By Major Dawit Woldegiorgis
My Amharic typing is not good enough to write such a serious article. I therefore deeply apologies for writing this in English. This is based on my recollections and not a complete work. I have only mentioned facts with no personal opinions. There are so many details that I do not know and only those who were assigned to the various projects of the Zemecha know, particularly at the front line.
This brief article is meant to explain the background to the historical novel (Oromai) written by Bealu Girma decades ago. It is not meant to open a discussion on Key Kokeb Zemetcha. It is solely for the purpose of answering a popular question by Afendi Muteki and many others, as to who is who in the book and the context and the circumstances under which it was written. I hope this might provide a clearer picture for those who were not part of what is known as the ‘Red Star Campaign.’
‘Ye Eritrea Hule Geb Abiyotawi Zemecha’ was a proposal prepared by my team and myself upon the instructions of the head of state and submitted to him. How this idea came about, it’s purpose; objectives and the various projects under the campaign and the military operation have been described in my book “Red Tears” (page 107-111) and in detail in my other 453 page book entitled “Kihdet be Dem Meret” (Page 350-370). So I will not dwell on that.
At the time I was the ‘party’ (COPWE) representative, in other words sort of ‘Governor.’ In that capacity I had authority on all aspects of life in Eritrea: politics, economy and administration of the province accountable only to the head of state, Mengistu. I had no authority on the military operations though I was sometimes consulted. I had a team of fine Ethiopians selected by Mengistu himself, working with me. The proposal ‘Hule Geb Abiyotawi Zemecha’ was prepared after discussion with many people who understood the nature of the war and how and why the secessionist movement, the EPLF, was able to recruit so many young Eritreans and challenge the largest army in Africa and why so many Eritreans were fleeing the towns and villages to join the guerrilla movement.
Mengistu came with a large group of officials from Addis to give instruction on the implementation of the proposal. He spent a lot of time discussing and then organising the campaign. While organising the campaign he suddenly changed his mind and named the campaign ‘Red Star.’ (Reasons are explained in my book)
Hence the campaign started and enormous resources were allocated. Asmara became the capital of Ethiopia. Engineers, historians, doctors, artists, writers, specialists in many fields were called from all over Ethiopia. The campaign is more known for its highly reinforced military operation, which focused in destroying the network of the EPLF, dismantling it’s leadership and capturing the head quarter of the EPLF in Nagfa.
But actually the campaign was more than just a military operation. It was about pacifying, informing and educating the people, creating a sense of security for the population, creating employment, opening up the schools, the hospitals and the entire public service, mobilising and organising the people to defend themselves and encouraging them to call upon their loved ones who have joined the rebels to return and lead a normal peaceful life. There was a lot of work done in these areas though slowly the head of state and the people around him were carried away by their own emotions and felt that capturing Nagfa was the beginning of the end of the EPLF. Therefore the focus became the military operation, which made significant gain at the beginning.
In terms of organisations, a special office for the campaign was established. Ato Amanuel Amde Mikael became the secretary general of the campaign under Mengistu and I became the head of the political department besides my official portfolio as the ‘governor’ of the province. I therefore had two hats. This new office I was heading had two departments. One of them was Information and Propaganda. Shimelis Mazengia was assigned by Mengistu to head the Information and Bealu Girma was the head of the Propaganda unit. At the time Bealu was deputy minister (PS) of the ministry of Information and Shimelis Mazengia (later polit bureau member) was working at the ideology department with in COPWE. Both were given these assignments for the duration of the camapign. Bealu, Shimelis and Daniel Kinde, head of research department in the Ministry of foreign affairs (now a distinguished professor in the USA), Fantaye Biftu, Aklilu Afewerk were all living in an apartment complex which was their temporary residence. Most of the time they were eating together and sometimes spending evenings together whenever time permitted. So they happened to know each other closely though they were not friends by any means. Some of the characters in Bealu’s book, Oromai, were constructed from these people.
To help this new office we brought selected people from the various ministries in Asmara. Besides many professionals, two secretaries were assigned to my office. One was called Sarah and the other was Fiorella. Bealu wanted to bring his secretary from Addis but I told him I can find him one and assigned Fiorella to him as his secretary. My last information is that both Sarah and Fiorella are still alive and living in Asmara.
