Memories of Menkae and After:
Interview with Adhanom Fitwi - Holland 14.10.04
Aida Kidane: Can you tell me about your experience?
Adhanom Fitwi: True, many think I'm an Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF or Jebha) member. It is because when I left the field (Meda) from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces (and Front later, EPLF, or Shaebea); I did not sit idle and immediately joined with the ELF. When I fled from the EPLF in 1977, people who are at similar situation like me either continued supporting the EPLF norms, or kept themselves shut up. It is very few who continued opposing the EPLF after they leave. In fact, I started being against EPLF already from 1974.
When I joined the EPLF in 1974, the Menkae movement had already started in September 1973, and I found the leaders of Menkae in prison. I was a student at the Addis Ababa University and we knew nothing about the Menkae. Very few people knew of it. And in the field immediately we were suspected without justification of sympathizing with the Menkae movement - because we came from Addis Ababa University. This made us concerned.
Discussing about the Menkae movement in the field at mid-70s and later was forbidden. I was naďve then and when I started asking why we cannot discuss, a comrade, who now resides in England, told some people who knew me that I should be careful not to mention the Menkae movement. And it baffled me and others – why? , and why it was forbidden to talk about the Menkae movement?
Solomon WoldeMariam told us why the Menkae movement leaders were imprisoned? He said that they had no political causes. He also said, the women members of Menkae were baking cakes for the men, killing lice off their heads, were having sex with them, etc. His words shocked us and how could such anti-women words come out from Shaebea, a Marxist oriented progressive front. We became disillusioned.
Later, meeting or seeing former Addis University students in the field became a rarity, unless they were connected with the EPLF leadership, otherwise they were taken away being accused as a member of this and that movement and affiliations.
I remember, there was Dawit (??) who joined the front after 2nd or 3rd year law school in Addis Ababa and he became completely against us, that we suspected him to be tied with the leadership. Character assassination was made on those they suspected. In 1976, almost all units were gathered and though we had thought the Menkae movement had died out, many were being picked and taken. People like Tesfai Temnew were imprisoned. I have seen the names list and because I joined the EPLF after the movement, I cannot say who was who on their personality. But I had asked thoroughly of the movement and I know a lot.
I met Goitom Berhe (Bitsay) and Alem Abraha before they were executed. Alem was my superior. Goitom was sent to Nakfa area, of Tigre speaking area with only one rank (MesRie) of 8 members and actually he did not speak Tigre language. Then he was confined there for some time. And there he wrote an article 'Who is the revolutionary?' handwritten in 30 pages. I and Alem Abraha read it at night with kerosene lamp, though it was forbidden to read the article. About two weeks from then, Goitom was taken away and never seen again. Alem Abraha was soon taken and killed. He was one of the long-served fighters, with Sebhat Efrem etc, a leader of our squad (fesli). I had heard he was from or around Dekhmare city.
Aida Kidane: Was the Menkae Movement a regionalist or a sub-national movement? And what did you hear about the beginning?
Adhanom Fitwi: When Solomon WoldeMariam told us of this movement, the leadership said it was a regionalist action (allege with mainly emphasis on Akele Guzai district). And Alem Abraha asked where do they want to send Afeworki Teclu (Amhray) then? And also the others from Serae and Hamasien districts? We knew that the members of the Menkae movement composed of all the districts of Tigrna speaking highlands. We were questioning the leadership’s aims.
At the beginning of the Menkae movement, Solomon WoldeMariam was at first with the Menkae movement. The initial issue that brought the Menkae movement was that the three members of the Selfi-Natsenet EPLF leadership – Solomon WoldeMariam, Tewelde Eyob and Asmerom Gebrezghier were in no friendly terms. Those Menkae leaders like Mussie TesfaMichael, Yohannes Sebahtu (John), and others said we came to this front of its progressiveness and democratic aspirations and the leadership is fighting against each other? Let us work and make them reconcile. This was the main reason and even Issaias admits to it, and the leadership agreed. In the meeting, the core leadership, with Issaias, accused Solomon WoldeMariam of regionalism. Solomon was from Hamasien district. And at that time according to the internal laws of EPLF, though there was no constitution or written laws, a regionalist was to be executed. Mussie, Yohannes and their friends said why waste the life of such a veteran fighter? To eradicate regionalism it is better to enlighten and educate for a solution. The situation became violent when Tsegai Keshi who died latter from inhalation of lice insecticide, hit Mussie with his rifle butt. Tsegai Keshi was in the highest military rank, being leader of platoon (Haili), since the EPLF had not formed battalion yet.
Tsegai Keshi was not reprimanded for his actions and this had consequences and concern that fighters should be treated equally. Issaias had once hit Temesgen Berhe and in a gathering with us Issaias admitted to it, stating that he saw him sleeping by a river bank when there was a civil skirmish and after he sent him to deliver bullets, and he angrily hit Temesgen.
