Tuesday, October 2, 2007




In this last segment, I would like to bring you a full circle to the beginning of the first part. The catalyst for this article was the 35th year of the “Battle of Halhal” in September 2003. You will find that I have put a reference to the “engagement” (using Mr. Kramer’s terminology) in Halhal of 1968 in parenthesis. The reason is some people argue that the attack on Halhal in 1968 by the second division (zone) was not even a battle. Whether one sees it as a battle or an attack or engagement, I chose to put it in a parenthesis. Also in this final part, I am presenting a sketched map drawn by Mr. Kramer that is in the Hoover Archives . There is also another sketched map by the commander of the unit, that Mr. Kramer was with at that time, who attacked the reinforcement convoy sent to Halhal. But that particular map is not presented here because some parts of it are very faded. Battle or attack, what is important is to investigate: (a) what was the significance of that attack? (b) What was the aftermath? (c) What was the political and military significance of that attack or battle? ... etc.

Issayas: You were not too far away from Halhal in 1968 where the “Battle of Halhal” took place. Can you tell me about it?

Mr. Kramer: Yes I was close to Halhal. But being close is not being there, especially, when you are reporting the guerrilla side of a guerrilla war. In Eritrea it took me days to cover ground that I could cover in ten minutes of hitchhiking by chopper in Vietnam. Of course I got reports, and those are in the collection. But I don’t want to make it sound as if I could see the units attack. I can’t even say if any of what we heard over that period of days was the Halhal engagement itself. The guerrilla attack on Halhal fortifications was the centerpiece of the engagement, but there were related actions all over. When an attack like this takes places, the entire region gets hot, helicopters are out hunting, and if you are with the side they are hunting for, you get an intense idea of what it’s like to be on the guerrilla side, especially in open country. I got much more detailed stuff on the attack by Mohammed Ali Idris on an Ethiopian column sent to reinforce Halhal, maps, descriptions of the participants, etc. The picture (see part five) of us in the wadi with the blue Eritrean flag was with the unit that carried out that attack. The figure near the left of the group with a blue scarf is a girl--- one of the few female guerrillas at that time, though I understand that they were later to make a great contribution. Many of the guerrillas in that wadi bore deep scars, and they were so young.

Issayas: In our phone conversations, you mentioned that you did not find out about the failure of the “Battle of Halhal” until you came back to the United States. Was there any new information that you did not know when you were there?

Mr. Kramer: I did not understand how severe the engagement was until years later. Without over dramatizing, the guerrillas were honest with me about an engagement during which they took serious losses. But when I got to Asmara I was fed Ethiopian propaganda that was so obviously false (for example, that the Eritrean guerrillas had been cleared from the regions in which I knew first hand they were still operating) that it backfired, and convinced me that the Eritreans had not suffered nearly as bad at Halhal as they had. I really didn’t understand just how bad things were when I was there until I read the Eritreans’ own accounts of what happened, and I didn’t read them until much later.

Issayas: You were a military man. What was the significance of the “Battle of Halhal” of 1968?

Professor Berhe: The Battle of Halhal was a daring assault by a fledgling guerrilla force on entrenched government outpost. The attack was repulsed. With around sixty freedom fighters and the zone commander (Omar Ezaz: commander of the second zone) killed the outcome was disastrous. Alamin Mohamed Said explains the incident in a footnote in his book as an attempt to disrupt the reform oriented meeting of the field commanders of the ELF that was scheduled to take place at Anseba to work on the reform of the ELF’s organization and leadership. To understand the situation it is important to view the context within which events were evolving at the time. Alamin Mohamed Said describes the many challenges the Front was facing and how, instead of meeting the challenge by solving the problems, the leadership took measures that aggravated the situation and plunged the movement into deeper and wider religious and regional divisions. The five military zones that reflected the religious and ethnic homogeneity of the area were created. In addition, there was rivalry between former members of the Sudanese military and former members of the Eritrean police force (Alamin Mohamed Said, p.14). The commander of the second zone, Umar Ezaz, was a sergeant in the Sudanese forces. The progressive counter movement that was developing inside the Front was trying to call a meeting at Anseba to create a unified command and structure. The first and second zone commanders did not attend the meeting. Some writers and people who were in the Front at that time explain the “Battle of Halhal “as an attempt to gain an upper hand in the power feud in the field. Alamin further portrays the leadership of the early years of the revolution as consisting of individuals who “misappropriated money and services such as scholarships and medical aid donated for the Front” by supporters of the Eritrean struggle. The field commanders, in a way, became warlords with complete authority over life and property in their region. Keeping the fighters divided was their strategy of maintaining their power and promoting their interest. Ahmed Teifar, editor of the Sudanese paper “October” in his book “The Truth About the Eritrean Revolution” provides detailed account of the abuse of power by the leaders and their views on religion and the role of non-Moslems in the movement and future Eritrea (quoted in “The Eritrean Riddle” by Alemseged, B. Adal, 1993). Change was imminent, because there were too many committed young people in the movement. Some eventually split and formed new organizations while others worked for change from within. The resolution of the contradiction in the organization catapulted the struggle for independence to a new plane, which eventually led to total liberation of the country from enemy rule.

