Eritrea, an area extending along 670 miles of the southern Red Sea in Africa. The territory was colonized by Italy in 1882 and became a base for attacks on neighbouring Ethiopia in 1895.
In 1941 Eritrea was occupied by the British Army and remained under British control for the rest of the Second World War.
Eritrea, Africa's newest nation, celebrated its tenth year of independence in 2001. In May 1991, Eritrean liberation fighters swept the besieged remnants of Ethiopia's occupying army out of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, ending four decades of Ethiopian control and Africa's longest continuous modern war. In April 1993, Eritreans overwhelmingly endorsed independence in a UN-monitored referendum. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea declared itself an independent nation and four days later joined the United Nations.
The armed struggle for Eritrea's independence began in 1962, after a decade of Ethiopian violations of a UN-imposed Ethiopia-Eritrea federation, and following Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea as its fourteenth province. In the early 1970s, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), was organized and, throughout the next decade, emerged as the dominant liberation force. The Eritrean independence struggle became synonymous with "selfreliance"&mdasha 30-year war fought from wholly within the country by a politically mobilized population supporting a large, well-trained army using captured weapons. The historical and political necessity of Eritrean self-reliance forced Eritreans to plan and test&mdashwhile fighting for&mdashthe kind of society they wanted, with education a vital factor in the liberation movement's success and a key element in the Eritrean model of development.
Country & People: Eritrea is a torch-shaped wedge of land, about the size of Britain, along the Red Sea coast in northeast Africa. Sudan is to the north and west, Djibouti to the southeast, and the Ethiopian province of Tigray to the south. As a former province of Ethiopia, Eritrea formed that country's entire, 750-mile Red Sea coast. A highland plateau divides the northern half of the country, with lowlands to the west and east. The south is desert. Asmara and major towns are sited in the highlands. Massawa and Assab are significant Red Sea ports.
About 20 percent of Eritreans are urbanized, forming a significant working class. Of the rural population, more than 60 percent are farmers the rest combine farming and herding, except for the less than 5 percent who lead purely nomadic lives in the far northern mountains and southern coastal desert. Eritreans comprise nine ethnolinguistic groups. The total population of about 3.5 million is approximately equally divided between Muslims and Christians, the religious division cutting across some ethnic lines. The predominant language is Tigrinya, spoken by the group of that name. Arabic is widely spoken among Muslims. English&mdashthe language of instruction in post-elementary schools&mdashis increasingly common, especially in the cities.
Early History: Archeological sites in Eritrea have yielded hominid fossils judged to be two million years old. Tools from about 8000 B.C., unearthed in western Eritrea, provide the earliest concrete evidence of human settlement. Rock paintings found throughout the country, dating to at least 2000 B.C., have been assigned to a nomadic cattle-raising people. Between 1000 and 400 B.C., the Sabeans, a Semitic group, crossed the Red Sea into Eritrea and intermingled with the Pygmy, Nilotic, and Kushitic inhabitants known to have earlier migrated from Central Africa and the middle Nile. In the sixth century B.C., Arabs occupied the Eritrean coast, establishing trade with India and Persia, as well as with the pharaonic Egyptians. The ports of Eritrea enjoyed continuous contact with Red Sea traffic and Middle East cultures that fostered a cosmopolitanism unique to the coast.
The powerful Axumite kingdom, centered in the present-day Ethiopian province of Tigray, prospered on trade through Eritrea from the first to sixth century A.D., adopting Christianity in the fourth century, then declined as Beja tribes migrated from Sudan and Arabs gained dominance of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Turks ruled Massawa and its coastal plains from 1517 to 1848, when they were displaced by Egypt. With the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, the Red Sea coast gained strategic and commercial importance. In that year the Italian government purchased the port of Assab from the local sultan. The Italians occupied Massawa in 1885. In 1889 the Ethiopian King Menelik ceded Eritrea to the Italians in exchange for military support against his Tigrayan rivals.
Prior to Italian domination, education fell into two broad categories, religious and local. Christian and Muslim clerical hierarchies replenished themselves by educating&mdashessentially raising&mdashsmall numbers of children in the tenets of the faith. Local education, as in any society, consisted of training children in practical, productive skills: home construction, traditional medicine, music-making, storytelling, and decorative arts. These practices persist in all of Eritrea's cultures and can be detected in general in the force of authority, especially generational authority, and the educative functioning of exemplary behavior, demonstration, and imitation.
Italian Eritrea: Despite Menelik's treaty with Italy, Italian legions invaded Tigray in 1895. The Italian generals, however, blundered fatally at Adwa on March 1, 1896, losing nearly half of their forces. In the ensuing Treaty of Addis Ababa, Italy renounced claims to Ethiopia, while Menelik affirmed Italian control of Eritrea.
