This is a story translated from Tigrinya about two Tigrayan relatives. Rahel Negasi lives abroad. Her cousin Goiteom lives in Tselemti, western Tigray. Since the outbreak of war on Tigray on 04 November 2020 and due to the communication blackout, they were not able to communicate. After a month, cellular data was partially restored to some parts of western and southern Tigray that have now been annexed by the Amhara regional state. Upon hearing the restoration of cellular data, Rahel could not wait to hear about the situation of her family and relatives. Anxious and desperate, she contacted Goiteom to hear about the situation. Goiteom sent the message below. That is the last message Rahel heard from him.
Putting the message into context
In his message, Goiteom taps into Tigrayan past struggles, national sentiments, values and outlines a vision for his people. These concepts make sense if we put them into the historical context of Tigrayan struggle and how Tigrayans view this war.
Before the end of the 19th century, Tigray was affluent and the center of power and politics. Colonialism and internal Ethiopian power rivalry split Tigray into two: Ethiopia’s Tigray and the Tigrinya-speaking part of Eritrea. Ever since this momentous time, Tigray was deliberately impoverished, its lands taken away, and Tigrayans subjected to a harsh national oppression. In 1943, Tigrayans rose in rebellion, known as the First Woyane, and demanded an end to oppression and the reinstitution of autonomy and self-rule. Tigray was bombed into submission with the help of British Air-force. Tigrayans were more harshly punished and oppressed as punishments for the rebellion. This eventually led to yet another struggle, called the Second Woyane, led by the Tigrayan people’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF fought a bitter armed struggle against the communist junta of Mengstu Hailemariam for 17 years. Together with other organizations fighting against national oppression in Ethiopia, the TPLF formed the PERDF which overthrew the junta in 1991. To address the question of nations and nationalities, the 100 year-old unitary state was reorganized as a federation of nine federal states. Tigrayans thought their struggle for ending national oppression and return of autonomy and self-rule was answered within the framework of federal Ethiopia without resorting to independence. After that, they focused all their energy and attention on building Ethiopia.
Now, after almost three decades, the questions of national oppression and Tigray’s autonomy have come to the fore yet again. Abiy Ahmed, the Amhara political class and Isaias of Eritrea have created an alliance against Tigray and waged war on it, effectively putting an end to its hard-won rights. Tigrayans feel betrayed, scapegoated and attacked by those they considered their compatriots and friends. They also feel a reversal of the hard-won gains and they realize their 17 year-old bitter struggle has not sustainably solved Tigray’s questions and relationship with Ethiopia. This treason and reversal of hard-won gains have made Tigrayans to revisit their past struggles and to question their relationship with Ethiopia and whether their previous settlement with federal Ethiopia was misguided.
It is with the above context in mind that Goiteom writes his message to Rahel. When he says “the last spilling of Tigrayan blood”, he is referring to the new spilling of blood that he is joining in relation to the spilling that happened in the 17-years armed struggle. He makes it clear that, seen with the benefit of hindsight now, the spilling of Tigrayan blood in the second Woyane was in vain since it has not brought the Tigrayan people a homeland and a sustainable peace. He stresses that the spilling of blood this time is for the Tigrayan people to have a homeland, a country they can live in peace. That is Goiteom’s vision for his people: a country that will be born with the spilling of his blood, but that will shine forever and where the next generation of Tigrayans can live in peace.
Goiteom also makes references to three Tigrayan virtues cultivated in the previous armed struggle: ሕራነ (valor in the face of devastation and danger), selflessness and ሕድሪ (entrusting responsibility). It is the virtue of valor that Goiteom is tapping into when, upon seeing the devastation on his family and people, he refuses to be devastated and instead decides to fight back by joining the armed struggle in which he is most likely to be martyred. In refusing to list the killed and wounded family members and in joining the armed struggle that will most likely cost his life, he is adhering to the virtue of selflessness, again more cultivated in the Second Woyane. Entrusting someone with some responsibility is a highly-regarded Tigrayan value. Once entrusted, you are expected to fulfill. This value was used by TPLF fighters, among others, to entrust their neighbors, their relatives or even complete strangers with the responsibility of taking care of their children, their spouses, any other valuables or secrets of the struggle. Goiteom is tapping into these virtue when he entrusts Rahel with the responsibility of making sure the spilling of his blood (which he unsurprisingly expects to happen) will not be in vain this time. He expects her to carry the banner. He further entrusts Rahel with the responsibility of caring for his mother whom he expects will be a mother of a martyr.
Goiteom, using themes and virtues from the previous struggle, assesses the devastation the war on Tigray has brought upon his family and his people, resolves to fight back, entrusts Rahel with big responsibilities and outlines a vision for his people. In a short message told with candor, Goiteom captures the sentiment of today’s Tigray.