Awate Archives: Interview With Abdella Idris
Abdella Idris, perhaps one of the most well-known leaders of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), passed away this week after a long bout of illness. As we have done with many controversial veteran combatants of our armed struggle, even those with whom we vehemently disagreed–as was the case with the late Ali Said Abdella–we attempt to summarize their contribution to the Armed Struggle from their perspective, and the perspective of their loved ones. We will have many more opportunities to provide the perspective of objective historians and skeptics who will summarize their negative contributions to their struggle. The following interview (conducted in Arabic, translated to English) first appeared at awate.com on May 3, 2002. We will also include the original interview, in Arabic, in the arabic pages of awate.com. In the words of the Holy Quran, “Of God we are and to Him we shall return.”
Abdella Idris has been part of the Eritrean armed revolution since its beginning. It is said that he met the father of the Eritrean Revolution, the national icon Hamid Idris Awate, when he was a young boy not older than fourteen years. It is also said that the erstwhile fighters refused to admit him in their ranks because of his young age and he became a messenger to the first generation of the fighters. He joined the ranks of the Eritrean Liberation Army in 1965, after graduating from the Syrian Military Academy.
Since then, Abdella’s name has appeared in virtually all major incidents, including the ones with names like Karakon & Tahdai, where forces from the Eritrean Liberation Army camped after it was pushed out of Eritrea by the joint forces of the EPLF-Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (now the ruling party in Eritrea) and TPLF-Tigray People’s Liberation Front (now the ruling party in Ethiopia.) Still, Abdella persists in carrying on what he started at the age of fourteen: fighting. Sometimes with a gun, sometimes with diplomatic attire, he stubbornly clings to his beliefs.
We have been trying to interview Abdella Idris since September 2000. He is one of the most talked about Eritreans and one who rarely speaks. We believe he is a historic figure in the Eritrean revolution and he should be given an opportunity to tell his story, in his own words, with his compatriots. The following is an English translation of the interview (conducted in Arabic.) Here’s how it began…..
We had asked Abdella about the latest steps towards unity….We read few communiqués about a unity agreement between the ELF and the ELF-NC, where did the agreement reach?
He replied : “The two organizations has decided to present the agreement to their respective legislative councils and after its ratification, a meeting will be held between the two councils to combine under one leadership according to the agreed upon political and organizational program; God willing, that will be in a short period.”
We asked him about the news circulating among Eritrean circles: Is there a serious efforts to unite with the Eritrean Islamic Jihad?
Briefly he said: “There are serious effort with all Eritrean organizations opposing the Shaebia system [the ruling party] with the goal of realizing a comprehensive national unity.”
Was your organization able to attract a new people from the youth generation?
He replied: “Our organization is full of young people and it was able to attract a large force to the Eritrean Liberation Army and in the civil organizations. In the forefront is the General Union of Eritrean Workers; Eritrean Students and the organization of Awate youth and the General union of Eritrean Women, the Eritrean Teachers, Eritrean Peasants and the Refugee Leagues. The foundations and the driving forces of all these organizations are the youth”
This is how it began…
“First, allow me to thank this forum. I am hoping that what I present will add some information that would form a background for analyzing many problems in the Eritrean arena.
“Before I delve into my bio-data…the revolution of September First under the leadership of the Martyr, Hamid Idris Awate and his colleagues from the first generation, was a struggle for the independence of the Eritrea land and the liberation Eritreans. Of those who walked on that path [of struggle] were some of the best and the proudest of our people; the thousands [who were] martyred and wounded so that the Eritrean people would live in a liberated Eritrean land, free [and] in control of their destiny and [where the future] generations would blissfully reap the fruit that their elders sowed.
“We in the Eritrean Liberation Front struggle for the sake of this ideal and principles. The struggle of generations will not cease until the dream of our Eritrean people for freedom and independence is realized in its true sense, [and so long as there is] the darkness of oppression and excessive injustice and [until] the banner of freedom, democracy, political pluralism, balanced development, participation of the people in solving the problems of the country and the daily concerns [is lifted], safeguarding human rights of Eritreans, their pride and dignity and [until] the mentality of exclusion, marginalisation and arrogance is finished once and for ever.”
“I was born in the Shelab region, north of the Barka River near the village of Aderde, (forty-kilometers from Agordat), in March 1945. I learned reading and writing under the tutelage of my father, Shiekh Idris Mohammed Suleiman. I attended middle school in Egypt and the Military Academy in the Syrian Arab Republic. I joined the Eritrean Liberation Front in August of 1960.
“In October 1961, after the initiation of the armed struggle and the ignition of the Eritrean revolution under the leadership of the Martyr Hamid Idris Awate on September 1, 1961 in the Adal region on Western Eritrea, the founding leadership of the Eritrean Liberation Front asked me to join the leader Hamid Idris Awate to assess the situation of the t vanguards of the revolution.
