February marks Fenkil Operation which is one of the historic victories in the 30 year-long Eritrean struggle for independence. The operation heralded that the clock was racing against the downfall of the brutal Derg regime. Following the operation, Eritrea’s liberation already became apparent as the then Secretary General of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, comrade Isaias Afewerki, said in an interview: “Eritrea’s independence is only a matter of months”.
From 8 to 10 February, 1990, the gallant Eritrean freedom fighters scored a decisive military victory over the then biggest army in Sub-Saharan Africa armed to the teeth with sophisticated Soviet weaponry in contrast to the Eritrean fighters’ modest arsenals coupled with high morale and patriotism. “The operation was a pinnacle of success to the EPLF besides proving its steadfastness and just cause,” says Asmerom Habtemariam a veteran fighter and one of the first journalists of Radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Broad Masses). “Next to the demise of Nadew command, the collapse of the Ethiopian army in Operation Fenkil was another crucial turning point in the history of the armed struggle,” he added.
The demise of Nadew Command
The demise of the Nadew command, a fortified enemy command of nine years within 48 hours (17 March to 19 March 1988) was a bitter pill to swallow. The victory, resulting in the liberation of the town of Afabet, was equated by the renowned British historian Basil Davidson to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which put an end to French colonialism in Vietnam. (The Viet Minh communist revolutionaries won over the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and ended the latter’s colonization in the country in 1954.)
“The demise of the Nadew command was one of the major successes that demonstrated the change of balance of power and the upper hand of the EPLF over a heavily armed military regime aided by Soviet military advisors,” added Asmerom.
“With its 20.000 well armed military force equipped with sophisticated motorized and mechanized units, the defeat of the Derg in Nadew command emboldened the EPLF fighters’ morale while leaving the Derg regime in despair. It also was a stepping stone toward the Operation Fenkil” says Maj. General Filipos Woldeyohannes, commander of the 5th Operation Zone.
“Not only did it boost the morale of the valiant fighters, but we also acquired sophisticated soviet made armaments that had been of great use during the Operation Fenkil,” he added. Maj. General Filipos further explained that the Derg regime tried its best to retake the town of Afabet for about 5 months by deploying soldiers that were stationed in various parts of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia but to no avail. At the battle, three Soviet advisors were captured and later released. After the downfall of the Nadew command, the demise of the Halhal command followed suit. Consequently the Derg regime was forced to retreat from Agordat, Barentu and Tessenei. In both commands, 60.000 enemy soldiers were put out of action.
The continuous defeat of the Derg army in several commands made the Ethiopian senior officers and soldiers lose hope about the fate of the ruling junta. The demise of Nadew command in particular led to a foiled coup d’ etat by a dozen of Generals of the Derg regime who were later executed. This incident happened to be of a great blow to the regime and demoralized its army,” recalls Asmerom.
The Derg doomed to failure in Operation Fenkil
The EPLF’s knowledge of the general topography of the area and especially the battle field during the 1977 – 1978 battle was an advantage, says Maj. General Filipos. Furthermore the surveillance team of the 85th Division took the responsibility of surveillance of the whole area for about a year in the late 1980s. In the meantime, the 70th Division was undergoing intensive training and for maneuvering tactics the Division attacked Assosa in Ethiopia, 1650 Kms away from Massawa.
It is worth mentioning at this juncture that the surveillance teams of the Naval Forces and other EPLF Divisions were also accomplishing their tasks competently,” Maj. General Fillipos elucidated.
The operation in Assosa was a success in diverting the Derg’s attention, explained Maj. General Ghebrezgabhier Andemariam, commander of the 4th Operation Zone. The surprise attack inside Ethiopia was unexpected by the Derg and this helped gaining the upper hand during the Operation Fenkil, he added.
Preceding the operation, though, some infantry and mechanized unit of the EPLF were made to be stationed along the Marsa Ibrahim, a frontline that stretched for about 80 kms, notes Maj. General Filipos. “In the year 1989, the EPLF fighters were engaged in intensive training in all section of the front ranging from infantry to mechanized units while small scale preparatory campaigns were carried out. In the Adi Shumay campaign, for instance, the EPLF fighters attacked the Derg army at Adi Eile in which the later suffered heavy casualties. In that campaign 20 enemy tanks were destroyed and 10 others captured, which turn their gun to the Ethiopian army during Operation Fenkil, says Maj. General Ghebrezgabhier. As the saying has it, “ ‘your foe’s friend is your foe, while your foe’s foe is your friend’, the EPLF crushed the 10th division of the Derg army which previously was a headache to the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in Shieb” he added.
The EPLF dispatched the 19th Division headed by presently Brig. General Abraham Andom to Shire, a town inside Tigray to quicken the demise of the Derg rule in Eritrea and Ethiopia itself.
The issue of the deployment of supplementary forces on the part of the Derg during the Operation wasn’t taken lightly. The year-long thorough study specified the nitty-gritty of the Operation,” notes Maj. General Ghebrezgabher.
