The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was one of the two guerilla movements that were instrumental in the thirty years war for independence in Eritrea. In 1994, with the founding intents remaining intact, it changed its name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and became the only party ruling in Eritrea since its formal independence following the 1993 referendum. The country has no constitution, no contending political parties and, hence, no election. The PFDJ government now runs the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) which technically is a byproduct of independence war fighters and national service conscripts that would not let a chance for desertion escape.
As tradition would have it, perfect in its imperfection, heavy and indiscriminate artillery fire has been the hallmark of an EPLF combat device during their war for liberation and; the EDF, since it morphed into some form of a state. And that has been clearly revealed in the unwarranted minor and full-scale military engagements it had with its neighboring countries- Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia where it perfected and abused that craft to the maximum in the 1990s and 2000s.
Let’s consider the most recent one.
Nearly two years since their involvement in the war in Tigray, the EDF are still adept at what they believe they know best- artillery fire. Much as they started with indiscriminate shelling of Tigrayan towns ahead of storming them in late November 2020 and soon afterwards, the EDF left most of Tigrayan territories shelling the same targets on their way out eight months later. This also became a dirty trick the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) instantly adopted. Days before the fall of the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, also in the last week of November 2020, a senior Ethiopian army officer from an undisclosed location, possibly in Tigray, told Ethiopian Television— a government owned broadcaster and one of the many media outlets that fueled the war— that the army will start shelling Mekelle unless the city residents force “the junta” to leave city. Junta is a misnomer that the Ethiopian government had coined for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); a party that won a regional election in a landslide just two months before. Even if they wanted to, there was no way Mekelle residents could have heard the deadly threat as power was cut-off, and radio and television were thus off-air. “If they don’t, we are going to shell the town,” the officer had proudly declared. And, by that edict, he put in place a moratorium that doubled as a death warrant to an entire populace. And shell, they did. Characteristically, that continued for the duration of the occupation of eight months (November 2020-June 2021) and beyond on a scale that became excessively indiscriminate, and deadlier.
A bit of a background here.
The EDF tradition in long-range artillery shelling is not of recent import. It has roots in the EPLF liberation war years. Our family had to endure those artillery volleys a few times in Campo Volo, the neighborhood close to the Kagnew Station in the Eritrean capital Asmara which once was an American eavesdropping facility. The Americans have just left after the Dergue (Ethiopia’s military government) told them they were no longer welcome guests. And Kagnew was closed on April 29, 1977 as Ethiopia started rolling towards the Soviet fold. Instantly, the Russians moved in; and it became the headquarters of an Ethiopian army counter-insurgency unit that was clearly supported by their officers. An obvious target for what was to happen later.
Ethiopia was embroiled in the war with Somalia which had invaded much of its eastern flank. Between them, the EPLF and the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) had each liberated the major Eritrean towns tightening the noose on Asmara. Human traffic to and from the city was tight; and so were supplies. Most of the city residents were reduced to the barest minimum. To its credit, the government employed air cargo (including the Russian Antonov planes) as it strained to resupply Asmara with essentials. But as it wasn’t enough, people continued suffering from hunger. Malnourished children became a common sight. It was a question of time before the rebels would overrun Asmara and declare independence. Or, so it was hoped. But, unable to cut a deal, both were engaged in a tug-of war as to who should and could. Soon enough, with a freshly trained militia, regular troops and a bit of luck on its side, Ethiopia reversed the Somali invasion eventually reclaiming all its occupied territories in the Ogaden. Emboldened by the victory in 1978, the Dergue vowed to repeat the same in Eritrea. We shall repeat the victory scored in the East up in the North, became the official mantra often repeated in the electronic media and in public gatherings that were marked by extreme nationalist overtures. I remember parochial pieces of Ethiopian pop singers Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed echoing from trucks loaded with huge speakers crisscrossing town. Clearly Eritrea and Eritreans were about to be condemned to the likes of a Somali defeat a few months earlier; a display of the cruelty of what was going to be a total misadventure.
