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Pearl of the Red Sea: the Very Gateway to Independence

Whenever the month February comes, every Eritrean remembers the port city of Massawa and the Operation, ‘Fenkel Operation’, which liberated Massawa. This operation was one of the greatest strategic offensives conducted by the Eritrean people.

It was done in order to totally drive out the Ethiopian colonial army, which was supported by the superpowers of the day and was the biggest military in black Africa. This operation signaled the opening of the door for the total liberation of Eritrea from the tyrannical rulers of Ethiopia.

Almost three decades ago, Massawa, the pearl of the Red Sea, was liberated from the well-equipped military regime of the Derg by the famous “Operation of Fenkel”. A sudden and swift attack changed forever the future map of the liberation struggle. The operation brought the sun to the Eritrean people to see the light for the upcoming freedom.

If there was a stronghold in Eritrea, the political and military officials of the colonial Ethiopian Derg had boasted of, it was the port city of Massawa. The realization that surrendering Massawa would as much likely be as much as taking their own lives had compelled the Derg regime to outwit a plan against conclusive defeat. They guarded the city in a way they believed would be more dependable to securing their hold. There was a consolidated coastal front line stretching west of Massawa from Figret to Emberemi and thence to the North. Still, in Massawa and its vicinities, there were three defense strongholds, mostly cemented fortifications sheltering even tanks and artilleries. Derg deployed a huge army in those defense lines, within Massawa and by the sea.

The sixth infantry and the third motorized divisions, additional mechanized brigades and almost the entire Ethiopian naval force swarmed all over the area equipped with hundreds of tanks, tens of cannons, rocket launchers and other military hardware as well as warships and boats. Added to all these was the imposing terrain which posed a formidable challenge to be faced with. Having penetrated the first fort of the enemy, the EPLF forces marched forward across the plainest lowlands. To enter through the only passage of the city into Massawa, it was imperative for the Eritrean liberation forces to confront the enemy forces with an overwhelming victory at the narrow Bridge of Sigalet, which is surrounded on both sides by the sea.

Despite the surprising victories of the EPLF in other areas, it was unfathomable not only for the Derg regime but also the Eritreans in Massawa that the EPLF could indeed liberate the city. The historic heroism that ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ to uproot the enormous enemy force in a short period was a miraculous determination. Having provisioned strong moral commitment and sophisticated weaponry seized from enemy forces, the extraordinary devotion demonstrated by the freedom fighters with ample popular support plus the special military skills gained through training and experience to liberate Massawa three decades ago and forced the Derg army to vacate the city within two and a half days. Operation Fenkel, which pervaded an indomitable spirit capturing imaginations of the Eritrean people was, thus, launched against the Derg in three directions all unawares.

North of the front on the Asmara- Massawa road, the first direction of the surprising attack in the west targeted to move forward storming the military posts in Figret and throttling the enemy’s militarism at Gahtelay on the Asmara road. Second direction of the attack was in a position to capture the main road through May Atal and turn east to Massawa in the face of any opposition, thereby breaking through the center of the enemy’s fortified strongholds on the hills around Seker. The third flank of the attack was deployed in the East from the coastal areas to smash the forts and strongholds stretching north from Emberemi and surge to victory of the port city in the North.

Thursday, February 8, 1990, at 1:00 AM, EPLF forces heralded the launch of the historic operation of 72-hours by way of the western wing to liberate Massawa. Within the early three or four hours of the battle, having managed to crush the paralytic attempts of enemy forces, the western wing of EPLF forces captured seven tanks, five BM-21 launcher rockets, submachine guns as well as other military hardware and seized control of all the camps around at daybreak. Laying the first front line of the enemy in ruins, liberators held many personnel of the sixth division – including the adjutant Colonel – in captivity.

Providing momentum for the operation in opposition to any resistance, the EPLF forces removed the enormous Ethiopian forces from the second wing of the frontline in the bloodshed around Seker, May Atal and Degoli at a price. After reorganizing, liberation forces at the second night of the coherent attack routed the huge enemy forces out of their strongholds into Massawa. The third wing of the attack in the battle, flanked by the infantry and mechanized units jointly with the young navy, winged along the coastal areas in the east against the enemy’s military formation, which was armed with massive tanks and convoys.

