Eritrean Cycling Legends – Tesfalidet and Salambini

Legendary cyclists Tesfalidet Hailom and Carmelo Saglimbeni (aka Salambini)
A Candid interview with legendary Eritrean cyclists Tesfalidet Hailom (L) and Carmelo Saglimbeni (aka Salambini)

By Daniel Wedi Korbaria,

ON MAY 24th, about 450 people attended the joyful celebrations in occasion of the 24th anniversary of Independence in Rome. This year’s theme was “Development Trough Resilience“, the same resilience that has characterized Eritreans including in the Diaspora since the days of the Struggle for Liberation first and the nation-building process later.

In this spirit, Eritreans flowed to the Teatro Tendastrisce, adorned by colorful decorations and flags. The theater was overflowed by a festive atmosphere and the delicious, mouth-watering smell of traditional dishes like zigni and himbasha

A giant screen was displaying President Isaias Afeworki’ Independence day speech that was broadcasted live on ERI-TV from Asmara Stadium. “Winning the freedom of a nation and building a free nation are complementary, the struggle and martyrdom of our heroic freedom fighters will have been in vain if we do not manage to build a truly free country.”

As always, it was exciting to see the President join the students in the celebrations and dances.

In Rome, after a collective and passionate singing of the national anthem, the fathers and mothers of the community, all wearing traditional clothes, marched and opened the dance with flags and olive branches in their hands, accompanied by live music by talented singers like Maekele O/Michael, Rimdet Alem and Selam Yemane.

Many Italians, friends of the Eritrean people, also joined the celebrations.

Prominent actress Yordanos Lulu was also present, as she just arrived from Eritrea to star an Italian film. Yordanos is, in fact, the protagonist of the documentary film Looking for Kadija produced by Rai Cinema and winner of the Audience Award at the 2014 International Film Festival of Rome. The model and actress was excited about the coincidence of finding herself at Tendastrisce. She expressed the joy on celebrating the 24th Eritrean Independence Day in Rome and astounded with the warm welcome given by the Eritrean community in Rome.

Among other distinguished guests, Carmelo Saglimbeni and Tesfalidet Hailom – two major legends of the Eritrean cycling – were also present.

They have just returned from a trip to Geneva in April where they brought solidarity to the Cycling Tour for Truth, Justice and Peace and Eritrea, a cycling tour of 1700 km with Eritrean cyclists, champions of yesterday and today, which started from Goteborg (Sweden) to Geneva (Swiss). Here, a memorandum was delivered to the United Nations on behalf of the Eritrean community in the Diaspora calling for the annulment of the unjust sanctions imposed on Eritrea in 2009 with groundless accusation of Eritrea’s supporting to Al Shabaab in Somalia.

Most Eritreans knows that Eritrea has always been against any form of terrorism, particularly any religious fundamentalism. On this occasion, the respect of international ruling concerning the border dispute was also pointed out, as Ethiopia continues to illegally occupy sovereign Eritrean territories since 2000.

Tesfalidet and Saglimbeni, better known among Eritreans as Salambini, went to Geneva to support the cause and realize how sanctions were designed to cripple Eritrean economy and worsen the lives of Eritreans in the country.

“Sanctions are wrong and they fall on poor people. When you sanction a country you put far away foreign investors and that means no jobs for the young people and the results, unfortunately, we have seen them then in Lampedusa” explains Tesfalidet.

“Those cyclists would run 1700 km for our country and the only thing that we could do is to be here”, says Saglimbeni “I am crazy about cycling, and I believe that if I did the blood test they will find the red blood cells in the form of bicycle rims”.

“How were you welcomed by theEritrean community in Geneva?” I asked.

“Very well, they organized a surprise party for the two of us” said Tesfalidet.

“I thought that I had been forgotten, who remembers a 74 year old man? Instead, they organized a surprise party for us. They have made a monument, usually it is done to the dead, I have raised and carried in triumph, I was moved and still do not realize it all” added Saglimbeni.

“How many races you have won in your life, Salambini?”

“I’m not sure…”

“I know it,” said Tesfalidet, famous for its distinct memory “more than three hundred, considering you started in 1956 and competed until 1980.”

“And you? ”

“Very few, I mainly came second or third in competitions. We were on the same team and I was the one making Salambini win, leading him until the final sprint, I was really strong going uphill” confessed Tesfalidet.

“It is true, he was playing for the team. If I hadn’t stopped from 1975 to 1979, I would have won even more races”.

I asked Saglimbeni if he had stopped for an injury.

“No, it is because of the Dergue! They believed the bicycles were used by the freedom fighters who had around that time entered the city by bike and killed colonels and generals to then disappear into thin air. Mengistu had even thought of abolishing the use of bicycles entirely. Then in 1980, all of a sudden they gave us bicycles and without training, they sent us to the regional 100 km Tour of Addis Ababa. Even if with great difficulty we ranked third. I have to admit that the only desire was to not be defeated”.

