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March in the history of Eritrea

The history of Eritrea is the story of Eritreans’ struggle through the ages against domination and colonization and against the mistreatment and double standard of international community who have tried to affright and keep Eritreans down.

Eritrea has many human and natural resources that can be used for her development. Nevertheless, the historical assets of the country are the most valuable national resource of Eritrea. Every single day and piece of land is a monument of history. Therefore it’s important to highlight and acquaint the main events happened during the struggle for independence in order to cultivate a sense of pride and dignity.

George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And, Carl Sagan wrote, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” These are some statements that indicate the significance of history. In addition to that, history is also important to promote self-understanding. Without history an individual citizen will remain a stranger to himself. To wards that purpose, let me share with you some of the important historical events happened in the month of March that have impacted our course.

March 9, 1975 Black Sunday in Akordet. The ordeal of the Eritrean people during the struggle for independence from the brute colonization of Ethiopia was numerous. Under Ethiopian colonial occupation, the Eritrean people have faced oppression, humiliation, degradation and destruction. Successive Ethiopian governments have intensified genocidal activities to crush the armed resistance of Eritrean people and pursued a scorched earth technique of destruction and terror to impair the fighting spirit of Eritreans. Black Sunday of Akordet was part of the many barbaric and brutal killing of innocent Eritreans. On that cursed day people were drugged like animals from their houses and even from a mosque to be slain. Soldiers tore pregnant mothers’ womb, the heads of children and the elderly were separated from the rest of the body. Hundreds of innocent civilians become the victims of the knives, bayonets and bullets of Ethiopian army. The aim of the mass killing in Agordet and other places of Eritrea were to terrorize and demoralize the people.

Dawit Woldegiorgis, an Ethiopian colonial officer in Eritrea, in his book ‘the red tears’ remarks the brutality committed by Ethiopian army in the following words; “The army made a crucial error in this operation; it did not concentrate on attacking the guerrillas directly; instead it devastated the villages suspected of harboring them.” He further recounted his personal memory “I remember soldiers slaughtering cattle, eating what they wanted, and then leaving the rest to rot. Sometimes soldiers would kill cattle just to get the livers” (1989, p. 82).

Akordet has faced indiscriminate killing and arrest by Ethiopian authorities in Eritrea long since 1962. On July 12, 1962 ELF fighters have tried to assassinate General Abiye Abebe and higher officials of Eritrea who have collaborated with Ethiopia. The army of Haileslasie regime responded by the arrest and execution of hundreds of civilians. The immediate cause of the March 9, 1975 massacre was the assassination of security officer in Akordet by freedom fighters. When Major General Werku Chernet, come to see the Ethiopian army in Barka he held a meeting in Akordet. In the midst of the meeting he heard the assassination of the well known Ethiopian agent in the town. Before leaving the town, he passed order to his subordinates to kill the inhabitants of the town indiscriminately. The atrocious massacre started at around 4:15 pm and continued well up to 7:00 o’clock. With in three hours, more than 375 innocent people were killed and more than 350 houses burned. Eritreans remembered that day as ‘Black Sunday’.

Certainly, throughout the years of Ethiopian occupation, the army behaved as though the depopulation of the Eritrean countryside was its aim. The scorched earth technique was started systematically in 1960s. The governor of Eritrea, Ras Asrate Kassa is reported to have boasted that he would leave Eritrea as bare as his bald head (An Africa Watch Report Sep. 1991, 43). Ethiopian army was known for its efficient skill in killing and displacing civilians. This mischievous cleverness of killing and displacing was upgraded by TPLF war organizers by incorporating additional skill of deporting and looting innocent people.

March 23, 1977 liberation of Nakfa. During the first organizational congress, EPLF had resolved to continue the strategy of ‘liberating the land and the people step by step.’ Karora was the first town to be liberated in January 1977. Nakfa was the second town to be liberated in March 1977 after the siege of six months. Nakfa was a symbol of resilience and perseverance. In the hard times of our struggle where everyone on earth stood against the tegadelti, Nakfa proved to be the reliable sanctuary of Eritrean fighters. Nakfa was the only place when once liberated by EPLF, the Ethiopian army couldn’t capture again. Ethiopian army tried many deadly battles to regain Nakfa saying “Nakfa or death” to no victory. Nakfa saved the symbolic and material aspect of the Eritrean struggle for independence. In recognition of its paramount importance played during the struggle for independence, Eritrea named its currency Nakfa.

