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Book Review: ELF: Its Struggle for Freedom and Social Justice 1961-1982

Authors: Dirar Mantai, Fessehaye Hagos and Ngusse Tsegai
Title: Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF): Its Struggle for Freedom and Social Justice 1961-1982
Language: Tigrinya
Publisher: Homib Publishing,
Year: May 2016
Pages: 369
Price: $30.00

To some extent, any organization reflects its founder’s comportment, and the Eritrean Liberation Front was no exception. ELF’s inimitable code-switching ability to fit to people’s social and cultural norms can be traced to its formative years, when a handful of intrepid fighters, under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, set the tone and laid the groundwork. Despite his demure appearance, Awate was a born and wise leader, who knew how to use incidents in reaffirming his mission and guiding principles. It looks like every incident was a teachable moment—a hallmark of leadership and wisdom.

In the summer of 1962, the freedom fighter Ali Hishal came to Kassala and regaled a group of Eritreans, among whom was Berhane Goitiom, with the following edifying story.

There was a battle near Hagaz, where the ELF fighters lost a comrade. To dispose his body, they had to find a burial ground, but the people would not allow a stranger be buried in their land. It was their custom.

One of the fighters was upset and avowed, “These people cannot forbid us. Let’s take action against them.”

Noticing his understandable outrage, a younger comrade advised him to be patient. Amid the commotion, the fighters were wondering of what could be done and finally agreed to call for Awate and allow him handle the matter. As soon as Awate came, he asked his combatants what the problem was. One of the fighters replied, “Since this people have refused to allow us bury our comrade, we need to attack them.”

Awate asked, “Why are you acting like fools? Didn’t you join to fight for the freedom and security of this people?” They all responded in the affirmative, and Awate asserted, “All right then. We cannot attack people for refusing us to bury our comrade.”

At that moment, Awate summoned a meeting of the people of the village and asked them, “Why didn’t you allow us to bury our martyr?” One of the villagers stood up and responded, “We don’t know the person who has been martyred and we don’t allow anyone whom we don’t know to be buried in our land.” Awate gladly proclaimed, “This is what I was hoping to hear. We are very pleased that you know this is your land and you’re willing to defend it. We are not going to force you to allow us bury our martyr. But we will ask you to gather some wood for us.” The people asked, “what do you need the wood for?” Awate calmly responded, “Since you would not allow us bury our martyr; we could not just leave him here lying like a piece of a tree-trunk. We need to burn his remains.” The people were shocked and said, “We don’t want to witness a corpse burning. Please don’t burn it; we will allow you to bury it in our land.” The conflict was amicably resolved and both sides thanked each other and the martyr was finally buried.

The tact, wisdom and public diplomacy that Awate exhibited during his short tenure as a freedom fighter had a lasting impact on the legacy of the organization. The consultative approach was ELF’s strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the public and nowhere was this truer than in the department of ELF’s Social Affairs under the leadership of Ibrahim Mohammed Ali. The department that was launched in 1975 became the microcosm of the ELF. This is that story. The story of victory and defeat, success and failure, fortune and misfortune, forward marching and retreat, growth and decay, expansion and atrophy, and exile and exodus.

The trio authors of the book, “Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF): Its Struggle for Freedom and Social Justice 1961-1982,” set out to chronicle and record the story of an organization that pioneered the Eritrean armed struggle. It is a tall order of an enormous magnitude; but the recognition borne out of a great sense of responsibility and necessity has made it abundantly clear that the story must be told; it must be done. Mission accomplished; kudos to them.

In a way, it is a luta continua: the continuation of their unfinished revolution and a testimony to Eritrea’s “Greatest Generation’s” tenacious hold to the cause of freedom. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, the authors have “watch(ed) the things they gave their lives to, broken, and stoop and build ‘em with worn-out tools…And so hold on when there is nothing in you (them), Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”

The youth of the struggle era are the backbone of Eritrea’s nationhood. Eritrea is their story. Understanding their sacrifices is understanding Eritrea; honoring their sacrifices is honoring Eritrea; loving them is loving Eritrea; and preserving and cherishing their legacy is to defend the autonomy and integrity of Eritrea. They are the heart and soul and the moral campus of the nation. It is only in this spirit that I enthusiastically invoke the platitude, “eternal glory to our martyrs,” and salute Eritrea’s greatest generation. Hail to the ELF. Hail to the EPLF.

“The ink of the scholar is worth a thousand times more than the blood of a martyr,” says the hadith, and this is what Dirar Mantai, Fessehaye Hagos and Ngusse Tsegai do in their first book—immortalize the legacy of the armed struggle and bequeath it to the next generation.