Getachew Haile Mariam, our famous television personality was working under Bealu. They were close and worked as a good team. Berhane Zerihun from the ministry of information was also part of the team. Getachew died early in life.
Bealu’s duty included travelling to the war zone. He was instructed by the head of state to collect all the information from the frontline, interview officers and compile a record of the war effort improve the local media both print and radio. And that was what he was doing in a very professional way. In this Getachew was his right hand man.
Fisseha Gedda was the chief protocol in the office of the head of state. He was in charge of organising where each official should stay, sit and ensure that meetings and conferences are conducted according to what the established protocol permits.
Tesfa Mikael Georgio is the son of a very famous Ethiopian ( Eritrean) Dejazmatch Giorgis ( popularly called Georgio). He was one of the founders of ‘Hager Fikir Mahber.’ For him Ethiopia was a sacred biblical name and place which is indivisible. He believed that Eritrea’s union with Ethiopia is a divine wish which cannot be challenged. It was a privilege to have known such a personality when I was serving in Eritrea as a special force army officer. Dejazmatch Gergio was buried in Acrur in Segneiti Wereda. I attended his funeral. One of his sons, Belay Georgio is a third course graduate from the Military academy. He was a colonel and a medical doctor in the Ethiopian army at the time Weyane took over Ethiopia. Tesfa Mikael was the youngest but the most politicised of his children. He was ‘wreda geji’ of Dekemehari. At some point, because of a problem that cannot be explained in this brief note, he defected to the EPLF. He later defected from the EPLF and joined the ELF. When I went to Eritrea as governor he secretly contacted me and sent a message expressing his willingness to return but needed assurance that he will not be persecuted or prosecuted. I did give him that assurance and he finally returned. He was working in my office and during the Red Star campaign was involved in the preparation of propaganda material. He therefore was working closely with Bealu as well. Tesfa Mikael Georgio was killed by the EPLF in Addis, as described by Afendi.
Major General Mesfin Gebre Kal is the son of Dejazmatch Gebre Kal, a patriot from Eritrea, who fled from the Italians and joined the resistance movement with Ras Imiru. He was one of many Eritrean heroes who fought Italian occupation under the leadership of Ras Imiru. He was truly a remarkable person and I have dedicated one big chapter in my book ‘Kihdet Be Dem Meret’ describing his valour. I happen to meet him and work with him as a junior officer when he was the Awraja Gezi of Gash and Setit in Eritrea. General Mesfin Gebre Kal is a British Military Academy, (Sandhurst) Graduate, selected and sent by His Majesty. He had many responsibilities in the Ethiopian Armed forces. He is also a graduate of our law school with LLB degree. He was in Addis until the final days of Mengistu’s government. He managed to go to UK where he got his PHD and was working at King’s College in the UK until recently. He gave me the war diary of his father and it was on the basis of this I was able to write the chapter on Dejazmatch Gebre Kal, in my book which was telling the stories of Eritrean patriots who fought for the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian occupation during the second world war. General Mesfin was the operation officer during the Red Star campaign and was close to Bealu.
Colonel Girma was assigned as the head of the Security in Eritrea for the duration of the campaign, under his minister Tesfaye Wolde Sellasie. Colonel Girma was temporarily moved from Addis like all the others. He was a senior and veteran security expert who worked in this filed since the times of His Imperial Majesty. He later became ambassador to Yemen. I believe he is still around. He was close to Bealu during the campaign.
Now we can solve the puzzle of the characters in Bealu’s Oromai. Based on mine and my colleague’s understanding at the time the book was circulated, the characters in the book refer to the following real people of the times.
Afendi had it almost right. Bealu’s uniqueness in this book is combining the characters of two people to create one character.
1 Tsegaye Haile Mariam is a combination of Bealu himself and Getachew Haile Mariam. The narrator of the story is the author because, as he explained in the first page of his book, he sometimes goes to places and events where Tsegaye Haile Mariam is not present.
2 Tedla Regassa is Fesseha Gedda
3 Colonel Betru Tessema is Colonel Girma
4 Colonel Tariku Wolday is General Mesfin Gebre Kal
5 Fiorella is Fiametta
6 Yeshitila Masresha is Shimelis Mazengia..
7 Silay is Tesfa Mikael Georgio but includes some aspect of Teklai, the EPLF central committee member who had defected earlier.
