The Lion of Gash-Barka
|Hamid Idris Awate|
The Lion of Gash-Barka
By Bereket Kidane
Nearly fifty three years ago, Hamid Idriss Awate’s five-bullet rifle (Abu Khamsa) in Western Eritrea fired the first shot of the great liberation struggle for Eritrea’s independence that would transform Eritrean society in every conceivable way forever. We think of the first shot fired by Idriss Awate as having its causes in the illegal annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia and extreme brutality of the Ethiopian Army in lowland Eritrea but the real roots of the armed struggle lay in superpower politics of the cold war era that cynically refused to grant independence to Eritrea when all former African colonies were being awarded their sovereignty. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, typified the cold war era superpower politics when he shamelessly suggested that despite the wishes of the Eritrean people and their strong case for independence, the United States’s strategic interests in the Red Sea basin dictates that Eritrea be linked with America’s ally Ethiopia.
The biggest mistake successive Ethiopian administrations ever made was in thinking they could handle the Eritrean people by force or defeat their ambitions for nationhood and sovereignty by military means.
On September 1, 1961 Hamid Idriss Awate, the former Italian Ascari and Security Officer of the Gash Barka region, is considered to have fired the first shot in the liberation of Eritrea. There is much that is still unknown about Awate but recorded interviews with his comrades indicate that he was harassing the Ethiopian Army with just a few rifles and only thirteen men for years in his native Gash Barka demanding that the Ethiopian flag come down and be replaced with the Eritrean one. The Ethiopian Army sent several armed convoys to his village for his arrest but he always fled in time after being tipped by Eritrean nationalists within the Ethiopian Army that sympathized with his cause.
Following the increasing brutality by the Ethiopian Army in lowland Eritrea, he steadily gained more followers in 1960 and 1961. Needing more ammunition for his men he and eleven of his comrades launched a daring attack on a police post and arms depot in Western Eritrea on September 1, 1961 that lasted for several hours. That night's gunfire exchange with the Ethiopian Army marked the first shot being fired in liberation of Eritrea. That night's armed conflict started a chain of events that led to the long and bitter armed struggle for the liberation of Eritrea.
The resistance gradually spread to the highlands and culminated with the total liberation of Eritrea in 1991 when the EPLF tanks rolled into Asmara. Indeed long before the heroic tegadeltis of Nakfa, there was the Lion of Gash Barka.
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