Forto the March Upward

Radio Erena: 27 January 2020

From a hill high up in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, a stale colored building towers over the city from the south. This building is the Ministry of Information. The name of the hill is Forto, the Italian name for the fortress. Up to the present, many places and monuments in Asmara keep their past Italian colonial names: Carcere, for example, is the main prison in the center of town. The hill, which is the seat of the national television and radio stations, must have been chosen for being suitable for the gigantic television and radio receivers’ dishes. Or, maybe, since the slogan of the national television station is “Serving the Truth,” it is situated on this hill in order to remain close to some celestial source of truth.

On the morning of 21 January 2013, a group of soldiers stormed the building while a Russian tank blocked the road uphill. The television and radio transmissions were cut, the following silence made the residents believe that some serious matter must have happened. Indeed, an extraordinary event was taking place at the time. The group leader, colonel Said Ali Hejjay (aka Wodi Ali), presented the television presenter with paper to read on the air; the paper had three crystal-clear political demands: free the political prisoners in the country, put into force the shelved 1997Constitution, and initiate urgent political reforms. The government swiftly cut the transmission and the soldiers’ message did not get through. The government’s plan B was to negotiate in order to buy time and prepare for a massive counter-attack. Realizing that the government had blocked the message and the negotiations were a tactic to buy time, Wodi Ali shot the government negotiator to cripple him and secure a safe exit for his colleagues. Consequently, some of the soldiers were arrested as the government elite force made their way into the building, Wodi Ali decided, after a hot pursuit, to end his life, rather than surrender in humiliation.

The next day, life in the capital returned to normal, but the security forces launched a wide range of arrests inside the army, the police, and the civil service. As life was returning to normal in the capital, security forces were busy making a wide range of arrests in the army, police and civilian administration. Little by little the list of the arrested started to appear. Among those who were initially arrested was the veteran fighter and army chief of staff general Omar Hassan Tawil, minister of Energy and Mining Ahmed Al-Haj Ali, and head of organizational affairs in the ruling party Abdallah Mahmoud Jabir. Likewise, many ranks and file members of the army units were arrested.
In the aftermath of what came to be known by the ‘Forto Operation’, the Eritrean Embassy in London drew from a ready-made list of charges that run with the current. It branded the Operation members outright as fanatical Islamists. Ironically, some of the Muslim leaders of this Operation had never been seen in mosques. What belies such claim are the demands submitted by the Operation’s members which were political and had no relation, whatsoever, with religion.
Although the arrests continued cruelly, little is known about the details of the Operation. However, there is a wide-spread view that Operation heroes had been a victim of betrayal.

Seven years on, the Operation is commemorated as a landmark of change in Eritrea. It marks the first time there was cooperation between army officers and civil servants in the march toward democratic change in Eritrea. It has also revived the hope that all sectors in Eritrea can join hands for future change. Every year when Operation Forto is celebrated, Eritreans worldwide send a message of support and appeal for change to the Eritrean Defense Forces.

Many questions still hang without answers regarding Forto Operation. Questions notwithstanding, the consensus is commonplace, That the courage and dedication shown by the Operation’s heroes are crucial for any transition toward the rule of law and democracy in Eritrea.

By Fathi Osman.