Imagine Massawa

Saba Sebhatu

A fire is beginning to crack throughout the sky, day turning into an unnatural night; through thickets of smoke, the wind wrestles with the flora left on the ground. What was bright green turns into a scorched patch of earth. Shots fire again, closer, as a blanket is laid on the ground and wrapped around one who has fallen. War takes focus as fighters begin jumping over uncovered bodies.

Forking lines emerge as a fighter runs up an incline, the saltwater edging closer. Bullets wrangle with one another from all sides. For a moment, all is tranquil until missiles echo from a distance. The innocuous chirpings of birds bring the fighters back to nature. Sounds of the wrestling winds, along with celebratory cries of women who gather together reverberates as the women welcome home those who are their only cavalry. They, in turn, are their keepers. They have been living like this for too long. In the distance is a white ocean of salt flats. A vulture lands its blunted talons and lurks in a barren sycamore-fig tree, reminding the fighters of where they are.

Long stretches of fire, bodies atop tanks, gears grinding on tankers. After launching a grenade, a fighter leans on his side, onto the sharp edges of granite, and though they are nearing the city centre, they hoist a white flag for an interim.

No response.

Shells are flying as one of them fires. Steadying himself and at the ready, he slides the rocket into the launcher. The rocket aligns and settles for a second. They cover their ears before it blasts. It is sunset, and as the skies darken, the rockets look like a flock of brightly burning birds dancing into formation.

One night, the baobab tree was haloed by mortar fire; a slow, broadening white light, and around the beam of light, the colours of the rainbow twirled against the night sky. The tree is a hauntingly dark figure alongside its silhouette.

Five rounds ensue. The sun continually kisses the earth. In the background, someone is aiding an elder on crutches further away to safety. A fighter squints over the thin barrel in his hands and watches the enemy cross from the other side of the sea, hands in the air. A slow rush hits.

The fighter seeks rest, but his valour is overshadowed by a force he has never seen. The skies have never screamed or smelled like this. A woman rests her head on the ground, her hand laying above her as a shield. Surrounded by rows of cement blocks, numbed into disbelief.

A small barrier in an open field.

Massawa, 1990.


In our home were hundreds of VHS tapes, labelled and stacked on top of one another inside two wooden end tables. On those tapes were hundreds of hours of war footage and documentaries filmed and produced by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The videotapes were disseminated to the Eritrean diaspora. In February 1990, the EPLF seized the port city of Massawa, cutting off the Ethiopian armies’ access to Asmara. The Battle of Massawa that year marked the ouster and end of Ethiopian imperialism in Eritrea and the soon-to-be liberation of the country. During the World Wars, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie colluded with European colonialists and the United States and eventually annexed Eritrea as a province of Ethiopia. The Emperor would be deposed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Soviet-allied tyrant. By the mid-1970s, the Horn of Africa was marred in the geopolitics of Cold War powers and their imperial ambitions. Mengistu began his Red Terror campaign in 1977 against Eritreans and Ethiopians. He marked the event by throwing a bottle filled with a thick red liquid into a crowd of his parading troops. In the same year, there was a massive attack on Massawa by Ethiopia via land, sea, and air. Mengistu’s army killed numerous civilians and destroyed 90% of Massawa and its infrastructure. These bombardments would go on for another 14 years throughout the country.

The EPLF retreated to the mountainous uppermost corner of the country in 1978 for close to a decade, before a rapid descent inland to liberate the Eritrean coastline and eventually the capital in central Eritrea in May 1991. After 30 years of war, the Eritrean liberation struggle, Africa’s longest, started in 1961 by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), came to its end when the EPLF recaptured the port city of Massawa, street by street, in a climactic battle that ended in within 72 hours. In between short stretches of fighting in the preceding months and fully aware of his upcoming defeat, Mengistu’s regime indiscriminately bombed Massawa in April 1990. Bombings had been done for many years prior, but this time they used napalm, phosphorous, high explosives, and cluster bombs; the intended targets were civilians. Once the army terrorised the city, the jets glided and ripped through the skies back to their bases in Northern Ethiopia, leaving cyclones of dark smoke clouds layered over the sea, the city, and in the skies. The perpetual bombings left homes burning for weeks on end. Massawa only belonged to its inhabitants once they could crawl out of their underground bomb shelters at night when the skies had cleared of Ethiopian​ fighter jets. Life resumed after the buried days and in the blue-black nights. Far-flung and isolated from our homeland, the videotapes accumulated in our living room; an archive of testimony and witness.