The Menkae group stated then that a fighter should be treated equally, not looked or punished as a shepherd. And civilians coming to join us were dying in 20s by thirst etc. No human life should be regarded cheap, they said. Why civilians were beaten, they asked. Many questions were raised close to 400 questions and opinions, which were then combined to 13 big demands. The situation was getting bigger.
Then without the initiatives of Mussie, Yohannes, Afeworki and Co., the committee was extended to 36 members, to solve the widened disagreements. This brought the question of leadership policies and the rights of EPLF fighters. Then the method of solving the disagreements changed courses.
Issaias and the core leadership held a meeting and the disagreeing members - Solomon, Tewelde Eyob and Asmerom Gebrezghier were made to forgive each other. When the forgiving and reconciliation of the core leadership was announced, the other members now said - all right it is good, but we have other problems and others have to solve them. Issaias, without the consent of the other participants then ordered the 36 member committee to be disbanded.
The tension worsened and the leadership then decided to bring together all units from all fronts. The cases were told and all EPLF members agreed that the demands were right, and 95% of the fighters sided with the Menkae movement. The leadership was isolated and stayed hidden under ‘Adai' tree (a name of tree). The fighters said this was a reactionary leadership that cannot solve problems and brought the front into a mess. Up to this time, Solomon WoldeMariam had sided with the Menkae movement, saying they were right and the issues should be brought to final conclusion. Now, after the reconciliation of the core leadership, he became against Menkae. Before he used to say that he would bring 4 -500 commandoes of his region and defeat Tewelde Eyob etc. But now they came to an agreement. Solomon used this situation and told the Muslims that the Christians wanted to take power, and at the same time gathered the Karneshim people, writing letters. [As the front of Selfi-Natsenet started in Alla, in Akele Guzai area, it was natural that most of youths who early joined will be from that area. And when the movement was into Semenawi Bahri, it included members of Karneshim youths.]
I believe Mussie, Yohannes, Afeworki and Co. went too far in their demands. As they saw some people were going away from their side, they used microphones stating they were not regionalists. Afeworki Amharay and Co. would not budge from their convictions and became martyrs to the end. That they used loud speakers was a mistake, we saw. The leadership was looking for reasons to fail and accuse them and they said - look at these Addis Ababa University students, are they aware this is a guerrilla front, and not a student demonstration? And the Menkae movement lost ground.
Aida Kidane: Were the Menkae Movement demands legitimate? And what other observations did you have? What about the prisons?
Adhanom Fitwi: The Menkae demands and questions were still in my time necessary topics and legitimate. I can give instances. Once at end of 1975, we were attacking Ethiopian Commando forces near Afabet, where we had battalions, and we did not succeed and lost half of our fighting force there. A meeting was held after and the topic was about Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). EPLF did not have good relationship with them, but with Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). We the educated ones asked questions why the EPRP did not state that the Eritrean question was a colonial question? Why the EPRP have opportunistic stand? The TPLF gathered in Tsorona and stated it was a colonial question, a smart move on their part. I raised several questions, and spoke carefully not to suspect to be a Menkae and my question was similar to theirs. Berhane Gebrezghier was tactician (teketatali mela) previously of our battalion, and Ali Ibrahim, a former Obel member who had fled to Osman Sabbe and then back to us was our battalion leader. He was replaced by Hasan Amor from the Red Sea people.
Berhane was Issaias' right-hand man and had all the power and he said in front of all the fighters that what Adhanom Fitwi (I) expressed as question was of the Menkae type. There was nobody to defend me but myself. Once someone is implicated with the Menkae, everyone alienates that person, so not to be suspected. Now when difficulty came upon us, we started to question how the Menkae were treated. Tesfai Temnew was a battalion leader and a brilliant person. He left the front and went to Saudi Arabia. He and his likes were explaining to us how the Menkae movement started and the details.
Even though the EPLF was supposed to be a democratic split of the ELF, we were undemocratically progressing from 1970 to the end of 1976. The Obel group didn’t change and they were as they came; the Sabbe group with Romadan and Mesfin Hagos from Dankalia etc were not changed, though more fighters had joined.
We demanded that even the ELF are holding congress and why not us, and why not elect our leaders democratically? Now we are sitting being considered between ELF and Menkae sympathizers. The rightists (Yemanay) were accused as regionalists and the leftists (Tsegamai) were accused as radicals. This is a contradiction in itself and one has to come to that point one time or another. No body was questioning the leadership, and doing that, one is unquestionably taken to Halewa Sewra (Revolutionary Guards). Even an educated person who knows or didn’t know Menkae has to attack the Menkae movement. Whenever the matter is raised in discussions it has become a norm saying the Menkae were opportunists trying to damage our front. Else the person is targeted as their sympathizer.
Aida Kidane; How where the Menkae sentenced? And how did you hear about the verdict?
Adhanom Fitwi: I had seen Worku Zerai in Nakfa when re-shuffling (Tekhlit) was made. She was with Kifle Hizbi (public relations). The Menkae prisoners were in Bleqat. There were 5 prisons from 1973 until I left in 1977. All the 5 prisons were in Sahel area. The biggest one was in Bleqat, one in Algain, and one in Fah. Fah was a secured place and the leadership moved there as it had only one entry and the youth (manjus) guarded it well that no one could slip inside. They were very large prisons
For the Menkae, if I'm not mistaken, a military court with those like Mesfin Hagos sentenced them. Apart from the Menkae, countless others were made to disappear, also counting those who bombed themselves. Those who made suicide are told to put down their arms and follow. Meaning they will be horribly imprisoned, and instead they decide to blow themselves up. The disappeared ones were countless. In 1976 there was the Second Menkae purge; the forces were getting fewer and fewer fighters.
The fighters of 1973 were considerably fewer than of 1976. Had the conflict, arrests and death been publicly done with; no body would have questioned. But the happenings were too secretive and become suspicious. The fighters felt that while they were sacrificing their life, why they were not informed of the happenings. Those who were brave and asked were not seen again. When a person is taken to Halewa Sewra, the person disappears. There was a prison guard confessing later, guarding Mussie and Co., - the lice were so many that a bullet was preferred. A prisoner cannot by himself scratch or move himself because he was beaten for that action. It was such a hot weather that the lice should not have survived, but spread more in contrast. The Menkae leaders and members suffered much. Some fighters on their way to bring water saw Mussie and Co., and said they were unrecognizable, living skeletons and eyes bulging out. Though food was scarce all around, the prisoners were full of lice, tortured and least fed.
The EPLF leadership told us about their executions publicly before or after the time of the EPLF Congress. Berhane Gebrezghier who was our tektatali mela did not gather us in battalions as supposed to, but in small platoons. Our patriotism was strong and seen suspiciously to have been Menkaeized. They placed machine guns at mountain and hill- tops unnecessarily fearing of an uprising, guarding us by their trusted fighters from other platoons. They said a big decision has been made, the highest decision, and when they told us about the fate of the Menkae leaders, there was no support or opposing voice whatsoever. I was sitting and scratching the ground with a stick and Berhane Gerezghier looking at me said why don't you people respond than scratch the ground?
The only way of fleeing from the front was via ELF. Many EPLF members were caught fleeing and were executed. When it was said that they were given their dues, it meant killed. And they would be gunned down (not throats cut as Memhir Tesfu said in 17.4.04 in paltalk). An instance, when a decision was made on the 30 and more, it was beginning of 1975 while I was in training. Because end of 1975 we were up in Nakfa area.
In training, we went away from the river to the slopes to gather wood; we heard sounds of machine guns. We wondered if their guns were malfunctioning and one fighter told me once that it was executions being done. Also when they were tortured in Bleqat, since we were first there in training in our platoon, the young members -Menajus- used to play drums near the Halewa Sewra. The noise was made so that we would not hear the tortures as we were near it. The prisoners were interrogated and tortured at nights. It was terrible times and Solomon WoldeMariam was the head.
While Amnesty Intl searches for crimes against humanity world-wide, they did not find the atrocities of Bleqat. The torturers were dedicated ones and from the uneducated population.
Aida Kidane: What about Solomon WoldeMariam?
Adhanom Fitwi: Solomon WoldeMariam and Issaias had very big differences and Issaias feared Solomon’s power. Solomon at that time was security head and head of Halewa Sewra, of training center, of the enemy lines, army front leader, of Central command. Issaias was only of front and chairman in name only; he was not that powerful as Solomon. It was the power of Solomon who crushed the Menkae movement. He came to power because of his experiences in military and ability. He put his trusted men in positions in all ranks up to brigade, battalion leaders. This power concerned Issaias.
In the first cadre graduation in Semanawi Bahri, Haile Woldetinsae (Durue) was the head instructor who we did not differentiate from Issaias and he called Solomon worthless. Because Durue was totally Issaias’ yes man, and his right hand man. Durue was in prison in the Menkae uprising. He did not try to solve later. Solomon's men had been in the cadre school after Menkae purges. Solomon was biding for his power against Issaias and sent rumors that Issaias had said the Menkae case should have been solved democratically. Since Solomon had more powerful officers though Issaias was the chairman, Solomon's men said Issaias himself can be charged and put into prison. It had gone that far, and this reached to the ears of Issaias, and their relationship began getting worse.
