[dehai-news] (American Chronicle) ERITREA: The Story of Nakfa

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From: Biniam Haile \(SWE\) (eritrea.lave@comhem.se)
Date: Thu Feb 12 2009 - 15:45:55 EST

ERITREA: The Story of Nakfa

Sophia Tesfamariam
February 12, 2009
I returned from Eritrea just days before the inauguration of President
Barrack Obama and like the millions around the world, I listened to his
inaugural speech. It had a message for all and for a fleeting moment, I
felt that he was speaking about me…or it seemed that way. His words were
familiar; he was using the same words that described my history, the
history of the Eritrean people. I knew about arduous journeys not being
the "path for the faint-hearted-for those who prefer leisure over work,
or seek the pleasures of riches and fame". I also knew well about fallen
heroes who "whisper through the ages" and most of all, I knew about
sacrifice, determination and responsibility. Eritrea´s history is
replete with stories of valor, extreme courage and sacrifice and no
place exemplifies this than the village of Nakfa.
I have traveled throughout Eritrea and have seen so much… but have
always felt that there was something missing… an incomplete journey of
discovery… of a land and people bound eternally, defying the odds and
creating miracles in the most remote of places. It was time for me to
pay homage to a place where thousands sacrificed their lives and learn
more about Nakfa, and the deathless mountains of Sahel…As the 32nd
Anniversary of the liberation of the historic Eritrean village of Nakfa
approaches… Allow me to share one story of a place that will remain a
symbol of Eritrean tenacity and unbreakable will.
After so many years of hearing, reading and watching videos about Nakfa,
the epicenter of the Eritrean people´s long and bitter 30-year long
armed struggle for independence, I finally got a chance to visit and see
for myself the magnificence captured in the memories of the many
thousands of Eritrea´s best and brightest, who fought, lived and died in
the cleavages of the vast mountainous terrain that surround her. Nakfa
is where pain and triumph were shared alike, where days blended into
nights, and time was measured in selfless love and sacrifice.
Throughout the trip, I carried with me a picture of the Sahel Mountains,
sent to me by a friend many years ago, during the struggle for Eritrea´s
independence. Once we arrived in Nakfa, I quietly searched for that
mountain range, which had served as the only image in my mind of a
place, which to me, still remains to be discovered in its entire
historical splendor. I was eager to replace the image in the photograph
with one of my own…I am not sure what the significance of that exact
mountain was…and I don´t know that I found that exact mountain range,
but I know I found much more.
Traveling with Tegadelti- veteran fighters- is always a privilege; it´s
a rare opportunity to listen to first hand accounts of episodes in the
past, discover momentous times not found in the history books, hear
untold tales, and share in the far away lives of a venerated generation.
The individual stories come together and add dimension and flavor to
Eritrea´s remarkable history. The personal accounts, the recollections
and the triggers- nondescript boulders, bruised trees in the valley,
rotting military vehicles… that bring back memories of a life lived in
the shadows of the mountains, where daylight was shunned and dark nights
were welcomed…where despite constant bombardments, a people stood tall,
dampening the enemy´s fire whilst igniting the fire within them…
We were leaving from Massawa and we got up early and by 5:30 am we were
heading out of Massawa, headed for Afabet and then on to Nakfa. Stopping
in Gahtelai for breakfast, we dodged the morning sun and rode the scenic
route that followed the winding roads, taking in the fresh morning air
and wondering what surprises lay ahead…behind the mountains and across
the river beds… down the stones cliffs and through the shrubbery…and
beyond. Afabet evoked much affection and it seemed everyone had a story
to tell… and I was only too eager to listen.
It´s not hard to imagine what the population in Afabet had to endure
during the struggle. Surrounded by trenches, on the one hand, the people
of Afabet were heartened by the presence of the Eritrean People´s
Liberation Front´s (EPLF) army close by, but were also prisoners in
their own land, an endangered people, living with the occupation army
who had established its garrison in their midst. Eritrea´s history
cannot be told without telling the story of Afabet. Afabet´s strategic
location was not lost on the enemy as it was the gateway to Massawa and
also to Keren and beyond. The liberation of Afabet was a devastating
blow to the Ethiopian army and its backers.