The Italians ruled Eritrea until their defeat in Africa by the British in 1941. Education in Italian Eritrea prior to fascism was in the hands of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Swedish missionaries had established the first school, in Massawa, in the 1860s, and by the 1920s had schools in eight centers, serving 1,100 students. An early center of Roman Catholic missionary education was the highland city of Keren, where a seminary, day school, and orphanage served a few hundred children. In 1909, the first colonial educational policy was declared, based on separate schools for Italians and Eritreans. Schooling was compulsory for Italians to age 16 the curriculum of Italy was used. Education for Eritreans, however, limited to the Italian language and basic skills, was designed to produce menials for the Italians.
After Mussolini's rise to power, strict racial laws enforced segregation and wage differentials based on color. Benefiting from low wages and extensive use of child labor, the Italians built diverse manufacturing concerns, increasing the drift to the towns by the end of Italian colonial rule, about 20 percent of the population was living in urban centers, where they were restricted by law to native quarters. In 1932, the first central office for primary education was established, the purpose of which as defined by its director, Andrea Festa, was to ensure that education accorded with the principles of the Italian regime. In 1938 Festa wrote to headmasters: "The Eritrean student should be able to speak our language moderately well he should know the four arithmetical operations within normal limits. and of history he should know only the names of those who have made Italy great." But education was never widely available to Eritreans, and fourth grade was the highest level an Eritrean was allowed to reach. There were only 20 schools for Eritreans in 1938-39, with 4,177 students.
British Administration: Italian colonialism was an early casualty of World War II. British forces entered Eritrea in January 1941. British administration continued to 1952. The British gradually removed the color bar, began an "Eritreanization" of lower administrative positions, and allowed the formation of political parties and trade unions. At the beginning of British rule, there were no Eritrean teachers but, in 1942, nineteen were recruited. Over the next ten years, the British increased the number of elementary schools to 100 and opened 14 middle and 2 secondary schools. The curriculum introduced in 1943 covered agriculture, woodworking, clay-modeling, carpet-making, shoe-making, reading, writing, and hygiene for boys, and reading, writing, hygiene, weaving, sewing, basket work, and domestic science for girls. Textbooks in Tigrinya were locally printed, books in Arabic and English were provided, and entrance to the middle schools required students to be able to read and write English. In 1946 a teacher training college was established by 1950, fifty-three men and seven women were in training to be teachers.
Through school committees organized in the villages, Eritreans actively supported education, funding school construction, and paying teachers. But the demand for education far exceeded budgeted funds, a 1950 British government report admitted, leaving many children unserved because of a lack of buildings, equipment, and staff.
Federation & Annexation: In 1952, after lengthy debate, and with Cold War politics a factor, the UN General Assembly voted to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia. Eritrea was to be an autonomous unit under the sovereignty of Ethiopia's monarch, Haile Selassie. The contradictions of federation were immediately apparent. Ethiopia's feudal economy and imperial political system clashed with the capitalist development of Eritrea and the democratic constitution approved by the elected Eritrean Assembly in 1952. Eritrean political parties and trade unions were banned, newspapers censored, and protests attacked by police. Finally, in November 1962, Selassie terminated Eritrea's federal status, making Eritrea a province of Ethiopia.
Eritrea had passed from British control to the federal arrangement with better educational facilities than Ethiopia, but Ethiopia's imperial government soon began to undermine Eritrean education, along with other institutions. In 1956, Eritrean languages were banned and replaced by Amharic, an Ethiopian language virtually unknown in Eritrea. Ethiopian teachers brought in to teach Amharic were paid 30 percent more than their Eritrean counterparts. The first of many student strikes occurred in 1957 at the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Asmara, the first school at which Amharic was made compulsory in response, 300 students were jailed for a month.
Following annexation in 1962, all education decisions were made in Addis Ababa. The policies of "Ethiopianization" and "Amharization" intensified and became factors that awakened Eritreans' national consciousness and united diverse ethnic groups against the imperial regime.
In 1962 the Santa Familia University, founded in Asmara by the Comboni Sisters in 1958, obtained recognition from the Ethiopian government, changing its name to the University of Asmara. But Eritrean students resented entrance policies they viewed as favoring Ethiopians.
The Independence War: In 1963, elementary and secondary teachers went on strike, ostensibly over the pay differential between Eritrean and Ethiopian teachers. Underlying the strike, however, were sympathies for the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which had begun a guerrilla war for independence a year before. Teachers were active in clandestine nationalist organizations, and many were arrested, jailed without trial, or transferred to Ethiopia. Starting in 1967 when large-scale military confrontations broke out between the Ethiopian army and ELF, young nationalists began joining the guerrillas outright. In 1970, members of ELF had a falling out, some of the dissidents eventually forming the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The ELF was organized along religious and regional lines the EPLF called for nonsectarian unity and social revolution, a stance that attracted even more students and intellectuals.
