Guns & Cameras in Eritrea

After Turkish and Egyptian occupation, it was the Italians who finally introduced Eritrea to European-style colonialism, along with modern roads, towns, and cappuccino. World War II ended Italian rule, if not the cultural influence, and the capital city Asmara became home to British "caretakers," who did what they did best before the Sun Finally Set. To make a long story short, divide and rule didn't work as well with the Eritreans as it had with others, and by the time the USA and Britain sold the Eritreans out to Ethiopia through the United Nations, a resistance movement was more than fledgling.

Why did they sell out Eritrea? To appease Haile Selassie by granting him the Red Sea coast, which Eritrea encompasses. Sooner than later Ethiopia took this "federation" further, annexing their northernmost "province." In 1961 a war of secession began that was to last thirty brutal years. Eritrean forces, including tens of thousands of determined women, were finally led to victory by the EPLF, after battling personnel and weaponry from such formidable and well-financed foes as a US-backed Selassie, and later a Soviet and Cuban-backed Mengistu.

In July 1992, I visited Asmara to run a three-week photography workshop for the Eritrean government's Department of Information. A year earlier, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) had finally defeated the forces of Ethiopian Imperialism and was in the process of establishing itself as Africa's newest independent country. The "fighters," as they referred to themselves had all spent years in some of the most unforgiving terrain in the Horn of Africa. At their government’s urging, they had taken up photography after suffering injuries during skirmishes. Everyone had lost loved ones in battle, and many bore telltale signs of brushes with death; the slight limp, a gimpy arm. Roma Abraha, who married fellow photographer Michael Tesfalidet after they met a field hospital, both in critical condition, guided my fingers to a large hole in her skull, hidden beneath thick black hair. During a visit to their home, I was shown tattered albums featuring color snapshots of the loved ones they fought beside. There were photographs of weddings, and of children who had been conceived and raised in the field of battle.

The government archives in Asmara contain thousands of negatives and prints stored in virtual anonymity. Personal mementos aside, the vast majority of the photographs taken by the fighters are standard, documentary-style images of life during wartime: supply lines, battlefield scenes, campground living.  Along with the provocative visual allegories photographed by Fremenitos Stefanos, a young artist in our workshop, they constitute a documentary that deserves wider viewing and appreciation, especially when one considers the technical obstacles involved. Equipment was outdated, or simply battered. Even in Asmara, film was being developed without plumbing, the photographers manually transferring water between a pair of large oil drums.

We traveled the country together, once visiting the devastated town of Massawa to attend a burial ceremony during which dozens of patriots in flag-draped caskets were feted as heroes in elaborate military fashion. At a rest stop during the long overland trek, I spotted a pistol tucked away in the back pocket of Eyob, a circumspect and gentle-mannered member of the group. When asked why he still carried it, he smiled wanly and answered softly, "It's mine." 

Massawa, Eritrea, 1992. Copyright David Blumenkrantz  

Massawa, Eritrea, 1992. Copyright David Blumenkrantz



Interview with Hanna Simon: EPLF Former Freedom Fighter, Journalist with Eritrean TV. Asmara, Eritrea, July 14, 1992. Ms. Simon is currently the Eritrean Ambassador to France.

Bright, outgoing, and possessing a sharp sense of humor, Hanna Simon was raised as one of 11 children living as Eritreans in Ethiopia. Despite an upbringing that included being educated at French schools in Addis Ababa, she describes herself as just one of thousands of women who took up arms in the war for Eritrean independence. Hanna was wounded several times, mostly by shrapnel. Once interviewed by a French journalist visiting the field, she recalls, “He was so surprised to find this female freedom fighter in the middle of Eritrea who spoke French!” The interview was broadcast on French radio and her mother, living in Paris, heard it. Hanna’s two brothers had already died in the war, and their mother was so happy to hear her voice, that she came to find her.