Encircling Asmara from various directions, the EPLF in particular kept on pounding several locations in the city using its 122-mm howitzer D-30s from the nearby villages it set up camp. It targeted several locations that it dubbed were military outposts including Asmara Airport— then known as Yohannes IV Airport after the last Ethiopian emperor of Tigrayan ethnicity— that also served as an airbase. Obviously, Kagnew Station was not spared. On a couple of occasions, the shells apparently missed their targets and landed on the nearest block, only a hundred meters from our home. Several other localities in the city were also recipients of similar artillery barrages. Indeed, these practices were not limited to Asmara only. Relatives in major Eritrean cities had to sustain comparable salvos for an indefinite period of time that in some cases spanned over a decade; for as long as the EPLF was stationed nearby.
The shelling were as much about attacking Ethiopian military facilities as, with dislocation at their heart, they were about inflicting terror on the city residents; and of showing presence of a rebel army. Cordoned off and starvation taking its toll, the chokehold on Asmara was so terminal that many of the young used every tunnel available to leave town in droves. For them, relocating to ancestral villages ‘until the dust settles down’ was no option. Waiting for their prey like a giant cobra just on the other end of the city limits were EPLF units. These units swelled with the new arrivals who had no other choice than to be consumed by the rebels. Indiscriminate shelling was thus an effective tool. In just under six months, the five sections in my 11th grade shrunk into two. Most of my classmates were gone. And most of those who did never survived the war and only a few made it back in 1991. They survived the torrents of artillery fire to town but couldn’t escape death in the field.
Fresh with victory in the war with Somalia, the Ethiopian army launched its onslaught on the insurgents. From the uneasy comforts of home, I could see Ethiopian MIG jets gliding into the late afternoon for days on end aiming at rebel positions just south of Asmara, in the villages of May Nefhi, Adi Guadad, Sela’e Dae’ro, Shiketi, and Dibariwa. Glued to the cranky transistor radio, we had to track the BBC on shortwave which was reporting those sorties. In no time, the Ethiopian troops pushed the rebel forces back to the remote areas, away from Asmara. And it was at least ten years before they could manage to come out of the woods. In the interim, the ELF was routed by the EPLF with massive support from the TPLF; and its remaining fighters fled to the Sudan in 1981.
Beset by what it believed were half-baked initiatives to end the Eritrean insurgency, the Dergue devised the so-called Red Star Campaign with a clearly stated goal to “wipe out” the EPLF and “canvas” Tigray where the TPLF was making significant strides in its own right. In that campaign of 1982— that is some 3-4 years after the push from Asmara— the Ethiopian government launched this subtle yet inherently cynical move which it dubbed a ‘multi-faceted pacification and development campaign.’ Following the 1974 Ethiopian revolution (1975-76) Eritreans— in the government’s brutal reaction to the fedayeen, rebel assassination squad activities particularly in Asmara— were subjected to point-blank killings and piano wire hangings claiming the lives of thousands. House-to-house searches for rebels became too normal as were the grotesque torture chambers that mushroomed in the capital. While the rest of Ethiopia welcomed the revolution, Eritreans— christening it egirgir (pandemonium)— did not. It was in part to redress those wanton killings that Mengistu Hailemariam transferred every conceivable bureaucrat from Addis Ababa to help with the campaign. It wasn’t just eliminating the rebels, but also rebuilding Eritrea, it argued. But, at the heart of it, there was no such thing as rebuilding. It was a rather brutal, final, make-or-break war to eliminate the rebels in their base in Nakfa, at the heart of the windswept deserts of Eritrea. And they committed well over half of the Ethiopian army. At that point, Ethiopia was one of the few African countries that claimed big armies. On the other end, there were only 12,000 EPLF fighters camped in Nakfa. It was to be a clash of un-equals. The TPLF, then barely six years old, mobilized a whopping 5,000 fighters, and had them march to Nakfa in record time to help defend the EPLF positions, whose end, as many argued, was just eminent. And diplomats based in Addis Ababa were leading that school of thought. Many African governments battling rebel movements in their grounds also prayed this would end with the demise of the EPLF.
But, hopes for a final assault on a 20 year old rebellion were dashed. In just two months, the campaign quickly floundered with the human and material toll on the Ethiopian side skyrocketing. Some 3,000 of the Ethiopian troops were killed or wounded. Not a light figure considering that Ethiopia then deployed 120,000 troops in Eritrea; a staggering number for a country with a population that stood at less than a third of what it is today. The war’s price tag soared. Whatever was left of the economy found itself in shambles.