The Dergue: Ethiopia's monarchy was replaced by a military dictatorship, called the Dergue (committee) in 1974. Under Haile Mengistu Mariam, the Dergue pressed for a military victory over the Eritrean independence movement. Ethiopian forces steadily lost ground. By 1977 the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. That year, however, a massive airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia enabled the Ethiopian Army to regain the initiative and forced the EPLF, largely intact, to retreat to the mountainous north of the country.
Educated Eritreans were a particular target of Dergue harassment and violence. Thousands were detained and many killed. Amharic remained compulsory, and the number of Ethiopian teachers increased&mdashup to 2,000 by 1980. The Dergue had declared Ethiopia a Marxist state, and all teachers were required to attend weekly classes in Marxism-Leninism, where their allegiance to the official doctrine was scrutinized. Eritrean teachers were further demoralized by the lack of professional development afforded them. In this climate, school officials feared widespread desertion of students to the guerrillas, and teachers were susceptible to accusations of political deviance both factors led to a precipitous drop in educational quality and standards. In 1990 the Dergue disbanded the University of Asmara, taking its staff and movable property to Ethiopia.
The EPLF: Between 1978 and 1986, the Dergue launched eight major offensives against the EPLF all failed. In 1988, the EPLF captured Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea. At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union withdrew support, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF began to advance on remaining Ethiopian positions. Meanwhile, other dissident movements were making headway throughout Ethiopia. In May 1991, the EPLF entered Asmara without firing a shot. Simultaneously, Mengistu fled before the advance of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which formed a new government in Ethiopia.
During the war the EPLF established healthcare and education programs and facilities in the regions under its control. Education was seen by EPLF leaders as integral to the national liberation struggle. An early EPLF slogan was "Illiteracy is our main enemy." EPLF-sponsored education was marked by the integration of theory and practice. In the 1970s, efforts focused on the combatants themselves with all new recruits&mdashmen and women (women made up a third of the fighters) with less than seven years of schooling required to complete their education in the EPLF, attending classes for up to six hours a day. Many rural villagers and farmers encountered education for the first time in the front.
In the mid-1970s liberated areas began to expand. In essaying the beginnings of a national school system, the EPLF began the Zero School, a boarding school for orphans, refugees, children of fighters, and those who had run away to join the front but were too young to fight. The Zero School, started with about 150 students and a handful of teachers, was designed as a teaching laboratory and workshop for the expanding education system. The Zero School eventually offered five years of elementary education and two years of middle school, adding grades as students continued. By 1983, the school had more than 3,000 students.
In addition to the Zero School, the EPLF maintained regular schools in liberated, predominantly rural areas. At many sites, students sat on stones in the shade of trees. Schools had to be camouflaged against air attack, and students had to be prepared to take cover.
In 1983 a national adult literacy campaign was begun with the dispatch of 451 teenage Zero School students to serve as teachers behind enemy lines. The literacy campaign reached 56,000 adults, 60 percent of them women. The campaigners taught reading, writing, numeration, hygiene, sanitation, and health, and participated in agriculture in the rural communities.
Drought and Ethiopian military offensives after 1985 disrupted the literacy campaign, and the EPLF abandoned the campaign form altogether when it began its own offensives in 1988, continuing adult education only for civilian health, agricultural, and political workers brought in groups to protected areas for one to two months at a time. By 1990, with the war intensifying to its climax, adult education was available only to combatants. Nevertheless, in the vast areas of liberated countryside, education continued. In 1990, a year before liberation, there were 165 schools administered by the EPLF, with 1,782 teachers serving about 27,000 students.
Independent Eritrea: In May 1991, the EPLF established the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) to administer Eritrean affairs until a referendum on independence could be held and a permanent government established. EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki became the head of the PGE, and the EPLF Central Committee served as its legislative body. On April 23-25, 1993, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia in a UN-monitored referendum. The government was reorganized and after a national, freely contested election, the National Assembly, which chose Afwerki as President of the State of Eritrea, was expanded to include both EPLF and non-EPLF members. Expressing the government's commitment to working towards gender equality, 30 percent of the Assembly seats were reserved for women, while the remaining seats were open to men and women. The EPLF established itself as a political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in February 1994. A new constitution establishing a tripartite government and guaranteeing human and civil rights for all Eritreans was ratified in 1997 but was not implemented, as pending parliamentary elections were postponed indefinitely following the start of a border conflict with Ethiopia in May 1998. The National Assembly&mdashwith 150 seats, half elected by the people, half installed by the PFDJ&mdashcontinued to govern the country, and Afwerki remained president, but new elections were scheduled for the end of 2001.
