A Day for a Heroine

Radio Erena: 10 March 2020

I do not recall the exact date of this event, though every detail of it is still vivid in my mind. I do know that the event happened sometime between the two rounds of the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia (May 1998- February 1999). The time: before the famous Asmara lunch break (fadus). The Place: National Cinema Administration Offices, Campostato Avenue. As a young reporter for Eritrea Al Haditha daily, I had an appointment with Mrs. Miriam Hagos, the Director-General of the Administration.

A veteran of the national liberation war, Miriam was a woman of medium height, with smart looks and a captivating smile. Welcoming me into her office she said, “Reporters do not often drop by here,” and added with gratitude, “I appreciate your coming.” She was right. The National Cinema Administration was literally a forgotten department. Founded after Independence, this department was in charge of rehabilitating the Cinema houses in Eritrea. Most of them were built by the Italians in the 1930s. Miriam’s office was situated above Cinema Impero, an art-deco style building. The office was spacious, with a marble chimney, a cuckoo clock on top of it, and film posters on the walls. I had not met Miriam Hagos before my boss fixed the appointment for the interview. Although she was consumed in preparing for a major cinematic event; she received me with much enthusiasm and kindness.

With countable cinema houses repeatedly showing films from the sixties and the seventies, and without theatre shows, Asmara was ‘culturally’ a dead town, except for some art exhibitions held frequently in Casa Degli Italiani. Miriam Hagos came with a creative idea to revive the cinema business in Eritrea. She met with the accredited ambassadors in Asmara and told them that she was planning a film festival and asked them to participate in the festival with a minimum of one film in the seven-day show. The initiative brought new movies from China, Russia, Switzerland, France, Israel, Egypt, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other participating countries. The festival, which was the brainchild of Miriam, was a feast for the moviegoers in Asmara. For the first time in decades, Asmarinos made lines in front of the long-deserted cinemas.

Sitting behind her wide desk, Miriam complained about the broad snubbing of the cinema sector. Her administration did not have resources to renovate the old cinemas in the capital. Government officials did not care much about the cinema because “it was not food,” she bitterly said. No budget was allocated to repair the film projectors. Even safety measures in the cinemas were poor and outdated. Her discontent was understood. “I have begged the ambassadors to participate in the film festival,” she said in agony. “And because you care,” she said to me passionately, “I will give you a ticket to the opening ceremony of the festival.” I was deeply touched by her lone Herculean effort to raise the cinema in Eritrea from the dead. In a shy response, I said, “I hope this interview will put your problems in the spotlight.” “Please talk about us. It will definitely help.” These were her last words before our goodbyes.

Miriam Hagos was arrested in 2001 and her whereabouts are still unknown up to the present. I remember seeing her one time in Asmara. She was so critical of the way president Isias Afwerki managed the war with Ethiopia. Her countrywomen, Aster Yohannes, Aster Fessahsion, Senait Debesay, the young Ciham Ali Abdu and numerous others, are sharing indefinite imprisonment with her in the country they fought tooth and nail to liberate.

Commemorating Women’s Day cannot pass without remembering heroines like Miriam Hagos.

By Fathi Osman