Battlefields in Eritrea have significantly contributed to the welfare of the nation and the important historical features in the battlefields are crucial elements of the country’s cultural heritage. The battlefields of the fights for Eritrea’s independence and to safeguard Eritrea’s sovereignty particularly have historical and cultural significance.
In 1961 the political struggle of the Eritrean people through a clandestine movement was transformed into an organized armed resistance under the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The period from 1961to1969 saw a number of organizational problems and challenges under Zonal divisions that hampered the effective progress of the struggle for independence. Consequently, several fighters emerged with constructive ideals of political and military strategies and the movement to re-orient the struggle towards a progressive direction that eventually led to the birth of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA) in 1970. The course of the struggle took a different turn during the 1971-1976 with the EPLA (later renamed EPLF) playing a major role amid recurrent attacks by the ELF and the occupying Ethiopian army. The EPLF survived these attacks and emerged strong during the mid-1977 to mid-1978. During this period the EPLA managed to control most of the cities in Eritrea. When, the Soviet Union gave military and political support to the Ethiopian Dergue regime in mid 1978 the EPLF had to make a strategic withdrawal from all the freed cities and towns to the mountainous region of Sahel in Northern Eritrea. Major frontlines were created and the EPLF leadership decided to wage the struggle through a protracted war. Battlefields during this period attest to the massive fighting between the Eritrean freedom fighters and the occupying Ethiopian army over much of the fronts in the regions of Sahel and Barka.
A quarter of a million Ethiopian troops with massive armaments entered into Eritrea. From mid-1978 to the end of 1985 eight large scale offensive attacks and as well as numerous campaigns were launched to dislodge the Eritrean army. During those years the Ethiopian army was made to pay heavy prices for every piece of land and suffered humiliating defeats. Indeed, the EPLF became the sole representative of the Eritrean political future by defending and launching counter offensive battles as it emerged victorious subsequent to these major phases of the struggle.
In 1987 the EPLA intensified its military operations inside enemy’s territory and gained an upper hand in the balance of power. In 1988 the EPLF defeated the biggest garrison of the Ethiopian army in the Nacfa front and as a result the Eritrean dream for independence got close to be realized. It was also during this time that the historic cooperation and alliance agreement between the EPLF and TPLF (including other factions of Ethiopia) was realized to facilitate the final demise of the Dergue regime in Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1990 after a fierce battle Massawa was liberated and heavy war intensified around Keren, Ghinda, Dekemhare fronts and the Ethiopian army was finally defeated in 1991 resulting in the independence of Eritrea. The hundreds of battlefields reminiscent of the protracted struggle are testimony to the resilience of the Eritrean people to self-determination.
On similar accounts subsequent to a brief period of independence, the Ethiopian government declared war upon Eritrea under the pretext of border conflict. Two years of intensive fighting resulted in decisive battlefields that thwarted Ethiopia’s renewed aggression towards Eritrea. Battlefields fought over much of the borderland testified to the nationalist ethos of Eritreans and their heroic deeds to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Thanks to the strong dedication of the vanguard leadership of the EPLF and the heroic resistance of Eritreans freedom was achieved. However, it was not easy. A lot of bloodshed and enormous wealth was paid. The war took the life of thousands of young men and women from all classes of the Eritrean society including students, peasants, intellectuals and working men and women. Throughout the long armed struggle thousands of combat events had occurred. The battle was fought in open ground as well as in fortified ground which all differ in duration, magnitude, intensity, range and scale. The armed struggle in Eritrea evolved and grew over-time from guerilla warfare to a conventional warfare. During the guerilla warfare small arms were used, while during the conventional warfare mechanized warfare using artilleries and tanks were practiced. That was why the battle grew wider and heavier and in parallel the loss of life of the brave patriots was higher. At this time there are abundant battlefield sites all over the country and some of them cover land that stretches for hundreds of miles. The battlefields in Nacfa Alghean, Halhal, Rora Mensa’, Massawa , Ghinda’, Dekemhare, Badme, EgriMekel are few examples. These regions embodied the memories of the fallen heroes fought with courage, devotion, determination who sacrificed their blood and sweat for the sake of freedom of Eritrea and its people. These battlefields are also potential references to the present and future generations for their perception, understanding, learning, appreciation and enjoyment of Eritrea’s wonderful history.
There are also many sites associated with the emotional attachment of Eritrean people like atrocities committed by the Ethiopian army. We value these historic heritage sites because they are deeply associated with our unity, identity and integrity. Hence preserving and remembering them is our national obligation. Battlefields, like other elements of historic environment, are fragile and finite resource and they are vulnerable to a range of impacts caused by human and natural factors. They are always at risk and are endangered. If these battlefields are destroyed they cannot be replaced and their value will diminish forever. Therefore, to ensure their survival for the benefit of the present and future generations, it is imperative to protect, record and register battlefields before they decay or are destroyed. The loss or destruction of these valuable battlefield sites is the loss of an important part of Eritrea’s history.
Glory to our Martyrs!
A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission