BY SIMON WELDEMICHAEL
Eritreans conducted a long, difficult struggle against Ethiopian colonization. During the thirty years-long war of liberation, the people of Eritrea were forced to make a tremendous sacrifice. The losses, in terms of time and opportunity, as well as human and material costs, were significant.
In the course of the revolution, Eritrean people showed extraordinary heroism and sacrifice. Mao when explaining revolution, said that “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
The massacres, displacement, emigration, and destruction experienced by Eritrea during its revolution reflect Mao’s explanation.
The merciless and inhuman Ethiopian aggression coupled with the utter silence of the international community inflicted enormous injuries which Eritreans continue to remember. The Eritrean revolution witnessed unparalleled sacrifice and perseverance on the Eritrean side and incomparable ferocity and murder by the colonial occupying forces.
The people of Eritrea received untold suffering under chauvinistic and despotic Haile Selassie (“it is Eritrea’s land that we want not its people”), brutal Mengistu Haile Mariam (“To kill the fish, dry the sea”), and tyrannical Weyane (“hunt Eritrean blood”).
The mass killing and displacement of Eritreans have had several objectives. These include destroying property and disrupting regular life, terrorizing and demoralizing the people, cutting the lifeblood of the revolution, and deterring the liberation forces from capturing towns for fear that they would be destroyed and taking revenge for defeats.
In his influential book, Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace, Noam Chomsky observes, in regard to killing the dream, it is “a wiser strategy [to] first…kill the dream by a campaign of terror, intimidation, sabotage, blocking of aid, and other means available” (1985: 146).
Ethiopia’s killing, torture, and deportation aimed to kill the confidence and morale of Eritreans. Instead, it simply added to the determination of the people. As they say, “where there is oppression, there is resistance.”
The Eritrean people stood up for their rights and dignity. In addition to the strong sense of Eritrean national identity, the oppression and humiliation of Ethiopian colonization added a layer of determination to the Eritrean cause.
In April 1984, Major Bezabih Petros, a well-known pilot trained in the USA and USSR, was shot down and captured by the EPLF. Afterward, as a prisoner of war, he stated:
“We definitely know civilians will get hurt. But, knowing that the people sympathize with the rebels, the order is to bomb everything that moves” (News from Africa Watch 1990: 9).
An Africa Watch Report also brought into notice that between February and April 1987, the Ethiopian army burned 62 villages, including Mogoraib, Zamla, Ad Ibrahim, Gerset, Gurgur, Adi Bera, Asir, Fori and Ad Habab, while villagers were ordered to collect at army posts for screening. The soldiers were assisted by artillery and aerial bombardment using incendiaries (1991: 43). Other credible reports of killings in April 1988 include April 5, Godeiti; April 15, Qazien; and April 20, Shebah. Many civilians were shot dead by soldiers and suffered aerial bombardment.
Ethiopia followed a scorched earth policy in Eritrea for over thirty years. The day-to-day brutality of the Ethiopian army caused many cases of abuse of human rights. Dawit Woldegiorgis, who served in Eritrea as a colonial army officer and Governor said that
“The army made a crucial error in this operation; it did not concentrate on attacking the guerrillas directly; instead it devastated the villages suspected of harboring them.”
He further recounted his personal memory “I remember soldiers slaughtering cattle, eating what they wanted, and then leaving the rest to rot. Sometimes soldiers would kill cattle just to get the livers” (1989: 82). Under Ethiopian brutality, Eritreans were denied the basic right to life and property.
The Ethiopian army also had a tradition of taking revenge for military defeat in battlefields. The victims were innocent civilians. Whenever the Derg lost a battle or suffered a devastating setback, they turned their guns on the unarmed civilians. Traders were singled out since they were believed to be responsible for supplying food to the rebels. Some were killed just because they had a beautiful wife, which the security and military officials wanted, while others were killed for their intelligence. For many, the simple fact they were Eritreans made them disappear.
For the Ethiopian army, there was no distinction between military and civilian targets. In Erlich’s “The Struggle Over Eritrea 1962-1978”, readers are provided the observation of one Israeli advisor in Ethiopian army who states
“The [Ethiopian army] is very efficient in killing innocent people. They are alienating the Eritreans and deepening the hatred that already exists. Their commander … ordered them: ‘from here to the north — clear the area.’ Many innocent people were massacred and nothing of substance was achieved” (1983: 58).
On 17 April 1975, the Ethiopian army raided Hirghigo and killed 235 innocent civilians. As well, 18 April 1984 inhabitants of Naro, 21 April 1988 massacre in Shebah, and the aerial bombing of Massawa on 4th April 1990 with napalm are other recorded massacres. When the Ethiopian air force began a series of sustained attacks on Massawa, the inhabitants were compelled to spend the day in storm drains, under bridges, in the cellars of houses, or to evacuate the town altogether. On April 13th, one of the encampments of evacuees, at Foro, was bombed and the civilians who were sheltering there were burned.
It’s difficult to estimate the exact number of victims of Ethiopia’s open aggression. In addition to the bombing and indiscriminate killing pursued by the Ethiopian army, many more were killed as a result of torture in prison. If we add the number of maimed, displaced, raped and those with other physical and psychological injuries to the long list of those killed, Eritreans would be by far the number one people receiving and standing against atrocities.
The perseverance of Eritreans assured the truism of the saying “a hammer shatters the glass but wields an iron”. Eritreans proved that they refuse to kneel down or disintegrate under any circumstances of foreign aggression. Dawit Woldegiorgis estimated that two hundred eighty thousand Eritreans were killed in Eritrea alone between 1975 and 1982 (Haile 2000: 174).
Finally, Eritrea got its independence after a long struggle and the immeasurable sacrifice of its people. In the course of the history of resistance of Eritrean people for independence and dignity, the leadership of the People’s Front holds a special place. In this case, the Eritrean People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), a political organization that led a successful revolution, that has widespread public support, and that is committed to the national interest and social justice has a central place in the future of Eritrea.
The independence of Eritrea is a bitter pill our enemies should have swallowed in 1991 when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front defeated and ousted the Ethiopian army. The bitter pill struck on the throat of our enemies when they observed and recognized the fact that Eritrea was able to maintain and advance her independence under the leadership of PFDJ. The people and government of Eritrea, who are at one time unhindered by subjugation and massacre, can’t be arrested by declared and undeclared sanctions and sabotages. For the last 26 years, Eritrea has succeeded in safeguarding its national security, promoting social justice, and bringing about holistic development.
As in the past, when the mass killing and suffering failed to extinguish our hope for independence, now the various intrigues and open victimization cannot obstruct us from working for a better future. We will continue to consult our experience and draw lessons from it to make the future journey of our country safe.