Eritrea is formally marking 30 years of independence from Ethiopia. Former BBC Tigrinya editor Samuel Ghebhrehiwet was a soldier who fought for independence. He writes about his experiences on the battlefield, and the way hopes had been dashed as Eritrea turned a repressive one-party state.
Throughout our 30-year armed battle for independence, we lived with warfare each hour of day by day.
We obtained used to ache and sacrifice. Many people had been wounded two or thrice throughout preventing. We had been rapidly patched up and marched into extra battles.
I nonetheless marvel how we managed to cowl floor from Qarora – the northern tip of Eritrea – to Dumeira – the southern tip – sleeping in trenches and climbing each mountain and valley. I used to be among the many lucky ones. About 65,000 of our fighters died in fight.
I joined the liberation military as a 16-year-old in 1982 after listening to tales about Ethiopian aggression and jealous of the glamourous picture of the liberty fighters with their lengthy hair, shorts and AK47s.
I obtained just a few months of coaching within the Arag valley. We discovered methods to assault and retreat, methods to camouflage ourselves, and methods to use weapons – together with grenades and RPGs.
Our coaching was good. It was backed up by political schooling, together with how we might set up a democratic authorities.
I used to be concerned in quite a few battles, culminating with the liberation of the port metropolis of Massawa within the Fenqel operation of February 1990. That operation was decisive. It put a stranglehold on the Ethiopian army’s actions, and finally compelled them out of Eritrea.
We fought intense battles for 72 hours to seize this strategic metropolis, and we then defended it for greater than a yr with 100km-long trenches. In these battles, I suffered shrapnel wounds to my head and hand. I used to be handled in hospital. After I used to be discharged I returned to the battlefield.
In the direction of the top of the Nineties I used to be despatched to affix the cultural group to spice up the morale of our military with revolutionary songs and dramas. In 1991, we had been on Dahlak Island, close to Massawa, once we heard the largest information of our lives – we had lastly achieved our independence.
Days of celebration
Stuffed with pleasure, we travelled by boat to Massawa. We had been then loaded on to lorries to go to the capital, Asmara – a journey that took about three hours. We crossed the Ethiopian army’s southern checkpoint. It was unmanned, the Ethiopian troopers had deserted it.
There was a dreamlike ambiance in Asmara. Folks within the metropolis dropped every thing to welcome the independence fighters. They broke into impromptu “guayla” (conventional music and dance) on the streets of the capital, in addition to different cities and villages.
Earlier than that momentous day, the individuals of Asmara had been completely besieged. The airport was always being bombed, there was a strict curfew. Then on 24 Might every thing modified.
Moms deserted earthen pots on their “fernello” (coal stoves); forgot the fireplace within the “mogogo” (ovens) and walked out on their espresso rituals to affix the welcome social gathering.
Folks carrying palm leaves, which are sometimes utilized in celebrations, invaded the streets – each palm tree was stripped. The younger ones climbed onto the tanks that rolled in and waved their palm leaves.
The celebrations went on for days and nights.
There was a lot nervousness amid the euphoria as there have been many mother and father out within the streets with image frames of their arms. They had been asking the coming fighters concerning the whereabouts of their youngsters.
“Did they make it again? Did they die?”
I keep in mind Seyum Tsehaye, the designated fighter photographer, taking photos of the momentous event as his unit rolled in.
I additionally keep in mind two members of our unit – Gedle and Abayey – coming face-to-face with their relations whereas they had been nonetheless on the again of the lorry. The enjoyment, the screams, the tears.
Gedle’s father was so overjoyed he beat his chest along with his palm department.
“I discovered my son! I discovered my son!” was all that got here out of his mouth as he ran in entrance of our lorry. Abayey, the feminine fighter who was within the driver’s compartment, recognised her mother-in-law and tried to leap off the lorry, nearly injuring herself.
We had been accompanied by cheering crowds all the best way to Albergo Ciao – a resort within the metropolis.
Later, we had been instructed by our commanders that we may exit and search for our relations – these of us who had family on the town. It was not straightforward to seek out them in a few hours, after years away. However we did.
All of us hoped that Eritrea was going to flourish and we’d reside fortunately ever after.
Leaders having fun with themselves
Sadly, it didn’t take lengthy for our hopes to be dashed. We gave every thing we had – our youth and lives – to attain independence. We had goals.
