ON AUGUST 1988, after a heroic and protracted defensive battles of wear and tear, between USSR lead army of Ethiopia against Eritrea, which was carried out continuously in the mountain ranges of Nakfa and its environs for almost a decade long, Eritrean Peoples Liberation Army (EPLA) made a decisive decision, to make a strategic offensive, to occupy the major front surrounding the town of Afabet.
Afabet was the next important strategic town next to Nakfa, which hosted the masterminds of the war, i.e. in reference to the Warsaw Pact and its allies’ command post that was located here for a decade.
The significance of this small town located south of the mountain ranges of Nakfa was not only its traditional importance as a trade path and gateway, linking the agricultural and resourceful rich western lowlands with the eastern lowlands which stretch on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, but its military significance became more important at this particular moment because it was one of the series of concentric defense lines, mainly built to serve and protect the safety of the nuclear submarine base of USSR Red Army which was located offshore in Dahlak Archipelagoes since 1979. This base, which was located in tandem with a bigger global military strategy of the Cold War of the big powers during that period, was very important in the region.
Wuchu, a veteran army commander in EPLA, introducing the historic military offensive, described this strategic decision to occupy Afabet to the division that he was leading with this very popular saying that still resonates today, “Bitsot Hamed Dibe Nadew Tadimna Alona” (Comrades, an invitation has been extended to us to attend the funeral of Nadew*).
Basil Davidson, a British historian who witnessed the battle and its aftermath described the Battle for Afabet as the “Second Diem Bien Phu”.
Both, important personalities of our era mentioned above, one a seasoned war veteran and the other, a well-known historian, unanimously agreed in their assessments that the success of this battle, a historic one indeed, shall change the center of gravity of the military landscape in the Horn of Africa once and for all.
The then rogue hired gunslinger and recruit of USSR in the Horn of Africa, President Mengistu of Ethiopia, described this battle as mere “propaganda of imperialism”. He had no answer to the foreign servitude that has effectively paralyzed his thinking and gripped his action.
For EPLA, it was this battle that heralded and opened a new momentum and opportunity to make an effective use of its mechanized, infantry, naval coordinated firepower and its decades old rich experience of waging a protracted people based warfare. All the lessons accumulated in the course of the past thirty years war history, including but not excluding the outstretched elite commando forces capability of mobility outside the perimeter of these new battle fronts, throughout the Horn of Africa, were innovatively and effectively used as an instrument to win this historic battle once and for all.
The offensive was unanimously welcomed and supported by the local population in Eritrea, Ethiopia and abroad. Ethiopian army, navy and air force mutinied and were unfortunately mercilessly crashed by their commanders (USSR and Mengistu).
In 1989, EPLA engaged the remaining heavily armed enemy. It continuously stretched itself on the eastern coastal lowlands of the Red Sea effectively and fully controlling the coast and adjacent Islands. The lifeline to the USSR backed Ethiopian army; Massawa – Asmara – Addis Abeba road corridor, fell into the hands of EPLA. All attempts to recover this post by the enemy forces were frustrated for good.
In 1990, all concentric defensive lines of the enemy, armed to the teeth, stretching for about 70 – 80 kms, guarding the Port of Massawa and the Soviet nuclear post in Dahlak (Nakura) from land, sea and air, were also again painted with pictures of heroism. Port of Massawa was freed. The battle named after one of the heroes of Eritrea “Fenkel Operation” and its vibrations engulfed East Africa and the region.
This heroic operation induced Washington and Moscow telephone hotline to go operational. Diplomatic pressures of superpowers were intensified as result of it. Skud missiles rained in the freed Massawa Port and its environs from a distant USSR ships anchored on the Red Sea for weeks. The yield sign was put on the road to freedom of Eritrea though accompanied with thunderbolt. EPLA, which composed of men and women fighters, stood steadfast and made Massawa (“Pearl of the Red Sea”) -‐ the epicenter of freedom.
In the same year, EPLA’s long march of flanking maneuvers from the north, covering a distance of about 1200kms from the Port of Massawa started homing to the main command headquarters of the enemy in Assab (Eritrea southern port city), Addis Abeba (Capital of Ethiopia) and from the west through Sudan another distance of more than 1500kms from the Port of Massawa to the headquarter of Debrezeit (Main Air force headquarter in Ethiopia).
EPLA took the entire East Africa in its canvas and painted a picture of heroism, putting another milestone of history of solidarity and cooperation between the brotherly people of the region, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In 1991, the guns of terrorism were completely silenced in East Africa by “Operation Fenkel”. The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia were finally freed as a result of the blood, sweat and tears of its beloved people. “Operation Fenkel”: a dedicated wave of compassion and demonstration for truth by people which included visionaries of every sex, race and creed is celebrated with great honor every year, February, in the Port of Massawa Eritrea.
The cause of peace in the Horn of Africa was instilled by brave people of Eritrea and Ethiopia armed with the spirit of freedom and justice alone against the mighty. Shame to the ranks who left Eritrea and Ethiopia to join hegemony of the big powers during this period, no one has an answer to the politics of hatred and mistrust that paralyzed the thinking of some people locally or regionally.
It is our right and obligation to honor and respect our freedom: brought forth by the sweat, blood and tears of our own best kith and kin, where 30% of the fighting forces were Eritrea’s heroines.
“Neresti Yiwagala Anesti”: Pass the message brothers and sisters.
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* “Nadew” was nomenclature used by the enemy headquarters that were entrenched in this front from 1980 -‐ 1989. “Menter” and “Wekaw” were also used for those entrenched in Barentu and Algena and its environs respectfully.