Of "Brave" Commandos and Halhal  
By Saleh Gadi - Apr 28, 2004   

[In my last Negarit, I had abruptly stopped for a trip down memory lane, but I had promised I would write on this subject. Well, now I will take you back to the regularly scheduled program, as they say.]

Throughout our history, those with checkered past have looked out for a golden bridge to redemption. When they find one, or think they found one, they rush to cross over it, even if the "golden" bridge is built with the bones of victims and paved with sufferings. The victimized are supposed to remain victims forever; they were created to be victimized. The victimizers, without any remorse, without any sensitivity, without reconciling their past, always prefer to lick the boots of those in power, any power, any ruling class, that steps over the rights and dignity of the people. The attitude stinks of arrogance. Boastful statements of belittling others and taking people for granted is the norm. e-kejl kjelo glu; be ashamed on their behalf. Isn't it about time that we stopped mocking each other? Isn't it about time that we respected feelings and became a bit sensitive?

The above is in reaction to an 'interview' with a "historian" who was commenting on the "Jack Kramer papers." I thought the comments of the interviewee, an Eritrean "military expert", lacked any sensitivity and were provocative.

Here is his infuriating description of the Battle of Hal Hal:

"Hal Hal post defenders were Eritrean Police commandos trained by the Israeli military in advanced infantry and counter insurgency tactics. Above all, they were Eritreans, albeit on the wrong side. Eritrean fighters are known throughout history for their tenacity and fighting spirit."

There was no tone of sadness in his statement. None.

I often mention the Commandos, and some think I obsess over things that happened decades ago. But insensitive attitudes and comments, as the one quoted above, remind me that we have a long way to go, and people should be reminded. The evidently rampant ignorance, or mischief, is not allowing us to heal our wounds. No sane patriot should keep silent when Eritrean victims are vilified and in the same breath, their victimizers, the villains, are extolled.

The elevation of villains doesn't just stop with the Commandos; it extends all the way to the Unionists, who, we are now being told, were patriots in their own way. People who were household names for their villainy are now being repackaged as patriots! A few years ago, someone told us that Tedla Uqbit, a Unionist and Police Chief of the Federation-era Eritrea, was an Eritrean patriot. This is despite the fact that Tedla Uqbit's victims of choice were Eritrean patriots who refused to bow to the Andenet Party – I know many of his victims. Yet, those he mentored, those who are within the "ruling caste of Eritrea", and their collaborators, want to redeem him. A senior assistant to Isaias was proud that he was given the old Tedla Uqbit's office. While showing people around his office, he pointed at the mahogany furniture and boasted: "I am sitting at Tedla's Office". That is all rubbing salt in the eyes of the victim's whose ghosts might still be there.

In the early nineties, people in Eritrea were pointing at many bureaucrats who smoothly transitioned from serving the Derg to serving the EPLF. They told me how bad they were. When I asked why they were being left to continue harassing the people, after independence, the answer I got was that they were members of the "wushTawi Serreet" (underground collaborators) of the EPLF! I never found out why it took that long to liberate Eritrea when the EPLF had that chunk of the Derg bureaucracy collaborating with it!

The Real Character of Commandos

Is it because the defenders of the Halhal garrison were Eritreans that the ELF attack failed so devastatingly? Weren't those on the ELF side, the martyred, Eritreans as well? How do you compare the degree of "tenacity and fighting spirit" between the Commandos, on the one hand, and the ELF fighters, on the other? I am sure the "expert" would like us to believe that the "brave" had more "tenacity and fighting spirit." This myth, which is stroked by the likes of our expert, must be demolished.

To the common Eritrean patriot, the Commandos were not noted for their "bravery" but for their legendary ignorance, their ruthless behavior, their violent actions and their savagery. The Commandos were simply village looters and burners. They were known for being enemy collaborators. They were subjects of ridicule and contempt; whenever one came across an ignorant and wild person, the common comment was, "he must be a commandos." Those were the Commandos I knew. And the battle of Halhal was both a scene of bravery and act treason.

