By Bereket Kidane
There are three uniquely Eritrean national holidays on the world calendar. The modern State of Eritrea wrote its own birth certificate on May 24, 1991 after waging a long and bitter armed struggle for independence. Eritreans all over the world celebrate their national holidays and heroes every year with gusto because it is an important part of their national identity. The nine ethnic groups that comprise Eritrea endured together throughout their shared history of colonialism and sacrificed together to free their land and become a sovereign people and nation. Their country is a land of defined and defended borders.
Eritrea’s “National Holidays”: Independence Day, Martyrs’ Day and Revolution Day are all intimately connected with happenings relating to the birth of the State of Eritrea. They are all official public holidays and are regulated by Labour Proclamation of Eritrea (No. 118 of 2001). Additionally, there are two more commemoration days on the Eritrean calendar: Fenkil Day and Afabet Day, commemorating the fall of Massawa and Afabet respectively.
Independence Day is always celebrated on May 24th of every year in Eritrea. But the festivities are a week-long leading up to May 24th so it is referred to as “Independence Week’’or qinyat natsnet. The week-long festivities are marked by carnivals, street performances, sporting competitions, cycling races, musical concerts, parades, tent parties and lots of unabashed flag-waving and displays of patriotism.
During this special week, Eri-TV’s schedule is sprinkled with documentaries from the armed struggle for independence to remind the population of the heavy sacrifice paid to liberate the country and defend it.
Eritrea’s Independence Day is also celebrated by the diaspora communities who live outside the country. The diaspora communities tend to celebrate it on weekends to attract a larger crowd. There are lots of concerts, picnics, barbecues, and outdoor festivities at various parks across the globe stretching from Australia to California and all around the world.
Concerts, carnivals and street performances are always the big draw during Independence Week. Last year for Eritrea’s landmark Silver Jubilee Anniversary bands and orchestras from such diverse nations as Germany, Turkey, Uganda, South Africa, Bolivia, China, Japan, Chile, Sudan, United States and Australia performed in Asmara. The Malian Superstar, Habib Koite, has also been known to perform to capacity crowds in Asmara’s theaters during Independence Week.
Martrys’ Day (Eritrea’s Memorial Day) by contrast is the most melancholy day on the Eritrean calendar. It’s always celebrated on June 20. The dancing and partying of Independence Week is replaced by tear-jerking and candle-light vigils in memory of Eritrea’s fallen heroes from the Yikealo and Warsay generations who fell in battle liberating the country or defending its sovereignty.
Most places of entertainment and cafes are closed on Martyrs’ Day in Eritrea. Eri-TV and radio play sad songs and somber music that convey the mood of the day. The testimonials from the families and fellow warriors from Eritrea’s fallen heroes always want to make you reach for your handkerchief. There are stories of mothers who have lost five or six kids. Martyrs’ Day is another heavy reminder of the blood, sweat and tears that went into creating a sovereign Eritrean State.
The connectedness between Independence Day and Martyrs’ Day is not lost on anyone in Eritrea because the two dates are inextricably linked to each other. There is no Independence Day without Martrys’ Day and vice-versa. Martyrs’ Day too is celebrated by the diaspora communities living outside of Eritrea. Eritrean communities around the world hold candlelight vigils and memorials across various parks on this globe. In years past, Dimitsi Hafash Radio in a special broadcast from Nakfa used to read aloud the names of all 65,000 plus heroes who fell during the war of independence.
In the capital, there is always a formal wreath-laying ceremony in a tribute to the martyrs at Asmara’s Patriots Cemetery as it is the final resting place of thousands of Eritrea’s heroes.
September 1st Revolution Day
September 1st marks the anniversary of the first shot fired in the armed struggle for Eritrea’s independence. The pivotal shot was fired by Hamid Idris Awate and his men on September 1, 1961 at a place called Mount Adal in the Gash-Barka region of Western Eritrea. The day’s events commemorate the first military engagement between Eritrean combatants and the Ethiopian Army.
Though September 1st Revolution Day is the more subdued event of the three national holidays, in terms of significance, however, it is no less important than Independence Day or Martyrs’ Day because the launch of the armed struggle not only led to the complete liberation of Eritrea 30 years later but it also went on to transform Eritrean society in every conceivable way forever.
The holiday (officially celebrated on September 1st each year) is celebrated with parades, stage performances of reenactments of some battles, concerts and commemorative ceremonies.
The celebration of Eritrea’s national holidays and heroes is an important part of who we are as a people. For the diaspora communities living outside of Eritrea, it is a time to get together in our respective cities and celebrate our pride and joy, the State of Eritrea. The official opening ceremonies for Eritrea’s 26th birthday will soon be underway. Enjoy the festivities! Yohanna! Yohanna!