After the long independence war, Eritrea faced an enormous task of reconstruction. The economy and infrastructure had collapsed, and social services had disintegrated, the result of war damage, population displacement, and prolonged, severe neglect. Education was seen as a key to overall development of the country, and an immediate priority: Five months after the May 1991 victory, the EPLF reopened schools country-wide. A 1994 policy document outlined these educational objectives:
- to produce a population equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge, and culture for a self-reliant and modern economy
- to develop self-consciousness and self-motivation in the population
- to fight poverty, disease, and all the attendant causes of backwardness and ignorance
- to make basic education available to all.
In meeting these goals, the government from 1991 to 2000 constructed 365 new schools, mostly in the severely disadvantaged lowland areas. An additional 323 existing schools were rehabilitated, in many cases old schools made of twigs and sacks being replaced by entirely new buildings. From 1991 to 2000, total school enrollment (government and non-government elementary, middle, and secondary schools) increased by 255 percent, from 168,783 pupils to 429,884 pupils. The number of teachers also increased, from 5,188 in 1991 to 8,588 in 2000. A sharp increase in the number of qualified elementary teachers, from 42.7 to 72.4 percent from 1992 to 1996, was the result of three consecutive summers of inservice training at the Asmara Teachers Training Institute.
In the ten years after independence, the existing curriculum was extensively reviewed, and weaknesses were identified. English curriculum, grades 2-10, was completely revised and new textbooks were created, but few other reforms had been implemented by 2001. Additionally during this period, a score of research projects looked into such areas as girls' participation at the elementary level, education of nomads, the structure of technical and vocational education, community response to mother-tongue teaching, and preschool education needs. Beginning in 1994, secondary school students were sent during summer vacation to various regions to engage in development work: environmental protection, road construction and maintenance, production and repair of school furniture, laying power lines, and improving community sanitation. Each summer, approximately 30,000 students (38 percent of them female) participated. The program's goals include strengthening students' cultural experience, work ethic, and ecological awareness.
In 1999 a border dispute with Ethiopia devolved into large-scale war. During the fighting, as many as a million Eritreans were internally displaced and 67,000 were expelled from Ethiopia, most arriving destitute in Eritrea, severely straining the nation's social services. Among those still displaced at the end of fighting in mid-2000 were 139,000 school-age children. The government responded with makeshift schools, enlarged class sizes, and emergency shipments of school supplies to the affected areas.
Eritrea: A Brief History of Christianity and Persecution
For most of us, the separation of church and state is a given. The government doesn’t generally endorse any one religion or act on behalf of any one religion. But to residents in Eritrea, life doesn’t work this way.
Eritrea’s Religious Makeup
In Eritrea, both Christianity and Islam have ancient roots. Modern-day Eritrea was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in the 4th century, for example. And Islam also arrived early in Eritrea when followers of Mohammed arrived in the region in 615. Still today, many centuries later, Eritrea is roughly equally divided with approximately half of Eritreans claiming to be Christian and the other half claiming to be Muslim.
Despite both Christians and Muslims being present in the same country, for much of Eritrea’s history, they were not usually present in the same region. Instead, the highlands were controlled by Christians and the lowlands by Muslims.
Eritrea’s Political History
Eritrea combined with Ethiopia as part of a federation in 1952. In just a decade, however, Ethiopia decided to annex Eritrea as a province, which triggered a struggle for independence. In 1991, Eritrean rebels won out. Through most of this time and even in transition, there were basic religious freedoms in Eritrea. But in 2002, even though the law technically recognizes a separation of church and state, the government ordered the closure of all religious groups except for the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran supported Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
Persecution in Eritrea
Many other Christian groups not recognized by the government were forced to go underground to practice their religion, and adherents were threatened with severe consequences if caught gathering or worshipping.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were one of the first to be targeted. Between 2003 and 2005, the state moved on to targeting Christians they labeled Pentecostals. The term “Pentecostal”—or “Pentay,” however, is a generic one that the state uses to refer to Protestants in general even if they do not identify themselves as actual Pentecostals. In actuality, many of these believers belong to the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, which was formed with the support of Lutheran and Presbyterian missionary organizations.
Unfortunately, these and other Protestant Christian groups are considered a threat to the state. According to one religious liberty report from 2010, for example, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki was said to fear Christian evangelism because it could destabilize and disunify the country.
Considered enemies to the state, the government enlists community members to spy on certain Christian groups who they see as “agents of the West.” Once identified, there are reports of Christian torture, houses of believers being attacked, beaten, and imprisoned in horrific conditions. Some Christians have even been locked in metal shipping containers where they died of heat exhaustion and suffocation.
