When we were children, my older cousin Solomon hopped like a rabbit. After failing the eighth grade, he started selling animal hides from the country, which he would carry himself or load onto a donkey. He always had candles, too. Fifteen years later, he was a wealthy merchant with a bald head, a big belly, and a leisurely gait. I wanted to ask him, “Do you have to get old to get rich?” The rest of us had scraped by since the war started, but Solomon had prospered. He looked like he was from another world.
He always wore a black leather jacket and a white shirt. He now owned several houses, shops, and cars, and he spoke Amharic with Tigrinya mixed in. While I was away fighting Ethiopia with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, he threw a lavish party for my older sister when she returned from exile in Saudi Arabia. Now I was home on leave from the war and seeing him for the first time since I left. Today would be my party. What would it be like? I was a fighter. I lived in the field. No one paid me. The enemy’s soldiers got paid. Not Eritrean fighters. We fought for Eritrea’s freedom. We won the war. Eritrea was free. That was my pay. Now I came back. What would he do to thank me?
I knew we would talk about the last time we met, and he would ask me, “What happened to those fighters who were with you? Efrem, the one I went to school with, before I flunked out. Is he still around?”
In the eighth grade, Efrem left school for two years because he got sick. When he came back, he started the eighth grade again, but by then I was in the eighth grade, too. We were classmates for the next three years. Since he was older than me, he thought he was smarter, too. When I got higher grades in science, we became rivals. But by the ninth grade we were friends, and eventually our friendship grew into a teenage romance.
Solomon found out and told my parents. At first they didn’t believe him because they thought I was shy; then they caught Efrem and me together. They had other plans for me, and this clinched them. They would marry me off to a merchant. When I told Efrem, he begged, “Don’t do it,” then disappeared. I was devastated, and my parents knew it.
The very next January, the traditional month for weddings in Eritrea, my mother took me to see a nephew getting married in the country. Solomon came along. They started arguing when they thought I was sleeping.
I heard Solomon say, “What if she runs away? What if she decides to join the struggle? That’s what the young are doing now.”
“Impossible. What can she do? She’s afraid even to go outside by herself.” I had never heard my mother speak so dismissively about me.
The wedding preparations amazed me. I had never seen so many people, especially young people, dressed so beautifully, looking so strong and helping each other. They helped my aunt move everything around, set up a huge tent, cut wood—whatever she needed. I had never seen such community spirit before. It changed my life. Everyone shared in whatever there was: laughter and joy, pain and struggle. They were ready to work together. I could tell that a lot of the guys were fighters by their khaki shorts and Milanos, those short-sleeved shirts made in Italy that factory workers wore, too.
I saw some cute girls standing with the fighters and asked my cousin, “What are those girls doing with those guys?”
“Algu,” he answered with a laugh, “are you afraid they will rape them? They know they would die if they did. They’re so scared of the law, they might as well be eunuchs.”
Embarrassed, I watched the men dance, never letting go of their machine guns and rifles and wearing belts of ammunition, too. The song they danced to and sang along with praised a girl who carried a child instead of a gun.
She carried a gun
But she needs it no more
Full blooded and brown,
She’s won the war—
A lion with her cub
Who grows with her love!
The leader of the soldiers, Wedi Sheka, approached me. I couldn’t understand everything he said because he spoke so quietly, so humbly. But I liked it. I liked his beard, too, which went with his big Afro that everyone knew declared proudly, “I am a fighter.”
“We all come from Eritrea’s womb,” he said, hesitant at first, but then more confident. “I mean anybody, young or old, educated or not, from the city or the country, boy or girl. They all need to fight to free our country from being colonized.”
He didn’t make a lot of sense, but I still asked him: “Who are those girls with you? What do they do?”
“They fight like us,” he answered matter-of-factly.
“They do? They can? Guys and girls together? In the field? That’s OK? I mean, it works?”
He laughed. “We have rules and follow them. We don’t give the girls any problems.”
I had a more burning question. “Did a guy named Efrem from the city join you recently?”
“Why do you ask?” he answered.
“We went to school together.”
He took out a notebook, asked me for the name again, and nodded as he ran his finger down a page and stopped, saying, “A trusted member of one of our organizational cells. He is in prison now.”
I didn’t want to hear any more.
On the way home, I told Solomon I enjoyed the wedding, which pleased my mother. I kept my real plans—to search the city prisons for Efrem—a secret. Back in town, one afternoon, Solomon and I were walking on Selassie Avenue. The Ethiopians had just changed its name to National Avenue, but that didn’t bring back the buses, which were banned out of fear that our fighters would attack them. Solomon seemed quiet, so I asked him, “What are you thinking?”
“I am thinking about your wedding,” he responded slowly. “Your engagement to the merchant has been set.”
I almost collapsed, but instead I said I had to pee and ducked into a café. From then on, I barely had a moment when I was not thinking about the freedom fighters. Whether I found the fighters or they found me, I can’t say. I only knew we needed each other. I kept seeing the face of Wedi Sheka and hearing him say with more and more confidence, “Anybody, young or old, educated or not, from the city or the country, boy or girl. They all need to fight to free our country.”