We arrived at Afabet and the town center was bustling with people, it
was lunch time. My mind was not on food…it was on shopping. I was
searching for colorful thatch woven baskets and rugs to add to my
insatiable collection of traditional Eritrean arts and crafts. I decided
to walk the streets to shoot a few more pictures and mingle with the
crowds at the marketplace…to listen and take pictures of a town and a
people whose stories could fill volumes… if told…by the men, women and
children who experienced the total of her triumphs, as well as all her
hurts. The children peeked from behind their mother´s shawls and smiled
as if to say welcome…the men and women seemed to pause, acknowledging my
presence without interfering…allowing me to gaze into their silence,
sharing with me in the moment of my visit… filling a void and deepening
an unwritten understanding of lives shared in a distance.
I took more pictures of the market place and walked around enjoying
Afabet´s wide open streets, into the covered markets and reaching to see
the tip of the Mosque that sat majestically at the town center. Looking
at the newly constructed town, it is hard to imagine Afabet of the past.
The residents seem to take everything in stride and stopped to chat
briefly, mostly to offer assistance and historical tidbits. Most just
went about their business, not bothered by my intrusion. I got a bite to
eat…it would be our last meal before Nakfa and then we settled down for
coffee…I could already smell the aroma from the street. A gentleman sat
us down and called to the ladies in the corner, "kilte shahi, kilte bun
mis gingible". That was exactly what I wanted; coffee with a bit of
ginger in it… the others drank tea. It was getting balmy and it was time
to move on…
The trip to Nakfa was a race with the many rivers that we crossed to get
there. I had no idea that the route included traversing through vast
river beds, some up to 200 meters wide, some still moist from the last
pass through. It can be a bit intimidating if you think about it…so I
didn´t. I remained distracted by the scenery, the vast mountains that
surrounded us and the occasional glimpses into nomadic communities
camped close to the water beds, with their camels and donkeys nearby.
The sight of young Rashaida children in colorful attire, playing in the
mountains, added to the unexpected splendor, and I found myself reaching
for my camera more often then not.
It was in 1988 and Eritreans in the Diaspora huddled to listen to Dimtsi
Hafash-the Voice of the Masses, to hear the details of the battle that
would put an end to the much touted Nadew Ezi (Nadew Command) in one of
the fiercest battles between the EPLF and Ethiopia´s Soviet-backed army.
Menghistu Hailemariam had amassed a 100000 strong force to put an end,
once and for all, to the EPLF army. With Russian military advisors in
tow, the regime planned for a major operation against the EPLF army. The
EPLF got wind of the Ethiopian plan and not only thwarted Menghistu´s
plans, but also caused huge casualties to his army, morally and
We continued on our trip towards Nakfa and on the way, we passed several
small villages. We stopped at ´Ad Shrom, to take a look at the rusted
remains of tanks and other military vehicles from the battle in the
Hedai Valley. I looked at the surrounding stone mountains, trying to
imagine what it was like back then, when the EPLF army planned and
positioned itself to launch the surprise offensive against the much
touted Nadew Command. Ethiopia´s bid to dislodge the EPLF from Nakfa
would result in utter failure. Its troops demoralized, it was unable to
recover from its losses here. EPLF went on to liberate Afabet using the
enemies own weapons. The liberation of Afabet is a significant and
decisive milestone in the Eritrean people´s struggle.
Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun, who happened to be in Eritrea at
that time (working on a TV documentary film on the war and the Ethiopian
famine), wrote this about the liberation of Afabet:
"…Afabet rates as one of history's decisive battles; the biggest battle
in Africa since the British 8th Army routed Field Marshal Rommel's
Afrika Corps at el Alamein in World War II. To Eritreans today, Afabet
rates as the Battle of Kursk does to Russians, when Hitler's tank army
was destroyed and the tide of war changed…Roy [Rob Roy] and I saw and
photographed 10,000 bedraggled Ethiopian prisoners. We also found stacks
of bags of Canadian flour, a "gift of the Canadian people" to the
starving of Ethiopians, in the kitchens of the Ethiopian army. Gallon
cans of cooking oil from the U.S. and Europe supposedly for starving
refugees, were also in army kitchens and village stores…Afabet was the
pivotal battle of the war. For miles, the mountain road and desert
plains were littered with the charred remains of Soviet armour, trucks,
guns… Ethiopian dead littered the scenery, desiccating in the dry
heat…At Afabet, as at other battles, captured Soviet tanks and artillery
were turned around and used immediately against the Ethiopians which
boasted the largest, best-equipped modern army in Africa…"
8000 Ethiopian forces were killed and captured, a Russian military
advisor was killed, and three Russians were captured. Operation Nadew
was crushed. After the liberation of Afabet and subsequent military
victories by the EPLF army in other parts of Eritrea, the otherwise deaf
and mute international community was forced to pay attention. As we made
our way up the mountain to Nakfa, we photographed the many Ethiopian
tanks and military vehicles that had attempted to make the impossible
climb to the top…left hanging on the cliff sides and in the valleys
below, long abandoned by the forces that brought them there.
After a few hours, we were approaching the town and we slowly made our
way up the winding rugged road and soon were greeted by a sign that
said, "InQwa'I Addi Sin'At atoKum"- Welcome to the land of tenacity. We
passed the elementary school and the Winna Technical College as we made
our way through the tree lined boulevard, across a river, and upwards
towards the town center. Around the circular giro fiori, passing the
Apollo Hotel, and the City Administration, we veered right and up the
hill to the turtle like metallic structure at the top. That was the
newly constructed auditorium with seating for over 500 people and
overlooking the town of Nakfa and the surrounding mountains. The view
was magnificent from the top and the structure was an architectural
marvel. It was also built entirely by Eritreans- the prevailing notion
in Eritrea-past and present.
A trip to Nakfa would be incomplete without a trip to the trenches and
for that I had the pleasure of having Mohammed Nur, the much loved and
respected veteran fighter as my guide and educator for the weekend.
Mohammed Nur joined the EPLF in the early 70s and even though I have met
hundreds of veteran fighters, I have yet to meet one that remembers
events as vividly as he does. He remembers dates-right down to the day
of the week, names-even nicknames and has a special knack for providing
vivid descriptions of the events in Eritrea´s history and the
circumstances surrounding them...he had me reaching back in time…setting
the record straight and filling in the missing chapters.
He lost his leg during the war for Eritrea´s independence, but that did
not impair his mobility at all. He was better at negotiating the
trenches with his one leg, than I was with both of mine. On several
occasions, he lent me a hand as we climbed and descended the hills. He
was a great story teller with a great sense of humor. We would walk
along the trenches and in them, enter the underground bunkers and sit on
the mountain edges as he recounted Nakfa´s history and the struggle to
survive atop a mountain range and under a 10-year long constant hail of
bombs and helicopter gunfire.
Nakfa was the first village to be liberated by the EPLF. Since its
liberation on 23 March 1977 until Eritrea´s independence, Nakfa remained
in the hands of the EPLF despite a 10 year Ethiopian attempt to dislodge
the EPLF and retake Nakfa. When the Soviet Union decided to intervene
and support Ethiopia in 1978, the balance of power had changed in
Ethiopia´s favor and the EPLF chose to make a "strategic withdrawal", to
return to the mountains of Sahel and Nakfa, with its resources intact.
>From here, while defending against the enemies offensives, in several
secure locations…most of them underground…the EPLF set up the
institutions for the Menghisti ab Berekha-A Government in the wilderness
and outlined the blueprint for Eritrea´s social, economic and political
programs. It set up hospitals, clinics, schools, factories and more.
My friend showed me the trenches that were built by the fighters amidst
the bombings and shelling, huge rocks that had to be split with hoes and
hammers and other small equipment. I walked through the rock hewn
trenches and the surrounding areas. Scattered and covering every bit of
the surface were bits and pieces of shrapnel, spent bullets, aircraft
parts, and even live ammunition…some still buried where they fell over
almost two decades ago. From holding stations for the reserve groups, to
underground care centers, to the never ending curves of the trenches,
everything was breathtakingly grand. One of the points was aptly named
"Glob"-from that point, one could see all sides-almost the whole
world-if your world was Nakfa. There was "Fidel Pe", the letter P, Taba
Selam, Rigole, Denden, Wancha, Enda Nepal, Fernelo, Nakura, Testa,
Sembel Afincha, TeAteQ, Kbub BeAray, Shegey and more.
