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Martyrs and Elections

Martyrs and Elections

By Sponato 06-29-20

The first multiparty elections in Ethiopia following the demise of the Derg, a military regime that ruled the country with an iron fist for 17 years, were held in May 1995. I, together with my Ethiopian TV crew, was deployed to the town of Sheraro and its environs. This area would later get international media attention due to the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000. Badme and part of this locality formed the flashpoints of this devastating war of cousins.

Excitement for the election was in the air throughout the country. Even more so in Sheraro -  being the base of the struggle, the people here had borne more than their fair share of burden of war. And as one of the first liberated areas during the course of the armed struggle, the people had been holding local elections since 1980. But, this was obviously different. They would now be electing representatives to the national parliament as well. For us young reporters, the election was unprecedented in Ethiopian journalism and thus we were professionally motivated to be covering it from this historic place.

On voting day, we started our task at a polling station, 5 kilometers from Sheraro. When we arrived there, we saw long queue of people waiting for the voting to kick off at 6 am - the excitement was such that it seemed all eligible voters had come at the same time forming a huge crowd. The election officials had, of course, come much earlier and were all set. But the polling station coordinator (in his forties), who would be the key figure in the day-long polling, appeared rather gloomy. I had asked him about the run up to the voting day but he did not divulge the cause of his somber mood. What I found out from his colleagues (later confirmed by himself) was, however, a shocker. This is not for the faint-hearted: that night, his wife of almost two-decades had passed on and he had to choose between organizing her funeral with the break of day or go to the polls and do that afterwards. Decision time came, and he chose the latter. His choice, which came at an excruciating cost, cannot be explained by mere duty-bound-ness. It was rooted in a loftier cause; a cause that over 60 thousand martyrs died for and over 100 thousand more were maimed for.

This may sound hard to believe but as Eyasu Berhe - also a veteran fighter and an accomplished versatile artist gone too soon for the same cause – said, "there was no feat under the sun of the Tigray liberation struggle that did not unfold, only a story yet to be told".

The word martyr comes from the Latin and late Greek 'martur' which means to bear witness to one's suffering or die for one's cause or principle. The people of the great Adiabo (now split into two districts, with Sheraro as capital to the lower half) had bore witness to untold suffering and sacrifice as well as gallantry displayed during the struggle. Here are a few of them: During one of the fiercest encounters with the EDU (the Ethiopian Democratic Union, another armed group that primarily operated in the area) in the early days of the struggle, Amare Tareke, a young fighter, was shot with a heavy weapon, which cut off his right leg below the knee. In the heat of battle, he stood firm and hoisted his amputated leg and urged his comrades to fight on to the end of the inevitable victory.

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The people also witnessed Jaeffar's gallant feat and heroic end. The amphitheater-like meeting hall where the first local council was established in 1980 is dedicated to him. One of the founders of the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) struggle, Gesesse Ayele (aka Sihul) died for the same cause in a fateful encounter that brought him into conflict with rogue militia of the EDU who were commandeering people on the Shire-Sheraro road. His daughter, Lemlem and son, Tedros (now a Colonel) had also joined their father as fighters. Lemlem was the one who later administered first aid treatment on Muse Tekle, the renowned military commander in the early years of the liberation struggle, when he sustained a wound from enemy fire at Mentebteb, near Sheraro. Unfortunately, his wound was so severe that he couldn't survive it. Lemlem herself later paid the ultimate price in the line of duty.

We  have a very long list who shed their blood.

Zeru (aka Agazi), Qelebet (aka Walta) Tsehaye, Dr. Ataklti, Kuhlen, Dayan, Mekonnen Nirayo (aka Alishum), Abraha Berhe (aka Beruk) were some of the prominent names who paid with their lives in those trying times.