Before long I was meeting more fighters, and they all said the same. I admired their conviction, and believed their earnest accounts of the oppression of the Eritrean people. Still, I wondered: in all our conversations, the families of the fighters never came up. Didn’t they care about them? How could they sound so detached? Didn’t they have any feelings? Then again, when we talked about the oppression of women, and I thought about how my family oppressed me, it felt like maybe the fighters were right about this, too.
They never shared their plans until they were almost about to happen. Like the day a fighter brought three women who were my age to my family’s house. The custom of fighters giving new recruits one last night of the relative comforts of civilian life before sending them into the field to sleep in the bushes was still unknown to me. “Let them sleep here. They came to fight,” I was told. I kept my thinking to myself, “Why do they have to sleep in my house? Why can’t they sleep with you?”
Thank God my mother was away. None of us slept. As I saw them packing plastic sandals, bed sheets, sanitary napkins, bras and panties, the girls giggled like bridesmaids. They got me giggling, too. Yet at the time I hadn’t realized that young Eritreans would think to buy things that they thought they would need when they decided to run off to the field and join the armed struggle.
I envied them, especially when they started cutting off all their hair. “Me, too,” I said. They knew immediately what I meant.
At first they acted shocked and begged me to stay in the city, but they stopped when they saw that I really wanted to go as much as they did.
“What a shame!” one cooed, although not too seriously. “You could have plaited your hair for your husband. Now you’re cutting it off to go fight in the field.” Tears dropped into my lap with the clumps of hair, but then she added, “Don’t worry. We’ll bury it for good luck.” Efrem had said that my hair was what first attracted him. Now I looked like my brother.
Just as the fighters arrived to pick us up the next day, my mother came home. I peeked through the cracks in the door. When I saw my mother covering her hair, as if someone she loved had died, I knew she knew that I was leaving. The fighters were standing around, and I also saw neighborhood women weeping and begging the fighters not to take us. My mother started crying loudest of all. Desperately holding up the jewelry I was supposed to wear on my engagement day, she collapsed on the ground. I wanted to run out to help her up, but then I felt my hair.
The family blamed Solomon for me going off to fight. Fifteen years later I knew that it was the last thing he wanted to be reminded of.
At the party I found him talking with several other cousins. I heard him say, “I didn’t want to go to the struggle like Alganesh, without making any plans. Of course, I had heard about a lot of others leaving.”
He sounded as if he was happy and even proud to have stayed at home. He glanced up and saw me.
“Algu, who did you come home with?”
“A bunch of other fighters who are visiting their families, too,” I answered.
“No. I mean, are you married?” He asked what everyone else was afraid to ask.
“No, I’m not married.”
“Do you have children?”
“So who did you say these fighters are?”
I didn’t like his questions. The tone of my voice told him so, but his face didn’t show it. Furthermore, he knew and I knew why he had asked me.
My mother tried to smile. “She’ll tell us later, not right away.”
People arrived and started congratulating me for coming home alive. Most of them either repeated what Solomon had asked me, or they asked my mother, who also repeated, “She’ll tell us later,” sometimes adding, “Yes, she is married but wants to hide it.”
I thought having survived, after having buried so many of my compatriots, would be enough.
Did I leave my mother, my home, and my family for a sweltering military training base with disgusting water? I asked myself that many times during those tough early days in the field. We drilled hard. I also missed the first fighters who welcomed me. The seeds of patriotism that they planted in me seemed so sweet in comparison, as did my family, despite our differences.
But a few months of military training made my soft body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter—far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.
Eventually, the memory of my family, and even of my mother, started to fade, recurring, rarely, only in dreams. I felt happy, like I was a child again. Fighting as a woman beside other women made me love my country. I loved and was proud of being a fighter.
In 1977, after I had been in the field for a year, the EPLF started to allow wedding ceremonies for soldiers. They made me laugh, most of all at myself for not really caring about getting married myself. Not that I didn’t have a lot of proposals. But I turned them all down. Still, every time I heard the words “marriage” or “child,” I remembered the song I had heard at the country wedding about the girl who carried a child instead of a gun.
She carried a gun
But she needs it no more
Full blooded and brown,
She’s won the war—
A lion with her cub
Who grows with her love!
I smiled because as I remembered the scene of the girls dancing with the guys, each of them with a gun in his hand, I pictured myself as one of them.
One evening, our platoon leader told me to report to our battalion center. Maybe someone else was going to ask me to marry him, I thought.
“There is a fighter who’s come looking for you,” the battalion leader said in a kind tone, unusual for him.
I thought, “Who is that guy with the gray beard?” He said, “Algu.” I saw the blackened tooth. He had chipped it in a playground fight to protect me. It was Efrem.
He broke the silence. “Your leader tells me you’re a great fighter, a real student and the best at mending ammo holders. Kind, too.”
Finally some words came into my head. “I didn’t know where you were. I will sew you a better ammo holder than anyone. I make them from the boots of dead enemy soldiers.” His pistol told me that he was a leader, too.
“You haven’t forgotten what your mother taught you?” he said a little awkwardly.
“I have been practicing. I have been making fighters’ clothes out of all sorts of scraps.”
“Do you remember how to make bedsheets like the ones you were making for our wedding?”
I couldn’t stand any more small talk. “How did you get out of prison? Why didn’t you tell me you’d gone with the EPLF?”
“I didn’t want to try to get back together without seeing you first. Maybe you had forgotten all about me and found….”
“What do you mean? I can’t think about marriage here.”
“You aren’t in a relationship?”
“Tell me the truth. After me”
“No one. I swear in the name of the martyrs. No.”
He looked happy, suddenly relaxed, and his questioning tone disappeared. “I heard about you. How you left. The places you’ve been. I worked hard to find you. We even have different names now. I am Wedi’smera. You are Segen.” His hand touched my shoulder.
“I told you. I can’t think about love, about marriage…here.”
“Who has brainwashed you? Why should love keep you from being a fighter?”
“I see all the problems. People get torn apart. They see their partner once a year. Is that—”
“We can be different. We can be independent. We can live together and have children.”
“Just like that. Really? You must be making fun of me.”
“Don’t fighters like you give birth here?”
“Yes. Then they leave their children at Division 17. I have never met any woman who didn’t regret it.”
“The struggle has changed you, Algu. You are too hard now.”
When he had to leave, we exchanged combs. Mine was nicer, engraved with my name, but I wanted Efrem to have it. He insisted that I should write to him and think more about our relationship. Instead I made him a new ammo holder and sent it to him, with more ammunition, too.
Soon after I came down with typhoid. The week I returned to my battalion, there was supposed to be a ceremony with up to eighty fighters getting married. I wasn’t looking forward to it. After all, not all of the couples would attend, and I knew why—they died in action. Still, despite myself, the ceremony made me happy. I liked all the talking, the jokes, drinking dmu dmu half the night and dancing with all the newlyweds. They gave me my strength back, and I even started to envy them.
I decided to request permission to visit Efrem. It wouldn’t be hard. Our battalions sat next to each other on the same front. When I got there, the fighter who greeted me summoned a female fighter and whispered in her ear. We hugged as if she knew me. Leading me down a narrow underground corridor and placing a rag on the floor for me to sit on, she said, “Take off your ammo.” Her welcome put me at ease. She acted as if she had been stationed there a long time and had become used to the constant sound of artillery. By chance I saw something hanging in a corner and smiled. She noticed but left. I slowly reached for a jacket and the ammo holder I recognized. As I waited for Efrem, I took out the letter he had sent to me in the hospital. I read it over, as I had many times since then, especially the part in which he begged me to reply. I knew what I was going to say and mouthed the first words.
But no one came. Not the woman fighter and not Efrem. Thinking what fighter would go out without his jacket and ammunition, I got nervous. My heart started pounding louder than the artillery outside. Finally the woman fighter returned. Had she thought I was sleeping? Saying only, “We will talk tomorrow,” she took the jacket and left.
I had spent many a long night in battle, but none as long as this. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep. My eyes burned. My thoughts ran wild.
The ammunition holder contained one round inscribed “only death will separate us,” the comb I’d given him, and his diary. Nothing had been written in it for forty days.
I wanted to leave, but how? Enemy soldiers were everywhere. Waking up early but feeling weak, I snuck down a trench and eventually made it back to my battalion leader. I thought he was going to question me about the trip, but he said nothing. Didn’t he hear about me coming back on the radio? Didn’t he want to know why I returned early without asking permission?
I saw our medic, and he called my name. I wondered if he was going to ask about my period, thinking I was married now. Frowning, I approached him.
“So how was your leave?”
He ordered me to the hospital to be sure I was completely recovered from the typhoid, but I said I was fine and didn’t need to go. I wanted to take the rest of my leave, and I didn’t care where.
I joined a random bunch of soldiers loading onto a truck, and we traveled all night. We stopped for a day, covering our truck with leaves so that enemy planes would not see us. Just before sunset, the driver rolled down to the river to clean his mirrors. We followed. Cars and trucks lined the banks, along with fighters from everywhere, many of them wounded. I couldn’t help staring at them. Then I saw him.
“Efrem. Is that you?” I shouted.
“Algu. What are you doing here?”
“Whom did you give your ammo holder to? Your notebook and even your comb?”
“I left the ammo holder with my commissioner and took his. The notebook only had two pages left. I didn’t bring your comb because I didn’t want to lose it. Algu, you never answered me. The operator I was with got pregnant an—”
“You got someone pregnant?” I screamed.
“She wanted to get married.”
“You got married?!” I screamed even louder. I didn’t care who heard me.
Staring at me, he said, “I can’t stay here,” turned around and left.
And now I see Solomon again. Fifteen years later. Efrem? My fallen comrades? The field? I have come back home. Yes, I am married. I married my country. And I gave birth. I gave birth to its flag.
“ወሊደ’ምበር” © Haregu Keleta. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asghedom. All rights reserved.