Dawn after a Long, Dark Night: A Look Back at Operation Fenkil

Articles - General

Throughout the year, different days and periods present Eritreans with an opportunity to look back upon important historical dates and commemorate special events and occasions.

For example:the month of March - although it should be something that should be firmly in our minds every day - is about recognizing the critical role played by our strong, valiant women in the independence struggle, protecting our nation from invasion, and our families and communities;the month of May is about celebrating and enjoying our hard-fought independence; June is about reflecting upon the great sacrifices paid by martyrs and veterans, as well as committing ourselves to honor, guard, and build the nation; and the month of September allows us to remember the first shots fired by courageous patriots to spark the long liberation struggle. Similarly, the month of February is about looking back upon Operation Fenkil and the Battle of Massawa, which took place in 1990. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) victory in the pivotal battle was the beginning of the end for Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam and the Dergue regime, and it signaled to everyone that Eritrea’s independence, once regarded and dismissed by many as unlikely or even impossible, was on the immediate horizon.

Of course, well over a decade before Operation Fenkil, in the late 1970s, the EPLF actually came very close to liberating Eritrea. The independence movement was suddenly stopped in its tracks, however, with liberation fighters having surrounded Asmara and so near to victory, due to the USSR’s extension of massive firepower and war materiel to the occupying Ethiopian regime. Recall that until 1977, the United States was the major supplier of arms to the Ethiopian state. In fact, in 1977, it provided arms sales on credit worth $US 109.4 million to the Ethiopian regime. However, in addition to receiving heavy armaments from the USSR, Ethiopia received considerable financial backing and was supported by numerous Soviet advisors and various military technicians who directly took part in combat and military operations. The USSR’s overwhelming support to Ethiopia shifted momentum in the war back onto the side of the Ethiopian regime, contributing to the Eritreans’ decision to make a strategic withdrawal to Nakfa (considered the “place of resilience”, Nakfa was the EPLF’s mountain fortress).

Over the following years, despite repeated attempts and continued extensive foreign support, the Ethiopian army was unable to dislodge the Eritreans from Nakfa. Between 1978 and 1981, the Dergue unleashed five large-scale military campaigns against the EPLF, none of which resulted in success. Then, in January 1981, Colonel Mengistu announced Operation Red Star, which the regime hoped would finally destroy the EPLF “bandits and mercenaries.” The following year, after extensive preparations and with the close support of Soviet advisors, the regime of Colonel Mengistu embarked on the counter-offensive (its sixth) with over 136,000 troops, massively outnumbering the Eritreans. Regardless of the great disparity in personnel, equipment, and external support, the campaign failed to drive the EPLF from Nakfa. Instead, it resulted in the death of over 40,000 Ethiopian troops. After withstanding Operation Red Star, the EPLF regrouped to seize the military initiative.

In March of 1988, the EPLF scored a victory in a monumental battle in Afabet, considered by eminent historian Basil Davidson as the most significant victory for any liberation movement since the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu (note that Davidson was visiting the EPLF base areas at the time). By the end of the three-day battle, which significantly tipped the military balance in favor of the EPLF, the Eritreans had killed or captured over 18,000 Ethiopian soldiers, and acquired a massive amount of arms and supplies from the enemy. Notably, two months following the EPLF’s historic victory, Ethiopia decreed a state of emergency in Eritrea. Subsequently, from May 13 to 23, 1989,a multi-pronged Ethiopian counter-offensive involving the deployment of 10 divisions was repulsed by the EPLF. Ethiopia's aggregate losses during the 11-day battle exceeded 9,000 soldiers, while 33 tanks and 28 military vehicles were destroyed.

Throughout the 1980s, despite the considerable decline of Soviet power and the USSR’s growing socio-economic and political crises at home, the Soviets continued their massive support to the Ethiopian regime. In 1989, the USSR supplied the Ethiopian government with more than $US 800 million of Soviet military hardware, including new generation T-62 tanks and B-24 multiple-rocket launchers.

