Thursday, February the 8th, I am on a call of duty to attend and report on the commemoration of the most successful operation in the Eritrean history of armed struggle, the Fenkl Operation which saw the liberation of Massawa. February 1990 brought an emphatic military success for all Eritreans and, especially, the residents of Massawa.
Fenkl is celebrated annually in February and I am on my way to the historic city of Massawa to be part of the interesting journey of Eritreans. The King Long Bus I am getting on feels like a ‘bus of the fields’, though I know there were none of them but big trucks at that time. I feel this way because FM Radio got me finely tuned to songs of legendary singers such as Fihira and Wedi Tkul. Songs sang during the armed struggle which portray the exact and most timely sentiments of the time. “Gobez naanay endo, Gobez naanay” of Fihira translates as “let us go youth” and also Wedi Tkul’s “Batsie sye bmerkeb mexiuki wedi Eretra hasab lbu semira” means “Massawa, here comes your son through the sea”. My excitement is suddenly boosted, let us ride it to the Pearl of the Red Sea!
Even if you don’t have direct experience of the Fenkl Operation, the ride seems to make you realize how tough and what a dramatic success the event was at the time. The 28th anniversary of the Fenkl Operation is to be celebrated under the theme “Fenkl the Dawn to Liberation”. The always vibrant and versatile celebration is scheduled from the 9th to the 11th of February. In honor of this great historic event, people of Eritrea annually come from all over the country to celebrate Fenkl in Massawa.
The sun is setting now and after three hours of ride, finally, we arrived at the port city. The night is shining with glamorous lights and the Eritrean Flag waving everywhere. Massawa is beautiful as ever. Pilgrims from all over the country and abroad have added color to the ecstasy of Fenkl. The city is expects to host more people at the second and third day of the celebration as I can see hotels and guest houses busy with reservations to accommodate tourists. Restaurants, too, will obviously be busy for the next three days. The streets are already full with people walking and enjoying the heavenly climate and fresh breath of the sea. One can really feel the sense of freedom and be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of independence. By the time I joined the news crew I see everyone set for tomorrow’s official celebration programs.
Friday, in the morning, I find myself in Kutmya Street, waiting for the mountain bike race to takeoff. Mr. Alamin Mohammed Seid, the PFDJ Secretary officially opens the ceremony, cutting the ribbon and walking towards the cyclists to set them off with a green flag up in his right hand. At the other end, in Dahlak Hotel, I have been told that a swimming competition is already going on and some of our sport correspondents are doing their part there. As the sun normally gets harsh after nine in the morning, many of the programs are scheduled either in early mornings or late afternoons.
It is around five in the afternoon and before we go to attend the next program, my colleagues and I are heading to the Gorgusum beach to see the atmosphere there and, of course, have fun. Sipping Asmara Beer or drinking tea and watching the endless view of the sea, enjoying the natural dance of the waves is conventional. You can’t help it but want to have more. As it is getting darker we’re told to attend at Cinema Sgalet. We’re about to watch a strange program, something we usually don’t see, a Mothers’ Fashion show!
Everybody is familiar with the role of Eritrean people and, especially, that of mothers in the Eritrean armed struggle. Eritrean mothers were literally the anchors of the freedom fighters and contributed a lot for Independence.
It is 6:30 pm. I am inside the Cinema hall where women make up majority of the audience. The show has just begun with a beautiful flow of mothers representing Eritrea’s cultural and ethnic richness, wearing lovely combination of modern and traditional outfits. The program is interesting, abundant in content and extremely entertaining.
It is almost nine in the evening and people are in the streets enjoying the night breez. The Ministry of Marine Resources is showing an exhibition in the hall just near the Martyr’s Statue. At the hall a big skeleton of whale welcomes us in front. The rich natural biodiversity of Eritrea is displayed for people to see and learn.
Saturday, 6:45 am, we are in front of the Martyrs Statue with the remarkable three memorial tanks namely the Jaguar, Tiger and Commander. The President of the State of Eritrea and higher officials lay down bouquets in tribute of the martyrs, following the minute of silence accompanied by the Martyrs’ melody played by a young and talented female saxophonist.
