Issayas: I like the way you wrote the book. Congratulations! Your book reads like a film. The people are real. Your description is so vivid, that one smells the dirt, even though one is reading a book. I also like the way you narrate your story. One could have a good story, but if the narrative style is bad, the story gets buried. However, your narrative is great. You start with the present (for example, discussion you had with your granddaughter) and then you go back to the past in flashbacks. Did you do it as a style?
Emilio: At the beginning the reason of this “style” has been mostly practical, even if I soon realized that I liked the alternation of present and past. I had a lot of episodes to tell about the civil war and the trip to Sudan, but also I recalled many other stories that I had told around the campfire to my fellow refugees escaping with me from Asmara, and to the fighters that traveled with us. This abundance of storytelling hours was mainly the consequence of the way we made our journey: Usually we traveled only during the night, because the Ethiopian air force didn’t fly after dusk; and then we had to hide under the trees or in the shadows of big boulders during the entire day. Add that we were sometimes forced to stay put in a place, waiting for the Army to leave the areas we had to cross. So for long hours, and frequently for days and days, everybody had plenty of time to tell his or her stories. Mostly this happened to me in the Durfó valley, in the area of Mersa Culcub, in Fah, in Karora, in Tokar in the south of Sudan. To balance a bit the various parts of my book, I decided to put some of the stories in the "contemporary part", even if they had been narrated during the trip.
Issayas: Reading through the book, your granddaughter keeps pushing you to tell your story. This is really remarkable because she is very young, but also in this time and age of iPad and other gadgets, I suppose she really has conversations with you. Am I correct?
Emilio: Lots of conversations! Still the situation is similar, but not as much as when I wrote the book. She is now almost 17, and is every day more and more immersed in her world of North American teenager.
Issayas: Have you ever thought that Eritrea would get its independence in your lifetime?
Emilio: After a couple of weeks in the "field", I realized that most probably Eritrea would have become an independent country. In fact I could now compare the steely determination of the fighters with the low morale of the troops on the Ethiopian Government side. I soon realized that the fighters were not what the Ethiopian propaganda in Asmara was daily proclaiming, lying to us, that the fighters were just a bunch of outlaws (bandits) dedicated to sporadic and disorganized assaults to the Army, within and without the city perimeter. In reality, in just few days I discovered that the fighters were a well-structured organization, with proper military ranks, strategic points in the territory, deposits of weapons and food, and a capillary, efficient network that included the cities, i.e. Asmara, Addi Ugri, Ghinda, Kheren etc. Also, I discovered that the majority of the fighters were people that had abandoned their work, sometimes in excellent positions, and their families, to join the Eritrean People Liberation Front because they all had that big dream, the freedom of their country. On the contrary the Ethiopian Army was made of people from the most remote areas of Ethiopia, selected by the Army on purpose, to keep them well distant from the Eritrean population. They didn't speak the language, they were mostly poor uneducated farmers, and they were looked at with great disdain by the Eritreans.But the most important thing was that the Ethiopian soldiers didn't believe in what they were doing! Menghistu had betrayed them too; he had shattered their dream of freedom and peace that all populations throughout the Empire were longing for. The Ethiopian soldiers felt isolated, and were suspicious of everyone. To be added that the Ethiopian Army in Eritrea was a big one, quite heavy on the territory. Not so the fighters, that would even abstain from buying anything where they were, if they thought that this would have increased the prices, or reduced the availability of food for the local population. But all this is described in greater details in the book.
Emilio's escape route with the help of EPLF
Issayas: When you were traveling during your escape, reading the book I felt that you had visited places before, most of the places, if not all. For example, Fil Fil and other places. Is that right?
Emilio:Yes, it is. In Eritrea for years and years I had been around a lot, mostly with friends that were hunters, even if I have never been a hunter (I always refused to buy a rifle). So I knew all the territory from Asmara to Agordat and Barentú, but short of Tessenei; from Asmara to Addi Caieh, and from Asmara to Massawa. Also, I had visited several times the entire coastline from Massawa to Mersa Fatma, Mersa Culculb, up to Mersa Teclai, near the Sudanese border. In the other direction, south wise, I knew the territory from Massawa to the Buri Peninsula, but short of Adulis; and up the mountains to Coaitò, and beyond it to Axum. I also knew many places in the Saberguma, Solomona, Ailet, and Dongollò areas. From Asmara toward North-East I had visited several times the farms in the Filfil valleys, along the mountains up to Addisghi and beyond, but short of the Rore highlands (it was too isolated at the time, and not so friendly). I also made several times long trips beyond Cheren in the direction of the huge expanse of the territory down to the Red Sea.
