Notes on a Conversation With Mahmud Mehamed Saleh on the Early Hlstosy of ELF

Date/Place/Language: 1/41I 989/Khartoum /English

I am born 1936 from a Jaberti family of Seray which had come to live in Aqerdat. After competing the Teacher Training Institute in Asmera I started teaching in Aqerdat in 1953.

Inside Aqerdat those who had the national feeling, who were moving against the­se Ethiopian activities to undo the federation, were almost known to each other inside the town. In an unorganised way, whenever there are events, political mat­ters, at a time they feel there is a move from the Ethiopians to dissolve the fede­ration they were moving. But no organization, the first organization was Harakat.

I was informed the first time of it, the Harakat, when Saleh Eyay entered first to Eritrea coming from Sudan. He came to Aqerdat and met with me. He discussed with me to have an organization and to be well organized and centralized. lt was around the end of 1959. Later on, after a short time, a few months, someone from the Aqerdat people called Saleh Umer brought me the constitution of the ELM and by that time I was almost recruited. Some of those contacted by Saleh Eyay en­tered immediately into Harakat. Since then I found myself to be the head of Harakat in Aqerdat.

There were two committees in Aqerdat. One, the lower or internal committee for the town of Aqerdat and surroundings, and a second as the central committee for the whole of the region. I was the head of both committees. A week after I was recruited we formed these committees. The Central Regional Committee was composed of around 7 people:

1.             Mahmud Mehamed Saleh

2.                Mehamed Saleh Amar

3.             Saleh Mehamed Said

4.             Idris Gaber

5.             Ali Hamed

6.                Mehamed Ibrahim Mehamed Ali

7.             not remembered

The local committee was composed of these people:

1. Mahmud Mehamed Saleh                         7.   Rashid Mehamed Haj

2. Mehamed lbrahim Mehamed Ali              8.   lbrahim Halaf

3.Mehamed Saleh Ama                                9.  Saleh

4.Saleh Mehamed Said                                10.  lbrahim Igame

5. Mehamed Yusuf Ade                                11.   Mehamed Said Afa

6. Umer Kascheway

All in all there were 14 or 15 In this committee but I do not remember the other names.

Aqerdat was responsible for the areas to the west. The committee in Keren was responsible for Sahel and Barka. The internal committee in Aqerdat was respon­sible for Aqerdat and the villages around it, the regional one for the Aqerdat Division including Barentu but in the Gash region another committee was responsible with seat in Ali Gidir/Teseney. By the time of Harakat there was no clear reia­tion among us, between us and the committee in Gash, but concerning the recruit­ing of the police of that area, it was tied in with us. We of Aqerdat recruited the policemen and we formed them into small units in every city of Western Eritrea down to Um Hager. Even many employees and staff-members of the Police-Headquarter in Aqerdat were recruited. Also the workers and employees of important offices and institutions in the cities such as the municipal administration, the divisional office, telecommunication, public works. Most of the youth inside the city were organized under us, all those having a feelings towards the nation. Almost the whole city was under our control.

I had some sort of contact with Idris Mehamed Adem but it was not a strong personal relation. When the Ethiopians planned to move him from the Parliament, to remove him as the head of the Parliament, the local youth almost totally stood behind Idris Mehamed Adem. I was at that time teaching in Haikota. I formed a youth association there. I made a committee from the important figures of the town of Haikota under the name of a Social Service Committee. And we worked hard and we called a big meeting of the people of the region in support of ldris Mehamed Adem. He then was still head of the Parliament. When he went back to Aqerdat he then sent to me and we met at his house. That was my contact with him before he left.

Because of his political stand many people started to contact him. They were be­lieving that he would do something for the Eritrean cause because of his previous politics and stand. But when he left, I think, Sheikh Mehamed ibn Dawd ibn Sa­yedna Mustafa was not officially informed.

Sheikh Mehamed and Sheikh Suleiman, because of the nature of their social rela­tions, they have their sympathy with ldris Mehamed Adem. So after he had left, they were always asking what is he doing abroad, in Cairo. Most of the people there were thinking that Weldeab Weldemaryam, lbrahim Sultan and ldris Mehamed Adem as national figures would do a lot, they were expecting a lot of them although these people were involved in Harakat.

These Sheikhs were not full members of Harakat but at least Sheikh Suleiman was well informed about it. He was not officially recruited but he was often present at meetings, thus he was really a de-facto-member.

