“TSELAM SANDUQ,” authored by Sara Belay, a former Eritrean freedom fighter and ex-journalist, is a captivating work of literature that hit the shelves in the early months of 2022. The book is divided into six distinct parts and contains 125 short chapters, totaling 471 pages. In the preface, the author expresses that during the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) struggle for independence from 1970 to 1991, the life of a freedom fighter was beyond comprehension for anyone except for the ex-freedom fighters (veterans) themselves. She goes on to lament that with the passage of time, these veterans are slowly but surely passing away, taking with them their invaluable experiences and stories, leaving future generations devoid of any first-hand knowledge. The author also reveals that it took her around a decade to craft, edit, and publish this remarkable book. In multiple interviews, she revealed using a retrospective narrative style in her writing. The older narrator shared perspectives shaped by present-day beliefs, and knowledge on past events. This approach gives the book a confessional tone, emphasizing how life-altering experiences transformed her in unexpected ways.
The book’s title, “TSELAM SANDUQ,” meaning “black box,” is an appropriate allusion to the device used in airplanes to record flight data. The author cleverly alludes to the book’s survivor witness theme, emphasizing the value of first-hand accounts that provide a unique insight into the events that unfolded during the Struggle (Gedli). The central figure of this historical novel is Saba, a young woman who was raised in Dekemhare, a town situated 40 km away from the capital. Spanning over 50 pages, the author begins the book with vivid anecdotes of Saba’s childhood, depicting her contented life with her family, friends, and school. By providing such a detailed introduction, the author aims to provide readers with a comprehensive insight into Saba’s character and background. At the tender age of 16, Saba made the life-changing decision to join the EPLF and dedicate herself to the cause of liberation.
Over the course of 100 pages, the book delves into the harrowing experience of basic military training in BILIQAT. The program was intense, demanding both physically and mentally, and aimed at transforming civilians into formidable soldiers. For the young women who joined the liberation front, it was a nightmare. They were trained separately, forced to surrender their clothes and jewelry (pp.74-75), and have their long hair cut to just two inches without any mental preparation (p.100). The rigorous physical conditioning, the harsh demeanor of the trainers, the endless and strict military instructions, and the difficulty of understanding military jargon left these women feeling overwhelmed and out of their depth.
To add to their ordeal, hundreds of these women, nicknamed “Cambodia”, who were part of the 1978 batch, were forced to bathe naked in a lake (p.128) and bake bread for their entire team in shifts. The task of collecting wood for the fire and searching for flat stones to use for baking bread was also challenging for her (pp.113-116). Saba, was challenged by every aspect of military life, having come from a city background at the age of 16. The author portrays the psychological turmoil and confusion wrought on the women skillfully. Many of the new trainees struggled with challenges to their beliefs, values, and identity, making them anxious and confused. Even Saba abstained from shooting guns during training, revealing her internal conflict (p.154). As the book progresses, the reader is drawn into the military culture, which was vastly different from the women’s upbringing. Even basic rites, such as handling the dead and funeral rites, were challenging for Saba (p.149-151), whose confusion is palpable throughout the book. As you read through the narrations, you come to the realization that the freedom fighters had become complete subjects of the EPLF.
The author expertly describes the demanding and harsh existence of women in the trenches of war. The author takes readers on a trip that illustrates the challenges these brave ladies encountered through vivid descriptions and compelling narrative. Together with the enemy, they had to contend with nature, severe weather, famine and malnutrition, poor hygiene, illness, and a patriarchal socio-structural system. The issues of discrimination and divisiveness that developed among the freedom fighters are extensively discussed in the book. On page 191, Saba poses a provocative inquiry, ‘Why does everyone look at you with doubts and negativity?’ The answer, which she provides on page 462, is equally disheartening. ‘We had no idea,’ she laments, ‘but we never trusted each other.’ Moreover, tensions increased as male combatants tried to attract female fighters’ attention. Some personal experiences were hard to imagine, for example, experiencing her first menstrual cycle with no adequate materials to handle it, living without soap for years, and facing the abuse of power by men who attempted to pressure women into marriage.
Just the protagonist and a few other characters in the book are fictitious; the rest of the book is based on actual historical events. The book accurately depicts all of the events, social relationships, and ideas it discusses. The author skillfully portrays life in the battlefield trenches, capturing the different personalities of the freedom fighters. Hizbawit is depicted as compassionate and supportive, while Wodi Woxa’e is handsome, loyal, and charming. The nurturing and encouraging father-figure Wodi Barankiel and the entertaining Mejmu’e, who uses wordplay, sarcasm, and irony, are also portrayed in detail. However, other fighters like Cheay, Tsahay-Berki, and Genet are depicted as unremarkable, unpleasant, and disliked, as shown in pages 200-280. The portrayal of love in a war zone was masterfully woven into the book, adding a much-needed touch of spice to the historical story.
