Africa News blog

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Where is Lemlem?

April 6, 2010

lemlemresizeIt’s one of those photos. The type you can’t get out of your head. There’s just something about it that draws you in. You keep coming back to look again.

It could be because she’s beautiful. Dark brown eyes, gently rounded cheeks, bundles of black curls held atop her head by a carefully tied scarf, the start of a smile she’s trying to suppress, a smile you know will charm when set free.

It could be because she’s a soldier. Her AK-47 perched on her shoulder, held there only by a few fingers, a much-practised position she is comfortable with.

Most probably it is the combination of both. Beauty and violence. Femininity and machismo. Supposed contradictions that still fascinate in much of the world.

But for the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front and the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front – the underdog rebel groups who led the overthrow of Ethiopia’s vicious communist regime in 1991 – such fascination would have been a luxury. They simply could not have triumphed without their formidable female fighters.

When American Diallo Hall saw the photo, he was captivated.

Diallo – who is married to an Ethiopian woman – had spent months looking at the image before he decided he wanted to track the former fighter down.

“It was such a powerful photo that it really struck my curiosity about the history behind that moment in time,” Diallo told me. “I’d like to ask her about her story, her life since the photo was taken and, perhaps, write her story for others to hear and learn about. Too often these types of stories in Africa go untold.”

So where do you start when you want to find someone from a photograph taken in remotest, war-torn Eritrea in 1988? For Diallo the answer was clear: Twitter.

“Twitter was just the quickest way to ask people if they knew anything and to get responses,” he said.  “Plus, Twitter has been a great way to connect with a lot of amazing people.  Based on their tweets, I knew their areas of interest.”

It wasn’t long before Diallo found Jenny Matthews, the photographer.

Matthews took the photograph in 1988 while on assignment in northern Ethiopia for British charity War on Want. She had travelled to the frontline with a group of journalists and had only a few hours to shoot her pictures.

“We arrived a few days after the massive battle at Afabet. We weren’t there for long, the war was still going on,” Matthews told me. “Most of the time the translator was tied up with television crews so I wasn’t able to talk to people.”

The only piece of information Matthews was able to glean from the striking soldier, quickly scratched down in a notebook, was her name: Lemlem.

Lemlem was an EPLF frontline soldier, Matthews says, and the photo was taken at Afabet’s former Ethiopian army HQ, which had just been taken by the rebels.

The British photographer chose the image of Lemlem for the cover of her book “Women and War” and has shown it at several exhibitions over the years.

Now, Diallo’s hunt for Lemlem has given Eritrea and Ethiopia their first ever “trending topic” on Twitter: #whereislemlem? Twitter users start the topics by putting hash tags before subjects, making them easily searchable on the site.

Africa still has far less people online than in other parts of the world, with only 200,000 Eritreans and 360,000 Ethiopians connected to the Internet in 2008, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

But the Africans who are using the Internet are taking to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in huge numbers, sometimes leapfrogging straight from inefficient landlines to the latest in communications technology.

Users from both Eritrea and Ethiopia, their diasporas and beyond have responded to Diallo’s quest and a Facebook group is rapidly gathering members.

“The reactions have been heartwarming,” Diallo says. “You know, even non-Eritreans are inspired by the experiences of the Eritrean female soldiers.  They weren’t just revolutionaries for their country.  But they were really ahead of their time – completely shattering age-old notions of a woman’s role in African society.  And the men responded to them as well.  They fought with the women side by side.  This type of comradeship between the sexes should set an example for the continent as to the potential of empowering both men and women in society.”

So where is Lemlem? Did she survive the war? Can you help?

Diallo Hall’s Twitter page:

“Where is Lemlem?” Facebook group:

PHOTO CREDIT: Jenny Matthews.


Thanks for helping to get this message out! We are trying to reach out to former Eritrean soldiers in both Eritrea and London (where many moved). So far we have some potential leads with some associations of former soldiers. If you have any info, or potential leads…drop a note here…or Tweet about it (#WhereIsLemlem)


Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

well, good place to look for lemlem would be by posting her clear picture, name and place taken in Kachew station( used to be center for american army back in the 50s I think) in Asmara and Radio marinayo also located in Asmara where many of the Eritrean veterans reside right now. I bet at least one of those people knows who she is.

Posted by amanuel | Report as abusive

Go to Eritrea’s capital of Asmara and ask former female fighters, they’ll know who she is. Btw, Lemlem means lush greenery.

There are many captivating pictures from the Eritrean revolution, but my favorite is this one. 2.jpg

Posted by sare | Report as abusive

thank you for this article, and what a beautiful and striking picture! However, I felt it important to point out that Eritrean women soldiers were not the first to be ‘ahead of their time’ or to to break the concept of ‘traditional’ women’s roles in armed struggle but, in fact, African revolutions dating back to the 1954 -62 Algerian War of Independence (being the first, and most striking example) have had women feature prominently as guerrilla fighters, as well as most recently during the Rwandan civil war of 1990-94….Africa has had a long and rich history of women fighters, and no doubt Lemlem has found a place in this legacy. Good Luck!

Posted by ikilezi | Report as abusive

@Sare, you’re right…that is another powerful photo. I think the thing that is so powerful about the photo of Lemlem is how it captures so many dimensions of African women – the femininity, the sensuality, the confidence, and strength.

And that leads to ikilezi’s point, which is that Eritrean women were certainly not the first to fight side-by-side with men. I think these stories and experiences are all complementary…and show the resiliency of the human spirit.

