[dehai-news] Shabait.com: ERITREA: The story of Nakfa

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri Feb 13 2009 - 14:45:06 EST


ERITREA: The story of Nakfa
By Sophia Tesfamariam
Feb 13, 2009, 20:35

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

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 materially.

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

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

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 win.

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 villages...

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 charming.

>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 Nakfa.

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

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.

Zelealemawi z'Kri N'semaetatna
Wetru Awet N'Hafash!!

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