Operation Fenkil: The Beginning Of The Last Journey
By Amanuel Mahdere
The great military victory our gallant freedom fighters have won during Operation Fenkil in the 10th of February 1990 was one of a series of military operations that cut short the prolonged Ethiopian colonization of Eritrea. This military victory was also a sound means through which an important message was conveyed to the world at large and to the enemy in particular. This was true in that Operation Fenkil was an event that heralded the inevitable liberation of Eritrea and the return of the country to its owners. On the 10th of February the freedom fighters were able to block the Asmara-Massawa Highway and marched towards the strategic port city of Massawa thereby controlling the bigger part of the Red Sea coastline.
FightersoftheEritreanrevolution, disregarding the enemy’s human and material superiority, began a surprise attack against the enemy lines, and in the course of the 72- hour long war, fought fiercely against the Derg’s army which was armed with well over 150 tanks along with tens of cannons, missiles and anti-tank rockets. However, as the freedom fighters gained the upper hand in the war and eventually captured Massawa, not only was the enemy incapacitated and crushed, but also all its military hardware except those that were burnt in the process fall in to the hands of the EPLF. Moreover, the futile dream of Derg’s political and military officials to further colonize the people and the land of Eritrea was shattered, and the beacon of independence began to be seen very closely than ever before.
One of the unique aspects of this operation was the effective involvement of the young and inexperienced naval forces of EPLF in the war effort. This young unit of EPLF, relying on speed boats and innovative wits of its members, fought with determination against the veteran and experienced naval force of the Derg. In so doing, it not only deprived the Derg’s naval force of its long established pride, but also managed to grab and own its belongings.
By all standards, Operation Fenkil was a large-scale military offensive in which the naval, infantry and heavy artillery units of EPLF waged well-coordinated attacks against enemy positions. The astonishment and confusion it created among the military strategists of the Derg and its foreign advisors was also one of its marked aspects. As Massawa was the supply line of the Derg’s army, its capture by the freedom fighters meant the strangulation of the Second Revolutionary Army stationed in Eritrea. Therefore the success of Operation Fenkil and the liberation of Massawa have reduced the colonial army to a mere fighting force waiting its demise sooner or later.
For some governments and politicians, Eritrean revolution was simply an illusion with no hope of victory. Therefore emanating from such a distorted understanding, these governments and their political bureaucrats used to say that “Eritrean revolution wouldn’t come out victorious over the Derg and the superpowers backing it. In this war, there is no winner and loser”. But this was proved wrong by Operation Fenkil, and hence, these people were forced to open their eyes, see the reality on the ground and revise their misguided perception of the whole situation. Even Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam himself admitted his loss in the operation and expressed the negative implication of the war he lost several times during his meetings with his generals. In his words: “Massawa fall under the bandits. They grabbed our throat. The survival of Second Revolutionary Army is threatened.” His cadres also repeated these same words at every occasion and gatherings.
The freedom fighters, taking advantage of the shift in the balance of power, continued to push the war to its limit until the final surrender of the colonial army. The operation proved that it was the beginning of the last journey towards independence. Hence, the Derg, being hopeless about the whole situation, desperately raided the port city of Massawa with warplanes, targeting mainly civilians and infrastructures. In fact the Derg was trying in vain to reverse the war to the status quo. But it could be said that the liberation war was almost finished with the astounding victory at Operation Fenkil.
The victory at Operation Fenkil was not a sudden and unexpected one. It was a continuation of previous battlefield victories in the field of Eritrea. One of such successful military engagements that preceded the victorious Operation Fenkil was the one that caused the demise of Nadew Ez at Afabet on March 1988. Operation Fenkil also was a result of EPLF’s policy of “gradual liberation of the people and the land” and the manifestation of tenacity of Eritrean people.
For the Derg’s army, the loss of Massawa was not the first blow that shook its strong military basis. Two years before Operation Fenkil was launched, EPLF had attacked the Derg’s largest military garrison at Afabet and controlled the town. At this time, it is to be recalled that even the Derg’s allies entered into a state of confusion. Thus, just before the launch of Operation Fenkil, to save the Derg from its inevitable downfall and to block the rapid march to independence, the former US president Jimmy Carter acted as a lobbyist in the so-called peace dialogue he himself arranged and tried in vain to bring about settlement short of independence between EPLF and the Derg. However, as EPLF is known for putting trust in the Eritrean people throughout the struggle days, it never was impressed by the hypocritical “dialogue” and therefore never swayed from the road to independence. And above all the successful attacks at Massawa revealed that justice is obtainable only through tenacity and determination, not through lobbying or the generosity of courts. This was the message Operation Fenkil heralded to the whole world.
One of the precious revolutionary values of EPLF is to firmly stand on the set principles despite the disguised but seducing approach of enemies and their allies. In the course of liberation struggle, Eritrean people never relied on external support, lobbying and mercy of outsiders. And more importantly, the leadership put its trust only on the principle of self-reliance and was never lured or cheated by hypocritical diplomacy. Therefore this was the attitude that guided the struggle to independence and helped own back the rights snatched by the colonizers. Still today and in the future, our values of the struggle days will continue to pave our way towards complete political and economic emancipation.
Long live to the heroes of Operation Fenkil!