It is wise to state the truth as it is when you witness Eritrean history being hijacked by opportunists who try to promote their own agenda at this very critical moment dominated by chaos, confusion, depression, misery, division, sectarianism, religious fanaticsm, etc. by ignoring the precious cost paid by Eritrean people to liberate their land. While, the ruling regime, PFDJ, is the main institutionalized actor to hijack Eritrean history and sacrifice, there are also other forces with similar but opportunistic agenda who are trying hard to contain Eritrean history within their circle through elimination. Therefore, it is necessary to give due emphasis on important historical events that can help us to understand the political discourse of Eritrean people.
1965 Asmara Demonstration
Generally speaking, there are two most important demonstrations which changed the political discourse of Eritrea. These are demonstrations which took place in 1958 and 1965. Both of them were organized by the most important driving forces of any community is supposed to have: the working class (1958) and the students (1965).
These two demonstrations became one of those important factors as an instrumental driving force for the initiation of a fully fledged political mobilization which played the great role for launching armed struggle(1961) and then massive participation of young and educated people to the ranks of the ongoing armed struggle(1965).
The 1965 massive student strike was unique. Thousands of students roamed Asmara city center denouncing Ethiopian forced annexation. Not only condemnation bur also it inspired many highlanders to join the Army Struggle too.
As change seekers, Eritrean history tellers and political analysts are usually obsessed with the results and little or no focus is done on the people who contributed for the events to happen. It is with this objective that I have rather preferred to bring the untold stories of Eritreans who made the demonstration to be successful.
Though the 1965 demonstration was a collaborated activity of more than a dozen young students, I have chosen three individuals who made 1965 demonstration successful. These are Yohannes Naffe Mindal, Michael Ghabir, and Woldesus Amar.
The 1965 Asmara demonstration happened between 8 – 12 March 1965. It was organized by patriotic Eritreans who were working in a semi-organized clandestine student movement. These semi-organized students were self-motivated individuals who were working to increase political consciousness among students by exchanging information about the then increasing Ethiopian aggressive oppressions as well as the on-going armed struggle of Eritreans against Ethiopian forced annexation.
To illustrate the origin of the semi-organized groups behind the March 1965 demonstration, I will divide the incident into two phases:
- The Initiation of Student Strike
- Actors behind March 1965 Demonstration
1. The Initiation of Student Strike
After the 1958 demonstration, Asmara was under full control of Ethiopia. People were busy in adjusting themselves with the on-going political changes that resulted in a state of confusion after Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea by ending the Federal system. The Highland of Eritrea was in a relatively peaceful period while the lowland was in a state of war and terror by the continued clashes between Eritrean Liberation Army groups and Ethiopia.
Most of the Highlanders, especially the youth, were exposed to Ethiopian propaganda that was portraying the Armed Struggle as if it was a war launched to Arabanize or Islamize Eritrea by killing the Christians. Many youths from the highland had no clear information about the objectives of the Armed Struggle. As a result, all they had was a negative perception.
Such perception started to change when students from the lowland started to join the Highlanders to pursue their secondary school studies. Among these are Woldesus Amar and Michael Gabir.
Woldesus Amar and Michael Gabir are originally from Senhit region of Eritrea from the Bilen speaking communities. Though both of them were not born in Keren, both of them started their early studies in Keren as there were no schools in small villages by that time. Michael Gabir was born in a small village called Musha, Northeast of Keren, while the other in Ashera found in the Southwest. Therefore, their relationship should have started in Keren. Since then, their friendship became ever strong.
In the early 1960s, there was no high school in Keren. Therefore, they were forced to go to the Capital city, Asmara in order to continue their studies as they did. Therefore, from 1961 to 1965, they stayed in Asmara before they moved to Addis Abba for further university studies. While they were in Keren, political consciousness among the students was so high.
The year Woldesus Amar and Michael Gabir went to Asmara, Eritrean Armed Struggle was already launched(1961). And a year after, 1962, the Eritrean flag was lowered by Ethiopia. Though the change in a political situation was supposed to have a drastic impact among the youth, the then high school students were relatively reluctant and unprepared to react accordingly to play their role in defending Eritrean federal sovereignty. Contrary to this, those who were coming from other regions to pursue their high school studies were more conscious. The reason could be exposed to different political forces.
Students who happen to live in Asmara were more exposed to Ethiopian propaganda. The propaganda was full of hatred towards those who launched armed struggle usually accompanied with labeling such as “Islamists”, “Bandits”, “Arabs”, fanatics, etc. It was a not a surprise if such blackmailings had ears to listen. In fact, the less informed and politically unconscious Eritreans were highly influenced by such kind of daily propaganda.
Many high School students were victims of such kind of propaganda. Some of them were naive to believe what Ethiopia was propagating. This was a shock to then relatively better-informed students who were going to Asmara to continue their studies.