Today, thousands of Christians are being held in detention without being charged with a crime or given the opportunity for trial. Other Christians, not yet detained, continue to flee the country. There are also reports of Christian leaders being tortured and asked to recant their faith or sign statements that vow they will not practice their faith, gather to worship or express their beliefs in any way.
Unfortunately, while some Muslim groups face persecution as well, radical Muslims also appear to be gaining support from the government, including possibly even supplying one group with weapons. These Muslim adherents claim to be ‘Muslim first’ and see leaving Islam to convert to Christianity as a betrayal of their community. These radical Muslims are increasingly targeting Christians with violence and the state, who outlaws most Protestant groups, offers no protection.
The government, in fact, denies persecution is even happening. Despite Amnesty International reporting arbitrary arrests without trial on a large scale, the government has called such claims unsubstantiated.
Open Doors in Eritrea
Since the 1990s, Open Doors has been working to strengthen believers in Eritrea through strategic partnerships with the local church. To aid persecuted Christians, Open Doors provides livelihood assistance, practical aid and discipleship support as well as raising awareness and prayer support.
Readers concerned for the plight of Eritrea’s Christians can ask God to change the heart of the government, to comfort and strengthen those imprisoned, and to protect believers who have fled Eritrea and are often at risk of trafficking or violence.
Eritrea is a small underdeveloped country located in northeast Africa. The country got independence in 1993 after thirty years of freedom war with Ethiopia. The people of Eritrea have no freedom to speak or to elect their own government. The country’s capital is famous for its Italian style structures. The country has multiple National and official working languages. It is the place where one of the oldest known fossils were found by the scientists.
These are some of the interesting facts we discussed in our article. If you are interested, you should visit the Country Page!
March in Eritrea’s History
The history of Eritrea is a history of struggle against colonial subjugation and following independence, safeguarding the hard-won sovereignty. The month of March takes a center stage in this course of history because it is marked by significant events.
The symbol of perseverance and resilience of the Eritrean people, the town of Nakfa, was liberated on Mar 22nd, 1977. Nakfa was the only town, once liberated by the Eritrean liberation fighters, the Ethiopian army couldn’t recapture. In the hard times of our struggle, Nakfa proved to be the reliable sanctuary of Eritrean fighters. The Ethiopian army tried many deadly battles to regain Nakfa saying “Nakfa or death” to no victory. Nakfa saved the symbolic and material aspect of the Eritrean struggle for independence. The liberation of Nakfa lifted the morale of the Eritrean people and gave hope that independence could one day be achieved. In recognition of its paramount importance during the struggle for independence, Eritrea named its currency Nakfa. This operation paved the way for the subsequent libation of other decisive places between 1977 and 1988.
On March 26, 1983, the seventh, also called the stealth offensive of Dergue was met with fierce resistance and failed after weeks of heavy fighting. It took this name since it was done stealthily. Dergue initiated this military initiative because it thought that EPLF had been weakened in the sixth offensive. The Dergue also anticipated regaining from the frustration and humiliation it had received during the sixth offensive. The seventh offensive was launched seven months after the end of the sixth offensive on March 26, 1983. This offensive proved to be as challenging as the sixth offensive for the EPLF. The numerical disadvantage of EPLF was compensated by perseverance, dedication and creativity of the fighters.
Marsa Teklai: Valiant Liberation Fighters Marching
In March 1984, our gallant freedom fighters, after positioning in the trenches of Nakfa, North Eastern fronts of Sahel and Barka for five years, destroyed the so-called “Wuqaw Command” (Hit Hard in Amharic) in a matter of two days. This command stretched in a 100 km long front. This operation enabled the EPLF to change its tactics from a defense to an attacking capability. In the four years of standoff that followed the demise of the Wuqaw Command, the EPLF was engaged in weakening the Ethiopian army at the fronts and finally shifted to an attacking position.
In the days between 17 and 19 March 1988, one of the strongest commands of the Dergue regime was destroyed and the town of Af’abet was liberated. The victory was so significant it shifted the balance of power in favor of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Dergue regime was shaken.
Following the strategic withdrawal, the Dergue launched eight massive offensives against the struggle for Eritrea’s independence and all were foiled. In its attempt to defeat the EPLF, the Dergue regime formed army bases and trenches around Sahel. One of its strongest commands was the Nadew command, stationed in and around Af’abet.
Against all odds, exactly 33 years ago, the struggle for independence reached its turning point by decisively winning the battle of Af’abet. The command, with around 20,000 troops, had the strongest army in the history of Ethiopia, the best mechanized unit (consisting of 10 infantry battalions, 60 BM 21 rocket launchers and 130 mm and 122 mm mortar launchers) that stretched along a trench that was 90 Km long and 13 foreign military advisers. At that time, Af’abet was the headquarters of the biggest Ethiopian army in northeastern Eritrea.
