Virtually every country on the African continent endured occupation by a European nation due to colonialism. However, the East African country of Eritrea experienced a more unique situation in which it was annexed by neighboring Ethiopia in the early 1960’s, leading to an armed struggle for liberation that would last approximately three decades. Alemseged Tesfai’s Two Weeks in the Trenches: Reminiscences of Childhood and War in Eritrea is the author’s translation of his earlier account in Tigrinya (a common language in Eritrea) of his time spent amongst the troops of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) as they fought the war for independence from Ethiopia.
The book is divided into three sections, each of which is devoted to a different genre: short stories, journalistic essays, and plays. The first story “Shobere”—a crude variation of the Italian word for strike ‘sciopero’—is about a group of students who organize a walkout from class in response to excessive corporal punishment administered by an authoritarian teacher. In “Grazmatch Tsegu”, a young boy and his family ponder the identity of a mysterious old man pushing a wheelbarrow, who bears a striking resemblance to a dignitary from their village who vanished many years prior. The final story “Hansu” concerns the fate of a homely woman who is disgraced when her sweet and guileless nature causes her to be taken advantage of. She flees her village with her illegitimate daughter, but is rejected by her prosperous relatives in Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia). She moves to a nearby slum where she earns a meager living for herself and her daughter by braiding women’s hair. When a woman is hit by a car and dies at the scene of the accident, she is mistakenly identified as Hansu. Thus, her relatives are forced to confront their neglect and mistreatment of their family member. Though the first two stories read as non-fiction, it is not entirely clear whether “Hansu” is a work of fiction, or perhaps based upon someone known to the author in his upbringing. Read within the context of the whole book, these three stories provide personal insight into the culture and values that shaped the young men and women who would carry out the war for liberation.
The second section, arguably the core of the book, centers on Alemseged Tesfai’s time spent amongst the tegadalai (freedom fighters) in the 1980’s as they fight key battles against the Ethiopian military. Tesfai is in his early forties when he decides to join the freedom fighters, and though he asserts his desire to participate in combat with the tegadalai, his more experienced compatriots, some of whom he taught as students at a school for young revolutionaries, seek to shelter him from the riskiest aspects of the operations. Nevertheless, in the titular “Two Weeks in the Trenches”—a series of diary entries—Tesfai exposes readers to the brutal realities of combat in the arid terrain of the East African desert, where survival is a game of roulette. ‘“Military mistakes are corrected by death,”’ a company commander remarks to him after a procedural error in a five-man operation leaves three soldiers dead and one severely wounded. The EPLF was remarkable for its inclusion of female fighters on the frontlines. Tesfai does not differentiate much between the experiences of male and female fighters, other than to note that the women tend to suffer from “gastro-intestinal problems” in the trenches. Women fighters, likewise, die in combat alongside their male counterparts.
In “At the Battle of Afabet: The Drama of a Piece of Flesh”, Tesfai is dispatched to report on a major battle against Ethiopian troops for Harbenya—an EPLF magazine whose title means ‘patriot.’ The battle is an impressive success, and though Tesfai is privileged to celebrate in the ranks of the commanding officers who made this victory possible, he struggles as a journalist to find a way to capture its meaning for the readers of his magazine. He finds his metaphor of choice when he and the officers stumble upon a heart lying in a vast pool of blood. “It was a human heart. No bone, muscles or any other body parts, just a heart—an oily, bright and red human heart […]” Based on the remnants of a uniform nearby, they determine that the slain possessor of this organ was a tegadalai as opposed to a member of the enemy forces. Throughout his writings from the battlefield, Tesfai contemplates the bravery and selflessness of the freedom fighters. “These kids do not believe in reincarnation, and yet they have this unflinching conviction that they will live on in their surviving comrades, in the realization of the dream they are dying for.” For him, this solitary heart—completely intact yet severed from any corporeal connection—becomes symbolic of the collective character of the warriors and is the subject of his concluding essay in this section “Heart of the Tegadalai.”
The final part of Two Weeks in the Trenches is comprised of plays that portray the hardship the ongoing conflict creates in domestic life. “Le’ul” explores the plight of a young woman working for a low wage in a factory owned by Ethiopians. Her only child recently died as an infant because she could not afford to pay a doctor to treat him. Her husband drinks heavily, creating unrest in their marriage. By the end of the play, both Le’ul and her husband have been recruited by a family friend to join the liberation struggle. “The Other War” takes on the more complex family dynamic of Letiyesus, an older woman whose daughter, Astier, marries a high-ranking Ethiopian officer after she is abandoned by her first husband, a local Eritrean. Astier, who has a daughter from her previous marriage and a baby with her current husband, invites herself to move into Letiyesus’ house with her family. The situation becomes more sensitive as it is revealed that Astier’s ex-husband was an abusive drunk and that she begged her parents to let her divorce him. Thus, Letiyesus views her daughter’s new allegiances as retribution for the suffering she endured at the hands of an Eritrean man.
“The Other War” may come across as excessively hostile with its implication that even in the domain of romance and family, Ethiopians and Eritreans are incompatible. Tesfai, however, provides a thoughtful afterword to the play, explaining it within the framework of a 1970’s ethnic cleansing campaign in which Amhara (the dominant ethnicity of Ethiopia) soldiers were sent to a region with a heavy Somali population that was prone to unrest, and encouraged to either marry or rape the local women. In the words of a high-ranking Ethiopian military official: “[…] either through marriage or by coercion. We will thus change their composition…” In light of this, although Tesfai states he has no moral objections to inter-ethnic unions, he felt compelled to artistically explore this disturbing form of ethnic subordination.
Two Weeks in the Trenches is hardly an easy read, but it is an enriching one. The tome benefits from the juxtaposition of different literary formats: short stories, reporter’s prose, and plays, allowing the author to take a multifaceted approach to examining his subject matter. It is also helpful that Tesfai translated his own work from Tigrinya, enabling him to preserve in English the meaning of his original text. In 1991, Eritrea finally gained independence; though the book ends before this ultimate victory occurs, readers are left with a passionate understanding of this struggle and the people who persevered in its name.
1. “The World Factbook: ERITREA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 14 Nov. 2017. Web. 18 Nov. 2017.