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First experiencing Eritrea as a Peace Corps volunteer, Wayne Kessler now works with NGOs to provide food, tents and water
First experiencing Eritrea as a Peace Corps volunteer, Wayne Kessler now works with NGOs to provide food, tents and water
Eye on Eritrea
Eritrea unexpectedly captured my heart. When I first arrived in 1994, the artists I came to interview for a book project, Africa: Women’s Art, Women’s Lives, became my friends. They also became my guides to Eritrea’s war-weary past, in contrast to their present enjoyment of peace.
Villages, more than 2,000 of them, are the pulse-beat of this small Horn of Africa nation. Carrying our sketchpads, we visited many. Welcomed and frequently invited to share tea or coffee in adobe or stone and thatch homes, we sketched the mothers preparing tea or weaving baskets, children caring for other children or fetching water at the village pond. There were also sheep and goat herders carrying long guide sticks, men ploughing with oxen or leading camels to market. My eyes, hands, and heart merged with the pen lines that eventually filled many sketchbooks.
Eritreans walked with pride — that is, those who could. Many men and women fighters and survivors of their victorious war of liberation were missing limbs, comrades, and families. After thirty years of war (1961-1991), much work was needed to re-establish personal relationships, revitalise the land, educate the young and plan for the future. I was impressed by the Eritreans’ spirit of national unity — though almost equally divided between Christian and Muslim — their unique attitude of self-reliance and absence of governmental corruption. The official languages were Tigrinya and Arabic. English was widely studied. "What is your name?" was a popular refrain, punctuated with a big smile, during village visits. The languages of the Saho, Tigri, Bilen, Kunama, Rashida peoples, etc., were also taught in local schools.
In the process of completing my book project and interviewing Terhas Iyassu and Elsa Jacob, I felt as if I had acquired two more daughters. They were both in their mid-thirties (like my daughter Winona) and they had lived almost half their lives as fighters in a war zone. Approximately one-third of the combatants were women. During periods between battles, a Culture Unit with a Fine Arts section was established. Terhas, Elsa, and three other women then had the opportunity, along with twenty men, to learn to draw and paint for practical reasons as well as self-expression. Their story is told in the chapter ‘Eritrea: Artist-Fighters With New Visions’ in Africa: Women’s Art, Women’s Lives.
In 1995 I returned to Eritrea, pleased to be invited by the Eritrean Ministry of Education and Culture and the United States Information Service (USIS) to present a workshop at the Asmara School of Art. It was an extraordinary challenge to encourage young people to explore new visions based on peace and their hopes for the future.
Coptic Altar (triptych)
In all my 32 years of teaching, I had never experienced such enthusiastic students, varying from ten young teachers in training to the majority of older, seasoned fighters, including Elsa and Terhas. The workshop culminated in an exhibit of over 100 detailed pen drawings and some acrylic paintings on themes such as Love, Coffee Ceremony, Camels, Dreaming, and My Family. Their images were a radical departure from the social realism of the war years.
Impressed by Eritreans who valued art in war as well as peace, I kept returning to visit friends and to continue our sketchbook ventures. In Asmara, my sketching sometimes occurred while enjoying cappuccino at one of the many neighborhood bars, a popular legacy throughout Eritrea from its brief period of Italian colonisation (1889-1941).
There were also many occasions to share tea or coffee with families, in village homes or crowded into a small room in an adobe compound of many family rooms in Asmara, Keren, Barentu, Mendefera, Senafe, or Massawa, a strategic port on the Red Sea. At home, coffee preparation was a woman’s ritual activity, beginning with roasting the beans in a shallow, long-handled pan held over a charcoal stove. Before grinding the beans with mortar and pestle, she passed them around the room for all to inhale and comment on the good vapours. Then they were put into a clay pot, to which boiling water was added. When the grounds settled, the strong, sweetened coffee was served in tiny cups neatly arranged on a tray.
