Eritrean Martyrs’ Day 20 June

By Alem Fisshatzion 

20 June marks a very important and sacred day in the Eritrean calendar. The day is Martyrs’ Day or Mealti Sematat as it is called in Tigrinya. It is Remembrance Day for all those who fell in the struggle for Independence (1961 – 1991); and also those who fell thereafter defending the hard-earned Eritrean Sovereignty (1998 – 2000). 

On 20 June every year, regarded as the saddest day in the Eritrean calendar, Eritreans take time to reflect on the heroes who unselfishly gave up the most sacred-of-the-very sacred; their very lives, for the freedom from fascism of all Eritreans; for all posterity.

It is estimated that in the Noble Struggle for Independence that lasted from 1961-1991, the lives of some 65,000 Freedom Fighters and tens of thousands of civilians were lost. An additional 20,000 Freedom Fighters sacrificed their lives while defending the sovereignty of Eritrea during TPLF’s renewed attempt to occupy Eritrea in their 1998 – 2000 expedition.

There is no living Eritrean who does not have a relative, relative of a relative, friend or relative of a friend who is a martyr.

As most Eritreans will be mourning and praying for a friend, neighbour, son, daughter, father, mother, uncle, aunt etc… on Martyrs’ Day, some families will be mourning and praying for at least four or five close relatives who paid the ultimate price.

Eritrea’s neighbours in the Horn of Africa and beyond earned their respective independence through negotiations, and in some cases, minor armed struggle. To Eritreans, Independence will always be synonymous to sacrifice in the dear human lives of those glorious Martyrs.

Although volumes have been written about them, vigils held on their behalf, processions marched and millions of candles lit for them on that day by Eritreans all over the world, we can never sacrifice or pay any price stiffer than they did: their very own dear sacred lives.

There has over the ages been some disorganized and sporadic Eritrean resistance against Egyptians, Turks, Tigrayans and Italians. There were various chiefs with their companions who fought against all the invaders. In the middle of the 1880’s when Italian colonial powers allied themselves with some feudal lords to defend themselves against the atrocity of the Turks, Sudanese and tigrayans. However, the Eritreans eventually turned against their Italian allies who had begun to oppress the people cruelly. The Italians had seized and took control of most of the fertile land and all those who protested were sent to labor camps. Between 1893 and 1894, they seized 370,000 parcels of fertile land from Eritreans, leading to widespread famine. As the resistance grew, the colonizers began to commit severe atrocities and sent opponents to a prison on an island outside Massawa called Nakura, where many chiefs and their subjects died under torture. Between 1889 and 1890, 12 chiefs and their 800 subjects were executed. The resistance however continued unabated until the English defeated Mussolini during World War II. 

The organized struggle for Independence began in September 1961 while colonization continued by Ethiopia with undiminished cruelty.

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) founded in 1970 became the vanguard of the most formidable national liberation force the modern world has ever known. It operated a network of underground hospitals, factories, garages, and schools in the liberated areas it controlled while simultaneously engaging the Eritrean population at large in a social transformational change. At its peak, it commanded 90,000 battle-hardened troops equipped with modern battlefield weapons captured from the enemy.

The pitched battles fought in a conventional warfare in the liberation of Eritrea are among the largest battles fought on the African continent. Some battles such as the 1988 Battle of Afabet are ranked by historians as one of the most comprehensive defeats a colonial army has ever experienced on this globe. The 1990 Battle of Massawa is generally regarded as the largest tank battle the African continent has ever seen. Along the way, Eritrean combatants defeated seven large offensives that were designed to wipe them out “once and for all.” (Courtesy of Bereket Kidane)

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