We Eritreans are preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest military victories in our struggle for independence. The port city of Massawa was liberated through Fenkil Operation, a three-day battle that began on 8 February and ended on 10 February1990. Two years earlier, the EPLF conducted a successful strategic military campaign against the Ethiopian colonial army and was able to break the spinal cord of Ethiopia’s strongest command stationed at the Nakfa front for ten-years. Basil Davidson famously compared the historic three-day battle in 1988 to the Vietnamese defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Fenkil operation had given a final blow to the Ethiopian army whose spinal cord was already broken in 1988. Fenkil is the greatest military operation carried out by the EPLF that opened the door to independence. For the first time in the history of the armed struggle the operation involved the coordinated attacks of the infantry, the mechanized units and the navy. To use General Sibhat Efriem’s words, ‘its amphibious operation’ fought both on land and sea in a vast area that covers 1560 square kilometers.
Fenkil operation was a decisive battle which General Flipos Weldeyohannes had famously described as tightening the noose on the throat of the enemy. With the capture of Massawa in February 1990, the EPLF effectively cut off the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea from direct access to the Red Sea.
In Fenkil operation, the EPLF fought against a big army and the oldest and strongest Naval force in Africa. Although the Derg conducted a series of counteroffensives to recapture Massawa, it failed. The successful Fenkil operation paved the way to the concluding battle that led to the liberation of Asmara. It signified the beginning of the end of the arduous journey to independence.
The success in Fenkil operation lies in the meticulous planning of the EPLF leadership and determination of its fighters. It took the EPLF forces three days to wipe out the Derg army in and around Massawa and the Red Sea. The EPLF leaders are well known for laying careful plans and then leading the army to the battlefield to secure quick and decisive victory. The political consequence of Fenkil was equally great. For the first time in its history the Derg admitted its defeat. A week after the EPLF’s victory, Mengistu sent his elegy to all of the military units effectively saying that the capture of Massawa would break the spinal column of the Ethiopian army and make the independence of Eritrea a reality. The bitter taste of defeat had pushed Mengistu Hailemariam to publicly acknowledge that they had been caught by their throat. The successful military operations of Fenkil further tightened the noose around Mengistu’s neck. Fenkil and other coordinated military attacks in Eritrea and Ethiopia undertaken by the EPLF exerted maximum pressure on the Derg regime until Mengistu fled Ethiopia and sought refuge in Zimbabwe.
Clausewitz’s most famous premise is that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” The political objective of the Eritrean struggle was to establish an independent Eritrea. We have carried guns not to kill Ethiopians but rather to reach the objective of establishing an independent and sovereign Eritrea. Eritreans had no reason to fight for thirty years other than to further that political objective. Therefore, apart from the military perspective, we have to view Fenkil from the perspective of the grand political goal.
Fenkil has become a great success because of its pivotal contribution to the realization of the political objective of Eritreans. The greatness and decisiveness of the Fenkil operation lies in its impact on the speed with which independence was achieved, not simply the liberation of Massawa or destruction of the enemy. Through Fenkil Eritreans were able not only to defeat the enemy in battlefield but also end the political and diplomatic dominance of the Derg.
I was born two years before the Fenkil operation. The military training I got and my service in the Eritrean army, however, helped me to understand the military tactic and strategy of the operation. Success in warfare is measured by the nation’s prospect after the war. The victory of Fenkil heralded the ultimate achievement of independence and improved the EPLF’s military, political and diplomatic prospects. The aim was to ultimately secure peace through independence.
Fenkil demonstrated the national strength and military capability of Eritrea. Before Fenkil operation and after it, the EPLF did score countless miraculous military victories. But despite its high level of military competence, it was never complacent. In every battle it set out appropriate plans after carefully examining the reality on the ground. It objectively analyzed the capabilities and potentials of the enemy. The military saying ‘if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles’ has been the mantra of the military leaders and planners of Eritrea.
The commemoration of Fenkil and other major military operations and victories help to foster a collective memory of shared past and shared sacrifices of Eritreans and encourage a sense of nationhood. When we commemorate Fenkil, we celebrate the valor of Eritrean freedom fighters to fight for independence and lasting peace. Fenkil is among the greatest events of our past that deserves eternal remembrance. We have won many victories in our struggle. Yet the struggle to cherish and add meaning to our independence is still long. As ever, we have the capability to defend ourselves against all adversaries. Today, the Eritrean dream is close to being realized through the foresight and determination of Warsay- Yikealo.