“The members of the leadership that assigned me were: (1) Martyr Taher Salem; (2) Martyr Mohammed Idris Haj; (3) Martyr Omer Hamed Ezaz and (4) Mohammed Omer Abdella (Abu Teyara.)
The above-mentioned were members of the Sudanese Army. The group that was assigned to contact the leader Hamid Idris Awate was comprised of the following: (1) Adem Mohammed Hamid (Gendefel); (2) Mohammed Adem Idris Arey (Qesir); (3) Hamid Yousif; (4) Mohmoud Tahir Salem; (5) Adem AlNur Teta; (6) Alamin HassebeAllah; (7) Abdella Idris Mohammed ; (8) Alamin Kerrar; (9) Ibrahim Leman; (10) Omer Mohammed Abubeker.
I remember that Adem Gendefel wanted me not to go with the group because I was young and because we came from the same region and he knew my parents (we are related); he was worried that my parents would blame him, but I rejected all his attempts. I was determined to go with the group.
When we entered our land, we [started] searching for the leader Awate and we reached the Sawa region and asked the people in the surrounding areas where we could find Awate. The people were puzzled and denied that they knew Awate or his location. We looked around the area between Haikota and Keru. The people were cautious; we were not surprised because, at the same time, the Ethiopian enemy and its spies were asking questions similar to ours about Hamid Awate. It was a difficult period. The people were suspicious of us and the methods we employed in looking for the leader Awate.
One month after we started the long search, the combatant Kesha Mohammed Kesha came to us in Sawa riding his camel and wearing the traditional clothes. He had heard that we were looking for Awate. He knew two people from us [the group]. He told us that the method we used to look for Awate was not suitable. He asked us to choose two people from our group and that the rest should go back to wherever they came from. He assured us that the two people would bring us news about Awate. Mohammed Adem Gesir, Mahmoud Tahir Salem and Hamid Yousif agreed to return but the rest of the group were reluctant. A lot of pressure was exerted on Adem Gendefel and finally we decided to return to where we came from, to Kessela.
On our way back, I stopped by in the village of Dubek and stayed as a guest with Sheikh Abdella Mohammed Amer. God bless his soul, he hosted me and introduced himself to me. He was following our movements and was disturbed by it. He asked me about the other members of the group and if we had succeeded in our task. I explained to him clearly and in detail on what had happened and that our meeting with Kesha Mohammed kasha had been decisive. He asked me where I was going and I told him that I was going to meet the party that sent us to explain what had happened. [I am saying] all of this and I didn’t know that his place was one of Awate’s stations and that he was a security detail for the revolution.
All of a sudden, he asked me if I would go to Awate if I had the chance. Excited, I said, yes, this is one of my dreams and the caused for my presence in the region and all the hardships I had to go through. He told me, “if you stay with us for another two days I will send you to him and you will meet him, provided you can be trusted with a secret. ets. I said, yes I [want] to meet him and I will keep the secret, God willing. I was extremely happy and overjoyed from the news and his hospitality.
On the third day, Awate’s messenger came to the Sheikh and he told me that Awate had arrived to the region and that we will go to him right after the dawn prayer. At the set time, we departed together where the leader Awate was. We arrived to the leader’s place and I was face to face with the leader Hamid Idris Awate. Sheik Abdella introduced me to him telling him that I was among the group that was looking for him for over a month. I understood at that moment that Awate was aware of our trip searching for him and he asked me where we came from and who is the party that sent us. He also asked about my folks and the region that I came from and if I was a student or worker. I answered all his questions and I expressed my eagerness to join the revolution as a fighter among the ranks of the combatants. He said that the issue of admitting me to his ranks would be studied but that he wanted me to take a message from him to the leadership that sent us. He said I should tell them not to send anyone, trained or not trained, before securing a piece of equipment [gun] and that he was in need of equipment and ammunition and that they should secure for him ammunition, specially for Abu Ashera [M-1]. I agreed to carry the message because it was an urgent requirement of the leader Awate and that it was a proof that I met Awate and that it might be a cause for my acceptance to the ranks of the Eritrean Liberation Army. In high spirit and dedication I left Awate in the village of Dubek in the Sawa region to Kessela.
Abdella Idris: In His Own Words (Part 2)
Part 2: 1975 – 1982
In part 1, the interview dealt with a biographical sketch of the subject and his role at the dawn of the Eritrean armed struggle.
This part of the interview deals with one of the most controversial periods of Eritrean history: the events that preceded, caused and resulted from the crossing of the Eritrean Liberation Army to the Sudanese territories of Karakon and Tahdai, after a year long series of battles between the forces of the ELF and the EPLF/TPLF. (1980-1981). There are likely to be as many narrations and explanations as the number of people who lived through (and were affected by) the period. The following is one version: as told by one of the most controversial figures of this controversial period: Mr. Abdella Idris. – ED.
