Heart of the Fighter (ልቢ ተጋዳላይ)

By Alemseged Tesfai


One hour after the capture of Afabet, my companion and I climbed down the hills of Ad Sherum to march towards that town. Ethiopian jet fighters were flying very low, attempting to patrol the main road. They had such a threatening demeanor that we were forced to avoid their attention by moving as far west off the road as we could.

We were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the victory. Our internal joy was too loaded with emotion to find verbal expression. So our conversation could be nothing but disjointed. We simply kept uttering words and mumbles in dazed wonderment.

Throughout the two days of fighting, I had been with the division command that had led the attack from the heights of the Itahalbeb, Roret, the Hartetet and Ad Sherum. Therefore, I had a full picture of the course of the battle had taken on the central flank. As I witnessed hills and ravines being penetrated and captured with pre-planned and amazing speed and precision, I had been a faithful chronicler. From time to time, I would take my notebook out of my pocket and jot down details I thought I should not miss-captured positions, isolated enemy units, spots of stiff enemy resistance, the challenges and cruelty of nature, the number of tanks captured… you name it, I registered with painstaking care. Since my intention was to leave an exact account to future generations, I also attempted to interpret the events of that battle as I saw them unfold in front of me.

As we sped through the plains of Afabet, however, I started to get the eerie feeling that I might not, after all, find the right words to suit the occasion. Where to start from, which angle or perspective to take, whom to give credit to… started to preoccupy my mind. Our written history of the revolution is now rich with reports of decisive battles. I felt that writing another report or raving about the event in superlatives would simply not be good enough. I wanted to capture the essence, the deep source of the phenomenal fusion between planners and executors that was at the base of the fall of Afabet. The words would not come. As a writer, I started to feel inept, as a reporter, incompetent.

Walking side by side with Ali Ibrihim, the Division Commander, I said, “And now what do we say?’’

“What do you care?” he replied. “Why don’t you just describe what you saw?”

“That’s precisely the problem. Do I describe the victory itself or what transpired to get there? You know, the obstacles, the fatigue, the thirst…You would have done better.’’

“Come on,” he replied. “Can’t you see how we are? If at all, we may occasionally jot a few things in a diary. But to write extensively…’’ He did not even finish his sentence. Obviously, his attention was already focused beyond Afabet, where his troops were chasing the enemy towards Keren. I too felt silent.

Before long, however, under an indistinguishable shrub, we came across a pool of half dried blood on a flat spot dotted with scattered stones and pebbles. The flow of the blood was out of the ordinary. It had not only covered the larger part of the flat spot, but had also branched out in different directions before drying up at the edges. It had thus created a strange and awesome shape. Naturally, all three of us were attracted by the sight. At first, we thought it was a continuation of the enemy blood and corpses that we had been encountering throughout the two days. After staring at the gory sight for a while we were about to proceed when one of us pointed to a piece of flesh lying on the left edge of the drying blood. All of us bent down to examine it. It was a human heart. No bone, muscles or any other body parts, just a heart – and oily, bright red human heart with its arteries extended towards the pool it had obviously let go. A few meters away was a tattered jacket.

“This is ours. It is the heart of a comrade,’’ Ali Ibrihim said, almost in a whisper.

To be frank, at the beginning a cold current went down my spine and all through my body. It felt like another malaria attack. I am not the nauseous type, but this time, probably out of deference for that piece of flesh, I stepped away from it and the blood it had so strangely squeezed out. My eyes would not stop staring, even as we started to move on.

Although  I restrained  myself  from  showing  it, that  terribly  cold  flow  of  intense  disquiet kept  me shivering from head to toe. If we had not been in a hurry, I would have insisted that we bury the heart and cover the blood with earth. I was convinced that the only reason it had been left there was because, whoever had buried the rest of the body parts, had in the darkness of the previous night, simply not noticed it. We had to continue and we did. I kept glancing back at the spot until we got out of its sight.

The extreme heat and the deafening screech of the jet fighters above did not deter our rapid pace. We also resumed our discontinued, disjointed chat. But the heart refused to leave my vision. At first, I thought t was my conscience blaming me for not having buried it. Therefore, I attempted to shake it off my mind, to just forget about it. When, like a living thing, it stuck inside my mind along with its blood and arteries. However, I tried to give meaning to it. Before long it came with full force.

