By Mebrak Ghebreweldi,
I JOINED the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in 1978. After finishing my military training I was on the front line until 1989. With just one exception of the battle of Asmara, I participated in each Ethiopian offensive against us including the battle to liberate Massawa in 1990.
I am sure every former liberation fighter has some event or experience from the war that he or she will never forget. Spending more than 12 years on the front line or communicating from the high mountains above the battlefields is a long time and of course I too remember many events that will stay with me forever. They contributed to defining and shaping the person I am now.
I am proud to say that my life as a member of EPLF was the most meaningful experience. It taught me the value of life and how to love and respect others. It taught me to be truthful, respectful and unselfish. It taught me how short and fragile life is; I witnessed how it can end in a flash. In less than a second you can lose someone close to you.
Eritreans paid a huge price for independence and I hope my story, as one who lived through it, will show this. Those of us who are still alive, both young and old, are responsible for what will happen to this precious gift of our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who passed away in the struggle for independence.
This is the first time I have shared my stories with my fellow Eritreans. At the end, I will tell you why I feel it is important now.
I will start with the battle of Grat
The Battle of Grat (27th of April 1984)
What follows is my memory of the day, I am sure everyone who was at the battle of Grat have their own memories and version of events, this is mine only. This story is about my team only; Embaye’s and Simon Wedi Goitom’s tanks. I hope some one who can give a full picture of the day will be encouraged to tell the story of the day covering the whole division. Here is my recollection:
In April, Grat is very hot. It is quite flat with fine white sand. It is located on the north of Massawa near Marssa Gulbub. No big trees, caves, hills or mountains to protect us from the heat or the bombs however since the sand is so soft and deep, unless a bullet or the bomb is heading directly for you, you are fine; the mother land will take the projectile deep into the sand and not spread shrapnel. During the daytime all we could do was sit under the thorny trees until sunset.
The evenings felt peaceful as the dark replaced the daylight and the sound of Ethiopian MIGS stopped bombing and surfing over our heads. Every evening Aster Gual Sheqa and I would walk to the communal water tank.
On the eve of the battle at about 6:30pm, Aster and I went to have our usual shower. I had a bar of LUX body soap given to me by the members of the front line fighters. This was the best time of the day and we both looked forward to meeting, walking slowly and taking a shower at the end of each day when the sun went down. In Grat, evening is the best time, the heat of the day replaced by warm breath of soft wind. It was very refreshing and a short treat of normality in a very abnormal environment.
We would finish our washing in peace and head back to our teams. However on the 26th of April 1984 before we left the water tank, some female fighters from Fourth Brigade came and asked us if we had a soap. I said yes and handed them the LUX. We waited and waited and finally Aster said to me that we should go. “Leave the soap for them. Anyway, who knows? We might be martyred tomorrow!”
This was something we all said. Death was part of our daily life, that we never knew when our name would get called. At that time I did not think too much about what she said but accepted her suggestion to leave the soap. Also I thought nothing much would be left after it had been used by the girls any way so agreed with Aster. We said goodbye to them and walked to our teams.
Aster went to rejoin her team, left me with mine and we said our goodnights. Aster was a bare foot doctor of a T55 Soviet made tank and I was a radio operator of another newly captured T55. I was a Nacfas girl while she was a Barkas girl but after meeting during the battle of Wuqaw we became close friends.
Embaye was the driver of my team’s T55, captured at the battle of Wuqaw. During the battle of Wuqaw (first battle February 1984 and second battle March 1984) I was the operator of Simon Wedi Goitom’s tank. The evening of the 26th of April 1984 was relatively peaceful. In the night there were some long distance bombs exploding nearby at intervals but nothing was unusual until 4 a.m. The front line was suddenly lit by bombs and machine gun fire. It looked just like hell on earth. I turned the radio on and kept communications going between the other radio operators and headquarters at all times.
Nobody knew what was going on for some time until the order came for every tank to move head to head with the Ethiopian tanks who were coming towards us.
On that morning of the 27th of April 1984, every Ethiopian gun from the smallest to the biggest started to shoot at any thing and every thing. The earth was covered with dust and the sky was covered with the nonstop sound of Boom!
Boom! There was fire from BM21 and BM22, tanks, mortars and small ammunition. When the sun rose, the MIGS joined the battle and the earth and sky were trembling from the noise of MIG 23s and 27s and all the ground force.
It was confusing. I did not remember any warning message about this attack, which was very unusual for EPLF. However the teams were made ready very quickly and all tanks, amphibians and all long and short distance mortars were moved to the front line.