Issayas: You are also a great poet. I read your book of poetry "Once Upon a Time in Africa". The poems were originally written in Italian in the 1960's. You wrote down poems of places where you have resided, or that you visited. They are all great poems. Even though you have a lot of poems about Asmara, Assab, Addis Abeba, Woliso, Sebeta and other places, I'm curious as to why you have not written about Massawa(since you lived and went to school there). Also you have written about Agordat, Sebarguma, Dongolo, Danakil and Debre Sina. Agordat got two long poems. What was it about Agordat that tickled your pen?
Emilio: Saberguma and Solomona were like Agordat, even if not so majestic. Debre Sina, perched on the edge of the highland, was the place where the greatness of the land, so vastly open in front my eyes, was almost scary. I can't explain why I didn't write anything about Massawa. Most probably because when I resided there I was too young. But Massawa has remained very dear to me, because I spent there my early years, the best part of my entire life. I knew all corners of that strange city. I will remember forever its wind gusts, loaded of the salty, foul smell of the water in the bad corners of the port where it gathers discharged oil, grease, gasoline, empty boxes, algae, dead fish and rotten branches. A smell that I rediscovered only in Port Sudan; I can still see in my mind its long causeways connecting Massawa island to Taulud island, and Taulud to Otumlo and Moncullo.
During the night those causeways have so many illuminated street lamps,lined up on their edge curbs and reflecting on the calm waves, that they make the port shining and looking from a distance as if it were a clean and vibrant resort. But in the same time,and for me is not a contradiction, Massawa has always been for me the best symbol of all decrepit things. Because no matter the numerous repairs, all buildings there appear like run-down and rusty. Even the many small boats that were at that time everywhere, looked always patched and in need of new paint. If a brand new boat was added to the flock, six months were enough to make it look old.
Agordat! Agordat for me is still the real symbol of Africa. I went there regularly with my uncle. He had been able to obtain in Italy, after a long fight, an authorization extending to Eritrea the monopolistic privileges that Somalia, as an ex colony, had obtained in the supply of bananas to the Italian market. With that precious authorization in his hands, my uncle went to Agordat and with the help of De Nadai, at the time a big name in the Eritrean agriculture, he created a cooperative among farmers for the export of the bananas, and then of fresh vegetables. My uncle lived in Agordat 8 months a year. I was his steady travel companion. This went on for years.
We had to go around a lot, visiting the various farms along the big Barca and Setit rivers. It was a fascinating life for me, and my longing for the Eritrean lowlands that afterwards never left me, was built up during those wonderful years. I described that in my book, in particular of how I felt an acute yearning every time I had to go back to the highlands, or back to Italy for the University. In Rome, around June, every year I started counting the days to my return to Eritrea! Not that life in Agordat was an easy one! On the contrary, it was rather hard, with constant heat, lots of insects, ruthless sunshine and hours and hours spent in the car or walking around in the countryside.
Many times I had also daring experiences with sudden floods, overturned cars, trucks stuck in the sand or the mud, boiling radiators and worn out tires..one day even we risked our lives for a huge near-stampede of cattle, scared by the appearance of a wild animal. But the great things of the lowlands always let me forget the dangers. Nature is quite severe there, but it is also fascinating.During the rainy season, sunsets are really beautiful in the lowlands and totally different from the crazy and spectacular sunsets you can see in Asmara. Human element also was fascinating in Agordat. In the market I found the most unusual people. It was wonderfully exciting to see- and identify by their appearance– members of the various local tribes, like the fierce and menacing Adendoah shepherds, the beautiful Beni -Amer girls, the poor Mariah, from both the Red and the Black tribes and the peaceful Cunama.
Front cover of Emilio's book of poems.
Back cover of Emilio's book of poems.
Samples of Emilio's poems:
Una traccia de bellezza
in un letto di notte.
Piana di Saberguma, Eritrea (1954?)
A hint of beauty
in a bed of night.
Saberguma Plains, Eritrea (1954?)
Now I wake
Now I see well:
my heart strong.
I have no illusions.
I disentangle my days
with the calm of a caterpillar.
Asmara, March 23, 1961
the secret of your eyes.
the sweetness of your cheek.
Asmara, 21 April, 1961
In the dark chorus
of the powerful Dums
stretching on rivers that offer
a sandy bed to the moon;
in the open silences
of plains shivering in the heat;
in the fleeting harmony
of the Ariels;
in the heights of clouds
blazing above the migrating sun,
all my being appeases:
because they all
taught me the truth,
making me feel
in the flow of time.
(In Eritrea, Dum is the name of a tall, nut carrying palm tree. Ariel is the Grant's gazelle)
Next, final part of my conversation.