Halhal: The Real Story

A casual reader of our "historian" could be forgiven for thinking that the conflict in Halhal was between two Eritrean groups and the better trained, better armed and braver group won. It becomes worse when we discover that the "historian" is someone who somehow came to the USA and became a Ph.D. and discovered his Eritreanness. That tells us a lot about his knowledge (perspective) of the whole liberation struggle. Extol the Commandos simply because they were Eritreans!

If Eritrea was blessed with a responsible government, we would have celebrated our victories and remembered our setbacks as a nation. Our history, as written and taught by the PFDJ, is no better than what foreign rulers taught. It has a goal: to erase memories and instill fake history in the minds of the young. The PFDJ’s version of our history starts in 1970 and ends in 1991. Everything outside that period is considered treason, regionalism and sectarianism. Moreover, many from the Eritrean intelligentsia, the few who are supposed to be honest researchers and inquirers, have lazily submitted to the fake version and do not try to learn the truth let alone rectify the grave forgery.

But to anyone who was growing up during the era of the Halhal battle, the death of the forty-nine Eritrean combatants and their leader, Omar Ezaz, was one of the saddest days in their lives. The "expert's" discription was so enraging that it made me re-live the mood of the day. It was a sad day. And elsewhere in Keren…

There was frantic movement of army vehicles in the narrow streets. The town prostitutes were rejoicing. Bars were full of drunken soldiers who were dancing to the tune of loud Amharic songs. The clientele was overwhelmingly Commandos, Tor Serawit, and a few famous spies all smiles and mocking the Jebha fighters who wanted to confront the might of Janhoi. They seemed to lack the basic conscience of being an Eritrean. They were boasting of having eliminated the "shifta" from Halhal. The elders whispered to each other; the younger kids were just curious. Everyone was anxious to know what really happened.

Unusual late afternoon drizzle was falling over Keren. Gloomy clouds engulfed the town. The winds carried a strong smell of DDT- an anti-malaria chemical that was lavishly sprayed on the dead combatants to fight the stench of death. By now, most of us had become familiar with the smell and what followed. A few years earlier, when the dead bodies of twenty-one Jebha fighters were hung in the town center, a certain sympathizer had said: "those who fight Haile Sellassie would end up as a beef jerky, quanta."

Immortal words representing arrogance, brutality and insensitivity.

By late afternoon, military trucks brought in a cargo to the town ***image2:left***center. The cargo was composed of forty-six bodies. In a bestial act, the bodies were dumped from the trucks, pulled like sacks by the limbs and were laid on the curbstone. Older people shook their heads. Deep inside, they wanted to scream and object to the way the dead bodies, bodies of martyrs at that, were being desecrated. Theirs was a culture that respects the dead, but they could not do anything. They were helpless.

The DDT had dried up due to the long exposure to the sun and left white chalky stains all over the bodies. Many were mutilated and had missing limbs; other had their faces blown out or burned. Many looked young. Most of them had long hairs and were dressed in brownish khaki now soaked in blood. It was obvious the bodies were those of the ELF fighters who were killed in Halhal. And yes, there were a few Eritreans praising the "bravery" of the Commandos.

Word about the battle and the bodies that were going to be displayed had first spread in the mosque during the Asr, afternoon prayer time, and soon reached the rest of the town. People flocked to Gira Fiori, the town center, to watch. Parents, brothers and relatives who wanted to know if their children were among the killed were wearily trying to identify the bodies. In anguish, sorrow that couldn't be hidden, under the watchful eyes of commandos who were wickedly smiling and showing signs of pleasure, the poor citizens looked for a sign, a body mark, of a loved one. It was a congregation of the parents of the heroes; it seemed like anyone in town had a relative.

The people solemnly checked the bodies; but some of the bodies had no faces or were swollen and deformed beyond recognition. They looked alike: mutilated beyond recognition. I was among those who watched the bodies of the fine young martyrs. I was looking for some familiar faces; I couldn't recognize any. A few months later, I discovered that Saleh Mohammed Abdulkadir was killed in that battle.

Soon it would be six o'clock, curfew time. Everybody should be home or risk being shot at.

