It was Eid al Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan on December 1st 1970. My father was attending the only secondary school in the region in the city of Keren, Eritrea. At that time it was named the province of Eritrea, as the country was under imperial settler-colonial rule after annexation in 1959 by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. A few days before Eid, a group of guerilla fighters known as ‘Jebha’, Arabic for liberation front, took one of the first major offences against the Ethiopian army by killing a military major commander in the village of Ona. This was two kilometres from Keren, where my dad resided. The Ethiopian military retaliated with one of the most grotesque massacres of Eritrea’s 30-year war of independence. The village of Ona became hell on earth as troops indiscriminately killed men, women, and children, leaving the village an inferno burning into the night. Residents in Keren stood in horror as they heard the voices of their people wail in agony. My father visited the village a few days later, after the elder leaders were granted permission by the Ethiopian army to bury the dead. Eid celebrations usually lasting three days ended with Janazah; funeral prayers over mass graves.
I was 23 years old when my father told me about the Ona Massacre. Before then, I knew very little about my father’s life in his occupied homeland. The war of independence lasted from 1960 to 1990 and left an entire generation with deep wounds and untold stories. Almost every Eritrean family has lost a member in that war and experienced the lasting effects of displacement and trauma. Today the Eritrean diaspora is spread across the entire globe as a result of the independence war and its aftermath.
After 30 years of war, any semblance of peace quickly dissipated as a new generation was led into another two-year border conflict with a newly independent Ethiopia that ousted their own fascist military regime a few years prior. The wounds of war were encoded into another generation’s DNA as children of freedom fighters were sent to fight on behalf of tyrannical leaders. A military-industrial complex was created to keep our youth in the chains of war as Sawa, a military camp, opened in 2003 for conditional grade 12 schooling. Instead, it turned into indefinite conscription, rendering our people hostage to the wills of a dictatorial regime. This has caused a mass exodus of Eritrean youth through dangerous routes to north Africa and eventually Europe to escape social imprisonment . Along the way they undergo harsh conditions and the constant threat of human trafficking. If they do reach Europe’s doorway, drowning in the Mediterranian sea is the alternative barrier to freedom.
To be Eritrean is to have a direct link with war and its psychological undoings. Intergenerational trauma caused by war and displacement has become etched into the very meaning of our national identity. We not only inherited our parents’ genetic traits, but their memories of orphaned newborns latching onto their dead mothers. As my father retold the story of the Ona massacre, I found myself present in a village I’ve never visited, recognizing faces I’ve never met, and smelling the smoke of burning huts I’ve never seen. As I sit in my comfortable reality, worlds away from a small country in the horn of Africa, I think of my people back home that don’t have the luxury of simply imagining the realities of war. It is by sheer luck, and not merit, that has me shielded from military camps and dangerous expeditions through the sea.
It is not enough to recognize this immense privilege however. Online activism and advocacy may not topple a dictatorship, but does give a voice to the voiceless. With lack of free press and limited access to foreign journalists, the only way to penetrate the state’s propaganda is through amplifying the voices of recent refugees and people on the ground. It is not a choice, but a moral responsibility to engage with activism rooted in anti-imperialism and decolonization to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors’ liberation movements.
As of November 2020, a civil war broke out in Tigray, the bordering province of northern Ethiopia, between the central government with their allied Eritrean troops and the leaders of the Tigray ruling party. The war has quickly and uncontrollably turned into a genocide with innocent Tigrayan civilians experiencing indiscriminate killings, looting, and gender-based violence five months later. Tigray was long regarded as a safe haven for Eritrean refugees; housing three different refugee camps catering to the increased number of Eritreans fleeing south. Since the start of the war, two camps have been destroyed and refugees find themselves at a crossroads between a brutal dictator and a civil war.
As I began reckoning with my understanding of intergenerational trauma and the humanitarian crises in the region, I started to see the wounds of my ancestors unravelling right in front of me, through the harrowing recurrence of the same war crimes they’ve endured. The same playbook re-enacted almost 50 years later — but with different victims, locations, and excuses. The constant factor, however, remains tyrannical regimes using innocent civilians as pawns in their ludicrous games.
In the current times of absolute darkness, I asked my father what helped him see past the worst of what humanity has to offer. He replied solemnly: “unwavering and unbreakable hope that justice will always prevail.”
For more information and resources on the Tigray Crises please visit https://omnatigray.org/
For more information and resources on the plight of Eritrean refugees please visit https://onedayseyoum.org/