Issayas: Tom, you know about the “Kramer Papers”. Kramer was near Halhal in 1968. What was the significance of the “Battle of Halhal”?

Dr. Killion: Battle of Hal-Hal 1968 was the worst ELF defeat of the liberation struggle to that point they lost about 75 fighters and gave the Ethiopians a propaganda victory. Apparently, Omer Ezaz had planned the action in an attempt to strengthen his independent bargaining position at the upcoming Anseba Conference. At the time, he was both critical of the ELF leadership but unwilling to join Eslah reformers, and he seems to have hoped form a"third force". His death and the Hal Hal defeat ended any possibility of a "Bilen" third force emerging in the ELF; it also increased the divisive and recriminating bickering in the ELF, thus paving the way for the rise of the reform movement and eventually Shaebia.

                                                                    Dr. Tom Killion

Issayas: You interviewed Azen Yassin in Asmara in 1994 for a couple of days. Did you ask him about the "Battle of Halhal”? If yes, what was his response?

Dr. Killion: I have looked through the notes I took in Asmara in 1994, but I can't find any comments by Yassin on Hal Hal. I will look more carefully when I have more time... unfortunately; my notebook organization needs to be revisited. The tape of the interview is in the former RICE (today’s Research and Documentation Center) archives in Asmara, but it is unfortunately of poor quality. I got much of my information from an interview I did in Hal Hal in 1994 with some Muslim villagers who had just returned from 25 years or so of exile in the Sudan -- they remembered the 1968 debacle well and were still bitter about it. They respected Ezaz for his bravery, but certainly did not paint him as a great hero.

Issayas: The attack on Hal Hal was ill fated. Some people even say it was a blunder on the part of Omar Ezaz. What is your take of it?

Dr. Killion: Of course the attack was a blunder. To begin with, Ezaz had planned it for the wrong reasons (ELF politics, not a larger guerrilla strategy). Second, his 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. Though Ezaz had about 200 fighters and outnumbered the "Ethiopian" (mostly Eritrean Christians, by the way) police, he lacked the element of surprise. Ezaz should have then retreated to fight another day as a good guerrilla strategist would do -- but it was his home and apparently pride got in the way, leading to a senseless continuation of the attack and the slaughter of much of the Bilen contingent of the early ELF. Ezaz was brave, but he was not a good strategist. The defeat dealt a serious blow to ELF prestige for many months and increased the divisions in the ELF -- so it was in every sense a big defeat at that period in the liberation struggle. The defeat also brought horrible reprisals on the civilian population of Hal Hal, with some 30 killed and much of their property and livestock looted.

Issayas: What was the after effect of the “Battle of Halhal”?

Professor Berhe: Militarily, the Battle of Hal Hal may be viewed from many angles. One angle demonstrates the danger a guerrilla force faces when it moves too quickly out of hit and run tactics to attacking entrenched enemy positions without appropriate weapons and adequate training plan. The danger is multiplied when the enemy force is well trained and disciplined. 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. Eventually, most of the young Eritrean Police Commandos joined the fronts and proved their mettle. The loss in human life was staggering. Over fifty freedom fighters, including the commander were killed. The total combatant force of the zone was believed to have been less than 200. Perhaps the indirect effect of the Battle of Halhal may have had more enduring effect in the long run than in the immediate future. Temporary success at Hal Hal may have given the Ethiopian government and military false hope that they can succeed militarily. The Ethiopian military had failed to suppress the Eritrean armed struggle at the initial stages. Experts in counterinsurgency stress that if a movement cannot be stopped during the first few months or years, it will be difficult to control. The Eritrean armed struggle had crossed that stage. Ethiopian counterinsurgency doctrine, which relies on brutal suppression, loses its effectiveness once the people in uprising and their organization pass that critical stage. The consternation of arrogant Ethiopian leaders was why Eritrea should be an exception, because earlier peasant uprisings in Ethiopia, example Oromo, Tigray, Sidama, were “nipped in the bud” in the first two or three years. An exception to this scenario is the Ogaden movement, which survived for many decades and may eventually bring the unraveling of the empire that Menelik built.

Issayas: Before I finish this article/interview I would like to ask you two more questions, if you don’t mind. When I went and re-read your 21- page article that is in the Hoover Archives, the following questions came to my mind. You wrote;

“Eritrean strategy parallels the Vietnamese strategy, but at this moment, it doesn’t so much parallel the Giap strategy, particularly of battle from a fixed emplacements. Given the Eritrean terrain, fixed emplacements may never be feasible or necessary anyway. Their current strategy would seem parallel much more the earlier Vietnamese strategy of “Trung Chinh”, which essentially means prolongation.

Can you explain? EPLF won the war in 1991 from their base in the Mountains of Sahel, which was basically a fixed position. What is your comment?