Thanks so much for all your support with this! We’ll see if someone can help spread the word in Asmara, as per amanuel’s suggestion.

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

Fantastic to see the responses to this blog and the spike in numbers for the Facebook and Twitter campaigns since its publication. I really hope it’s all leading Diallo closer to finding the captivating Lemlem. I’ll be keeping in touch with the campaign on:

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

I came across this article accidentally while surfing the net. I read the article with an interest and as well as dismay.

Primary, It is interesting to notice that most, or perhaps majority, of ex-reble fighters who dedicated their lives to fight for so-called ” freedome and independance” against Ethiopia are now doing anything and everything to abondon and flee Eritrea. It should also be noted that most ex-reble fighters are desparately trying to enter back to Ethiopia in a bid to join a refugee camp which is infested with more than more than 20,000 Eritreans at the moment. Please concider Exhibit A:  /ethiopia-2008-eritrean-refugees-ethiop ia

Secondary, I really wonder, taking a look back at history, what do these so-called Ex-freedom rebel fighters think of their past glorious deeds and now doomed cause?

In conclusion, I shall not end my statement with out mentioning an article which I read about couple of weeks ago. It’s about an Eritrean Ex-rebel fighter who currently resides in Melbourne Australia. Click on the link below. aurants-and-bars/easter-feaster-20100322 -qr0d.html

Posted by Mr_Tigray | Report as abusive

Just got a really good tip from someone via Facebook: “The famous author Alemseged Tesfai wrote about a woman fighter named Lemlem on his Nakfa war diary that he published on his 2002 book titled “Two Weeks in the Trenches”. He mentioned Lemlem on page 51 and 54 of this book, and his story was based on the war around 1985. Although there are so many Lemlem’s in the struggle, it will not harm to double check with the author, if you can find a way to contact him that is.”

This looks especially promising since the book focuses on the Battle of Afabet – which is when the photo was taken.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed!!!!

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

This story just got better….Alemseged Tesfai lives in Asmara (from what I can surmise), but he will be speaking at Penn State University on April 14th.

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

Great. So you’ll be meeting him?

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

I have forwarded him the link, asking him if she is indeed the ‘Lemlem’ he mentioned in his book…Will get back to you later…

Interesting story!!

Posted by samrovodka | Report as abusive

Closer and closer…

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

Hey samrovodka, that is awesome! Thanks so much for reaching out to Ato Alemseged. Hopefully, he knows her and can add some insight into her whereabouts.

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

We just got another message about Lemlem:

“One of my cousin’s wife looked exactly like Lemlem’s picture. I don’t know her name. But, I will soon find out if her name is Lemlem, and if she was at the place where the photo was first taken.”

As it turns out, the gentleman who sent us this know was in Eritrea during the war…and many of his relatives fought in the war…including the relative whose wife looked exactly like the photo. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

This just in from Reuters Eritrea correspondent, Jeremy Clarke: “There is a bar, much-loved by the mining fraternity, in the Tiravolo area of Asmara. As is their custom, all miners’ haunts are named for the friendliest / best bartender: I’ve been dragged many a bleary-eyed night into Lemlem’s Bar and I have to say, the resemblance is striking…”

An exciting lead!

Jeremy’s in Nairobi at the moment. Anyone in Asmara come across the Lemlem he’s talking about or able to go check her out?

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive


Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

Thought you’d like that, Diallo! Also love the lead from the man who thinks she looks like his cousin’s wife. How great would it be if she was now one of the “friendliest / best” bartenders in Asmara..?

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

Jeremy just told me he’ll email the pic to some miners in Asmara to see if they think the bartender could be our elusive Lemlem. Fingers crossed…

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

It is really great to see that there are potential leads to LemLem. Looking forward to updates on the story!

Posted by AnnBrwn | Report as abusive

I just spoke with Randall Fegley, who is organizing a speaking engagement by Prof. Alemseged Tesfai @ Penn State University. Prof. Alemseged is the author of “Two Weeks in the Treches,” which we are told makes mention of a soldier named Lemlem near Afabet – where the photo was taken. This could be promising! We hope to speak with Prof. Alemseged soon. Keep your fingers crossed!


Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

May 24 is Eritrean Independent Day where many people Eritrean gather to celebrate all over the world. I live in Minneapolis, MN, so I will post the picture at the community center. I know a couple former liberation fighters during that time, I will approach them. Hope I find someone who recognizes Lemlem.

Posted by Angish | Report as abusive

Anguish, that’s a great idea! Thanks for helping to spread the word.

I just heard from Prof. Alemseged Tesfai concerning the Lemlem in his book. Here’s his response below:

“Dear Diallo Hall,
Prof Randall Fegley showed me your message asking if the Lemlem in the photo is the same as the Lemlem I wrote about in my book, Two Weeks in the Trenches.

I wish I could say yes. But the one in my book was much older and of different build and facial features. They tell me that she is somewhere in Scandinavia now. I don’t believe that I have ever seen the young woman in the picture.

I wish that I could be of more help. But I am impressed by your concern and determination. I am curious to know where your quest might lead.”

Although he can’t speak to Lemlem’s whereabouts, at least the word is getting out. I think we might be getting closer!

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

One lead down. Somebody still has to check that bar…

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

I think the bartender angle might be more interesting… :>

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

Looks like a photographer – Cheryl Hatch – also has an interest in Eritrean women soldiers.

Posted by AddisTunes | Report as abusive

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