A call was send but by Harakat for its members to prepare stores for arms in the mountains. That was in the March of 1960. Sheikh Suleiman and Sheikh Mehamed were informed about that and were happy to hear it as they wanted an army to be formed.

Mehamed Yusuf and Saleh Umer of Aqerdat participated in the Harakat Conference in Asmara. There it was discussed to contact Awate and directives were sent to contact him. Comparatively soon after that conference Awate was contacted. The contact was made through Ali Gidir, one of their members was sent to meet Awate. Awate was very prudent. He said, he is prepared to do something but he was only willing to move if everything were well set up. He encouraged anyone coming to him to do things by their own way. He told them to come back when everything has been prepared. He did not want to hear tales what someone wants to do but was only willing to listen when they have put together the means to do it.

These people in the Western Zone of Eritrea were not trusting Harakat as its leaders were secret. But they trusted the known politicians such as Idris Mehamed Adem. Harakat once sent a pamphiet that neither ldris Mehamed Adem nor Ibrahim Sultan want to cooperate with Harakat, that they refuse to cooperate and work with it. Therefore the Harakat asked the members to stop any relation with them from inside the country. In fact, it was surprising for us, but according to this directive we moved and we sent our members to mobilize the people in this sense, to stop any relation with these old politicians.

But still there was a question mark as to why they don't want to cooperate with Harakat. They went out for political purposes and there is Harakat, an organization working for the same aim but yet they don't want to start working with it. We asked us what is the reason. Those were a lot of questions. While we are in this condition. here in Sudan, mostly in Kassala, the leaders of Harakat and the Eritreans in the Sudanese army were divided because of this point. So the military group sent a delegation to Aqerdat.

When this military group send its delegation they contacted Umer Kascheway and he came to me and told me that this delegation had come and wanted to discuss what happened between Harakat and these politicians. The point was very impor­tant. Taher Salem and Mehamed ldris Haj were those who came. They met us, I had called for both committees and we met them and we were informed that the difference was that the politicians had asked to know the leadership of Harakat but that this had been refused by Harakat. In fact, by one way or another, we were sure that this was the main point for refusing the cooperation. We found that this was not right. These politicians were already well-known leaders, so there is no reason to keep things secret from them. This brought distrust towards the Harakat leadership. When they came, these military from Sudan, they were already pro-Jebha and these old politicians. So to us the problem became critical. We told the people that ldris Mehamed Adem and Ibrahim Sultan had not wanted to cooperate with Harakat when they found out that the leadership of Harakat did not want to inform, had refused to inform them who the leaders of Harakat were.

So what shall we do? So we thought 1) this leadership is unknown and they do not want to accept any of the famous national figures, 2) because of this and other reasons we joined the ELF which was recently formed in Cairo; 3) we want to renounce the armed struggle; 4) we expect arms. That were the points presented by this delegation from Kassala and it corresponded with what we felt we needed. So we took their side and opened for them a way to Keren. We sent them to Keren to meet Suleiman Merikh and other people who were in good relation with these old politicians. In Keren these people then formed the first nucleus of the ELF, a small group, very littie at first.

The first thing we in Aqerdat thought about was to keep the branch undivided and second to help solving this problem. So I went to Keren to meet the moving lea­dership of Harakat headed by Saleh Eyay, i.e. the committee in Keren. We held a meeting where I represented the Aqerdat branch at the house of Mehamed Kerar. The meeting was attended by Saleh Eyay, Mehamed Kerar, Umer Yahya and myself for the Aqerdat branch. I was sent by the branch to discuss this problem. Our sug­gestion was that we see that there is no reason for the Harakat leadership to re­fuse introducing itself to those people. This refusal will not serve any interest for the cause and it will divide the people as these politicians are well known and related to a large number of people and almost all people in Western Eritrea will rather follow known leaders than an unknown leadership and we of the Aqer­dat branch are interested in the unity of the people. Our claim was to find a quick solution to the problem within a very short time, a month was suggested by us for that. With that the meeting ended and I went back. They, the Harakat leaders of Keren, had promised to contact the overall leaders and to try and to find a so­lution.

When the time agreed upon had passed I went back to Keren to ask what had hap­pened. But this time there was another stand from us, a kind of accusation to the Harakat. I asked them, if they have any answer for that problem. They said that they don't have one but that a committee headed by Khiar Bayan will be in charge to solve this problem. lt will be sent out to meet with the Harakat leaders and these old politicians to solve it.

