Did Col. Kassa Gerbremariam actually killed himself?
BY GEN. FILIPOS WELDEYOHANES *
Fans at a soccer match usually see the mistakes in a game better than the players on the field. Similarly, military units who watch from a distance can see openings to be exploited better than units actually engaged in a battle. This is particularly true for the commanders in charge of the engaged units who follow the progress of a battle from a near distance. In the heat of a battle, these commanders of the battling unit can observe a situation and exploit a condition to change the situation to their advantage.
The initiative and great flexibility of EPLF soldiers in new and unchartered situations in a heated battle are well known even by our enemy commanders. There is a testimony to this fact in a notebook of General Abera Abebe. He used this notebook to document daily events of 1979 to 1981.
It was among the contents of a box General Abera left for General Hussien when he departed from the area in March 1982. We found the notebook when we destroyed the enemy’s Wukaw campaign. We read in the notebook a copy of what General Abebe wrote to the highest authorities of the revolutionary leaders of the 2nd Division army. It reads as follows:
“In our effort to boost the morale of our army, our inspirational talk to belittle the rebels had a dire consequence. Day and night we kept propagandizing to our army … ‘Shabia’s army morale is low … Its run out of food and bullets, and it is limited to hiding in a few mountains …’
Our propaganda broadcasts, however, differed greatly from the facts on the ground. This caused our soldiers to be ill prepared for battle. When they found the facts on the ground to be different than what we had drilled into them, they immediately became demoralized. The rebels had soldiers who could survive eating grass and shrubs and fight with the weapons they had stolen from our soldiers.
Unlike them, rebel platoon leaders didn’t complain to the their superiors about a loss of a position in a battle. They regrouped and took back their lost position by launching counter offensives on their own initiative. They didn’t complain up the line when they found themselves in tough situations. They coordinated with their comrades on their left and right flanks and solved their own debacles. They said to each other, ‘Wait, it is better from this side, I can do it better, and so on.’”
General Abera’s written record admired EPLF soldiers, platoon leaders, and the entire EPLF leadership. Yet if truth be told, for the EPLF’s leadership, a battle was an art more than a science. To record all the examples that prove this fact would be difficult. Tens of bookshelves would not be enough if every Tegadalay had written about the self- initiated solutions that he or she improvised to solve the challenges encountered in various battles. I will site some from the many encounters I experienced myself.
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This is about a battle in Adi Hawsha in 1977. Our forces were positioned in the area between Adi Hawsha and Zigb. At night, the 52nd Brigade came from Keren and joined our forces that were ready to launch an attack the next morning. Immediately we positioned one battalion from the new brigade between Tselot and Adi Awsha.
Unexpectedly, however, we met an attack from the enemy before we resume our attack as planned. The surprise attack created confusion especially when one of our battalions positioned on the north side was forced to leave its position. This was when the battalion we positioned between Adi Hawisha and Tselot took its own initiative and attacked the enemy from its side and controlled the paved road of Dekemhare. This attack drastically changed the situation to our advantage. The battalion’s initiative was instrumental in squashing the enemy’s attack and speed up our counter attack forward.
When we were entrenched in the Yangus area in December 1977 and planning an attack to control Dogali, the enemy made a surprise attack. Withstanding the setback, we immediately decided to execute our previous planned counter-offensive attack. Halting the enemy’s assault, our counter offensive resumed. To our dismay, our attacking units that were on the left flank met serious resistance from the enemy’s tanks, artillery and BM 21 propelled rockets positioned on the road to Massawa. It became impossible to push forward.
At this critical juncture, one of our battalions that was not engaged in the battle decided to take its own initiative. Informing the front commanders, it sneaked into the enemy’s line and launched a surprise attack on the southern side of Dogali. As a result, the enemy soldiers were in disarray. Battalion 23.2’s initiative resulted in the destruction of the heavily fortified enemy front line. This victory opened the way to the Hirgigo and Forro areas.
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It was in July 1979. Our fighters were fiercely defending against the Fifth Offensive. On the seventh day of this campaign and amassing all its firepower the enemy launched a massive attack on our defending units, Battalions 44.2 and 22.3. This attack was supported with heavy artillery shelling and warplane bombardment that rained on them.
At that time, I was (as a commander of Brigade 44) with Battalion 44.2, led by Mokonen Tekle (Gubtan Desta) and Ali Manjus, which was positioned on the north side of Maedenen. A few days, before our forces were engaged in hand-to-hand combat to repel the enemy’s advance, while also enduring a five-day pounding of heavy artillery shelling, aerial and tank bombardments, which were propelled from the Debat area.
In July’s merciless heat, we fought for three days without food and water. Between the enemy, and us there was a small ravine that had some water. The enemy was at one side of its bank while we were on the other side. At dark we fought each other to control the water. Five days later the enemy suddenly retreated from the ravine. Only then did we have full control of the water. On the sixth day, the enemy suddenly left the area, and headed towards Maedenen mountain, and west of the mountain in the direction of the area where Battalion 44.3 was embedded. We only discovered this move at daybreak.