Mr. Kramer: You must remember that whether I was the first western reporter, or one of the first western reporters, or the first non-Party reporter in Eritrea, I was still just one reporter at a particular place at a particular time, and my reporting reflects that narrow perspective. I had a little background: the Marine Corps; several months as a reporter in Vietnam; an interest in liberation movements. But I also had my biases, among them a sympathy for minorities, which may have been no more than the traditional American sympathy for the underdog, and whatever else you may think of that, it is a bias. It limits objectivity. In short, I was simply reporting what I was able to comprehend of what was going on at that early stage in the war. Not only were there few fixed positions (from Tessennei to Keren, I saw none), the ELF was deploying virtually no vehicles. We rode mules, we rode camels, we walked, once in a while we ran; we never once rode in a vehicle. In fact the only vehicles we saw were bombed out Ethiopian armored cars near Agordat. Once or twice we saw Ethiopian choppers overhead. (It was not until years later, traveling with the Polissario in the Western Sahara, that I realized guerrillas could actually get away with driving oil tankers across open desert behind enemy lines; I was quite amazed and equally frightened.) From what I’d seen in Vietnam, it seemed that Trung Chin’s emphasis on protracted war more closely reflected what the ELF was doing and could do in such open country, with little cover. Not only did I see no evidence of Giap’s fixed-position tactics, but also I could hardly imagine it. Not only was there none of the cover guerrillas had in Vietnam, but where the Vietnamese could take advantage of a large population to build emplacements, Eritrea had a comparatively light population. From what I saw at that moment, mobility appeared clearly to be the tactic and protracted war the strategy, wearing the Ethiopians down until they understood that Eritrea was too costly to hang on to. The great achievements came later -- the underground munitions factories, underground hospitals and operating rooms, underground machine shops, oil tankers and tanks roaming at large despite the lack of air cover and subject to air attack. As I wrote, I had no inkling that this was coming. When it did come, it amazed me. Whether it represented a change of strategy by the EPLF or was always the strategy of the leadership is a question you should address to the leadership.

Issayas: You also wrote; “In Aden I heard the common stories—Eritrean and other African revolutionaries being trained by the Chinese in Zanzibar, or on some island near, Zanzibar the Cubans who were supposed to be or were supposed to have been in Eritrea. There were stories I had occasionally heard in Eritrea as well, but with an altogether different emphasis.” Would you elaborate on the quote?

Mr. Kramer: All I meant by that comment about Chinese/Cuban involvement was that this business seemed of much greater moment over hookahs in coffee shops in the Crater (not to speak of espresso bars in Milan) than it did on the ground in Eritrea, where it actually mattered. Aside from my few days in Asmara, and auto-stopping the road to Asmara, the only people I saw in Eritrea were Eritreans.

Issayas: Have you visited Eritrea since you last visited with the ELF fighters in 1968?

Mr. Kramer: No. How I wish I could. I go where I am sent, and there still isn’t much interest. There should be. Eritrea is at the hub of a critical region, and Lord knows we need good news out of Africa. But there isn’t much interest, and so I watch Eritrean news on public access cable and whenever we can, my son Zeke and I get ful for breakfast at the Keren Café on Florida Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Issayas: Thank you very much for all your help, time and specially for granting me to publish your pictures, audio clips and letters from the Hoover Archives. Also, thanks for being patient with my constant endless questions. Finally, I am looking forward for your upcoming co-authored book on Rwanda. 

Note: Mr. Kramer's book is already out and is entitled: Rwanda Means the Universe: A Native's Memoir of Blood and Bloodlines.

Concluding remark: By no means, this is not an exhaustive research. Of course, more is needed. As more documents surface and more people share their experiences in the Eritrean struggle, we hope to get a better and full picture of the early part of our struggle for independence. I hope the above interviews have succeeded in putting few pieces in this bigger and much needed picture. What the experience of writing this article has shown me was that sometimes things happen for a reason. As I have mentioned in the introduction, I have been looking for Mr. Kramer for a long time. Once I found him in September 2003, not only the questions that I was dying for to ask Mr. Kramer were answered but also five more other people were interviewed to show the significance of the collection. Now I know why that entire wait was for a reason, Zeigiest. There were many people whose names are not mentioned in this article but were involved in a lot of different ways. They know who they are. Many people including the interviewees had to tolerate my continuous nagging, sometimes disrupting them from their activities, yet they accommodated me with patience. I am grateful for that. Again, I would like to thank all the people who helped in the completion of this article, especially the interviewees for their time and mind. Finally, as you have read in part three of this article/interview, Mr. Kramer mentioned that seven ghosts follow him wherever he goes. One of them is Kidane’s. I would hope that Mr. Kramer (through the invitation by the GOE, etc.) visits Kidane’s Eritrea to rest assured the ghost of Kidane that he did not die in vain. All the hopes, aspirations, struggle, stand, truth that Kidane stood for, for an independent Eritrea has been achieved and is being achieved by his country men and women and his comrades.