Mid-afternoon the next day, wild automatic gunshots were heard around the police station close to the Keren Elementary School. Shots to celebrate Tenente Kassa achievement: he was the commander of the commandos unit stationed in Halhal. A bull was slaughtered and lots of drinks were prepared for the occasion. When the Ethiopian victory at Halhal was reported to Asrate Kassa, he had ordered the promotion of Telente Kassa to the rank of captain; Kassa was now Shambel Kassa. The fringe of the society was in festive mood while the rest of the town was mourning.

***image1:left***Over the weekend, a large pavilion was erected at Gira Fiori. Asrate Kassa came to celebrate the victory. Musical bands from the police and Tor Serawit, all dressed up in their best uniforms, marched in front of the pavilion where Governor Asrate Kassa and other dignitaries of the occupational government sat. The Ethiopian armies, including the commandos, were there to flex some muscles. The military parade was led by the commander of the Second Division followed by the commanders of different units. At the head of the marching army was another Eritrean Commander, Colonel Bju (who was killed in Asmara in the eighties.) There was the commandos unit that "held Halhal fort and defended his majesty's government by decapitating the shifta" according to Asrate Kassa in his speech. Lines of Jeeps, trucks and artillery were on a victory procession. The show and the boasting of the "brave commandos", which was supposed to intimidate, just added to the resolve of the people. Almost everybody decided to be quanta instead of living without dignity.

I don't know where our "historian" was in those days. Was he celebrating the victory of the "brave" commandos?

I don't trust people who see evil and choose to remain silence. Those who never raise a voice against the injustices being committed against the people in Eritrea; but have no objection in making outrageous and insensitive comments- and their only sources are the Alamin Mohammed Saeeds, members of the oppressing clique!

Any Eritrean worth his name would agree that the killers were not "brave Eritreans". They were traitors who killed their brothers. They were animals who sold their country for a meager monthly salary of 40 Ethiopian dollars.

Do the Commandos sound like "brave Eritrean soldiers" to you now?

The debacle of Halhal was caused by betrayal and not by bravery of the enemy forces. But why are some people determined to whitewash our recent history and revise it? Do we watch them silently while they do that to our living memories? Not so on my part.

Let’s see what Dr. Killion had to say about the incident:

"[Omer Ezaz's] military security was weak and one of his men (some say Omer himself) leaked word of the operation to a relative in the town who let it be known to some others, one of whom was a prostitute who told her Ethiopian boyfriend – so the Ethiopians were waiting in ambush for Ezaz instead of the visa-versa."

Dr. Killion must have heard this "history" from another "historian." It sounds like a passage from a children's story - then the giant came and told the witch…

Even the defeat of the ELF in Halhal is blamed on Omer Ezaz who, thanks to the crooked reasoning, leaked the news for his own defeat! People who knew Omer Ezaz could tell you what a brave disciplined military commander he was; some even think he was too cautious to the extent of paranoia.

But for the benefit of the revisionists, here is the story as I heard it from people involved in the liberation struggle and not from a third rate analyst.

Omer Ezaz had recruited Eritrean commandos inside the garrison. The recruits had assured him that they numbered fifteen Eritrean soldiers in the camp and would join him once the ELF fired a signaling attack. As usual, the commandos betrayed the patriotic combatants who were left in the open without cover until they ran out of ammunition. Omer Ezaz had two choices: try to retreat through the open field and risk the annihilation of his forces or to surrender to the Commandos. We all know the choice the ELF combatants and their leader took. They chose to die fighting heroically instead of surrendering to the enemy. It doesn't take a military genius to note why not a single combatant had surrendered or was captured! Now go figure out the meaning of dignity and bravery!

True, many of the ex-Commandos soldiers later repented and joined the liberation struggle. Many died alongside their brothers fighting for the just cause of their people. However, that was in their second life; their first life was one of shame and betrayal. The commandos project was the most shameful project in Eritrean history and it should not be downplayed, much less praised. The commandos were burning defenseless Eritrean villages. It was the Commandos, together with units of the 35th. Division under the command of Colonel Welana, who massacred close to six hundred people in the village of Ona and over two hundred and fifty villagers in the village of Besekdira (and I am not quoting Alamin Mohammed Saed's partisan rhetoric, I am an eyewitness). This happened in our lifetime and it should help our expert forget the "tenacity" and "fighting spirit" of the Commandos; they were baby killers and no one would respect them unless one was part of that institution.

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