A Special Love for Assimba: A Psychological Catharsis for Kahsay Berhe Bisrat
Asayehgn Desta, Sarlo Distinguished Professor Sustainable Economic Development
January 4, 2014, I drove from San Rafael to Oakland, California, for about forty-five minutes to have a get-together dinner with one of my best friends, Kidane Haile and learn more about the innovative projects that he is undertaking in Kenya, Nigeria and Morocco. In the course of our discussion, the owner of the restaurant came and showed us a book entitled “Ya Assimba Fekere” or My Special Love for Assimba.” When I saw the title of the book from a distance, I asked the owner of the restaurant if she could sell a copy of the book to me. I wanted to buy and read the book because I had heard very good informal comments from my friends about the book when comparing it with the confession given by the late Berhane Meskel Redda, Secretary General of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) to the ruthless and dictatorial military rule (Derge) of Ethiopia. I thought Kahasay’s book, “Ya Assimba Fekere,” hereafter referred to as “A Special Love for Assimba,” would give me another firsthand account of the guerrilla war that went on between the Derge and the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Army (EPRA) which headquartered the training of its army in Assimba, Tigrai, Ethiopia.
Initially, I found the content of the book and the flow of the paragraphs very inspirational, effortless and smooth. So, I became fixed on the book and read it, starting at 7:00 pm on Saturday and completing it at 5:00 pm on Monday. Roughly, the content of Kahsay’s autobiography gives a description of: 1) how the author became involved with the EPRA, 2) his prodigious valor in the guerrilla warfare movement, and 3) some of the positive social catharsis and rejuvenation he created to bring peace of mind to himself.
Having been the director of the Agazi Secondary School, I can testify that the town of Adigrate was a renowned place for the development of various types of movements. It was a vital place for the creation of Ethiopian student movements led by Dawit Seyoum, Tselote Heskias and his associates. The town of Adigrate also fostered the mushrooming of the Eritrean Seven Association (Mahber Shaw’ate), led by Baraki Gebre Selassie and his Eritrean compatriots.
Given the geo-political environment of the town of Adigrate and the solid convictions of the Agazi Secondary School students, I was not surprised to know how Kahasy (hereafter referred as the author) became a prodigy and a dedicated proponent of the Ethiopian student movements that originated in the 1960s . For example, in 1969 when I was the Director of the Agazi Secondary School, it was Dawit Seyuom who, while undertaking Ethiopian University Service, worked day and night to raise the political and revolutionary consciousness of the students and at times to mobilize the masses. To be more specific, it is possible to assume that the author might have subconsciously become an admirer of the Ethiopian student movement philosophies after he encountered Dawit Seyoum at the Zalambasa, while there to play soccer against the Zalambasa teachers.
In addition, while at the Agazi Secondary school, as the author claims, he was formally socialized politically by a number of the Ethiopian University students who were in Adigrate to visit their families during school vacations. More precisely, the author claims that he was more galvanized when he learnt about the “Land to the Tiller” issue raised by Ethiopian university students in 1965. Actually, “Land to the Tiller” penetrated the author’s thinking because he grew up in Zalembasa, a town known for bordering many wars where different views were entrenched. In addition, being the son of a farmer, the author had first-hand experiences with the conditions of oppressed farmers in his region. In short, as the author described it, the farmers living in that part of the country were forced to live with atrocities, oppression and exploitation by absent landlords whose feudalism was entrenched with exploitative force.
By a stroke of luck in 1971, the author was imprisoned by the military because the Agazi School students indulged in a violent demonstration that called for not only the toppling of Haile Selassie’s corrupt feudal government but also demanded that the various nationalities in Ethiopia be allowed to have inalienable rights to exercise their self-determined liberation.
Nevertheless, realizing that the only way to bring substantial change to Ethiopia was to be involved in an armed struggle, in 1975, the author, under a nom de guerre, joined Ammanuel and became a member of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Army, an arm of EPRP, that had its operating headquarters in Assimba. Assimba was chosen to be the headquarters for armed struggle of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party because of its gorgeous rural landscape and its proximity to Eritrea where another war for independence was going on. With a well thought-out clandestine strategy in mind, the forefathers of the EPRP would dismantle the oppressive military force that was terrorizing Ethiopia and eventually seize political power.
After heavy indoctrination with the communistic political lessons that he was learning, the author started feeling comfortable even though such teaching was at variance with his orthodox Christian upbringing. He became very skilled with some of the military lessons given to him by the senior cadre of the EPRA. Initially, the author was stationed as a guard. In the course of time, the author took everything as a challenge and fared well under conditions of stress. Because of his whole-hearted devotion to the armed struggle, he was able to survive thanks to Salemawit, his “attorney”, though his comrades filed a baseless political smear against him stating that he was a narrow nationalist.
Though the author was instructed by his vanguard party to be constantly vigilant against his enemies, he was able to survive at the Robit (in Wello) battleground and was able to return in peace to Assimba, because of the basic trust the author acquired from his parents and religious upbringing. Therefore, contrary to the teaching of guerilla tactics and the guiding ideology of the Party, he was guided by his common sense and background. This enabled him to make peace with the government’s militia, “Yemar Negussi,” who could have killed him instantly. Because he was able to survive, he was overwhelmed by a sudden emotional experience to love and adore one of my former students (i.e., when I was the Director of Woldi Secondary School in Wello), the courageous and highly disciplined “Delay Menala.” The author was at that time an emotional virgin until he fell in love with Delay. Thus, from the author’s description, the memories of Delay, Yemar Negusi, the battle of Wekro, and the deaths of a number of his friends from terrifying incidents, have shaped his life’s legacy. In order to remove his disillusionment with the EPRP, the author underwent a major catharsis, became a well-disciplined pharmacist, and has written this very instructive book.
To summarize, after enduring the Party’s top-down order, and its various forms of internal strife or schisms (university diploma carriers vs. high school guerrilla fighters, the suspicions of fighters because of their ethnicity, urban guerrilla warfare vs rural-based movements, etc.), I am glad to note that the author was very cautions not to criticize his comrades or to fault the EPRP. Most probably, due to his love for the party or feeling that these factors could be better synthesized by prolific writers such as Dr. Gelawdois Aaria etc, I am very glad that the author did not enter into controversial issues or begin narrating to his readers the objective and subjective needs for the utilization of an effective guerilla warfare. We all know that the wars have contributed to the disappearance of the brightest young Ethiopians, and have destroyed the livelihoods and lives of many Ethiopians.
Actually, I am very happy to read, learn, and reflect on Kahsay’s book, “My Special Love for Assimba” because: 1) the author has honestly, sincerely, and eloquently, described the wars that occurred between the inhuman military junta and the EPRA; 2) to entice his readers, the author begins each chapter in the book with highly relevant quotations (poems) written by well-known persons; 3) the book moves the reader along easily from one section to the next; 4) the author has tried his best to make the book readable, using simple words and easy to understand sentences. Finally, I would like to thank the author for allowing me to recall some of my former students and colleagues who courageously fought to emancipate Ethiopia from the atrocities of the Military Junta, and for making me clearly visualize and appreciate all the places ( Adigrate, Adwa, and Woldei, Kobo, Alamata etc) where I have worked and which have contributed to my transformation. So, Kahsay, to me, you are an architect of change.