By Hyab Yohannes
When I was ten, my cousin taught me how to write an end-of-year reflection essay. He had been inspired by his English teacher to write one at the end of every year. I remember writing our last reflection, entitled ‘Be brave and stay humble’, while sitting under a baobab tree. When I asked my cousin what the title meant for him, he responded, ‘These are moments that I need to be brave and stay humble’. At this time, Eritrea and Ethiopia were embroiled in a bitter border war that cost tens of thousands of lives. My cousin was in his twenties, and he knew that the local government would call him to take part in the national service. As someone who grew up listening to my grandparents’ and parents’ poignant stories of war and violence, I understood my cousin’s worries immediately.
A few months later, he received a letter instructing him to prepare for national service. Like many other Eritreans, he went to Sawa for military training. He was then assigned to the frontline after six months of intensive military training. Before he joined the national service, he left the diary we used for our reflections, and I continued to write a short paragraph every December. For the first three years, I dedicated my reflection to my cousin; I would study his previous reflections, write about the things he liked and end it with prayers. I did not doubt that my cousin would be ‘brave and humble’, but I never thought for one second that he would be gone forever. To our entire family’s misery, the local government notified us that he was ‘martyred’ in the war. The indelible memories of the death of my cousin still haunt me.
We were told they died to secure our ‘national sovereignty’ and bring peace to the country. Yet, the war and crisis syndrome has never gone from the region.
Almost two decades since the border war, acts of bravery and humility like my cousin’s never cease to humble me, but I fail to see why many people had to sacrifice their lives. We were told they died to secure our ‘national sovereignty’ and bring peace to the country. Yet, the war and crisis syndrome has never gone from the region. In the two decades since the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the no peace–no war conundrum became the norm that defined the fates of millions of people from both countries. Worse, a new catastrophic war broke out in the region at the beginning of last month. As I write, innocent people from both countries are dying in an active and violent war; new recruits are being enlisted, new graves are being dug every day, and many thousands are being involuntarily displaced from their homes. When life has lost its value and death its horror, we know what comes next: unmediated violence. This has to stop.
On the occasion of the new year, I want to send the following messages.
To the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia:
As my cousin said, ‘be brave and stay humble’, but for one cause: a call for a fostering peace. The price of peace is not martyrdom but reconciliation and concessions. We know that if we foster peace, we live in peace. Through making peace our way of life, we can make our lives worth living. Through peaceful coexistence, we can stop unnecessary wars and involuntary displacements. We must build bridges across cultures, physical borders, ethno-linguistic lines and religious divisions.
To the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia:
We suffered tremendously under your leadership. You have frozen us in needless and endless wars and involuntary displacements for decades. Please stop the war and violence against your own citizens.
To the EU, the US and Gulf countries:
We do not want to buy your weapons, nor do we want to die serving your interests and sanctions. We want you to help us overcome the divisive legacies of centuries of colonialism. We want you to help us break the chains of the neo-colonial dependencies you established. As you have done in your own countries, you can help us build peace in our countries, preserve our cultures and give our people a better chance to succeed.
To the refugees from the Horn of Africa:
Like many of you, I have been a refugee for almost a decade. Yet, while I may have been a refugee on paper and in the minds of others, I have never allowed my mind to become a refugee. I have kept my freedom to think, dream and hope. I have never given in to moments of despair that might take hope away from me and defer my dream for a better future. Nor have I allowed my mind to succumb to failure or the fear of loss. Even in the most advanced countries such as the UK, there have been moments when I felt that I had to speak up. I had to complain when a handwritten letter that read, ‘We do not need black people in this building’ was sneaked into my flat. I may not have been listened to, and the credibility of my complaints might have been questioned, but no one could undo my quest for justice. Please do not lose hope. Your tenacious work ethic, survival instincts and quest for justice will prevail.
Happy New Year!