During the war Hanna married a tall, rugged-looking fighter who also worked in the information field, by her explanation due to peer pressure. She eventually divorced him just a few weeks before this interview. “I haven’t been myself for the last 14 years,” she admits. She feels that she fought for what she believes is right, has done well as a nationalist, but lacks personal development and experience. She laments the loss of all the books, education, flowers, and experiences of a young woman. She agrees that she needs badly to get away from all of this, if only for a short while, to study, to grow personally, but she reminds herself and me that “we’re still fighting.”  “Who?” I ask. “Construction,” she replies, laughing at the obviousness of the thought. 

 DB: Please start by telling us about your background, your childhood, and the events that led you to make the decision to join the fighters in the struggle.

HS: I was born, and grew up in Addis Ababa. My family had lived there for 40 years. But the fact of being born there and growing up there didn’t erase our national identity- - we were always Eritreans. My father always taught us that we were not Ethiopians, that we were Eritreans, that we had a different identity, and that someday we’d go back to our nation.

DB: Why were you staying in Addis for all that time?

HS: We went to Addis during the federation only to work... All my family went there with a passport- - they couldn’t go without a passport because it was federation period. After the annexation, it meant that all Eritreans became Ethiopians, but my family never accepted this. For the background, it was an easy family I can say. We had enough - - my father had enough salary to raise us and to give us enough education. We were 11 children. We went to one of the best schools in Addis Ababa, a French school. And we had all the opportunities to go abroad and to continue our studies. The first five children went abroad to France to continue their studies, but five of the rest of us joined the EPLF. There was a struggle going on for Eritrean independence, and we wanted to play a role in it.

DB: When you were living in Addis, did people give you any problems because you were Eritreans?

HS: Yes! We had problems even at home. We couldn’t speak in Amharic because my father didn’t accept it. He didn’t want us to speak in Amharic, or to have the Amharic culture- - the culture of the colonialists. He taught us Tigrinia, we spoke in Tigrinia. So there was a sort of discrimination against Eritreans and Tigreans. Everywhere we went there was discrimination. My father told us, in his office, there was some kind of discrimination against Eritreans and Tigreans. They called us  “eaters of locusts” and so on…

DB: Eaters of locusts? So the fighting was happening up here in the north, right?  Do you remember the exact day that you said, “Yes, I’m going to go.” Was there one particular thing that made you angry, or made you feel so strongly that you had to go?

HS: The first idea came after 1976. Because in ’74 Haile Selassie was overthrown, and we couldn’t continue normally. We stopped school for two years because of the new government. Because he (Mengistu) wanted us to go to the campaign to teach… It would have been a good idea, if it were for the right cause, you know. But he wanted to take us away from the cities so we couldn’t continue our studies. I was thinking about going to the field, fighting for Eritrea. Because I was brought up in the mind of an Eritrean. I always said, “What am I doing here? What am I doing in Ethiopia- - I am not Ethiopian. I must go and fight.”

DB: Did your father support you to go fight?

HS: I didn’t tell him. I never told him, but always he brought some clippings from foreign journals, from Le Monde for example, and he brought any news or analysis about Eritrea, and he told us “look at this,” and burned it afterwards. And he always told us the role of the fighters, the role of the two Eritrean groups (EPLF, ELF). We knew many things about Eritrea. But I didn’t decide to go until the coming of the Dergue because I was a little girl up to then. But then by 1976 I was always thinking if there’s any chance to go to the field I’d go, but I didn’t have any contact with the fighters. I wish he had lived to see our victory. (Hanna’s father died in 1980).

But then I came to Asmara. We always came to Asmara every three or four years to visit because my mother always said you must know your country, you must know your village, and she brought us, three children this year, three children the next year, and we always had contact with Eritreans. We came here, we saw our village- - the village of my father, the village of my mother, and Asmara. Then in ’77 I came to Asmara and I stayed here for two months, and the situation was very bad. In Ethiopia too it was very bad. May 1977 was the time when two thousand students were killed by the Dergue. So when we came to Asmara, it was not safe. It was my mother who came here, and she wanted to take us to the field, to the liberated area, to my brother, to France, or anywhere abroad. She took us to Keren, a liberated area.

DB: What convinced you that you could become a solider?

