The Martyrs Day and the Backstabbed Legacy

Radio Erena: 24 June 2022

On June 20, Eritreans observed with due honor the Martyrs’ Day. A solemn commemoration evoking a national saga of exemplary heroism, winged pride, and glorious sacrifices. Walls of sitting rooms in homes across the country and abroad are often adorned with the red and green garland-framed martyrdom certificates with an old black-and-white photograph of a beloved son or daughter who fell defending their people’s right in a free and dignified life. Against this legendary valor, tragically stands a drab present of unbending betrayal of the legacy of the martyrs manifesting its grim face in a blood-sucking one-man rule. A stark contrast to the dreams and aspirations of the fallen heroes and heroines. This unfathomable turn of events has become an enduring hallmark of Eritrean recent history. But first things first, what made June 20, a special day to be marked as the Martyrs Day in Eritrea?

Writing History with Blood

The Eritrean ascent to nationhood is baptized with the holy water of freedom: blood. During the peaceful quest for freedom, a pathfinder nationalist, Abdulkadir Kabiri was assassinated by Ethiopian imperial agents on 29, March 1949. Kabiri, who was the chief of the Asmara branch of the Muslim League Party, was preparing to leave for New York to address the United Nations General Assembly meetings on the Eritrean people’s right to be independent after the defeat of Italy in WWII. Kabiri became a leading martyr of the national cause. When the political and peaceful efforts hadn’t borne fruit, the Eritreans valiantly resorted to armed struggle to gain their national rights. Nineteen days after the outbreak of the Eritrean armed struggle, on 1 September 1961, Abdu Mohamed Fayed, the cousin, of Hamid Idris Awate, the originator of the revolutionary struggle, wrote his own page of history with his blood, being the first martyr of the armed struggle.

By spring 1982, when Ethiopia’s red Tzar Mengistu Haile Meriam was launching the 6th offensive against the Eritrean fighters, the revolution had already gained ground and momentum. Men and women from the countryside, the towns, and from abroad had filled the file and ranks of the two main revolutionary armies: the Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA), the military arm of the Eritrean Liberation Front; and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA), the strong arm of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Jointly, the two armies succeeded in liberating the Eritrean countryside and the major towns except Asmara and the two ports of Massawa and Assab. The daring military operations which led to the first liberation ended in 1978, when the Ethiopian army, aided by the former Soviet Union, Libya, and the then Socialist Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) strategically turned the tide against the revolution’s armies. The sweeping victory in the border war against Somalia over the Ogaden region boosted the morale of the Ethiopian troops and renewed Mengistu’s vehemence to break the backbone of the Eritrean fighters.

In January 1977, the Eritrean people’s Liberation Army liberated the northernmost town of Nakfa, where the political and military leadership of EPLF entrenched inside its walls ever since as the stronghold of the organization. Nakfa had been surrounded by trenches that were difficult to break through or destroy. The aim of the 6th military Offensive (codenamed Red Star Offensive) was to recapture Nakfa and force EPLA fighters either to surrender or to flee to Sudan.

Once and for All

The 6th Offensive was distinguished from the earlier five offensives with gushing enthusiasm and turbulent fanfare. At its inception, Colonel Mengistu addressed an enormous crowd in the Addis Ababa, in his address, he vowed to crush the Eritrean fighters, or the ‘wombede, (the rebels). In his overexcited speech, he self-assuredly used his memorable and promising catchphrase “destruction: once and for all,” to describe the purpose of his colossal military campaign. On the battlefield, the plans which were set by Soviet military advisors ultimately aimed at breaking the EPLA and recapturing Nakfa. The hasty strikes began in November 1981 without making a breakthrough into the EPLA solidly fortified trenches. The heavy weaponry and air attacks were entirely futile. What additionally complicated the situation for the Ethiopian army was the uncommon strategy of the EPLA, which skillfully carried out blitzkrieg attacks against the mobile and stationary Ethiopian army units.

Realizing the aim and the scope of the battle, the EPLA high command gave the field commanders more freedom in running the battles to adapt to any sudden changes without succumbing to defeat. This had a magical effect as the fighters used creative tactics to confront the heavily armed units. EPLA doubled the stakes on the rapidly fading morale of the Ethiopian soldiers: the more the fight continued, the more was the possibility of repulsing the attack. The commando units of EPLA managed to halt the progress of the Ethiopian tanks in the narrow valleys of the Sahel region, thus choking their mobility and hitting with striking force the rear posts of the government army to successfully break the chain of command. The principal command post of the Ethiopian troops was in Afabet town, Nadu Ez (Nadu HQ), the units which led the attack against Nakfa trenches were annihilated one after the other. EPLA fighters, who suffered minor injuries and were receiving treatment in field hospitals often escaped rejoining their units.

The overriding feeling was that if this offensive were defeated, it would pave the way for the final victory over the Ethiopian army in Eritrea, the matter which started to take place with the massive attacks against the Ethiopian troops in 1988.

On June 20, 1982, the Eritrean fighters knew that the Red Star had been turned into stardust and its waning light vanished ‘once and for all.’ Nakfa was saved with dear blood and heavy sacrifices. Later the national currency had taken its defiant name: Nakfa. The human cost was so immense that it lent a small margin to celebrate the impossible victory. That day with all its valor and suffering wasn’t forgotten, therefore, it went into history as Martyrs’ Day.

A Legacy to Cherish

Along the thorny road to freedom, the sacrifices were dear and heavy, and they were only justified by the rightful aspiration to win ‘ a place under the sun as a free nation.’ Eritrea’s freedom doesn’t mean only freedom from colonial rule; it rather means freedom from all forms of oppression.

During one of these Martyrs’ Day celebrations, I happened to watch a one-act performance. It was called ‘The Return of the Martyr.’ The dimly lit stage had a silhouette of a martyr returning to life. At the far corner of the stage sat his wife (she worked as a washwoman for affluent families.) The martyr asked about his son and daughter whom he left behind very young. Sobbing and unable to speak clearly, the wife grudgingly said that their son drowned on way to Europe; and his sister was taken by human traffickers. I couldn’t figure out, until today, whether the laments I heard were those of the martyr himself or of his wife.

By Fathi Osman