The brilliantly planned and efficiently executed operation by the EPLF began on 17th March with an attack against the 14th Division. EPLF fighters launched a massive and well-coordinated offensive on three flanks, instantly destroying the command post of the front lines.
EPLF fighters took the enemy by surprise and smashed the first line of trenches, extended for over 90 km cornering the Ethiopian army back toward the second and third lines of defense. The army stationed in this area and engaged in a war of attrition with the EPLF for nine years didn’t expect that they would be destroyed in such a stunning speed under heavy pressure with enormous human and material loss.
While the operation was going as planned, commanders of the Ethiopian army made a fateful decision to pull their 29th mechanized unit back and make a strategic withdrawal to their garrison in Af’abet, hoping that fresh supplies, reinforcements, and their big guns would be waiting there for them. In their estimation, all they needed to do was make it past Adi Shirum, a narrow passage and only gateway to Afabet.
According to historians and authors who have written about the Battle of Af’abet, a convoy of some 70 plus Ethiopian tanks, armored divisions including mechanized brigades and ammunition raced with the EPLF’s mechanized division to Adi Shirum. There was no way for the Ethiopian military convoy to pass once the first truck was hit. Victory became inevitable for the EPLF.
Unfortunately, once news reached the Ethiopian Army Headquarters that the EPLF was about to claim a huge victory, Ethiopian generals decided to destroy what was left of their armaments, including their troops, so that they don’t fall into the hands of the EPLF. The Ethiopian Air force bombed its own men for hours because it couldn’t separate them from their equipment. The flames were rising high and in the trucks, the ammunition and missiles kept exploding. Black smoke was everywhere. Many described the March 1988 battlefield in Af’abet as an “inferno” from a biblical scene.
Having been the base for Ethiopian strongest army since 1979, Afabet was liberated on 19th March 1988. The Dergue lost one of its experienced and war-hardened army. In this Operation, 50 tanks, 100 trucks and a large number of light and heavy weaponry was captured. The EPLF acquired 130 mm mortars and BM-21 rocket launchers.
After the victory of the battle of Af’abet and the demise of the Nadew command, the Eritrean struggle attracted international attention. Big media outlets acknowledged and broadcasted the victory of the EPLF.
The victory at the battle of Af’abet was a game-changer and opened a new chapter in the armed struggle and independence was on the horizon. Although it took another three years until they were totally wiped out of Eritrea, it became clear for the Ethiopian regime that their stay in Eritrea would be short. The armaments that were seized at the battle of Af’abet would later enable the EPLF to stage an attack on the port city of Massawa. Two years later, the EPLF launched the famous operation Fenkil to liberate the port city of Massawa in the biggest tank battle Africa has ever seen.
After independence, the month of March witnessed other historic events during the TPLF led Ethiopia’s invasion of Eritrean sovereign territory in 1999. The Eritrean youth that succeeded the freedom fighters once more gained command of Egri Mekel with unmatched heroic acts in the battle waged on March 14 through 16, 1999, in a bid to safeguarding Eritrea’s sovereignty. The Battle of Egri Mekel, where more than ten infantry divisions and hundreds of tanks took part, demonstrated TPLF’s World War I-like uncivilized military tactic in which enemy troops were driven into the narrow combat zone as cannon fodder. Appalling to the entire world, the end result that came to light when all divisions were crushed and the heavy firepower came to a halt was the calamity of the TPLF’s human wave and combat arms.
In all of these mentioned battles and the long war fought in Eritrea in general, the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia lost an enormous amount of human and capital resources and missed unimaginable opportunities. The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia do not have a reason to fight such bloody wars. They possess values that enable them to live peacefully. The main causes for all these conflicts emanates from externally induced policies of the long held belief that “Eritrea doesn’t serve the West’s interests” which was tried time and again with successive Ethiopian regimes. This strategy cost a lot to the Eritrean peoples and has failed.
Even after Eritrea and Ethiopia formally ended the state of war in 2018 after these difficult experiences, those who saw peace and stability in this region as a threat to their interests have been trying to thwart the hard won peace of these brotherly peoples. This was proven by the attempts to resurrect the now defunct TPLF regime by different actors under different guises and through overt actions.
To conclude, when we remember such heroic events, it is not for the sake of glorification, but to remind the people of these two countries to learn from past mistakes and by leaving behind the last 80 years of zero-sum game, work for development based on cooperation and peaceful co-existence for mutual benefit.
