The unforgettable massacres

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Eritreans are remembering the 1975 massacre in Asmara and its environs under the theme “remembrance for clear vision” as of 19th February. The objective is to raise awareness of the youth about Eritrea’s history.

History helps us understand where we came from and be able to deal with today’s challenges. Various programs are underway including seminars, art exhibition, films and testimony of the survivors of the massacres. In the art exhibition, pictures that depict the atrocity committed in different corners of Asmara such as Zban snqey, Bar Amanuel, Bar Tblets, Mai Temenai and surrounding villages like Wekiduba and Adi bakuakoy are displayed for the public to see.

Successive governments of Ethiopia adopted different strategies to destroy Eritrea. Despite their immense material and human destruction, nothing of substance was achieved.

The history of Eritrea has been shaped by the continuous struggle for dignity and independence. Eritreans have made enormous sacrifice for their independence, unity, dignity and sovereignty. The tradition of resistance and resilience of the people of Eritrea was demonstrated during the twenty years of political struggle for independence (1941-1961), the thirty years of armed struggle for independence (1961-1991) and the twenty years of resistance and defense for independence and sovereignty (1998-2018). In the course of the struggle, Eritreans have paid enormous human and material sacrifice and received deep pain that has survived up to now.

Eritrea acquired its uniqueness in the incessant struggle that has been conducted against domination. Successive Ethiopian governments have tried anything possible to kill the physicality and spirituality of Eritrea. Many innocent people were massacred and deported but the dream and fighting spirit of Eritreans remained alive. The killing, torture and deportation aimed to kill the confidence and hope of Eritreans. The uniqueness of the Eritrean people and its leadership lay in the long and successful challenge to Ethiopia’s hegemonic domination and its supporters.

Every place and every minute have hosted incredible forms of atrocities committed by Ethiopian army over Eritreans. An Africa Watch Report shows that between February and April 1967 the Ethiopian army burned 62 villages. The soldiers were assisted by artillery and aerial bombardment using incendiaries (1991, 43). Dawit Woldegiorgis, who served in Eritrea as a colonial army officer and governor, recounted the devastation of villages suspected of harboring the freedom fighters. In his book “Red tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia”, he witnessed the brutality of the Ethiopian army against the people and their indiscriminate attack on civilians. Concurrent with the killing, the soldiers demanded food, destroyed crops, killed animals, drove people from their land and committed many other untold stories of crime. The Ethiopian army was a bunch of bandits in uniform. According to the author: “I remember soldiers slaughtering cattle, eating what they wanted, and then leaving the rest to rot. Sometimes soldiers would kill cattle just to get the livers” (1989, p. 82).

For the Ethiopian army there was no sense of distinction between the military and civilian targets. Haggai Erlich, in his book ‘The struggle over Eritrea 1962_1978’ quoted an Israeli advisor to the Eritrea-based Second Division of the Ethiopian armed forces as saying “The 2nd Division is very efficient in killing innocent people” (1983, p. 58). Hundreds of villages were burned and thousands of innocent people killed mercilessly by the Ethiopian army.

When the Derg came to power, the massacre intensified. In 1975, the greatest operation of the Ethiopian army was to kill innocent people, including women and children, in and around Asmara. The disturbing violence conducted in Asmara was manifested by drastic depopulation. Wire strangulation, arbitrary arrest, shooting in the streets, bombing the houses and other means of terror were common. The youth were the main target of killing. Many families were made extinct that way. The objective was to terrorize the people and force them to accept the colonial rule.

Many villages had suffered devastating losses during the 30 years long war of Eritrean liberation. Under the motto of “it is Eritrea’s land that we want not its people”, successive Ethiopian governments committed untold suffering to exterminate the Eritrean people. The Wekiduba massacre, a village near Asmara, which happened on February 1, 1975, was one incident. The Ethiopian army devastated the village suspected of harboring the liberation fighters.

The Ethiopian army believed that to kill the fish one had to drain the sea. The tragic massacre of Wekiduba was most remembered by Eritreans as black Saturday. To help the reader understand the situation, I bring in to your knowledge an eye witness account of a survivor of the massacre, Zeremariam Tesfay.

Then only fourteen years of age, Zeremariam escaped miraculously and later joined the struggle to contribute his share for independence. The full account of Zeremariam is available in Tigrigna and English in a book “Massacre at Wekiduba.” Zeremariam said, “In every house, there were two or three dead bodies. The ground was drenched with blood. After committing the atrocities, the soldiers brought in trucks. Stepping over the dead bodies, they hauled away anything of value from the houses… As the morning progressed, the soldiers began killing the roaming cattle and made meals out of them.” (Habtu, 2013; pp201_202) The massacre and dispossession perpetuated by Ethiopian colonizers followed a strict conformity to Machiavellian advice on holding the conquered. Nicole Machiavelli, in his book “The prince”, claims that “there is no safe way to retain them other than by ruining them.”

The massacre of Wekiduba was not the first incident at that time. Eight years earlier, in 1967, Haileslasie had given permission to his army to burn, loot, kill, rape and intimidate Eritreans. The main target of Haileslasie army was the lowlands. For example, on February 11, 1967 the Ethiopian army committed a major massacre in Adi Ibrahim, killing the people and burning the houses of Adi Ibrahim and surrounding villages. Many villages were also burned that year in eastern and western lowlands.

Ethiopian author, Zewde Reta, gave an insincere remark on the treatment of Ethiopia: “in the [years] we have lived together … we should never forget that we Ethiopians have committed no offense against our Eritrean brothers.” Colonizers and chauvinists have a common tradition, that is to refute and if possible to justify all the destructive actions committed against the colonized people. The refutation of Ethiopian colonizers to such extent reveals their unrepentant mentality. This is scoffing at the blood of the innocent Eritreans in the streets of Asmara, Adi Ibrihim, Hirghigo, Omhajer, Ona, Sheib, Wekiduba, Hazemo and many other places.

After the attainment of the hard found peace, Eritreans decided to concentrate on healing their wounds and rebuilding their country. During his visit to Ethiopia, President Issaias Afwerki expressed the feeling of Eritreans this way: “I feel boundless joy as I convey to you the message of peace, love and good wishes of the people of Eritrea…We have triumphed over the toxic schemes of the past years aimed at sowing the seeds of hate, resentment, and destruction.” Nevertheless, forgiveness should not be misunderstood as forgetfulness. The wounds left by successive governments of Ethiopia – the killing, burning of villages, pillage, destruction and imprisonment -- takes years to heal. We cannot forget the past but we consciously choose not to dwell in the past. Remembrance helps us to understand the past and the ongoing struggle to build a country based on equality and unity.