Issaias is a very smart person and told Solomon WoldeMariam - Osman Sabbe had closed our incomes and may close the Sudan route. We may be forced to give ourselves up to the Ethiopians, which are horrible, and you are the best suited person to go there and solve the problem. Secondly, Issaias added to Solomon, that his health was disturbing the EPLF leadership and he wanted him to get medication in the meantime. Solomon had liver problem. Solomon was a naďve (gerhi) person. Solomon thought he must be an important person that Issaias is concerned about his health, and he went to Port Sudan as advised by Issaias. He was at the office and started medication and city life suited him. No supporter of Solomon was allowed to travel to Sudan then, in front of our eyes. Solomon was now sent to Port Sudan. Solomon was later charged of being a Yemin or rightist and he disappeared.
Immediately, it was said that being anti Menkae and being Yemin was destructive to the front and all supporters of Solomon, leaders of brigades, battalions etc were imprisoned. These were put together with the Menkae left-overs. We became confused who the faulty party was. Menkae and anti-Menkaes were imprisoned together. Solomon's supporters now realized the game played by Issaias, but it was too late.
It is worth commenting that the EPLF first Congress supposedly to have been the first principled and democratic, was completely undemocratic. First, anyone suspected with Menkae or the Yemin was not to be elected, meaning only Issaias' people were to be elected. The congress was preconditioned and Issaias' people were the nominators. The leadership was nine members with Solomon, and the 8 continued in the leadership with some new ones added to them. And the Central Committee became 36 people. Then Solomon realized the game played up on him. He had studied to 10th grade and was brilliant militarily, though not politically. It was feared then that after being demoted, Solomon might shoot Issaias. Solomon was asked about his opinion on the First Congress. He said in the Congress 'I, Solomon, brought this front to this stage - and there - you are… who are more knowledgeable - so you lead'.
Solomon was leading one ganta or two in Keren region, and they did not let him to go to Kebessa and he said ' This Tigrean has lured me' meaning Issaias, we heard later. Claims that Issaias was of Tigrean origin, it was only then from Solomon that we heard. Nobody knows how deep their disagreement was. Issaias used to make comrades enemies of each other, even after entering Asmara he made Durue, Petros Solomon, Sebhat, and Sherifo dislike each other and not cooperate. It was tactic used by Issaias. He would tell one of the leaders, he is a good fighter but keep away from that scoundrel (another leader). And he tells the same to the other leader making both sides suspicious of each other. Earlier, he would easily have solved the disagreements between Solomon, Asmerom and Tewolde Eyob. They were in leadership and they ignored each other. They were later nine in leadership, from the Obel like Abu Tyara and Abu Ejal. Romadan Mohammed Nur and Mesfin Hagos etc were from Shaebea who were more in numbers. Solomon, Issaias, Tewolde Eyob, Asmerom etc were from Selfi-Natsenet group.
Aida Kidane: What about the death of Tewolde Eyob one of the leaders of Selfi-Natsenet?
Adhanom Fitwi: The killing of Tewolde Eyob was baffling. Because he said the verdict against Menkae was not correct and should have been solved democratically – that became the reason of his execution. He was also charged of being a regionalist. It surprised us because even if he was from Akele Guzai region, it was not a correct cause of his demise. All fighters were sacrificing their life for the country, not a region. We later saw, the same content; Solomon was accused of regionalism also. He himself with Issaias had accused the Menkae of regionalism and he was charged of it. Bistay Goitom said all issues are mingled and regionalism was not a case.
And joining theELF?
Adhanom Fitwi: I started exposing EPLF right after I fled through the ELF. We used to think that the ELF bullets could not kill the enemy. We fighters of EPLF were brainwashed that the 'Ama' were not fighting for liberation. When I met the ELF, I was most astonished how bad I was brainwashed. The Das Capital of Karl Marx that we read in Addis Ababa was only two volumes inside the EPLF and we were snatching from each other to read them. I saw about 16 volumes of Das Capital with the ELF and their library in the field. I told the ELF the political education I got from EPLF was from brilliant leftists and reading in no battle times.
When Osman Sabbe left the EPLF, and my platoon were in Nakfa, there was scarcity of materials. Issaias' theory must have been to oppress the EPLF fighting army, because in the department they were eating meat etc. We, in the armed forces (Hailitat), ate one loaf of bread for seventeen men and ate vegetables that our urine was colored. We were almost naked except for the females. We then sent one platoon to Ruba Anseba as EPLF was not established in Barka area. This platoon continued to Barka as the civil war had subsided then. The ELF felt very sorry for the destitute fighters and gave the whole EPLF Haili cloths and food. But we said that 'Ama' was giving us what was due ours originally, we did not thank them.