International Women’s Day 2014 was commemorated by Eritreans around the world at a time when the country is mourning the death of Major General Gherezghier Andemariam (Wuchu)-Chief of the Staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces. He was an avid supporter of Eritrean women and the establishment of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) in 1979.
As the nation mourns his death, his comrades in arms recount a gallant history of sacrifice and steadfastness and his lifelong determination to instill principled values in all those he led through some of the most difficult battles in Eritrea’s long struggle for independence. His legacy of valor, extreme heroism, unwavering commitment, affection and comradeship will live for generations to come. May he rest in peace and may the mourning nation find solace in his indomitable spirit and exemplary leadership.
As the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) celebrated International Women’s Day 2014 in cities across the United States, Europe, Middle East, Africa and most importantly in Eritrea, allow me to share a poignant story of another Eritrean freedom fighter, Letebirhan Haile -ለተብርሃን ሃይለ (ገለ),and pay homage to her extraordinary courage and sacrifice, who inspired many in her short life. There have been books written and many papers produced after Eritrea’s independence, on Eritrean women. Unfortunately, the papers, written by non-Eritreans, have not been able to capture the true essence of the Eritrean woman fighter.
Letebirhan’s story was featured in the 2011 edition of the NUEW magazine Agiezo (ኣግእዞ). The author is Tegadalay Habte Abraha, a freedom fighter who felt compelled to tell her story of valor and selflessness, lest it went untold. In this sitting, I will endeavor to tell her story by translating Tegadalay Habte’s article in Tigrinya and hope to convey the essence of that strong woman who seemed to capture the attention and affection of all that crossed her path. I have since met and spoken with many who were living in Keren, when Letebirhan was stationed there, and they too speak highly of her.
Letebirhan was born in 1958 in Asmara, Eritrea in the Idaga Hamus neighborhood, to her father Mr. Haile Obgbalidet, and her mother Tsigheweini Mehari. She attended Itege Menen (now Adulis) Elementary School, grades 1-6, grades 7 & 8 at Geza Kenisha School, and 9th grade at John F. Kennedy School. She came from a middle income family and was an exceptional student, known for her creativity and astuteness. It was in 1974 that Letebirhan, very mature at her tender age, established contacts with members of the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Army operating in and around Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
When the situation in Asmara worsened in 1975, her family, like many families at the time, decided to leave Asmara and take refuge in the village of Ademizmat. While her older and younger siblings were taken out of Asmara, Letebirhan was left behind by her parents who feared her move to the village would encourage easier and further contacts with members of the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Army (EPLF). They feared that she would leave to join the liberation front. But leaving her in Asmara did not deter her burning nationalist desire and not long after her family’s departure from Asmara, in 1975 Letebirhan joined the (EPLA) and undertook her initial military training at Adi Gin.
Letebirhan at first served with the fighting forces of Battalion 8 and then at the end of 1975 when the Public Administration Department was established, she was pulled from the fighting forces and transferred to Zagher to serve under Alem Haile (Martyred fighter) to conduct awareness and education campaigns amongst the population at large. It is there that Tegadalay Habte met her. Up until the liberation of Keren in 1977, she continued to work and travel, diligently and selflessly, throughout the areas surrounding Karneshim (ካርነሽም) and Dimbezan (ዽምበዛን) organizing, raising the awareness, and arming the population.
Letebirhan understood the importance of organization, and worked tirelessly to accomplish organizational goals with great attention to detail and commitment, never complaining, always helping others addressing and correcting mistakes, shortcoming, as she went along. Ready, willing and wanting to learn from her comrades, while also sharing her knowledge with them, to enhance theirs, she was a consummate fighter-one much admired accepted and respected by her peers, and the population she worked with.
Considering her exemplary character and comradeship, in 1977 she was chosen/elected with the greatest number of votes, by her peers in the Department of Public Administration, to participate in the 1st Congress of the EPLF which took place in Nakfa on 23-31 January 1977 and formally set out the policies of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). A program adopted at this first Congress specifically targeted a liberalization of women’s rights as well as a broad educational policy for maintaining every language and improving literacy. It was also set out that the boundaries of a liberated Eritrean state would be based on the colonial treaties of Italy.
