Interview with Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front's Women fighters – Captain Senbelawit joined in 1978, wounded 14 times; Colonel Elsa Habtemariam Joined in 1978, wounded 4 times; Fiyori Mehari joined in 1977, wounded 9 times; Mebrat Hadgu joined in 1978, wounded 6 times.
Before their units were involved for the battle of Operation Fenkil, these women and their units under the command of Major General Filipos Woldeyohanes had earlier captured the town of Asosa in western Ethiopia. Their units were recalled from Assosa, Ethiopia to capture Massawa…
Location within Ethiopia
|Coordinates: 10°04′N 34°31′E? / ?10.067°N 34.517°E? / 10.067; 34.517
||1,570 m (5,151 ft)
| – Total
Operation Fenkil: The Major Operation That Heralded Eritrean Full Liberation!!
Mansour Nouredin, Feb 24, 2009
The month of February marks Operation Fenkil, which is one of the historic victories in the Eritrean thirty years of struggle for liberation. This operation heralded that the clock was racing against the downfall of the brutal Dergue regime. Following the operation, the liberation of the country already became apparent as the then Secretary General of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front comrade Isaias Afewerki had said in an interview: “Eritrea’s independence is now only a matter of months”.
From 8 to 10 February, 1990, Eritrean freedom fighters registered a decisive military victory over the then biggest army in the sub Saharan Africa armed to the tooth with sophisticated Soviet weaponry in contrast to the Eritrean fighters’ modest arsenal coupled with high morale and patriotism. “The operation was a pinnacle of success to the EPLF and it proved right for its steadfastness and justified grounds,” says Asmerom Habtemariam, a veteran fighter and one of the first journalists of Radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Broad Masses). “Next to the demise of Nadew command, the collapse of the Ethiopian army in operation Fenkil was another crucial turning point in the history of the armed struggle.”
- The demise of Nadew Command
The demise of Nadew command, a fortified command of nine years in 48 hours (17 March – 19 March 1988) was a bitter pill to swallow. The victory, which liberated the town of Afabet, was equated by renowned historian Basil Davidson to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended the French colonization in Vietnam.
“The downfall of the command was one of the major successes that manifested the change of balance of power and the upper hand of the EPLF over a heavily armed military regime aided by Soviet military advisors,” added Asmerom Habtemariam.
“With its 20,000 strong soldiers armed with sophisticated arsenals and mechanized units, the defeat of the Dergue in Nadew command, emboldened the EPLF’s fighters’ morale, leaving the Dergue regime in despair. It was also a stepping stone toward the operation Fenkil” says major general Filipos Weldeyohannes, Commander of the 5th Operation Zone.
“Not only did it boost the morale of the valiant fighters, but we also acquired sophisticated soviet made armaments that had been of great use during the operation Fenkil,” added the major general. He explained that the Dergue regime tried its best to retake the town of Afabet for about 5 months of by deploying soldiers that were stationed in variousparts of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, but to no avail. At the battle, three Soviet military advisors were captured and were later released. After the downfall of the Nadew command, the Halhal command follow suit. Consequently the Dergue regime forced to retreat from Akurdat, Barentu and Tessenei. In both commands, 60.000 Dergue soldiers put out of action.
The continuous defeat of the Dergue army in several commands and campaigns made the army’s senior officers and soldiers lose hope on the fate of the ruling junta. “The demise of Nadew Command in particular, led to a foiled coup d’état by a dozen of Dergue generals, who were later executed. This incident happened to be of great blow to the regime and demoralized the army,” recalls Asmerom Habtemariam.
In response to the defeat, the Dergue beside the barbaric killing of innocent civilians in different towns and villages of Eritrea, it brutally murdered 400 civilians in Shieb in 12 May 1988. Out of the innocent victims, 80 were crushed to death by tanks and the rest were killed by gunfire from the tanks and the foot soldiers. “The Shieb massacre, an unprecedented one, led the people and the freedom fighters to further fight against the regime,” says Asmerom.
