BY BEREKET KIDANE
It was at Adi Shirum that the outcome of Eritrea’s thirty-year Armed Struggle for Independence was decided in March 1988. The total liberation of Eritrea did not happen for another three years, but the Battle of Afabet was the moment the War of Independence’s ending became clear to both the colonial Ethiopian Army and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).
Although the Battle of Afabet and the defeat of the Nadew Command was the work of many EPLF battle commanders and strategists, one EPLF commander, in particular, Mesfin Hagos, is credited as being the brains behind the Battle of Afabet. The Nadew Front was the strongest of the four colonial Ethiopian Army’s commands stationed in Eritrea. EPLF strategists had been thinking for a number of years how to break the Nadew Command. In March 1988, it appeared that the right time had come.
After a two-year break in major hostilities and a period marked by a lull in fighting, a break EPLF had wisely used to learn how to operate and service the heavy guns it captured from the enemy, the EPLF was in prime fighting form and itching to go on the attack. When the decision was made to destroy the Nadew Command and liberate Afabet, EPLF commanders gathered the tegadelti troops and told them they were getting ready to go on the attack. There is a famous video clip of the hyper-confident General Wuchu telling the tegadelti troops he led in battle, “We are gathered here today for the final burial of the Nadew Command” just before the battle began, which was greeted by laughter and applause. At that point, tegadeltis hadn’t fought in major battles for a couple of years and were starting to miss war, as some of them put it later.
Commander Mesfin Hagos set a 48-hour deadline for the frontal attack. The attack was to begin on March 17, but would be abandoned by March 19th if it did not succeed. On March 17 began the most comprehensive defeat of a colonial army since the French failure at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. Afabet, which had been the center of the colonial Ethiopian Army intelligence, site of strategic army reserve and supply depot, fell to the EPLF on March 19.
The attack began at 5:00 A.M. on March 17, 1988, and was staged simultaneously on three fronts. For 16 hours, the surprised Ethiopian Army fought tenaciously, but its commanders made a fateful decision to pull back and make a strategic withdrawal to their garrison at Afabet hoping that fresh supplies, reinforcements, and their big guns would be waiting there for them. In their estimation, all they needed to do was make it past Adi Shirum, they calculated. It turns out that it was the worst decision they could have ever made.
According to historians and authors who have written about the Battle of Afabet, a convoy of some 70 plus Ethiopian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks loaded with big guns and ammunitions raced with the EPLF’s mechanized division to Adi Shirum.
At Adi Shirum, EPLF tanks opened fire and hit an Ethiopian military truck at the head of the convoy that was hoping to go up the steep hill for a final climb. Quite a few Ethiopian tanks went up in orange flames after being hit by incoming fire from the EPLF. From there, the contours of the landscape played wonderfully into EPLF hands because the entire Ethiopian convoy got stuck in a natural bottleneck, had no room to maneuver, nowhere to go, no space for the tanks and trucks to navigate behind their destroyed vehicles and all their vehicles started piling up. The entire Ethiopian convoy was stuck and became a sitting duck to be picked-off and destroyed by the EPLF’s mechanized division. And destroyed it was! What wasn’t destroyed became a property of the EPLF. One could say that the EPLF got rich overnight because it claimed more tanks, heavy guns and ammunition than it knew what to do with after the fall of Afabet. All that Ethiopian Army’s hardware that was sitting in Afabet became a property of the EPLF after that, at least what was left of it or wasn’t burned.
Unfortunately, once news reached the Ethiopian Army Headquarters that the EPLF was about to claim a huge prize, Ethiopian generals in charge of running the war made the decision to bomb all the battlefield equipment, including their own soldiers. The Ethiopian Airforce bombed its own men for hours because it couldn’t separate them from their equipment. The flames were rising high and in the trucks, the ammunition and missiles kept exploding. Black smoke was everywhere. Many described the battlefield in Afabet as an “inferno” from a biblical scene during those three days in March 1988.
Poor Ethiopian soldiers were not only being killed by the EPLF, they were also being bombed by their own air force. Surrounded by the EPLF tanks and facing bombardment from their own air force, many Ethiopian soldiers decided it was better to stay inside their tanks and burn. Those who ran out were either killed or captured by the EPLF. All in all, the EPLF either killed or captured nearly 20,000 Ethiopian troops during the Battle of Afabet. Many tegadeltis who participated in the Afabet campaign spoke of their respect for the Ethiopian troops who fought tenaciously and defended themselves well for 16 hours. But in the end, the Ethiopian troops were surrounded by the EPLF and had nowhere to go but either get killed or captured. Those were the two choices facing them.
The EPLF won the battle and moved its mechanized division into Afabet on the morning of March 19, 1988. At Adi Shirum, the main battle site, the Ethiopian convoys continued to burn for days. Commander Mesfin Hagos’s 48-hour deadline had been met with a mathematical precision.
Like an earthquake under the sea, the tremors and aftershocks from the Battle of Afabet were heard across continents all the way to places like Moscow and London. The BBC, never one to recognize the existence of the Eritrean liberation movement, was forced to acknowledge the EPLF’s victory and the fall of Afabet. Word reached Moscow that a dozen Soviet military advisers had been encircled by the EPLF in the mountains and were facing imminent capture. Moscow in a panic sent a team of KGB Special Forces to rescue them and managed to evacuate them while being shot at, but left three Soviet advisers behind in the war zone that spent the next few years as guests of the EPLF in Sahel.
The Battle of Afabet changed the balance of war in favor of the EPLF and marked a tipping point. Two-thirds of the colonial Ethiopian Army’s forces were slaughtered at the Battle of Afabet and a vast amount of heavy weaponry and equipment, tanks and Stalin Organs that would later enable the EPLF to stage an attack on the port city of Massawa was seized. Two years later, the EPLF launched an attack on the outskirts of Massawa in the biggest tank battle Africa has ever seen.
On May 12, 1988, after the colonial Ethiopian Army’s defeat at Afabet, frustrated Ethiopian troops seeking revenge rounded-up 400 residents of She’eb, a town on the coastal plains north of Massawa, and brutally massacred them by mowing them down with machine guns before driving over their bodies with tanks.
On this Silver Jubilee month of Eritrea’s independence, it is important to remember all the major battles that took place during Eritrea’s Armed Struggle for Independence and the tegadeltis who fought in them, including the civilians who were massacred by the Ethiopian Army for no other reason than just being born an Eritrean in towns like She’eb. They too were martyrs.
Zelealemawi Zikhri n Swuatna!
Awet n Hafash!