Every nation is indebted to its fighters. The contribution of its fighters is such that no nation, whatever it does, can repay this debt. The nation may build statues or establish parks dedicated to its heroes. It may name its schools, streets, or other public places after them. But none of these acts can pay the debt. Every nation owes its existence to such people.
Take the United States for instance. It is indebted to its patriots, revolutionaries and liberation heroes who fought a more powerful government that was better equipped and more experienced.
Undiscouraged and undeterred by their lack of training, supplies, and experience, they fought the British during the American Revolutionary War April 19, 1775 and September 3, 1783, when the British recognized the US as a sovereign nation. Similarly, India owes its independence to its freedom fighters, which lay down their lives for their country. They fought British colonial rule, seriously challenging its authority to govern the Indian sub-continent since the late 1850s. The struggle intensified following the formation of the Indian National Congress, which adopted the non-violence approach, which was led by Mahatma Gandhi Eritrea, which rose to the status of nationhood after thirty years of armed struggle, is no exception.
Massawa, which has an important place in the annals of the armed struggle, the scene of decisive battles, has testified to this truth twice – in 1977 and 1991. People lay down their lives for others on a daily basis, though such people are few and far between. The majority perceive the acts of these selected few as rare and heroic, and beyond the capacity of the majority of the population. Irrespective of the opinions of the majority, the existence of a nation depends on the sacrifice of such people.
Imagine how a society would fare if its fire fighters, police officers, soldiers, and the armed forces didn’t work selflessly.
Ahmed Tahir Baduri, in Eritrea: Guuzo ab Tezekrotatey, writes of selfless fighters of the battle of 1977, especially a group of fighters commanded by Gherezgiher Andemariam, a veteran fighter who rose to the rank of Major General and later to General in the Eritrean Army after independence (page 423). “To check the advance of our forces, the enemy filled the salt-fields with water from the sea. What Gherezgiher Andemariam (Wuchu) said during the thick of the battle is retold to this day and serves as an evidence to the ferocity of the battle. His unit was in Salina [the salt-fields in Massawa] and the water rose to their waist and the Artillery Unit of the EPLF stopped shelling enemy positions because the fighters were very close to the enemy and it did not want to cause unnecessary casualty from friendly fire.
Ultimately, the attack was called off because it was assessed as a failure.
Fourteen years later, another assault was staged against the Ethiopian army in Massawa and its environs. This time, the well-equipped and more experienced EPLF fighters were determined that 1977 would not happen again. Massawa was like an Eritrean Masada. The attack was planned and executed with such speed and military prowess that an Ethiopian, an eye-witness of the fighting around Massawa and its environs, Tele Salbana, the author of ‘Ay Mixiwa’ (a book based on his observations and experiences of the battle) wondered if this was the same EPLF the Ethiopian army fought for 20 years.
To block reinforcements from Asmara, the book recounts, the EPLF cut the Asmara-Massawa road, and repulsed attacks to get the highway reopened. Unaware that the EPLF was now equipped with modern weaponry captured at Afabet, and greatly encouraged by its ability to deal a deadly blow to its enemy, and its experiences of the past 20 years, the author misses the lesson the Front had learnt. The Ethiopian army probably had forgotten Salina, the Massawa salt fields, but the EPLF had not. It was determined that it should not happen again, hence the detailed planning and the speed of execution. Therefore, Massawa fell to EPLF hands on the 10th of February 1991 in less than four days.
The battle was swift but was not without its challenges.
If one wishes to enter Massawa, the proper town from Asmara, and reach the Naval Base, the base of the Ethiopian Navy, which was located at the further eastern end of Massawa, one has to cross the Sigalet causeway, which links the inland part to the island. It is generally known as Sigalet Ketan. (Ketan is for narrow in Tigrigna). Sigalet is a causeway, less than two kilometers in length. If one wishes to reach wushti Baxie, (Baxie, or Massawa proper) on land, there is no other route except Sigalet, the narrow causeway.
If the EPLF was to avoid December 1977, it had to tackle this problem. A determined Ethiopian army, equipped with heavy weapons, and ready to destroy any EPLF attempt to cross the causeway, and frustrate the taking of Massawa stood at the other end. It was clear that some price had to be paid, to clear the Ethiopian soldiers that blocked the gate to Baxie. Though the EPLF also used its speed boats and battered enemy positions from the sea, the advance from land was very crucial for a big army was needed to rout out the Ethiopian army in wushti Baxie.
After heavy fighting, EPLF tanks got the causeway open. At their heels, some EPLF foot soldiers followed and the battle for the liberation of the city started. Losing their strategic point, Ethiopian soldiers quickly lost ground. As happened in major battles during the armed struggle, fighters paid with their lives to liberate Massawa and secure the release of a section of Massawa’s civilian population, whom Ethiopian generals in the city kept hostage, to delay, and if possible, to frustrate the liberation of the port-city. The battle led not only to the liberation of Massawa, but to the liberation of Eritrea in less than two years. The Ethiopian army, like a chocking person, struggled to get Massawa back for months and had the city bombed with jet fighters, killing many civilians.
The Dergue, (the then Ethiopian Government) survived the 1977 chokehold due to the shift in the balance of power created by the interference of the Eastern Bloc countries, in general, and that of the Soviet Union, in particular. With the end of the Cold War, the Ethiopian Army lost its biggest supporters, which spelt doom for the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea. In short, the Dergue was not fortunate in 1991 as luck didn’t call again.
Testifying to the role of the EPLF tanks in the battle, three tanks stand in a square outside the St. Mary’s Church in Massawa. The inscription just below each tank tells the major battles the fighters used the tanks for, during the struggle. They remind visitors and Massawa residents that Eritrea, and the city, in particular, was freed from the shackles of colonial rule at a cost.
The great teacher, History, shows us nations are redeemed by the heroic acts of their fighters. Some among the people pay heavier prices than others. The price becomes all the more heavier because they know they won’t be able to see the fruits of their sacrifices. It is true, people prize themselves more than any other thing. But sometimes, people are motivated by a higher principle and give their lives to a cause higher than their fleeting lives.