The Red Sea sun was so bright and fresh just for that morning it worked against us too. The sun’s rays reflecting on the water were so bright we simply could not see what was coming in front of us. Embaye kept saying he could not see but kept driving forward.
One of the greatest skills of EPLF was the coordination of communication. Radio Operators of EPLF ruled every battle field with the most sophisticated of communication skills. We shared jokes and fought with pride. Morale was high. Hence once we established the communication and learned that the aim of the Ethiopian military was to completely destroy our artillery division, as usual our communication and coordination practice kicked in and every operator passed the information to the gunners and drivers and leaders of the tanks. We moved
forward to face the enemy.
We came so close to the enemy, we could see them and hear them shouting. The tank to tank battle started and a new history unfolded in front of everyone’s eyes.
The bitter truth of battle is that winning is not free. We paid not just in tanks and tracks but the lives of our beloved comrades; sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers in a way we had never experienced before.
The tank I was in, driven by Embaye, was the first target. We were hit in the front and burned immediately. The hero of Wuqaw, Embaye, was burned with it. Four of us jumped out of the tank but Abraham Abu Kelil went to the front of the burning tank to check Embaye’s body but he too lost his life.
Embaye and Abraham were hit by short distance bombs. The enemy was marching so close to us. It was decision time. Three of us Berhane (hakim), Yonas (Wedi Tages) and I looked at each other and with out words we agreed not to be captured alive. The only option was to run but we risked getting hit by bombs from the air or bullets. So we left the back of our tank and the bodies of our comrades.
The enemy’s tank which was chasing us very closely burned shortly after. As the fight matured more and more enemy tanks burned one by one. Less than an hour before we were five, now only three of us remained. Our tank initially on fire at the front was now fully in flames. It was the most distressing experience of my life. There was no time when I could not remember being with Embaye and Abraham and we left them there that morning of 27th April 1984.
We did not have weapons with us; no guns, hand grenades, nothing. No radio communication. Our bodies were burnt. We could stay no longer as the enemy was marching quickly in our direction and the MIGS were bombing from above.
However, the fine sand was on our side taking every bullet deep inside and there was no shrapnel to hit us. The three of us were lost, disconnected from our unit and with no guns to protect ourselves. The only choice we had was to run back and if the MIGs, BM21s, machineguns or enemy tanks hit us then that would a
blessing rather than been captured alive. As I ran I watched to see if my comrades were still alive and running. The bombs and bullets rained down on us constantly.
When life and living was tested so much, the pain took over; the end of it all so close one can smell it, touch it and feel it. Nothing matters at all anymore and somehow it was liberating. I still remember that feeling when nothing matters. I was running, not knowing where or how far I would get, leaving two young powerful comrades burning with a new T55 Tank. I did not care whether I lived or died. I just ran because I did not want to be captured by the enemy alive.
In the distance I could see a tank slowly pulling backwards and keep going backwards for a long time. As I got closer I saw Berhane on the side.
Simon Wedi Goitom’s tank pulling back from the front line? Simon was a real gentleman; the English would have called him ‘a gentle giant’. I was in his team as a radio operator in both of the battles at Wuqaw. I had known him only for a short time but I had never met a man like him. He was the most caring, respectful and peaceful person. He was simply a gentleman and an expert mechanic.
As I kept going I was surprised that Simon was not stopping to wait for me or come forward to help me. Why is Berhane walking back by the side of the Tank? I was longing so much to hear the voice of my comrades saying: “it is ok, our struggle is long and bitter but in the end we will win”. I wanted to listen to the Krar, I want to hear Zablon playing and singing on the top of the rocks in Nacfa.
In my head as walk I went back to my team in Nacfa and I wanted to hear Wedi Debish playing of the Wata. I needed some one to comfort me to take my shock but what I had seen was not comforting but horror, pain beyond belief. The grief resulted in numbness mentally and physically.
As I got close and reached the tank, I saw Simon’s head and body indescribably injured but his loyal foot still firmly on the accelerator to make sure his tank got out of the war zone. I felt shock, anger, longing and finally froze. I could not bare to watch Simon’s slender body with his head tilted to one side his brain completely out and covered with blood. No one can describe that seining in words. Berhane’s face on the side of the tank still driven by our martyred comrade was unbearable. No feeling and no words could express the pain we felt on that day. I went and sat under some big rocks.