According to the study, it was concluded that the regime’s 9th, 18th, 23rd Divisions would soon be deployed. To confront these, the Front’s leadership decided to dispatch EPLF’s 96th Division. The study led to the conclusion that the 85th Division would be deployed along Asmara-Massawa road, while the 61st would handle all the way from Filfil Selemuna hills to Gindae. The 70th Division also took its share to attack from Kintsal to Massawa. Moreover, the fast boats of the EPLF Naval Forces armed with modified B21 and 75mm artillery were made to deal with the huge Ethiopian warships of 35 years experience at sea.
“Strategically speaking, Massawa was decisive for the continued stay of the Derg regime in Eritrea. Being a sea outlet, it had been a life line for the shipment of armaments and logistics from its suppliers,” says Maj. General Romedan Osman Awliyay. It was concluded that the liberation of the port city would fasten the knot around the Derg’s neck and create a conducive environment to liberate cities and towns in the eastern and southern parts of Eritrea such as Dekemhare, Adi Keyih and Senafe among others, he further noted.
The Launching of the Operation
The EPLF launched the coordinated attack on Thursday, February 8, 1990 at 1:00 AM across 200 Kms defense lines stretching from the western periphery of Keren south wards to Ras Kobae, 40 Kms north of Massawa. Within the early four hours of the battle, the western wing of the EPLF forces captured seven tanks, five BM-21 launcher rockets and other military hardware. The eastern flank of the Ethiopian defense lines was broken by mid Friday, February 9 and the EPLF forces began to close in toward Massawa in a pincer movement. In so doing they had advanced 60 Kms forward their point of departure. But they had to mop up the chain of closely spaced Ethiopian garrison dotted on the Asmara-Massawa road stretching for 40 Kms. After a fierce battle that spanned for 72 hours, the port city of Massawa finally fell at the hand of the gallant fighter’s of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front at noon Saturday, February 10.
The Ethiopian army of occupation desperately attempted to turn the tide of events and mounted abortive counter attacks in the following days. On Monday, February 12, Ethiopian troops set out from the Dahlak Islands in an attempt to gain a foothold in Massawa. The endeavor was repulsed with the Ethiopian army loosing almost half of its total fleet strength. On the following days, the Derg army tried its best, although to no avail.
Following the bitter defeat the Derg military regime had to face the magnitude of casualties and material loss. Around 8000 soldiers along with number of senior commanders, including Brig. General Tilahun Tekle and Brig. General Ali Hajj Abdallah surrendered to the EPLF fighters. More than eighty tanks, seven BM, twenty one rocket launchers, six 122mm artillery guns, ten anti tank guided missiles, artilleries and other ammunitions were captured. In the Operation, twenty four tanks four infantry, three motorized and mechanized brigades were put out of action. Also, when Gahtelai fell to the 85th Division, Colonel Afewerki Tekle along his army and 50 tanks surrendered. In a bid to provide aid to its forces the defeated Derg regime dispatched two MiG combat aircrafts, but to its dismay, both shot down by the EPLF’s anti air-craft unit.
The regime in an attempt of deterring the freedom fighters march forward, the Derg army was launching artilleries to the battle zone from Bizen and Beitgergish on the outskirts of Asmara which hardly yielded any outcome.
During the seaborne battle against the heavily armed Ethiopian Naval Forces, the young and least armed EPLF Naval Forces inflicted heavy damages with the sinking of nine Ethiopian huge warships and the capture of two others which they turn their gun muzzle against the original proprietors. “The defeat of the Ethiopian Naval Forces by the young EPLF Naval Forces was indeed a historic one, thanks to its unparalleled dedication and military strategy” says Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Ali, Chief of Staff at the Eritrean Naval Forces.
The liberation of Massawa sent shock waves through the Mengistu regime. Adulis, a monthly newsletter published by the Foreign Relations Section of the EPLF- European and North American Desks, wrote the following in its Volume VII Number 3, March 1990 edition:
“Addis Ababa first tried in characteristic manner to deny its defeat.
But in the indirect address that was broadcast by Ethiopian radio on Febuary 22, Mengistu made to the armed forces and militia, the Colonel admitted that the capture of Massawa will choke the 2nd Revolutionary Army, and that means the great downfall of the Ethiopian Armed forces.”
The Derg regime, instead of pulling together the leftovers of their human and material resources and accept defeat, they were seen playing a blindfolded game of hopelessness.
The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Napalm and Cluster bombs over innocent Massawa residents that left many dead, injured and traumatized; infrastructure leveled to the ground attested to the regime’s utter desperation. ‘Kibtset – desperation’ a heart-wrenching documentary film which documented the total destruction of lives and infrastructures is still very disturbing to watch. “Though I narrated the script written for the documentary, I find it traumatizing to watch it for its heart breaking footages” says Asmerom Habtemariam.
Eritrea after successive colonial rule spanning for half millennium restored its proper right through the resilience and determination of its freedom fighters and the people alike. This significant historic juncture was preceded by a series of battles fought in the terrains of Nakfa, in the plains of Barka, in the burning stones of Denkalia and in the vast body waters of the Eritrean Sea and other parts of the country which all incurred high price- martyrdom.
The momentous commemoration of Operation Fenkil is not merely a day to celebrate but also renew our allegiance to our martyrs and be an integral part of the ongoing development endeavors in the country.