In memory of the Martyrdom of Dr. Yahya Jaber
Translated by Taher Indoul
I chose this article because the depth of the struggles Dr. Yahya Jaber went through affected me deeply. It highlights many qualities such as dedication, pain, suffering, patience, and overall resilience. Eritreans from all walks of life abandoned their daily lives simply to add more strength to our cause, and Dr. Yahya Jaber was no exception. There is much to learn from his story in particular, and there are also many things that happened to his family as a result of the path he chose. The experiences of Dr. Yahya Jaber and his family were faced by many other Eritrean families during the armed struggle. The lessons that the current and future generations of Eritreans can learn from this testament are incredibly valuable. Stories of this nature bring forth an immense amount of appreciation for the struggle our forefathers went through, and pride and dignity we have for the success they brought to Eritrea.
In memory of the Martyrdom of Dr. Yahya Jaber
By Mohamed Saleh Jaber
Like a shooting star blazing brightly, he lit the skies of the homeland, but faded away just as suddenly as he came.
In people’s daily lives, their journeys include many events and challenges, some of which are expected. Others however are manufactured by fate itself, arriving in surprising and shocking ways, and occurring so suddenly that no preparation can be done on our part at all.
The martyrdom of Dr. Yahya Jaber was of the latter type. He was the first doctor to join the Eritrean revolution, and he was the answer to the revolution’s dire need of his services at that critical stage of its history. His martyrdom, as a result, unfolded so unexpectedly, that it occurred in a manner that left many shocked.
During the initial stages of the armed struggle, the Ethiopian government imposed a total political, economic, and military blockade on Eritrean soil. As a result of the daily hit and run guerrilla style battles, medical attention for the ill and wounded freedom fighters was desperately needed. However, the biggest challenge that plagued the revolution on a daily basis was the question of whether or not a medical doctor would ever join the ranks of the revolution. Preferably, a doctor who would understand their suffering and heal their physical and emotional wounds.
The Eritrean revolutionaries exerted great efforts towards developing the health sector of the ELF, where a small number of fighters specialized in nursing, but this was not enough. The revolution urgently needed a fighter with an extensive medical background who would expand the capabilities of health services as well as provide a morale boost for the Eritrean youth that were among the ranks of the revolution.
With the arrival of the first doctor to join the Eritrean revolution, Dr. Yahya Jaber, a great sense of relief prevailed. This bright young Eritrean doctor had finally responded to the call home and joined the fight with a determination to leave the pleasures of a world that was at his fingertips. He did this all in the name of serving the cause of his people in their efforts for freedom from the oppressive Ethiopian occupation.
Dr. Jaber was born in the village of Ali Gidr, in the province of Qash–Setit in western Eritrea in 1938. He attended elementary school in his village, and then moved to the central city of Keren for secondary school. He later migrated west to Sudan, where he studied in Hantoub High School in the Jazeera area of Central Sudan. Afterwards, he briefly lived in Cairo, Egypt, and in the early 1960s, he moved with his best friend Khalifa Osman to Europe to look for opportunities for higher education. He eventually settled in Italy, where he completed his schooling. Although his father helped him with his finances, Dr. Jaber still worked at night, while studying during the day.
He began his college education in the University of Modena’s School of Medicine in Northern Italy, near the city of Bologna. He then moved to the University of Rome where he completed his medical studies, specializing in surgery. While in college, he worked as an assistant to an Italian doctor in order to fulfill the requirements of his studies at the College of Medicine. The Italians knew him first as an African, then as an Eritrean. His humanitarian role in volunteering to save the victims of an earthquake which occurred in southern Italy was attested to by his Italian colleagues and put him in high regard.
Dr. Yahya Jaber was instrumental in establishing the Eritrean–Italian Association, while also supporting the Eritrean Revolution on the side. He held seminars to enlighten his audience on issues within the African continent in general and Eritrea in particular. Within the Eritrean community, he was known among students as a leader as well as an activist, and worked tirelessly to support new Eritrean students by providing them with guidance and securing scholarships for them to pursue their college education. Moreover, Dr. Jaber actively organized Eritrean students within the Ethiopian mission, and coordinated his revolutionary political activities with other Eritrean student activists in Europe, including Herui Tedla Bairu, who joined the Eritrean student movement and eventually took part in the revolution.
According to Dr. Jaber’s comrades, he rebuked members of the Ethiopian diplomatic mission by actively working against them. His connections in Rome and throughout Italy helped him in his cause. Dr. Jaber’s reputation was held in such a high regard that it was reported that the first secretary of the Ethiopian Embassy in Italy later commented on his death, calling it a “great loss” for all of Africa. He described Dr. Jaber as a person worthy of his full respect, even though he was his political adversary. He knew him as a brave, bold, and tolerant man, even with his opponents, and acknowledged that Dr. Jaber adhered fully to the principles of his people in every aspect of his life.
For all of the unique characteristics that Dr. Yahya Jaber possessed, his death was viewed as a great loss for all of those who were acquainted with him. To honor his memory, all of the international student organizations within Italy dedicated a hall within the University of Rome in his name.Of his connections, friends of his within the Eritrean-Italian Association tried to go beyond the norms of religious establishments by holding memorial prayers in his name inside a church in Rome, Italy. However their efforts failed, as a result of differences in the religious norms of the two religions – Islam and Christianity.