Once I sat on my own, the burns all over my body started to sting. I was trembling all over from shock. From where I was sitting, I could see our comrades standing to pay their respects and bury Simon close by. The emotions I felt stopped me from joining them. Even today I still cannot bare to go through this event hence if it comes at the wrong time and place I have to make sure I find a space to cry in peace. This is part of my history, the history of us all, the history of our comrades who paid with their life for a shared vision; our freedom,
The battle of Grat ended with our success. I gathered myself and went to join every one not sure if I was ready to take more shocks.
Aster was not there. She too burned inside her tank with the crew.
My comrade and friend Aster who predicted her last day and offered our soap to our comrades on the evening of 26th of April 1984. Her last shower and our last chat.
The battle of Grat was not the first battle in which I participated. In fact from the 4th enemy offensive until the battle to liberate the port of Massawa I was there. However, the battle of Grat was different. It was a different kind of warfare. It was the first battle of tank to tank with no front line divisions involved. The pain our comrades endured before the end of their life was different and still echoes in my ears.
Comradeship in EPLF, on the front line in particular, was the ultimate love, when one was ready to give their life in order to spare the life of another. So losing anyone was losing an ultimate comradeship love.
So why am I writing this story? And why now
I wrote this story which is deeply personal to appeal to every Eritrean, in particular the younger generations, to remember the price we have paid for independence.
We all need to make sure we cherish the hard earned independence of our country. We won the war for independence but I feel that there is so much confusion among the Eritrean diaspora, between national and personal political, social and economic issues. Defending our nation is the responsibility of all of us regardless of our political, social and economic differences. We are in a cold war as we speak and the need to unite remains just as important as ever.
It is upsetting to see Eritreans in diaspora disagreeing on anything and everything and engaging with each other in such a negative and disrespectful way. There needs to be an end to people passing the blame and making
themselves a victim. We are young as a nation and this is evident in our engagement with each other. I urge everyone to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Start to participate in a meaningful way and seek change. Engagement needs to become about knowledge, learning and sharing thoughts.
We need to stop running away from challenging situations and draw on our resilience. We have so many challenges internally. However let us make no mistake that the external super powers or the human rights commissions will not solve them. They never did and never will. It is not in their nature; they are imperialists and capitalists. Their priority is to serve the wish of their funders, the rich and mighty.
Our comrades taught us this under the trees of Sahl and Barka and all they taught was true. I am living in one of the powerful western countries. I am a witness to the struggle for independence but also made it through somehow. The powerful smash the powerless e.g. in Iraq, Libya, Eritrea etc. Social inequality between the poor and the rich has never been solved by human rights commissions. The gap is still widening. So as Eritreans, what are we expecting? What is it that Eritrea wants to make of itself? The human rights to solve our internal problems? Are they really defending our nation? Who is behind the negative reporting, publicised in the most powerful social media platforms? Who is paying for this? What is the human rights commission ultimate goal? Are Eritreans clear about the motives of the human rights enquiry commission? Why are they so interested in this small country? The issues of human rights is worse in others including the developed countries so why are singling out Eritrea?
We fought on our own for freedom. How can we forget Ona, Shib Gedeged, Massawa (Qibtset), etc. Our unity and the love and care of each other helped us to win the war for independence. Once again it will be only the power of our unity that brings us economic, social and political development.
Please note that I am not saying we do not have internal challenges, far from it. I go to my home country at least once if not twice a year. I talk to many youngsters, professionals and civil servants and of course old comrades. I have never heard anyone disagree with the need for improvement and economic development. Training and education should be encouraged and promoted, communication, good governance and sharing knowledge in Eritrea is welcomed at all times. Partnership is very much encouraged for those who want to engage
I would also like to call on former Eritrean freedom fighters to remember what they have left behind and to reaffirm that they have not forgotten their comrades who did not live to see freedom achieved and return to their families.
We are still alive and we are the witnesses of so many amazing and heroic stories. We have the responsibility to tell the true history and what we have paid to be called Eritreans. ‘I am Eritrean’ is a statement that owes a debt to those who paid with their life but is given to us, the living, to look after it and pass it to future generations.
On the occasion of martyr’s day 2015, this story is dedicated to all of my comrades who perished in Grat on the day of the 27th of April 1984. The battle of Grat.
Finally I wrote this story to call for every Eritrean to read and understand the new Eritrea UN Commission of Inquiry. What difference does it have for Eritreans from the Eritrea UN Commission of Enquiry of 1952? Every Eritrean needs to be watchful and investigate what makes it different.
Zkri N’ SwuAtna