“I was not there anymore, ” says Tesfalidet “in 1975, after the failed liberation of Asmara, the freedom fighters chose some cyclists and with a trick they made us leave Asmara because we no longer could be part of the Ethiopian team. They had done the same with soccer players and musicians. I joined the Eritrean Liberation Front to fight, my level of awareness was raised to fully understand the armed struggle to liberate our country from the enemy, So I gave up cycling.”

“Then there is that terrible event of 1972 that you’ve never forgotten, isn’t it?” says Saglimbeni.

“But it was not only for that…”

“What happened in 1972?”

“You need to know that I’ve gone through a bad time at the competitive level” started telling Saglimbeni and he continued “that year for punishment I could not participate in international competitions because the federation had accused me of not having done well at the Olympics in Tokyo 64 and Mexico 68. I was among the excluded and I cried because I could have done very well. Then I fell into depression.

One night, I asked Tesfalidet to accompany me to the training toward Deccamere because there was a beautiful moon with a lot of light. Of course we were amateurs compared to the East Germans or the others, we trained at night when the light of the moon permitted us to see otherwise we had to do the usual tour of the center of Asmara. That evening, at one point, I told Tesfalidet to turn on the right towards Nefasit to then return to Asmara, the path that the Italians called road of wells. Tesfalidet told me that a few weeks before other cyclists had traveled so it was a safe route, and so we turned. However, I felt that it wasn’t so safe and in fact all of the sudden in the darkness we heard Qum! (Stop)”

“I know the Qum of Ethiopian soldiers” I said “as a child it always scared me a lot.”

“We heard shots and I saw the bullet just near Tesfalidet. We’re trapped! Tesfalidet they are coming down from the hill, we have to remain still, otherwise they’ll kill us”, I told him. “In fact we were surrounded by dozens of them, and immediately I was hit on my chest with a rifle butt and I fell to the ground, apparently dead.”

“A soldier was about to hit me with the rifle barrel” added Tesfalidet “so I took if from him with my hand and instinctively I was trying to pull the gun on him with all the strength I had – and you should believe it when I say I was really strong then – so they realized I wanted to shoot him and at that point I do not remember what all of them did to me…”

“I thought they were going to kill him. I feared I would have never seen my friend again. I felt bad as it all had been my idea. They stabbed him, disfigured his face and broke his legs. When it seemed they had finished, he stretched his hand toward his bike, and they returned to beat him with even more violence than before” said Saglimbeni very emotional, as if the scene was playing in his head all over again.

“They thought I was reaching for a weapon. Instead, I just wanted to make sure that the bicycle was not broken” stated Tesfalidet.

“I was so worried about him that at one point I began to speak in Italian and English for them to stop, pronouncing sentences that probably did not make much sense, I said we were Olympians, sportsmen, I mentioned Tokyo and Mexico, and so on. They stopped hitting him finally and brought us over the hill where they had the camp. We were pushed inside a tent. Tesfalidet did not understand anything, he was thrown to the ground, I spoke in Tigrigna so that Tigray soldiers who were there could understand me. They noticed we had t-shirts with the Olympic badge.”

“Then what are you doing around here at night? Even the bandits run away at night” they said.

“The bandits were the freedom fighters” Tesfalidet explained to me.

“During the day we work to earn our daily bread – I answered – only at night we can train ourselves especially when the moon shines and we could use the glow. At this point they began to clean the wounds of Tesfalidet with alcohol but he didn’t understand what was happening.”

“Especially when they put the alcohol I felt so tired, I just wanted to sleep.”

“We cannot let you go now, we have fired and the General of the Army in the field near us might have heard and he would want to know the reason, you will have to wait for him to authorize you to go”, one of them said.

“We could not cycle back, as the bikes were reduced into pieces, and Tesfalidet was almost unconscious. A donkey was defecating just near his head and Tesfalidet didn’t even notice. Even I did not have the strength to react to that episode. The General came at about 10am. We were allowed to go after signing a formal statement, which declared we had not experienced thefts or abuse, and being threatened of not to tell anyone. It was Friday, Tesfalidet and me had to go to work, but obviously could not make it”.

“I rested on Friday, Saturday and Sunday I won the Tour of Enda Mariam” added Tesfalidet.

“After everything you suffered, how did you compete?” I asked.

“I wanted to react and if I won was only because of my force of will”.

Three years later, Tesfalidet was fighting against Ethiopia. It took well over thirty years of war, but today we are free and we are celebrating our Independence.

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* Translated from Italian by Yordanos Mehari