On the way to Keren I saw many fighters. There was particularly a girl who was in the artillery unit, and I think she answered all my questions. I thought before I couldn’t go to the field because I was a female, and I thought I couldn’t bear the life there, because I was a woman, OK? And then I talked with her, she told me everything, that there was no problem- - of course there are problems, but you can bear them, and life was not as difficult as I thought.

DB: At the time there were already hundreds or even thousands of women fighting?

HS: Yeah, there were many but one-third came after we joined. When I met this girl, she was called Abrahet, she taught me everything, and I also saw a little boy, see? Of course he was not with the fighting force, but he was in the office of the fighting forces, he was always going with the leaders. He was a little boy, and when I saw him, I was very angry, and I said, “Why should I go abroad? Why should I go abroad and study? If I have to serve my country, let me serve it with knowledge I have already. I don’t see why I have any privilege, all the Eritreans fighting here and I’m going abroad and continuing my studies.” I couldn’t bear this idea. And I decided to join the EPLF when I arrived in Keren.

DB: So you stayed in Keren - - you never left?

HS: I never left.

DB: Your mother left you there. How did she take that?

HS: When we arrived in Keren, uh, she hoped that we would go. But I went to her and told her, “Momma I can’t go. I can’t go, I have chosen to stay here, to join.” There was also my little sister, and my brother. We were three of us joining at that time. My brother and I told her that we couldn’t go abroad. But my sister tried to calm her by saying she would go abroad. But as she was only a little girl she couldn’t manage to go alone. And my mother sent her with someone she didn’t know. It was the only thing she could do, there was no other alternative to take. So my sister, when she arrived at the frontier, at the border, a place called Karora (at the border of Sudan), she didn’t want to continue to Sudan because she was afraid of staying in Sudan. Because she was a very little girl and she couldn’t stay alone, and uh, the only reason she went was to calm my mother, but her real wish was to join with us. So she returned to Sahel, and we met at the training camp.

DB: You trained in Sahel. That must be a very harsh place, very hot. How was it? Were you training with all women?

HS: We had two units of women in one group, with almost 40 women in one unit. And there were three units or little children, I mean youngsters, not more than 20. And it was very hard. It took me a long time to adapt to it. It was very hard.

DB: Did you ever have doubts, and thought, “Maybe I should leave”?

HS: Yeah, the first time, yes. I remember my mother said, OK, if it’s your choice, go on, you can continue. I won’t stop you. She didn’t say anything. But afterward someone told me she wept a lot when we left, and I remember her. And then the first two or three days in the Sahel, I doubted, and I regretted it. It was hell, yeah. Hell.

DB: How long did the training take?

HS: Six months.

DB: After that you went immediately into combat?

HS: No, after that I went to the economic department, I went to what we called the “bank” of the organization, it was a small unit. I stayed there for eight months. And after that there was the strategic withdrawal, with the integration of the Soviet forces, in the last months of 1978. From that time, I went to the fighting forces.

DB: Artillery?

HS: In the training camp we were trained in everything and if you have to go to the fighting forces, you can go to the artillery unit, or to any fighting force.

DB: I don’t want to take you through every incident, through every painful memory, but I’d like you to share with me please, some of the most memorable battles you were involved in, or some close people you were with, maybe some people that you were close to that you lost.

HS: For the battles, the battle I remember as the worst was the Sixth Offensive (1982), and also the civil war with the ELF. With the ELF we had civil war from the last months 1980 to the last month of 1981. It was the last time that the ELF went out to Sudan, and it was the last time of its existence. There was this civil war. At the beginning, we had no other choice. We got into the civil war because the ELF was very provocative.

DB: What was the dispute over? I thought you’d be fighting for a common goal?

HS: Yes, after the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from around Asmara- - before 1977 we had surrounded Asmara and it was almost finished. But there was the intervention of the Soviet forces. Not troops but armament, and they also had their fighter plans, and they participated in it. There were advisors, and there was involvement from the Soviets. That didn’t cause it (the split between the EPLF and ELF), but from the beginning the ELF didn’t want the EPLF to have a stronghold on Eritrea. In the long run, they didn’t want an Eritrea led by the EPLF.

DB: So tell me about the conditions in the field. And how you felt in the battles?