The book reached its climactic point in pages 377 to 423, where Saba, who had spent more than six years in the battlefield trenches, traveled to the region called HISHKIB for her friend’s wedding. It was there that she realized, for the first time, that not all freedom fighters were equal or had similar experiences in warfare. The intensity of social and emotional dynamics in the trenches was so extreme that it was characterized by sacrifices and low quality of life. Survival was always in life-or-death mode. The disparity between the soldiers in the battlefield trenches and those stationed here is striking. Their individual and collective mindsets diverge significantly. The former live in the past and present, while the latter, stationed in HISHKIB or DEJEN, strive for a future yet to unfold (381-82). The men and women stationed here possess remarkably smooth skin and a captivating scent. Woke up willingly without alarms, ate different recipes, had the luxury of drinking alcoholic beverages, and could use body lotion or shampoo, which was unimaginable for Saba, who had never experienced such a lifestyle. Despite being part of the same liberation front, their appearance and demeanor suggest otherwise. In the trenches, hygiene was a luxury, and “leaf-washing” or “leaf-bathing” was the norm. It is easy to question whether one is truly in a war zone amidst such charm and beauty (392, 408-09). Life in the trenches is dominated by a focus on the sounds and movements of the enemy, while those in other areas attend different classes, engage in international discussions and even interact with people from different continents. It is clear that we do not share the same reality (427).
The story dives further into the lives of the military officers and their opulent lifestyles in the closing chapters. It’s hard to not see them as warlords, with palatial homes and lands cultivated by young fighters. It is paradoxical how those Marxists, who were once against the bourgeoisie, have become pure feudalists. “The cunning and strategic mentality of our leaders was unmatched. Their plans were unfathomable, always looking towards the future, and no matter the cost, they knew they would see independence, get married, and live prosperous lives.” (p.420).
The use of regional proverbs and literary tropes like metaphors, similes, and personification show the author of this historical novel to have a great command of language and culture. A unique aesthetic experience is produced by the book’s extensive use of rich language, vibrant images, and high-quality expressiveness. The author’s reference to Darwinian ideas on page 94, was a powerful foreshadowing of the story’s themes. The idea of the human brain’s adaptability and ability to quickly adjust to new circumstances was a central idea that played out through the character of Saba, who went from a hesitant trainee to a formidable fighter. The book skillfully employs the allusion of ‘Das Hawya’ to vividly capture the harsh reality of life in the trenches. While people may arrive there, none leave alive, bearing witness to the brutal toll exacted by the harsh conditions of war (346).
This historical novel is replete with sensitive yet weighty issues, some of which may be challenging to broach and could elicit strong emotions and even controversy. To overcome this, the author ought to commence her book with a gripping tale that captures the readers’ attention and beckons them to read on – such as when the main character made the pivotal decision to enlist in the EPLF and journeyed to SOLOMUNA. The first fifty pages of childhood anecdotes may then be adeptly woven in as flashbacks, further enhancing the plot.
While many of the paragraphs in the book boasted well-crafted descriptions imbued with vivid imagery, I do recall encountering a few limitations. Namely, certain paragraphs and substories tended to either drag on with an excessive amount of detail or be oversimplified with extraneous information. For instance, I vividly remember pages 35-40, 192, and 358-367 being particularly guilty of this. This great work of literature is grammatically sound but contains minor punctuation errors. It’s worth noting that certain symbols in the book, particularly those with the names of specific villages, could potentially evoke a negative perception. As such, it’s crucial that these symbols be approached with sensitivity.
In conclusion, the book covers a wide range of topics, from the early indoctrination of EPLF’s principles to the challenges of being a woman freedom fighter in a patriarchal society. It also delves into the stereotypes and divisions among the fighters and the unique personalities of individuals. The stark differences in lifestyle between the fighters and leaders are also explored, as well as the sacrifices made by all those who fought in the trenches. Finally, the book reveals the paradox of the liberation struggle journey – the sacrifices made in contrast to the end result, the so-called Freedom of Eritrea. The author masterfully uses retrospective narration and a particular tone to convey this paradox to the reader.
While most Eritrean historical books and novels focus on the patriotic aspect of the struggle and the collective perspective, TSELAM SANDUQ’s author diverged from convention by delving into the dysfunction and crisis within the EPLF, shedding light on the divisions and resentments among the fighters. The author fearlessly embraced the harsh realities, sufferings, and horrors of that tumultuous journey. Through her captivating first-person narrative style, she not only fosters a deep emotional connection but also artfully portrays the sweeping story of the EPLF from the unique perspective of a single woman.
Aman Tekeste is a Toronto-based Eritrean writer who graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the university of Asmara. In 2020, he published two volumes of the ‘Encyclopaedia Eritreana: Dictionary of Eritrean Biography’ in the Tigrigna language. Alongside these biographical works, Aman also writes reviews and memoirs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org