Women of War

For 30 years, Eritrean women fought alongside men for independence from Ethiopia. Now, the latest border skirmishes with Ethiopia threaten to undo many of the gains the women of Eritrea have made in a patriarchal society.

It is 5 a.m., and I wake in Asmara, Eritrea's capital, to the sound of the muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer before dawn. I'm on the streets before 6, when the sound of cathedral bells fills the sunrise sky.

In Asmara, there's no sign of war. Brigades of women street sweepers clean the sidewalks and gutters. Uniformed schoolchildren scurry to class, their long shadows trailing them in the golden early light. The cafes slowly fill with customers reading the morning papers.

Women in flowing white gauze move toward St. Mary's Church where they have gathered by the hundreds at the gate of the Orthodox church. Their prayers fill the morning air, punctuated by the flapping of pigeons swooping from one cupola to another.

These are the Eritrean mothers who have been immortalized and worshipped, who have offered their sons and daughters to the 30-year struggle for independence, given shelter and sanctuary to the fighters, and smuggled secrets across enemy lines. Once again they must watch young Eritreans go to battle. They are waiting for war, but praying for peace.

Demet Negru has seen enough war. Family photos and pictures of Mary and Jesus crowd the green walls in her tiny bedroom. Tucked among these images is a certificate with a photo of her daughter, Tsega, declaring her martyrdom in the war for liberation.

This is a familiar sight. In every Eritrean home I've entered, there is at least one of these reminders of the human cost of conflict (see sidebar, next page).

"I really don't know much about politics,'' says Demet, who, by Eritrean custom, is known by her given name rather than her family name. She has lived under British, Italian, Ethiopian, and Eritrean rule. "I think the past war was better in its way than this one,'' she says, "because we understood then why our children, including my daughter, were giving up their lives for their country. They were sacrificing their lives for one simple reason: to free Eritrea."

During the war for independence, women constituted one-third of Eritrea's army - not merely logistical support - they held command positions, led tanks into battle, and served in combat beside men. They were wounded, killed, and gave birth in the field.

In some ways, they were able to use the equal status garnered on the battlefield to liberate themselves from the repressive traditions of their predominantly patriarchal society.

Prior to independence, family members arranged their daughters' marriages - frequently when the girls were in early adolescence. Women's low status was captured in proverbs and folk songs that compared them with donkeys. They were even forbidden to own property.

Things have changed since the war. Women run businesses. They have representation in government and have won the right to own property. More young women are choosing the men they marry.

But other things remain the same, despite government promises to change them. Today, 85 percent of Eritrea's women remain illiterate, and 85 percent of young girls, both Christian and Muslim, are still being genitally mutilated in a tradition that has been repudiated, but still exists, across Africa.

Help for women veterans

The transition to civilian life after the 30-year war for independence was difficult for the female ex-fighters.

"When I was first demobilized, I couldn't get any job," says Ghenet Dagnew, who joined the Eritrean People's Liberation Front when she was 14 years old. She married and bore her first child in the field.

She now works at the Gajeret Fish Market in Asmara, a business cooperative run by female ex-fighters. The women banded together in an organization called Bana, which means "brightness," alluding to their hopes for the future. The members transport fresh fish from the Red Sea port of Massawa and distribute it in the capital.

"We were given training," Ghenet says. "The army didn't leave us in the middle of nowhere. It supported us until we got back on our feet."

Her speech punctuated with the thud of a machete as she chops fish, Ghenet says she has no regrets about the hard times in the field or after the war.

"I want a better life, not only for my daughters, but for the whole of Eritrea after all these years of oppression," Ghenet says. "We don't want them to hear the sounds of war again."

Winning the PR war

Eritrea is once again battling with Ethiopia in a border dispute that is among the most destructive on the planet.

In an epic battle last March, more people died in three days than in the entire Kosovo conflict. Ethiopia and Eritrea have their own versions of the battle and their own body counts. But in their fight for independence, Eritreans have learned the value of public relations.

Now, while the Ethiopian government refuses to grant international press access to the front line, Eritrea offers guided tours. Fighters in the trenches are accustomed to journalists. They know what kinds of shots the foreign photographers are looking for, and they aim to please.

