To mark June 20, Eritrea’s Martyrs Day, in Asmara, the Zoba Maekel Administration organized various artists, who brought their works of art that reflect the day for display.
The works included paintings on the demise of Wuqaw Command in 1984 and the Commando Operation at Asmara Airport the same year, which reminds me of Entebbe, and the two Battles of Massawa – 1977 and 1990. These works of art that depict various phases of the Eritrean struggle for Independence transport visitors between times and places. Visitors are transported to Massawa and are made to see the town on two separate occasions, Ghinda and Dekemhare Fronts in 1990, Adi Begio in the 2000s, Afabet in 1988. But, most importantly, they are made aware of the negative involvement of the Eastern Bloc countries, how they prolonged our struggle, and multiplied the sacrifices we had to make for our independence.
Among the works of art on display on the occasion of June 20, Eritrea’s Martyrs’ Day, are two paintings. One depicts a battlefield scene, in which two or three fighters lie dead near a tank. The caption in Tigrigna translated to English reads: “Martyred fighters in the Battle of Dekemhare Front”. The Battle of Dekemhare was fought five days before the liberation of Asmara. These fighters’ lives were cut short only days before the end of the protracted war.
Another painting titled ‘Salina 1977’ shows some fighters marching between the salt pans in Massawa. Only a few of the fighters are seen in the salt pan, and none of them is firing. Opposite are some buildings, the port area and some buildings, the targets of the Eritrean fighters’ attack. For reasons of his or her own, the artist has chosen to portray the part before the fiercest part of the battle. The Eritrean fighters have started shelling these positions, evident from the smoke rising to the sky. From the details, one sees the artist has decided not to dwell on the fiercest part of the battle. For some reason, the artist has decided not to reveal the involvement of the Eastern Bloc countries: the enemy’s strength, the meddling of the Russians, South Yemenis, the Libyans and the Cubans in Eritrean affairs.
In Eritrea: Guuzo ab Tezekrotatey, the author, Ambassador Ahmed Taher Baduri, a former freedom fighter, posted in Khartoum in the EPLF office writes of Charismas Eve 1977.
“That night, by coincidence, Simon Dering, a reporter of BBC Radio, who observed the Battle of Massawa, was there and gave details of the fighting and explained what he saw during the fighting. As reported, the battle was truly very fierce and most ferocious. In it, on the Ethiopian side tens of tanks manned by the Yemenis were deployed at the Naval Base. This was because the Ethiopian Army had not learnt how to use the modern Soviet weapons skillfully. Mig 21 and Mig 23 fighter jets that shelled our fortifications were flown by the Cubans. Moreover, opposite the Port of Massawa from the Russian Naval Base within the base [in Massawa] the Russians relentlessly shelled our positions around the town with mortars and rocket launchers. The heroic fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, steeped in the salty pans of Salina to their waist under heavy enemy fire, continued their attack and marched forward to control the Naval Base” (page 423).
In one of the paintings, one notes three Russian military advisers captured at the Battle of Afabet in 1988. One also notes that the painting portrays the shift in the balance of power in favour of the Eritrean Revolution, a feat no doubt achieved at a great cost to Eritrean fighters. One comes to the inescapable conclusion that the involvement of the Eastern Bloc countries, which sided with the Dergue, unnecessarily escalated the human cost of the war, which should have been over by early 1978.
Opposite the Zoba Maekel Administration building, outside the Fish Market, visitors are met by other paintings, and various works of art on the Eritrean War for independence.
“I didn’t know there was a killing at Bar Amanuel,” I said pointing at a painting that depicted such a scene. Bar Amanuel is a well-known bar in Asmara, just behind the Fish Market, where the paintings were on display.
“Neither did I,” said the man standing next to me, a former colleague. Both of us Asmarinos and brought up as young boys during the Dergue era, and later served as teachers in a town outside Asmara. I didn’t notice there are many things I didn’t know about Asmara and the Eritrean Revolution.
