The thirty-year war for Eritrea’s independence demonstrates that strategic success cannot be achieved by military force alone. Defeating an opponent militarily is not identical to achieving the object of war.
The victory of Fenkil operation consists not only of overcoming the enemy forces but it also includes the attainment of the objective for which the liberation struggle was waged, the liberation of Eritrea. In his interview with Sagm, EPLF’s official organ, tegadalay Isaias Afwerki described the Fenkil victory as follows: “In the history of our liberation struggle [Fenkil] was the greatest operation that have lasting strategic importance.”
Fenkil operation that saw the liberation of Massawa had great strategic meaning. Massawa is a natural port in the Red Sea and one of the international ports of Eritrea. The natural beauty of Massawa has motivated various authors to name it ‘the pearl of Red Sea.’ The strategic location of Massawa attracted the attention of great powers. Since ancient times, Massawa has been the conduit through which foreigners arrived to hinterland of Eritrea. Massawa is one of the oldest urban centers that played a significant role in the life of Eritreans. In the history of the struggle for liberation, it played a pivotal role in determining the political destiny of the Eritrean people.
The sun of Ethiopian colonization began to set after the liberation of Massawa. Massawa served as a heart that pumps everything that was needed to the life of the Addis Ababa regime and its army in Eritrea. The Massawa- Asmara road was the artery of the Derg in general and the second revolutionary command of the Ethiopian army. The control of the port of Massawa gave the Derg an upper hand in utilizing aid as a political instrument. By that time Massawa was the only port that could be used to deliver International aid to the victims of war and drought in Ethiopia. The liberation of Massawa in February 1990 led to safe and effective distribution of international aid to the victims.
Massawa was the main channel through which the arms, ammunitions and other military logistics of the Derg were shipped, disembarked, and then transported to the interior. The continuation of the Derg and its colonial army in Eritrea was associated with the continuous occupation of Massawa and control of the Massawa-Asmara road. So the spectacular victory of Fenkil operation was a strategic defeat that effectively challenged the power of the Derg, in general, and its colonial army in Eritrea, in particular.
Fenkil operation changed the balance of power in the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in favor of the freedom fighters of Eritrea. The victory boosted the fire power, fighting ability and morale of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Amy (EPLA). After the capture of Massawa, Mengistu had clearly stated the meaning of the operation in plain words. In the words of Mengistu: ‘the occupation of Massawa is meant the occupation of the second revolutionary command that we consider as the apple of our eye and backbone of our defense forces.’ He further appealed that ‘the Eritrea-Ethiopia war has entered a critical stage.’ The victory of Fenkil operation put the Ethiopian colonial army in Eritrea in a complete encirclement. The capture of the port of Massawa by the EPLF cut off Ethiopia’s land forces from Ethiopia, limiting their supply line to air transport. The Derg responded to its military defeat and humiliation by bombing the civilian population of Massawa using cluster and napalm bombs. The frantic act of the Derg was named by Eritreans qbtset, which means desperation. Fenkil operation profoundly shocked the foundation of the Derg and hastened the final defeat of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea.
The victory as explained by the EPLF war leaders and planners has put and tightened the noose on the neck of the enemy. Strategically speaking, the capture of Massawa effectively ended the war in Eritrea. The imprudent decision by the Derg to continue the war after the fall of Massawa in the hands of Eritrean freedom fighters only increased its losses and shortened its life in power.
General Sibhat Efriem, then head of the EPLF’s military operations, in an extensive interview he conducted during that time, said “the objective was to destroy the Ethiopian army in the region and cut the Asmara- Massawa line and capture the port town of Massawa.” Within the military experience and history of Africa, Fenkil operation has many unique features. In the battle more than 150 tanks were deployed from both sides, 45 of which were EPLF’s tanks. One EPLF tank was fighting against 3.3 enemy tanks. The large Ethiopian army, the infantry, mechanized units and the navy, was destroyed within 50 hours. The operation was concluded in a spectacular speed owing to the cumulative experience and marvelous coordination among various units of the EPLA.
The liberation of Massawa took the enemy and the world by surprise. In its 10th February 1990 broadcast, the BBC stated that “if the victory claimed by the EPLF is true, it’s a big blow to president Mengistu.’ Amongst the thousands of war captives of the battle, Brigadier General Tilahun Kifle, commander of the 606 corps, described the battle as follows: “I have seen many battles before. In this front I have received my first defeat in my career as a military leader. Since I lost my fighting spirit in this battle I was really touched. The morale of your fighters [EPLA] surpassed that of ours.’ Another war captive, Brigadier General Ali Haj Abdu, commander of the 3rd mechanized unit, also witnessed the mobility and swiftness of the EPLA, the talent of the leaders and the skillful use of the artillery among others.
The victory of Fenkil operation was a strategic success that gave strategic advantage to the freedom fighters of Eritrea. The Ethiopian military’s capability was obliterated to the point where their power to fight was totally dismantled. The grand objective of the operation was to annihilate the enemy and liberate the country. The military effort of Fenkil accomplished the complete destruction of the enemy and accelerated the realization of the national liberation of Eritrea.