While he talked, my eyes took in the surrounding view… There is just no
way you can grasp the enormity of it all with one swoop. Every inch of
those mountains bore untold scars from the past and the pain and
suffering endured by those who reached and sought refuge there…and when
they fell on the battered and solemn ground beneath, these mountains
served as their final resting place. Awet N´Hafash-Victory to the
Masses…were the last words from Eritrea´s finest as they lay where they
fell…total liberation…nothing less could be worth all this sacrifice.
Mohammed Nur detailed each werar-Ethiopian offensive, pointing to the
vast mountain range, pin pointing the EPLF positions and also that of
the Ethiopians. The enormity of their burden was not hard to imagine.
These stone structures, dug deep underground, served not just as the
protective shields for the fighters, but became places where friendships
were cemented…commitments and courage displayed…pain and hurt and
suffering shared, and where the fate of Eritrea and her people lay…where
privation and hardship bore determination and unbreakable will. Nothing
was going to deter them from a struggle they were determined to wage and
Perched high up in their trenches which stretched for miles, they
battled the Ethiopian ground forces as well the menacing aircrafts that
shelled them with all types of bombs. The cluster bombs and napalm used
by the Ethiopians killed thousands, burned their villages and destroyed
their lands and left the terrain in Nakfa visibly battered and bruised.
Armed with determination and a deep conviction and belief that they
would succeed, they held their own, against all odds... Militarily, the
EPLF was also growing, young Eritreans fleeing Ethiopian atrocities
joined in greater numbers and better poised to descend from their
defensive positions, the EPLF army launched successful offensives…
facing the enemy head on… subsequently liberating more towns and
With each Ethiopian offensive came victories for the EPLF army, now
growing in size and having acquired enough heavy weaponry (seized from
the enemy) also becoming better equipped…as the days turned to weeks and
months to years, the balance of power shifted….this time in favor of the
EPLF. Mohammed Nur and I picked up shrapnel and other "memorabilia"
scattered all over the place…we talked endlessly, before and after meals
and more. All this took place in 2006, imagine my surprise and delight
to see him again this year. We took off where we left off…back in the
trenches for more.
The trip in 2008 began in Asmara, through Keren and Afabet, pretty much
the same route as the one in 2006 except this time we took the newly
constructed road to Nakfa. The old road is still there but this one will
make the trip much shorter and it will connect easily to other towns and
villages along the way. This trip was a bit different. We arrived a
little late and did not do much that afternoon…the place was unusually
quite, as if everyone was asleep…we soon learnt that they were. We had
arrived a day too late. Too late to participate and engage with the
students from the School of Social Science who had spent the entire
night in the trenches, reminiscing with veteran fighters and sharing
stories of Eritrea´s past…can´t afford to waste any time… I headed to
the city center for coffee and to meet my old friends and make new ones…
The next day we were up early to attend the morning session at the newly
established school. The presentations and discussions were not only
timely and informational, they were also very lively. The presenters and
the participants exchanged ideas on various economic models and
addressed challenges and opportunities in Eritrea. At this school,
various topics are presented allowing the participants to have a good
overview of pertinent issues related to Eritrea´s economic, social and
political development, as well as the Eritrean government´s policies,
international affairs, political theory and much more. It was an
interesting exchange with the students and wished I had attended more
sessions on my previous visit. Next time…
After observing the morning session, it was time for me to head to the
city; I had a tour date with a 14 year old young man. Idris and I met
the night before. I was sitting on a road side curb enjoying my coffee
with another friend and taking pictures of the magnificent Nakfa sunset
when he showed up, out of nowhere, and asked me to take his picture too.
