September 1: Man Meets Moment
If you want to know why this website is named awate.com; if you want to know why Hamid Idris Awate is venerated by millions of Eritreans as the Father of the Eritrean Revolution; if you want to know why September 1 (Fath mn September or Bahti Meskerem) is a holiday celebrated by Eritreans, all you have to do is refer to the history books and consider what life was like for freedom-loving Eritreans in 1961. And then learn about this remarkable man: some of the things you will learn will surprise you.
In 1961, the Eritrea-Ethiopian federation, which had been presented as a compromise solution that satisfied neither the pro-Ethiopian-integration nor the pro-independence Eritrean factions, was crumbling fast. Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, who had relentlessly pursued the annexation of “daughter” Eritrea to her “mother” Ethiopia since 1941, used every tool in his toolbox–political, financial, diplomatic, religious–to dissolve the federation which he considered a perversion that differentiated Eritrea from the other Ethiopian provinces. As Eritreans whose first choice was independence but had accepted the federation reluctantly as the lesser of two evils witnessed their options for peaceful change disappearing, they were left with the same three choices that are always available to victims of subjugation: quiet acceptance, exile or resistance. Hamid Idris Awate was resistance personified. In the long line of Eritrean heroes and heroines, Hamid Idris Awate stands among the tallest simply because he embarked on what is considered no less than an impossible journey. Simply put: Awate was responsible for initiating one of Africa’s greatest revolutions.
Hamid Idris Awate (usually abbreviated to Awate, unusual in Eritrean culture to refer to anyone by his “last name”–but Awate was an extraordinary man) was discounted as a common Shifta–a bandit, or an outlaw–since the day he walked to the mountains and deserts to rectify what he considered an outright assault on the freedom of Eritreans. Even after his death, the Haile Sellassie regime continued calling his band of loyal and patriotic followers a band of Shifta. They were called Shifta even when the small band of dedicated combatants, Awate’s colleagues and successors, grew to become thousands under the group he led, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), and still when they became even a bigger force under several splinter groups such as the PLF and EPLF. Outlaws they were, because they didn’t recognize the laws of Haile Sellassie to be binding but laws to be rebelled against. Later on, the Haile Sellassie government had the shifta term alternated with even more demeaning terms such as wenbedie and werebella.
Who was Hamid Idris Awate? Was Awate a shifta? How did Awate come to lead the Eritrean Liberation Front? Who authorized him to speak on behalf of Eritrea and where did he get his legitimacy? Was his cause nationalistic or Islamic? What exactly was he fighting for?
Awate’s Identity and His Fugitive Years
Perhaps the most comprehensive report on the biography of Hamid Idris Awate was penned by Taher Indoul in the pages of awate.com on, fittingly, September 1, 2001. We will use that, along with other write-ups, as our primary source for the biographical data.
Hamid Idris Awate was born in 1910 in Southwest Eritrea, of humble origins, in the small village of Gerset (between Tessenei and Omhajer), not too far from the Sudanese border. His father, Idris Awate, owned a gun and taught his son how to use it. This skill, along with a reputation for being morally upstanding and his fluidity with languages–he was fluent in Tigre, Tigrigna, Arabic, Nara, Hedareb and Kunama–made him a natural leader even at an early age. In 1935 (Trenta Cinque), when he was 25 years old, he was conscripted by the Italians, then the colonial power in Eritrea, to serve in the army. He was sent to Rome where he received training in military intelligence and added Italian proficiency to his linguistic skills.
Returning to Eritrea, he served as security officer and, when Italy occupied Kassala, Sudan, he was named deputy to the city administrator. When the Italians were defeated in World War II, and the British were administering Eritrea, he returned to his village to farm and raise cattle. The new rulers’ pacification campaign included disarming the citizens and in one of their raids–which included plundering cattle–Awate shot and killed a British soldier which resulted in his becoming a fugitive–a shifta.
When the Brits began their manhunt against him, Eritreans who had been victimized by the Brits joined him and he, and his group of 40 armed men, initiated harassment campaigns against the British. To nip the insurrection in the bud, the Brits offered truce and Hamid Idris Awate resumed his life as a farmer and cattleman–but not before his reputation as a courageous man of principle willing to fight back to protect his and his people’s rights was enhanced.
If we study the word shifta in its traditional meaning, we find that it sometimes means a rebel. Any peasant who rebelled against a feudal lord had to flee the domain of that feudal lord and refuse to submit. The shifta had to carry arms to defend himself and to kill and die in the process. And in order to sustain themselves, it was not unusual for the shifta to resort to robbing from “enemy villages” (or tribes) and if they had to kill, they would do it–after all they were being hunted dead or alive by the authorities they rebelled against and the tribes that were submitting to the authorities. Often times, the elders of the tribes or the elders of the villages would mediate between the rebel and the feudal lord (or authority of the day) against whom the person rebelled and made peace between them so that the rebel could return to his village and resume his normal life. It was this tradition that made the Ethiopian occupiers pressure parents of the freedom fighters and society elders to convince the rebels (shifta to them) to surrender to the government with a promise for an amnesty.
Was Hamid Idris Awate’s rebellion against Ethiopia an impulsive and, as his detractors would claim, an aimless act of a “bandit”? In 1961, when Hamid Idris Awate initiated Eritrea’s armed struggle, he was already 51 years old. This is not an age when people decide to rebel–given the mortality rate in Eritrea at the time: this is when people are settling into retirement. So how did this come about?