Their tactics have paid off. "Genet and Alganesh were featured in Paris Match,'' Mekonnen Woldeyesus says of two female fighters stationed at Tserona, his voice tinged with pride. Mekonnen is the government "minder" who has escorted me to the front.

But these women aren't just pretty faces, and the front line is no fashion show. Although during lulls in action they cook and wash clothes, in the heat of battle, they're in the trenches dodging bullets with the men.

Entrepreneur in camouflage

Saba Nagesh thought fashion would be her future in independent Eritrea. A single woman who adopted a daughter, she marches to her own beat. Taking phone calls, signing paperwork throughout our interview, Saba is all business.

She was born in Asmara, but left the country in 1971, living in Switzerland and the United States, earning a bachelor's degree in marketing from UCLA. She worked as a fashion representative in Italy and the US before returning to Eritrea in 1998. With $4 million of her own money and a loan from the government, she purchased a textile factory.

"I saw an opportunity,'' she says. "The country is starting from zero, so you can start [over] with the country.''

She named her company Barocko Eritrea and developed a slogan: "New fashion for a new nation.'' She had visions of manufacturing bright-colored miniskirts and hot pants. But when war erupted again, Saba, a consummate businesswoman, saw a new opportunity.

Now her factory manufactures camouflage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She employs 850 workers, 80 percent of them are women. They work as electricians, mechanics, spinners, seamstresses, and floor supervisors, earning on average $45 to $65 a month.

Despite the war, Saba talks of the future with optimism. She's negotiating to purchase a plantation in western Eritrea so she will have her own supply of raw cotton.

Breaking with tradition

The current border conflict has slowed the economy, which had been growing at 5 percent per year during the short-lived peace. It has also slowed the progress of development projects and government programs aimed at combatting illiteracy and the practice of female circumcision or genital mutilation.

Circumcised at an early age, Gabriela Zerom doesn't want other young girls to endure the brutal procedure. She conducts workshops under the auspices of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, telling her peers of the health risks associated with the traditional practice.

Ms. Gabriela has strong ideas about her own future. "If God wills it, I want to finish university. I want to be a journalist," she says. "I don't plan to get married until I finish university. Even after I finish, I want to get a job and live alone for a while."

But Gabriela will break with tradition when she eventually marries. Her aunt, Tsega Habtu, is a midwife who has been delivering babies and circumcising young girls for 30 years. She was married at 15 to a man she'd never met, and she bore 10 children.

"When [my] wedding day arrived," Tsega says, they wrapped me in cloth, covered my face, put me on a donkey with the best man, and he took me to my husband's home.'' Tsega's family had arranged the marriage. "At the end of the day, after everything is finished, I saw him for the first time. I was afraid, very afraid.''

Her niece has different expectations.

"I want to choose my own husband," Gabriela says. "He should be as educated as I will be. And I will have only three children."

'Be brave'

There's a popular Eritrean song I heard while traveling. The lyrics sound like "shubo lega shubo.'' Ruth Woldo, my translator, explained: "It means 'Be brave.' We say this when you send the bride to her husband's house, or when you send someone to battle.''

Freweine Asgedom is timid, but not afraid, as she says her wedding vows in an Orthodox Christian service at St. Mary's Church. After the ceremony, Freweine returns to her home to freshen up. As she washes her face, her relatives load her belongings into the back of a pickup truck. They'll transport the pile of gifts and household goods to her new home while she and her family host a lunch for the groom's family.

Her father drives her to the party. She's singing along with the radio. She's smiling. She sprays me with her perfume. "It's an honor, Cheryl,'' Ruth says.

By tradition, Eritrean women don't smile at their weddings. They cast their eyes down or away. Freweine sits quietly in a room. Her female friends and relatives gather with her in a salon as she waits for her husband to come and escort her to the party. When Alem Abrahal comes for his new wife, he extends his hand and helps her stand. He leans toward her and gives her the gentlest of kisses. She smiles.

I love to photograph weddings when I travel, particularly in areas of conflict. It's a sign that life goes on, even in the toughest times.

Times are tough in Eritrea now.

The money and the labor formerly used to rebuild a war-torn nation are supporting another war, and Demet is once again praying for peace, attending special services twice a day.

"I don't know what's going to happen,'' she says. "But I have faith in God. And I believe Eritrea will attain the complete peace, harmony, and prosperity that we prayed for so hard for such a long time.''

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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