Thanks to the thunderbolt freedom fighters, the western wing reached the gates of Massawa by Gergsum in the same breath. In the east, the young naval forces of the EPLF attacked the enemy forces without giving a break, causing the heaviest loss since the launch of the operation. The adequately resourced Ethiopian army with necessary supplies and sophisticated military assets could not trounce the newborn navy of the EPLF, though. On February 10, 1990 early Saturday morning, the attack which was launched through Forto-Massawa flared up into the inner city.

Hence, they first occupied Edaga and next conquered Salina, the place that proved unattainable in 1978. They subsequently reached Girar within a short span of time. After an efficient and speedy but inevitable bloody battle, naval base, Twalet as well as Massawa, through and through along with the territorial waters, were liberated. Indeed, the operation, beyond being a sweeping victory to the Pearl City, was a key success to Eritrea throughout, which set the nation free from the clutches of consecutive colonizers once and for all.

During the Operation Fenkel, more than 80 tanks, 7 BM-21 launcher rockets, 10 anti tank guided missiles, sub-machine guns and artilleries were captured. Moreover, around 8 thousand Ethiopian soldiers along with a number of officers succumbed under the doughty EPLF. Napalms and cluster bombs rained down on the civilian people by the Ethiopian soldiers to avenge their shameful defeat. The vast number of the retreating and fleeing Ethiopian soldiers revealed twilight moments of the downfall of the regime.

The unparalleled Operation Fenkel dawned good prospects and uplifted the hope of every citizen towards a free state. During the operation, five huge armed Ethiopian warships were captured and turned against the Derg, aligning with the EPLF naval force. Russian-made war planes: Mig-21 and two Mig-23 were dispatched in a bid to give help for the enemy forces, but the EPLF anti-air craft unit shot down both. Above 10 infantry and mechanized brigades were totally destroyed. In these vast battles 200 tanks, about 85 to 100 different kinds of cannons and other weapons were launched together erupting like a volcanic outburst, ranging the magnitude of the battle than any land of Eritrea had ever seen attested.

The scope of the battle and the military formation of the enemy forces during the Operation Fenkel extended from Morara, Bri-Gemal, Tsehaf-Lam, Kudo, Afgergr around the green-belt region under the 69th Birgade of the 10th division to the right, to the left the Shabah plains under the 113th brigade, in the northeast close to Kentibay under the 83rd brigade, and 500th brigade near Emberemi around the area which they referred to as 101kilometer road representing the left flank in an area of about 1560Km2. As regards the mechanized resource: 302 motorized Brigade in the island, the tank-armed 4th Brigade from Massawa to Goroyto, 29th mechanized Brigade near May-Weuy and Gahtelay, and 27th mechanized Brigade stretched out around Foro. Apart from these resources there were reserved units, the infantry brigade 21 in the areas around Adi-Ile, other infantry and mechanized units of the Dergue and, the 66th and 167th battalions of the 10th division.

Confrontation in this enormous battle by breaking through the strongholds of the enemy that were armed with about 180 tanks was nothing but an invincible bravery. However, the EPLF had utilized sophisticated military plans to win the battle. The sincere secret of the success was just the hunger for freedom and disciplined stoicism of the people envisioning to secure independence of the nation, which Eritrea had been deprived of for decades due to injustice and colonization. That’s why the Fenkel Operation, through its astounding victory, managed to capture minds of not only friends of the EPLF and its foes but also the whole world. It did not at the same time reveal only the definite defeat of the Ethiopian regime but also demonstrated the ultimate goal of the long and bitter struggle for independence. It only took months for the complete liberation of Eritrea upon successful accomplishment of the operation, realizing the dream that seemed distant.

Operation Fenkel has been commemorated for the last 27 years on the 2nd week of February with honor in a cordial mood for the history it bears. Thus, the occasion should not be confined to an event of exuberant celebration, but must be a juncture to renew our commitments to safeguard the sovereignty and peace of the country. Through the nation building campaign, the Eritrean people have managed to achieve cures for the former colonial legacies of Massawa, if not thoroughly, but mostly, replacing the ruined image of the port city. Today Massawa has many modern and comfortable residential complexes, a big national air port, modern port, great infrastructures, hotels and many recreational cafes.

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