What is this cold spell, this disquiet and feeling of guilt, I asked myself. Where does this conscience come from that keeps reproaching me for not having buried that fallen heart? Its oily luster I started to see as nothing but the expression of its inherent love and goodness, and what else can its flaming redness signify but the hatred and anger it has been forced to harbor for so long? From the blood it has so generously given, will flourish the heritage and cause for which it chose to lie down there so dramatically, so defiantly.

I admonished myself for my initial feelings. A surge of pride enveloped my whole being  thus blowing away the cold shiver and disquiet, just as the winds clear the clouds to open the sky. My whole body warmed up as if a new volume of warm blood had entered my veins. Secure in the knowledge that I had finally found the very symbol that had been eluding me, I approached Afabet with a feeling of elevation. My spirit was up there in the clouds, above the whining MIGs.

There was no indication of who that graceful heart had belonged to. No trace, whatsoever, of its origin, sex, religion, age, rank, or whether its owner had been veteran or a novice. So my first reaction, naturally, was to ask who it may have been giving life to. Which direction could it have come from? May be with those who had rolled down steep slopes and jumped precipices to evict the enemy from the heights of the Rora; maybe with those who blitzed through the center to throw bombs at Amba, the Roret and the Hartetet; maybe, again, with those who survived the thirst of the coastal desert to attack by way of Azhara … Try as I did, I found it impossible to give flesh and bones and associate it with a face.

I suppose that I was simply following a simple trend of logical thinking. Soon I realized that bothering about its exact identity was just a waste of time. It was, after all, just a heart, I told myself, a heart that had extracted itself from the other organs of a human being. A heart that refused to be buried, so it could tell its story, express its defiance and make its behest. It was simply the heart of a patriot, the heart of tegadalai.

I have neither the words nor the space to tell its story, explain its bravery and relay its message. Had I been a poet or a painter, I would probably have said more. I would surely never tire of eulogizing and polishing it up. Unfortunately, I am neither of these. So, since like a ring in a chain it is the link where the patriots of the past, the present and the future meet, allow me to attempt to give it its proper place and status.

In the traditions of our ancestors, the heart is the thinker, the one that mourns and rejoices, the brave, the cruel and the kind, the lover and the hater, the just and the merciless. If I were to dissect the heart of my fallen comrade, it would probably expose all of these qualities. So let me use it to reveal the secret of tegadalai.

Although finding it in that position is deeply moving, this is by no means the first time that this heart is shedding tears of blood for this land. I can easily stretch centuries back to relate it to those of its kind that have fallen from Halhal Bogos to Nakura, from Dogali to Gura’e, to defend the land we are fighting to liberate. But since that is a long story, let me just assert that this heart is merely following their path, simply obeying their behest.

Patriotism does not descend like manna from heaven, nor can it be created from naught by a magic wand. Our fallen heart has its origins in history, in the ancestral legends and traditions that have come to us through generation. This land of ours has never seen, nor has it enjoyed for ages, the benefits of normal peace and ordinary life. Centuries of foreign rule, invasions and internal strife have seen to it that our people do not breathe the air of peace and tranquility. Consequently, the love of country that the tegadalai has inherited is not merely one of ordinary love and compassion. Hate and defiance claim an equal share in his or her passions and emotions. History has pushed the tegadalai to be quick and ferocious in retaliation to any threat, any provocation that endangers Eritrea’s rights.

No wonder that I saw that morning the kindness and anger at the same time, two opposites in the same heart. And had I been witnessing both phenomena! Who could ever count the enemy corpses lying at every turn, every ravine and every hill in the most grotesque of postures? Who could tally the captured thanks and burnt out weaponry? Would I be accused of mystification if I were to declare that this heart actually spits fire to burn metal and that it is destined for loftier deeds? When I witnessed it cross the thirsty plains, climb the Hartetet which had almost killed me in the relative leisure after battle, capture that summit and go on to fight at Ad Sherum without so much as a respite, even I envied its perseverance. And when I noticed the terror of its venom in the eyes of newly captured enemy soldiers, I swear that, although my own side and my own shelter, I too trembled with awe.

