Fenkil & Eritrea’s Fortitude
Derg troops surrendering to EPLF fighters in Massawa
26 years down in to history and still a reverberating military thunder
By Rai’ Tesfa
“Fenkil” was the code name of the operation in the second battle of Massawa, which was launched on 8 February 1990 by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and lasted for three days. Fenkil has now become a popular moniker describing one of the most critical epochs along Eritrea’s arduous path to freedom.
The First Battle of Massawa took place in 1977 in and around the coastal city of Massawa, Eritrea. The port was besieged by the EPLF against the occupying forces of Ethiopia.
By 1977, EPLF had claimed all of Massawa save the port itself. This included the main road used by the Ethiopian army for the transport of supplies from Asmara. Essentially, the garrison was cut off by land and brought under siege.
On 23 December 1977, EPLF began a strike through an open field towards the salt flats and port. Soviet warships began to shell EPLF-held portions of town to prevent its occupation by the EPLF, especially the downtown areas, ensuring an Ethiopian victory.
This direct soviet intervention in the war, which lasted up to the last days of Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea, drove the EPLF to take on its now famous strategic withdrawal in Sahel, its strong hold and rear base around the town of Nakfa.
Thirteen years later, on 8 February 1990, the EPLF forces began their Operation Fenkil offensive by cutting off the critical supply route from Asmara. The surprise attack stunned the Ethiopian regime and by the following afternoon the EPLF forces were in the suburbs of Massawa.
On 10 February 1990, the EPLF captured the Ethiopian naval base near the town. Following the event, the islands became the only portion of the city held by Ethiopian troops.
To achieve this, the EPLF used its nascent naval forces equipped with small modified gunboats, to attack from sea despite the massive artillery barrage from the Sovietsupplied Ethiopian warships and ground forces.
Using artillery fire and light weapons, the EPLF gunboats moved onto the causeways that connected the islands with the mainland. Although the first of these gunboats was destroyed by Ethiopian heavy machinery, the EPLF was eventually able to overcome the attacks, leading to an Ethiopian defeat. After this loss the remainder of the Ethiopian forces retreated to Ghindae.
In a dramatic development that bode negatively for Ethiopia’s army, the port city of Massawa was liberated on Saturday, 10 February by the EPLF after a three day battle that raged across the entire 200 kilometer Ethiopian defense lines.
The liberation of Massawa sent shock waves through Ethiopia and its regime. In an indirect address broadcast over Ethiopian radio by Colonel Mengistu to his armed forces and militia on 22 February, the Colonel admitted that “the capture of Massawa will choke the Second Revolutionary Army” and “mean the great downfall of the Ethiopian armed forces.”
Although many might have pointed out that it was a forgone conclusion to say that the siege of Massawa ensured the end of the Derg, few would have expected such a fate to be realized so soon.
Failing to re-occupy the port city after repeated counteroffensives, the regime gave up ground fighting and started to indiscriminately bomb the port city along with its inhabitants from the skies.
The regime showed its disregard for Eritrean as well as human life through its reckless, aerial civilian attacks. To borrow a phrase from the EPLF journal Adulis, “It resorted to blanket bombing of Massawa, spraying the town with napalm bombs.” Even after the loss of Massawa, the Ethiopians continued the aerial bombardment of the city.
The liberation of Massawa limited severely the regime’s capacity to continue its war of occupation in Eritrea any further. Massawa was the lifeline of the regime as its entire military as it was a critical point in supply lines from the USSR to Eritrea. This was worsened by the closure of the Asmara-Addis Ababa road for more than a year.
The Ethiopian army which was already in dire logistical situation was indeed “choked” as its supreme commander testified. The regime became so desperate that it banned all civilian traffic in Asmara and other occupied Eritrean towns to save fuel for its military. In Asmara, in particular, the Dergue shut down electricity and closed all factories except those essential for its war machinery.
The Ethiopian military swiftly changed their target from the advancing EPLF army to the Eritrean people by attacking all the food stores that were in Massawa. A Sunday Times article from February 18, 1990 stated very accurately the way the Ethiopians behaved after their defeat at the hands of the EPLF:
Not content ravaging Ethiopia by means of Africa’s longest… war and repeated famines, Menghistu Haile Mariam is trying to subjugate millions … by deliberately starving them.
Ethiopian MiG fighter planes destroyed food warehouses and several industrial and commercial installations in the port city via blanket bombing. Heinous as it was, the regime was determined to continue its ways.
The Dergue burned all the warehouses in a wanton bombing of the port city of Massawa for an entire week and also attacked relief convoys headed to Tigray from Sudan.
Thus, awareness of the Dergue’s brutality grew among the civilian people of Eritrea and Ethiopia. A devastating drought hit Eritrea and northern Ethiopia during the mid-1980s and continued to ravage Tigray and some parts of Eritrea up to the end of that decade.
Much of the badly needed food aid from the international community was being channeled through Massawa. The regime was diverting much of this aid to its underfed troops. Much of the food aid was kept in the port city due to the inability of the regime to transport it to needy people inside the country.
Operation Fenkil and the Battle of Massawa was a significant occurrence that drew out and displayed the fortitude of the Eritrean people.
The battle is commemorated by a memorial of three tanks in the Sigalet Square built near the city center on Tualud Island by the entrance to the causeway to the mainland in Massawa.
In 2004, on the fourteenth anniversary of the battle, the government of Eritrea issued a set of two stamps and a three-stamp mini-sheet honoring the battle’s decisive role in the country’s independence.
Pictured on the other side is the tank memorial and fountain. On another side is a speedboat (gunboat) with fighters on board.
Through these relics of Operation Fenkil, the fortitude and perseverance of the Eritrean people is remembered for all time.
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