My memory of that day is as vivid as reality itself. Fear had never infected me, nor did I have even the slightest suspicion that the day would conclude the way it did. Here is how it happened:
Tsegay Chichi walked in, dressed in his iconic black leather jacket, the waist pocket flaps hanging a little over his knees. One might have feared that its hem would trip him and send him falling directly onto the floor. But for Chichi, that was never a concern, as long as the jacket concealed his gun.
It was as if I was not waiting for him at all. He seemed to ignore me as he strode toward a corner table in the bar where we had agreed to meet. With a signal, he beckoned me to join him at the corner table. He always chose a seat with his back against the wall.
I was unsure whether that was due to fear of an attack from behind. However, I’m certain of his insatiable curiosity and observant mind as a national security agent. No one would interpret his choice of seat as a sign of fear, especially at Bar Crispy. I believed that Chichi would never feel fear in his home turf, where all roads from the government offices led to Crispy.
It took me a while to gather my notebook, the pieces of paper I had been writing on, and the cup of tea I had just started drinking.
“Coffee,” he ordered from the waitress and then turned to me. “Want a beer?” He didn’t sound as cheerful as he usually did when we met at my parents’.
“It’s only ten in the morning, and I have a lot of things to do throughout the day. Plus, I can’t drink alone since you don’t.”
He continued puffing on his cigarette – a habit that always made him leave family gatherings abruptly. In sharp contrast to this obsession, he never drank alcoholic drinks, which kept him from socializing with anyone after work.
“So, you write sitting in a bar and then dump your shit on people, huh?”
I wasn’t expecting that comment. Dumbfounded, I just stared at him.
“You heard what I said.” His serious tone didn’t match the rapid lisps I knew from him. I had always thought his nickname “Chichi” stuck to him more due to his racy speech mannerisms than for his diminutive stature, which was likened to an Uzi. While I expected him to spill whatever he had for me since he fixed our meeting today, he was taking his time.
He had never brought up my writing as a topic before. We often talked about things related to our families but never our jobs. Yet, I knew he held a key position in the security apparatus due to his service as a radio communication operator for a commander during the struggle period. I had never considered asking for more details beyond that. My mother and aunt – who was Chichi’s mother – pitied him when his name was brought up. Not because they knew anything about his work, but because he joined the struggle at a young age and still served the country.
“I never dump ‘shit’ on my readers.” I was trying to gauge where the conversation was headed.
“Why do you try to appear to care more than the government?”
“Care about what?”
“Care about the country.”
“It’s you guys that taught us to care for the country. But I’m not trying more than I should.”
“Don’t try to be slick with me.”
“But why are we discussing these matters? How did you come up with this idea?”
“I have many reports about you lying on my desk. You’re spared because no one but me has seen them. Do you really believe you know what’s best for the country more than its leaders?”
“It never crossed my mind, but I do believe I have a role to play in this country, just like anyone else. But I wouldn’t expect you of all other people, for that matter, to think of me that way.”
“We keep all our eyes open on those spreading defeatism. Yet, we are patient until we reach the core and uncover those behind them.”
“Are you implying that I’m blind and being led by others?”
“I know everything about your foreign contacts.”
A bell rang in my mind. My friend Vittoria, an Italian teacher who also worked as a photographer, had encountered a similar opaque response while navigating government offices for an exhibition permit. She bumped into the phrase “we know everything about you.” The exhibition’s proceeds were meant to support internally displaced people during the war. There was no need for security to be involved or to encounter obstacles in securing permits.
However, she received that initial response where my name was mentioned in the details. Now, Chichi was repeating it to me. I recognized it as the best card to mislead anyone unfamiliar with my journalistic responsibility and integrity.
“I have all kinds of contacts, all of which are work-related.”
“That’s one of your misguided notions… contacts of all kinds, regardless of how they impact this country, for which we’ve paid dearly.”
Chichi seized the opportunity to position himself on a higher pedestal. My admission of having diverse contacts seemed like a soft spot he had already started exploiting.
I had to consider how to bridle his accusation, which was often flung casually at many of my colleagues who were languishing in obscure dungeons.
“What matters to me is informing my readers about what’s important for them to know. I’m also fully aware of my responsibility to them and my profession.”
“How would you know what’s important for them?”
“The same way you claim to know what’s best for the country?”
“Don’t try to be smart with me. I’m trying to save your skin as your brother. If you ignore my warning, you know what could happen to you.”
“I understand, but I’m no different from my friends and colleagues.”
“I’m only doing this for the sake of my aunt. As for you, you disgust me!”
“Would you be disgusted if I told you that I’m accustomed to such comments from your colleagues?”