If I had seen anger and terror alone, I would have had cause to worry. I would have paused to wonder whether life in the wilderness had not extracted every bit of compassion from the heart of tegadalai. Once in Afabet, however, I noted with relief that beneath all that battlefield cruelty lay an inherent softness, a sea of compassion. Its handling of Ethiopian prisoners of war is too well known for me to dwell on here. One would expect, though, that its reaction to the three captured Soviet officers would be different. It was not. These were part of the system that had helped drive Eritrean revolution from the fringes of the capital, Asmara, to the foxholes of Sahel. These were the very officers whose bombs had rained on trenches and villages, on fighters and unarmed civilians with indiscriminate fury. And yet, the tegadelti that I saw flocking around them were there just to see what they looked like. I saw no hostility in them, neither was there any verbal abuse.

Theirs is not a heart of grudges and evil intentions. Afabet convinced me that this is a heart of mercy and forgiveness – a heart, indeed, that does not spend sleepless nights in gnawing plots of hate and vengeance. Obviously, it does not want to see repeated, even on its enemies, the pain and ordeal it has had to suffer. Nor would it covet from others what is not rightfully its due. The world has yet to recognize this heart that so willingly sheds all that it possesses for peace among men and women. As to the powerful of our age, who are intent on crushing it for the success of their own global strategies, I say that they do not understand its nature. Or, possibly, they are deluding themselves.

For this is a heart that is capturing their weapons and even men with their own weapons. Indeed, it is a heart that has raised its head to defy their awesome power for one quarter of a century. And like the piece of flesh and the symbol of courage that we found resisting the scourge of the morning sun, it will not be long before the mighty accept that the heart of tegadalai is not about to disintegrate or to burst out of existence even when trampled on. That they have not done so till now, that they are not pausing to listen to its beat, is a waste.

It is a big one, then, this heart of tegadalai, and because adversity, fortitude and the flames of war have fomented it into maturity, it has reached a new height. However it will need careful handling, especially in this, its moment of victory, lest it get intoxicated with glory, forget what it has gone through, swell out of proportion and just blow up. True, the fact that the people of Afabet could welcome it safe from any harm to their person or property is relieving and encouraging. It is also an indication of its future relations with its people.

Nevertheless, a heart without a guide may prove fickle and flighty and we will need to cultivate, expand, educate and make it wise. A product of the people, it was nurtured by the people. In return, it has shed tears of blood for them. It has fallen for their sake. It is, therefore, incumbent upon this heart to tune its beat with theirs, to preserve their culture and protect their honor, to understand their problems and seek solutions for them. It has the obligation to approach them, not from an attitude of superiority and disdain but with modesty and humbleness. Above all, we have the duty to guarantee that it renews its oath and live up to its responsibility never to assume the role of dispenser of freedom and never to ride over its own people.

Sitting on the rocks above what was the Ethiopian “Nadew Command,” I let my eyes wander over Afabet. It has definitely expanded and developed. There is no doubt that the enemy had meant to settle for good. I sent my memory back almost ten years to when we had withdrawn to the mountains of Sahel. At that time, we had not retreated by ourselves. We had been accompanied by the dozens of tanks and the thousands of prisoners of war that we had captured at those historical battles of Elabered and Ma’imide.

It was a cruel and testing time, but we had emerged from it richer and stronger. A lot has transpired since – we pushed and were pushed back, we attacked and were raided, we inflicted heavy damages but, in truth, we also paid dearly. We buried our heroes. From a distance, I could see captured strategic weapons being pulled into town. From the B-10s of ten years ago to the B-24 “Stalin organ” rocket launchers is a big jump. Where to now? Keren or Asmara? Or, as a remote possibility, maybe back to our impregnable trenches around Nakfa?

As an individual who has known and participated in this Front from its relative childhood, and who has seen it overcome misfortune and emerge from bottlenecks, I trust that, forging forward or turning back will not make much difference. Either way will make us sturdier and bring us ever nearer to final victory. I am not worrying and for no other reason that the fact that our direction reassures me – because I have seen and have come to believe.

Above all, though, I have a behest to uphold. A behest made by that charming and purple heart of tegadalai, which I found lying at the gates of Afabet, as if to represent all the martyrs who had fallen from Sidoha Eila to Ghereghir Sudan, from Semhar to Barka, on the front lines or in the base areas, in town or in the countryside, for the very land that it had so bloodied.

Source: ERITREA, Art Time, Crossroads of Art in the Horn of Africa

(Translated from the Tigrinya original published in the EPLF magazine Harbenya, No 7, May 1988)

Here are the major books written by the Historian Alemseged Tesfai:


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