Overview: – There are two parts to this article. First, brief description of two battles heroically fought during the Eritrean armed struggle for national liberation. The purpose of doing so is to commemorate those brave Eritreans who paid the ultimate sacrifice for Eritrea’s full sovereignty. Second, how the hard-gained and long-awaited independence and the dream associated with it turned out to be a disastrous fiasco, especially for the Eritrean youth who are languishing indefinitely in the ‘so-called’ national military service; and as a consequence, risking their lives to escape the hopeless situation at home.
Eritrea has become a new sovereign state in the Horn of Africa ever since the ultimate victory sealed on the 24th of May 1991. This milestone is the result of heavy sacrifices paid by Eritreans from all walks of life over a long period of time. Eritrea’s history for self-determination struggle is full of heroism and self-reliance; recounting that history is certainly beyond the scope of a single article. Every year on the 24th of May, Eritreans celebrate independence day to pay respect to those heroic patriots who paid with their lives for their country’s full sovereignty. The national pride Eritrea’s independence brought about cannot be disputed, as it is overwhelmingly endorsed by a YES vote for independence in the 1993 referendum, both inside Eritrea and by the Diaspora communities. That is the desire of the Eritrean people who had given the opportunity to decide, and by voting yes, Eritreans fulfilled the will of their national martyrs.
In the mist of all this great success, of course, today the majority of Eritreans – except PFDJ diehards – commiserate with the Eritrean people for the sad situation the country is in. Some commiserate independence day silently and others publicly, by voicing their rejection of the dictatorial regime ruling Eritrea with an iron fist. It has become a common practice by the Eritrean Diaspora (especially in the West and recently in Egypt and Israel) to organise peaceful rallies coinciding with Eritrean independence day. These demonstrations are held to express rage against the PFDJ regime which denied the Eritrean people a normal life.
Tribute to Eritrean Armed Struggle Martyrs
As a mark of respect to our martyrs, I will share with you two of their successful stories; the battle of Mashalet in 1975 and Elabred in 1978. This is not to be selective, but briefly describing two of the many battles can demonstrate the level of bravery and steadfastness displayed by Eritrean freedom fighters. Mashalet is about half way between Keren and Af’abet. The battle had adverse effect on life in Keren. The Derge regime was determined to take back the then Sahel Province, which was almost a liberated zone by 1975-76. The liberation movements were equally determined in denying the Derge regime from reoccupying liberated areas in the Sahel Province.
The ELF & EPLF jointly fought the occupying army, and after a month of fierce fighting, the Ethiopian regime gave up its hope to reinforce its presence in Sahel. The spirit of cooperation and good-willingness on the part of the freedom fighters prevailed over the belligerence of the aggressors. Unfortunately, as Eritreans know, such cooperation between the two main fronts (ELF & EPLF) was a very rare occurrence in the history of Eritrean armed struggle for national liberation. On the contrary, conspiracy to weaken one another was practiced more often than not. The period of the armed struggle would have been shortened had the exemplary cooperation of Mashalet battle was taken as a role model.
Upon arrival in Keren, the defeated and frustrated Ethiopian army attempted to terrorise the population in the town. I vividly remember the army entered Keren around noon, and continuously fired bullets in the air for not less than two hours on the way to its barracks. I can’t recall if there were civilian casualties in the terrifying two-hour ordeal. Once the terror campaign passed, life in that defiant town continued as usual. The army wasted its ammunition in futile attempt to intimidate the general populace of Keren.
In the battle of Elabred in 1978, the EPLF fighters heroically attempted to defend the recapturing of Keren by the advancing a large contingent of Ethiopian soldiers equipped with sophisticated weaponry and heavy arsenal. I have personal memory of the battle, which I would like to share, not because being involved in it in anyway, but accidentally caught up. It was around 3pm Keren local time. The generally accepted news was the Ethiopian army entered Adi Tekelezan and is fast advancing towards Keren along the Asmara-Keren route. A fierce fighting was also raging around Aderde to defend Keren from the Ethiopian army that came through Barka. There was an ominous atmosphere in Keren in fear of how the army will treat the population of Keren. The best thing to do was evacuating the town and flee in a direction, believed to be safe. Amid the gloom and doom, my mother quickly decided to dispatch my cousin and I to her home village, Halibmentel to get two donkeys to help with carrying loads. We walked so fast (sometimes running) to reach Halibmentel covering 12km in about 1 hour. Under normal circumstance, the trip takes 11/2 – 2 hours, depending on the speed of the walker.