Alexander De Waal a British writer and researcher on African issues, writes on his book, Evil Days, “The defeat at Afabet led President Mengistu to make his first admission of the existence of the war for ten years. In a televised speech on March 31st, Mengistu said that the money spent on the war each year could have built four major universities or ten large hospitals. He declared that extra effort was needed to meet the threat ‘from now on, everything to battle front’.” Colonel Mengistu, at this juncture had to come into terms with President Siad Bare of Somalia after the fierce battle of Ogaden in 1977/78. A week later of the televised speech, Mengistu signed an agreement for the redeployment of troops from Ogaden to Eritrea.
- The Dergue doomed to failure in Fenkil Operation
EPLF’s knowledge of the general topography of the area and especially the battle field during the 1977 – 1978 battle was an advantage, says maj. general Filipos. Furthermore, the surveillance team of the 85th division took the responsibility of surveillance of the whole area for about a year during the late 1980s. In the meantime, the 70th division was in intensive training and attacked Assosa in Ethiopia, 1650 kms away from Massawa.
It’s worth mentioning that the surveillance teams of the naval forces and other Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front divisions were also doing their jobs competently, maj. general Filipos pointed out.
The operation in Assosa was a success in diverting the Dergue’s attention, says major general Ghebrezgabhier Andemariam, Commander of the 4th Operation Zone.
The surprise attack in Ethiopia was unexpected by the Dergue and this helped gaining upper hand during the Operation Fenkil, added the major general.
Preceding the operation, though, some infantry and mechanized unitsof the EPLF were made to be stationed along the Marsa Ibrahim, a frontline that stretched for about 80 kms, notes major general Filipos. “In the year 1989, the EPLF fighters were engaged in intensive trainings in all sections of the front, ranging from infantry to mechanized units,while small scale preparatory campaigns were carried out. In Adi Shumay campaign for instance, the EPLF fighters attacked the Dergue army at Adi Eile, in which the latter suffered heavy casualties. In that campaign 20 tanks were destroyed while 10 others were captured, which later turned their gun to the Ethiopian army during the Operation Fenkil, says major general Ghebrezgabhier. “As the saying has it, ‘Your foe’s friend is your foe, while your foe’s foe is your friend’, the EPLF crushed the 10th division of the Dergue army which previously had been a headache to the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, in Shieb” he added.
“The EPLF dispatched the 19th division headed by current brigadier general Abraham Andom to Shire, a town inside Tigray, to quicken the demise of the Dergue rule in Eritrea and Ethiopia,” says major general Ghebrezgabhier.
The issue of deployment of aid forces by the Dergue during the operation wasn’t taken lightly. “The thorough study specified the nitty-gritty of the operation,” says major general Ghebrezgabhier. According to the study, it was concluded that regime’s 9th, 18th, and 23rd divisions would soon be deployed. To confront these, the leadership decided to dispatch EPLF’s 96th division. The study concluded that the division 85th would be deployed in the Asmara-Massawa road, while the 61st division would handle all the way from Filfil Selemuna to Gindae, as the 70th division was assigned to attack from Kintsal to Massawa. Also the fast boats of the EPLF naval forces, armed with modified B21 and 75mm artillery to deal with the huge Ethiopian warships of 35 years’ experience at sea.
“Strategically speaking, Massawa was decisive for the continuous stay of the Dergue regime in Eritrea. Being a sea outlet, it had been a life line for the shipment of the armaments and logistics from its suppliers,” says major general Romedan Osman Auliyay. It was concluded that liberation of the city would fasten the knot around the Dergue’s neck and create conducive environment to liberate cities and towns in east and south of Eritrea like Dekemhare, Adi Keyih and Senafe,” maj. general Romedan noted.