I met with Saleh Eyay, Al-Hai ldris, Mehamed Kerar, Umer Yahya. I added to our previous stand that until this committee comes back with results our branch will suspend its relation with Harakat and we will remain neutral till your reply which we expect by the July to come.

In this time, before the first meeting in Keren and up to this point, delegations from Kassala, those soldiers, they were coming from time to time and they were searching also if they can find or buy arms. So our relation became almost organic. And finally they also told us that those who had been to the South of Sudan had come back to Kassala and were joining them and that arms will come in the near future. So the condition was coming almost to the point of announcement of the armed struggle. And we agreed also because of this condition to hold a meet­ing involving a small number of important people.

So we sent to Sheikh Mehamed ibn Dawd and Sheikh Suleiman and also to Hamid Idris Awate to come to Aqerdat. At the agreed upon time, Hamid and Sheikh Suleiman came and for Sheikh Mehamed came his Wakil Khalifa Abubaqer.

I presented to them the situation like this:

All are moving to find arms and all are assuming that within these few months arms can be obtained and most Eritreans in the Sudanese army are prepared to join the armed struggle. However, we are not military men. Anything that is needed from us, we are only doing it, when so directed. And if any kind of arms come, we do not know what to do and how to store and keep them properly.

Sheikh Suleiman did not speak to much, Mehamed Yusuf was emotional. He was an active, young man, speaking hotly that people should fight. Awate then said to him: we need you in the cities to organize the people and the workers. He also said then: if it is, it seems, that there is a real seriosity of doing something, I can tell you something: lf you are sure that within a short period of time arms will come than this is the point of starting our revolution.

And he said : to prepare stores in mountains or anywhere for incoming arms is nonsense and impractical. So the only thing that can be done is, you just tell me the amount and kind of arms that will come before they arrive at the border and also through which way they will come and to which point at the border. Then preparing the rest will be my responsibility. lt is very important to tell me the kind of arms, whether simple guns, or machine-guns, etc. I have people for any kind of arms, so according to the type of arms coming I will bring the necessary people for them.

Secondly, he said: I can cover the geographical areas, that is Gash, Setit, Barka up to Sahel and Anseba. I am well-informed about this area and I can lead successfully within this area. The other areas in the Highlands and to the East, in fact, I do not have an idea about them. So you have to see those who know these areas and have an ability to organize and to do the work there.

Thirdly, he requested: if any of those military men from the Sudan comes these days, sent him to me discreetly. And if you are informed that nobody comes these days, then inform them in Kassala to send someone.

Fourthly, he told us: when I am back I will prepare a small group of my followers, composed of men of whom any single one is able to lead and to pick any amount of people when you ask them. So that when the weapons will come we will have the people to carry them immediately.

When Awate came to Aqerdat to this meeting he knew that the Government was always following him. So they put with him one Abdalla ldris, an agent with the government. He was known to Awate and he came as a friend but he was a spy of the Ethiopians. He was watching Awate from 7.00 in the morning to 7.00 in the evening.Then in the evening, when Hamid Idris Awate went to bed, Abdalla left also to his place. But then Awate rose again and secretly went to the place of the meeting. He was informed that Abdalla was a spy.

As reason for coming to Aqerdat he had given to the Government a request for 200 pieces of Abu Ashera guns which he said, he needs to protect the area between Gash and Setit against Shiftas from Weikait/Humera. That was his official reason and he was not expecting that they will give him this number but maybe a small amount. This shows that he had his own ideas to start the revolution.

Sheikh Mehamed was not a normal person. Politically he was of long-range thoughts and his interest in political activities was even before Harakat. And he was known as always moving around in these areas regularly. Even in 1958, before Harakat, he was showing these people his opposition to those actions of the Ethiopians. And whatever he says was accepted as he had the loyalty of the people of this area. At the same time, although he is from a family of spiritual leaders, it was very clear to him that this national question is not a religions question. So he was dealing with Muslim and Christian equal in this matter. He was moving be­fore this meeting in Aqerdat and he was moving strongly and secretly after this meeting as well and he was very clearcut with the aim this time. That means he was clearly preparing the people for a Zero point. When he moved to set up this network properly after the meeting in Aqerdat he knew that arms will come and Awate will participate and the old leaders are with them.

