Memories of the ONA Massacre

By Tekle Bahlibi

I was at school on December 1, 1970. There were not many students as it was the second day of Eid celebrations. In the morning, missiles were launched from Forto to Ona passing over our secondary school. They were soon followed by the sounds of shootings and bombings by soldiers who went to Ona on foot and from their direction we saw people running for their lives towards Ad Hashel. We were dismissed from school not having any idea of what was going on. Later on in the day people started to share stories of what happened and the many lives lost.

The Ethiopian government did not allow the people of Keren to go to Ona the same day to bury the dead and help the wounded. After 24 hours without having any clear idea regarding the extent of the fatalities, the elders of Keren got permission to go to Ona for one day only to bury the dead.

On  the morning of December 2, 1970, we went to our school, Atzie Dawit Secondary School, lined up to get into classes as usual. When we knew about the permission to go to Ona, we, the grade 12 students took the lead and lined up marching towards Ona, followed by every other class at the school. We arrived in Ona to see the horrific deeds of the soldiers. Bodies were scattered everywhere all beyond recognition as the soldiers burned the houses after killing everybody. We helped gather the bodies to prepare them for burial, where we had to bury up to 80 of them in the same plot. About 700 innocent people were massacred in vain. I remember one lady, standing in between five bodies and talking to herself saying, “ela stel ta” meaning, “this is Stel”, who is her daughter. The bodies were beyond recognition. As devastating as these massacres were, the collaboration of the merchants of Keren and many other civilians was so remarkable, whether it is  buying the materials for burial or transporting the wounded to Keren Hospital.

People were also so shocked to hear the massacre of Besikdira which happened one day before the Ona massacre where around 120 people were just shot inside a mosque.

These massacres of Ona, Besikdira, and Erora bet Gebru, became unwanted parts of the history of Keren and its surroundings even though they are so painful to remember. They made our people stronger with determination to have a united and caring community which should pass from generation to generation.

Eternal rest for all the deceased. We will never forget you.

November 26, 2020