Strange is the Eritrean story; stranger is the Eritrean women’s story

Luwam Estifanos

Often (far too often) I think about what other people make of our stories, our Eritrean stories. Not the dramatic stories but the typical ordinary ones, the experiences which are familiar to all Eritreans. I am sure our stories of unimaginable pain inflicted unnecessarily by the very people who claim to have liberated us, come across as far too strange to belong to an ordinary life.

Like these stories …

I sometimes try to imagine what people would make of Lemlem’s story. An old woman in her mid-60s, today she’s being forced to carry an AK-47 gun. She doesn’t understand why, she didn’t agree to it, she doesn’t really know how to use it and she is certain it won’t protect her from the people she needs protection from- hence they gave it to her. In her household, amidst her meager utensils hanging on a peg next to where she hangs her pots and pans dangles this strange item. Every time she sees the gun she is reminded of the death and destruction that has accompanied her all her life. She always wonders if those who gave her the symbol of death and destruction will ever stop terrorizing her.

Kibra is a mother of three, or was a mother of three, to be more accurate. She lost her daughter during the liberation struggle and then a son at the border conflict in 1998. When her youngest died in the Mediterranean several years after his brother she was left totally alone. Today the very act of waking up alive to yet another dawn is a reminder of all her losses, there is no break from loneliness for her. Every single day she gathers all the strength she has to wake up to yet another dark day, wondering why she was left on this planet for. Every night, she falls asleep exhausted, having failed to find something worth living for.

Semira is a 30 years old woman, everyone tells her she is the daughter of heroic martyrs, but she has come to know that really is no different to being an ordinary orphan. She wonders endlessly what it would have been like if one, just one of her parents had survived. And then she wonders if it would have made any difference. She knows many compatriots of her parents who have disappeared into prisons around the country or left the country all together. She then wonders if that is different to being an orphan of war.

Sara is young and wants to be free, she always dreams about freedom. She was forced into military conscription; she earns less than $50 cents a day for doing everything and anything she is asked to do. The things she has been asked to do make her feel cheap and dirty. For many months now a military official has been acting as though he owns her, she attends all of his endless needs. If she fails to supply his needs she knows what will happen. Actually she doesn’t know what will happen, for if she did know she would have been in a better position to judge whether that is a risk worth taking. Like Semira, Sara is also the daughter of freedom fighters and although she’s proud of her parents’ sacrifice for independence she still wonders what “Freedom” really is and if the sacrifice of her parents and many who died will ever bear fruit.

I too wonder… not just about the experiences of these women and many others but also about experiences I went through as a 16 year old National Service Conscript. Needless to say I have seen more than my fair share of horrific experiences which I still haven’t found any coherent explanations for.

My friend Winta (not a real name) was a 17 years old conscript, one day after a typical day of long hours training, working and just being under the harsh sun relentlessly beating on us, Winta fell ill. First she lost her voicEritrean women in the militaryEritrean women in the militarye; this was soon followed by loud and nonstop hiccups that would go for weeks without a break. Her knees suddenly started to buckle when she walked normally and she was only able to walk straight if she walked backwards. Recently I read this is an illness called Dystonia, or something similar. Back then we had no idea and we were worried sick and very frightened to see many of our friends with that condition.

My friend Winta and all the other victims never received medical attention for this strange illness. Instead of treatment, they got severely punished for becoming ill. To save Winta and our other friends from punishments, we always tried to hide their illnesses from the military leaders as best as we can. There were days we set off so early to be at reporting sights to avoid being late because someone’s knees just buckled underneath them.

There was one night, when Winta and all of us stayed up most of the night, mourning the death of a friend who got terribly ill, and as usual never got quick or proper medical attention. Winta was terribly affected by how she and her friends were strictly warned to not cry during the friend’s funeral when they couldn’t hold it and they wailed, they were heavily punished for disobeying orders.

That loss, and the 2 hours tough punishment that followed meant the girls could no longer hide the symptoms of this Dystonia like disease, all of a sudden many of them were hiccuping uncontrollably and found it impossible to walk straight or forward unaided. It was terrible!

For many weeks every night, Winta woke up and cried… not for the torturous punishment she received, not for getting ill but for being denied to cry for her deceased friend as they parted forever. Life wasn’t harsh in the military; it was cruel, too cruel to be understood by those who were fortunate enough not to have to face such cruelty. Sometimes I wonder if we will ever get to see the end of it …or ever stop being haunted by our disturbing memories.

I, like many Eritreans, am a survivor and a witness of all this and more. And like most Eritreans I am an outcome of all those experiences. Tortured souls that we are, some of us try to forget once we break free and some of us may still continue to live in fear. But to ignore all this with a deafening silence and ‘move on’ as many seem to do is to leave a big part of ourselves buried in the cruelty of the life that is the Eritrean woman’s life.

My fellow Eritrean women, friends and compatriots, let us pledge to never forget a single part of our experiences…the horrific, the unfair, and the strange. Strange are our stories, and no stranger would it seem if we start on telling tales of the dead and the living, one by one, while always carrying it with us