A trip to Mai Habar with Fessaha Yohannes Joshwa
September 18, 2001 was a horrifying day for Eritreans and international organizations advocating for journalists as well as freedom of speech. The day Eritrean private newspaper journalists and high ranking government officials were put behind
September 18, 2001 was a horrifying day for Eritreans and international organizations advocating for journalists as well as freedom of speech. The day Eritrean private newspaper journalists and high ranking government officials were put behind bars was the day the nation came to an official standstill.
As a journalist working for a private newspaper in pre-September 18, 2001 Eritrea, I had worked with some and had met most of the founders, journalists, contributors and editors who have been locked up for 14 long years. We have attended workshops and seminars or gone to field trips together.
And there were those meetings, we had been going to for months prior to September 18, 2001. In hindsight and in my internal monologues, I had come up with as many “what ifs….” as possible. ‘What if we had taken those meetings seriously’ and so on? But none made sense whatsoever because we never did take them seriously. What we used to do is this: In advance, if we ever spoke about them, it was “By the way,…..” kind of thing, with a raised eye-brow. Once there, we would sit there exchanging knowing glances and smiles somehow.
Those meetings usually took place in the Ministry of Information compound and were mostly chaired by Zemhret Yohannes. Essentially, we were there to be reminded that free press was an illusion. “National security was the media’s priority (even) in the US during the Vietnam war”, we were told. So it was as if we were being asked; “Why don’t you emulate the US media’s ‘patriotism’ during the war and stand behind your government?”
Regardless of who distorted what facts, the writing on the wall could have never been any clearer. We were told to SHUT the F….. UP! Except we were blinded by the illusion of our collective and individual freedom as well as rights as human beings and citizens.
However, I am not going into any of that right now. All I feel is the urge to go back in time, to those days and see all those beautiful, predominantly young, brilliant, self-motivated, questioning, mostly fresh Asmara University graduates the way they were back then.
They were professional teachers, lawyers, accountants, writers, poets, directors, artists, photographers, journalists…etc. Most of them were also national service members. They have been assigned to something or other. So the newspapers were usually their part-time jobs. However, they have somehow managed to found and ran them in post-independence Eritrea.
And I say, they were what we are not but could have been or will be when we grow up. For me, they represent the conscious, principled, heroic and beautiful part of our past and a future where everything and everyone Eritrean have become the best they could possibly be.
Going back in time, what stands out for me is the camaraderie I experienced there. It is as if all of them had the big picture in that part of their mind where they could easily and frequently access it. They might have been working for various newspapers, founded, owned and ran privately, but they seemed exceptionally conscious of why they were there in the first place.
One other thing I cannot help remembering is, how as a female (there were only a handful of us) in that male dominated group of reporters, I was always encouraged but never once excluded.
With them put behind bars and the private media crackdown on that historic day, an era came to an abrupt end. And the oasis they had built for their people had been barren ever since.
Fessaha Yohannes or Joshwa is one of those Eritrean journalists who have been in prison for 14 years. I am sure many are familiar with him because he has touched many either through his reporting or his art. As a writer, a lyricist, a drama instructor, a journalist …etc he has left an enormous mark on both the art and media scenes.
As I was working for the newspaper he co-owned and was an editorial board member of, I had the pleasure of working with him. He was the type of person who would make everyone around him feel at ease. Even when you met him for the first time, you could not help but feel that you were talking to someone you have known for a long time. He was very down-to-earth and compassionate. So it was obviously easy for him to put himself in other people’s shoes. Exceptionally powerful in the way he used the spoken as well as the written word, he always made an impact everywhere he went.
I could go on talking about his virtues and his influence as an accomplished artist. But then I would not be able to write about this event that took place a little over 14 years ago which in my mind’s eye has become synonymous with Joshwa.
It started off as a pretty regular day for me. But I somehow found myself on a 110 K/m field trip with Joshwa. We were going to cover something, that much I remember about the failed mission. And as anyone can imagine, we were disappointed. However, we decided to make the most out of that trip. Since we were in Massawa we agreed to go to the beach for a little while. Neither was I dressed for any field trip nor for Massawa. And certainly not for the beach. So I had his pair of plastic sandals on while he walked bare-feet.
On our way back to Asmara, he had one of his brilliant ideas. He turned left. Then May Habar, it was. The camp for Eritrean War Disabled Veterans. Once there, we started looking around. I thought; “We are lost. No one could possibly live here.” Because that place seemed abandoned. And it was very dirty.
Soon enough, Joshwa not only saw someone but he even recognized them. So we moved towards someone who could barely move. It was a former companion he knew a long time ago. It was during the independence struggle when they were both younger and fit. The man told us how impossible it had become for him to take care of his family. Many others shared similar stories.
At some point, it was time for a meal and we had to go into the huge cafeteria with Joshwa’s former comrades. What we saw there was even worse. But we did all we could to mask our true feelings. Trying to pretend everything is okay when it is not is difficult.
Finally, we met a young man who had sustained head injuries. With only an arm and a leg at his disposal, he had to take care of his months old beautiful baby. He told us that his wife left him that morning because she could no longer put up with the hardship at the camp.
At that point, I was confused. But Joshwa was inconsolable. Apparently, he could no longer fight back his tears. It was as if a wall has come down. So from then on tears simply poured down his face. And it seemed to go on forever.
Joshwa and his tears. Now, I ask myself whether he was shedding those tears for what was yet to come in that country he sacrificed his youth for.