Eritrea is officially celebrating its 30th anniversary of independence from Ethiopia. The former editor of the BBC Tigrinya, Samuel Ghebreyhut, was a soldier who fought for independence. He writes about his experiences on the battlefield, and how hopes were dashed when Eritrea became a one-party repressive state.
During our 30 years of armed struggle for independence, we lived through war every hour, every day.
We are accustomed to pain and sacrifice. Many of us were injured two or three times during the fighting. Soon we got patched and got into more fights.
I still wonder how we were able to cover the land from Al-Qura – the northern tip of Eritrea – to Demira – the southern tip – sleeping in trenches and climbing every mountain and valley. I was among the lucky ones. About 65,000 of our fighters were killed in the fighting.
I joined the Liberation Army at the age of 16 in 1982 after hearing tales of Ethiopian aggression and I am jealous of the mesmerizing image of the freedom fighters with their long hair, shorts and AK47 rifles.
I had a few months of training in Wadi Araj. We learned how to attack and retreat, how to camouflage ourselves, and how to use weapons – including grenades and RPGs.
Our training was good. It was supported by political education, including how to form a democratic government.
It participated in many battles, culminating in the liberation of the port of Massawa in Operation Fnkil in February 1990. That operation was decisive. He imposed his grip on the Ethiopian army’s movements, and eventually forced them out of Eritrea.
We fought intense battles for 72 hours to capture this strategic city, then defended it for more than a year with trenches 100 kilometers long. In these fights, I was hit by shrapnel in my head and hand. I was treated in the hospital. After I was discharged, I returned to the battlefield.
In the late 1990s, I was sent to join the Cultural Group to raise our army’s spirits with revolutionary songs and drama. In 1991, we were on the island of Dahlak, near Massawa, when we heard the biggest news of our life – we had finally achieved our independence.
Days of celebration
Filled with joy, we drove by boat to Massawa. Then we were loaded onto trucks to drive to the capital, Asmara – a journey that took about three hours. We passed the Ethiopian army’s southern checkpoint. It was unmanned, and Ethiopian soldiers abandoned it.
There was a dreamlike atmosphere in Asmara. People in town dropped everything to welcome independence fighters. They stormed the improvised “gila” music (traditional music and dance) in the capital’s streets, as well as in other towns and villages.
Before that historic day, the people of Asmara were completely besieged. The airport was constantly bombed, and there was a strict curfew. Then everything changed on May 24th.
Mothers abandoned clay pots in “Vernello” (charcoal stoves); They forgot to fire the “mogogo” (ovens) and went out on their coffee ritual to join the welcome party.
People carrying palm fronds, which are often used in ceremonies, swept the streets – every palm tree was stripped away. The little ones climbed into the rolling tanks and waved palm leaves.
The celebrations lasted for days and nights.
There was so much anxiety in the midst of the euphoria as there were many fathers on the streets with picture frames in their hands. They were asking the coming fighters where their children were.
“Did they get it back? Are they dead?”
I remember Seyum Tsehaye, the designated combat photographer, who took pictures of the grand occasion while his unit was rolling in.
I also remember two of our unit – Gedle and Abayey – coming face to face with their family members while they were still on the back of the truck. Joy, screams and tears.
Jadal’s father was so excited that he hit his chest with a branch of his palm.
“I found my son! I found my son!” All that came out of his mouth was running in front of our truck. Abai, the fighter in the driver’s cabin, recognized her mother-in-law and tried to jump off the truck, almost injuring herself.
Cheering crowds accompanied us all the way to Albergo Ciao – a city hotel.
Later, our leaders told us we can go out and look for our family members – those who have relatives in town. They weren’t easy to find in a couple of hours, years later. But we did.
We all hoped Eritrea would prosper and live happily ever after.
Leaders are enjoying themselves
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for our hopes to dissipate. We gave everything we had – our youth and our lives – to achieve independence. We had dreams.