Their fallen and wounded comrades will be proud and those veterans who are trying, in their sunset years, keep the torch of freedom alight and the memory of their fallen heroes alive, will find solace in knowing that their history will no longer be defaced or erased. I hope it affords them some sort of closure; their sacrifices were not in vain.

The ELF teachers at the Gembeba School in Akeleguzay were responsible for composing the following immortal lyrics which embody the spirit and letter of the book. Incidentally, it is one song that my siblings and I can sing whenever we meet for holidays and reminisce of the good old days. We were all beneficiaries of the ELF educational system. Here is my English rendition:

Let’s unite and all come together;
So, the pillar of our home will not shatter.
The objective of our undertaking; taking place today,
Is for the development of our country, so it will be remembered in later day(s).

Dirar, Fessehaye and Ngusse’s book is neither written to excoriate the vices of the ELF nor extol its virtues, but to simply tell its story by those who experienced it first-hand. The authors’ method is cerebral rather than emotional and their efficacious treatment of the subject is admirable. No doubt, the book will become an instant vade mecum of the history of the Liberation Struggle and of the pioneering Eritrean Liberation Front—affectionately and popularly known as Jebha Abay.

Most of Eritrea’s struggle literature is hopelessly didactic and one-sided, but not this one. This is a book that will be appreciated even by those unconstructed partisans of the ELF and EPLF era. Its hard-boiled yet poetic rendering is a thing of beauty. It captures the zeitgeist of the struggle era, and, in the process, eternizes the heroic sacrifices of the many men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice, gotten wounded and spent the best years of their lives ardently fighting for the cause of the nation. But, most of all, it sheds light, in a non-intrusive and non-proselytizing way, on the issues that have beleaguered our protracted armed struggle and now our fledgling nascent nation. It adds duly to our fund of knowledge and enhances our understanding and perspectives. It is quite a feat of an accomplishment.

The authors have the necessary gravitas to write this book; they are ELF veterans themselves. But, more importantly, they have evidently taken the time to ruminate on the subject and on how to approach it. Their work is a nexus of editorship and authorship; it is a compendium of first-hand stories and eye-witness accounts neatly weaved together. It is a collaborative effort that can serve as a model for all Eritrean veterans who have the moral responsibility to record their stories and the stories of their fellow fallen combatants.

Dirar, Fessehaye and Ngusse have paved the way.

The goal in this and other similar endeavors is not, and should not be, to canonize our martyrs and make them above criticism, but to ensure that they are not forgotten. A society that doesn’t know its history will muddle through its future aimlessly; and that cannot be a good thing.

The glory of Eritrean martyrs lies not in their strength but in their frailties, not in their wisdom but in their ignorance and limitations, but, amidst all of that, they had the audacity to dream big and commit to the lofty ideas of freedom and independence and the dignity of self-rule and rule-by-consent. It is the story of freedom fighters who were, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “lying in the gutter but gazing up at the bright stars in heaven.”

The book, “Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF): Its Struggle for Freedom and Social Justice 1961-1982,” is a great addition to the literature of the Eritrean Liberation struggle. I learned so much from it and recommend it strongly to anyone who has the slightest interest in learning about the history of liberation struggle. The seeds of our unity and disunity, and greatness and weakness were planted in yesteryears and it is crucially important that we make all the effort to know and understand our history. This is what this book affords us and we have Dirar Mantai, Fessehaye Hagos and Ngusse Tsegai to thank for. Thank you, gentlemen.

The book can be purchased by contacting: Payments can be deposited at Wells Fargo Bank, Account#: 1129903587 and Routing#: 121042882.

Semere T Habtemariam is the author of the new book, “Reflections on the History of the Abyssinian Orthodox Tewahdo Church.” Africa World Press, or Amazon


About Semere T Habtemariam

Semere T Habtemariam is an author and a columnist at Awate. He holds a BA in Government and Politics and a MA in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Dallas. He lives in Dallas, Texas. His two books are: Reflections-History-Abyssinian-Orthodox-Tewahdo and Hearts-Like-Birds.

