On Eritrea’s 30th Independence Day, a granddaughter’s lament for her departed grandmother – and for her country.
My grandmother, Roma Solomon, died heartbroken. She died grieving her son, Seyoum, disappeared by the regime for 20 years. She died grieving her country Eritrea, destroyed by the comrades she had fought with and trusted. A year after her death, her heartbreak continues to haunt me.
Mostly, it makes me angry. Grandmother deserved better. She had put in the work; she had been a model patriot her entire life. She joined the war of independence alongside eight of her children, even when there was no expectation of her as an older woman to do so. My grandmother’s loyalties were always with the country, never with any individuals or groups. In 1994, when most people were still high from the euphoria of independence, Roma Solomon started to warn about the new government that had been formed by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice after independence in 1993), the guerilla group that had led the liberation struggle.
When grandmother found out that her son Estifanos had been martyred in the war, she didn’t cry, at least not in public. She told people that she would only celebrate her brave son who had given the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Bloodshed had been necessary to get what we deserved from the Ethiopians. He had died a worthy death.
But after Seyoum was taken from his home and disappeared in 2001, Roma Solomon was never the same. Eritrea was supposed to be free now; the time of sacrifice and suffering was supposed to be over. Instead, things were about to get much worse. Seyoum was one of the country’s most prolific and brave journalists. He had become a thorn in the flesh of the government. He was imprisoned alongside his peers as a part of the government’s transition to dictatorship.
Grandmother’s heartbreak was overwhelming – for her son, who she loved, missed and worried for deeply. But also for herself, betrayed by her comrades who had not only stolen her son, but her country. This was not the Eritrea she had fought for.
Roma always said that she had lived under the rule of the Italians, British and the Ethiopians. But it was only under the rule of the Eritreans that we could not even visit our prisoners. Grandmother’s radio was always on; she was waiting for news about her son. If Seyoum was released she had to hear it straight away, not hear it from others.
After Seyoum was arrested, Grandmother went into permanent mourning. She refused to attend weddings, any celebrations, or even wear shoes. As time went by, she went from asking to visit him, to asking to at least know where he was, and finally to just know if he was still alive. She always said she was jealous of her husband who died in 1997 and was spared the unbearable pain she had to carry.
Amidst the heartbreak, Roma remained committed to speaking up. In the most censored country in the world, she never lowered her voice. Grandmother was the most stubborn person I have ever known. She genuinely did not fear anyone. She openly called for the release of her son, complained about the conditions in the country, and told off regime officials to their faces.
I will not forgive the Eritrean regime for many things, but I will never forgive them for robbing me of the pleasure of getting to know my grandmother properly. I last saw her in 2008. I was 12 years old. I have not been able to go back to Eritrea since. My public work against the regime has ensured my exile. I wish I had been able to get to know Grandmother not just from other people’s stories and a few childhood memories. She was a brilliant woman – funny, honest, charismatic, smart.
So many more of my relatives cannot go back because of the regime and everything they have lost as a result. My mother still has not visited her mother’s grave, and has no idea when she will be able to.
Grandmother was also called jigna. In Tigrinya it means “a legendary, heroic warrior who can never be defeated”. Grandmother had always been a jigna – she had done everything she could for her country – first by fighting for independence and then by speaking up against the government. She was a true patriot. What makes me so angry about my grandmother’s heartbreak was that it easily could have been prevented if more Eritreans had been as patriotic as her. Yes, up until independence, many Eritreans showed great patriotism, but what happened after? The Eritrea that exists today is a result of the support for, and apathy of, the Eritrean regime, especially in the diaspora.
Grandmother’s story is not unique. Too many of our patriots have passed, still not seeing a free Eritrea after decades of sacrifices and suffering. They deserved so much better. A year after her death, Grandmother’s heartbreak continues to haunt me.
I hope it never stops.
Because as much as it hurts, it is also a necessary reminder of the great legacy behind me and my duty to never, ever stop fighting for my country.
Rest in peace jigna adena Roma Solomon – may you finally find the peace you were robbed off on earth and may you witness the release of your son and liberation of your country from above.
Vanessa Tsehaye is Amnesty International’s campaigner for the Horn of Africa.