From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Wed Feb 25 2009 - 06:18:05 EST
"We always felt strong." veteran fighter Mebrat Hadgu
Efrem Habtetsion, Feb 25, 2009
I was raised in Adi-Hawesha where I attended school up to the 5th grade.
Following the political crisis of 1975 in Eritrea, I became a member of the
hafash wdbat, a clandestine organization. In 1977, many Eritrean cities were
liberated by the People's Forces and the Eritrean Liberation Forces; and
since Adi-Hawesha was surrounded by the PF, I established close contact with
But due to the massive military assistance the Dergue obtained from the
Soviet Union, both liberation fronts were forced to withdraw from around
Asmara. Then, on July 27, 1978 I went with the People's Forces to Sahel. I
took military training in Blikat and was assigned to Brigade 51. Our brigade
was stationed in Denden, Nakfa, during the third, fourth and fifth Derge
offensives that followed the strategic withdrawal. I was with that brigade
until the collapse of the sixth offensive, and later went to brigade 43.
Then, I was transferred to brigade 70 where I stayed until independence.
Q: What was your position in the army?
Mebrat Hadgu: In brigade 43 I was team and platoon medic, (hakim gantan
hayln) and later I became unit leader when the brigade was renamed brigade
101. In early 1988, when we were preparing for the Nadew Operation, I was
promoted to team leader and joined the battle with that rank.
Q: Do you have any special memories about Nadew?
There are so many memorable things about it. The first thing was the general
counterattack that the EPLF took against the Derge forces that were there
for years. It was a very decisive battle in the history of the Eritrean
armed struggle. We didn't only plan to free Afabet, but also to shorten the
long road to freedom. We planned to free Keren, which was not successful.
While we were around Keren, our unit along with other units took a two
month's special military training. Then, we went to Asosa, western Ethiopia,
through the Sudan.
We accomplished our mission successfully and returned to Eritrea two months'
later. After only five days of our return, we went to Massawa for Operation
Q: How was Fenkel?
It was on February 8, 1990 when our division captured the left side of the
city. We attacked and controlled some areas but the enemy counterattacked
the next day. But, we took a swift measure and destroyed them. At dusk of
February 10, we reached downtown Massawa. The battle didn't end there,
however. Since we were on the left side, we had to cross through Sgalet
Ketan, which our fighters lost in 1977, in order to free the whole city.
Q: In the history of Eritrea's armed struggle, the year 1977 is associated
with Salina, the obstacles our comrades faced in the war of liberating
Massawa. How was it this time?
Crossing Sgalet was not simple, as it never was. We couldn't go the long
distance across the cement factory and naval base in order to attack the
remaining forces of the enemy. So, we had to take bold measures in crossing
Sgalet, which was under the target of the enemy, suffered constant
bombardment. We reorganized ourselves, joined by brigade 49, and started
We lost many of our comrades in that crossing. So, we had to leave the road
and look for another option. The only other option was to cross by the sea.
Every one of us was aware of what had happened in 1977 and was more
determined for that not to happen again. So, we had to fight to our last
Crossing Sgalet, we entered the city although we had no prior experience of
Q: Anyone, or any moment that you remember in particular.
By the time we crossed Sgalet, the enemy had already run out of ammunition,
because its access to the see was closed and so they came to crush us with
tanks. We had to run into the houses; just like in the movies, but only to
find enemy soldiers inside firing at us.
Hearing me shout, our comrade Tawuz,' came to the houses for help. He knew
that I was badly wounded in Afabet and that I joined the war before fully
recovered. I was shocked to see him standing in that very dangerous place,
and before I had finished telling him to hide, they shot him. I couldn't
believe my eyes. We were together in different units for a long time. He was
martyred exactly where the monument is now built. I took his radio and we
continued fighting. It was at eight in the morning when I was wounded and
was finally pulled out.
Q: Considering the incident of 1977 in crossing Sgalet Ketan, what did you
feel when you were told you were going to cross it?
