Jamal grew up in a deeply patriotic family that taught him the value of service to the people. But when he tried to stay true to these values, he got into trouble with the authorities. The second time was the tipping point.
CAPE TOWN—Jamal, a member of the Blin minority born in Keren in 1981, is the oldest of three children. Their father was a veteran of the EPLF, an officer in the army after independence, and a martyr in the 1998-2000 Border War.
Conceived during his parents’ honeymoon, he saw little of his Dad but remembers him as a patriot who always put his nation first. He also speaks fondly of his mother, who conceived her other children during brief rendezvous she could arrange with her husband during and after the liberation war.
“Our mothers are strong,” he remarked during an hour-long interview at a Green Market Square café.
Jamal grew up in his mother’s village, near the Elabared plantation, which was under Ethiopian control for most of his childhood. He remembers her sneaking in and out to see her husband, often at great risk, as collaborators reported such movement to the occupation authorities.
In 1989, as the decades-long war neared its end and intensified, they moved north to the more secure base area in the Sahel Mountains where his mother prepared food for the fighters. Jamal did his first and second grades at a liberation front school there, returning to Keren when the war ended in 1991 and resuming his studies there.
“Luckily, my Dad survived the war as a company commander,” he said. “He was made a major afterward.”
Jamal was still in school when renewed conflict broke out with Ethiopia in 1997 and 1998, and his father was sent to Gash Barka as a battalion commander. “We hardly had a father’s love because we hardly saw him in our life,” he said.
His father only had a single month off each year and much of that was taken up with official duties and obligations. One year—1995—he didn’t even take a home leave, but Jamal has no regrets: “He was devoted to the nation.”
He learned of his father’s death by accident: He had been killed by mortar fire in a battle at the contested village of Badme on March 5, 1999, where a deadly skirmish a year earlier triggered all-out war between the two former allies.
Jamal found this out while tending wounded soldiers at a hospital in Keren with other student volunteers and recognizing the details of his unit in stories about the fighting. The formal announcement only came in 2003.
Meanwhile, he finished high school, scored well on his final exam and matriculated to the Asmara Teacher Training Institute. Upon graduating he was sent for his national service to a small elementary school in Gash Barka, a day’s walk from the Sudan border, where he remained for the next seven years.
His problems with the authorities began in 2008 when he saw elderly men and women suffering what he thought were unreasonable punishments because their children had fled the country. Those unable to pay the 50,000 nakfa fine for each child who ran away were arrested and required to do hard labor.
“This made me very angry,” he said.
Jamal had never involved himself in politics and didn’t see what he was doing as political—setting aside small amounts of money to purchase washing powder, soap, matches, the odd bit of food, and taking it to the detainees every few weeks.
But, he said, “there is a spy everywhere. Even your friends you can’t trust.” Someone reported him and he was brought in for questioning.
“Why are you doing this?” they asked.
“These are families who served their country,” he responded. “This is my turn to help them.”
It was personal for Jamal, part of serving the community as a good neighbor. It was not a political act.
But the security people didn’t see it that way, and they made him sign a paper promising never to do it again. He left questioning the legitimacy of the regime and its repressive rule for the first time.
Then soldiers began showing up in his classes, asking the children to stand up and taking the tallest ones for the army on the assumption they were older than they said they were.
“It was totally insane,” said Jamal. “To take someone who is trying to improve his life straight from his desk without even talking with his parents.”
When they demanded he give them his class lists so they could evaluate the students themselves, it was the last straw: “How can I give these children to an open-mouthed lion?”
When he refused, he was again reported to national security officials. The next day they came for him.
Jamal was spirited away to a secret, underground prison and held for a month with no contact with the outside world—also no toilet, no shower and no light. “You can only see the sun when they take you out for questioning,” he said.
The moment he was released—after signing another warning letter—he began to plan his departure, convinced he was at high risk for long-term imprisonment or perhaps even death, as he knew he would not refrain from such behavior in the future.
Shortly afterward, he and five others left for Sudan. Among them were two other teachers and two soldiers who met through the smuggler who arranged their escape. It cost each of them $1,600 and took five days, despite how close they were to the border, as they had to hide not only from border patrols but also from robbers and kidnappers who preyed on the refugees there.
Once he got across, he did not linger—a day or two in the town of Kassala and another at the Shagarab Camp where he ran into several of his former students who immediately made it their business to organize his onward travel. The next day he boarded a bus for Khartoum, escorted by one of the students who spoke Arabic.
Jamal spent four months in the Sudan capital before leaving for South Africa. His younger brother—the middle one—had preceded him and urged him to come as quickly as he could. He also wired him $5,500 to pay the smuggler’s fee. At the beginning of December, he flew to Zambia on forged identity documents, caught a bus to Zimbabwe and hid in a truck to cross into South Africa.
By then his brother had also moved on, flying to South America and traveling overland to the United States where he sought and got asylum. Three years later, Jamal’s youngest brother joined him in Cape Town.
Meanwhile, Jamal had enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but he ran up a substantial debt when he came down with tuberculosis and had to drop out without completing his courses. He is still trying to pay it off so he can return to school by working as a salesperson in a small shop. He is also sending what he can back home to his mother, who is alone now in Keren and suffers from asthma.
“I’m sure I will make a better life, but right now I am stuck,” he said. “I want to go to a better place, maybe to Canada, because South Africa is not safe for foreigners.”
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