In the painting, a soldier fires at a group of young people playing billiards. One of them has just let a billiard ball roll and must have been caught by surprise as he straightens up to see if he has successfully hit the pins, and in the next second he is terror stricken, as he sees an Ethiopian soldier killing his friends point blank.
As a young man, I have heard of the killings of innocent football fans in Asmara in the 1980s, reminiscent of the terrorist killings in Kampala in 2010. Most families in Asmara at the time had no TV sets and youngsters had to find bars or other places where they could watch World Cup or Premier League matches. In one such incident, many youngsters were killed in cold blood, near Kidane Mihret, at the heart of Asmara.
One is hard pressed to find a village or town in Eritrea that has not seen Eritrean bloodshed and their property looted. Just a casual mental exercise would show all Eritrean administrative regions or Zobas have had such towns. Weki Duba, just outside Asmara in Maekel in late 1975 and early 1976 saw its inhabitants murdered. Shieb, Semienawi Keih Bahri, where Ethiopian soldiers crushed old men, women and children to death with tanks in 1988 after their defeat at Afabet. Massawa saw a horrible air raid immediately after its liberation in 1990. Ona and Besikdira in Anseba are two examples where enemy soldiers butchered innocent civilians. Agordat’s black Sunday and Om Hajer’s massacres testify to the brutality of the Dergue in the Gash Barka. Assab and other places in Southern Red Sea were not spared. The Hazemo massacre in Debub in the 1970s shows the brutality of Haileselassie, who depicted his country as a victim of Italian aggression at the League of Nations in 1936. Now, who was the real Fascist?
If one were to attempt to locate these places on a map of Eritrea with red pins, almost the whole map would be covered in red and it would be hard to find a spot on the map not coved by the red pins. People were hoarded into churches and mosques and killed there. Sometimes people were burnt alive in their homes and places of worship. Though one may forgive such killings to give peace a chance, it is impossible to forget them.
Although June 20 is the official martyrs’ day in Eritrea, it is not easy for Eritreans to put the martyrs out of their minds on any other day. Daily life and special occasions would not allow them to. Funerals, weddings, and other social events bring former fighters and civilians together and often the discussion reverts to the days of the Revolution. The funeral happens to be that of a former comrade, which brings unbidden, old memories back. Or people are invited to a wedding of a martyr’s son or daughter, or to a christening of a new born child, after the wedding. Here aunts and uncles, and the friends of the parents are invited. Most probaby, the friends have contributed financially and through other means towards covering the expenses of the wedding, as is the custom in Eritrea. At such festive events, the guests’ one regret would be that the parents had been unable to take part in the event. “How wonderful would it have been,” they muse. “if your dad and mother had seen your wedding”.
People interested in reading history and politics have other things that remind them of the martyrs. They come across books such as ‘Ay Mixiwa’ by Lieutenant Tele Salvano, an Ethiopian officer captured in Massawa in 1990. People such as Lieutenant Salvano try to rewrite the history of the Eritrean Revolution in an attempt to present the defeat of the Ethiopian Army in a favorable light in the eyes of their readers. Surprised by the speed and efficiency with which the EPLF conducted the Battle of Massawa, Lieutenant Tele Salvano claims that Iranian, Sudanese, and other countries were involved on the Eritrean side, a story that was not reported at the time. Such writers forget that Massawa came at the heels of Afabet, where the Eritrean Revolution came out much stronger than it was in 1977 due to the modern weapons it captured in the battle. He must have also forgotten that the EPLF had learnt from its experiences and was determined that Massawa 1977 was not to be repeated.
The Eritrean struggle for independence has few parallels for it involved the majority of the Eritrean people. Just from a handful of poorly equipped fighters in the early 1960s, the Revolution grew to a gigantic movement in 1991. But, this part of our story, though the PFDJ has taken initiative at telling this story, has not been told. The PFDJ should go further and make sure our story is written while the people who made it possible are still alive.