Peace talks led into the eighties but fighting began again in May 1988, just after Woudneh had joined the military.
The next day they took us to the front of the enemy. It wasn’t more than 150 meters between us. We talked to each other at night, though we couldn’t see each other, for nearly a year. If we see them, we’d kill them. If they see us, they’d kill us. Every night, men were dying…their soldiers, our soldiers.
Then the time comes when I was in the place called Dengalo from that place my boss asked me “Woudneh, you have been here the past six months, would you like to go to the city? Why haven’t you asked to go to the city?” You can go to Asmara.
At night there were huge bombings. BOMB. BOMB. BOMB. Which means that the Eriterean soldiers, our enemies, were near to us. The same day I arrived, around midnight they came to our compound. They looked where I slept, I was told to take everything with me to join the big fight.
At midnight we joined the fight. It was tough, tough, tough. The next day the same war. The next day the same war… 10 up to 16 of May (1991). It was a severe war. There was no food for the soldier. Supplies came by airplane. May 13, our President Mengistu fled Ethiopia for Zimbabwe. We are locked in, we couldn’t go anywhere. Our generals leave us. By 15-14 (of May) they start going out. We started fighting. The power was in POWER.
Always we retreat. On the 16th, there was radio…we all had radio. It said the war is finished. Stop shooting, stop the war. Leave the country peaceful. When they say that, I was thinking “How? It is still 1200 kilometers from Dera to us Asmara, the capital of Eriterea… how will I walk this road to reach home?”
My friend and I were captains together. So we decide to go… to walk! To our compound. When we arrive everything is damaged. When I see it, I get my luggage, I change into my civilian clothes. I leave my military clothes. I have a Bible, I take my album and he changed into different clothes… staying in military clothes and shoes.
We started walking. We didn’t think we’d reach Addis. It’s so far!
And thus begins the walk of a lifetime. Years of unacknowledged training and education had prepared Woudneh to walk for months across Ethiopia. The development of resilience, perseverance, strength and character all contributed to his ability to be the first Ethiopian soldier to enter Addis Ababa. He faced death, his own and thousands of others. My gut wrenches when I try to imagine the images and smells he describes, of plows moving dead bodies to the side of the road: starvation everywhere. I’ve said it but cannot truly imagine it:
“I’m dying of thirst.”
…When we are walking they promise they are following with water and food. This was false. They didn’t follow us. They want us to get out…they just want us to get out of the city. We walked, walked, walked! It was so sandy, as I told you. The soldiers start digging in the sand hoping to find water. They start extracting water. The water is not good! It doesn’t taste right. They start to drink that water even though they didn’t have much. They died.
Still we are walking… now we are seeing dead bodies every 50 meters. We walked….some are so tired. So thirsty! They start killing themselves on the road, asking others to kill them. “Please give me water!” People will say. Even a drop on your finger tip. By walking, their legs become so weak and unable to walk so they prefer to stay. They can’t recover. They will die.
The water in the desert is full of worms. You could see them. Not big worms, but you can see them. We’d put the water in the handkerchief… to filter it. Today if I drink it, I think I would die. Those days it gives me strength.
We found a hole with water… one soldier before us wasn’t able to drink out of it and died in the water. His body is in the water; we paid them money and drank out of the water. It’s spoiled water, it stinks. We still drink it, even with the dead body there.
We passed that.
For one month Woudneh walks. The scenes of a refugee camp and the government offerings motivate him to do anything to make his own way. A sense of independence draws him to a small shop where he negotiates the purchase of chewing gum. He lacks sufficient money but promises to pay it back. Having been in charge of 4000 soldiers, he now resorts to selling gum. Many thought he was crazy. Yet he knew what he was doing. He sold 25 packs of gum and began to make his own way.