Ink on paper by DHIRAJ CHOWDHURY
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  Eye on Eritrea — 4  

  Vox
  Vol I : issue 5

  Nirmal Verma
  N.S. Madhavan
  Lal Singh Dil
  Betty LaDuke
  
Arun Kolatkar
  Ashis Nandy

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Betty LaDuke

Saho tree of life

Ironically, while UN, US and European officials shuttled between Asmara and Addis Ababa trying to negotiate a temporary ceasefire, the following headlines appeared: ‘US World’s Lead Arms Supplier’ with Ethiopia eighth on the list of purchasers (AP, August 7, 1999). How contradictory this seemed to me: to sell guns, then broker peace. Then I read, ‘The UN Security Council unanimously approved an arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea. The embargo will be terminated if Secretary General Kofi Annan reports that the conflict has been settled peacefully" (AP, May 17, 2000).

Unresolved grieving, and who benefits? Is Grandmothers dreaming peace an elusive dream? Will peace be maintained only until the embargo is lifted? In 1999, we journeyed along unpaved roads, circling steep mountainsides to visit refugee camps. Mai Segla was nestled on a mountainside near the town of Senafe, while Mai Wurai and Dedda were in ravines. The first two camps benefitted from some large trees that offered shade, while Dedda was in hot desert terrain.

Women celebrate

At each camp, there was little variation in the expression of the inhabitants as they greeted us, somewhat disappointed at first that we were not nurses or doctors. Almost everyone suffered from deep coughs, intestinal ailments, and malnutrition. Millet porridge was the staple, and there wasn’t enough. Gaunt mothers and children sat near their tents, sometimes boiling water for tea, a ritual of normalcy that they still maintained. There wasn’t much else to do. Fathers and sons were gone — either trying to harvest what they could of their crops, or had joined the EDF. Our sketching, something they had never seen before, was a brief distraction.

At Dedda, at 1:00 p.m. we saw many people surround a tent, still waiting for one exhausted doctor who visited once a week. Beginning at six am, the doctor had seen over one hundred people, with only a minor supply of medications to offer them. Mai Segla had many Saho people, including some women basket weavers from villages we had visited in previous, happier times. I was impressed by the efforts of one teacher, also a refugee, who attempted to provide a routine of rote learning for over one hundred children of different ages sitting underneath a large tent tarp.

In each small tent that would be home for months or years was a clutter of a few salvaged belongings, some pots, clothes, a blanket, and the millet ration distributed by the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission and the local Red Cross. The rainy season was fast approaching. Conditions would worsen.

Two years later, in May 2000, the war escalated dramatically as Ethiopia penetrated Eritrea as far as Barentu, forty-three miles beyond the disputed border area. Now thousands of families, mostly the Kunama, who in past years I had sketched in their villages and shared tea with, were being brought in by bus to the larger town of Keren. Others left on foot and muleback for the Sudanese border.

 

At home, surrounded by the beautiful baskets brought back from each Eritrean journey, I continue to enjoy their dazzling designs and colours. Optimistically, I feel Eritrea will once again heal, though it is heartbreaking to realise the acute suffering of so many. Will mothers always shed tears as angels look on?


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4

 
A leading contemporary American artist, Betty LaDuke is also known for her documentation
of the work of women artists all over the world. She lives in Oregon