Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

Is the pen mightier than the sword?” A question asked by youth in Tigray. 

More than 9 months into the genocidal war on Tigray, I am unable to silence the voices in my head. It took me quite some time to understand what has been happening. Even after hearing the stories, I couldn’t really grasp the magnitude. Everyone across Tigray has gone through some sort of trauma. Some consider their experiences a luxury compared to others. For these survivors, being alive is more than enough compared to what could have been or what happened to others. However, that does not mean they are not in pain. So, I write to bring to light personal pain felt by Tigrayans, to tell the stories of my close family and friends.

We often talk about the statistics pertaining to the war on Tigray, but the statistics are our loved ones, and each of them has a story. Below are a selection of their stories — stories of those I was able to reach despite sporadic network connection in Tigray the past 9 months. 

The 25-year-old Relative

My 25-year-old relative was preparing to start his masters in Tigray when the war started in November 2020. When I asked him how he was doing over the phone, hoping for an elaborate response, he offered a sarcastic and sad one. He said, “Alena. Nabey kinkedelom eyom delyom? Adina eyu.” “We are here. Where do they want us to go? This is our home.”

He described how his community had hid underground when the Ethiopian forces shelled Mekelle in November 2020. He recounted how a friend of ours, an 80-year-old man, prepared for his death every night, changing into his suit thinking they would shell his home in his sleep. “He welcomed death and tried to make it celebratory.”

He then told me about a man that was killed in Axum. “A man I grew up with was killed in Axum. He was in Mekelle just a week ago. I had told him to stay here. He went to see his family and now they told me the Eritrean troops killed him.” 

He added, “How can I think about school when all this is happening, the stories that come out of the villages are heart wrenching. My options are limited, either I join the struggle or find a way to help those in need. That is if my life is spared in the process.”

He ended the call reminding me that nothing will ever be the same.

The 34-year-old Relative

Prior to the war, he was an assistant professor at a university in Tigray.

“It was one of those dark days in Adwa, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) urged the residents of Adwa to ‘resume their lives.’ Many had not come out of their house for weeks in fear and in protest of the invasion by the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. I went out, just outside of our house, by the door, to check if all was really back to normal. Upon stepping outside, the Eritrean troops told me to come with them. I did. Hoping and praying they would let me go, I thought back to stories I had heard that they sometimes would just beat you up, scare you to soothe their egos, and let you go back home. I hoped that would be my fate. 

They rounded up almost 200 of us, weakened, unable to walk from the beatings they had subjected us to. Then they took some of us to an area called Shewit and beat us more. They used all tools available to inflict pain and terror. They insulted us, our manhood, our mothers, and our home — Tigray. They use the term ‘Agame’ to dehumanize us, but for us, Agame is a region in Tigray, and nothing about it is negative. After they were done with the physical and mental torture, they told us to line up and kneel. We did. I wondered if this was the end. ‘Did I spend my entire life dedicated to the pen only for it to end because of this senseless war?’ I felt defenseless. ‘Were my priorities in life wrong?’ Unable to protect myself from those who had invaded my home, I felt defeated. I am pretty sure all those around me felt the same way. They had already shot one man, as we were lining up. 

As fate would have it, an ENDF division happened to come through Shewit and stopped the Eritrean troops from killing everyone else. We could not believe that our lives had been saved by an army that was known to have killed civilians in other parts of Tigray. The irony. All this to say, I am alive.”

The Mother of Three 

Before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waged war on Tigray in November 2020, a relative of mine, a mother of three, went to Adwa on vacation with her three children.

She recalled that when the war began, “Eritrean soldiers came into our house, dragging everyone out. I went out with my three children. Everyone who lived in our compound was forced to leave the house barefoot at gunpoint. The women carried their children on their backs. 

An entire Kebele (neighborhood) was marching at gunpoint to their death. My mother-in-law called out to her son, my husband, who was in Addis Ababa at the time. She said, ‘Nay Beybeyney keyakleni dekika Hizeyom kimeut’, ‘It’s not enough that I die, I am taking your children with me.’”

They begged the soldiers to let them go, to spare the lives of their little children. As they asked the Eritrean soldiers to spare the lives of their children, an ENDF division passing through from Axum came to their rescue. They stopped the Eritrean soldiers from massacring an entire Kebele.  She added, “We had heard that ENDF soldiers were shooting Tigrayan youth just a few days back. Why they spared us is a question I ask myself to this day.

The Doctor

I asked him what he remembered, and what he felt during this period. “I am a doctor, but that meant nothing in Axum, we could not save lives that could have been saved.”

In describing his experience he said,  “I vividly recall this older lady with no lower jaw. It took me staring at her for a good 15 minutes or so to realize I wasn’t imaging it. Adey, as I would like to remember her, walked all the way from Selekleka alone after her home town was shelled.  She was injured from the heavy artillery shelling. It tore away her lower jaw. When I first saw her I couldn’t comprehend how she was still alive, her tongue, her tonsils were all exposed. She could only mumble words. We inserted a tube through her nose into her stomach to feed her and keep her alive, but we were watching her die a slow death. Her will to live dwindled. After 2 to 3 weeks in the hospital she gave up. I was called because she refused to eat the food she was provided. I tried to convince her to fight, but deep down I knew there was nothing more we could do for her. We had no options. Roads were closed so we couldn’t send her to Ayder for a corrective surgery. Adey chose to leave the food to those who would need it to survive. After 3 days on a hunger strike, she joined the many Tigrayans taken by this senseless war. May her soul rest in peace.” 

This story broke my heart. After pondering on what I had just heard, the doctor and I both wondered if it would have been better to learn how to shoot instead of how to heal. A question I find myself asking all the time. How could one think of healing when the world is surrounded by monsters of all sizes? What is microbiology when men and women our size could not be persuaded to stop inflicting pain on one another? What are antibiotics when you can’t protect your family from gunmen? 

In this instance the pen might not be mightier than the sword, but the pen will serve our futures.

These are just the stories of relatives I was able to reach during the last 9 months. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more untold stories that will make us question our faith in humanity. But they must be told. It’s the only way to heal. It’s the only way to protect our people from repeating similar mistakes in the future. It’s the only way to survive. Until then, I will continue to expose the pain and trauma brought up on Tigrayans during the genocidal war on Tigray.

BettyOmna Tigray External Contributor, July 2021