Eritrea - History
Though not as unified as in the Italian colonial rule, Eritrea existed as a political entity long before the modern scramble for Africa started in mid-19th century. Its strategic location on the Red Sea has made the history of this country one dominated by colonial rule. Turks, Egyptians, Italians, British, and Ethiopians have all colonized Eritrea over the years. During the modern European scramble for Africa, Eritrea fell under the colonial rule of Italy in 1890. Sustained resistance to Italian rule developed into a unified sense of Eritrean nationalism among the various ethnic groups in the country. For the first time, Eritrea was welded into a single political entity with unified political and social structures, which cut across the traditional divisions. It broadly followed the pattern of political development experienced in all other European colonies in Africa and which, in the vast majority of cases, formed the basis for eventual independence. Between 1936 and 1941 Eritrea, along with Italian Somaliland as part of the Italian East African Empire, was ruled together with Ethiopia for the first time. In 1941, after the Italians were defeated, Eritrea and Somaliland were placed under the British Military Administration while Ethiopia regained its independence under Emperor Haile Selassie. As a loser in the World War II, Italy relinquished its legal right to its colonies in a 1947 treaty. A Four Power Commission of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States was set up to decide on how to dispose of the former Italian colonies through negotiations. The agreement was to submit the matter to the UN General Assembly if negotiations were unsuccessful. Evidently, they could not agree on Eritrea's future. Britain proposed partition of Eritrea, with the western parts to go to the Sudan and the highlands and coastal strip to go to Ethiopia while the United States suggested complete union with Ethiopia. France proposed Trust Territory with Italian administration while the Soviet Union argued for Trust Territory under international administration. The problem was referred to the UN who set up a Commission of five countries (Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan, and South Africa) to study and propose a solution. The idea of partition was rejected outright. Guatemala and Pakistan proposed the standard formula of the UN Trusteeship leading to independence, but others favored close association with Ethiopia. For example, Norway wanted full union while Burma and South Africa favored federation with some autonomy. Meanwhile, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was working hard on the diplomatic front to acquire Eritrea. The United States backed Eritrea's federation with Ethiopia and UN Resolution 390A was passed to that effect. This decision was made without giving due attention to the overwhelming presence of groups who were mobilizing the population for independence. From September 1951 Eritrea became an autonomous territory federated with Ethiopia. Obviously, US strategic interests in the Red Sea and its close ties with the emperor did play major role in influencing the final decision. The United States put enormous pressure to have
Ethiopia administer Eritrea, under "the Sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown."
The federation, which lasted from September 1951 to 1962 did not succeed to bring harmonious integration of the entities as Ethiopia soon started to impose more direct rule at its will. The UN ignored Eritrea's protests against Ethiopia's intervention in the autonomous rule, and Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea in 1962.
A year earlier, in September 1961, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) launched the armed struggle for independence. By 1970, when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) was created from within the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), Eritrea had become the emperor's main preoccupation. EPLF is the organization that led Eritrea to independence in 1991. After the emperor was overthrown in 1974, the self-styled Marxist military dictatorship, called Dergue, stepped up its campaign against Eritreans. With the help of Soviet Union, Korea, Cuba and other countries in the Eastern Block, the Dergue sustained a very bitter war over Eritrea between 1978 and 1991. The war left Eritrea in complete ruins. In terms of infrastructure, all basic services were virtually disrupted. Most towns were without services such as electricity, water, and transportation for much of the war years. Industrial sectors were wiped out and the ports were destroyed. Ethiopian forces bombed Massawa extensively during the last days of the war, killing many civilians, destroying most of the buildings and depopulating the area. Towards the end of the war, Ethiopia had 500,000 troops under arms, half of them in Eritrea. At no time did the Eritrean forces number more than 100,000. It is estimated that the Dergue had spent $12 billion in military supplies for its war against Eritrea. In the 30 years of war, Eritrea lost more than 60,000 fighters and about 40,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands were also forced into exile.
In May 1991, the EPLF captured the last Ethiopian outposts in Eritrea. Asmara, Eritrea's capital, was occupied on May 24 1991. President Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Addis Ababa and the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which had also been fighting against the Dergue since 1975 took over the Ethiopian government. The EPLF created a provisional government for Eritrea, until a referendum was carried out to determine the choice of the Eritrean people. It was scheduled to take place in two years time. Although Eritrea had been absorbed into the Ethiopian State in 1962, Eritreans—unlike many Ethiopians𠅍id not regard their struggle as one of secession. They never recognized Ethiopian legitimacy over their territory rather, they viewed their struggle as anti-colonial, seeking to gain the independence they were denied by the UN in 1952. The referendum on 23-25 April 1993 proved that this was indeed the case. The great majority.5% of the 1,173,000 registered voters—voted for independence. The UN certified the results and on 24 May 1993, Eritrea became Africa's 52nd independent state, and four days later it was admitted to the UN and the OAU.