Many of us wanted to go to our families, resume our studies, take civil jobs, start a family, and do a good job in our communities. We were very surprised that we were not even allowed to leave the army.
Eritrea – a history of struggle:
A former Italian colony that later formed a loose federation with Ethiopia
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the Eritrean parliament and seized Eritrea in 1962
Eritrean separatists fought a guerrilla war until 1991, when they seized the capital, Asmara, and voted for independence in 1993.
May 1998 border dispute with Ethiopia led to a two-year war that claimed 100,000 lives
New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki ended hostilities in July 2018
We are told that the country has nothing. Our leaders-turned-leaders told us: “All we have is the weapons that we have brought with us.”
After this long and arduous life on the battlefields, we, as ex-combatants, were asked once again to tighten our belts. We were instructed to continue our work without pay. We just got food. This went on for about two years, and then we started getting some money.
Fighters who had served as a single family unit during the revolution years were dismayed as they became aware of the leaders’ behavior – many of them were simply having a good time once the country was liberated.
Some senior bar leaders were seen drinking excessively – enjoying themselves while the regular fighters struggled. The chain of command and regular meetings are neglected.
Ordinary “agdalists” (freedom fighters) waited patiently for a change of circumstances, but nothing happened.
A war with the neighbors
In 1993, on the eve of the second anniversary of Eritrea’s independence, ex-combatants protested and asked their leaders to listen to their grievances. They forced their leaders to call a meeting at Asmara’s main stadium.
The answer was, “We understand your problems; it’s a common problem; we’ll solve the situation together.”
Once the protest ended, the leaders secretly detained the protest leaders – one by one over the course of a few days. Soon after, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to 15 years.
They paid a heavy price to highlight their plight – they ended up becoming victims. Many said that the regime was on the path of dictatorship. Others called for patience, saying that the constitution that Eritreans had promised would be drafted and the country would move toward democracy.
None of this happened. Eritrea remains a one-party country, and no elections were held to choose the president or government.
Meanwhile, Eritrea found itself at war with all of its neighbors at some point – Yemen in 1995, Sudan in 1996, Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, and Djibouti in 2008. The country lost tens of thousands of young lives.
More on Eritrea:
Now, Eritrean forces are participating in the fifth conflict since independence. They are in the Ethiopian Tigray region, fighting alongside the Ethiopian forces against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front was in power in Ethiopia when Eritrea gained independence and during the 1998-2000 border war between two countries.
In the immediate aftermath of independence, I joined a cultural band supported by the ruling party, hoping to honor freedom fighters and help build the country. She wrote plays and songs, and participated in shows. One of the most famous Eritrean musicians, Helen Mills, sang one of my songs: Massawa – Where Are Your Precious Children?
Later, she worked as a journalist for a government-owned newspaper until she went into exile.
Change is inevitable
The small political space that existed after the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has ended.
The government was caught in the grip of a siege mentality, as it feared destabilizing Ethiopia and holding its citizens accountable over a conflict that many believed could have been avoided through dialogue.
In September 2001, the government ordered a crackdown. Eleven officials and many middle-class cadres who supported the idea of reform were arrested. He later imprisoned them, and was never heard from again.
Eleven journalists who were publishing grievances, messages and calls for the reform group were arrested. Their newspapers were banned. Among them was my dear friend and colleague Seyoum, a photographer who captured the crucial era of independence.
None of them have been brought before an independent court and their whereabouts remain unknown.
Eritrea remains a one-party country that has not held national elections since independence. There is no free press or independent civil society groups. All international NGOs and local civic organizations are prohibited.
Official statistics show that healthcare and education have improved since independence but they are hard to believe. With limited work opportunities and the prospect of years of compulsory, unpaid military service, many young people continue to leave the country, seeking asylum in other African countries or in Europe.
But many of us have not lost hope. We believe that change is inevitable and Eritrea will fulfill the promises made by its martyrs.