A simpler preparation for chai or peppermint tea also brought family and neighbours together. Friends from abroad were included in this bonding ritual during Eritrea’s brief period of peace, in 1991-1998. In my painting Chai Dreams, the mother’s whimsical dreams of her children’s well-being are portrayed in incense vapours rising from near the teapot she is about to pour from.
Impressively, Eritreans organised themselves to fulfil monumental projects, from resurrecting the tracks of the destroyed railroad line from the Massawa port to Asmara, the highland capital, to terracing everywhere with endless ribbons of rock, especially along the steeply eroded mountainsides. Erosion, the result of a deliberate deforestation programme, was another form of war conducted during the long Ethiopian occupation. Now, thousands of trees were planted annually and protected from invasive grazing.
In 1996, Newsweek described Eritrea as Africa’s "success story." In 1977, the Christian Science Monitor considered Eritrea "a unique country… President Afwerki and his fellow leaders have a commitment to the masses that is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa."
hroughout Eritrea roads, health services, schools, electricity, and water systems were gradually installed or improved. Students and teachers volunteered for these projects in the summer vacations. After secondary school, they participated in the mandatory National Youth Service for a year and a half.
In Asmara, my sketching began early as most often I was awakened by the pre-dawn imam’s call to the faithful, followed by the ringing of Catholic and Coptic church bells. Frequently, I joined mothers and grandmothers as they walked to an expansive plaza in front of the stately St. Mary’s Coptic Church. The Virgin, painted in shades of pale blue, greeted them from a mural high above the church entryway.
Wrapped in traditional white cotton shawls against the morning chill, these Tigrinya women began each day with prayers and meditation. Their open palms were raised high toward the Virgin, held before their chests or placed on the ground as they knelt and kissed the earth. I never tired of sketching their statuesque forms in diverse prayer gestures or their intense features, filled with the painful memory of loss, now silhouetted by the first glimmer of daylight, and the rays of the Compassionate Madonna.
Their soulful forms are also portrayed in Coptic Altar, a triptych. In the centre, the Virgin I painted is based on a sketch of a village woman with a newborn lamb in her arms. I also included men playing the big ceremonial drums at the conclusion of the Sunday Mass. Their reverberations resounded like a communal heartbeat.
I also enjoyed sketching at the Asmara grain markets and warehouses where villagers came to sell, buy, or deliver sacks of grain to be milled into flour. Inside, clouds of grain dust filled the air as teams of young girls vigorously sifted, sorted, and cleaned endless baskets, bushels, and sacks of grain, including tef or injera, the Eritrean soul food. Flat and circular, injera is like a thick sourdough pancake about eighteen inches in diameter. Sections are torn off and dipped into sauces — zighney, a meat sauce, houmis (chickpeas), and addis (barley), all ladled into the center of the injera. This traditional meal shared with friends provided many good memories.
Refugee camp, 1999
Experiencing Eritrea year after year through many seasons has been like a seesaw, first rising high like a good harvest, now weighted down by a senseless war. It was impossible for me to remain immune to the suffering of people who were more than statistics; they were friends. During 1998 and 1999, I returned to sketch in war zones, refugee and relocation camps visited with artist friends and Wayne Kessler. First experiencing Eritrea as a Peace Corps volunteer, Wayne now works with NGOs to provide food, tents and water. The downside of the seesaw was an experience I did not expect to have in Eritrea. Gradually, a second group of paintings began to emerge, Eritrea/Ethiopia: Prayers for peace, the title for both an exhibit and a specific sequence of five images.
This series also includes images inspired by earlier journeys to Ethiopia’s ancient Christian and Coptic churches of Auxum, Gondar, and Lalibela. Seeking solace through prayers, I then realised, was a daily ritual performed for centuries by Tigrinya mothers on both sides of the border, concerned for their family’s and children’s wellbeing.
