The ELF leading the struggle (1962-1974)
In 1962, Hamid Idris Awate’s small group was strengthened by defecting Eritrean members of the Sudan Defence Force (SDF). After the death of their leader in June 1962, the group joined the ELF and formed the core of the troops that would combat Ethiopian forces for the next three decades.
In 1963, the ELF counted approximately 250 fighters and started receiving arms supplies from Iraq, Syria and China, through Sudan. Women were drawn to the cause of Eritrean liberation from the beginning. Soon after the inception of the ELF, women became involved resisting the occupation through activities such as cooking to nursing, weapon collection to message transmission. Although not easily welcomed into the ELF in its early days, women’s ability to evade Ethiopian scrutiny and complete important clandestine tasks was of great value to the ELF.
Some of its male recruits also began to be trained overseas. During the following two years, ELF forces grew from four platoons to seven and by 1965 they had reached about 2,000 fighters organised in small units. Originally loosely defined, the ELF organization gained in clarity and efficiency in May 1965 when its president, Mr. Idris Mohamed Adem, and its secretary, Mr. Idris Galadewos, met with field commanders in Khartoum. They decided to create a Revolutionary Command based in Kassala and four Zonal Commands modelled on the wilayat (administrative districts) of the Algerian liberation movement.
Zone 1 included the former province of Barka and the natural reserve of Gash Setit, today divided between the Gash-Barka and Anseba regions; Zone 2, the former province of Senhit, was absorbed into the Anseba region; Zone 3, the former provinces of Ankele Guzai and Seraye, incorporated parts of the Northern Red Sea, Debub (Southern) and Gash-Barka regions; and Zone 4, the former province of Sahel was integrated into the present day Northern Red Sea region.
ELF fighters were initially recruited among lowland Muslims. However, as the war spread, Christians from the highlands started to join the movement leading to the creation in late 1966 of a fifth Zonal Command covering the Eritrean highlands. In response, Ethiopia launched a counter-insurgency strategy coupling military offensives supported by arms and training from the United States and Israel with tactics aiming at dividing Muslims and Christian ELF supporters. At first the division strategy paid off. During the summer of 1967, the Christian leadership of the ELF under Mr. Wolde Kahsai defected.
A group of recruits, led by Mr. Haile Woldetensa’e, were massacred by Muslim fighters after they had turned themselves in at the Ethiopian consulate in Kassala and had asked for amnesty. In September 1967, 50 Christian farmers were massacred by ELF Muslim fighters in the Seraye and Gash-Setit regions. These incidents, added to a number of military failures, pushed ELF members of both religions to form the Eslah (reform) movement to challenge the Front’s old leadership. In September 1968, Eslah transformed itself into the Tripartite Unity Forces, unifying Command Zones 3 and 5.
The counter-insurgency operations led by the Ethiopian army between 1967 and 1970 alienated the Eritrean population and prompted many Muslims and Christians to join the ELF. Meanwhile, the Front remained reluctant to incorporate women in its forces, and women continued to be unable to attain higher ranks in comparison to men. Although a Women’s Union was formed in 1967 to advocate for their rights and for the ELF internationally, it was not until the first National Congress in 197144 that the ELF leadership endorsed the notion that the role of women (and other groups such as students, workers and peasants) were essential to the struggle.
Despite this new strength, the ELF remained divided. In August 1969, an attempt was made to resolve the crisis by the creation of a Provisional General Command and the replacement of the Command Zones with a three-region system. However, the massacre of Christian recruits in 1969 and 1970 and the execution of ELF Christian prominent figures such as Mr. Wolde Ghiday and Mr. Kidae Kiflu prompted the creation in 1971 of a new dissident group under the command of Mr. Abraham Tewolde and Mr. Isaias Afwerki.
In 1971 the new group was joined by other dissident forces unhappy with the ELF’s manner of operating. Together they formed the Eritrean Liberation Forces – People’s Liberation Forces (ELF-PLF). Yet, most of the freedom fighters remained loyal to the ELF. In April 1971, an ELF Revolutionary Council and an Executive Committee were created and the fighting forces reorganised into 12 battalion-strength sectors. In February 1972, the new leadership of the ELF declared war on the ELF-PLF.