Behind the Enemy Line (BEL)
In 1977, with the liberation of Keren, Letebirhan was selected to work at the Department of Public Administration there, as leader and worked to organize the population. She carried out her duties with great diligence and care. In Keren, she also won the admiration and respect of her comrades as well as the population she served, making her missions acceptable and very successful. During the heavy fighting that took place in 1977 in Barentu, Letebirhan’s bravery, gallantry would be witnessed as she organized the youth from Keren, taking them to the frontlines to help deliver supplies, remove wounded fighters etc.
In 1978, during the EPLF’s strategic withdrawal from Keren, 12 fighters were assigned to remain behind and Letebirhan and Tegadalay Habte were amongst them. They were to continue recruiting and organizing of the population. Letebirhan was chosen as the leader of the squad and served fearlessly in that capacity until the day of her untimely death on 14 December 1980. After the strategic withdrawal, the situation became even more precarious for those left behind the enemy lines. It has been said that there is no more dangerous way of living, than behind the enemy lines-but for Letebirhan and her comrades, they served multiple purposes.
Tegadalay Tekeste Fekadu in his book, “The Tenacity and Resilience of the Eritrea 1979-1983”, that defending Nakfa and the EPLFs base meant fighting for their own survival and weakening the enemy “from within”. In his book, Tegadalay Tekeste Fekadu wrote:
“…During the strategic withdrawals, the EPLF left several combat units in companies and battalions, mine engineering units, units which worked with the clandestine cells in the contested areas and in places entirely under the enemy control, units of various departments such as the information and secret services, communication, public administration (jemahir), agriculture and medical units…The main intention of these units was twofold: First, to fight the enemy and erode its competence; second, to provide social, security, communications services to the people and combatants. Fighting the enemy on all fronts in the BEL with limited capacity…”
Though in the belly of the beast, Letebirhan was not deterred-she carried out her various missions- distributing pamphlets, eliminating traitors and enemy soldiers, and tracking their movements etc. etc. with striking precision, uplifting the peoples’ morale, while creating great anxiousness in the enemy.
I met a few of the young men-now grown up-who were in Keren when Letebirhan was stationed there and they all remembered her fondly. She led them to the frontlines, carrying food and other supplies for the fighters and organized them in the city. The women remembered her as someone very lively and passionate-thoroughly focused through all her missions. She organized the women and worked to raise their awareness, and recruited them to join and contribute to the movement.
Whenever the fighters traveled BEL, they wore the attires of the population, so they would look like one of them. Bitseyti Letebirhan carried out many heroic missions whilst working clandestinely in the city of Krren and its vicinity. The work required great care, courage, and sacrifice. The fighters knew that they had to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice if there was any risk or threat of being captured or if they could not find a way to escape or evade the omnipresent enemy. It was important to protect the identities of fellow fighters and secrets of their operations, as well as the population they worked with. Their work required great sacrifice and many gave their lives to safeguard their comrades. It was this heroic principle that compelled Letebirhan to take her own life on 14 December 1980, as 11:45am, when she found herself in a situation that compromised the safety of her comrades.
That day began like any other day, with the fighters waking up early to map out their daily mission. Tegadalay Habte and three others, Tegadalit Tsega Habtemariam (ጞል ሽጉጥ), Letebirhan and Tegadalay Yohannes Tekie (John) met at 8:00am-departed from their central place at Ajerbeb (ዓጀርበብ -ወረዳ ስኾነይቲ) and headed towards Wesebensuruk (ወሰበንሱሩኽ) and Qunie (ቁኒዕ), two villages in the vicinity of Keren, to meet with members of the mass organizations and provide directives.