This event is followed by the National Half Marathon. Professional athletes warm up and their trainers give them tips while spectators are told to move to the sidelines. Sport correspondents are ready, cameramen take their possible best spots for epic shots. Samson Haile, a journalist, is makes sure spectators have relevant information about all the athletes participating in the contest. The Half Marathon time record so far registered is 1:01:54 and it belongs to Eritrea’s great athlete, Zeresenay Taddesse. The top four in today’s competition will be heading to Valencia. A half marathon with the sun already getting hot will sure be challenging to the athletes. The women’s race started early and they have shown good stamina almost covering half the first round with a constant speed. Men’s race is about to start and all athletes are told to take their positions. Here we go again, the men’s half marathon race starts, and everyone seems energetic to last until the third round of the half marathon.
Massawa’s general movements are quite slow when the hour nears midday. It is lunch time in Massawa now. My colleagues and I are in a restaurant enjoying our delicious fish, typical of the city. We received the news of a new course record of 1:01:08 registered by Aron Kifle in the men’s half marathon race.
Fenkl official ceremony is scheduled at four in the afternoon and we are heading there after a couple of hours rest. At four the sun is still hot but we know it will fade away soon. We’re making our way to Wushti Batsie (downtown) where the official ceremony of Fenkl is always held.
I can see in the schedule, the two and half hour program which seems interesting with the names of big artists and comedians on the list. The Eritrean Naval Force cruisers are crisscrossing the big ships in front, the audience’s attention is fully diverted to them.
The cold breeze form the sea is refreshing everyone. Artists and comedians are in their final seconds of preparation at the back stage, some taking selfies. Checking people is formally executed by the protocol committee and finally the President is here at the expected hour. As usual the program begins with a minute of silence. Immediately, Million Tekle is on the stage, singing Senay eyu Qne, a song that rhymes a sanctified week of Fenkl memorial. Estifanos Ghilyau follows with a Blen song Merhaba, accompanied by the typical harmonica common in Blen traditional songs. It got the audience listening to it keenly.
Afterwards, the Head of NRS Festivals Organizer, Mr. Sraj Haji, is on the stage for an official opening speech. Mr. Sraj’s speech highlights that the celebration of Fenkl is meant to commemorate the fact that February 1990’s military success of Fenkl Operation was the closing chapter of the 30 years’ war against Ethiopia and the dawn of a new chapter of freedom and independence. He refers to the day as an annual collective renewal of promise in transferring the legacy on to the new generations while remembering Eritrea’s fallen heroes. Then a Female Hidareb sensation captivates the audience with her Hdarb song.
An interesting comedy titled Gets n Gets (face to face) is now shown by the experienced actors Teklit Ghebrekidan and Simon Redie including emergent comedian Merhawi Weldegebriel and actress Rahwa Teklemariam. The comedy conveys a message to the world that it is wrong to accuse Eritrea of putting its affairs first. More songs follow as it gets darker as the ships and cruisers are still sailing in the sea with a surprise ending. What a nice finishing to the official ceremony, all the ships just start firing colorful fireworks in a spectacular way from the sea.
The popular song of freedom fighter Alazar Misghina, aka Jerry, which was sung as soon as the operation triumphed on the 12th February 1990, is being sang by a young artist, Rezene Alem. The song goes this way: “Eti rsun guayla, Semhar ktkela, bmeriet b bahri me’etewi kithari, chibt ntwalet, diqdiq Riesi mdri, agati zeybilka, meitewi tihari, Fenkl elomuka ye, Fenkl aba dahri”. It translates ‘In the pinnacle dance of Semhar, Twalet was freed, and so was Riesi Mdri, no one stands before you, you channeled every way through the land and the sea, they called you Fenkl, Fenkl, father of miracles”
The ceremony is glowing. I like how Rashaida men are brightening the dance floor. Commonly known for being busy doing business at all times, they’ve taken time off for the epic commemoration of Fenkl!
It is Sunday morning and the loud roaring sounds of racing cars woke me up. The Fenkl Car Race has already begun. Beach volleyball and Foot Sal are underway in the Gorgusum beach and the Stadium respectively. Community gatherings are scheduled after midday.
Indeed, Fenkl is the celebration of the people. Massawa is packed with tons of activities in its every corner accommodating people of all generations and interests. Just how the victory is of all, celebrations are for all too. That’s why Eritreans’ all-time slogan is Awet Nhafash, Victory to the Masses.