March 26, 1983 seventh or stealth offensive of Derg. The seventh offensive of Derg since it was done stealthily it was called by the freedom fighter as stealth offensive. Derg initiated this military initiative because it thought that EPLF had been weakened in the sixth offensive. Derg also anticipated regaining from the frustration and humiliation he had received during the sixth offensive. It’s true that sixth offensive drained more than half of the EPLF’s combatants. And the seventh offensive was launched seven months after the end of the sixth offensive in March 26, 1983. This offensive proved to be as challenging as the sixth offensive for the EPLF. The numerical disadvantage of EPLF was compensated by perseverance, dedication and creativity of the fighters. In this offensive, the Derg army finished for good sustaining around 25,000 troops dead and wounded.

March 19-21, 1984 the demise of Wuqaw Command in North Eastern Sahel. Following the strategic withdrawal up to 1983, the Ethiopian army has relatively superior position over the freedom fighter. But after the defeat of red star campaign (1982) and the seventh or stealth offensive (1983), the war entered into the stage of stalemate. EPLF survived the strongest offensive the enemy could launch. This success gave EPLF a morale boost to undertake military initiatives to end the stalemate in its favor. Regardless of the longevity and bitterness of the struggle EPLF has a firm belief in the inevitability of its victory. Earlier in 1979 in the midst of the strategic retreat, EPLF announced the world through Dmtsi hafash that Sahel will be the burial place of the Derg.

On March 19, 1984 EPLF offensive against Wuqaw Command garrisoned in North Eastern Sahel started to bury the Ethiopian army in Sahel. The surprise attack of Eritrean freedom fighters drowned the Ethiopian army into Red Sea. The Ethiopian army was completely routed. The Derg lost around 7000 soldiers in the plains of Sahel. The famous song of tegadalay Tekle Kflemariam (wedi tkul) ‘Awget’ was produced after that victory. Awget was the headquarters of Ethiopian army in North Eastern Sahel front.

March 17-19, 1988 the demise of Nadew command and liberation of Afabet. After the second and unity congress, the EPLF had decided to intensify its military operations to facilitate the final death of Derg. On March 17 Eritrean people liberation army began its most comprehensive military offensive to put an end to annihilate Nadew Command and to liberate Afabet. The Nadew command was a 22,000 strong army, stationed permanently at Nakfa and Afabet front for nine years. As planed, EPLA destroyed the Nadew Command and liberated the town of Afabet within 48 hours. The strongest and core of the Ethiopian army couldn’t withstand the offensive of EPLA. Afabet, which since 1979 had been the center of Ethiopian strongest army, fell to the EPLA on March 19. The center of gravity of Ethiopian army was smashed and Derg lost one of its experienced and war hardened army of 18,000. Lt. Col. Afewerki Wassae, political commissar of Ethiopian army in Eritrea and three soviet officers were captured. In this operation 50 tanks, 100 trucks and large number of light and heavy weapons were seized.

A skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy. Sun Tsu, ancient Chinese military strategist, stated that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won. A skilled general has to see victory before going to war. In this case the military leaders of EPLA were skilled in calculating victory before fighting. On the eve of the battle of Afabet, martyr Major General Gebrezgiabhier Gebremariam (Wuchu) had delivered a historic speech to his army. Standing before his army, he confidently announced that “we are coming here to participate in the burial ceremony of Nadew Command.” Tegadalay Gebrezgiabhier Gebremariam aided by his prudent calculation, was able see the demise of Nadew when still the army was in its full military posture. EPLA leaders had confidence in the fighters and they know perfectly the power of the enemy and the power of their army and hence they win the battle.

The demise of the Nadew command was one of the most significant strategic operations of the EPLF that changed the balance of power in favor of the Eritrean revolution. The military victory scored in the battle of Afabet gave a competitive advantage to the fire power and negotiating power of EPLF. The battle of Afabet has been described as a greatest military victory after Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954. Africanist historian Basil Davidson, described the demise of Nadew command as “one of the biggest victory ever scored by a liberation movement anywhere since Dien Bien Phu.” As usual, after its disastrous and humiliating defeat, Derg turned its guns to the defenseless civilians. In May 12, 1988 Ethiopian army committed an atrocious massacre in Sheeb, massacring 400 innocent civilians.

As Winston Churchill once said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future” we must learn, reminisces and reiterates our history. Individually and collectively, we are the products of our history. Discovering your national history is one way of realizing yourself. The knowledge of Eritrea’s past ancestors’ achievement would reinforce the sense of identity and pride of the young. We must be equally attracted to our past and present.

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