Eritrea: My Grandmother Died Heartbroken but Never Defeated

As much as my grandmother’s heartbreak continues to haunt me, I hope it never stops. It’s a reminder of my patriotic duty.

My grandmother Roma Solomon died heartbroken. She died grieving her son, Seyoum, who had been disappeared by the regime for twenty years. She died grieving her country, Eritrea, that had been destroyed by the comrades she had fought with and trusted.

On the one-year anniversary of her death, her heartbreak continues to haunt me.

My grandmother deserved better. She had been a model patriot her entire life. She joined the war of independence – a thirty-year struggle that stretched from 1961 to 1991 – alongside eight of her children, even when there was no expectation of her as an older woman to do so. Her loyalties were always with the country, not individuals or factions. In 1994, when most people were still high from the euphoria of achieving independence, Roma openly warned about the undemocratic tendencies of the government that had been formed by the guerilla group that had led the liberation efforts.

It did not take long for her fears to become realised. During the war, when Roma had found out that her son Estifanos had been martyred, she didn’t cry, at least not in public. She told people that she would only celebrate her brave son who had made the ultimate sacrifice; he had died a worthy death for his country. But after Seyoum, her other son, was taken from his home in 2001, Roma was never the same. Eritrea was supposed to be free. The time of sacrifice and suffering was supposed to be over.

But it turned out that the new Eritrean government had other plans. In a rapid transition to dictatorship in 2001, President Isaias Afewerki suspended elections, rounded up prominent opposition leaders, and shut down the media. Seyoum, one of the country’s most prolific and brave journalists, was imprisoned alongside other critics never to be seen or heard from again. Roma’s heartbreak was overwhelming – for her son, whom she loved, missed, and worried for deeply, but also for herself. She had been betrayed by 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, Ethiopians, and now finally, under self-rule but that it was only under the rule of Eritreans that they could not even visit prisoners. My grandmother’s radio was always on in her house as she awaited information about her son. She said that if Seyoum was released, she had to hear it straight away. She did want to wait an extra second for someone else to hear it first and deliver the news. My grandmother was in an indefinite mourning period, refusing to attend weddings, 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 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 what quickly became the most censored country in the world, she never lowered her voice. My grandmother was the most stubborn person I have ever heard about. 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 never forgive the Eritrean regime for many things, but one of them is that they robbed me from getting to know my grandmother properly. The last time I saw her was in 2008 when I was 12 years old. I have not been able to go back to Eritrea since because of my public work against the regime. I wish I had been able to get to know my grandmother better, and not just from other people’s stories and a few childhood memories. She was a brilliant woman – funny, fearless, honest, smart. It hurts so much that I didn’t get to fully experience her. It hurts so much to see how so many more of my relatives cannot go back because of the regime and everything they have lost as a result. It hurts so much that my mother still has not visited her mother’s grave and has no idea when she will be able to.

Everyone always called my grandmother jigna. The word comes from the Tigrinya language, one of the main languages in Eritrea, and, according to my favourite translation of the word, it means “a legendary, heroic warrior who can never be defeated”. She had always been a jigna, first by fighting for independence and then by speaking up against the Eritrean regime. She was a true patriot. What makes me so angry about my grandmother’s heartbreak was that it could easily 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 and apathy towards the regime, especially in the diaspora.

My 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 my grandmother’s death, her 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 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 an Eritrean activist and filmmaker. She is the executive director of One Day Seyoum, a community-led human rights organisation focused on Eritrea and Eritrean refugees. She was formerly Amnesty International’s campaigner for the Horn of Africa.

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