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Operation Fenkil: The Herald of Independence

With the month of February fast approaching and nearly upon us, it can only mean one thing to Eritreans  — time to commemorate Operation Fenkil.

Operation Fenkil, was the culmination of two years of meticulous planning which ended in the complete liberation of the Port of City of Massawa in 1990. It was an operation carried out by the gallant forces of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army on both land and sea, going down in the history of Eritrea as one of the most outstanding milestones, which marked the Eritrean liberation struggle passing the point of no return, and unlike 12 years earlier in 1978, this time round there would be no Strategic Withdrawal back to base.

The foundations of Operation Fenkil were laid nearly thirty years earlier in September 1961, when Hamid Idris Awate picked up his rifle and fired the first shot to ignite the Eritrean armed liberation struggle, which carried on burning with a bright flame for the next thirty years.

Many had thought the journey had reached its end in 1978, when the two Eritrean Liberation fronts, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had reached the outskirts of Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

Few had envisaged what would follow next in the history of the Eritrean liberation struggle. With the Ethiopian government aligning itself with the former Soviet Union and as a reward receiving massive military support, the Eritrean struggle hit an unyielding buffer and had it not been for the courageous decision by the EPLF to embark on a Strategic Withdrawal to the mountains of Sahel in the face of overwhelming Soviet support for the Ethiopian government, it would have meant the complete derailment of the struggle, leaving it by the wayside, the Eritrean dream of  Independence in tatters.

Specially Trained Ethiopian Mountain Division/Terara Kifletor

With huge unwavering Soviet support, the Ethiopian government of the time decided in early 1982 to launch its Sixth Offensive against the EPLF in as many years. What made this offensive different from the previous five was the sheer scale of the operation. Not since the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 between the Allied Powers and the Axis Powers during the Second World War, had Africa witnessed such a large fighting force being assembled on its shores. The Ethiopian government named this operation the Red Star Campaign and dubbed it the final push to destroy the Eritrean liberation struggle. The operation was launched with great fanfare and the Ethiopian army confident in its victory, had already put the final touches to the victory parade it thought it would hold in Nakfa, the town that had come to personify Eritrean resilience and determination.

At the height of the relationship, a Soviet Leader visits Ethiopia.

The Sixth Offensive lasted for 90 days, without a single day out of the 90 witnessing the guns falling silent. After three months of intense fighting, thousands of its soldiers dead or wounded, the Ethiopian government unable to sustain the losses it was incurring and morale at an all time low within its army, realising the spectacular failure of its much lauded Red Star Campaign, pulled the plug.  

The failure of the Sixth Offensive came at a heavy price, with thousands of heroic, brave and courageous EPLF fighters paying the price in blood, their blood. Many were martyred for their cause and many more were wounded, and it is to remember their sacrifices and the others like them that 20th June has been designated as Martyrs’ day in Independent Eritrea.

The Sixth Offensive ended after the Ethiopian government had thrown all it had at the EPLF, including the proverbial kitchen sink, and with the EPLF still intact as a fighting force despite its losses, meant only one thing to the Ethiopian government, that Eritrean Independence was no longer a matter of if but of when. The end of the Sixth Offensive in failure, was a stark reminder to the Ethiopian government of it being served notice of the inevitability of the coming of Eritrean Independence — whether it liked or not.

Two years after the Sixth Offensive in 1984, the EPLF destroyed the Ethiopian Wukaw Command, managing to capture a huge arsenal of weapons and the first high ranking Ethiopian army officer, Colonel Girma Tessema. To the Ethiopian government of the time, the destruction of its Wukaw Command was a grim reminder that it was on the slippery slope to oblivion. The victory of the EPLF and capture of large quantities of weapons marked a swing in the balance of power and with the EPLF now on equal footing with the Ethiopian army.

The Wukaw Command safely out of the way, the EPLF military planners set their sights on their next target — the Nadew Command. The Nadew Command was stationed on the Nakfa front, a front that was hundreds of miles long  sprawled across  one of the most inhospitable terrains in the entire world.

In March 1988, at what has come to be known as the Battle of Afabet, the EPLF launched a six pronged co-ordinated attack which wiped out one of the largest Ethiopian army commands in a matter of days, capturing a great number of heavy weapons.The victory at Afabet transformed the EPLF from a predominantly defensive force, to an attacking force, while the Ethiopian army went the opposite way and became a defensive force.With victory at Afabet, Eritreans could hear the gateway to freedom being opened and could clearly see that the light at the tunnel was not an oncoming train, but the glimmer of hope.

Another two years after the victory at Afabet, the EPLF readied itself for one of the most significant, difficult and challenging operations it had ever carried out — Operation Fenkil.

What made Operation Fenkil difficult was that it was both a land and seaborne operation, with the EPLF fighters not having much experience fighting at sea making final victory even more remarkable. The EPLF had put aside its failed attempt to take over Massawa 13 years previously. The EPLF planners were all too aware of the cost of failure in 1977 and the unease that some who remembered the gruesome scenes of Salina, where scores of EPLF fighters who had taken up positions within the salt works had been drowned when the Ethiopian army opened the floodgates and inundated the plains with sea water.With no room for sentiment or remorse, the plans of Operation Fenkil that the EPLF leadership had deliberated on in the mountain fortress of Sahel, were rolled out in the early hours of 8th February 1990, when the EPLF having reached the plains of Semhar undetected, launched its attack on Massawa.

In the days after the launch of Operation Fenkil, the EPLF fighters exhibited levels of courage, that has made every Eritrean proud ever since. Within a few days the Port city of Massawa was liberated, and for the very first time in three centuries it came under the control of its  rightful owners, the Eritreans.

Operation Fenkil, like all other EPLF operations, is replete with acts of bravery, valour and heroism. Operation Fenkil was an operation that proved to the world that the EPLF wasn’t a rag tag army, or an association of bandits as the Ethiopian government used to refer to them. The EPLF, despite not having an independent country at the time it could call home, proved to the world at large that it was one of the most powerful armies on the African continent. The success of Operation Fenkil, has cemented the place of the EPLF in not just the annals of the history of Eritrea, but of Africa and beyond.

Photo by Taezaz Abraha MOI. Ethiopian POWs taken during Operation Fenkil including Brigadier General Ali Alhaj, Brigadier General Tilahun Kifle, Commander Tesfaye Tadesse, Colonel Afewerk Teklu, Senior Chief Getachew.

Today as a memorial to the brave fighters of the EPLF, there stands a monument at the port end of the causeway that links the port with the mainland. The monument is made up the remains of the first three tanks who played a significant role in the success of the operation before they were destroyed. Of the three tanks two of them, Commander 1 and Jaguar, were captured from the Ethiopian army in 1978 during the EPLF’s Strategic Withdrawal. These tanks not only serve as a monument to Operation Fenkil, but testify to remarkable achievements of the EPLF, an organisation that managed not only to capture tanks as it was withdrawing, but was able to hold on to them even during the most difficult times of the Sixth Offensive and use them to good effect in the liberation of Massawa.

The success of the Strategic Withdrawal meant that the EPLF could thwart the Sixth Offensive. The thwarting of the Sixth Offensive meant that the Wukaw Command could be destroyed which in turn opened the way for the victory at Afabet and victory at Afabet paved the way for the success of Operation Fenkil, an operation that not only liberated Massawa but in no uncertain terms heralded to the Ethiopian government and the World at large, that Eritreans were on the home stretch of their long and arduous struggle, their Independence within touching distance.

Yafet Zereou

Photo by Mussie Photo Asmara. Tank Memorial, Commander, Tiger and Jaguar.
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