They all changed into clothing resembling that of the peasants and hiding their weapons under their clothes, they chitchatted and teased with each other as they made their way. At 9:00am, they arrived in Qunie, at Aboy Michael’s place. For some reason, Letebirhan was still wearing her regular attire and Aboy Michael asked her to change and wear a jelebia and have her hair braided in the Bilen style, so that she would not be recognized. She told him that she would be alright, that it was still early and that the Ethiopian soldiers were not up and about yet. She also assured him that they would not be gone for too long and made their way across the Anseba River. They had enquired about and were assured of the enemy’s movement (inactivity).
There was a division of tasks and Tegadalay Habte and Tegadalit Tsega headed for Qunie and Tegadalit Letbirhan and Tegadalay John headed to Wesebensurk. When they separated, Letebirhan told her comrades to be brave and careful, bidding them farewell, she left. At about 11:30am, sounds of gun fire was heard in the vicinity of Wesenbensurk. They rushed towards the village to get information on Letebirhan and John. They arrived in the village and atop a mountainside, they could see the enemy soldiers in the distance. They soon found John nearby-he was alone. “They asked him what had happened and enquired about Tegadalit Letebrehan’s whereabouts. He told them that she had fallen behind. They decided to go there and see if they could find her.
There was a farmer that was nearby and had witnessed the entire incident and he explained to them what had taken place. He told them that he had been asked by John and Letebirhan about the movement of the enemy and he had assured them that all was well. But as they made their way to the outskirts of the village towards Keren, a about a half an hour later, the farmer heard the sounds of gunfire and headed toward it, to investigate. It was then realized that an intelligence unit of the enemy, Kagnew Shambel, had snuck in at night unseen, through the Anseba River. As they made their way up the mountainside, Letebirhan and John had come face to face with the enemy troops…
The Ethiopians who were tired from climbing up the steep mountainside were unable to catch their breath fast enough and could not respond immediately. John and Letebirhan attempted to get away by running downhill. They run towards Qunie and tried to climb the mountainside with the Ethiopians chasing and firing at them. John made it to the top, but Letebirhan, who had been weakened by a bout with malaria the week before was having difficulty making the climb. John returned to try to help her, but she insisted that he move on and told him that she would catch up with him.
John escaped capture, but they surrounded Letebirhan. The Ethiopian soldiers pleaded with her to surrender. They told her that they would not do anything to her, that she would not be harmd, but she paid them no attention. In order to safeguard the secrets of the Front and the mass organizations, and populations she worked with, in a manner that stunned the Ethiopians, she gallantly pulled her gun and shot herself. The Ethiopian soldiers searched her lifeless body, but to no avail. They could not find anything-not even something that could identity her. They then carried her body towards Keren. Since they could not find out her identity, they were also unable to find out what she was doing behind enemy lines. They then buried her near Hashala Bilen.
Had they known that she was the primary organizer in that area they would have done what they usually do-terrorize the population, even if they had not found list of names. The Ethiopians would gather the people and claim they had a list of names and ask that the people voluntarily admit their relationship with the Front. That was a psychological tactic used by the regime’s forces in Eritrea-aimed at terrorizing the population, instilling fear and anxiety-with the hopes of preventing them from supporting the fighters and the Front.
An Eritrean mother now living in the US, who had a daughter and a son in the liberation front, was also in Keren when Letebirhan was stationed there and when I asked her if she remembered the young fighter, she went into a long silence…it was as if I had touched a painful spot in her heart. She was not the only one. Almost everyone I talked to had the same reaction. As she went back forty years to remember the young tough fighter that mingled with the population with such ease, she spoke about her laughter, her progressive attitude and then, with a heavy sigh, she spoke about the day she heard of her untimely passing. She said, ‘kulatna hazina, bekiye abilna”-we were all saddened, and we all cried.
And so it goes…the life and history of another gallant Eritrean freedom fighter and we are grateful to her comrade, Tegadalay Habte Abraha, for sharing this story with us.
Eritrea’s history lives in the history of each of those heroes who sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Eritrea and those who are standing tall, in defending her sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is a history that has yet to be told in full…it’s a gallant history of pride and dignity-one that has to be told somehow.
Victory to the people of Eritrea
May Eritrea’s beloved martyrs rest in peace…