The word ‘disgust’ brought to mind one of the public relations officers from the defense people. He called my editor, who then passed the phone to me. He was a high-ranking officer overseeing the sports activities of the defense personnel. He reprimanded me for not comprehensively covering the month-long event. I knew such reports were intended to make them appear commendable for spending an enormous budget, much of which likely found its way into the pockets of top officers. Even though I had participated in two or three activities of the event, I was cautious not to gloss over the dirty hands that pulled the strings behind the scenes. As much as his warnings disgusted me, he hung up the phone on me, stating he was disgusted.
I told Chichi, expecting him to shrink as he listened to the disgraceful deeds of the top officers he had implied cared for the country more than anyone else.
“I’m aware of it,” were the only words that came from his lips, wrapped in the smoke of his second cigarette since we had met. It infuriated me to learn that he had already known about it; up until now, I had never known that he knew. I wondered if he ever managed to relax without a cigarette, but I chose not to dwell on it. I shifted my gaze from Chichi to the bar counter.
Seated there were two young men, their faces familiar; yet I struggled to find answers to the questions of who, where, what, and when on their faces. One of them continued to twist a curl of hair that resembled the twigs of a long-dried bush. This twisting motion triggered a faded image in my memory – a fragment not yet fully formed.
“When you attempt to scrutinize someone, you do the same thing with their authority. That’s why you guys disgust me; you fail to grasp simple things that hold immense importance for the country.”
His notion of viewing a person as inseparable from their office lingered in my mind, making me wonder if I had heard him correctly. Did he truly believe that a person was born into an office and died with it? It was hard to take this seriously; I doubted if he was the same person who fought for liberty and justice from a very young age, the person I admired so much that he inspired me to follow a similar path, taking on the watchful role of pointing out injustice in society.
“Do you realize what could happen to you if you continue in this manner?” he snapped me back to attention.
“What manner are you referring to?”
“If you undermine the achievements of our heroes who poured their sweat and blood into building this country, you’ll simply be plucked out from wherever you are. And we have the perfect place for such people.”
It suddenly struck me who one of the young men seated at the counter further away was. He was the one who had visited Dawit’s office a few weeks before Dawit was imprisoned. Accompanied by another young man, he had entered the small, one-room office where Dawit, the editor of the then-fledgling weekly private newspaper, worked. They had called him from outside, seeking a private conversation. At that time, Dawit assumed they were like many other young people who brought articles or poems to contribute to his publication. To his astonishment, they showed him their IDs and informed him he needed to accompany them to the police station. Dawit demanded to see a court summons and returned to his office. However, it wasn’t long before they took him again, and for decades, there was no word about his whereabouts.
It was now evident to me that they had been there to scrutinize me, following orders from Chichi – my cousin, whom I would have entrusted with my life. Was he interrogating me before they arrested me for something I knew nothing about!?
‘Was Chichi afraid of something that he had come with these minders?’ I questioned myself, negating my previous assessment of his fear. The Ministry of Health towered over the street across the bar; Chichi would certainly never concern himself with. Less than a kilometer to the west was the Ministry of Information, where I worked, asserting complete control over the public’s minds to Chichi’s apparent relief. Chichi wouldn’t spare a single thought for the slumbering confederation of unions, which was less than a hundred meters around the corner. Its leaders had been installed by the government long ago, aimed at diffusing any worker strikes – provided there were any functioning factories left.
Another hundred meters to the east stood Chichi’s office, devoid of any signposts or indicators. Behind the Ministry of Health was the 1st Police Station, whose personnel could spring into action at the snap of Chichi’s fingers. Opposite Chichi’s office, I assumed he occupied a room with a southeast-facing window that overlooked the grassy compound of the state palace. This would allow him to gauge firsthand, early in the morning, the stability of the country’s politics. The Chamber of Commerce, situated across from his office, must have faded into oblivion long ago, leaving him without any concerns about merchants lodging complaints. Within a radius of less than three hundred meters, he had easy access to a cluster of offices: migration, national archives, and police headquarters. The right to freedom of movement had been shackled to an immovable boulder, the right to information silenced, and the aspiration for safety and security had transformed into a nightmarish illusion.
I scrutinized them thoroughly – being well-acquainted with my new shadows, another encounter wouldn’t intimidate me. I made a mental note of it.
“Tell me, does your job entail serving those in power or serving the country?” My question was instinctual rather than premeditated.
“The issue with you and many of your kind is that you try to separate the leadership from the country. They sacrificed their lives for this country; whether you like it or not, they are the country.” Only now did I learn this irate self of him. It showed in his strained utterance of the phrase, ‘they are the country’.
I contemplated his last statement. Had I been so naïve all this time? The signs were evident, yet I had failed to notice them. His lack of complaints about the prevailing issues had led me to rationalize that he had neither the choice nor the power to effect change.