After this meeting Mehamed Saad Adem came from Kassala to Aqerdat and I sent him to Awate. I wrote for Mehamed Saad Adem a letter of introduction to gave it to Awate. I asked Mehamed Bekhit to write for me this letter in Italian as Awate read Italian. I just wrote: This man is from the group you were asking for and you can trust him. The name of Awate I put into the letter myself after it had been written by Mehamed Bekhit. The details of their meeting I do not know.

When Hamid ldris Awate went back from this meeting he sent a first group of people, around 7, to the Gash. Almost within a week a report from Teseney from Captain Abdelqader came to the Police HQ in Aqerdat that Hamid Awate had gone to Aqerdat and come back and sent then a group of shifta in the Gash. So the Police HQ decided to sent a committee to Awate to ask him, to examine the case. They sent a committee composed of highranking persons including Umer Hassan Nur, a highranking official of the administration, who later became a highranking member in the Judical Department in Asmara. Awate did not meet these people as he went out of his village and send word to them that he has no time to meet them. Then they went back to Aqerdat and reported it. So he was aware that they were after him. He then stayed in the village but he was guarding himself and sleeping out. After the committee reported back the Government decided to arrest Awate. Awate was informed immediately and he left and joined his friends.

When we fully separated from Harakat most of its branches here stayed with us. There was no further meeting with the Harakat. After the meeting with Awate we took a clear stand for the ELF. The most important thing was that it was the whole branch that turned to the ELF, the whole area actually. So they already had a well-build network in Aqerdat Division and its towns.

When Awate left, the only place supporting him was Aqerdat as neither the promised arms nor soldiers and supplies from Kassala in the promised amount did come in. We supported him with money and bullets for the old guns. In the Keren area we collected from the ground around 400,000 spent bullets and 30-40 old Italian grenades, all left-overs from the big battle for Keren in the year 1941. We cleaned the bullets and grenades in Aqerdat and then sent them to Awate. The bullets we collected, he sent them back as they were too deformed and did not fit again into the guns of Awate's group. The situation had been very critical. He had only one Abu Ashera, the others only old Italian guns and hundreds of the Field Forces were running after them. The only place where one could find Italian bul­lets was in Aqerdat in the headquarter of the Banda. So we stole the store of the Banda. We put the deformed bullets there and took the new ones with the help of some members of the Banda recruited to our cause. When it was discovered after a time, they could not find out what had happened and they dismissed the head of the Banda.

In 1965 I was forced to leave Aqerdat and went to Kassala and then to Khartoum. In Khartoum I found Azein Yazin. He and myself, we were then appointed to be members of the Revolutionary command. We went back to Kassala together and we joined the Revolutionary Command in Kassala in November 1965. We were appointed by the High Council. Then ldris Glawdiyos and ldris Mehamed Adem were in Khartoum, but Usman Saleh was in Damascus.

While I was still inside I was in charge of the correspondence from inside to the Revolutionary Command. Usman Saleh Sabbe then was receiving my reports and letters so he knew me more then the others while I was still inside Aqerdat.

Welday Ghidey was added to the Revolutionary Command shortly after us, when the members of the High Council came to Kassala. Abubaqer was added sometime in 1966 and Saleh Heduq actually before me.

Kidane Kiflu came to Kassala in 1966 before the formation of the 5th zone.

The Harakat Eslah came at a period when there was a call for holding the national conference or congress because these zones were felt by many people not to be of any importance anymore. And there were real problems among the zones and among the High Council-leaders. There was the economical crisis and the problem of organization, there was a shortasge of money and supplies which put the orga­nization into a critical condition. There was a kind of anarchy among the people and violation of the laws of the organization. People then were calling to do something to change this situation. So in that period some of the cadres of the field and the cities of Sudan started to contact each other and to discuss the problems facing the ELF. And they came to the conclusion to form Eslah. But they were not widely supported and because of this reaction they could not accomplish too much.

The Labour Party started its activities in 1968. In the beginning it played a good and important role but later when it grew bigger it failed to play a good role in its national work. lt started at the middle of 1968 as far as I remember it.

Gendifel, Tambur and Abdalla "Digol" (De Gaulle, his nick name as he look like him), they had gone to Awate at the end of the 50's and they told him that they want to start armed struggle and that they want him to lead them. Awate then gave them the same answer he later gave to Harakat and others who came to him with this idea, that they should not tell him what they planned to do but to come back to him, when they had done their preparations properly.

Gendifel then had already left the army. He also went once to Teseney and tried in a way to take arms from the police but failed.



جميع حقوق النشر محفوظة مجلة النهضة2001-2002