History is carried in the body.

I recall a conversation with an elder and a former freedom fighter. I told him the weight of writing history was one I thought about constantly. He responded, “All of my friends died in the struggle. Imagine closing your eyes, and each time you do, a different friend appears and then disappears. That is a heavy price, and this was everybody’s experience. That is more than any one story can hold.”


To get to Massawa and the Red Sea from the highlands requires driving down an escarpment, on a winding road that continually curves for hours. When people refer to their departure from the highlands to sea level, they say they are descending to Massawa. Something about riding down this steep, winding mountain road for hours, looking out at the range of rock, earth, and the steepness of the fall below, connects me to the spiralling road. With each swing and turn of the vehicle, I grasp the seat in front of me until I finally decide to let go, my fingers slowly parting from the back of the driver’s seat. My eyes cannot turn away from the scenes that continue to unravel before me. Single square-shaped cement homes, some made of grey and white stone and tiny azure window shutters. Homes are levelled on parts of the mountains and are humming on the hills. There are no adverts and no distractions. This brings out an unbounded nature in me, one not informed by the material world. We are in the car, and no one has spoken for some time. I wonder who we will become once we reach the city limits. Music is booming through the speaker beneath my feet and the floorboard. I imagine walking through these mountain valleys until the end, and I am at the seacoast. The rivers in Eritrea are seasonal, and I have walked many miles through their barren riverbeds. As we continue to descend, the temperature increases by one degree every five to ten minutes.

At one particular spot, we stop and get out of the car. Poised, the mountains demand attention with their magnitude. Some of the terraced mountains have patches of green; others are just carved rock. A sheet of clouds rolls into monstrous forms. Along the expanse of valleys are braided mountain chains. I think of the history that has traversed the soils and mountains. Those indomitable, protruding, immovable masses jutted inland from the Red Sea. Inversions of the earth’s crust. The height and elevation of the mountains are divine, a natural fortress from the external world. It is as if even the land knows it needs protecting.


We arrive in Massawa a few hours before early evening. I immediately want to photograph everything. There is a hollowed building, its structure exposed: the roof gone, beams protruding like arms, narrow strips of each of the four sides of the building remain. It looks imaginary, like a pencil sketch, with parts of it erased by hand. Surrounding the building grounds is the material that once stood in a rubble pile. The red wine I drank earlier is boiling in my veins. The air is balmy, hot, and still. I step in between an alleyway where it is cool and notice two women preparing dinner. One is in a mauve scarf the other has silver wrapped around her wrists. They are telling each other stories. The woman in mauve has a single white cloth wrap around her slim body. Her expressive hands move through the incoming night air. She is painting a picture. I see the colours laid on her mat as she paints a world. The sky collapses behind her. The sun is hazy and gliding over the sea. Deep in the distance, a group of children run, their shadows dancing across the shoreline.

I observe the ways people take care of their possessions and each other. The pride in which they carry themselves as they take ownership of what belongs to them and leaving what does not. The original name of the city, Mitswa, means to call someone or call something in. I see centuries of ruins, remnants of war, the desire for conquest, but the most captivating is the unflinching hospitality and welcoming of strangers.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Red Sea), a text written in the mid-first century, describes Adulis, an ancient coastal city-state, as one of the regional centres for long-distance trades and a gateway to the Indian Ocean. Adulis existed several miles from what is present-day Massawa in Medri Bahri (Land of the Sea). When The Prophets’ companions were persecuted and forced to seek refuge, they were welcomed by the Bahri Negassi (Sea King) upon their arrival at the Red Sea shore. They built a small mosque in 615 AD, Al-Sahaba, and trade with Arabia began to flourish off the Red Sea Islands. Numerous attempts by the rulers of the Abyssinian Empire to control the coastline from the elected ruler, Bahri Negassi, occurred. The inland empires of Abyssinia long coveted access to the sea and out of Africa. In the mid-1500s, the Ottoman Empire seized control of the area for three centuries. The Sea King relocated to the highlands. Foreign domination and invasion were recurring by many empires for centuries. Sieges rolled in and out like storm clouds. Egyptian, Italian, British, and Ethiopian occupation followed.

