The social, cultural, political, and military history of Eritrea should be seen as an important resource that can support the nation-building process. According to Roy Pateman, Eritrea has a complex history “which is dominated by a fight against invaders” (1990: 5).
This year we celebrated the 29th anniversary of Operation Fenkil. The theme for celebrations was “Operation Fenkil: Epitome of Heroic History”. Commemorations offer opportunities to re-examine the past. Every year we commemorate Operation Fenkil in order to remember the great sacrifices that were made to liberate Massawa from the grip of Ethiopian colonialism.
Operation Fenkil has been regarded as opening the gates to the final liberation of Eritrea. It led to the capture of Massawa on February 10, 1990. During the commencement of the battle, Mengistu Hailemariam predicted the outcome of the war, stating how the capture of Massawa would mean the loss of the Second Revolutionary Army and the independence of Eritrea. The liberation of Massawa marked the beginning of the end of the decades-long Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea.
Operation Fenkil was well-organized and coordinated, offering many military lessons. The land and naval forces were in sync and everything was well executed. Additionally, the EPLF demonstrated great swiftness and secrecy both prior to and during the operation.
One of the lasting images of the operation was how small boats were able to decimate the large, modern Ethiopian warships. After being defeated, the merciless Ethiopian army sought revenge by bombing civilian targets.
During the colonial-era, Eritreans lived in struggle. They were constantly confronted by large-scale injustice and betrayal. However, the country’s history has been shaped by the ways in which Eritreans confronted those difficulties. As Xenophon said, “your obstacles are not rivers or mountains or other people. Your obstacle is yourself. If you feel lost and confused, if you lose your sense of direction, you have only yourself to blame.”
Prior to confronting and defeating the enemy, Eritreans prepared the ground for struggle. They committed themselves to a greater and nobler cause than themselves. In the process of continuous struggle, Eritrean heroism was born. As a student of history, few things draw my attention or admiration like the heroic acts of Eritrean tegadelti. In my humble estimation, the heroism and gallantry of our fighters is rare and hard to describe, let alone emulate.
The Eritrean revolution witnessed the heroism of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army. Devotion, strong discipline, confidence, and competence were the main factors behind every military victory. The commitment demonstrated in defense of the revolution continues to be a source of motivation. The heroism of Eritrean fighters wasn’t limited to the military sphere. They were also heroic in other areas, like education and culture. Remarkably, Eritreans also demonstrated their strong principles in their treatment of prisoners of war. They overcame r e s e n tme n t and bitterness to treat them with basic respect and humanity. Throughout the armed struggle, approximately 150,000
Ethiopian soldiers were captured and released. During Operation Fenkil about 8,000 Ethiopian soldiers were captured.
Operation Fenkil shook the Dergue to its foundations and it paved the road to the final liberation of Eritrea. Looking back on Operation Fenkil (and other battles) allows us to have a better understanding of the great sacrifices paid to win independence. This collective memory is an important part of our national identity and should be mediated by textual resources. According to Anthony D. Smith ( 1 9 9 1 ) , t h e fundamental features of national identity include an historic territory or homeland and common myths and historical memories. According to him, “The homeland becomes a repository of historic memories and associations, the place where our sages, saints and heroes lived, worked, prayed and fought. All this makes the homeland unique” (1991: 9).
The stories of Eritrean heroes must be told and preserved. Their heroism could provide a model and inspiration to the present generation that is building the nation. The relevant stakeholders must unearth and exploit the historic resources at our disposal for the use of Eritrea’s n a t i o n – building process.
After the demise of the Nadew command in 1988, the EPLF extended its cooperation with Ethiopian opposition groups, such as the TPLF (a friend turned foe), and intensified its attacks. Considering the military engagements of the time informs us that military victories can shape political dynamics. What occurs in the field can determine politics. Educating Eritreans about our military struggle can help them to become informed and thoughtful citizens. It is also imperative for our people to think critically about issues of war and peace. The heroic stories that make up our history, including Operation Fenkil, can serve as powerful reminders that people we are capable of anything.
The valor of the tank battalions of Fenkil, who choose to take physical risks, is an example of sacrifice. The Jaguar, Commander, and Tiger, now resting in Massawa, have a lot to tell. They were crushed by enemy artillery while crossing sigalet qetan. The commanders of these three tanks were willing to sacrifice their lives in the service of the Eritrean cause.
The Eritrean fighter demonstrated courage and heroism during times of great challenge and difficulty. One of the major roles of history in nation-building is the reconstructing or recording human activities. In order to secure a meaningful future and enrich our experience, we must study our history. Let the valor and perseverance of our historical heroes be inherited by the new generation of Eritreans.