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ERITREA : What happened to the Eritrean female freedom-fighters?

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Training of women fightersIn the trenches of DenDen, near the Sahel stronghold of Nacfa, in northern Eritrea, the formidable EPLF fighters who for years had been repelling the attacks of General Mengistu’s Ethiopian infantry and air force, were teenagers in shorts. And between one third and a quarter of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea” (EPLF) freedom fighters were girls.

The volunteers came from all strata of the Eritrean society, both Christian or Muslim. Most joined the EPLF against the will of their parents and the majority described their background as being “very traditional”.

Suddenly they were thrust into the totally different world of Marxist-inspired guerrillas that preached equality between men and women and challenged all their traditional beliefs. Thousands of young girls participated in the struggle, not only as nurses or messengers, but as fighters, with guns. Some of them even became commanders of tank units.

After 1977 these women fighters were allowed to marry their comrades of the trenches. They did it with a supreme contempt for all the prejudices that had previously ruled weddings in their society. After a brief honeymoon, husband and wife returned to the front, often not seeing each other again for several months.

Chou-Chou with fightersTheir children, something of a rarity until the end of the 1980s, were raised in those phalansteries that were the units of EPLF fighters, who shared everything with no regard for money. The symbol of this communal education was the revolutionary school, known the Zero school, in the Sahel.

After the victory in May 1991, and the proclamation of independence in May 1993, one chapter of the EPLF epic was definitively over but a number of fundamental questions remained unanswered. What would happen to the fighters and the new culture forged in this laboratory of the Revolution and in particular what about the women fighters? Were they going to impose their values on Eritrean society at large? Or, as happened in Algeria when independence was finally won, were the women doomed to go back to the kitchen?

During the months that followed the victory, the women fighters gradually returned to their families, sometimes after an absence of more than 10 years. At that time the fighters were seen as heroic freedom fighters whose sacrifice had allowed their country to snatch its independence from Ethiopia.

During this first period of euphoria both classes of women, the fighters and the civilians, watched each other with an immense curiosity. The women fighters were immediately identified by their garb and their style, their “look”. Wearing short hair styles, khaki trousers, military tunics, and the plastic sandals of the fighters, these young women soldiers deliberately rejected all the tricks of feminity.

Ex-women fighters working in a fish marketBut it was not only their look that was different. So was   their behaviour.

Salamawit was 14 when she joined the EPLF in 1981. Her mother, Alganesh Gebrai, did not see her again for 10 years. In 1991, a few weeks after the liberation of Asmara, somebody knocked at the door. Alganesh did not immediately recognize the young stranger who stepped in and asked: “Well, Mom, aren’t you happy to see me”?

Several weeks later, Alganesh was still praising her daughter’s difference in attitude, she explains: “We, the civilians, always wanted to have more, but the fighters always seem to have enough, and they were happy to share the little they actually did have. They have a culture of sharing, they also have a mutual understanding, a love of each other we don’t have. They were happy of being together, they laughed, they sang, and time went by joyfully. When there was no food, instead of eating, at lunch and dinner time, they danced”.

Four years after liberation, many things have changed. In Asmara one rarely sees women soldiers in battledress. Now wearing civilian clothes, these young women resort to the tricks of fashion and style they despised for so long. These days nothing in their appearance distinguishes them from other modern Eritrean women.

“Before, we wanted people to look like us. Now, we have to look like the people around us”, says Besserat Haptemariam, a former fighter who went to the field in 1976, at 17, and who lived and fought for more than ten years alongside the women of Sahel and Barka. After wearing short curly hair,   military tunic and khaki trousers for years, Besserat, who works now at the Court House in Asmara, is unrecognisable as a former freedom fighter.

Besserat, whom her friends had nicknamed Goual Gueretchet (Daughter of Contradiction) appears to have made the transition from soldier to wife and working mother most successfully. However, for some, settling back into a life of domesticity was more problematic.

Of some 12.000 women fighters demobilized since independence, more than half are reported to have divorced. The marriages did not survive the return to a normal civilian life. Besserat explains, “Often couples got married without thinking of the next day. Life was like a match that one lights, and which burns for a brief moment. For all we knew, we were all doomed to die. So, if we were attracted to each other, we got married”.

Besserat knows what she is speaking about: out of the six teenagers who left Massawa one evening in 1976 to become freedom fighters, she is the only one to have survived.

Hanna Simon has a story similar to Besserat’s, and to many girls who rallied the guerrilla in their teens. Born in 1961, she joined up when she was 17, in 1978. Married at 25, she has recently divorced. “When I married”, explains Hanna, “I was mixing everything -- politics and emotions. I had absolutely no sexual education, it was a taboo subject at home. When I met a young man who liked to talk politics with me, and who shared the same ideas, I was convinced he was exactly what I needed. We were obsessed by the will to build an exemplary society”.

“We knew very little about each other. We spent one month together, and afterwards each went his own way for a year. These marriages could not last. At the end of 1990, I decided to divorce”, Hanna explains.

It is not only the women who have revised their thinking. “The men have changed, they have become traditional again”, claims Ruth Simon, Hanna’s younger sister. “In fact, this traditional male thinking has deep roots that go back many generations. When they went to the front, men were forced to accept EPLF policy of equality between the sexes. When they came back to the cities after liberation, the government had other priorities, it did not concern itself with the emancipation of women and men fell back into the old way of thinking”.

At the front, men and women shared everything, pleasures and duties but when the male fighters returned, they refused to work at home or to take care of the children.

“It is with the birth of the children that the problems really begin”, explains Ruth, a journalist who still lives with her husband or more accurately is not separated from him. He is an ambassador abroad, she lives in Asmara. “My husband suggested I quit my job so that I could stay at home, though my education is better than his. He did not want to take care of our child, and he would not accept the idea that I could leave my daughter to go and work or study”.

Ruth is very bitter at the treatment of former women fighters: “The former male fighters are worse than the civilians”, she says. “At least, the civilans respect us. Today, not one fighter wants to marry a woman fighter. We are too strong”.

Material problems also contributed to worsening tensions between husband and wife. After living for so many years in the field, where all their needs (clothes, food, cigarettes, etc) were taken care of by the guerrillas, in a summary but  totally equal way, the fighters are faced again with the problems of money, and inequality. “Husbands often want to spend their money with friends, not on their family”, explains Ruth.

The issue of the divorce of former women fighters alone with children and most of the time without a job has grown so big that several women founded an association, BANA (Dawn), the Eritrean Women War Veterans Association, at the instigation of Miriam Mohammed, a 31-year-old Muslim woman who spent 15 years in the guerrilla forces. The idea was to help former women fighters become economically independent with the creation of a co-operative. Each share costs 1.000 Birs (a little less than $200). Demobilized women fighters can buy shares with the money they received in severance pay.

After the proclamation of independence the Eritrean government discharged about half its fighters; some 51.000, including 12.000 women, from a total 100.000 troops. Each fighter was given a small gratuity of 10.000 Birs (a little less than $2.000, or about ten months salary) to help them to reintegrate into civilian life.

Miriam Mohammed, the president of BANA, prides herself on having already recruited 1.000 women ex-fighters to the cooperative, created in July 1995. They brought with them a capital of 1,5 million Birs (about $300.000). “When we have 2 million Birs, we close subscription”.

Miriam and her friends have already set up several projects. A fish market, which employs 9 women ex-fighters, has already opened, soon to be followed by a bakery, employing 20 women. The biggest project is a ready-made garment factory that would give work to 200 women sewing uniforms for nurses and other public sector workers.

Small and very energetic, Miriam is not too pessimistic about the fate of the Eritrean women. “Who is going to influence whom? It is a very important question. It is true we are few, and many dedicated fighters are dead. It is a big loss. We now must live in a very different society. The key”, concludes Miriam, “is to be economically independent. If you have no resources, you live with your mother, and you have to do what she wants. But if the fighters are self-sufficient, there will be no going back”.

(The Middle East magazine, June 1997; Jeune Afrique Economie, 15 avril 1996; Le Nouveau Quotidien, 11 mars 1996)  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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