- The launch of the operation
The EPLF launched the coordinated attacks on Thursday, February 8, 1990 at 1:00 AM across 200 kms defense line stretching from the western periphery of Keren south wards to Ras Kobae, 40 kms north of Massawa. Within the early four hours of the battle, the western wing of the EPLF forces captured seven tanks, five BM-21 launcher rockets and other military hardware. The eastern flank of the Ethiopian defense lines was broken by mid Friday, Feb 9, and the EPLF forces began to close in toward Massawa in a pincer movement. In doing so, they advanced 60 kms forward. But they had to mop up the chain of closely spaced Ethiopian garrison dotted on the Asmara-Massawa road stretching for 40 kms. After a fierce battle that spanned for 72 hours, finally the port city of Massawa fell at the hand of the victorious Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front at noon Saturday, February 10.
The Ethiopian army desperately attempted to turn the tide of events and mounted an abortive counter attacks in the following days. On Monday, February 12, Ethiopian troops set out from Dahlak Islands in an attempt to gain a foothold in Massawa. The endeavor was repulsed with the Ethiopian army losing almost half of its total fleet strength. On the following days, the Dergue army tried its best, yet to no avail.
Following the bitter defeat, the Dergue military regime had to face the magnitude of casualties and material loss. Around 8000 soldiers along with a number of senior commanders, including Brigadier General Telahun Tekle and Brigadier General Ali Hajj Abdallah succumbed to the EPLF fighters. More than eighty tanks, seven BM, twenty one rocket launchers, six 122mm artillery guns, ten guided anti-tank missiles, artilleries and other ammunitions were captured. On the operation twenty four tanks, four infantry, three mechanized brigades were put out of action. Also, when Gahtelay fell to the 85th division, Colonel Afewerki Tekle with his army and about 50 tanks surrendered. In a bid to aid the defeating forces, the Dergue dispatched two MiG combat aircrafts, but to their dismay, both were shot down by the freedom fighters anti aircraft’s unit.
To deter the EPLF’s progress the Dergue army was launching artilleries to the battle zone from areas like Bizen and Beit Gergish in Asmara which hardly yielded any good, says major general Ghebrezgabhier Andemariam.
During the seaborne battle with the heavily armed Ethiopian naval forces, the young and least armed EPLF naval forces inflicted heavy damage: nine Ethiopian large warships sank and two others were captured, turning their muzzles against their original proprietors. “The defeat of the Ethiopian naval forces by the young EPLF naval forces was a historic one, owing to its unparalleled dedication and military strategy” says Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Ali, Chief of Staff at the Eritrean Naval Forces.
The liberation of Massawa sent shock waves through the Ethiopian regime. Adulis, a monthly newsletter published by the Foreign Relations Section of the EPLF- European and North American Desks, published the following in its Vol- VII Number 3, March 1990 edition:
“Addis Ababa first tried in a characteristic manner to deny its defeat.
But in the indirect address broadcasted by Ethiopian radio on Feb 22,
Colonel Mengistu made to the armed and militia, the colonel admitted
that the capture of Massawa will choke the 2nd Revolutionary Army,
and that mean the great downfall of the Ethiopian Armed forces.”
The Dergue regime, instead of pulling together the leftovers of its human and material resources and accept defeat, it was seen playing a blindfolded game of hopelessness.
The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of napalm and cluster bombs over innocent Massawa residents that left many dead, injured and traumatized; infrastructure leveled to the ground proved right the regime’s utter desperation. ‘Kibtset – desperation’ a heart-wrenching documentary film which documented the total destruction of lives and infrastructures, is still very disturbing to watch. “Though I narrated the script written for the documentary, I find it traumatizing to watch it because of its heart breaking footages” says Asmerom.
Eritrea, after successive colonialism that went on for half millennium, got its proper right through the resilience and determination of its freedom fighters and its people alike. This significant historic juncture was preceded by a series of battles fought in the terrains of Nakfa, in the plains of Barka, in the burning stones of Denkalia and in the vast body of water of the Eritrean Sea and other parts of the country, which all demanded a high price – martyrdom.
This momentous commemoration day is not merely a day to celebrate but to revive our allegiance to our martyrs and be part in the ongoing developmental endeavors of the country.