8 Tedla Regassa is Fesseha Gedda
9 Solomon Betre Giorgis is Dawit Wolde Giorgis
10 Firew Zeriun is Berahne ‘Zerihun’ from the ministry of information.
11 Mesehafe Daniel is Daniel Kindie
There are other names that are also connected to real people. But above are the key players in Oromai. Oromai was drafted in Asmara. I was aware of it though I did not help in any way. Bealu had adequate information because he was regularly either at the frontline or interviewing people in Asmara. Solomon Betre Giorgis was one of the few people who the author praises as a person passionately committed to the cause of unity and a person who was working hard to make the campaign successful. This praise was not well received by those who were not in his good books. I was accused of helping and conspiring in the preparation of the manuscript though I had nothing to do with it. That was one issue that was circulated in the inner circle of Mengistu adding to my woes at about the time I left the country.
When the attempt to capture Nagfa failed Mengistu and most of the members of the council of ministers and senior government officials returned to Addis and with it the enthusiasm with which Red Star Campaign had started quickly dissipated. The resource allocation was not sustainable and that too dropped significantly. The war continued but the projects initiated under the campaign quickly faded and gave way to the pre Red Star situation. There was no special statement declaring the end of the campaign but it was clear it was over. Bealu also returned. A year later I was transferred to Addis as RRC Commissioner.
In Addis, Bealu sent me a draft of the chapters dealing with the war. I was stunned that it was so detailed. I asked him whether he would have problems publishing it. He told me that he had given it to Kuraz Asatami Dirigit. They edited it and told him to remove some sensitive parts. He did. He then resubmitted it. It was sent to Fikre Sellassie who was the head of the Ideological Department within the party. Himself and a group of his people went over it and approved it. I don’t believe Mengistu read it but he was informed. It is therefore wrong to say that the leadership did not know about the details. They did.
When it was eventually published and started being circulated there was an outcry from certain segment of the leadership who were not exactly comfortable with characterisation of their personality in the book. It was this that ignited a big debate within the polit bureau and eventually resulted in a decision to sack Bealu from his position pending other measures. Only 500 copies were sold. The rest were removed from all the bookstores.
Most of the narrative on the establishment of the Red Star, the speeches, the manifesto, his encounter with Mengistu and other senior people, the meetings Bealu attended
The historical background to the Eritrean conflict narrated by the different characters
The description of the war
The entire plot including the love affair
Bealu was a friend. I knew him from my earlier years when as a young journalist he was working under my father. We became close in Eritrea during this campaign. He for some reason felt comfortable talking to me even on sensitive matters.
A few days after he was removed from his position he came to my office and we discussed at length the options he had. I had offered him a job in the RRC, as a consultant, to write about the 1984 famine relief operation. That would have given him an opportunity to leave the country by crossing the border. I was advised by Tesfaye Wolde Sellassie not to give him that job unless I have specific permission from Mengistu. We never reached that point. Bealu suddenly disappeared.
Bealu’s book is an excellent literary work. Those who were familiar about the Red Star Campaign and the people that took part can appreciate this book better than others. Besides the literary work the book documents the gallant work of our armed forces. It was a graphic description of the sacrifices of our people who perished for the cause of the unity of the country. These are solders and officers who were not paid for months, who never had extra boots or uniforms for months, people who never had enough to eat, patriots who were completely disconnected from their families and loved ones for years, soldiers who spent most of their lives in fox holes. Their service and love to the nation was unconditional. These were the real patriots who gave their lives so Ethiopia can stay united. Bealu’s work documented the sacrifices of these unsung heroes whose sacrifice and valor should be cherished and told repeatedly. I really admire books like the Wegen Tor, General Wubetu’s book, my own book and many others that explain in detail the sacrifices of our troops. These patriots can only be compared to those who got us victory at Adowa. There are none like them anymore.
No country that I know of has abandoned its own heroes so cruelly like the new Ethiopian government did. It is indeed a big shame. It therefore becomes the responsibility of the new generation to continue to raise their names, their deeds and their sacrifices now and forever. Long live their memories and may we talk and write more about them.
Long Live Ethiopia.