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  • KBT

    Selamat kulukhum
    Nice but the writer want to let us know little bit the difference between lowland highlander, Christian and Muslim
    Somehow everyone have to maybe control their land,some kinds of federalism think,
    And this is why ELF fail for 20 year to any bring success, so was born EPLF in 10 he brought freedom,

  • MS

    Selam Semere T/Habtemariam, and the authors of the book
    Thanks all, our history is not ging to be completed without giving ELF its due place. Some one who has lost a leg, an eye or a kidney, may try to compensate the role of the lost body part by strengthening the fucntion of the active body part. But it is not going to regain the the strength one gets from two healthy eyes, or two hands; they will still be somewhat affected. As the affceted persons age, the compensatory mechanism also ages. They become more aware of their missing limbs or other body parts when age progresses.
    EPLF might have felt compensating ELF role outweighed dealing with it in a serius engagements for materializing national unity. In its heyday, ELF leadership could also have had the same mindset. EPLF was able to compensate ELF role in liberating Eritrea. However, as time went on and EPLF started to age, morohing into PFDJ, the need for the role of the missing part has been evident for sometime now. They will still be somewhat disabled.
    The witnesses of that history are still alive and with some residues of doubts and bitterness (from both sides). We may not agree on what had transpired almost 40 years ago, but we should come together on what is needed today. If thought then we could do it alone, it is clear today we can’t. If we thought 40 years ago we can simply write off a huge part of our history, and still remain Eritreans, it is now clear that was a disasterous decision. We can’t be Eritreans without our full history. Our History can’t be full by ommiting the history and role of the ELF. You can degrade or defeat the physical presence of a group of peaple, but you can’t kill and bury the ideal they fight for IF that ideal is rooted in the minds of people. ELF was a national front. It did not belong to certain individuals. It belonged to Eritrea; it was a front that had ignited the torch that had kept the spirit of Eritreans under tremendous pressure of enemy assaults; a torhc that had kept Eritreans push through under punishing droughts, and under the tough life of migration.
    The more I know about the history of ELF from independent sources, and from ex-ELF individuals I asociate with, the more I understand I had been told a skewed story. At basic level both organizations comprised decent Eritreans who wanted nothing other than liberating their people and land. We were the victims of leadership individuaqls who pitted us against each other. Guess what? We are paying dearly for that.
    We will never triumph over the frces of division and chaos unless we realize we were ALL freedom fighters who were misled. We will never get together unless we come to terms with our past. Today we are all victims of a political system that, at some level, we all contributed in making it control the fate of our country. We have a choice to make: make our PAST a basis for our current differences, or making it a learning lesson and use it in overcoming present challenges.
    I think books and personal accounts such as this will enable us to widen our perspective. When narrated by individuals who lived that experience, readers will be able to see a living and breathing ELF. That in turn will help Eritreans, and particularly those who were affilaited with EPLF, to have a counter-punch to the established narrative.
    The main purpose of exchanging experiences should be LEARNING from the past. We should identify tricks that divided us physically and methodologies that resulted in conquering our minds. The more we know about the experi3ence of the other side, the more we will feel we are the same after all. That will hopefully help us move forward in confidence.

    • Ismail AA

      Dear Mahmoud,

      “If we thought we could do it alone, then, it is clear today we can’t.” This precisely sums up the essence of what our home work is. This is the spirit and soul of Martyr Hamed Idris’s advice to his first unit fighters. The word “alone” did
      stand in vocabulary of the pioneers’ book. Armed with only 13 old five-round guns and some among them carrying only sticks, and having no diner after sharing lunch with poor herdsmen, they embarked on herculean national odyssey with unshaking conviction in justness of their cause and trust in the unity of their people.

      I think may not be taken as self-indulgent to share with you my, and many comrades with me in Khartoum, feeling when the liberation forces entered Asmara triumphantly. We genuinely believed that the EPLF would be aware that rehabilitation and nation-building cannot be done alone. As a national government, the EPLF leaders priorities would have to make paradigm shift and call for rallying the nations behind itself, irrespective of the liberation struggle era contradictions. For that reason we pressed out leadership to take initiative and release a declaration to help the EPLF leadership to respond in kind.

      At that time, having roamed around the region doing my bit in the ranks of the ELF and later ELF-RC, I returned to Sudan, and was dreaming to return and visit home that I did not see for decades. But instead, like hundreds of my comrades and compatriots, I ended up as a refugee for which I used to loath people who had been leaving the
      struggle and seeking refuge in third countries.

      Now, I do not have an Eritrean passport. Instead I am a naturalized citizen of another country. This is how causes and individuals become victim of leaders who wrongly think they can do collective work for collective destiny alone. Thus, as you have beautifully summarized in your input we have been warned by our own history that we cannot end the predicament of our people hiding behind walls of mistrust. United, we can do it; divided we fail.

  • Nitricc

    HI everyone; I think i have heard almost everything about ELF, but if i express what I feel and i think of this book review; i will got shoot by you people. so, let me say this to save my skin.. what a great book and great review simply superep.

