I am aware of the sacrifices mother made to keep our family together under the grim situation that suddenly engulfed our household after the tragedy of 2001. I can say it was then that the seeds of madness were planted in our yard. You see, I hold a lot of things in. I usually don't rage; I usually do not curse. Although my head is filled with numbing screams, it feels as if I am somehow emotionally anesthetised. I guess that is what happens to those who are perpetually dazed. Irrespective of my emotional state, many a times, when my thoughts swing towards home, my mother’s endless grief comes to haunt me.
Poor mother, I really do not know how she managed to survive all those years of hardship. As if the injury she sustained during the 6th Offensive was not enough, it pains me to see her stuck in a lifeless life. Towards the end of 1982, like many of her fellow combatants who took part in the campaign to defend Barka, Nakfa and parts of Sahel, mother played her part to fortify the forts from being overrun by the Ethiopians. One needs to remember that was after the time the Derg moved its military headquarters to Asmara for the final push - a fierce operation known as the Red Star Campaign. She fought heroically and ended up sustaining a head injury – a memento of the warring years which still plays tricks on her mind. That was shortly after my birth.
I was born in a place called Jelhanti during the 6th Offensive. Mother left me behind with a war disabled fighter friend of hers in order to resume her fighting duties. I was lucky that I was being looked after by other fighters as well. Please forgive me for I am going to skip this part because the focus of this story is on my mother. When mother joined the EPLF in 1978 she was just a young girl who dreamed of ending the struggle with a lasting jubilation. She never thought that jubilation was going to be interrupted by the Scream.
Tragedies are universal experiences; however, I beg to differ with the construct when it comes to the Scream. I think the Scream, in a way, fuelled my mother’s devastating insecurity. It reminded her that life is frightening, it can shift on anyone at any moment. What was secured, Eritrea’s independence, ended up making mother and the rest of her children feel very insecure. Ever since the ‘scream-incident’ we have been chased by that very insecurity which stood in the way of our dreams. In me I have noticed that the pain of my insecurity is hidden in all of my racing around, sometimes aimlessly.
At this point allow me to introduce an ‘acquaintance’ of sorts that comes to mind. The reader may know about Edvard Munch, the famous painter of the iconic painting, The Scream (1893), which is among the most celebrated and recognised images in art history. Munch’s Scream explores the movement of life by focusing on the themes of love, angst, and death. Coincidentally, the world famous painting is housed in a museum which happens to be located in the same city of my residence. I go past the museum every now and then. The reason I am mentioning Munch’s masterpiece is not for the sake of juxtaposing the impressions it leaves on its viewers to my own imagination; but to acknowledge the fact that there was a moment in my family’s life when we experienced the Scream. However, the picture I am trying to depict here is slightly different – it is about my mother’s long-lasting scream which has been reverberating in the depths of her children’s hearts since 18 Sep 2001.
So for me, mother’s agony is painted with vivid colours on the canvass of my mind. I also know that her anguish, in a form of prayers, has always accompanied me in my journeys that took me out of Asmara, propelled me to the Sudan and then led me to Norway. Memories of her sacrifices have clung to me all along. When I say this I am not singling out my mother as if she is in a class of her own but I am simply acknowledging that many Eritrean mothers are also in the same category.
On a cold September morning, armed security agents who were dressed in civilian clothes burst into our house and rushed around our living room causing a big commotion. Father was recuperating from a debilitating flu at the time. Perplexed by the commotion he woke up to check what was happening. Not knowing what awaited him, father, in his pyjamas, stepped into the living room not to be greeted by the visitors but to fall into their hands. As the security agents rushed to apprehend him mother screamed. And that was the scream of her life. Her scream was so ear-piercing it went past the security agents, and most of all her young children, to reach the angels up above who looked down to register her agony. She could not simply put her anguish under control as she called out for help and her young children were scurrying around with fear witnessing the tragedy as the security agents manhandled their dear father. The clock struck 5:48 when her scream invited the neighbours to help out. On the other hand I believe that is when her mental clock stopped functioning. People from ‘meAsker algien’ (Radio Marina) who gathered to witness the incident simply looked on at the brawl that was accompanied by mother’s incessant screams without raising a finger. They were all former combatants like her, mind you! Some of them were high officials who served their country with great distinction during the armed struggle. One particular person was among the security agents who came to take my father away and shoved him into a civilian car as the crowd looked on- he was our neighbour. I get dizzy when I try to keep a running memory of how many times that particular scene played in my mind since then.
As many would remember, my father, veteran tegadalai Estifanos Seyoum, a gentle soul who fully committed his life to liberate Eritrea, and later helped shape the country’s post-war economic policy but who questioned the PFDJ's misuse of funds, was one of the G15 who registered grievances to President Isaias Afwerki. The expression of his group’s grievances cost him everything – everything he stood for, fought for, and lived for. And now he is jailed for it.
I was serving as a member of Eritrean Defence Forces at Adi-Gawul when the incident took place. I was summoned by a friend of the family to tend to my mother’s utter anxiety. The content of the phone message described neither the nature nor the source of mother’s distress. I boarded the bus the next day to head home. In the bus, as soon as I noticed the newspaper headline a fellow passenger was reading, my heart heard the echoes of mother’s scream. It read that ‘the Government has detained those who have been committing crimes against the people and the country’. I cannot remember how I managed to finish the rest of the bus journey as I drifted in and out of consciousness. My thoughts were consumed by father’s role in the revolution; all his sacrifices suddenly seemed immaterial to me. It is true that a revolution not only does it devour its children but its co-architects as well. You see, I am bitter because I never had a chance to say goodbye to my father. He simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
After the incarceration of my father the frustration of not being able to talk, ask questions about his whereabouts left me high and dry. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out. Although I could not register a scream like my mother, to this day I continue to quietly scream at everything, including myself.
Is anyone familiar with the feeling when one is thrown into a leper colony? Our friends distanced themselves from us as soon as father was jailed. I personally could read the traitorous thoughts of the people in the camp who isolated us heartlessly. My energy was so consumed by containing the wrath of my anger inside me I simply had to leave the country before I lost my mind.
My mother's youth and energy could be fading now; her trust in goodness could be drooping; the leaves of old comradeship may have fallen off the branches of the revolution-tree; but I know her hopes, her love for our father and her children will outlive them all. Love, as powerful as my mother’s, has left its own mark in me; and I feel her love will continue to protect me all the time.
My mother, Rishan Arefaine Frezghi, did not do anything wrong to deserve this ordeal. In my mind, the Scream, as I have described it, will remain the signature of her search for Justice as long as I live. If this story resonates with you, please help by lending an ear to mother’s Scream.
This article is written in collaboration with FOP-Eritrea
POCs: Dawit Mesfin and Tsedal Yohannes