As it comes to the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War I, you can’t help but stop and reflect on what it means to us as individuals in 2018. It’s such a long time ago, and beyond most of our living memories and yet, without this historic event, life could have been so different.
As a youngster my perception of the word freedom generally revolved around physical freedom – not being shut up or imprisoned. As an adult I have come to understand it in much broader and sense.
In 2008/9 I was lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical year from my role as a primary school teacher and I went to live in Eritrea with an organisation called Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). This country, that many people had never heard of at the time, had recently become independent from Ethiopia in 1993. Before this time, from 1961-1991, they had been at war with each other in a battle entitled ‘The Struggle’. Even after independence there had been a war (1998-2001) over the land at the border of the two countries. In 2008 the people of Eritrea considered themselves ‘free’ people but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that their ‘free’ did not equate to how I understood ‘free’.
For a start there had been no elections since independence. The press was controlled by the government – newspapers wrote propaganda. Some religious groups were allowed to practice, others weren’t. National service was mandatory often with no end date. There was still a very high military presence on the streets and public transport. People were living in fear – of more war, of imprisonment, of not being able to provide for their families.
This is when my sense of freedom really hit home. In the UK, I can go out when I want, say what I want, read what I want and believe what I want without fear of persecution either physically or emotionally. Had our government and soldiers not been prepared to fight for this back in 1914 and again in 1939 then I might not be able to do that.
I have never been in such close proximity to war as I was in that period of my life and the evidence of it was so poignant. Military vehicles abandoned by the side of the roads – being used as playground equipment; many maimed people trying to earn a living or simply begging (needless to say healthcare wasn’t quite up to UK standards either); the stories people told; and the pride in their hard fought independence.
The town I was in – Keren has a Commonwealth War Grave. Pre World War II, Eritrea had become an Italian colony and Keren played a key role in the British success in the area. Many British names were engraved on the headstones there. I’d never been told about the war in Africa before, learning mainly about the events in Europe – but these really were World Wars. It has had lasting effect on so many people.
So we should stop and remember those people who fought for our freedom; we should give thanks for our right to free speech and use it for good; we should appreciate the things we have and often take for granted. We should also remember those in countries where the battle for freedom still goes on and where the soldiers and governments are still working to secure this freedom for others.
Hopefully one day we will live in a truly free world…