    • Ismail AA

      Dear Nitricc,
      I sincerely applaud your sense of objectivity. Having difference is healthy as long as subjectivity and one-sidedness do not dim our judgement.

  • tes

    Selam Semere,

    Thank you for writing your reflections about the book. I am glad to read this book. It was an eye opening and lots of conjested materials that need academic research. The book is a collection of events and raw facts.

    Amanuel Hidrat’s name is there in the long list of then well educated members of ELF.

    I was also lucky to meet one of the authors, Drar Mantay, during my visit in Germany. I spent three good days with him and almost eight hours person to person discussion. A very decent, cool, attentive and justice loving person.

    I thank you again for your exceptional reflections.


  • Amanuel Hidrat

    Dear Semere,

    Thank you for the book review. One minor correction on the history of the song. The song was part of the drama play shown in cinema Odion by the students of Poly technic Institute in the winter of 1968. The drama was authored by Redi Kifle, known by his nickname “bashay” the character he played in the drama. The title of the drama was ” Sidet”. The money generated from it was to help the Eritrean orphan kids. When Redi and his colleagues (teachers from the education dept of social Affairs) was assigned to Akeleguzay during our armed struggle, they make the song to be sung by the students. I don’t know how the authors of the book present the story of the song, but this is the story of the song. The author is alive, he might comment on it himself.

    Many thanks
    Amanuel Hidrat

  • Ismail AA

    Selam all,

    To begin with, it behooves me to thank our brother Semere T. Habtemariam for frequently gracing this website and its forum with his well-written book reviews skillfully spiced with erudite comments that add to insight and horizon of readers. He is to be applauded for sharing his reflections on the content of the books he reads. And, being a good author himself he knows that a reviewer’s sharp pen impacts an author and his product. To one, who read the book reviews, the intrinsic service of the reviewer to the authors, publishers and distributors could not be missed.

    Perhaps, it needs not to be underscored that it is premature to write an state an opinion before reading what the contents of a book or literary work. Personal views have to be built within the parameters of information the reviewer provides because making unwarranted interpretations would constitute uncalled for presumptive venture.

    However, knowing in person the integrity and character of the authors of this book through sharing with them long experience of struggle for the same ideals under the guidance of one national program, I would not be mistaken to presume that their objectivity and judgements in researching and writing this important book could not have been hampered by calluses left by ideological and political skirmishes the ELF, as well as the broader national liberation struggle era, had experienced.

    Building on the points the reviewer had underscored, the book represents piercing of a hole in the thick wall of negative propaganda that internal and external adversaries of the ELF had erected. Ali Hishal and Berhane Goitiom exchange is an anecdote that vindicates and substantiates Martyr Hamed Idris Awate’s credentials as a national leader, and exposes the falsehood of allegations role seekers and enemies had striven to attribute to him. This story illuminates and reinforced his advice to his pioneer fighters that the liberation struggle he had launched would not attain its goal unless its entire people (Highlanders and Lowlanders) shall close ranks and rally behind the ELF. Seen in retrospect that was what happened in the years (1974-1976) when the youth of the time flocked in scores to join the fronts. Of course the great leader could have never, even remotely, contemplated in mind fronts would emerge in Eritrea.

    The highlights of the review render the reader to anticipate that the book carries a message that Eritreans, irrespective of
    their political persuasions or partisan affiliation today or in the past, should know. As Semere had indicated, it is a book for everybody who wants to know the story of the Eritrean liberation struggle in its wholeness rather than in incoherent tidbits and anecdotes.

    In other words, the youth should know the bones and skeletons that lie in peace in hill sides of Adal, valleys of Mereb, Nakfa and Selaá Deaáro are heroes who had given their lives for the sake of the goal Awate and his first generation fighters had embarked to attain. The story of the Eritrean struggle should be told as it is, and cleanse of partisan politics
    related propaganda, as Semere had aptly written.

    A last point before ending these hasty and cursory remarks, I think this book is more important to the young post-independence generations than the ones before them. In fact, it should be on the shelf of every Eritrean youth who will have to embark on the pursuit of the attainment of liberation and building a united and democratic Eritrea on the ruins of the dictatorship that has usurped their future. To reach there, they emulate and heed to Awate’s advice that Eritreans only survive and attain their goals when united and closing national ranks.

    • sara

      Dear Mr Ismail
      well said Mr Ismail , such a book was over due, it came at the right time when we need to know our revolutionary struggle from those who had first hand experience specially from the mother (ELF) of Eritrean armed struggle for independence .
      i really applaud the writers of this book for their efforts and to bring it in time and in English that will help
      many in diaspora who do not have good knowledge of the national languages.