Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Early Years of the Eritrean Liberation Army

Photo: Jack Kramer collection

The Early Years of the Eritrean Liberation Army

The Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA) was not just a rag tag army in the early sixties or a group of Shifta as the neo-Ethiopianists want to label them. Its leader, Hamid Idris Awate, was a well skilled military person who previously had served in the Italian army and who received training, including in Rome. He spoke Nara, Kunama, Tigre, Tigrinya and Arabic in addition to fluency in Italian, written and spoken. He was later joined by qualified Eritreans who served in the Sudanese army. They left their families and the comfortable lives they led to fight for the liberation of their country. They gave the ELA a boost in both military skills and discipline and brought with them some badly needed weapons. Eritreans who served in the Eritrean Police also joined the ELA. Few ELA fighters were also sent to training in China and Cuba in the sixties. 

Those who were sent to China included:  Mahmoud Chekini, Romadan Mohamed Nur, Ahmed Adem Omer (was the first Secretary General of the clandestine, "Labour Party" of the ELF), Isaias Afeworki (who became the Chairman of the clandestine, "Eritrean peoples' Revolutionary Party" of the EPLF), Ahmed Ibrahim Ali (Ahmed Sikerter), 

The 2nd group was trained in China in 1968; Those were: Mohamed (Moh) Berhan Abdulrahman, Ahmed Moh Habtini, Ahmed Ibrahim, Saeed Saleh, Ibrahim Moh Burhan, Mesfin Hagos, Saleh Omer Suleiman, Hamid Idris, Issa Musa Moh, Ali Moh Ibrahim, Abdella Saeed, Wengiel Gebriel, Hussein Saleh, Arefa Abdu Hussein, Arefaine Sebhat, Fessahaye Abraha Fikak, Salah Addin Abdella, Osman Mohamed Sabbe, Osman Geber, Gebre Michael Wolde Gebriel, Tesfay Gebremariam, Berekeht Iyob.


Those who trained in Cuba in 1968 were;  Mensur Mohamed Saeed, Mahmoud Hasseb, Debrom Tulug, Gebretzadig Gangoul, Tesfay Tzegai, Idris Ibrahim Mohamed Saeed, Solomon Zeweldi, Tahir Mohamed Tahir, Mohamed Hamid Adem.
The ELA scored many victories on the well trained and well equipped Ethiopian army and the Eritrean Kommandos of the time. The victory of 1991 was a cumulative effect of all those sacrifices paid by the ELF and EPLF. 

There are also those who served in the then Eritrean Police and joined the liberation struggle at an early stage: Some of the names that I have got so far include the following: Gumhat, Mohammed Said Shamsi, Omer Nasser, Shawesh Malik Adena, Ali Ahmed, Ali Abrahim, Ibrahim Hersi, Fessahie.
The following is a list of names of those Eritreans who left the Sudanese Army and joined the ELA based on an interview conducted with Abu Rijela at Rasai in 1982 and is taken from Wolde-Yesus Ammar’s book, “Eritrea Root Causes of War and Refugees”, 1992. It is to be recalled that Abu Rijela led the ELA army that had the first direct confrontation with the Ethiopian army at Togoruba on the 15th of March, 1964. He passed away, unfortunately as a refugee in Sudan, in 2010. Abu Rijela fought with the allied forces at Alalamein in Egypt, in Libya, Tunis and Crete Island before he joined Awate.

 Mohammed Ali ldris (Abu Rijela):
I was born near Agortdat and joined the Sudanese army in April 1934 at the age of 17. I did not know the difference between Eritrea and Sudan until 1956 when the Sudan became an independent republic.

I became a member of the ELM in 1959. The movement refused our demand to ask Awate to start an armed organization. At that time Abu Sheneb, Mohamed Ali Idris Tinay and myself discussed about divorcing our wives and to go to fight the Ethiopians. We joined Awate’s unit of 20 fighters in 1962 and for the first time brought them uniform. We were:

1.     Omar Izaz
2.     Mohamed Idris Haj
3.     Mohamed Ali Idris
4.     Osman Abu Shanab
5.     Mohamed Adem Gessir
6.     Osman damer
7.     Mohamed Ibrahim Bahduray
8.     Mohamed Omer Abu Teyara
9.     Mohamed Osman Tango
10.  Mohamed Ibrahim Amer
11.  Mohamed Adem Omer
12.  Saleh Al Hussein
13.  Adem Mohamed Hamid (Gindifil)
14.  Jimie Adem
15.  Tahir Salem
16.  Mohamed Saad
17.  Jaafer Mohamed
18.  Babiker Mohamed Idris
19.  Idris Sifaf
20.  Saleh Mohamed Idris
21.  Myself (Abu Rijela)
Hamid Balaay (also joined the ELA from the Sudanese Police (added to the list 2015)

