Of The Things War Did To Us

Prologue 

I live in a verge of insanity, 
Trying not lose it, 
Trying not to lose it completely

This has nothing to do with you or me or us. This is about certain things we wouldn’t have known if we were fortunate enough not to be born in this country or not at all. This is about the unexplainable contradictions we were forced to face. Like being a human and having to go on to war without apparent causes. 

This is about things war did to us, of changes and losses. This is about how our entire life is reduced into a single moment and our whole being into one box of irrelevance.

I imagined my mom today, in a war-torn village, hiding, not to get caught. And I imagine someone with a gun. I wonder how my mom would become just some woman hiding from someone with a gun. 

I know ‘that someone with a gun’ probably forgets that she has a name. But she has. She has a name. And every time I say her name the words transpire in my mouth to make a summer song. She loves geography. At times we went on a road trip, I'd say አጦሌ እኔ ፍጋት አልወድም፣1 she would laugh at me and start reciting Kebede Michael’s poem. She has the most beautiful smile. She cries very often. She was never a smooth communicator, but she has a thing for language and beauty. 

Part 1 

On language, music and some first things 

Mekelle was my absolute favorite city. With its coffee houses that turns into pubs at night and its people practically calling, almost every stranger Mearey.2 There is an uncanny sweetness in the language itself and the effect afterward. But that doesn’t sound obvious at first glance. It reveals its being gradually.

I was 18 when I joined Mekelle University. Eager for experience and perplexed by a new city that seems a world to me, I did all the things that I couldn’t do back home. It’s also where the foundation of who I am has been laid. I fell in love, I got my heart broken, I cried, laughed, made friends, created memories, shared ideas, made mistakes and most importantly I learned and grow. 

It was there that I slowly taught myself to enjoy the taste of freedom. Of music and him, of him and his name and the sound and texture of it. Of his I love you’s and the first flicker of ray I sought from a perfect stranger. 

He has a beautiful voice. He doesn’t usually sing but when he does, he makes you forget your linear perception of time and transport you to a new dimension of reality. 

His name was Ted. Ted was humble, sensitive, enthusiast and unyielding in his pursuit of justice. He wore his cross but never sought to hide his love of Sufism. He dances in a philosophical rapture of being. 

I hadn't heard from Ted until about a year ago, when I saw a picture of him on social media, dressed in uniform and carrying a rifle. And there goes the answer: he is alive. But I can’t even start to imagine how painful his experience was for him to go on a battle. 

Two years down the tunnel now, news about friends who join the resistance has become a normalcy. It’s actually where we find out whether they are alive or not. Friends, lovers, sisters, neighbours who never believed in any form of violence don’t have the luxury of choice, except to survive. And people do unimaginable things to survive.

We sustain a system where there exists a ‘just war’ and a ‘collateral damage.’

And maybe that’s why this war feels so personal. Every time a class room or a building or a place that holds a space got shattered in Tigray, we feel the echoes in here, and we carry every broken piece with us because we don’t know what else to do.

The start of our worst demise 

Two summers ago, on Nov, a gunfire erupted in this bloody thirsty land and by morning we heard the news that the government of Ethiopia has went to war with one of its regional states, Tigray. The deadliest civil wars of our time. For about two years now, the people of Tigray and some part of neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara live in a perpetual state of terror. 

A week before the war began; I was planning a trip to Mekelle. I knew tensions were developing. I even remember my partner at the time asking me if I think the tension will erupt into a civil war. That was like way before November, but I have never imagined it would come to this. To our horror, it did and here we are still counting our fallen ones. 

‘Tigray is a place where the egos and greed of leaders is making innocents perish in hundreds of thousands. It has become a land where a person can just die, just like a fly dies,”3 remarked Dr Fasika Amedesilase, a physician who has been helping people in Mekelle, Tigray.

The story of civilization 

In my attempt to understand this war, which claims a sea of innocent lives, one of the first things I did was to collect facts and figures. My assumption despite its naivety was, if the world actually knows the exact death toll of innocent lives, the swelling number of rape cases, and the preventable starvation of millions of people and children, it would do something about it. At least that’s what I hoped for. I just simply don’t want to accept the fact that people can turn away and go on with their lives as if everything is in order.

And maybe that’s where I have gone wrong, because as much as we love to claim evolution, the story of human civilization is the story of war and people are accustomed to it. 

“Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history. At least 108 million people were killed in wars in the twentieth century. Estimates for the total number killed in wars throughout all of human history range from 150 million to 1 billion.”4

But again, the problem might be in the very convention of recounting chronicles and constructing narrations in a certain way. With numbers and pseudo expressions as if, as long as we keep a low stake of death or as long as we invent an ‘appropriate’ term for violence, the world has got nothing to be concerned about. Just like that, we sustain a system where there exists a ‘just war’ and a ‘collateral damage.’ 

‘I was chatting with a dear friend in Mekelle the night the war started; I was telling him about a meeting I had earlier that day regarding the horrific killings in Gullisso5 that happened earlier in the week and what we should do to prevent things like this going forward, the irony. I remember him profusely expressing his annoyance with the AU reporting it as an “inter-communal violence” when in fact, it was a deliberate massacre. His exact words were, “I don’t know why [the international community] are so obsessed with nomenclature or number of victims ኣንድ ሰውም እኮ ቢሆን ለቤቱ ዓለም ነው”6

Fikir, a 23-year-old passionate observer of the country’s politics, revisited her memory to share with us a conversation she had with a friend about this same issue. She went on to say that was the last thing she and her friend talked about. And like most of us she hasn’t heard from him since.

Prologue 

History has a way of galloping a moment of truth from the public eye; 
And language a way of betraying those who put their faith in it.
 

People are not inherently good or bad. There is nothing innate in the morales and values of our foremothers/fathers. We have been around here for six million years, and the core of our nature doesn’t really evolve. It seems we are just hanging on to go back to the beginning, to what we were, to our primitive impulse. 

But language made us believe otherwise. It introduced us with ideals as beautiful as meaning, purpose, love and redemption. Little did we know, the path we choose could become ephemeral and impractical momentary instances.  This is for the souls who entrust in words, but shadowed by its betrayal. 

This is war. And war does inexplicable things to people. It makes us an outsider to our own suffering. It makes us a thing, a term, an ideology, a collateral damage, a sacrifice.

This is for the souls we come across and lost instantly, for the youth spent in firing guns. For the tear and blood, we have in our hand. For the total desperation that compelled us into believing those people out there are the enemy. For the helplessness we carry around.

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Of the things war to us. Illustration by Olusayo "Ajet" Ajetunmobi for GenderIT.

Part 2 

To live seems an actual betrayal, a luxury even

Is it possible to maintain your sanity, while your people are waking in the night, but never in daylight? What do you say about the lost souls, who gaze to the stars alone at night? What do you have to offer for those who replay their lives from a near distance, like it was never theirs. 

I sometimes think that war has a way of denouncing your suffering because there is always something worse than your own misery.

I remember this one time my friend, who had fled from the war, and I were arguing about which side has the right cause as in political correctness and it ended in a huge disagreement. That day I stayed out, because I needed a break. I have never felt guiltier in my life, because I was certain that I was less affected than she was. Even if my favorite city along with the most cherished memory of my youth was perished, even if I was filled with rage and all I got was a body that aches along with a never-ending helplessness, even if those same people I wept for were approaching to my hometown, and God knows what kind of play they are going to write, that doesn’t account for an actual loss, not really, right? 

Besides, what kind of a friend I would be if I try to justify yet another first-hand account? I mean, wasn’t that why I felt betrayed by my country? How do I dare fail her again and again? But I did, I failed her and we failed our people. The truth however will not cease to exist and we all bear the cost. 

So here is to her, and many others like her; I’m sorry haftey; I’m sorry for the times I failed you. I’m sorry for the nights I stayed out thinking I need a break. I’m sorry for expecting you to be reasonable and try to justify your situation, when you failed to meet my expectations. But don’t take it personally ደቂ አደይ, because, this is something that our persons appear indecisive about. This is war, a war we never choose. A war we didn’t get to say our fair shares of reason but get our fair shares of suffering anyway. 

This is war. And war does inexplicable things to people. It makes us an outsider to our own suffering. It makes us a thing, a term, an ideology, a collateral damage, a sacrifice.

On being an outsider to one’s own suffering 

I asked Selam, a 24-year-old medical student, to tell me how this war has affected her life. “I would actually feel that I am selfish to complain about what the war did to me when there are people at the verge of dying, being at the exact place of war, having nothing to eat and dying of easily treatable illnesses,”7 was her immediate response. Despite being a Tigrayan born and raised in Addis Ababa, and having to deal with the constant fear of losing someone or being taken by police, Selam doesn’t see herself as a direct victim of this war. 

Nevertheless, she stresses, “Being a Tigraway, living in another part of Ethiopia outside Tigray, didn't spare me from all the war and instability. This war is very personal to me as I have my closest families living in the most affected areas – ‘living’, hopefully.” 

