For some young first-generation Eritrean Americans like RadioActive's Alex Mengisteab, this history feels both close and slightly out of reach. So to better understand it, Alex talked to his family friend Habtom Hagos about his experiences growing up as a child during the war.

This story discusses the realities of war and thoughts of suicide.

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW’s radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This story was entirely youth-produced, from the writing to the audio editing.]


verything I’ve ever learned about the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence has been through Wikipedia pages. But that war is what brought my family the nearly 8,000 miles from Asmara, Eritrea to Seattle, and it’s part of what made me who I am.

I wanted to know more about the armed struggle from someone who lived through it, so I talked to Habtom Hagos, a family friend.

One thing to know about Hagos: He will talk to anyone.

"I speak seven, eight language fluently," Hagos said. "Whatever community I associate with, it takes me six months to learn the language. I'm self-taught, self-educated. I can do anything — write and read. Because I'm a survivor. If I have to survive, I have to learn. I have to be them."

Hagos is talking about how he survived the Eritrean War of Independence — and everything that came after it.

I speak seven, eight language fluently. Whatever community I associate with, it takes me six months to learn the language. I'm self-taught, self-educated. Because I'm a survivor. If I have to survive, I have to learn. I have to be them.HABTOM HAGOS
Courtesy of Habtom Hagos

This story starts when Hagos was 7 years old and living in Asmara, Eritrea with his family.

The Ethiopian military attacked his village. He was separated from his family and he ran. He found a revolutionary camp for the Eritrean independence movement. The freedom fighters there, part of the Eritrean Liberation Front, took him and other orphans in.

Hagos remembers the Eritrean soldiers showing him weapons. He thought it was amazing. The propaganda went so deep, he started to believe anyone, even a family member, could be considered a traitor.

"I believe if you bring my father, he's a traitor of my country, I blow his head. There is no second thought," Hagos said.

But it wasn't all propaganda. Hagos said the Eritrean revolutionaries were like a new family for him.

"They became father figures for me, [and] like mother figures for me," he said.

A few years later, in 1979, Hagos fled to Khartoum, Sudan like many other Eritreans seeking refuge. He was 12 years old.

He needed to make money, so from Sudan, he tried to get to Saudi Arabia by stowing away on a cargo ship. He was caught and jailed.

"Six months I suffered. I felt lonely," Hagos said. "I was attempting to kill myself."

The Saudi officials sent him back to Sudan, and he was arraigned in front of a judge.

"He asked me, 'Where is your mother?'" Hagos recalled the judge asking him. "I said, 'I don't know.' 'Where is your father?' I said, 'I don't know.' He felt bad, the judge. He gave me 50 riyal, which is Sudanese money. He said, 'There is a bus station in Sudan. Go there. Find your family."

caption: Habtom Hagos on vacation in Mexico on November 2, 2022.
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Habtom Hagos on vacation in Mexico on November 2, 2022.
Courtesy of Habtom Hagos

When he was 17, Hagos made it to the United States where he was reunited with some of his family members. He started work on his second day in America, and soon he was working three jobs.

That’s a hustle many in our community know well: Work hard to take care of your family.

"We have chip on our shoulder: responsibility," Hagos said. "We love our family. We send back home money. We don't ask anybody else to help us. I have poor family. They depend on me."

After living in the U.S. for two decades, Hagos was finally able to reunite with his mother at Sea-Tac Airport.

"I had a flower to greet her at the airport," Hagos said. "She said hi to all my brothers, my sisters. And she asked, 'Where is my son?' She called my name."

Hagos' mother didn't recognize him, he said, because she hadn't seen him since he was 7 years old.

He called it "the lowest point" of his life.

"I'm bonded with my mother since I was a kid," he said. "[So] not to recognize me? It hurts."

Hagos' journey is full of second chances. And now, here in Seattle, he’s spent a lot of time mentoring East African kids.

"Because I got second chance — I don't want them to be a failure."

My conversation with Hagos gave me something I didn’t expect. It helped my mom open up about her own experiences during the war. And that’s what I wanted.

This story was produced in a RadioActive Youth Media introductory workshop for high school-age youth. Production assistance by Brooklyn Jamerson-Flowers. Story edited by Mary Heisey. Consultation support from Agazit Afeworki. Prepared for the web by Kelsey Kupferer.

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