It was in 2009 that I first wrote about my trip to Nakfa, a village in Eritrea whose name evokes as much emotion as triggers both joyful and painful memories. As the people of Eritrea get ready to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the demise of the Wikaw Command (1984) this year, I thought I would go back and revisit the story of Nakfa, the historical village that served as the anchor, base and shield for the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF).
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 37th 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 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 HedaiValley. 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 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 …
When I went back to Nakfa for the Y-PFDJ Conference in 2011, I went looking for Idris at teh town center and was disappointed to find out that he had gone to Elabered-a quaint little town near Keren, to visit with relatives. He was getting close to Asmara…wonder if he will be there when I visit next…
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 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 24th Anniversary of the liberation of the Port City of Massawa in February, 30th Anniversary of the demise of the Wikaw Command and the 37th Anniversary of Nakfa in March.
Zelealemawi z’Kri N’semaetatna
Wetru Awet N’Hafash!!