Many people needed to go to our households, resume our research, take up civilian jobs, type a household and do nicely in our communities. We had been very shocked that we weren’t even allowed to go away the military.
Eritrea – a historical past of battle:
A former Italian colony which later shaped free federation with Ethiopia
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved Eritrean parliament, seized Eritrea in 1962
Eritrean separatists fought guerrilla warfare till 1991, after they captured capital Asmara, voting for independence in 1993
Might 1998 border dispute with Ethiopia led to two-year warfare costing 100,000 lives
Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki finish hostilities in July 2018
We had been instructed that the nation had nothing. “All we’ve is the armaments we introduced in with us,” our commanders-turned-leaders instructed us.
After such an extended and arduous life within the battlefields, we, the ex-fighters, had been as soon as once more requested to tighten our belts. We had been instructed to proceed our work unpaid. We had been solely given meals. This lasted for about two years, after which we began getting some cash.
The fighters who functioned as one household unit through the revolutionary years had been dismayed after they turned conscious of the leaders’ behaviour – many had been merely having an excellent time as quickly because the nation was liberated.
Some high leaders had been seen in bars, consuming excessively – having fun with themselves whereas the common fighters struggled. The chain of command and the common conferences had been uncared for.
The unusual “tegadelti” (freedom fighters) waited patiently for his or her circumstances to vary however nothing occurred.
Conflict with the neighbours
In 1993, on the eve of the second anniversary of Eritrea’s independence, the ex-fighters protested and requested their leaders to hearken to their grievances. They compelled their leaders to name a gathering in Asmara’s important stadium.
“We perceive your issues; it’s a widespread drawback; we are going to resolve the state of affairs collectively,” was the reply given.
As quickly because the protest was over, the leaders secretly detained the protest leaders – one after the other over just a few days. Quickly after, they had been sentenced to jail phrases starting from one to fifteen years.
They paid a heavy value for highlighting their plight – they ended up changing into victims. Many stated that the regime was following a path to dictatorship; others known as for endurance, saying the structure that Eritreans had been promised can be drafted and the nation would head in the direction of democracy.
None of this has occurred. Eritrea stays a one-party state, having by no means held an election to decide on the president or authorities.
Within the meantime, Eritrea has discovered itself at warfare with all its neighbours sooner or later – Yemen in 1995, Sudan in 1996, Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 and Djibouti in 2008. The nation misplaced tens of hundreds extra younger lives.
Extra about Eritrea:
Now, Eritrean troops are concerned within the fifth battle since independence. They’re in Ethiopia’s Tigray area, preventing alongside Ethiopian troops in opposition to the Tigray Folks’s Liberation Entrance (TPLF).
The TPLF was in energy in Ethiopia when Eritrea achieved its independence and through the 1998-2000 border warfare between two nations.
Within the quick aftermath of independence, I joined a ruling party-supported cultural troupe, hoping to honour freedom fighters and assist construct the nation. I wrote performs and songs, and took half in performances. One in all Eritrea’s most well-known musicians, Helen Milles, sang one among my songs: Massawa – The place are your Treasured Kids?
Later, I labored as a journalist for a government-owned newspaper till I went into exile.
Change is inevitable
The little political house that existed got here to an finish after the Ethiopia-Eritrea border warfare.
The federal government turned gripped by a siege mentality, because it feared destabilisation from Ethiopia and accountability from its personal residents over a battle that many believed may have been prevented by means of dialogue.
In September 2001, the federal government ordered a crackdown. Eleven high officers and lots of middle-ranking cadres who supported the concept of reform had been arrested. Later they had been thrown into prisons, by no means to be heard of once more.
Eleven journalists who had been publishing the grievances, letters and calls of the reformist group had been additionally detained; their newspapers banned. Amongst them was my good buddy and colleague Seyum, the photographer who captured the momentous time of independence.
None of them had been dropped at an unbiased courtroom and their whereabouts stay unknown.
Eritrea stays a one-party state that has not held a nationwide election since independence. There isn’t any free press or unbiased civil society teams. All worldwide NGOs and native civic organisations are banned.
Official statistics present that healthcare and schooling have improved since independence however is it troublesome to imagine them. With restricted job prospects and the prospect of years of obligatory unpaid army service, many younger individuals proceed to go away the nation, in search of asylum in different African states or Europe.
However many people haven’t given up hope. We imagine change is inevitable and Eritrea will realise the guarantees made by its martyrs.