At Gondar, I was particularly fascinated by the motif of painted angels that dominated the church walls. While some angels appeared like patient protectors and smiled, others looked downward, almost cynically, on our human follies. Angels then became a unifying motif in Eritrea/Ethiopia: Prayers for peace, a series of paintings created to portray grief as well as hope.
In the central painting, The St Mary altar, the people who surround the Virgin could be Eritrean or Ethiopian as they all seek solace for their suffering not only from wars but recurring drought, hunger, and disease.
In Prayers for peace, a mother with upraised arms is a symbolic tree of life. Angels rise from her hands, possibly suggesting that people have the potential to reshape their own destiny.
I never expected to be invited to drink tea or coffee in a war zone or refugee camp. I also learned about non-traditional survival foods distributed to hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees by national and international relief agencies. As the border war escalated, food, water and shelter became scarce and many people would not survive, especially children, already weak and sick.
The theme of loss is repeated in my painting Eritrea/Ethiopia: Where have all the fathers gone. Overseen by the compassionate Virgin, three generations — mothers, children, and grandmothers — pray and weep beside rows of burial crosses, while above the crescent moon and star of Islam rise high. During my recent visit, it was emotionally difficult to realise how quickly the earth continues to soak up every generation’s blood.
In 1998, the Ethiopian government initiated an ongoing programme of ethnic cleansing. There was systematic deportation of long-time Eritrean residents, though many had lived in Ethiopia for generations, intermarried, and had homes and businesses. Families were forcibly severed, people were rounded up and deported without prior notice, others allowed one suitcase before being put on a bus on the long journey to the border.
In the town of Decemhare, forty miles from Asmara, we visited the Don Bosco Catholic Technical School, now converted into a refugee relocation centre. The refugees, young and old, some sick or women about to give birth, arriving weary from the border were first received, given a mattress in the school or tent shelter, and food. Then they were processed, that is, each person or family provided with a blanket, some grain, pots and pans, even a small sum of money to help them restart their lives. Over 70,000 Eritreans would suffer this fate.
In October, 1998, we took our sketch pads to the war zone. En route, we saw typical scenes of children walking to school, men and women cutting grain and donkeys loaded with the harvest. It was hard to imagine major battles having taken place a short distance from here five months ago. We were told of eight minor attacks by Ethiopians which occurred one week before our visit.
In Zalambessa, the signs of war were evident. Many of the pastel-painted adobe shops and homes along the unpaved main street had bullet, mortar, or artillery shell holes and were roofless. In ‘Eritrea: A Small War in Africa’ (Combat and Survival, October 1998), Paul Harris describes how the Eritrean Defense Force (EDF) retook this town claimed by Ethiopia in May 1998: "...from a strategic ridge from which they could look down on Ethiopian forces who several times attempted to storm the EDF positions in human wave attacks. Hundreds — if not thousands — of men died in these attacks, mowed down by machine-gun fire, mortars, artillery and rockets… the streets of Zalambessa were littered with bodies which baked in the sun for days until they were scooped up and dumped in a mass grave."
We drove beyond Zalambessa, passing a fertile valley where most fields still awaited harvesting, to Gelaba, a frontline village. We finally found the EDF headquarters situated in a family compound of several adobe rooms. In the sunlight outside one doorway were two young women fighters, Selam and Zemame, combing and braiding each other’s hair.
In the room that served as headquarters, the furniture consisted of one narrow bed and an artillery crate, which was also a seat. After several fighters and commanders came in to meet and talk with us, I sketched Mengesteab Fessehia and Berhans Seltan. Their worn expressions reflected what they had seen and experienced during the past few months.
Soon coffee was prepared and served by Selam and Zemame, just as it would be in any village home, except that the beans were crushed in a tin can with a crowbar. After this welcoming ritual, several fighters accompanied us for a close look at frontline activities. They pointed to the distant mountain ridges where the Ethiopians were entrenched, but we could clearly see the nearby Eritrean rock and artillery bunkers, though they were camouflaged with branche s.