According to Abdella Idris, the group joined Awate at at the village of Ad Hashela Shekur, close to the Sudanese border on 17/02/1962. He adds, Awate asked them to choose a leader who will choose his vice; and they all selected Awate as a leader and he chose Mohamed Idris Haj as his Vice-chair. Then he moved with the group to Abilnay (in Gash Area) so that they know each other better and train on all the guns that they had. He taught them how to fight in small groups, on hit and run tactics to be able to destroy the morale of big armies and he taught them to have solid faith in their just struggle. The training continued for 45 days. He divided  the group into small units and asked them to cut all telephone lines in the areas they cover at the same time, and to meet him again after the beginning of the rainy season, end of June 1962. But when they returned to the place again, they were told that Awate had died


Abu Rejeila recalls, By 1962, we were about 60 fighters, moving into platoons. Not less than 80 former soldiers in the Sudanese army joined the Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA) in those early years. We resembled forest guards by night and contraband traders by day. By the end of 1964 and early years of 1965, we had six platoons with grand total of about 800 fighters.
I can remember some figures on people killed by the Ethiopians: In 1967 they killed 47 villagers at Ad-Ibrihim and 200 persons from Ad Ukud. In 1968, the Ethiopian army killed 14 at Ad Kirmedai and 43 at Mogolo.


And this was a note written at about him:

An American free lance Journalist, Richard Lobban, who had visited the liberated areas (Having walked for 500 kilometers and spent two weeks inside liberated territory) ,wrote this about the ELA in 1972:

"One of the ELF's more significant military actions took place on November 7, 1966, when seventeen Eritrean towns were simultaneously attacked at midnight while an OAU summit conference was being held in Addis Ababa. This was de signed to focus world attention on the Eritrean struggle. Another action occurred on March 25, 1967, when a notorious official from the Ministry of the Interior was shot and killed. During a large-scale Ethiopian offensive, the ELA reported 793 Ethiopian soldiers killed, while their own losses were relatively slight.

In March 1969 the ELF blew up an Ethiopian Airlines plan. In March 1969 the ELF blew up an Ethiopian Airlines plane at Frankfurt, Germany. In June of the same year another plane was attacked in Frankfurt and one was damaged in Karachi. In September a plane was hijacked to Khartoum and one to Aden. In December another hijack attempt was foiled over southern Europe. These events brought world attention to Eritrea. On May 17 and 19, 1969, railway tracks and bridges were destroyed between Djibouti and Ethiopia; an explosion occurred at the Ethiopian Consulate in Djibouti and another bomb exploded at the Central Bank in Addis Ababa.

A recent incident which received world-wide publication occurred near the central Eritrean city of Keren, which had earlier been occupied for eight hours in an ELA "mini-Tet  offensive (in that it sought only political goals, and military conquest was not the main concern). The ELA ambushed a train at a station and politely asked the passengers, including many military men, to disembark. Meanwhile, down the tracks another team had unfastened the railroad track at a trestle spanning a gorge. The train resumed its forward motion with no passengers and tumbled car by car into the gorge in a mass of fire  and crumpled metal. Not a shot was fired nor a pound of dynamite used, but an entire, militarily important, train was completely destroyed....

Early in the war socialist countries were contributing much of the weaponry, either directly or through friendly countries. In June of 1965, eighteen tons of Czechoslovakian arms were seized in Khartoum. During this period and up until 1967, aid from Libya, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia was also known to be received. Some Egyptian weapons and advisors were reported. By 1971-72, little trace of these reactionary Arab states was to be seen. As such moderate and reactionary Arab countries drew back, Cuba and China began to show more interest in the movement. One reporter said in 1967 that the ELF "has no clearly defined ideological leanings ••. " This is no longer true today. Many officers have now returned from military and political training in Cuba, China, and those Arab countries which have reliably supported the Palestinian struggle to regain their lost homeland. The training is excellent and has produced "surprising discipline" among the soldiers as well as a "first rate intelligence network"--two waiters at the Kagnew radio base in Asm.ara were recently arrested as ELF spies.....

As with most guerilla armies, the ELF has obtained large amounts of its weapons from the enemy. Old British rifles are common. The big British Bren machine gun is quite popular, as it delivers heavy firepower and is relatively light. Some American weapons are also found, especially sidearms. The crack ELA assault forces, however, are using the Klashnikov from Russia and Czechoslovakia, and the Chinese Sim.onov. Friendly socialist and progressive countries have helped to make these contributions. Hand grenades and heavy anti-tapk weapons and other explosives are also part of the ELA armory. Each of the efficient soldiers is given nine months of military and political training inside liberated territory. It is incredible to watch 75 armed men just disappear into rocky terrain right before your eyes. Each footstep of a soldier demands a constant search for the next rock, tree, or dry river bed from which to make a defense. 

An encounter of American Kagnew personnel with an ELF unit at Quhaito, 4 July 1969:


مقابله مسجلة قبل ٤٦ عاما مع الشهيد عثمان ابو شنب عام ١٩٦٨ اجراها الصحفي الامريكي جاك كرامر بالميدان
Sound recordings by Jack Kramer with ELF members in the field in 1968 including interview with Osman Abu Sheneb and other members (In English and Arabic)

ELF Video:

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