Upon arrival, we discovered most of Halibmentel’s residents abandoned the village. Luckily, we met my elder uncle when he was about to leave Halibmentel. We told him why we were there. The news in Halibmentel was even more gloom. My uncle informed us another contingent of Ethiopian soldiers sent from Massawa was about to enter Elabred. EPLF defence line quickly moved from the outskirts of Adi Tekelezan to Elabred. It was too late to go back to Keren, said my uncle. So we joined the villagers in their march to a safe place, which happened to be a long valley extending between a chain of tall mountains, about 7-10km north-west of Halibmentel. I wished a mobile phone technology existed back then to reassure my mother I was safe.
At dusk, the battle of Elabred started; it was a fierce fighting that the sound of heavy artilleries can be heard from our shelter. At times, large artillery shells landed near us, not sure whether they were airstrikes or fired from large guns. To give you an idea, Halibmentel is about 13km from Elabred and we were located about 7km north-west of Halimentel. The EPLF emerged victorious from the battle so much so in a matter of hours its fighters completely destroyed the enemy army that entered Elabred. However, it was not without heavy sacrifices. For reasons not known to me, the EPLF sustained numerous injuries in that battle they had to move the injured combatants in broad daylight, risking airstrikes. Indeed, airstrikes hit large vehicles that were transporting the injured EPLF fighters at the centre of Halibmentel. Many of them were killed instantly.
On the second day, the villagers (residents of Halibmentel) were called up to help moving the injured fighters. They set out at sunset for Elabred, moved the injured fighters all night and returned to us in the morning. According to them, they counted 20 tanks which were completely destroyed. They brought the good news Elabred was under EPLF control, and the defence line moved further south towards Adi Tekelezan. The disabled tanks and heavy armours were left there for a long time; anyone travelled between Asmara and Keren in peacetime can draw a conclusion a battle was fought in Elabred. Despite the victory, the EPLF had to withdraw from Elabred because the Ethiopian soldiers already entered Keren from the west gate. The EPLF fighters who were stationed in Elabred hurriedly bypassed Keren to defend the next town, Af’abet. This is a brief description of Elabred battle in 1978. The EPLF controlled Keren for a year and four months. I re-united with my family a week after Keren was re-taken by the Ethiopian army.
The message from the first part of this article is on the day of independence, Eritreans need to reflect back on their proud armed struggle history. Eritreans need to remember the brilliant heroic stories of our martyrs, which we have many of them. We need to put our disagreements aside on this day, as it defines the destiny of our nation. But at the same time, we should continue fighting to free the Eritrean people from the grip of the authoritarian regime which is humiliating our people day in day out, and decide to change the present course of events by acting collectively to reverse the current dire situation.
What Went Wrong Post-Independence?
In the immediate years of liberation and independence, the majority of Eritreans were relishing in the spirit of freedom. They were expecting political freedom and the prospect of development of their country. Unfortunately, that dream faded away quickly; and on the contrary, Eritreans at home and abroad faced with a different reality, characterised by a complete absence of what independence meant to them. It is imperative to ask what went wrong following the independence of Eritrea? The answer to this question is not difficult for an observer familiar with the nature of the regime that assumed absolute power in Eritrea and the weakness of the Eritrean opposition camp. Knowing these two factors, it takes little scrutiny to work out why Eritrea currently is in a terrible mess.
Sequences of dreadful events led to the current ill-situation in Eritrea. Some examples are given in this article, which represent only the tip of the iceberg. The prevailing situation in Eritrea – among other authors – is best narrated by Dr. Bereket Hebte Selassie, in his book entitled, ‘WOUNDED NATION’. Many commentators including editorial editions of the Eritrean opposition political organisations and Eritrean ‘independent’ media outlets wrote analyses on the occasion of Eritrea’s 20th independence to commiserate 20 years of repression. All these commentators branded any ‘development’ claims by the Eritrean regime as mere propaganda. Some examples can be accessed in these links: Noor; Dr Woldeab; Awate Team 1, 2, 3; Ande, Bohashem. There is no need to reinvent the wheel by repeating what has already been written either by these authors or others.
No one in his/her right frame of mind can argue against the fact that today’s Eritrea is far from the spirit of a free nation, which the main responsibility for the failure rests with the Eritrean regime. Opposition groups also share some degree of responsibility for the long-suffering of the Eritrean people. They are always blamed for their ineffectiveness in fighting the Eritrean regime; the fact that the regime has continued abusing the Eritrean people for 22 years unhindered and without any formidable challenge put the opposition in a difficult position to escape the blame. The opposition groups have spent all this long time squabbling about issues less pertain to the dire situation in Eritrea. However, the reference of blame is not only directed at the organised opposition political groups and civic societies, but also at independent individuals (particularly the intellectuals) and more so at the silent majority. In short, except the few who are whole-heartedly committed to fight the tyrannical regime in Eritrea, the majority of us who claim to be pro- peace, justice and democracy have not done enough to stand up to the regime’s malpractices and put an end to the suffering of the Eritrean people at home.