It was really difficult. We were experienced in fighting in mountainous
places, but fighting in cities and plains was a new experience to almost all
of us. And again we remember the cost we paid back in 1977 and the tragedy
our comrades suffered when the enemy opened the water pipes to the salt pans
that our comrades were passing through. You feel more responsible, more
energetic and more dedicated to cross that narrow yet challenging road.
Of course, we can't compare the 1977 and 1990 instances; they were
different. In 1977 our comrades had no tanks, artilleries and other weapons
that could enable them balance the power. But, in Fenkel we had our tanks,
which did a commendable job. We were more advantaged and we knew that we
Regarding the enemy, it was also different in 1990 from 1977. In 1977 the
enemy had a high morale because of the support it was receiving from the big
powers and other countries. During Fenkel, following their defeat at Nadew
and the decline of foreign support, and the changing of power balance in
favor of the struggle, the morale of the enemy was low.
Q: What was the situation following the liberation of Massawa?
It is hard to explain. We knew the price we paid in that place; we knew what
happened in 1977; we knew the price we were paying for independence; and we
knew what the liberation of Massawa meant an advance in the march towards
freedom. So, when you accomplish a mission this significant, you cannot
measure your feelings. Although, we were fighting to win, sometimes you
don't believe it happened that way. So, there are a lot of happy and at the
same time sorrowful memories.
Q: What was it for you to be a unit leader in a battle that changed the
balance of power and that made Independence Day real in a short period of
It was like a family where everyone helped. You don't hesitate; you don't
feel alone; always someone is around you; so, it was not about being a unit
or other position leader. You know, sometimes you don't even recognize
yourself as a leader because everybody shares everything and you always see
your leaders beside you; fighting, dying, getting wounded. So, may be being
female, you know, could be something to people, but in the history of the
armed struggle, being a leader was being a role model of sacrifice.
Everybody did that.
Q: What is Fenkel to you at present?
I just keep remembering my comrades who died, who were wounded and those
who are alive and who made everything successful against all the odds. It is
easy to talk about it, but one cannot exactly describe the dedication, the
love, and the heroism on one hand, and the difficulties, the continuous
shooting, the appalling days on the other. You know, I didn't go to the
place after independence, and I am not planning to go because I cannot help
seeing the place and what we faced during Fenkel; the people and the place.
It is not easy to go to a place where you lost your loved ones. I just keep
remembering them in my heart.
Q: Can you mention someone you consider a role model in the struggle?
Everybody was a role model. Every fighter did an extraordinary job in the
struggle. You always see someone with unique characteristics and the more
strong people you see, the more you become stronger. There were those who
show you, in practice, how to face difficult times.
But, the heroism of two female fighters always touches me. When I joined the
struggle, the unit leader Gual Hagos and team leader Tsega, who were
martyred in the fourth and sixth offensive respectively, were my role
models. They were extremely dedicated and exemplary fighters in brigade 51.
They gave us, the female fighters, morale and the courage to fight.
Q: Where were you first wounded?
It was in Denden during the fourth offensive and later in the sixth
offensive. But, the most serious one was in the battle of Afabet, Nadew, and
later in Fenkel. There were five of us that were assigned to attack enemy
trenches stationed in a hill so as to enable our comrades cross the enemy
lines. I was in the middle.
Q: Just the Five of you.?
Yes, in order to avoid casualties. Two were martyred and two, including me,
were wounded-- my left leg was broken. I then went back to Sahel for medical
Q: I think this was in 1988. You also participated in major battles in
Asosa, 1989, and then in Fenkel, 1990. Does it mean your wounds improved
There was always that attitude of not wanting to stay long in the health
centers or hospitals. You always remember your comrades and life in your
unit. So, as soon as you feel somehow better, either you request the medical
staff to send you back or you go by yourself. I decided to go to my unit and
take the rest of my medication there. There was still pain on my leg when I
joined these battles but I didn't want to reveal them fearing they would
prevent me from fighting. I resisted the pain because you always see others
bearing much more than yours.
Thank you Mebrah!
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