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Operation Fenkil: the final push towards independence

Most of the time soldiers are armed with different kinds of lethal weapons when they go to the battlefield. But you must have heard of patriots armed only with a camera who have managed to survive dangerous wars such as the Eritrean Fenkil Operation. Mr. Fitsum Ghebrai is a veteran freedom fighter and war photojournalist. We have invited him to our page today to see the side story of the man and his camera in the battlefields of the Eritrean armed struggle, especially the intense Massawa’s bombardment, named Qbxet, by the Ethiopian regime in 1990.

  • Mr. Fitsum, thank you for your time. Please introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure, that is what I am here for. My name is Fitsum Ghebrai, I was born in Asmara and I joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1977. To begin with, I was not a cameraman. I was just a student who lived off his family. Of course, I remember that I had interest in painting, but I didn’t have any knowledge about camera or shooting. After I joined EPLF, my first experience of war was in the battle of Semhar, in Massawa. Then after two years, I became a barefoot doctor for my platoon, which I think was the most dangerous and demanding work in any battle. Thereafter, with the growth of the EPLF, the need for documenting became essential. That is why some of us were taken from the combatant divisions to the liberated areas to take courses on photographing in 1980 and shooting motion pictures in 1984. After that, I remained a cameraman until 1991 and worked at the Ministry of information until 1995. I got married in 1992 and I am a father of three beautiful daughters. Now, I live in America and I am engaged in family business, here, in Eritrea.

  • What do you think was the reason for you to be selected for that task?

During the two years in the combatant army, I used to try painting using a red fruit plant, which we called HaQ and charcoal for black. In addition, I also arranged programs in the cultural development section of the EPLF. So, I think my interest in art could have been one of the factors that had me selected.

  • You have been in many wars as a cameraman and a combatant. So, personally, what do you think makes Qbxet and Fenkil operation different?

After I took the courses, I did not have a specific unit but was dispatched to every battle. Fenkil is unique not only for me but for every fighter. It is different for many reasons — the immensity and breadth of the war, the aridness of the weather, the unbalanced number of Ethiopian and our military. As a cameraman, I have taken many pictures but never got an opportunity such as that to document a battle. It was very productive and because the pictures came out nice the closer you get to the scene; it was risky. We were always determined, but the determination we had in that time was unbelievable. Seeing how they threw themselves to the fire, I was wondering how a human being could accept death and fight so hard? So, Fenkil operation was a battle where the bravery of the Eritrean fighters was most powerful. The other side of what makes Fenkil different is the Ethiopian military’s approach. Usually, troops fight against troops, and it’s possible to have civilian causalities. But the bombardment of Massawa was the most inhumane act I have ever seen. The atrocity of the bombardment was so extreme that everyone thought, “This is it, it can’t get any worse.” Children’s and old men’s and women’s bodies cut into pieces, mothers trying to save their children and others waiting helplessly to die. But it was also the battle in which we saw freedom coming our way, crystal clear.

  • How did you feel witnessing all that? Ever cried?

No, never. None of us did. We were very broken, but just held it in. I sometimes wondered if we even were humans, how come no one drops a single tear? But no, the rage just burned our hearts and turned to strength.

  • Back to your camera, what efforts did you make to preserve the pictures you shot in battles?

It’s true that every time I and my camera were at risk. But we had an efficient system of transferring the captured photos to the liberated areas. Messengers who brought food and other messages or we carried our cassettes back to the safe areas.

  • Have you ever lost or destroyed your cassettes?

Technically, I destroyed some of the cassettes in 1884 when we tried to liberate the northern east of Sahel and failed. We were surrounded and our only choice was to cross the battlefield. You see your comrades getting shot beside you, but you just run, some others also committed suicide. That day, the cassettes I had were videos and photographs of important leaders in meetings; it would reveal all our secrets. That is why I just exposed the films and destroyed them.

  • You went to Massawa last week. How do you feel about Massawa now and when you were a cameraman?

The residents of Massawa are very kind and welcoming. When we captured Massawa, they shared everything with us. They fed and took care of us. I remember once, we had a comrade whose family lived in Massawa and so we went to visit. His mother was very delighted that she put together whatever she had and made food for us. In our culture, guests tend not to eat too much, in consideration of the host. But maybe it is because we had been away for so long, without second thought we ate all that was served and the woman was very happy and told us that she felt safe with us in Massawa. We could not protect her from bombs and bullets, but she still believed that we were her shield and no death would come near her. They had faith in their children and on my last visit I saw that they are as trusting and kind as ever.  As a cameraman, for me Massawa is as attractive for a camera as it used to be, but in a different way. I shot war-torn and devastated Massawa in the past, but the beautiful Massawa now holds peace and beauty for a camera. As I went over all the places I have been before as a fighter, I got flashbacks and many other memories. The fact that we toured Massawa along with former fighters, like me, from our battalion also fascinated me most. Even though I was there in the same battle as my comrades, we all have our own side stories. While chatting, we were saying “I did this and this in this spot”. “Was it you?” “I was shooting from the other side?”… The conversation just went on.

  • You and your pictures are a living history for Eritrea. How do you feel about it?

I feel proud, but no more special than my other comrades. I believe my best accomplishment in life is being part of this history, being able to participate in and capture it, and especially being able to tell the story to my children. My daughter once asked me if I ever thought I would one day watch the footages I shot with my children. I was amazed, but she is right; I never thought I would, but I did and I feel very lucky and grateful to have survived almost fifteen years of fighting.

  • Do you think the history all of you freedom fighters and your camera hold are being properly transferred to the new generation?

I think we have not done enough in this case. Nowadays, the youth are oriented to audiovisual effects than lectures. That is why we should use all the possible means, even social networking sites, to reach the youth and share all that we have with them.

  • What about in America, what activities do you do regarding the history you have witnessed and been part of?

To your surprise, we are not as active there either. We do conduct exhibitions in festivals. For example, I once printed some of the pictures and magazines printed during the armed struggle and put them for exhibit and we also created a separate section for freedom fighters’ exhibit, where we talked about our memories and it’s an effective kind of therapy for us. There is always a new story from the same battle. It is an endless story; I only got to capture my side story, which is enough if they are told effectively. But one thing we all need to know is that in battles, firing at each other is not the only definition of war; living is also part of war. We fought to free our land and people, but at the same time we fought to survive.

  • Finally, if you would like to say anything to our readers or to the youth …

If you refer back to the history of the African colonization era, the colonizers’ tool of destruction was portraying the local people’s culture as harmful, backward and malicious and then presenting their ways and culture as the authentic and safe one. That way, many people lost their original taste of values and culture and began to adopt the Western style and consume Western goods and be dependent with no strong hold of their identity. I would like to remind everyone that neglecting your history is threatening your values and, hence, your identity and survival. There is a saying that goes, “To capture a society, you need to capture their mind.” If we use this principle wisely, we can manage to survive the psychological war the youth faces and stick to our identity. Our generation did enough to bring independence, but if we can’t pass our history to the next generation, it’s all pointless. So, work hard, keep going and always remember our values and live up to them. There are former fighters everywhere. So, please, no matter how simple they seem while laughing and joking around their work place, they are an untold living history. Take care of anyone in need and be courageous; that is my living and deceased comrades’ reward. Thank you.

  • Thank you, Mr. Fitsum.

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