Remarkable to Witness Birth of Eritrea

Toronto Sun founding editor Peter Worthington passed away a week ago. A short time before his last dispatch for the Sun was written. It’s a remarkable look back at the “barefoot guerrilla army” of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front he covered in 1988 — and the historic Battle of Afabet that saw some 20,000 Soviet-backed Ethiopian soldiers killed and a new, independent nation of Eritrea rise from the bloodshed. We miss him already.

Friend of Eritrea, Peter Worthington 1927 - 2013
Friend of Eritrea, Peter Worthington 1927 – 2013

By Peter Worthington,

On May 24th, the small but vibrant East African country of Eritrea celebrates its 22nd year of independence after winning a 30-year war to free itself from the shackles of Ethiopia.

One of Africa’s poorest and youngest countries, Eritrea is also one of Africa’s proudest. In a United Nations-supervised referendum in 1993, Eritreans supported independence by a whopping 99.17% — and a country of some five million broke away from Ethiopia with a population of around 80 million and the largest, most mechanized army in Africa, supported by the Soviet Union and before that the United States.

One battle in 1988 — the largest on the continent since the Second World War — was the turning point for victory: The Battle of Afabet (also known as Nadew).

It was one of the rare decisive battles that change the course of history. It is often compared with Dien Bien Phu that defeated the French in Indochina, and Kursk, the largest tank battle of WWII where the Russians beat the Germans.

Until reminded of Eritrean celebrations, I’d more or less forgotten that I was there for the battle of Afabet — walking among dead bodies, witnessing the pillaged Ethiopian army headquarters where Canadian food aid for refuges had been diverted to army kitchens for soldiers.

Coincidentally, Rob Roy (then of Stornoway Productions), and I were doing a TV documentary about the war in Eritrea. We were the only outside journalists at the front to document the Eritrean victory.

(As an aside, Google says there are no photos of the Afabet battle. In fact there are. I took them and most are now in Ottawa’s National Archives).

At the time, although we were there, Rob Roy and I had no inkling at first of the scope and significance of the Afabet battle. We were “guests” of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and entered Eritrea from Sudan by trucks at night and hadn’t a clue where we were in the country.

The EPLF was virtually a barefoot guerrilla army waging a war in which they should have had no chance against the tanks, guns and numbers of Ethiopia’s supposedly crack divisions — some 20,000-25,000 troops.

EPLF weapons were mostly captured from the enemy, and Eritrea got little help from outside, while the Soviet bloc supported Ethiopia, then ruled by the homicidal Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1988, Ethiopia attacked the EPLF mountain trenches near the town of Afabet, and were repulsed. When Roy and I visited, mangled bodies were strewn outside the trenchwire. Skeletons, too, from past attacks. Eritreans in the trenches described themselves as “fighters,” not as “soldiers,” and this included women in the front lines.

Apparently (we learned later) while the Ethiopians were preparing for another huge frontal assault, the EPLF launched its own attack from the Ethiopian flanks. The Ethiopians retreated — and were ambushed in an EPLF trap.

At the same time, a mechanized Ethiopian brigade was trapped on a mountain road when the EPLF destroyed the front and last vehicles of the convoy. It was a shooting gallery. The Ethiopians destroyed their own tanks, guns, rocket launchers and vehicles to prevent them falling into EPLF hands. Ethiopian aircraft bombed and strafed their stranded, mechanized column.

It was a disaster. The EPLF claimed they suffered no casualties while destroying the brigade. Ethiopian bodies were strewn everywhere.

The Ethiopian general in charge — reportedly a competent commander — was summarily executed on Mengistu’s order. The EPLF victory meant the war was essentially won, even through it dragged on for a few more years.

Mengistu fled Ethiopia in 1991 to live in opulence in Zimbabwe.

Roy and I realized we were witnessing something special and unusual. Captured Soviet tanks, artillery pieces, rockets, were turned around and used against the Ethiopians. Some corpses were flattened like pancakes as vehicles rolled over them.