I would not let that opportunity go, so I did. He posed; beaming from
ear to ear…he seemed to like being photographed. He had a beautiful
smile and his long shiny curly hair blew in the soft evening wind…
I watched him as he wondered around play fully. He was so much like my
own 14 year old; spunky, funny and full of energy. He sat down for some
lively conversations over his favorite drink-Coke. He talked and I
listened and watched…Idris told me that his mother had died when he was
very young (he is still very young) and that he lived with his father
who worked long hours. He told me that he had other siblings and that
they all pitched in to take care of him. He asked a million questions…or
it seemed that way…he wanted to know if I knew how to drive… he wanted
to know about my children and more. Kind of surprised me when he asked
about Asmara…I suppose Asmara must seem like a world away from Nakfa …
Idris, I found out, spent his time, when he wasn´t in school, in and
around the city center making new friends and showing them the town-just
as he had with me, and seemed to be very popular with the local
residents. He knew just about everyone and all the merchants, bus
drivers, and officials in the town by name. Judging from his interaction
with the residents, he seemed to be loved by all. He called out their
names as he passed the store fronts and greeted others who passed us by,
and went out of his way to speak to those who called out to him…and
there were many…especially the children. I too found Idris to be quite
>From the village market in search of colorful tenkobets-thatch mats, to
a tour of the city, Idris showed off Nakfa. I told him that he was a
perfect tour guide and I meant it…he wanted to share his town with me,
he wanted me to know Nakfa, the way he did. We went to the local market
and he showed off the many colorful artworks of Nakfa. He showed me the
special mats that were designed for brides, colorful bead works and some
sweet smelling incense. It certainly is wonderful to see the market
place filled with men, women and children, but that is not the way it
was back then. Idris was too young to know all that has happened to
Idris was not even born when Nakfa was under siege. He was not there to
hear sounds of low flying MiGs and helicopter bombers that terrorized
the population and pulverized their villages and farms… and the almost
daily drowning out the sounds of life with the roar of their engines. He
did not see the destruction of Nakfa and the killing, maiming and
displacement of her population, the burning of crops and the slaughter
of livestock. Idris did not know the extent of Ethiopia´s atrocities. He
was not there to hear the explosion of cluster and napalm bombs, nor was
he there to see the burnt and charred bodies of its victims. Idris was
not there during the 10-year long aerial bombardment, artillery shelling
and ground assault responsible for the total destruction of his beloved
town. No, Idris was not born then…he was not supposed to be.
It´s good to see Nakfa rebuilt and her population back. Idris was happy
to show off Nakfa´s development and progress. He took me to the newly
built telecommunications building, the Apollo Hotel build up on a hill,
the Administration building and more. Idris suggested that we go and
have lunch; he was saving the best for last...the morning tour was done.
It was time to eat. We went to his favorite eatery and ordered his
brunch. Eggs mixed with salsa…and a cup of tea. I settled for coffee and
a cold bottle of Mai gas-carbonated water. Idris was not content to just
eat…he had questions, lots of them.
After our brunch, it was time for the most important tour-the Mosque.
This historical Mosque was the only structure left standing when the
entire town was pulverized. It was badly damaged and the only reason it
was spared total destruction was because its minaret served as a visual
cue for Ethiopian pilots. Today, most of the Mosque has been
reconstructed but there are parts that can be seen that bear the scars
of the brutal past. Amidst the newly reconstructed Nakfa, visitors can
find reminders of the past. For those who will meet young men like
Idris, they will see the hopeful spirit of a generation living and
thriving in what was once an inhospitable place...where a generation had
perished…giving birth to a new nation and also a new generation.
I see Idris´ hopeful spirit in the people of Eritrea whose sons and
daughters, armed with the same values of service and sacrifice as those
who took to the mountains of Sahel, selflessly building bridges, roads,
dams, schools, hospitals, houses, ports etc to improve the lives of the
Eritrean people. President Obama was right; nation building is not about
taking short-cuts and is not for the faint-hearted- it requires grit and
sacrifice. These young men and women understand that Eritrea, like
America, "is bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater
than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction".
Congratulations to the people of Eritrea as they celebrate the 19th
Anniversary of the liberation of the Port City of Massawa this week, and
the 32nd Anniversary of Nakfa in March.

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