The colonial boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia, defined in a treaty between Italy and Ethiopia in July 1900, became the international boundary between the two sovereign states without modification, leaving Ethiopia a landlocked state once more. The decision was consistent with the cardinal article of an OAU charter adopted in 1963, stipulating that colonial boundaries were to be respected, and until May 1998, relations between the two countries were good. The Eritrean ports of Assab and Masawa remained open for Ethiopia free of charges.
In May 1998, disagreement over the sovereignty of border villages erupted into all-out war. Between 2 and 6 May 1998, Eritrean soldiers invaded and occupied Badme, in northeastern Ethiopia. Other areas were subsequently occupied in Tigray State. Ethiopia later recaptured Badme, but fighting continued for two and a half years, interspersed with periods of inactivity. A US- and Rwanda-sponsored peace plan proposed in early June 1998 failed so did arbitration efforts by the then OAU with each side claiming to accept an OAU framework agreement while accusing the other of making impossible preconditions to its implementation.
The war, which President Isaias says claimed 19,000 Eritrean lives, ended officially with a peace treaty on 12 December 2000. However, some 4,200 UN soldiers remained on the border to monitor the buffer zone that separates the two countries while experts from the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) physically demarcated the internationally recognized boundary established in April 2002. Fall-out from the war added to famine caused by drought had resulted in malnutrition rates of between 15% and 20% of the under-five population by July 2003, and necessitated calls for international intervention.
Eritrea was officially declared an Italian colony on January 1, 1890, by the royal decree of Umberto I. Italy’s presence in Eritrea started when an Italian monk purchased land in Assab on behalf of an Italian shipping company in 1869. That land and more that was purchased by the shipping company was then sold to the Italian government in 1882.
With Italy’s conquest of Massawa in February 1885, it quickly consolidated its footing on the Eritrean coastline and areas farther inland. Italy continued with its plan to create a settler colony and faced various forms of protest and resistance. Italy confronted these challenges militarily, politically, and diplomatically. Eventually, Italy steered the process to the delineation of borders between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1889, resulting in the colonization of Eritrea.
Flags, Symbols & Currency of Eritrea
The National Flag of Eritrea was officially adopted on December 5, 1995.
The National Flag of Eritrea features three triangles of the colors red, green, and blue. The red isosceles triangle is based on the hoist-side and its point is on the fly-side. The shape of the red triangle broadly mimics the shape of the country. Two right triangles lie on either side of the red triangle, with both based on the fly-side. The point of the red triangle separates the bases of the green triangle on the upper side and the blue triangle on the lower side. Within the red triangle, there is a vertical gold olive branch encircled by a gold olive wreath. The olive branch and the wreath are centered on the hoist side of the red triangle. The green color symbolizes the country’s livestock and agricultural economy. The blue color symbolizes the bounty of the sea. The red color signifies the bloodshed in the fight for freedom. The olive wreath with 30 leaves represents the number of years for which the civil war was fought in Eritrea to attain independence. The red triangle, olive branch, and wreath collectively represent the country's autonomy. The flag has a width-to-length proportion ratio of 1:2.
History of the Flag of Eritrea
The modern-day country of Eritrea was formed by the unification of several kingdoms and sultanates existing in the region. The unification was brought about by the colonial rule of Italy in the region. After the Italians were defeated by the British army in Italian Eritrea in 1942, the country became a British-administered territory until 1952. After the British left Eritrea, a new flag was adopted as the flag of Eritrea on September 15, 1952, when Eritrea was still an autonomous region within Ethiopia. The flag of Eritrea featured a light blue background with an olive wreath in the center and a six-leafed plant encircling it. The former symbolized peace while the latter represented the country’s six administrative divisions. Since the UN helped to achieve independence from the European rule for Ethiopia and Eritrea, the light blue background color of the flag was chosen in honor of the UN. However, when Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, this flag was banned from the nation. A new struggle for independence started in Eritrea and the Eritrean Liberation Front was founded in 1960. Finally, after 30 years of struggle, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1990 and the design of the national flag was inspired by the official colors of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The flag was adopted on December 5, 1995.
There are five levels of education in Eritrea: pre-primary, primary, middle, secondary, and post-secondary. There are nearly 238,000 students in the primary, middle, and secondary levels of education. There are approximately 824 schools, two universities (the University of Asmara and the Eritrea Institute of Technology) and several smaller colleges and technical schools. Education in Eritrea is officially compulsory for children aged 7 to 13 years.
Eritrea is a multilingual country. The nation has no official language, as the Constitution establishes the “equality of all Eritrean languages”. Tigrinya serves as the de facto language of national identity. With 2,540,000 total speakers of a population of 5,254,000 in 2006, it is the most widely spoken language, particularly in the southern and central parts of Eritrea. Other major national languages include Afar, Arabic, Beja, Bilen, Kunama, Nara, Saho and Tigre. Tigrinya alongside and English serve as de facto working languages, with the latter used in university education and many technical fields.
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