Kindeya Teklu's feat is one of the many in the extraordinary. He was member of TPLF's clandestine cell in the historic town of Aksum. The Derg (the ruling junta then) had known of his role and arrested him. The regime's cadres, the prime executors of cruelty, were let loose and put him to extreme torture in a bid to force him divulge info regarding the underground units. He had taken vow not to renege on the cause and he lived and died for his oath. Inside his jail cell, he broke a glass mug and with it cut his tongue off, giving his begrudged jailors the sadistic thought of shooting at his bloodless 'body'. He kept the word within, never uttered names of his comrades that the jailorsdesperately looked for and saved the entire structure of the town's underground cell from falling into enemy hands. It was so unfortunate, though, that some of the organization's staunch members like Amare Tetemke, Teklu Asgedom, Fiseha Haile, Cherkos Kassahun and Yohannes, were brutally killed and thrown on the streets of Aksum to terrorize the public. The effect was to the contrary. The youth, embittered by the action, joined the movement in droves.

Young fighters from the area and their comrades from across Tigray were there when Berhanemeskel hurled himself off of the Hakfen cliff near the town of Selekleka in Western Tigray. They were there at Gombas Momona, near Tembien in Central Tigray during the epic hand-to-hand combat which saw Almaz Alemu plunge into the fray, took on the enemy commander and, in a typical beat down, threw him to the ground and used his bayonet to finish him off. Almaz also played a crucial role in March 1978 at the Battle of Sero, an asymmetrical encounter where, despite their victory over the enemy, the fighters lost some of their finest like Mekonnen Debalkew.

Almaz fought and commanded units under Hayelom (aka Fenkil) in successive battles in Southern Tigray but eventually died of a shot on the head. Almaz, Elsabeth Redae and her sister Azeb Redae, Mizer and other martyred and existing fighters were inspired by icon women fighters: Kahsa (aka Marta) and Alganesh, known for being the first woman fighter and the first woman martyr of the struggle respectively. Berishewa, another veteran woman fighter, is seen as symbolic representation of the many fighters who died in Eritrea's Sahel stronghold fighting to cement solidarity of the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia in their pursuit of liberation.

Guna was arguably the toughest showdown between the advancing EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that was unashamedly dissolved this year) and the Derg forces. At one point, the latter nearly smashed through the last defenses of the former. Seeing that, Gebregziabher (aka Sponato) who was a staff officer, assumed combatant role and held the fort till reinforcement arrived. His furious counter-offensive accompanied by his war cry, "our trenches will not be overrun" unsettled the enemy and lifted up the morale of his comrades. That proved a turning point in tipping the balance and in paving the way for total victory. Sponato saved the day but unfortunately couldn't save himself. He is survived by his wife and his only son Alula who, like many of his compatriots, is now striving to realize his father's dream of seeing development and stable Tigray.

From the first martyr Haftom to General Seare Mekonnen and Maj. General Gezae Abera, Tigray's history is steeped in martyrdom. There are countless families like Reta's who lost five of their family members to the cause. 2,500 souls were massacred at Hawzien through air bombardment. These are the iconic symbols of struggle and martyrdom of the people of Tigray.

These heavy sacrifices always added vigor to the struggle as the people knew the prize was far more than the cost endured. It is this promise of a prize that emboldened Woldegerima (aka Amora), Qeshi Gebru and their comrades captured at Kimir Dingai to stay defiant in front of their captors and bluntly declare that their struggle centered on people’s self-determination.This is the prize that Wodi Qetsela was referring to as he breathed out his last words when he laid down his life. This spirit is what helped the election coordinator persevere in the face of deep personal pain.   

Ethiopia's former Premier Meles Zenawi had always emphasized the need for periodic elections, not just for the sake of holding them but because they are the means to ensure people’s the participation in the affairs of their country, to structure and distribute power, to help ensure that policies and strategies are informed by the interests of the electorate and to establish accountability.

That explains why the people of Tigray and its government are insisting on holding elections before the end of this Ethiopian year, no matter what.

Deputy Chief Administrator of the regional state, Debretsion Gebremichael said the martyrs laid down their irreplaceable lives so that their right to self determination and the right to elect their leaders is guaranteed. He said that the legacy of the martyrs and the oath that they wrote in blood will endure forever through continued resistance and diligence of the current and succeeding generations. That is a big rebuff to the naysayers who fail to see this intergenerational harmony and claim that Tigray has a lot of shedding to do. 


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