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February in the History of Eritrea

EPLF Fighters


February in the History of Eritrea
Simon Weldemichael
Adi Keih College of Arts and Social Sciences
Feb 2018

“Man is an historical animal with a deep sense of his own past” said Geoffrey Barrowclough. Life must be lived forward, but it cannot be understood without looking backward. History is the most important product which the chemistry of the mind has concocted. My intention is not to fill readers with false memories or incite grudges over old grievances. The aim is simply to provide historical morsels for the lovers of truth.

Eritrea has a long, unique history. The centuries old tradition of resistance against domination and colonization has made every inch of land a fertile field and every day a mark of history. It’s practically impossibly to discuss everything that has happened in the month of February from ancient times to the present. Therefore, I am going to select some of the important historical events which have great national significance and implications.

1 Feb 1975 - Wekidiba Massacre:. Many villages had suffered devastating losses during the 30-year-long war of Eritrean liberation. Under the motto of “it’s Eritrea’s land that we want, not its people,” successive Ethiopian colonizers of Eritrea committed countless atrocities to exterminate the Eritrean people. The Wekidiba massacre was one of atrocities committed against Eritrean civilians by the Ethiopian army. The Ethiopian army devastated the village suspected of harboring the liberation fighters. The Ethiopian army also believed that to kill the fish one has to empty the sea. Unable to fight with the liberation fighters, the Ethiopian army was engaged in killing defenseless civilians. This tragic massacre of Wekidiba was most remembered as Black Saturday.

To understand the situation I provide an account from a survivor of the massacre - Colonel Zeremariam Tesfay. At the time of the Wekidiba massacre, he was 18 years old and later he spent his days in the struggle for independence. Zeremariam’s full acount is available in Tigrigna and English in a book titled, Massacre at Wekidiba, authored by Habtu Gebreab. He said that “in every house, there were two or three dead bodies. The ground was drenched with blood. After committing the atrocities, the soldiers brought in trucks. Stepping over the dead bodies, they hauled away anything of value from these houses…As the morning progressed, the soldiers began killing the roaming cattle and made meals out of them” (Habtu 2013: 201-2). The massacre and dispossession perpetuated by Ethiopian colonizers followed a strict conformity to Machiavellian advice on holding the conquered. Nicole Machiavelli in his book The Prince, instructs that whenever those states which have been acquired have accustomed to live under their own laws and in freedom, there are three courses for those who wish to hold them: the first is to ruin them. He further recommended that “there is no safe way to retain them otherwise than by ruining them” (20-1).

14 Feb to April 1950 - the Five member UN Inquiry of Commission visits Eritrea. With the failure of the plan for partition, the UN General Assembly again discussed the Eritrean question and called for more information to decide on its disposal. On 21 November 1949, it resolved to send its own inquiry commission and elected Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan, and South Africa. The mandate of the United Nations Commission was to ascertain “The wishes and welfare of the inhabitants of Eritrea.” The Commission discovered the strength of the Eritrean Independence Bloc and the political maturity of the people. The chief of the British administration, Robert Mason, wrote in a confidential memo to the Foreign Office in London that the Independence Bloc represented “a clear majority of the population of the country” (Tekie 1990: 10). The delegations of Pakistan and Guatemala recommended the independence of Eritrea. Despite this fact however, the final recommendation of the commission was divided, leading to the erroneous decision by the UN promoting federation. Independence of Eritrea was ignored simply because it didn’t suit the interests of Ethiopia and the United states.

11 Feb 1967 - the Massacre of Adi Ibrahim: the Ethiopian army killed, burned and bayoneted the inhabitants of Adi Ibrahim and surrounding villages. Dr. Habtu Ghebreab, a professor of history has pointed the insincere remark given by Zewde Reta, a former Ethiopian official under Haileslasie “in the [years] we have lived togather … we should never forget that we Ethiopians have committed no offense against our Eritrean brothers” (Habtu, 2). Denial to such an extent reveals the unregretful mentality that leads to other problems. This is scoffing at the blood of the innocent Eritreans shed in Adi Ibrihim, Omhajer, Ona, Sheib and many other places.