Stretching along this surreal front were fields of yellow flowers (perhaps a weed), where cows grazed and little boys played. A short distance away, a team of oxen threshed grain, their repeated rotations guided by several EDF fighters who were committed to helping the farmers between battles as they desperately tried to salvage their crops.
When we returned to headquarters, I sketched Mikiel Gebremeskel and Samiel, a young child, whom he gently sheltered between his legs as they sat together on the artillery box. I was told that the boy’s grandmother had been killed by a stray enemy bullet the week before, and Samuel had been temporarily adopted by the fighters.
Soon a big platter filled with rice seasoned with salt was carried in by Selam and Zemame and placed before us on a small cardboard box which served as a table. The fighters insisted that we eat with them. About ten of us ate with spoons from a communal bowl. I was also aware that Selam and Zemame, besides cooking, were very capable of using Kalashnikovs, just as Terhas and Elsa had in the past.
I look at my sketches and wonder if Selam, Zemame, Mangesteabe, Berhans, Mikiel, and Samiel, the young child, survived the fierce fighting that occurred a year later when they had to retreat. Ethiopians eventually occupied Zalambessa and completed the destruction they had begun. No homes were left standing, no seed was planted nor grain harvested.
Ironically, while UN, US and European officials shuttled between Asmara and Addis Ababa trying to negotiate a temporary ceasefire, the following headlines appeared: ‘US World’s Lead Arms Supplier’ with Ethiopia eighth on the list of purchasers (AP, August 7, 1999). How contradictory this seemed to me: to sell guns, then broker peace. Then I read, ‘The UN Security Council unanimously approved an arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea. The embargo will be terminated if Secretary General Kofi Annan reports that the conflict has been settled peacefully" (AP, May 17, 2000).
Unresolved grieving, and who benefits? Is Grandmothers dreaming peace an elusive dream? Will peace be maintained only until the embargo is lifted? In 1999, we journeyed along unpaved roads, circling steep mountainsides to visit refugee camps. Mai Segla was nestled on a mountainside near the town of Senafe, while Mai Wurai and Dedda were in ravines. The first two camps benefitted from some large trees that offered shade, while Dedda was in hot desert terrain.
At each camp, there was little variation in the expression of the inhabitants as they greeted us, somewhat disappointed at first that we were not nurses or doctors. Almost everyone suffered from deep coughs, intestinal ailments, and malnutrition. Millet porridge was the staple, and there wasn’t enough. Gaunt mothers and children sat near their tents, sometimes boiling water for tea, a ritual of normalcy that they still maintained. There wasn’t much else to do. Fathers and sons were gone — either trying to harvest what they could of their crops, or had joined the EDF. Our sketching, something they had never seen before, was a brief distraction.
At Dedda, at 1:00 p.m. we saw many people surround a tent, still waiting for one exhausted doctor who visited once a week. Beginning at six am, the doctor had seen over one hundred people, with only a minor supply of medications to offer them. Mai Segla had many Saho people, including some women basket weavers from villages we had visited in previous, happier times. I was impressed by the efforts of one teacher, also a refugee, who attempted to provide a routine of rote learning for over one hundred children of different ages sitting underneath a large tent tarp.
In each small tent that would be home for months or years was a clutter of a few salvaged belongings, some pots, clothes, a blanket, and the millet ration distributed by the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission and the local Red Cross. The rainy season was fast approaching. Conditions would worsen.
Two years later, in May 2000, the war escalated dramatically as Ethiopia penetrated Eritrea as far as Barentu, forty-three miles beyond the disputed border area. Now thousands of families, mostly the Kunama, who in past years I had sketched in their villages and shared tea with, were being brought in by bus to the larger town of Keren. Others left on foot and muleback for the Sudanese border.
At home, surrounded by the beautiful baskets brought back from each Eritrean journey, I continue to enjoy their dazzling designs and colours. Optimistically, I feel Eritrea will once again heal, though it is heartbreaking to realise the acute suffering of so many. Will mothers always shed tears as angels look on?