Picture and story

The Woman by the Fire

Khalid Musadag; Mhnd Blal

Salam squats by an adobe furnace in Omm Rakoba, ready to prepare and pack Injera for one of her daughters to sell to the other refugees in the camp, who have initiated a small local bazaar within the camp’s borders in order to sustain their living.

She sits back, observes her two girls, both prepubescent and wide-eyed, and looks at a future of uncertainty like any mother would; with only hope.

This is not the first time she has been here, but one might reckon this is the first time she had imagined she would have to return. 

In 1961, Eritrea was on the path to becoming a sovereign state, but not for thirty more years.

Salam was not yet born when the fight for independence had begun, and was almost as old as her two girls, if not younger, when the conflict spilled over to their town and forced her to flee to Sudan with her mother sometime around the late 80s or very early 1990s.

She and her mother had sought shelter in the same Omm Rakoba camp she is currently situated in while her father was involved in the armed struggle.

Salam’s hometown of Mai Kadra is no stranger to the horrors of war. Up until very recently, and just last year, the town had witnessed a massacre on November of 2020 which had reportedly yielded deaths “in the hundreds”.

There is a cloak of mystery surrounding the Mai Kadra massacre, with the purported ethnic cleansing having targeted many Amhara people, according to the EHRCO, and many a Tigray people, or Tigray and Amhara people, as per statements collected from refugees in Sudan.

The current Tigray conflict has seen, according to numerous reports, war at a state that only war would desire of itself. Numerous accounts of sexual assault, blading, torture, and war-related trauma have reached worldwide media outlets.  

Salam’s eyes, pinned cautiously at her saj tawa, have seen corpses strewn along the Luqdi passage in the final stretch of their journey to Sudan.

They travelled from Mai Kadra on foot, moving only at night, their path sometimes lit up by the many burning houses they had left behind.

When day broke, they hid in tall grass and awaited the secrecy of the night to allow them movement.

The camp in Omm Rakoba has a church that she and the other refugees frequent. The church had been built by previous settlers of another nearby Omm Rakoba, which had also once been designated as a refugee camp before. Some of the people staying in that camp decided to stay permanently, became naturalized citizens, and kept the Omm Rakoba name it bore.

Salam stays in the Omm Rakoba she’s not so fortunate to call her home.

She sits in church, and in the presence of a higher power, she takes off the mask she customarily wears and reveals a part of her soul; sad, lost, concerned, and frightened to death.

Her two daughters occupy most of her concern. What can she do to provide for them having lost the ability to cultivate from a land she has right to? What is to become of her and her husband’s combined nurturing? Will it be easy for her daughters to adapt to a lengthy stay in Sudan, to a life of confinement?

She had once been here with her mother. She came over and returned after having spent some years in Omm Rakoba, where she had learned Arabic, grew fond of Mohammad Wardi, and left back home a little bit older and completely aware of the weight of war.

In prayer, she joins her hands together at the elbow and swings from side to side closed-eyed, and every time she flings herself left or right she undresses of her worries and fears, then she is seen no more. She is no longer a mother, a refugee, a cook, or the little girl who lived up on Mai Kadra.

In His presence, she becomes her namesake. She is peace.

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