HS: We had different kinds of life. For example, in the strongholds we built in the Sahel and Nafa regions, we had a stable life, you can say. We had the strongholds built there. In the night, we went there and waited for the offensive to come. And in the day we went out of the strongholds. We had houses we built in the mountains, and there we had political training and also educational training. Before the Sixth Offensive, we had classes up to the 6th grade. There were people who didn’t know anything, and who went from 1st grade to 6th grade there. So we lived our normal life, but it wasn’t easy. It was because we accepted this that it could be all right. So we had to bring our water, we had to go up the mountains for two or three hours to bring water- - carrying the water on the shoulder. And we had also to bring our, what we call Kicha, which is the bread we baked there. So we had to bring it up on the mountains, and it was too hard, everybody participated in it. Everybody went down in the valleys to bring that, and it was very hard, you can say. And when the fighting began, everyone was relieved, because the life is hard. And waiting, always waiting- - you don’t like it. You prefer to have the fighting for a short time, and then to pause a bit, and then to continue. You want to have the fighting. Because you want to finish it early.

DB: Men and women are living together, fighting together, side by side. So you become very close with people?

HS: We were very close- - we were very close, and (laughs) too much close! I mean normal life couldn’t be as close as then.

DB: What about relationships between men and women? Women getting pregnant, having babies. How did you cope with such situations happening?

HS: Ok, ahhh, if a woman gets pregnant in the battle lines, she comes down to the rear base. She’s withdrawn to the rear base, and she stays there and has her baby. After she has her baby, she stays for three years with her baby. And after three years, she goes back to the battle lines. In the rear base, it was different. Anyone could have her baby with her, and if a woman was pregnant there, she would work until she’s tired. And thereafter having her baby, um, when the conditions are right, she begins working.

DB: Did you have wedding ceremonies or other occasions to celebrate, to take a break from all the hardships, and have parties, and this kind of thing happening in the camps?

HS: Yes! For example, in our information department, relatively it was better than the front lines. We were safe and we weren’t fearing anything, so we had a party every month. We stayed all the night there and the following day was a day of rest and then we continued our work. (Laughs) We don’t have such things since we have come to Asmara, you see. Everybody’s concentrating on their work, and nobody thinks about it.

DB: You sound like you miss those days?

HS: Yeah! I miss! (laughs) I miss it, I miss it!

DB: So it was rough, but it was also good?

HS: It was also good, yeah. It’s a mixed feeling.

DB: What about actual fighting? You had to shoot your weapon. Did you ever know that you’d shot and killed somebody?

HS: In the fighting you see, it’s everybody who shoots. So you are not sure who killed- - whose bullet killed the enemy. But one day I remember in the Sixth Offensive, there was a soldier who came in front. I shot. He went the other way. I shot and I saw him falling, and it was the only day I remember I really shot him.

DB: How did you feel?

HS: Happy.

DB: Happy?

HS: Yeah. Because it’s the enemy (laughs). I’m very happy! When you are fighting, you don’t think about humanity. You only say, “Oh, I killed him! Oh that’s fantastic!” You don’t think about humanity.

DB: You kill him or he was going to kill you?

HS: Yeah…

DB: What about the Sixth Offensive in 1982? You’ve mentioned it quite a few times. What was it about?

HS: From the involvement of the Soviets, the Dergue began the First Offensive, Second Offensive and so on. They captured many places with the offensives. It (the Sixth) was violent, and it was undertaken after two years of preparations. We were sure we would defeat the Ethiopian Army. We thought that they were not well trained, they didn’t know anything. They didn’t have the same shoes that we had. We had sandals, and they didn’t wear them. We were always sure that one day we’d defeat them. But in the Sixth Offensive they prepared for two years, and their army was very strong. They learned how to fight in the mountains. They learned what to wear in the hot region, and also how to live with donkeys bringing their food up the mountains. It was their strongest army, and they were sure they would sweep us from Eritrean soil. And it was hard.

DB: But they didn’t?

HS: They didn’t, of course.

DB: I want to end the discussion of the war, but there’s one more question. Were any of your close friends or people killed?

