The Last Askari
One of, if not the last, Eritrean askari, aboy Welday Tecle Weldekidan Melkai Tensai of the village of Damba Minche in the Serai region has passed away at the age of 93.
Aboy Welday was drafted into the Italian African Colonial Army, or “askaris” as they were known, in the first round of national conscription instituted by the Italian colonialist regime in Eritrea in 1937.
Italy began its invasion and occupation of Eritrea in the 1880’s but due to a half a century of armed resistance to Italian colonialism by the Eritrean people, had not dared to conscript, train and arm Eritreans in fear that they would revolt, turn their guns on their oppressors and go over to the anti colonialist resistance.
It wasn’t until the last remnants of the armed resistance had been suppressed in the early 1930’s and several years had passed did the Italians dare to enforce the creation of the the Eritrean askari military, of which aboy Welday was conscripted in the first round.
The Italians had carried out a census of sorts and set up a system whereby every village in Eritrea was required, depending on its population, to provide a number of its young boys for conscription by the Italian colonial military and at the age of 18 aboy Welday was choosen by the village elders to meet their quota.
Shortly after completing his military training aboy Welday was selected to be in the Elite 100 Tigrinia company, a program whereby every major ethnic group in the Italian Colonial African Army provided 100 of its tallest, handsomest conscripts to participate in the Italian Expo held in Italy in 1938.
So aboy Welday, along with thousands of other east Africans from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, boarded ships and set sail for Italy, where the arrival of such handsome young Africans in their smart uniforms caused quite a sensation, especially amongst the young Italian women.
All this excitement was broken by the advent of WW2 and aboy Welday’s unit was seconded to an artillery brigade and sent to the Italian colony of Libya to fight against the British and American armies on behalf of their Italian rulers.
With the defeat and surrender of the Italian army in Africa to the British, aboy Welday and his fellow askaris were imprisoned in a p.o.w. camp under harsh conditions for several months until they were finally repatriated to Eritrea where they each received 25 shillings compensation and were discharged.
Aboy Welday returned to his village of Damba Minche and took up his old life of farming but due to an infestation of locusts that ate his first crop moved to the capital city of Asmara.
Aboy Welday had taught himself to read and write while in the askaris and quickly found a position in the telecommunications sector in Eritrea under the British colonialists,later the Ethiopians, beginning an almost 40 year career as a lineman maintaining the telephone system in Eritrea.
Being from Damba Minche, one of the homes of Eritrean nationalism where Asmach Berhe, one of the founders of the Eritrea for Eritreans movement was to be assassinated (Berhe was aboy Weldays relative) aboy Welday was a staunch Eritrean patriot and eventually was imprisoned for a period for refusing duty in the Ethiopian created militia imposed on the town of Keren where Aboy spent most of his career in telecommunications.
Of Aboy Welday’s nine children five joined the armed struggle for national liberation under the leadership of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, of whom one was martyred.
Aboy Welday is survived by his younger brother Kuflom, 7 children, 24 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren and will be laid to rest in his family burial plot next to his late wife of 74 years, Sebene Tecle in Damba Minche.
Thomas C. Mountain, son in law of aboy Welday, is the most widely distributed independent journalist in Africa, living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. He can be reached at thomascmountain_at_yahoo_dot_com