Heroic Eritrean Mother Helen
Eng. Philmon Habtom
Few days ago I viewed beautiful family portrait of Helen and her three precious little kids who perished at the sea, with among over 300 others mainly Eritrean refugees. And then read about stories about one Eritrean woman, who was seven months pregnant and drowned while trying to give birth to her son, the premature male baby was still attached by the umbilical cord when rescue divers pulled their corpses.
Never before I felt this sadness, shame and uncontrollable rage; my disgust for the Isaias cult has indeed reached its maximum level possible for me. I swear if there was any Isaias PFDJ supporter near me trying to tell me the usual bullshit excuses of blaming the victims, blaming CIA, Woyane or even questioning their identity. I would have done something they would never forget or simply put them six feet under right there and then and get it done and dusted with…
The past few nights I was barely able to get any sleep in without having to think over and over and dreaming about the Lampadusa victims.
How could anyone sleep in peace when you hear stories like this unnamed Eritrean woman, who was seven months pregnant who drowned to death while trying to give birth to her son? She drowned while trying give to birth to her son; the premature male baby was still attached by the umbilical cord when rescue divers pulled their corpses.
And then we have the Helen story; an Eritrean mother who perished alongside with her three precious little kids. Her last cry was “Why my children I let you down, blame me for this” (more or less translated from Tigrinya). It is a mothers’ cry in a desperate and frantic situation trying to save her children but failed. And that is unquestionably the hardest thing a parent can go though in life.
To me Helen is nothing short of heroic mother; because she tried her very best to save her children (frankly they are our children too) and, she was actually very nearly there but sadly it wasn’t to be, she run out of luck at the end.
I am writing this article to tell the sad story of what our sisters and mothers like Helen and the unnamed Eritrean women who died while giving birth in the middle of life or death situation are going through to just survive.
Listen, I went through the exact same journey and experienced the same hardships what many of the Eritrean refugees are going through right now. I meet many strong and kind Eritrean women like Helen who were driven to the edge of insanity by the cruel system they left behind in Eritrea.
Helen’s story is most probably identical to Feven’s or Fatima’s survival story except up until the final hours of Helens’ last gasp for air and life before precision to the bottom of the sea alongside with her three little angles and over 300 souls.
Allow me to share this short story of Feven and Fatima whom I meet in Teseney before my escape to Sudan from my country Eritrea.
It was February 2001 when I finally had enough with nonstop violation of my human rights and the tyranny that was engulfing Eritrea at that time, that I decided had enough with this madness of this barbaric country and decided to leave Eritrea.
To cut long story short, I went to Teseney town and met a guy who called himself “Yunus”, people and goods smuggler with multiple identities from Sudanese and Eritrean side. After agreeing price with him to take me to the Sudanies town of Kassala, I went through with him to his ‘Agnet’ ( tribal shack) in Teseney before living Teseney to Kasala, and that is where I meet two girls totally veiled from head to toes ready to march to Kassala like me. Their name was Feven (aka gual Asmara) and Fatima (aka gual Keren. )
Feven had two years old child with her; she later admitted to me she was raped when she was in the military part of her 7th round of “national service”. Will come back to this more lately on…
Both Feven and Fatima were in their late teenage years but they were smart, strong and beautiful; I was glad to march alongside with.
The first 48 house of our journey was quite dangerous one; we only moved through the night to avoid detection and rested during the day wherever we find good hiding places.
I knew many Eritrean women in the so called national services where treated badly in the military but I always thought it was exaggerated like any old Asmara street gossips rather than being a serious matter. But that was all before I had first-hand account telling all about it.
Feven and Fatima were victims of continues and systematic rape inside the so called military. Fatima was a bit shy and reserved when chatting with me but Feven was determined to share all her pains with me. Including why she was forced to take incredible risk like this, traveling with people smugglers in undignified and unsafe manner holding very young child with her.
Both Feven and Fatima were forcibly put into “national service” before the age of 18 and both were allocated to high ranking military leaders as some kind personal assistance for the colonels and generals to cook food, prepare tea or coffee or to fray eggs for them. But not only that, the cruel military leaders systematically turned these smart and beautiful girls into sex slaves whose only purpose in life became pleasing the sexual appetite of the many colonels and generals they control them.
Feven told me the only way she could have escaped the daily abuse and raped was to conceive/get pregnant so that she would become unfit form farther serving the rapist. Feven became pregnant with her masters baby and subsequently she was dumped and called unfit (exactly what she wanted). Meanwhile the military leader who impregnated Feven and dumped her as unfit got another fit national service girls to impregnate again.
Back to the journey from Teseney to Sudan; while we were making our escape from Eritrea in to Sudan, the guy we paid to take us into Kassala had evil and dirty plans in his mind that later surfaced halfway in the journey. I remember me and him having big arguments in the middle of the Eritrean and Sudanese boarder regarding him wanting to basically rape Feven and Fatima.
His name was Yunus and he said to me with his broken Tigrinya “I do Fatima and you do Feven”, when I said no he went saying “they did not pay me enough anywa; and this is normal, I smuggle out many women all the time and have sex with them, it is not a big deal.” I had to man up and put the argument into rest once and for all, and said to him “Well not today, you see this big stick I’m carrying with me, I’ll have it open your skull with this if you try to rape either of them”. Luckily, he did not argue much with that for so long, because he knew that is not going to happen while I was there. In fact he was really upset with me for preventing him to do what he does when he has helpless girls in the middle of nowhere, so much so he refused to give me water to drink and made Feven and Fatima walk on their feet while he rode on a mule we paid for.
Anyway to make long story short, Feven and Fatima made it to Kesela and then to Kartum relatively peacefully. I meet Feven in Khartum again where she was working as a street tea/coffe bender to support her son and herself.
During that time there was a high numbers of Eritreans arriving into Sudan that the Sudanese had a nickname for us. They use to call us Kosovo or Taliban because of the high number of Eritrean refugees’ arrival coincided with the Kosovo or Taliban (Afghanistan) crises. Life in Sudan was and still is very hard for Eritrean refugees who are not allowed to have residence/work permit with virtually no educational opportunity for Eritreans; especially if you are a Christian, then your doomed.
So that is why Feven and other three Eritrean mothers including one pregnant woman joined our group to cross the Sahara desert into Libya and beyond. We also had in another group few young Eritrean widows whose husbands got killed in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia…
These young but strong mothers were driven to the edge of insanity by the cruel system they left behind in Eritrea. Like many young Eritreans they only knew misery, heard misery and lived miserable life in Eritrea, so like good parents they did not want their children to live the same miserable life they lived….
The story will continue….
Eng. Philmon Habtom