It was Idris Awate who, after decades of colonial injustice, decided enough was enough and shot the first bullet to declare the start of Eritrea’s struggle. The shot heralded the absolute determination of the people of Eritrea to wage an armed struggle, against whomever and whatever stands in their way, for their legitimate and inalienable right to pursue a politically independent and self-governing political existence they had been denied for 20 years.
And the shot sent shockwaves around the continent and the world. The man, his full name was Hamed Idris Awate. His first name was Hamed, his father’s first name was Idris and his grandfather’s first name was Awate. Which is to say that “awate” is not his last name, or a nick name, or a “family name.” Awate is used more often than Hamed simply because it is a less common, and more memorable name.
He was an uncommon man. By the time he was involved in the movement that he became famous for, September 1, 1961, he was already 50 years old. Which is to say: that he had established a long history of resistance against injustice: whether it was the British administration, or bandits or the regime of Haile Selasse.
In 1961, when Hamid Idris Awate initiated Eritrea’s armed struggle, he was already 51 years old. This is not a common age when people decide to rebel; at that age people settled down and retire. So how did this come about?
A group of Eritrean exiles in Cairo, Egypt–the most senior of whom was Idris Mohammed Adem (who had been the president of Eritrea’s parliament during the federation era), had been appealing to Hamid Idris Awate to initiate the armed struggle since 1960.
It should be recalled that in 1960, seventeen African countries–including Somalia, which had been, just like Eritrea, an Italian colony as well as the object of Haile Selasse’s claim– achieved their independence, and the Eritrean exiles who founded the Eritrean Liberation Front–law students, school headmaster and politicians–were keenly aware of this fact and sought the same freedom for their homeland. Awate, who had some experience leading a group of armed men against the British, had replied that he would consider it but only when the time was right and that he had to have the resources to do it right. M e a n w h i l e , the Ethiopian army–which was aware of Awate’s administrative and leadership skills, military training and rebelliousness–had been monitoring Awate and deployed a police unit to arrest or kill him in August 1961. He escaped to Mt. Adal.
After 20 years’ of peaceful means and legitimate quest for national independence had failed due to the deaf ears of the international community, the gallant Awate, leading a group of 15 valiant Eritreans, risked life and limb and decided to respond forcefully to Ethiopia’s forceful occupation of Eritrea and engaged them in a battle at mountainside Adal (Western Eritrea). Thus Bahti Meskerem, September 1st, constitutes the birthday of Eritrea’s armed struggle for national independence. It is the day when Eritrea was conceived to be born on May 24, 1991.
As of New Years’ Day 1890, Italy declared Eritrea a territory of Italy. From 1890 to 1941, Italy ruled Eritrea. There were approximately 100,000 Italian colonists that settled in Eritrea during the 1930s in Eritrea. The Italians considered Eritrea t h e i r first and most important colony. Under the Italian rule, Eritrea enjoyed industrialization and modern infrastructure such as roads and the Eritrean Railway. The Italians remained the colonial power in Eritrea until they were defeated by the Allied forces in 1941. Consequently, Eritrea came under British administration after the Second World War. Under the British trusteeship, it was decided by the United Nations, that Eritrea was to be federated with Ethiopia in 1950.
Almost 10 years into the federation with Ethiopia, the 30-year Eritrean Struggle for Independence began in 1961. The growing tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea armed escalated following Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I’s shut down of Eritrea’s parliament. In 1962, the Emperor declared Eritrea the fourteenth province of Ethiopia.
The momentum of the struggle grew every year with many Eritrean youth joining the struggle eventually becoming a formidable army that could crash and annihilate the biggest army in Sub-Sahara Africa.
Countries that stood with the Ethiopian regimes and especially with the Derg regime, did their level best to arm the regime with sophisticated military hardware including heavy artillery, modern fighter jets and navy vessels. Above all, they did everything in their capacity to train the Ethiopian army in the hope they would be able to kill the Eritrean revolution and the aspiration of its people. However, the more weaponry the Derg regime receives the more resilient the EPLF forces grew.
Like other counties in Africa, Eritrea was first established as a distinct colonial territory as a result of the 19th century colonialist “Scramble for Africa”, but unlike all such colonial territories, which were disposed of as self governing and politically independent Sovereign States at the end of colonialism, Eritrea was denied national Independence for 50 years simply because Eritrea’s enviable geopolitical and strategic location was coveted by regional and global forces and Ethiopia’s expansionist dreams. For a small country with a population of barely over 3.5 million, Eritrea’s national independence was attained the hard way and with no precedence and parallel in the annals of colonial history. Eritrea struggle for national independence bears emotional significance that is cumulatively expressed by the following historical dates: Eritrea rightful struggle for national independence had a decisive and gutsy beginning (September 1,1961), a happy victorious ending(May, 24, 1991) and tragic human consequences(Martyrs day, June 20). Those three holidays are inextricably bound to each other and cannot be considered in isolation: there is no end without the beginning, and there is no gain without pain, as they say! People make history; and the people of Eritrea did!
In its 30 years of armed struggle for self determination against both the western and eastern superpowers, the people of Eritrea was able to nurture a social justice based golden values. Besides, the Eritrean revolutionary struggle was able to create a popular state of mind which values a sense of Eritreanism that upholds religious, tribal, gender, linguistic and cultural equality and social harmony.
Hence, it is such national values that enabled the Eritrean people to be triumphant in the struggle waged against super-powers and heralded justice from the rubbles of colonialism. The people of Eritrea therefore accepted these values as their culture and paid heavy prices to achieve their right for self-determination.
Not only have the values acquired during the long years of revolutionary struggle begot independence, but they also have been passed on to the young generation to build a new and independent Eritrea based on those values. By far, the multi-faceted economic and social growths registered in post-independence eritrea are attributed to the national values cultivated over the years of the revolutionary struggle. Bahti Meskerem will remain an inextricable part of the history of Eritrea.