One of the many admirable traits of which students from neighboring Sudan and Somalia testify to is Dr. Yahya Jaber’s undiscriminating generosity. Within his Eritrean scholarship granting program, when Eritrean students couldn’t arrive in time to attend the college and receive the scholarship, he awarded them instead to new Sudani and Somali students.
His Revolution Experience:
Dr. Jaber had the option to emigrate to Arab countries, work, and lead a good life, or even stay in Europe and work there, all to build his future and help his family. However, his sense of obligation to his people and their dire need for his expertise pushed him to come back, heading to the field as the first Eritrean doctor.
On April 23rd 1970, Dr. Yahya Jaber headed for the field, armed with the product of his education and a resilient will to stand beside his people. His primary concern was making medical attention available for the freedom fighters, regardless of the price.
The first personal shock he encountered was the martyrdom of his brother Jafar Jaber, who was also a freedom fighter, as well as a member of the ELF Supreme Command. However, Dr. Jaber simply patched up his wounds and kept going on his journey, realizing that he could not allow his sadness to distract him from his greater goals.
Dr. Jaber was welcomed to the field with a warm reception of cheering by freedom fighters and his compatriots at large. The freedom fighters were pleased and proud to see their own Eritrean brother, a man who spoke their language and shared their destiny, return from Europe. Not only to make use of his knowledge and experiences, but mainly to give them the medical attentiveness that they so desperately needed.
The arrival of Dr. Jaber into the battle field had countless positive impacts, all of which occurred like a domino effect. His value was clearly seen in terms of boosting the morale of his compatriots in the field, as well as enhancing the performance and capabilities of the health department. In addition, he took over the task of creating, training, and supervising the health sector of the ELF.
As to his relations with his own people, Dr. Jaber was seen as more than simply a doctor. He was also a leader who provided both guidance and support to anyone who needed it. The people themselves saw him more as a counselor, and he became essential for helping many within their daily lives. His fame filled the Eritrean arena, and even those who never saw or met Dr. Jaber had heard about him and wished him a long life.
Veteran Saleh Hayoti, member of the Supreme Command, remarked, "During the meetings of the Supreme Command, Dr. Jaber was put in charge of leading and supervising the activities of the organization, until the meetings were convened. He then was chosen as a member of the Preparatory Committee for the First National Conference, but his life was taken at a significant moment of the struggle. His passing served as a test for us, in terms of our ability to be patient and bear calamities during difficult times.”
Freedom fighter Hafeez Saaddin commented on Dr. Jaber’s martyrdom by saying, "He was known for his contemplation and his constant planning for the future. In everything he did, it was his primary concern to heal the wounds of the fighters, alleviate the pain of his people, and work towards seeing Eritrea live freely in peace and security. “
By virtue of the circumstances of his work on the field, he was constantly moving from one area to another to treat the wounded and sick combatants and the people in general. At one point, Dr. Jaber entered the area of “Himbol” with a group of his fellow combatants, leading the work in healing the wounds of the fighters, and drawing smiles of hope on the faces ofcitizens and freedom fighters alike. There was one fighter among the wounded whom Dr. Jaber had previously treated, and who recovered from the injury, but as a result, possessed a weakened resolve to continue the struggle. The fighter fled and surrendered to the closest enemy camp, in hopes of obtaining amnesty, leaving the struggle, and returning to his family. However, the enemy forced him to direct them to the base of the rebels and the only place the fighter knew to take them to was the village of “Ad Gah Gah" in the Himbol area, which was the location where Dr. Jaber was present with other fighters, possessing only one machine gun. The enemy launched a surprise attack and it was reported that Dr. Jaber picked up the machine gun and exchanged fire with the enemy, fighting until his last breath. Dr. Jaber fought valiantly within the battle and his heroic resistance is still remembered until today, as the fateful date of 7 \31\ 1971.
After Dr. Jaber’s martyrdom, the Ethiopian army searched his briefcase at the scene and found a picture of him with his father, Sheikh Bilata Jaber Omar. As punishment for his son’s heroism, the army arrested Sheikh Jaber and threw him into jail. Despite all of this, the tragedy of their family was not meant to end. The amount of loss continued, with the family losing one of Dr. Jaber’s youngest brothers, Fahmi Jaber, in 1989 while he was still a young man and before he could complete his university education.
After Fahmi Jaber’s brothers, Dr. Yahya and Jafar, lost their lives in pursuit of the freedom and dignity of the Eritrean people, the Jaber family was not regretful of the price their sons paid (may God have mercy on our dead and let them enter Jannah), because relieving the calamity of the Eritrean people’s struggle was much greater, and the wounds they lived through were deeper.
These valiant stories proved that the Eritrean people’s will was unbreakable, and that their pursuit of their freedom would not stop. It confirmed that the revolution would continue to march until its victory, and it did.
In order to keep the memory of the martyr Dr. Yahya Jaber alive and well in the hearts of new generations, and to make it known to both friend and foe that the Eritrean people are here to live with pride and dignity, a message was sent. The General Union of Eritrean students adopted the day of Dr. Jaber’s martyrdom (July 31st) as the day of the Eritrean Student Movement, in which Eritreans all around the world commemorate every year the martyrdom of Dr. Yahya Jaber.