The Second National Congress
The Second National Congress was an extension of the First National Congress, (which was convened during the phase of the General Command), itself owing its roots to the Adobha Congress of August 25, 1969. The Second National Congress witnessed a qualitative development in the Eritrean arena, coming after the downfall of the Haile Sellasie regime and the emergence of the Dergue. The Dergue was, despite its being packaged in revolutionary rhetoric, an extension of the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie.
There was then the incident of the killing of General Aman Andom who had displayed a clear sympathy for dialogue and peaceful negotiations in resolving the Eritrean case. Because he [General Aman] was an Eritrean, and because he had a strong personality, the Dergue decided to finish him up by physically eliminating him. This operation [the killing of General Aman] resulted in Eritreans, specially Eritreans from the highlands– students, workers, peasants; from the military, people who were employed in the Commandos, the police and local militias—joining the ranks of the Eritrean revolution in big numbers: This phase represented a great expansion to the revolution and a large influx to the revolution. It also witnessed the emergence of dialogue between the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Popular Liberation Forces resulting in the cessation of killings within the ranks of the revolution. In terms of arms, supplies and finances (including the acceptance of the Eritrean youth into institutions of higher learning: universities and military academies), the assistance provided by our Arab brethren increased and doubled.
1975 – 1978
The Second National Congress was convened at a time that witnessed considerable developments in different aspects. These developments were reflected in the resolutions of the congress, its programs and its elected leadership. But the new leadership faced a host of challenging difficulties because the Dergue, assisted by its new allies – the Soviet Union, Democratic Republic of Germany and Cuba— was resolute in its aims of wiping off the revolution militarily. All this was in reaction to the advances of the Eritrean revolution in liberating Eritrean towns, then overwhelmingly under the control of the Eritrean revolution. The Eritrean Liberation Front had liberated Tessenei and its environs, Barentu, Agordat, Adi-Khwala, Mendefera and others while the Popular Front [EPLF] had liberated Nackfa, Afaabet and Keren. Together, the revolution [the two fronts], had surrounded the city of Asmara. The Fedaeyeen of the Front [ELF] had carried out the daring operation in Asmara’s Sembel prison in Asmara, freeing all the combatants then in prison. Among those freed by the Fedaeen of the Eritrean Liberation Army [ELA], we can mention Saeed Hussein, Weldedawit Temesgen , Seyoum Ogbamichael, Mahmoud Sabbe and Haile Weldetensae (Haile Deru’e).
Ethiopia’s Counter Offensive & Its Impact On The ELF
When the forces of the revolution were preparing to liberate Asmara, the Dergue, backed by its allies (the Soviet Union, Germany and Cuba), launched a wide-scale attack. It launched its attack from three flanks: the Umhager-Tessenei flank; the Shire-Barentu flank and the Mereb-Medefera flank. [The Dergue army] was supported by the latest military equipment – fighter planes, tanks and rocket launchers. The imbalance between the two fighting antagonists compelled the revolutionary forces to a tactical retreat. All the liberated towns were abandoned after [the revolution waged] a heroic resistance that lasted for two months. From that moment on, there appeared an extensive debate among the leadership of the Front and its senior cadres to evaluate the experience of liberating towns and the resulting retreat after the aforementioned battles. Repeated calls were made to convene a meeting of the Revolutionary Council, which, as an executive authority, could evaluate the great experience, which deserved a study and an evaluation.
Civil War: Karakon & Tahdai
Before this debate was resolved and while, for a long period, the called-for meeting of the Revolutionary Council was not only suspended but even scheduled meetings were being bypassed, and while the Front was going through internal debates discussing these issues, the popular Front [EPLF] launched a wide-scale attack on the locations of the Eritrean Liberation Front’s in North Sahel. These battles then expanded to Anseba and Barka. During these attacks, the popular front [EPLF] was backed by 17, 000 combatants from the forces of the Weyane Tigray [TPLF, now the ruling party in Ethiopia]. The battles between the two organizations [EPLF & ELF] went on for a period of one year and the battles expanded to all fronts from August of 1980 to August of 1981 until the units of the Eritrean Liberation Army were forced to enter the Sudanese territories from the regions of Karakon and Tahdai.
This brought about, for the second time, a request to convene a meeting of the Revolutionary Council to take advantage of the lull in the battles and to expedite the re-organization of the rank and file to facilitate their return to Eritrea. Simultaneously, there appeared voices calling on [the forces] to stay in the Sudanese territories. This call caused upheaval and suspicion among the combatants and widely propagating about the impracticality of their return to Eritrea and intimating at the impossibility of the task. It was under these circumstances that there appeared the ultimatum of the Sudan: if the units of the Eritrean Liberation Army didn’t move to their territories, they would be disarmed. This was communicated to the leadership of the Front and it was given 24 hours from the date of the proclamation to make a decision. Bear in mind that this ultimatum was issued after the units of the Front had camped in the region for a month.