Had it succeeded, though, the campaign would have been supplemented by another one to destroy the budding TPLF in Tigray. But with its failure came a turning point in the course of the war in northern Ethiopia then. Some six years later, the Ethiopian forces were met with a debacle at Afabet, one of the last battles that defined the course of the war. But the prelude to the fall of the coastal city of Massawa in 1990 reveals a disturbing story that until recently has been shelved. When the Ethiopian troops refused to surrender, true to its tradition, the EPLF spat its debilitating artillery fire on the city for days on end. It was gruesome and brutal. Over ten thousand, mostly Eritrean residents of Massawa, were killed. Quite quickly, however, the EPLF produced kibset (Losing Hope/Hopelessness), a documentary video, heavily banking on the montage of visuals from aerial bombardments and a city destroyed. That video which incriminated the Ethiopian forces was actually based on a host of falsehoods. But, once shared on VHS tapes, it was instrumental in tricking the international community with first in line to be shortchanged being the US Congress. A just cause; but a criminal means utilized to realize it. And that has since remained shrouded in mystery as one of the untold stories of the war in Eritrea. All said, Massawa heralded the end of Ethiopian presence in Eritrea that culminated with the liberation of Asmara in 1991.
The EDF has since embarked on a two-pronged initiative. With independence came the ability to buy fighter jets. And it combined both air and surface capabilities sharpened in their indiscriminate brutality in its wars with neighbors and beyond that followed barely a few years after Eritrea assumed statehood. Here, the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000, five years after Eritrea’s independence, comes to mind. Early in June 1998, an Eritrean airstrike (using a cluster bomb) targeted Ayder Elementary School in Mekelle, a clear civilian target, where the planes made two rounds and ended up killing sixty students, teachers and parents and wounding 158 others. Reacting to a similar airstrike on a kindergarten in late August this year, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the World Health Organization chief, said that his “own children escaped narrowly” that fateful day in 1998. He was then head of the Tigray Health Bureau in Mekelle. Just as with its use of artillery fire back in the 1970s and 1980s as a non-state actor, and on, it was indiscriminate with a clear mission of introducing fear and countless casualties with impunity.
The artillery barrage of towns and villages has continued unabated. To this day, the Tigray region is under siege and cut off from all forms of communication including telephone and the internet. Power and banking services are discontinued. The siege has brought the total collapse of the health system in the region. Even caring for the victims of indiscriminate aerial attacks has become a pipedream. For the last two years, schools— primary to tertiary level— are no longer functional. All students are out of the school system. Starvation, according to multiple credible institutions, is being used as a weapon of war. While continuing to destroy and loot their meager resources, the EDF and ENDF have made it clear that there is no way people in the region are going to access humanitarian aid across the board. Mostly in areas that they have now occupied in southern and western Tigray as well as other spots, the same troops and their allies from Amhara region are killing Tigrayans at an unprecedented scale. As per their war strategy, they shell towns and villages, start killing the young and raping women right on arrival in those locations. Videos that have now become available confirm the utter criminality of these troops torching houses and promising the eradication of Tigrayans all along.
If the occupation of western Tigray followed by mass killings and ethnic cleansing two years ago was a curtain raiser, the current invasion of Tigray by Eritrean, Ethiopian and regional vigilante groups is the play in its entirety. Very early in the war on Tigray, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the Western Tigray massacre of Tigrayans ethnic cleansing. He has never built on that since. Operating much like army bunkers from its headquarters off Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Media Authority – the government’s gate keeper- has virtually blocked any independent news gathering on the Tigray massacre which is happening in the dark. But in just under two years, close to 800,000 have reportedly perished by indiscriminate killings, hunger, malnutrition, lack of medicine, you name it. With no end in sight, that is bound to dwarf Rwanda-1994 which, at least, the world press had the chance to cover on a daily basis. And what we saw in Assad’s Syria, Putin’s Ukraine and Afghanistan combined, ladies and gentlemen, pales in comparison to what is happening in Tigray-2022. This is probably the first time in recent memory that a brutal war of that variety is being orchestrated by a regime whose bloke at the helm had actually grabbed the Nobel Peace Prize. Regrettably, the world is just sitting idly by while the Tigrayans are left to their own devices in this fast-paced race to save themselves. When is the EDF going to pay for those crimes? Very hard to be optimistic!
Jihon (pen name) is an experienced Ethiopian journalist