By ALEM YOHANNES (2/10/2002)

          It was a Thursday afternoon in February of 1975.  The iron door of Camera #2 (a large hall) of Sembel Detention Center opened suddenly and Major Woldehaimanot, the highest authority of the Center, entered accompanied by his officers.  Every detainee was surprised of his sudden visit and stood up which is customary when any authority comes in.  Major Woldehaimanot glanced left and right and after collecting his breath, he said with a booming voice,      " You detainees are under our custody and if we order you to stand up, you stand up, and if we say sit down, you sit down".  Then he left the camera and his officers locked the iron door behind them.  There were about eighty-five (85) detainees in that camera alone and almost everyone was puzzled.  Those who were bewildered wondered about what the Major had said and a request for clarification uttered in unison from the detainees.  The Major returned back right away as he was heading towards the next camera and said with a loud, clear and unequivocal voice: "Our Eritrean brothers and sister are fighting for our people's freedom and I have decided to join them to liberate my country leaving my six children behind me and I challenge every one of you to join me and many others to fight for our freedom".  The detainees gave him a standing ovation and reacted with a roar of support, clapping hands, whistling, and praised him saying “you are a lion, a messiah, a savior,” etc.  Thus, the Operation of Sembel Detention Center to liberate the full gamut of detainees had begun.

I am inspired to share my experience on Operation Sembel by Keleta Kidane who articulately narrated in series of his experiences about the "Operation" to release the detainees from Adi Quala in 1975 and I thank him for that.  Mehary Yohannes, who helped the release of Semere Kesete, the former president of students union of Asmara University, from the prison of PFDJ, also added to my prompt to share my experience and tell the heroic act of ELF fighters in the struggle for independence.  My experience differs from that of Keleta in that he was a free man dedicating himself to releasing the detainees while I was a detainee in Sembel looking forward to be released.  With very limited human and material resources the operation to free the detainees from both Sembel and Adi Quala detention centers was a simultaneous, synchronized, sophisticated operation that required untold skills in coordination, communication and planning and the successful execution by the gallant fighters of the Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA) and dedicated and selfless citizens like Major Woldehaimanot and Keleta Kidane as well as many others. As a beneficiary of this multifaceted operation, I owe to them and to myself to tell about the great impossible mission (Kiyatat) of our martyrs and the others who made it happen.  Many lives have been saved by their dedicated and successful operation and the human resources have been able to serve the revolution that otherwise would have been banished in the jails of the enemy.   

What I am going to tell on these short series of  articles is a tip of the iceberg in the whole heroic operation of releasing prisoners (most of which were political prisoners) from Sembel Detention.  I am hoping to inspire others to share their experiences and memories with our people specially the youngsters who have been deprived by the PFDJ from learning of countless  heroic acts of bravery, sacrifice, and selfless devotion for our country and its people.  There are few left alive who had some role in the operation in a leading capacity.  There are many who spent many years in the Sembel and are probably better equipped to tell a more detailed and complete picture.  I fear it may be a disservice to our heroic martyrs not tell the story in the flavor and detail it deserves.  However telling what I know and remember  may be a good start to prevent the loss of the events with out ever being passed on to the new generation.  I encourage other friends to do the same so that we can take advantage of the cyber to teach our generations stories of heroism, sacrifice, integrity and value of heritage.  I hope they will learn cheating, lying, opportunism, winning at any cost with disregard to the truth that are being taught by PFDJ are not traits of our tradition.  I hope they will come to know standing for principle, openness, solving problems with skill and dialogue are our true heredities of our people.


Sembel Detention Center was built in Sembel in the suburbs of Asmara by Ethiopia with foreign aid with the aim to purge and deter the burning desire of our people for liberation. The relatively small and scattered prison centers that were built by the Italians could not accommodate the broad spectrum of the Eritrean masses that were arbitrarily detained by the Ethiopian government. History tells us that where there is oppression there is opposition and it is human nature to rise against oppression and resist colonization in all of its forms.  The Eritrean people are not the exception.  In the beginning, the Eritrean people demanded for their political freedom through peaceful demonstrations.  Their demand was a threat to the colonizer and the wanton killing and imprisonment of innocent citizens became the ritual of the day.  Soon the Eritrean people took their resistance for freedom to the next level and started the armed struggle in September 1961 lead by Hamid Idris Awate.  Therefore, Sembel Detention Center was built to decimate our people's aspiration for freedom and soon it became one of the largest detention centers ever with over 1,000 prisoners in 1975 and the majority of them were political prisoners. (Now in the presumed free Eritrea an account from Milkias Mehreteab, the Eritrean journalist in exile, reveals that in Zara alone there are 2,000 detainees and many of them were freedom fighters.  Milkias was a prisoner in Zara and he has first hand account of the prisoners in Zara).

To Be Continued