But what of the distress of not hearing from a loved one; Hamid, a 25-year-old reporter, relates to the worst part of living in the dark. He narrates; “I was just one reporter who wrote news stories about the war for almost a year since the war broke out in the Tigray region. I can’t say I was not affected by the war as a person who shares a lot with his countrymen, but it was not personal until the war reached my hometown, where my mother lives. Those 36 days, when the rebels (TDF) were in the town, were the most difficult time of my life.”8

On reclaiming and redefining identity

Time is a tricky concept.
It tricks us into growing up, 
It tricks us into moving on, 
It tricks us into love, 
It tricks us into faith, 
It tricks us into hope and redemption. 
But here is what happened, I turn 25 and lost a country
Oh heaven, I have lost a country, I have lost a country, I have lost a country 

Witnessing this civil war reveals how closely we sit with hatred, how intimately we run towards fear, and how the two are intertwined in an extricable force. The very experience has pushed me to reconsider my priorities in life. Things I held dear to my heart seem irrelevant, and even a luxury at times. Unfortunately, I’m not alone on this. My respondents have openly shared their process of reclaiming and redefining their identity, as an Ethiopian, as a Tigrayan, and as a human being. 

“Since the war began I felt less Ethiopian, if someone asks me genuinely, what am I; I am ashamed to say Ethiopian. Lately, I start believing that my relationship with the country is merely political, I call myself "Ethiopian" because I was born here, and I have to acquire a nationality, as one of my friends said ‘I turned 25 and I lost my country,’ I was not even 25 when I lost my country.” Hamid 

There I was, the Ethiopian identity I had claimed all my life – an identity I had solely upheld, slipping through my fingers, leaving me empty and alone with nothing to fall back on.

“My own father was released after being arrested for 2 months for only being ‘born a Tirgraway’. Trying to (understand), it was a lot to take in living in a country you have been calling your own, but then you are feeling like an outsider. It takes me into this hole I call an ‘identity crisis’.” Selam 

“At first, I would engage in conversations with people whose views were starkly different from mine in an attempt to convince them otherwise because I thought their stances were just ill-informed – people would not wish death and suffering upon their own people had they known that this would be the result, right? 

I also felt overburdened: a country I identified so strongly with was massacring people, and I was unable to do anything about it. 

There were countless days where I would break down in tears on the backseat of the bus on my way to work. I would think of how the same people that raised me, teaching me about the value of justice and standing in solidarity with all oppressed people, could try to sweep all of this under the carpet as though it will not haunt us for decades to come. 

I would see many around me reclaiming their identities in light of the war, people from both sides started strongly identifying with their respective groups. And there I was, the Ethiopian identity I had claimed all my life – an identity I had solely upheld, slipping through my fingers, leaving me empty and alone with nothing to fall back on,” Fikir. 

Epilogue 

To N’nayye, I don’t know how we live in a world, where we seem to know exactly what to do, but lack the power to convince those around us otherwise. I’m sorry I don’t know how to talk to you anymore. I’m sorry for the times I couldn’t bring myself together to say I miss you. Because I do, I miss you. 

I’m sorry I stopped talking about books and Heidegger. I’m sorry I’m not half optimist as you are, and made it even harder for you to hold it together. 

But what can we do when beauty and truth become unattainable, and what we want to do with our lives seems a luxury? Can you possibly imagine our life together? Writing in one of Europe’s countryside? Build a house in a small village by the lake, take a long contemplative walk, learn new languages and dance our ways home, study Heidegger again and again like our greatest truth, make movies about simple, random, ungraspable experiences, and fuck like it’s the end of the world. CAN YOU DO THAT? 

Don’t get me wrong, my love. You know me; I’m just an incredibly sensitive person with this overexposed mind. And in the end, you are all I really care about. It’s just that I don’t see its relevance, when my father and your younger brother swear to kill each other.

Footnotes

  • 1. Atole ene figat alwodem Amharic for ‘Atole, but I don’t like hassles’
  • 2. Tigregna For Honey
  • 3. taken from an interview conducted by Andrew Decort
  • 4. What Every Person Should Know About War. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/books/chapters/what-every-person-shou...
  • 5. The killing in Gulliso- a massacre of civilians by members of OLF/Shene rebel group on Nov 02 2020 West Wollega zone, Guliso Werda, Gawwa Qanqa kebele of Oromia regional state.
  • 6. Amharic for- that one person is a world to one’s family and expert interview I have with Fikir
  • 7. Excerpt from a written interview I have with Selam
  • 8. Excerpt from a written interview I have with Hamid