By Breket Kidane,
If you are an Eritrean, Nakfa is at or near the top as far as patriotic shrines go. So much so that the national currency was named after it to commemorate its historical and psychological importance to the armed struggle for Eritrea’s Independence.
Throughout the armed struggle for independence, Nakfa remained an Eritrean stronghold and never fell to the enemy. It was the headquarters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Nakfa is where the EPLF’s network of underground hospitals, factories, garages, training centers and just about all of its infrastructure was located.
The colonial Ethiopian Army made several attempts to capture this stronghold and wipe out the Eritrean people’s liberation struggle “once and for all” as the Ethiopian Army used to like to declare. There were six massive invasions over a period of a few years that were designed to accomplish just that, that is, to wipe out tegadeltis and erase Eritrean nationalism “once and for all.” Needless to say, all six invasions failed and Nakfa stubbornly came to symbolize Eritrean determination and perseverance.
On the occasion of Eritrea’s Silver Jubilee month, it is appropriate to commemorate the Battle of Nakfa that took place during the summer of 1979 as Nakfa is the resting place of thousands of Eritrea’s finest heroes.
According to a documentary produced by Eri-TV where veteran fighters and commanders of the EPLF recounted the colonial Ethiopian Army’s declared Fifth Offensive, the intense four-day battle that was supposed to wipe out the EPLF “once and for all” and was backed by the full might of the Soviets began at the HidaQ Front on July 13, 1979.
After the first four offensives to liberate Nakfa failed, the colonial Ethiopian Army represented by the Dergue took years to plan a Fifth Offensive and spared no dime to execute it. The Dergue chose its most experienced and battle-hardened 503rd Division (Gibre Hayel) to carry out the Fifth Offensive on Nakfa. The 503rd Gibre Hayel was specifically chosen for this mission because it was deemed battle-hardened and capable of overcoming thirst and hunger. The average soldier of the 503rd Gibre Hayel allegedly had upwards of 20 – 25 years of service in the Ethiopian Army and was pulled out of the Ogaden Front against Somalia to carry out this offensive on Nakfa.
The intense four-day battle began on July 13, 1979 at the HidaQ Front when the enemy opened a new third front in the direction of Felket and Aget. Since the tegadelti troops stationed in the two fronts spread across Eritrea were badly outnumbered by the enemy forces it became necessary to pull EPLF units immediately from behind the defense lines to fortify Nakfa and defend against the massive Fifth offensive.
The 44th EPLF Brigade led by its Commander Filipos Woldeyohanes had been moving around behind enemy lines and carrying out its Operation Debai duties, but once it became clear that it would be needed to stop the Fifth Offensive in Nakfa, its Commander Filipos Woldeyohanes hurriedly grabbed one battalion led by Ali Manjus and Mekonen Gubta and headed for Nakfa immediately. Filipos left two battalions behind in the north of Sahel to carry out their Operation Debai duties. Some units of the 44th Brigade’s Third Battalion had already been given orders on July 8, 1979 to report to Embaliqo once rumors of an imminent Fifth Offensive gained currency. They all arrived at 4:00 PM on the said date for a rendezvous with the commanders in Embaliqo.
Mr. Woldemichael Abraha, the current Minister of Local Governments, was watching the enemy’s movements from Sabur and delivered hand written message from the late Ibrahim Affa, one of the giants of Eritrea’s armed struggle for independence, upon arrival in Embaliqo. The late Ibrahim Affa’s message to the commanders assembled in Embaliqo read,
“Unless you arrive in Nakfa within three days at the latest and set formations on all the strategically critical places for the defense of Nakfa, we are going to be in big trouble and conditions can really deteriorate for us.”
The battalion left Embaliqo and arrived in Nakfa on the third day at 4:00 PM on July 11, 1979. Upon arrival in Nakfa it was received by commanders that included Wedi Flansa among them. The commanders informed the battalion that the enemy was seen making movements around Aget. Wedi Flansa then grabbed two units and headed for GrA’e.
Since the enemy’s movements were around Aget, the top priority became to fortify the defensive line that connects the two other fronts, that is, Nakfa to Northeastern Sahel.