Generally speaking, young students from Senhit, Seraye, Akeleguzay, Barka, etc. were very active during the 1960s politics. Students from Mendefera, Keren and Segeneyti were some of those who became the most active agents in mobilizing high school students of Asmara. Among those highly active students, Woldesus Amar and Michael Gabir of Senhit region are in the forefront. Others include Martyr Seyoum Ogbamichael; Martyr Woldedawit Temesgen; Martyr Mussie Tesfamichael; G-15 member and x-Foreign Minister of Eritrea Haile Woldetensae (DeruE); Tekle Ezaz; etc.
2. Actors behind March 1965 Demonstration
- Woldesus Amar
Woldesus Amar is one of those patriotic Eritreans who was actively engaged in mobilizing students in Asmara in the years between 1691 to 1965 and later in Addis Ababa University. He is the living legend who is giving primary information about the early student movements through his wonderful writings.
Some of them can be found here
- Seyoum Harestai and Pals Gathered in Akriya 55 years Ago for Demonstration!!
- Yohannes Naffe Mindal, 1912-2008
Woldesus Amar started to engage himself actively in politics in May 1962 by taking a courageous initiative to participate in one meeting of the then functioning Eritrean Federal Assembly. He had observed hot debates among the parliament that calls Ethiopia for not paying Eritrean government due to fees. He took notes and then used it to agitate students in his school. He wrote leaflets that call for a strike and distributed them in each class.
As a result, in May 1962 the first of its kind and unorganized student strike took place in the streets of Asmara. This gave the birth of the short-lived “Association of Eritrean Intellectuals”. This association organized itself and submitted a leaflet to the UN committee which was holding a meeting in Addis Ababa condemning Ethiopia. This single event became an inspiration for many young students to be acquainted with the armed struggle. After this, Woldesus Amar was among the Mastermind of all the student strikes that took place from 1962 throughout to 1965.
2. Michael Gabir (1940 – 1992)
Michael Gabir was a close friend of Woldesus Amar. In fact, Woldesus Amar describes him as a man who was the mastermind of his generations. Born in a small village called Musha around Keren, he graduated in History major from Addis Abba University. He was among the founders and schoolmaster of Refugee School in Kassala funded by UNHCR. During high school, he used to sit with Dictator Isaias Afewerqi.
Michael Gabir wrote extensively about Blin people and their history. Some of his works can be found here
- The Origin and Social Relationships of the Blin People, (in Tigrigna), by Michael Ghaber
- The Blin of Bogos, by Michael Ghaber
3. Yohannes Naffe Mindal(1929 – 2008)
Michael Gabir was living with his relative during his stay in Asmara. It is this house which became the most secure place to organize the most sensitive events. His relative, Yohannes Naffe, was a well-established man from Musha, Senhit. He[Yohannes Naffe] was a building contractor. He had a small wood workshop. Yohannes, not only he welcomed the young Eritreans to use his house to arrange the most sensitive meetings but also he supported them materially to conduct demonstrations.
Yohannes Naffe encouraged Michael Gabir and his friends to use his workshop in preparing placards that are used for demonstrations. The young students were free to use his material resources throughout the 1961 to 1965 demonstrations.
Not only this, Yohannes relationship with the then Eritrean Police force Commander, General Zeremariam Azazi helped the young students to have some security from the police. General Zeremariam Azazi, who is from Mensae, Senhit, stayed with Yohannes during his early days in Asmara when had difficulties.
General Zeremarian got the on-going preparation about March 1965 demonstration. But, he did not want to put the life of Yohannes Naffe at risk. This gave the success of the demonstration.
Life After 1965 Demonstration
After the demonstration, about 2000 students were detained for more than 40 hours. It was a great success and a blow to the Ethiopian expansion. Not only this, but it became an inspiration to many Eritreans to join in the armed struggle. After 1965, the Highlanders started to join the armed struggle in mass.
Wondesus Amar and Michael Gabir continued to work with the students in organizing demonstrations, conducting secret meetings, distribution of leaflets and contacting with ELF members. They started to receive magazines which were prepared by ELF and later managed to prepare student magazines called, “Our Voices”. Woldesus recalled Isaias Afewerqi was writing the contents as he had beautiful handwritings using different colors. Isaias Afewerqi became most active in the student movement only after 1964 when he was recruited to be the main member of the leaders.
Woldesus Amar and Michael Gabir became the target of Ethiopian security agents. This exposed them to several imprisonments.
Michael Gabir joined the Armed struggle in 1975 and was a member of ELF until he was mysteriously assassinated on May 25, 1992, in Kassala Sudan.
Woldesus Amar completed his Master’s degree and later served ELF in different areas. After independence, he continued his opposition to the dictatorial regime. Currently, he is a member of EPDP(Eritrean People’s Democratic Party) and is actively engaging in Eritrean politics and human rights.
After independence, Yohannes Naffe constructed a two-story beautiful hotel in Keren. He continued to serve his people through his wisdom and profession until his death in 2008. Though he was a person behind the youth movement of the 1960s in which dictator Isaias Afewerqi himself was part of the activities, it is sad the state did not give him formal recognition for his great contribution.