By Jane Plastow (University of Leeds)
Two Weeks in the Trenches: Reminiscences of Childhood and War in Eritrea by Alemseged Tesfai. Red Sea Press, Lawrenceville, NJ & Asmara. 2002. xii + 223pp. ISBN 1-56902-169-4 £14.99 $19.95
As I read in the press about the children of Seventh Day Adventists in Eritrea being locked up and maltreated for pursuing their religion, whilst Amnesty International says Eritrea has incarcerated more journalists than any other African country, I look to Alemseged Tesfai’s book both as manifestation of the ideals such actions have betrayed and for clues as to where it all began to go wrong for Africa’s newest nation. Two Weeks in the Trenches is a collection of writings Alemseged (there are no family names in Eritrea and everyone is known by their first name) originally published in his own language of Tigrinya. Now that it has been translated by the author and published in English it should be read not only by anyone who has an interest in what this key fighter and intellectual has to say about the struggle for independence in Eritrea, but more widely as a unique insider’s view of what it is like to spend the key years of one’s life fighting a liberation struggle.
The first three pieces are beautifully observed vignettes from Alemseged’s childhood. Gentle and measured they introduce us to a range of characters; the violent but ultimately well meaning Teacher; Grazmatch Tsegu, the nobleman strangely accepting of his decline into impoverished bone-seller; and Hansu whose life is ruined when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.
At the other end of the book are two of the three plays Alemseged wrote in service to the struggle when he was in charge of developing literature and theatre for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) Division of Culture in the 1980s. Both The Other War and Le’ul are set, not on the front line, but in the occupied capital of Asmara. They discuss contexts, domestic and in a factory, where ordinary people are seeking to support the liberation fighters against a background of constant fear of betrayal. But they are much more than subtle war propaganda. In this most patriarchal of societies it is women who are portrayed as the resilient, active subjects of the drama, following Alemseged’s continuing commitment to raising the profile and status of women in Eritrea.
The heart of Two Weeks in the Trenches is the section entitled ‘In the Field of Battle’. As an ‘old’ man in his forties and an intellectual responsible not only for developing literature but also, earlier, for devising much of the curriculum for schools in the liberated areas, Alemseged spent most of the war behind the front line. However, in times of crisis all were called upon to fight, and as a journalist he also reported on major battles. Here we see Alemseged amongst his much younger comrades who touchingly devote enormous amounts of effort to keeping him safe as a valuable national asset, while they accept the apparent inevitability of their own deaths. Fighters here are heroes but also incredibly young, vulnerable human beings. Alemseged describes punishing marches in the mountains of northern Eritrea; daily life on absolutely minimal rations where love affairs and volleyball matches are conducted in the pauses between actions, and some quite desperate armed encounters. He also meditates on the sheer loss of life. Vivid characters are summoned before our eyes and twenty pages later they are dead. Survival guilt becomes only too easy to comprehend.
In the EPLF public criticism of the movement was never sanctioned, any more than is questioning of its contemporary equivalent, the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Alemseged does not question the necessity of the thirty-year liberation struggle, but he does confront the price that was paid for final victory. He also questions the lifestyle and arrogance of the military leaders. It appears that the Eritrean liberation struggle sought to be egalitarian everywhere but at the very top. Watching as the commanders conduct the crucial, victorious Battle of Afabet, Alemseged is in awe of their responsibility and brilliance, but remains wary. ‘They .. do not refrain from showing off their celebrity status and privileges….In an egalitarian community like ours, such behaviour stands out’ (p 111). In 2004 it appears to be these same men, along with the President, Isaias Afwerki, who are determined to hold on to power, incarcerating any who seek a space for debate and dissent, and betraying the very cause of freedom for which all the young men and women honoured here died.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 89-91]