When the Battle of Massawa occurred in 1990, also known as Operation Fenkil, it signified the uprooting of empires and freeing Eritrea from the tentacles of imperialism. In another video from our archives at home, there is a clip of the repossession of Massawa. It opens with a map of Eritrea. In the next shot, there are a pair of cement imperial guardian lions on either side of the base of a statue. The camera begins to tilt upwards, past the pedestal, to a man sitting on a horse. It is Emperor Haile Selassie. The shot switches to a side angle of the statue, and his profile is accompanied by a loud noise. The monument is demolished. Debris clouds fill the screen as a row of port cranes become visible with the Red Sea in the background.


At night, in the port of Massawa, the dockyards and a mix of gigantic cargo ships, coloured cargo shipment containers, and a 19th-century steam engine train. The train connects to Asmara, Keren, and Agordat, near the Sudanese border. The lights from the cargo ships reflect and ripple in the Red Sea. The portlights dance alongside the terminal lights and create a golden haze as the cargo ships levitate on the deep waters of the sea. I believe all places of porting are magical, places of transference, but seaports are different. The sea is a body, an archive of its own memories and histories. Africa, an island and central to the other continents, is porous and open for entry.

At the Dahlak Islands, the turquoise waters shade those of a deeper blue and form a cross-stitch of ripples. Sunken continent beneath it. Flamingos are white, searching for red-coloured algae, plankton, which will eventually turn their feathers pink. The same algae turns entire water bodies into pink lakes, rivers, and oceans. Despite the intense heat, the coral reef here is thriving. At the Gulf of Zula cleft, 50 kilometres directly below Massawa, is the birthplace of the Great Rift Valley. The land harbours its stories, yet to be discovered. Endogenous civilisations buried beneath the earth all along the rift. Skeletal remains that date back one to four million years.

The offspring of all human life started here. Some 70,000 years ago, the Red Sea became shallow enough to cross on foot. Just eight miles apart from another continent, Arabia.

Some 200 individuals, the first species known as upright and erect homo sapiens, crossed and populated the rest of the world.

The first migration.

The African tectonic plates at the Great Rift have started to split again. When complete, this will divide the African continent in two.

An old Tigrigna proverb on the process of giving birth goes like this: “Kab gefih nab tsbeb wetsu.”

“From the wideness of an ocean to the tightening and narrow world.”

Back at my hotel, outside on Gurgusum Beach, the air is thick and humid, the sea salts and sands storm over. The waning moon is ready to rock me to sleep. I sit at the mouth of the large engulfing waters of the Red Sea. The waves tumble into one another, a dark and beautiful abyss. The foam, stretching like hands onto the reaches of the land, pulls away, thrashes, only to return. Transfixed by the sounds of the waves at night and the warmness of the water, I close my eyes and feel an activation, an entry point or a portal, to parts of me that had lain dormant and were yet to surface. Straining the imagination is futile. I lie, still unsettled, a rooted seed, yet to be fertilised and yet to grow; a shell buried in sand, riled with sound and echoes of a past; a rustling whisper deep within that could not be heard.

The winds ululate and I call it in.

Saba Sebhatu is a writer, photographer, and educator. She also worked as a peacebuilding practitioner in conflict resolution initiatives after moving to Eritrea. Saba has received writing fellowships from Callaloo, AWP, and MVICW and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She is currently working on a collection of essays. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at The New School.


*Image of building of Massawa on Alamy

Sign up for our newsletter

Sign up to get our latest stories, poems and essays!