Let me draw a relevant point which I listened on BBC report on the occasion of South Sudan independence on 9 July 2011. A BBC reporter asked a Kenyan army General who played a key mediating role in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement reached between the Sudanese government and Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM). The question was why is it a rebel group that deliver the ultimate victory assumes absolute power and denies others space for any meaningful political participation? The General did not give a direct answer to the question and instead said, at this stage, there are no forces contending for power with the SPLM, hence the ruling party will enjoy a honeymoon for 10 years. After that, the SPLM will seriously be challenged, added the General. Time will tell if the Kenyan General is right or wrong in the case of South Sudan. However, it hasn’t happened in the case of Eritrea for 22 years. Then, isn’t it true to say the Eritrean opposition has not mounted serious challenges (as the Kenyan General is contemplating for South Sudan) to force the Eritrean regime to change its belligerent behaviour and listen to the demands of the people?
To be fair, let us now look at what have been ‘achieved’ during the last 22 years of ‘independence’? According to the Eritrean regime media propaganda and staunch supporters, the answer is a lot. That is not true! According to the opponents of the regime, the answer is none. That is inaccurate assessment either! The truth of the matter is a modest progress has been made in some areas (e.g. infrastructure, agriculture, potable water facilities, health clinics, etc.). It is difficult to utterly deny these achievements. However, the means by which this progress has been made is morally questionable and unacceptable to any decent human being. Development at the expense of human dignity and freedom should be rejected. Could Eritrea has been in a better position politically, economically & socially had all Eritreans given equal opportunity to freely participate in politics and rebuild their war shattered country? Certainly yes!
For me, the important issue is not about whether progress has been recorded or not in many areas of life. My argument against the regime’s failure to take the country in the right course stems from its appalling human rights record- primarily extra-judicial killings, incommunicado imprisonment and youth exploitation. PFDJ crimes against the Eritrean people are numerous; some are committed directly at the hands of its ruthless security apparatus and others indirectly by forcing Eritreans, especially the youth, to take desperate measures. Since PFDJ took power in Eritrea, a sizable number of Eritreans horrifically killed and many others disappeared under mysterious circumstances. These crimes brought so much agony to the victims’ families in particular and to the populace in general. The first wave of terror began well before the liberation of Eritrea when people shot dead in the streets of the Capital city and in other towns and villages accused of being enemy collaborators. That was an early sign of what to come in ‘independent’ Eritrea – extrajudicial killings and violation of the rule of law – which are not supposed to be practiced by the peoples’ ‘liberators’.
The very saddening and troubling issue about Eritrea is the country has been emptied of its youth. The dire situation of Eritrean youth is well captured in a solidarity statement issued by Melbourne Rally Organising Committee:
“Eritrean youth at home are living without hope and future, and a necessary question to be asked is, what kind of citizens are they going to be? Eritrea is going to have a generation of unskilled and untrained youth. Under such conditions, the future is bleak and very frightening to contemplate. In March 2011, nearly 400 Eritreans tragically lost their lives after a boat in which they were travelling capsized in the Mediterranean Sea and almost all of them drowned and perished in a very tragic circumstance. The death of these innocent people – including children and women –demonstrates how desperate Eritreans are at home. They are daring to embark on a high risky mission to reach Italy in search of a better life in Europe. They were compelled to embark on a treacherous high risky journey escaping oppression and gloom future at home. The relentless hardship Eritrean youth are enduring at home is unprecedented. Similar tragic incidents happened in the past and will happen in the future, so long as Eritreans are facing relentless hardship in their home country and escaping Eritrea in droves to neighbouring countries and beyond.”
Finally, I will demonstrate the level of the crimes committed by PFDJ using a tragic story of Aisha. Her story is not unique, but represents one of the typical PFDJ’s inhumane treatment, which its consequence doesn’t spare even children. Her mother passed away after giving birth to baby Aisha in 1988, possibly due to post-maternity complication. This little girl had lived for five years without the badly needed care of a mother. Another tragedy struck Aisha in 1993 when her father was abducted at night from his home for unknown reasons. Now 25 years old, Aisha has lived most of her life without the badly needed caring of both parents. Is that fair for a little girl to go through such agonizing experience in ‘independent’ Eritrea? Not at all! How many Aisha are there in Eritrea? Many, for sure. What does the future hold for the children of disappeared parents? Sawa and its attendant adversities, certainly not a bright future as long as the Eritrean regime continues on its repressive policies.