Following the adoption of UN resolution 390A (V) in December 1950, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia under the prompting of the United States. When both territories were liberated from Italian occupation, the wish of Ethiopia to conquer sea shore through Eritrea was fulfilled by this biased United Nations decision. After the dissolution of this nominal federation, a long and tough armed struggle took place and it encountered difficulties due to massive US support during the Emperor Hailesellasie era.
Following the military coup in 1974, which toppled its ancient monarchy, the new leadership in Ethiopia enjoyed Soviet Union’s support. Following the strategic withdrawal by Eritrea’s liberation fighters in 1978, there were eight massive offensives against the struggle for Eritrean independence and all were foiled. Against all odds, exactly 30 years ago, the revolution reached its turning point by decisively winning the battle of Af’abet. At that time, Af’abet was the headquarters of the biggest Ethiopian army in north eastern Eritrea with an estimated twenty thousand strong army, which was forced to leave Eritrea’s western lowlands.
The Battle at Af’abet was a watershed and decisive battle in the Eritrean war of Independence. The fighting occurred from March 17 through March 20, 1988 in and around the town of Af’abet. The Nadew Command was one of four commands, or army corps, of the Ethiopian Second Revolutionary Army that used to camp in and around the strategic town of Af’abet. Led by Colonel Getaneh Haile, it was composed of three infantry divisions and accompanying support units, and 20,000 to 22,000 well-armed soldiers. To hide their shameful defeat, an Ethiopian historian, Gebru Tareqe, explains that the morale of the soldiers was at an all-time low, and none of the divisions “had even half of the numbers that would normally constitute an Ethiopian division – ten to twelve thousand men”.
The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had attacked the Nadew Command a few months previously, with limited success. On 8 December 1987, the EPLF had attacked one of the divisions of the Command, the Twenty-second, with a force that may have contained as many as five infantry brigades, one mechanized battalion and three heavy-weapon battalions. On the second day of the assault, Eritrean infiltrators destroyed the divisional control center. It required the assistance of the Nineteenth Mountain Infantry Division and the 45th Infantry Brigade to halt further advances and repel the EPLF forces. However, the Ethiopian side suffered even graver losses in the aftermath: on Mengistu Hailemariam’s order, twenty senior officers were transferred and the commander of the Nadew Command, General Tariku Ayne, who had been absent from Af’abet for medical treatment, was executed outside Asmara on 15 February 1988. The death of one of Ethiopia’s most prominent generals surprised even the EPLF, whose Radio of the Masses broadcasted that the Derg had “cut off its right hand with its left hand”. The Twenty-second Division was moved to Keren and replaced with the Fourteenth Infantry Division. By mid-March 1988 the Nadew Command had planned to launch an offensive against the EPLF; however, they were pre-empted by the EPLF.
On the morning of March 17, 1988, the EPLF deployed troops on three sides around Hedai Valley to encircle the Ethiopian garrison. The first unit that was attacked was the newly arrived Fourteenth Division. Upon their attack, the Ethiopian forces began to evacuate but were cut off. The battle continued while the Ethiopian garrison from Keren tried to reinforce their position, which was thwarted by the EPLF.
A stumbling block for the EPLF was on the left flank, where their Eighty-fifth Division was held up by the dogged resistance of the Ethiopian Twenty-ninth Mechanized Brigade. It fought without reinforcement for most of a day until its commander gambled on a retreat to Af’abet. Lacking time for careful reconnaissance before its withdrawals, the brigade was halted when a tank and truck were disabled by Eritrean 100mm guns, the burning vehicles blocking the road at a place known as A’shorm. The commander of the Second Revolutionary Army came to the battlefield himself to supervise the opening of the road to Af’abet “until he allegedly ‘escaped on a camel’ just before the fall of the garrison.” Once the Ethiopian troops were routed in Hedai Valley, the EPLF stormed and captured Af’abet. As the town was a major garrison , the EPLF also captured a large cache of weapons including 130mm artillery in addition to those captured in the valley.
Tom killion estimates that by the end of the three-day battle, the Eritreans had killed or captured over 18,000 Ethiopian soldiers. One Ethiopian to survive the battle was the commander of the Nadew Command, Colonel Getaneh Haile.
The significance to the Ethiopian regime of the loss of Afabet cannot be overstated. In this single battle, Ethiopia lost whole divisions of its best trained and armed troops Worse still, it left behind a weapons stockpile that it had amassed to carry out what it believed was to have been ‘a decisive offensive’ against the EPLF. That ‘decisive offensive’ was being planned by Soviet military advisors. As it was, the EPLF, clearly outsmarting the Soviets, turned around the ‘planned offensive’ to their advantage. The Soviet Union had always denied direct involvement in Eritrea but was caught red-handed by the EPLF at Afabet by the capture of three Soviet military personnel and another one who was killed in the combat.
The victory over the Nadew Command is considered by the historian Basil Davidson to be the most significant victory for any liberation movement since the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. It has also been described as the largest battle in Africa since El Alamein. Due to this huge victory, the Battle of Af’abet is similar to the most decisive battles of the last millennia; Battle of Hastings (1066), Battle of Waterloo (1815), Battle of El Alaimen (1942), Battle of Dunkirk (1944) and Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954). This victory is not acknowledged until now as the biggest post.
Dien Bien Phu war due to the eternal egotism of the successive Ethiopian regimes and their partners.