic needs, including the shortage of weaponry, the EPLF was still able to challenge the western supported the military might of the Ethiopian regime. Among other capabilities, the latter was also  fortified with special commando units trained in Israel, in addition to its strong military presence  in Eritrea, which was a big test for the EPLF. This is in addition to the unfortunate civil war between the EPLF and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which the author and his friends were a  witness of 

One of the unique features of EPLF, as described by the author, was the egalitarian system  among its fighters and its leaders. The leadership always joined the fighting forces not just for meetings but in every part of the chores of the organization; the higher-ups in ranks were equally wounded and sacrificed almost in every battle the author has witnessed. As a result, there is a  sense of utmost trust of the leadership of the organization and of the military decisions they made  

The word that a group of Ethiopian students have joined the Eritrean struggle spread around the Geregir Sudan, which caused astonishment among the fighters. They had to first undergo military training there, which was arduous, the danger from poisonous snakes and scorpions can’t be passed unmentioned. In this training (ታዕሊም) they used old Simonov rifles, with few having their hands on AK 47.  They learned different and famous terms and military tactics such as ተሽኪል, ጥወዮ ነጸላ (a  rolled piece of garment used as sleeping sheets and for burials), insurgency, forward attacking,  retreating, and ተኽሊጥ (formation), which every Eritrean knows it by heart. They were  introduced to cooking of the infamous nutrition of the fighters as ብርኩታ and ቦጅቦጅ. The  author also received additional training as a barefoot doctor  

An interesting part of this book and its description of the Eritrean Revolution are about the  personalities he met there and their characters, in addition to books that were widely read. He mentioned about a classic and famous book by Mao Zedong, titled “Military Writing” in addition to some medical related ones that were useful for him as a barefoot doctor, such as the “Merck  Manual” by Merck American pharmaceutical company, and “Away With all Pests” by a British  doctor, both relevant for treating illnesses in the third world countries  

Speaking of personalities, Eritrean revolutionary fighters that have left a marking influence in his life as a fighter were many. As it is tradition among Eritrean fighters, most of them are called by their nicknames or just by their father’s name preceded by Wedi/gwal (son/daughter), to label them as a “son of” or “daughter of” their fathers. As such, he gave a description of his platoon leader, Wedi Gebru, and Wedi Fenkil, who were physically well fit and both grew up in the countryside, just like the author. Gomida, another comrade of his, was a strong young man that usually ran long distances carrying heavy boxes of bullets. Gebretsadik Cuba, called as such since he was educated in Cuba, was a political commissar who advised the author to always have love  for the people in order to truly fight for them, and to replicate this just struggle in Ethiopia to bring a meaningful change there. He also gave a descriptive image of Isaias Afwerki, who is  currently the President of Eritrea, for being a humble leader of the then EPLF, moving around  without guards, always busy with work and working equally with the rest of the fighters in all  kinds of chores, always carrying books with him and carrying a hand grenade for self-protection.  The author remembered his first meeting with Isaias, surprised as the latter was waiting for them  sitting under a tree, and spoke to them humbly and choosing his words carefully  

The author eventually learned the Tigrinya language in short times, and fully engaged in the  battlefield as a fighter and barefoot doctor. Initially, he was given only with a hand grenade for  self-protection, due to the shortage of rifles, and he carried that around in addition to his medical equipment. There was a funny story of him being fearful about having to carry this grenade,  which he thought was dangerous, and that he was finally exonerated as he threw it blindly during  his first battle experience  

He witnessed the real and bloody experience of battlefields; he lost his friends and comrades in each battle. At times, he felt powerless, unable to rescue some of his beloved comrades with his medical equipment. He was especially shocked when his comrade, Cuba, was shot next to him and died instantly right on his hands. During his battlefield experience, he travelled very long distance from Geregir Sudan to Geregir Asmara, which is still near the border with Sudan. With  his units, he travelled all the way to the highland, near Asmara, through Bahri (Filfill), Grat  Awlie, Ri’esi Adi, and Beleza, engaging in all types of skirmishes or an outright firefight with their enemies.  

His medical talent was not only to serve his comrades; he was ordered to render treatment to the  masses living in different villages as they passed by. There was an instance that happened as he  was treating an elderly couple in a village. They could not believe what they were hearing when  they were told that the author who just gave them a medical treatment is an Ethiopian. They  could not imagine that an Ethiopian would give up his life, and join this tough and long struggle in Eritrea; it was a clear sign of how EPLF was an organization of progressives. 

He followed-up with the political developments in Ethiopia while he was in a real struggle in  Eritrea. The King was dethroned in 1974 and many groups sprung up in the country, while also a military committee was gripping power in Addis Ababa. Things were changing quickly and the Ethiopians who were fighting inside Eritrea were to go to their home country to become change makers there.  

It is around this condition that Berhane-Meskel Redda, as mentioned above, came to Eritrea and  the author was able to meet him again. The former has led the student movement in Ethiopia,  then left the country hijacking an Ethiopian Airline to Sudan, then went to Algeria and through  EPLF links, he was trained by the Palestinians, before coming to Eritrea. He was to lead the  Ethiopian movement in Eritrea in its journey inside their country.  

However, the author was not fond of Berhane-Meskel. He didn’t like his leadership style or his  demeanors. He even questioned how Berhane-Meskel, who was a plane hijacker himself in the  past, could criticize another infamous hijacking of an Ethiopian Airline by seven students,  among whom Walelign Mekonen, Martha Mebrahtu and Amanuel Yohannes were killed.  

Finally, in 1975, a time came when the author and his friends were asked to start a revolutionary  struggle inside Ethiopia and act as a vanguard for the struggle that is already culminating there.  They were ushered by EPLF to the border of Ethiopia, and they were to continue their struggle  under the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Army (EPRA). The Tigray People Liberation Front  (TPLF) was also incubated by EPLF. The latter attempted to have a dialogue between the two  Ethiopian movements but it failed as TPLF was concerned only for the autonomy of the Tigray  province. Eventually the two groups went into conflict in Asssimba, inside Ethopia, which the author promised to write the details of in his later book. Their final move from Eritrea, and having to separate from his Eritrean comrades at arms, was something difficult to the author; he was emotional, feeling as a child being separated from his mother. Many years indeed passed before the author could come back to Eritrea and meet his old friends. The timing of this story is  just the right one, as Eritrea and Ethiopia have now made a peace and cooperation deal and have  a hopeful and promising future.  

What a story!

8 COMMENTS

  1. Indeed an amazing story of a selfless global revolutionary.
    I am eagerly awaiting the part 2 of his heroic and unprecedented revolutionary journey on the mountains of Tigray and Begemeder and his forced exile through The Sudan to the classrooms of the prestigious Yale.
    Hawka
    Abraham
    Stockholm, Sweden

  2. This is amazing book to read. Finally a good perspective From Ethiopian citizen point of view of the Eritrean story. In history there is always Two side of the coin and Mr. Abiyu Birile is filling the missing gap from the Ethiopian side.

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