15 Feb 1982 - the Sixth Offensive (Red Star Campaign): launched by Ethiopia in 1982 to quash the Eritrean revolution once and forever. The event was organized to commemorate the 36th anniversary of the sixth offensive; an all means aggression that tested the perseverance of the EPLF, which, according to Dan Connell, was the largest war ever since the Second World War fought in Africa. The sixth offensive was the largest and challenging of all previous offensives that aimed to remove the EPLF from the face of Eritrea. It was unique in that the Derg conducted a two-year-long multi-dimensional preparatory phase. During the war, the Derg deployed more than 120,000 soldiers and many Soviet military advisors (to help plan and lead the war). The sixth offensive is a great symbol of the perseverance of the Eritrean revolution. In the course of the war that lasted for more than three months, almost half the EPLF fighting unit were martyred or wounded. The EPLF had foiled Ethiopia’s ultimate goal to alienate and annihilate the EPLF. During that time Isaias Afewerki, then its vice secretary, described the invisible power of the EPLF: “the EPLF does not possess sophisticated modern weapons and an abundance of ammunition. Nor does it have satellites at its disposal. What the EPLF possess is political consciousness and it is this that works miracles” (Fekadu 2008: 222).

10 Feb 1990 - Liberation of Massawa: the offensive called the “Fenkil Operation” started on February 8th, 1990. In the period between the demise of the Nadew Command (March 1988) and the Fenkil Operation, the EPLF conducted 50 military operations that cleared the way for the liberation of Massawa (PFDJ 2015: 214). In the Fenkil Operation, the EPLF naval forces, using small but speedy motor boats surprised and confronted Ethiopian warships from the rear. Finally, after three days of intense battle, the EPLF captured the Port of Massawa and sealed off Ethiopia’s land forces from all but air-borne supplies. In retaliation, the Ethiopian army bombed the civilian population of Massawa using cluster bombs and napalm - remembered by Eritreans as qbtset (desperation). The operation profoundly shocked the foundation of Derg and hastened the final defeat of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea. On the other hand, the operation enhanced the position of the Eritrean revolution in regional and international politics. Soon after the liberation of Massawa and as defeat loomed for the Derg regime, Mengistu realized that the key to his survival was to solve the Eritrean problem. The Fenkil Operation is amongst the most highly celebrated occasions in Eritrea and Massawa.

10 Feb 1994 - Third Congress of the EPLF, held in Nakfa: after achieving its goal to liberate Eritrea from Ethiopian colonial oppression, the EPLF convened its third congress and transitioned to a post-war political movement, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). This would be to build on the EPLF’s legacy and to lead the country. The PFDJ’s basic goals, as summarized in the National Charter, were: national harmony, political democracy, economic and social development, social justice (economic and social democracy), cultural revival, and regional and international cooperation.

23 Feb 1999 - Second military campaign or Weyane invasion of Eritrea: the so-called border dispute which could have been resolved peacefully, instead led to devastating conflict, largely due to Weyane’s covert intentions. The conflict was created by the TPLF, a minority group that assumed power in Ethiopia. The situation exploded with the killing of Eritrean officials who went to negotiate and soon escalated when the Ethiopian Parliament made an ultimatum and declared war with the bombing of Asmara. The TPLF obstructed the efforts to resolve the issue in a peaceful manner. As a result, Weyane launched full scale war toward the end of February. Some estimated the second offensive of Weyane “to be the biggest battle on African soil since the expulsion of Nazi forces from Egypt during the Second World War” (Tekeste and Tronvoll 2000: 73). The immediate source of the conflict was Badme. In an intense Ethiopian offensive against Eritrean positions at Badme, Ethiopia used a human wave strategy of pouring thousands of men to secure short-term gain. Conservative estimates suggest that Ethiopian causalities at Badme reached 10,000 (Ibid 73-74). Subsequently, the Eritrean army withdrew from Badme. For the last 19 years (1999-2018), Badme, which has been confirmed by the EEBC as Eritrean territory, has been under the illegal occupation of Ethiopia.

February, and its history, is a reflection of our entire history. Eritrea is a repository of historic memories: of resistance, sacrifice, massacres, and dispossessions. It is the place where our martyrs and heroes are remembered forever and where successive generations lived, worked, and struggled. The Ethiopian war of aggression is the most unjust war ever waged against the freedom and independence of Eritrea. Noam Chomsky in his famous book Turning the Tide; US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace, notes that “Killing the dream, a wiser strategy is first to kill the dream by a campaign of terror, intimidation, sabotage, blocking of aid, and other means available…that is immune to retaliation, until the errant society cracks under the strain and its people recognize that in the shadow of the enforcer, there can be no hope of escaping from the miseries of traditional life” (1985: 146). Ethiopia’s killing and torture was aimed to kill the hopes of Eritreans.

All this makes Eritrea a unique homeland of people who are ready to sacrifice for their dignity and identity. Explaining national identity, Smith (1991) states that “national identity provides a powerful means of defining and locating individual selves in the world, through the prism of the collective personality and its distinctive culture” (1991: 17). Eritrean national identity offers a powerful means of defining and locating individual Eritreans in the world. History tells us that in the past, Eritreans of all backgrounds died for their identity and territorial integrity and now Eritreans are making more history in development and progress.

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