It was against this historical backdrop that the EPLF conducted its daring land and sea operation, code named Operation Fenkil, in February 1990. In the year prior to the offensive, the EPLF built up its naval capabilities and then secretly moved its powerful forces into the region, aiming to isolate Asmara from the sea (the coastal city and the capital are separated by a distance of approximately 115 kilometers). Beginning in the early hours of February 8, the quick and decisive EPLF offensive, launched on three different fronts, would end by February 10, when the Eritreans had secured the mainland. However, days later, on February 16, EPLF forces stormed the islands in a combined land and sea assault.

The EPLF’s bold surprise attack cut-off the Ethiopian regime’s access to supplies provided by the USSR through Massawa. Not only did the Eritrean forces employ tanks and various armaments and heavy artillery, they also relied upon a small fleet of gun boats to attack from the sea. During the duration of the battle, about 9,000-10,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed, while many others were left wounded. In addition, thousands of Ethiopian troops, including high-ranking generals and commanders surrendered to the EPLF, with many other Ethiopian troops retreating to the town of Ghinda.

The EPLF’s capture of Massawa meant that apart from Assab, far to the south, Asmara and its immediate environs were the last areas of Eritrea still controlled by the Dergue regime; the rest of the population lived in areas controlled by the EPLF. However, as it had done in other instances after suffering losses to the EPLF, the Dergue responded to the Eritreans’ capture of the coastal city by taking bloody retribution. It began a systematic and devastating bombing campaign, as well as firing shells from Ethiopian gunboats. These actions, targeting civilians and non-military targets, were in direct contravention to the international laws governing armed conflicts (such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocol on the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts). The bombing and shelling campaign, which involved the use of napalm and cluster munitions,killed and severely injured many civilians and completely or partially destroyed dozens of buildings, many of which were of great religious and historic significance. Additionally, the Dergue refused to allow the safe entry of relief shipments. Some estimates suggest that its retributive bombing campaign in Massawa led to over 25,000 tons of food aid being burned and completely destroyed.

The bombing raids and shelling attacks were carried not only to wreak revenge and punishment, but also in order to demoralize Eritrean civilians who came to learn that "liberation" from the government's control did not mean protection from its still potent air force. After the battle, Massawa was effectively turned into a “ghost town”. About 20,000 people fled to other areas, while many others daily evacuated the town at dawn, spending their days far beyond the town sheltering under trees and bushes, and only coming back at dusk.

The Dergue’s raids would only cease in June. At a special summit convened by US President Bush and USSR President Gorbachev, the two leaders discussed the issue of Massawa and called upon Ethiopia to allow the port to reopen, a request to which the Ethiopian government complied for a short while (although it continued to bomb other areas and would continue bombing the city later). According to a number of analysts, no other town was as badly damaged during the independence struggle as Massawa.

Ultimately, Operation Fenkil would prove to be one of the final major steps taken before Eritrea’s independence. By early 1991, the EPLF intensified its attacks along the eastern coast to seize Assab and cut-off Ethiopian access to the sea. On May 21, it captured the city of Dekemhare, and Colonel Mengistu fled from Addis Ababa to Zimbabwe. Days later, the EPLF entered Asmara welcomed by jubilant crowds, signifying the end of the armed struggle for independence. Quickly, the plans for a historic, internationally-backed referendum were begun. Two years later, the Eritrean dream, which many had ignored, claimed was unattainable and impossible to achieve, or sought to extinguish, became reality. Eritreans, finally, were able to exercise their inviolable and inalienable right to self-determination in a free and fair referendum on the issue for which they had long campaigned and fought for: freedom and independence.

Dawn, coming after the darkness of night, signals the beginning of a new day. Similarly, Operation Fenkil and the Battle of Massawa, occurring exactly 29 years ago this weekend, arrived after decades of bloodshed and destruction. The Eritrean victory represented the beginning of the end of the darkness of Ethiopian colonial rule and meant that the dawn of Eritrean independence was on the horizon.