We all know her as Tirsit, one of those beautiful comrades one is privileged to in the course of a long struggle filled that we all called our duty.Her parents called her Konjit and by the time she came to the field of armed struggle she was married to Yaynshet Teferi. Like her he was a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and he was murdered by the Mengistu regime which also killed his father, General Teferi Benti, Head of State, In February 1977.
Tirsit symbolized what integration with and serving the people meant. After a few years in the field she was as “rural and peasant” as they came, as one with the peasant folk, specially the women. This young and romantic woman, who could spend hours under a tree reading a thick tome on theory of a Le Carre’ thriller she could lay her hands on, never lost her sense of humor and was so modest that she could always laugh at herself.
When I first suggested to her to write a book of her life (and she, had led a fascinating life which took her from Ethiopia to the Middle East, the USA and back to Ethiopia) she flatly refused. I insisted and tried to overcome her modesty by making the task essential for mobilizing others, inspiring young girls to join the struggle. She agreed and we drafted together a seven chapters outline of a book that was tentatively titled “if she wears pants:shoot her!”
But Tirsit was too busy to write the book. She was in charge, with others like Sitotaw Hussein, Belete Amha and sister Aberash Berta (all three have disappeared after being held by the TPLF/EPRDF), of the political department of the guerrilla army (the EPRA). She taught young, fighters, peasant women, elders. She was always busy, busy and we called her busybody to her face. She was also called “Triple N” because she always “nagged, nagged and nagged” the leaders and militants of the party to do more. She was selfless and loving and a moral booster by her example.
She wrote me in Hidar 9/1978 to tell me that she has, “between her busy schedule, written a few pages”. What she called a few pages was a 172 page handwritten pages of four exercise books, written late at night (while she should have rested) using kerosene lamps. It covered her experience in Addis Ababa during the Red Terror, when she was captured and almost executed by the fascist regime. “lt is just a start”, she promised but she was never to get the time to finish the project we had worked on together-the seven chapters book that was to recount her life and what the struggle meant for a woman militant.
It is fitting that the story of Tirsit should be told now, even partially, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the party she loved and died for, the EPRP. Tirsit was one of the few comrades who understood that in the final analysis, love was the motor of any genuine revolution. She hated with intensity the murderous regime that had slaughtered her husband and many of her loved comrades. But she was not vindictive, she was kind, magnanimous, understanding and broad minded. She was well read enough to engage in any philosophical or theoretical discussion and yet so down to earth as to be understood by the peasant men and women in the field who all loved her. The fighters loved her too, she was always there for all of them.
Tirsit, like her close comrades, weathered all the travails and hardships associated with the struggle not only because she believed in her cause and loved the people but also because she had never lost her sense of humor. She was one who could laugh at the everyday hardships that were encountered, she did not take herself too seriously, she used to say, citing W.C.Fields, she must surely be one of the suckers born every minute. For all that, she was a tough woman, unwavering, disciplined, even strict at times and she never took her principles lightly.
Tirsit wrote the 172 pages in English. “My English has rusted, so make corrections”, she had written to me. I have made none since I felt none as needed. She spoke and wrote excellent English just as she was to speak, later on, excellent “peasant” Amharic. Tirsit never ceased to learn and from the way she recounts her tale we can discern her sensitive and erudite personality. It was an honor and a privilege to have her as a comrade.
Tirsit survived the Red Terror in Addis Ababa, survived the very many hardships and battles of the EPRP in the rural areas only to die from a heart ailment. She died before she could suffer the sight of the uncouth and uncultured cabal calling itself the TPLF taking over power. It was perhaps better this way for at times those who pass away are luckier than those who remain. Tirist would not have survived the tragedy of seeing her close comrades (Tsegaye Gebre Medhin,Yishak Debretsion, Sitotaw Hussein, Belete Amha and, later on Aberash Berta) fall into the hands of the murderous gang from Tigrai. It is perhaps better but we still would have liked to have her around to give us all her much needed stamina, her courage and her spirit of sacrifice.
As we look around us we see the tragedy being reenacted. The Derg is dead and buried and yet resurrected by the TPLF. The rule by the gun, the violence of the State continues…. The Terror has no name, no designated color, but it is there, the victims fall one after the other. The call for the Tirsits is loud and clear, the call for those daughters and sons of the people bursting with love for their kin and country and ready to endure all hardships and sacrifice for their convictions. Ethiopia needs daughters like Tirsit and sons like her close comrades… for she has her Mengistus and Kelbesas in the Meleses and the Woyane thugs.
The story of Tirsit is recounted here partially but she is in there in it for those who care to delve deep and look for her. (Part of her story, with changes to protect some people’s identities, appeared in the book – “To Kill A Generation: The Red Terror in Ethiopia, by Babile Tola, 1989). She was determined to survive the Red Terror because, as she wrote, she had a cause which urged her to do so. To survive and fight more, that’s what Tirsit did. She struggled with the people right there at their side, not from afar, not verbally, not by exhortation, but by living their misery and facing their deaths. She lived and died a heroine. I for one feel honored to have known her.
Babile Tola, June 1997