In order to evaluate the new developments and to take a decision, the executive committee [of ELF] held an emergency meeting. It took a decision to move the units immediately to Eritrea in two flanks: one to the south towards Goluj; another, to the north, towards the lowlands of Barka. The task of moving the units was assigned to the Military office [Abdella Idris] and the rest of the members of the executive council, under the leadership of the President of the Executive Council [Ahmed Nasser], were to take care of the wounded and the sick and the management of the properties. We started to execute the decision of moving [the units] immediately before the time set [by the Sudan]. An order was passed to our units to move the two flanks to their respective location: the North flank, led by martyr Mahmoud Haseb and the South flank under the leadership of Martyr Mohammed Hamid Temsah.
We were able to move 5000 combatants and a number of equipments, ammunitions and a radio station to the two flanks. During the return of the units, there appeared a great deal of hesitation amongst some leaders who thought that the return to Eritrea was impossible. While they were in this state of hesitation, an advance army of the Sudanese Forces approached and ordered those who were still there to surrender. An order was passed from Ahmed Nasser to the units of the Eritrean Liberation Army to surrender its arms to the Sudanese Forces.
The Karakon and Tahdai camps were a location to assemble the forces and equipment that was surrendered. The units that moved after the issuing of the order [by the Military Office], reached their locations in the South and the North. It is this force that assured the continuity of the Eritrean Liberation Army in the Eritrean field.
After we secured our positions, I contacted the President of the Executive Council [Ahmed Nasser] and I requested for the convening of a meeting for the executive council to evaluate our new situation and to work towards holding a meeting of the Revolutionary Council. In these communications, the importance of holding the Sixth Session of the Revolutionary Council was agreed upon. The meeting was held, as agreed, in areas controlled by our units in the North.
Revolution Council: Resignation & Designation
In the first session of the meeting of the Revolutionary Council, the members of the executive committee submitted their resignation because the executive committee had failed in carrying out its obligations during the difficult times that just passed. However, with the aim of rectifying his mistakes in the previous phase, Ahmed Nasser insisted on remaining on top [retaining the presidency] of the new executive committee. He remained on top of the new executive committee, which also retained two members from the previous executive committee.
At this meeting, there was an agreement on the importance of speeding up the return of the combatants who remained in Karakon/Tahadi to the field and to convene a general seminar for the organization in the North. The new leadership, under the headship of Ahmed Nasser, was assigned to facilitate the move of the combatants who were in Karakon & Tahdai to the positions of the Eritrean Liberation Army and to secure the convening of the seminar. After two months of discussions and dialogue with the combatants, the leadership was not successful in moving a single combatant from Karakon and Tahdai [to Eritrea]. This was the result of the impossible demands from the forces that were in Karakon and Tahdai and their refusal to return to the positions held by their colleagues [inside Eritrea] unless they were armed in their current locations, which were guarded by the Sudanese Army.
The “Impossible” Demands of the ELA Units in Karakon and Tahdai
Ahmed Nasser met with the units of the Liberation Army in the North and told them that their brethren in Karakon and Tahdai need arms from them. The liberation forces asked him if the Sudanese Army would accept arming the forces that it disarmed. His reply was: it is not possible. [They also asked Ahmed Nasser], “if we gave you arms for them, do you trust them, and will those combatants join us and become part of us?” He said he doesn’t trust them. The combatants of the liberation army told him, if you do not trust them, we couldn’t send them our arms, for which we suffered, to the Sudanese territories so that they will be confiscated. With this, the meeting between the president of the Executive Committee and the units of the liberation army ended and all headed towards the location of the seminar.
Once again, the issue of arming was raised by the president of the executive committee, but the majority of the executive committee refused the illogical request. They emphasized that the combatants [in Karakon and Tahdai] should join their colleagues in the field and that they should be armed later on. But the argument in the seminar continued for two weeks.
The location of the seminar was in an area where we could be exposed to the risk of a sinister attack from the popular front [EPLF] or the Sudanese Army who were roaming the border areas. In fact, the organization was in a state of anarchy and chaos and irresponsible actions from some of the leaders. Because of this, the Eritrean Liberation Army moved to bring an end to the mishandling. It stood for a historical uprising to save the organization, to guarantee its continuity, and to carry out its role of struggle. Right after the uprising by the Liberation Army, the Revolutionary Council held an emergency meeting, elected a new executive committee, and outlined its tasks. At the top of the list were reorganization and the preparation for the convention of the Third National Congress.