HS: In the fighting? Yes, I had very close friends die in the fighting. And family members-- two of my brothers. They died in the fighting. But I wasn’t there when they died. I only knew about it a year after their death. Because we didn’t have any news about each other. And we didn’t like to give news about this because we had the mentality that one day we’ll die. So why bother giving news about ourselves to the others. So I didn’t get any news about them, until after the end of the civil war in 1982.

DB: Tell me how the war ended for you?

HS: When the war ended, I was in Sahel, at the extreme north, near the border with Sudan, because the information department was there. We were following the events, because we were the information department, and we knew where the people were. For example, we captured Massawa in 1990, and it was a year later that we captured Asmara.

DB: So what are your feelings about Eritrea now, one year after independence? What is your prediction for the future of Eritrea?

HS: I hope that if we work hard, we will succeed. But we have to work hard. Because we have nothing. It’s a very poor country. We have no money, we have maybe the base of the infrastructure. But to develop this we need money, we need help. How to use this help? I don’t know. We must work hard and we must change some ways of working. Because in the field it’s different. Now we have a country to administrate.

DB: Most of the people you work with now were fighters. The war was 30 years, so mostly everybody was involved. Do you find that it’s a problem for people to adjust to a more civilian way of thinking?

HS: There is a great difference between the civilian’s thinking and the fighter’s thinking. And there is some thinking of the civilians that we do not accept. For example, the way they are seeing their martyrs, you know. We, we have accepted it. We say that without it, we couldn’t have brought this independence. But some of the people, they are very sad- - too sad, I mean. I don’t say that they shouldn’t be sad, because they are their sons and their daughters. But they must understand the situation. They must understand that without the martyrs, we wouldn’t have brought this independence. I think we have different views on this. Some people, they want to stay a week or so without work, to stay at home to make all the ceremonies for the memory of the dead. We don’t like all these ceremonies of marriage and of burials and so on- - it’s too hard to accept.

We as fighters understand that we can’t jump and bring fantastic development in one year, or in a very short time. We think we are going to manage to do this step by step. But the people are expecting too much. They want everything to be settled in a very short time. And they always tend to criticize this government. This is not acceptable with us. Because yes, we have spent a lot of hard time in the field. Now we are administrating a country and it’s not easy, especially when it’s very poor, and has nothing. We have to go step by step.

DB: Are civilian people involved in the administrating of the country, or is it strictly the people that were involved in the EPLF?

HS: Most of them are fighters. But there are some people who were abroad, who were members of mass organizations of the EPLF. They are not totally fighters, but they have spent more of their lives helping. So they have come here and are given some posts.

DB: When you look around the streets of Asmara, you see different types of people. It’s very easy to notice a fighter, woman or man. Especially, the women- - the hair is like this, they’re usually wearing a T-shirt and usually wearing jeans. And the men, it’s pretty easy to tell the fighters from the people who have come back from being in “exile” in western cultures. How is the relationship between these two very different types of people?

HS: For example, let’s take the youngsters. They can’t go with us. We can’t understand each other. Because they have different views. They don’t know anything about their nationality, anything about Eritrea. In our generation, when we left to the field, we knew everything about Eritrea- - we knew the history of Eritrea. And the youngsters who we found here- - you can’t say they know anything. When you mention the strategic withdrawal, they say, what’s that? It’s terrible, you know. They should have known it. Because it’s national matter. Yeah, it was a historical event. Asmara was surrounded and suddenly we withdrew to the Sahel. Every Eritrean should remember it. We couldn’t face the Ethiopian army, with all its armaments. It was a strategic retreat. Then we came back, step by step. We took some regions, then rested, and then we took some more places.

DB: Do you think that the lack of support by the Soviet Union at the end of the war was one of the reasons that the war ended so quickly and so decisively in your favor-- because the Dergue suddenly found themselves without that support?

HS: Maybe one reason, but it’s not the main reason. The Dergue was already weakened, even with the support of the Soviet Union.

DB: The main reason was that you just gave them a good old-fashion beating.

HS: (Laughs) You see, we were becoming as strong as them, because we were capturing armaments from them. And the levels of the armies- - we caught up to the same level, and then we went ahead, and then we came to Asmara (laughs again).