On July 13, 1979 the EPLF’s 33rd unit was carrying out its reconnaissance mission in the area to keep track of the enemy’s movements while the EPLF battalion that arrived the prior day spread itself out to cover a wide area and prevent the enemy from penetrating the defensive line. Heavy aerial bombardment of the area began by the Ethiopian Airforce on that day and set in motion a fierce four-day battle for Nakfa. Some strategic areas in Nakfa exchanged hands between the EPLF and the Ethiopian Army as many as four times. It ended up being a test of stamina and endurance.
As told by the tegadeltis and commanders that fought in the four-day battle for the defense of Nakfa, the fiercest battle took place on the 15th of July as the enemy continued its intense around-the-clock aerial bombardment by constantly rotating squadrons made up of four fighter jets. Four fighter jets would come and drop bombs and would be immediately followed by another squadron of four fighter jets to drop more bombs. The bombing was relentless and around the clock.
Many of the tegadeltis brought in from the other parts of Eritrea as reinforcements to defend Nakfa were fighting on unfamiliar terrain and had no home-field advantage over the enemy. They did not know the lay of the land or had no knowledge of where to find water or anything. They were just fighting on adrenaline.
Throughout the four-day battle, the tegadeltis were at a great disadvantage as they had no air cover and were facing extreme deprivation, hunger, thirst and constant aerial bombardment. On top of that, they had just arrived in Nakfa after traveling for three days on foot so one can imagine how tired they must have been. If that is not enough, they were vastly outnumbered. The enemy had clear numerical advantage since it brought in two division-level forces (about 12,000 – 15,000 troops).
The tegadeltis fighting capability was stretched to the limit, but refused to bend. They kept up their morale and kept fighting because they believed that things would turn in their favor eventually if they could just hold on for a few days. Wedi Flansa kept telling them as much. Sure enough on July 15th, Filipos’s Second Battalion of the 44th Brigade, the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Brigade, Said Ferij’s unit, the 58th Unit, the 77th Brigade from the west all arrived in HidaQ and encircled the enemy. By 7:00 PM on July 15th, the enemy was completely encircled and unable to go forward or backward. At the same time, the enemy started running out of food and ammunition.
Many of the tegadeltis fought for three straight days without sleep. They would fight all day during the day and at night they would move their wounded, bury their dead and get organized for the next day. The enemy, however, was not as mentally strong despite all its advantages.
Fierce fighting continued on the fourth day. By the end of the fourth day, not only was the offensive defeated, the Ethiopian forces were hanging themselves from trees at the base of the mountains using their belts, bed sheets, or whatever kind of cloth they could find because they had run out of water and ammunition and didn’t have the energy to climb up the steep hill. Thoroughly demoralized by their setbacks, the Ethiopian troops that still had ammunitions left started killing themselves. Driven by thirst, some Ethiopian troops even congregated around water sources and became sitting ducks to be picked-off and killed by tegadeltis.
By the fifth day, there were no Ethiopian troops left. Nearly all 12,000 – 15,000 troops assembled for the Fifth Offensive were either killed, captured or just ran away and deserted the battlefield.
Yet another offensive (Fifth Offensive) that took years to plan and was designed to wipe out the Eritrean liberation struggle “once and for all” was thoroughly defeated in a matter of a few days.
On the morning of July 17, 1979, the late Ali Said Abdella, one of the founding brothers of the State of Eritrea, went on Dimtsi Hafash Radio to offer congratulatory remarks and break the good news to the EPLF forces that the Fifth Offensive was thoroughly defeated and that one day the Eritrean people will eventually emerge victorious and free their land. The commanders and tegadeltis who remember listening to Ali Said Abdella’s remarks on Dimtsi Hafash Radio that morning recall how pumped-up and moved they were by his uplifting and reassuring words.
Someday there will be an interactive museum in Nakfa where Eritrean school children and adults can go to learn about the battle stories and Nakfa’s importance to Eritrean history.
Ibrahim Affa, Wedi Flansa, and others all died in action fighting for Eritrea’s independence. They were among the very best military minds the Armed Struggle for Eritrea’s Independence ever produced.
On the occasion of Eritrea’s Silver Jubilee anniversary, perhaps the time has come to lay the cornerstone for such an interactive museum in Nakfa. The trenches of Nakfa need to be preserved for posterity as they’re part of Eritrea’s proud heritage and symbolize the very character traits that have come to define Eritreans: courage, fortitude, perseverance and determination.
Long live Nakfa!
Long live the EPLF!
Awet n Hafash!