A group of Eritrean exiles in Cairo, Egypt–the most senior of whom was Idris Mohammed Adem (who had been the president of Eritrea’s parliament during the federation era) had been appealing to Hamid Idris Awate to initiate the armed struggle since 1960. It should be recalled that in 1960, seventeen African countries–including Somalia, which had been, just like Eritrea, an Italian colony as well as the object of Haile Selasse’s claim– achieved their independence, and the Eritrean exiles who founded the Eritrean Liberation Front–law students, school headmaster and politicians–were keenly aware of this fact and sought the same freedom for their homeland. Awate, who had some experience leading a group of armed men against the Brits, had replied that he would consider it but only when the time was right and that he had to have the resources to do it right. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian army–which was aware of Awate’s administrative and leadership skills, military training and rebelliousness–had been monitoring Awate and deployed a police unit to arrest or kill him in August 1961. He escaped to Mt. Adal.
The same people who try to dismiss Awate as a shiftless “shifta” also try to dismiss this same multi-lingual soldier trained in military intelligence, experienced in administration, and capable of leading men in arms, as a “tribalist” or an “Arabist” or an “Islamist.” They have no evidence for this except for their prejudices. When the Ethiopian army could not capture or kill him, it sent emissaries–as the Brits had done–to compel him to lay down his guns. Two well-respected Eritreans from his region, Omar Hassano and Egail Abdurahman were sent to understand why he was rebelling against Ethiopians and what it would take for him to give up. He did not say “because you are persecuting Muslims.” He did not say “because you are persecuting my tribe.” He said, “if you want us to stop our uprising, lower the Ethiopian flag and raise the Eritrean flag.” The Eritrean flag–(the blue flag with green olive branches, aka semayawit lemlem), which had flown in Eritrea since December 15, 1952, had been lowered in December 24, 1958 and replaced by the Ethiopian flag.
Similarly, when Hamid Idris Awate was elected unanimously to lead the Eritrean Liberation Army by an all-Muslim group of fighters, his motivational words were not about tribe, ethnicity or religion. These were his words: “We are all Eritreans: we have to serve our country with honesty and sincerity. We are here to achieve a goal, and if there is anybody who may have individual ambitions other than the declared objective, then, he must leave now. We all have to show extreme commitment and dedication and carry out the commands and instructions of the leader, no matter how hard they are, for the cause of our country.”
These were his words as told by his contemporaries: Abu Rijaila and Mohammed Al-Hassan Dohen. What are the sources–other than blind prejudice–for those who attribute wrong motives to this great man and his followers?
The Revolutionary Spark
Perhaps every Eritrean child knows that Eritrea’s armed struggle–our revolution–was started on September 1, 1961 in Mt. Adal. What some may not know is that this was not some symbolic heralding of shots being fired or Awate and his small band (13 to be exact) waging an offensive against Ethiopia. It was actually an initiative by the Ethiopian army to wipe out the revolution “once and for all” (a futile refrain it would use for 30 years.) A heavily-armed Ethiopian army launched an offensive at 6 am against 13 poorly-equipped Eritreans led by Hamid Idris Awate at Mt. Adal. The battle lasted until 1:00 PM (for seven hours!) and when it was all said and done, the Ethiopian army had retreated. This battle was a great motivating force to Eritreans who, for ten long years, had witnessed Emperor Haile Selassie methodically dismantle the federation and, in the process, demoralize them and made them feel powerless. Thus was born the revolution. The Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA) which, under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, re-deployed to the Obel area in anticipation of a regrouped Ethiopian army, lived to fight another day.
And the fight came–this time at Omaal. The ELA survived but not without losing a fighter–the first Eritrean to die in a revolutionary battle: Abdu Mohammed Faid, who became the second martyr for the Eritrean cause (the first martyr being Abdulkader M. Saleh Kebire who was assassinated by Unionists in 1949 while preparing to appeal Eritrea’s case to the UN.) But the ELA now doubled its size, with 11 new recruits joining it. And for the first decade and half, after each battle–win or lose–the ELA continued to increase its membership simply because Eritreans believed in the cause of freedom and the price that had to be paid to get it.
Hamid Idris Awate died on May 27, 1962*, less than a year after he initiated one of Africa’s greatest revolutions. But he was considered so indispensable to the cause that his death was not announced until 1966. He was 51 years old. Coincidentally, it has been been 51 years since he initiated the struggle to free Eritrea from oppression but, tragically, Eritrea remains demonstrably un-free.
Eritreans were brutalized by Ethiopian rulers for 30 years simply because they waged a revolution to be free. Eritreans are now being brutalized by Eritreans–the sons of the Revolution–simply because they want to be free. No matter how many times the PFDJ supporters try to spin it, the abuse of the Ethiopian rulers does not nullify the abuse of the Eritrean rulers: Awate did not fight to rid Eritrea of Ethiopia only, but because he wanted his flag–which is, in our culture, shorthand for freedom and dignity. Conversely, the brutality of the Eritrean rulers does not dilute the brutality of the Ethiopian rulers: if a hostage-rescuer chooses to be a hostage-taker, it doesn’t change the fact that the hostage was, and still is, a hostage and the original hostage-taker WAS a hostage-taker.
The spirit of Awate–absolute mission clarity, undaunted by odds, unafraid, ready to die for cause– runs in the veins of all freedom loving Eritreans and genuine strugglers, i.e. all Eritreans, with an exception of a few dead souls and “No We Can’ts.” For those now doubting it, the Eritrean resolve never dies, it is just undergoing a shock–one that can only come from the shocking realization that the hostage rescuer was a hostage-taker in training. And if we are trying to summon the courage to fight and defeat the hostage-takers, we can’t do better than to emulate the resolve and the courage of our own Hamid Idris Awate. He was the right man for the right moment but his lessons are timeless.
* Hamid Idris Awate was taken ill on May 27, 1962. He died on May 28, 1962.