“Why do you care?” Chichi’s tone was slightly softer than before. “If you want to go back home to my aunt after work, you need to change your ways.”
Why did I care? It was the same question the Head of Civil Personnel Administration (CPA) had posed when I called him for an interview appointment. A year prior, during a workshop, he had announced his office’s plan to draft a labor law applicable to civil servants, who lacked distinct retirement ages and benefits. I informed him that my interview would center on the labor law he had promised to implement within a year. His response was, “Why do you care?” He ordered me to get him in touch with my editor and criticized him.
“Of all people, I never expected you to be like this,” I said, taken aback that such words came from Chichi.
“Like what do you mean?”
“Like that of the CPA chief who believes he cares for the entire population.”
“Ah… Ghirmay! He was correct!”
“What do you mean by ‘he was correct’?”
“Who gave you the authority to question whether the government enforces a law or not?”
“Fine, let’s forget whether I have the authority or not, but you’re aware of that as well?”
“Does it matter to you,” Chichi replied, lighting his next cigarette. He glanced toward the bar counter, his eyes avoiding mine. I waited for him to turn toward me, my anger boiling within me, eager to consume him. My fury felt as weighty as the cigarette butts strewn like wreckage in the ashtray before me.
“But don’t you guys have more important matters to attend to than snooping into what people eat and shit?”
“Careful!” he warned, his voice firm and composed as he continued to gaze at the counter. My attention shifted there too, yet the two young men had vanished. It crossed my mind that he seemed composed because his gang was present.
“Just be careful from making further mistakes,” he issued his orders. It seemed more about saving himself than me. Did this imply that he had been shielding me all along? I pondered whether I was fortunate or cursed to have someone capable of saving me while my friends and colleagues vanished without a trace.
“As for the project you’re involved in… the collaboration with the embassy folks about Asmara’s architecture is acceptable,” he remarked. “Don’t involve yourself too deeply in their schemes. Do your job and leave.”
“Why do you think it’s acceptable? Aren’t they foreigners as well?” I refrained from asking how he had come to know about it, deeming it a futile inquiry.
“Of all the works pursued by foreigners, this is the only meaningful one I can think of. This project, at the very least, will celebrate the beauty of this city. But remember, not too much involvement!”
“If you’re so much into our newspaper’s activities, you might as well be our editor.”
“Why would I choose to be an editor when I am more than all of your editors combined!” He grinned, acknowledging the irony of my suggestion.
“What topic would you recommend I write about next?”
“I would recommend you consider a career change. You could become a teacher; there’s a substantial demand for teachers all across the country, you know. Instead of dumping your garbage on people, you better change a profession.”
As disheartening as it was, it was a suffocating grasp around the throat, a skill he seemed to have mastered through long experience – a trait I had never witnessed in him. “What is yours remains hidden from you,” I concluded, as the Tigriyna saying goes.
“Your latest article is the worst piece of shit you’ve produced. How can you be such a defeatist and simultaneously share my blood?” His final words rattled me – not with fear, but with anger. My words clung to the back of my throat. While so much about him remained concealed from me, he seemed privy to everything about me. Or rather, he had already weighed, evaluated, and sentenced me. It appeared he was prepared for a ‘sanguinary ruin’ rather than seeking to save his own kin.
I felt profoundly exposed, bare, and cold, but above all, defenseless.
“Invoking the Trojan War and trying to draw parallels with our reality only reveals your foolishness. Do you grasp how many minds you could corrupt with that notion? Myth and reality are never alike. War doesn’t conclude just because you wish it to. Remember, we are still at war. And it will persist; it will never end.”
I could not respond, not out of deliberate choice, but because I knew whatever I said would hold no value for him. Chichi regarded me as a giant creature might regard an ant.
“You’re about to receive a brief yet valuable lesson,” he announced with a sinister smile, basking in his triumph in our little battle. He departed after settling the bill on his way out. For me, that little battle had concluded, yet the real war was just commencing – the previous two young men entered with determined strides toward me.
My thoughts were occupied with the idea, as the minders positioned themselves at my table, that the outcomes of lost and won battles certainly shape the course of a war; however, struggles never truly cease. I vowed, silently to myself, to forever intone ‘a luta continua!’
Tedros Abraham is a publisher, journalist and translator based in Sweden. He co-translated Dawit Isaak’s “Hope” into English, translated Tesfagiorgis Habte’s “Bahgi” into English among others. His recent assignment includes writing for a local Swedish newspaper “Länstidningen Östersund” parallel with running Emkulu Publisher that has produced over 50 books so far. He is currently working on translating Yirgalem Fisseha’s “Zeybereye Godney” into Swedish. He can be reached at email@example.com