As well as Canadian wheat flour marked for refugees being in army kitchens, they were also on sale in Afabet’s stores, along with donated cooking oil.

I was keen to interview Ethiopian prisoners, maybe three or four of them. The Eritreans were willing, but strangely vague. I wondered if they had many, and kept pestering them. Finally they took us to a remote area late in the afternoon to meet some prisoners.

I thought it a bit odd, but arriving at the spot there was nothing. Then, in the near distance, around a mountain pass, began a flow of thousands of Ethiopian PoWs in bare feet. They were a flowing river of bodies – maybe 10,000 of them.

The EPLF were uneasy because they feared the Ethiopian aircraft might bomb them. We milled with the Ethiopians and found officers who spoke English, all of whom said they were fed up with war and didn’t want to be repatriated. They expressed hate for Mengistu.

In contrast to how the Mengistu Ethiopians treated their own soldiers, EPLF prisoners were treated decently. Strangely, Western countries sided with Ethiopia – probably because it was bigger. Even the Red Cross boycotted the EPLF, and sided with Ethiopia – not surprising, as they also boycotted the UNITA rebel movement in Angola.

In more years than I like to remember attending wars and crises, I’ve never seen anything to match Eritrea’s war for independence — almost totally self-reliant, dependent on no one but themselves.

Among the surprises was an improvised factory that made three sizes of sandals out of truck tires — small, medium, large. As sandals wore out, fighters turned them in for new ones, the old ones melted down to be recycled.

The Eritreans had a huge 1,000-bed hospital complex carved out of a mountain — no outside buildings. Entering through a camouflaged tunnel, inside the mountain were operating rooms, hospital wards, a dental clinic. Doctors boasted they could perform any operation short of heart transplants. The even made their own medical drugs that met international standards.

The hospital was invisible by air.

The same applied to military and sleeping quarters — all tended to be carved inside mountains.

EPLF “fighters” comprised roughly 30% women. The Eritreans were adamant: Fewer women than the 30% level resulted in problems — jealousies, rivalries, excessive concern for their safety, awkward relations.

At 30% life became normal. At the time some women were platoon and company commanders with acceptance by men. In such a small country fighting a Goliath, there was no choice but to recruit women, despite the apparent cultural heresy of such mixing of sexes.

In 1988, Canada and other countries were debating the wisdom of women in military combat roles. In our army today, roughly 15% are women, with maybe 2% in combat roles.

In those days — and in 1998 when I returned when Ethiopia attacked and seized unimportant land while suffering huge casualties — I felt Eritrea was a role model for Africa.

Its president, Isaias Afewerki, outlawed corruption (really!), officials lived simply, few state automobiles, foreign aid groups couldn’t pay wages higher than the country’s standards, the same with churches. Self-reliance became a national fixation. Isaias disdained foreign aid as potentially corrupting.

In his initial speech when Eritrea joined the African Union, President Afewerki lambasted Africa’s leaders for their lavish living styles, their corruption, their looting the till, their blaming others for their own follies.

These truisms made Isaias Afewerki something of a pariah.

Judging from news reports, Eritrea is now considered one of the world’s most censored countries, along with North Korea, Somalia, Iran.

There are reports of human rights abuses and reluctance to call an election.

That said, Eritreans living abroad (expatriates are regarded as citizens) tend to be ardently patriotic about their homeland, and are expected to contribute 2% of their incomes for Eritrea’s military.

Canada has warned Eritrea that this compulsory “diaspora tax” violates diplomatic protocols and must cease or risk expulsion.

Regardless, many in Eritrea are dependent on relatives abroad sending money home — something most expatriates seem to do with religious fervor.

While Eritrea’s future may be murky, it’s existence as an independent country today stems from the 1988 Battle of Afabet which deserves remembering as other historic battles are remembered.