From the five hundred arms it left and the non-buried corpses, we understood that the enemy left the area in a hurry. Furthermore, we immediately knew the reason for this sudden move. We anticipated the next day that there would be heavy fighting with Battalion 44.3 and 23.3. We had no doubt that the enemy wanted to penetrate our lines there to descend to Agra’E.
We had to rethink this new development. We had two choices. The first was to reinforce our defending units with the new forces that had a two days lull. Or we had to think of a drastic move that could fundamentally change the scenario. We could see Mount Maedenen from a distance of four- five kilometers. With binoculars, we could clearly see communication radio antennas fixed on the mountain. This was a command post of Colonel Kassa Gerbremariam, who directed the attacking units.
We also learned that the traitor, Tekie Keshi, was at the command post advising the colonel. We learned later from prisoners we took that Tekie was not only advising as a guide but also helping in identifying our units and their leaders. He could easily identify my voice and our other commanding officers leading the forces. That way he was giving valuable information about our strengths and weaknesses to the enemy.
To quickly assess the situation, the battalion commanders, Ali Manjus and Mekonne Tekle, and I had a brief discussion. We decided against reinforcing our defending units and against engaging the enemy head on. Instead we decided to find ways to ambush and destroy the command post of Colonel Kassa. We all agreed on that plan. But the question we needed to answer was how?
The northern side of the mountain was a heavily fortified walled cliff. Frontal attack while climbing the cliff would be costly, if not impossible. The eastern side of the command post was a route to Debat, where its cannons were positioned, and also a supply line for its ammunition as well as a route used to transport wounded soldiers. Because of this, there was continuous movement of enemy soldiers day and night on this route. Choosing between two evils, therefore, we chose to attack the command post on the eastern side.
Four years back, in 1975, enemy warplanes had bombed our arms depot in the area called Bileqat. They damaged some of our weapons. EPLF leadership decided then to move the depot from Bileqat to Deb’at. At that time, I was a member of the arms inventory team. We moved the depot to a lower part of Mount Maedenen in Debat, which was now used as the command post of Colonel Kassa. From that experience, I was very familiar with the area. I knew that the area had caves that could hide platoons or even a company. I also knew where the water sources were.
From this experience, we knew it would be impossible to attack by climbing Mount Maedenen from the north side. The only option was to use the caves in the eastern side of the mountain. We assembled a strong platoon led by Woldeab to march at night towards the northeast to hide in the caves that I knew from 1975. Equipped with radio communication, Woldeab’s platoon left that night. His instructions were to approach the cave stealthily and hide in complete silence. He was instructed to send three radio signals on his safe arrival at the cave.
After six to seven hours of walking through hills and cliffs, the platoon’s three-click radio transmission informed us of its safe arrival at the designated cave.
The enemy had stationed its reserve units around the command post. It was difficult for Woldeab’s platoon to raid the command post while this huge reserve was stationed there. The enemy could easily push the platoon over the cliff by using the reserve units. To ease the pressure for the platoon, we decided simultaneously to launch a frontal attack on the north side of the command post. This was planned ahead of time. The risk was that, after a tiring journey Woldeab’s platoon would be isolated and have no fall back position if the mission went wrong. Our unit assigned to attack from the north was a full battalion and had a fall back position if its mission did not succeed. The battalion had the option of large caves for a hideout. The mission of Woldeab’s platoon was much riskier.
Based on this plan, two companies and two platoons from Brigade 44.2, and a platoon from artillery Brigade 76, led by Tsegay Mehary and equipped with Browning machine gun, entered the cave at the base of the mountain at night. A driver, Debesai Gebremedhin, and an operator, Abed, as well as his helper Dawit, and I were the only people left behind at our temporary command post.
We anticipated that the enemy would launch an attack on the west side early next morning. We also expected Kassa would move the reserve units to be used in this attack.
We decided to instruct Woldeab’s platoon and the battalion in the north to resume attack the moment the enemy’s reserve units started to move towards the west to attack our other forces in the west side.
At dawn, as expected, enemy cannon, mortars, and doshka machine guns started roaring towards our units entrenched in HidaQ and on the outskirt of AgraE. In no time, the enemy soldiers started wave after wave of attacks on the west side. This resolute campaign was to break our frontline established to defend the town of Nakfa.
“Today is the last day to break through the AgraE frontline and move north on the Hamed Dibela road to enter Nakfa.”
This was the enemy’s instruction to its soldiers. At sunrise, its warplanes joined the attack. They rained their bombs indiscriminately in the vast area of our trenches. Whatever the cost, the Tegadelti did not flinch. Otherwise, if the frontline was broken, it would be dangerous. Our supply line and communication to our base would be broken and, worst of all; the town of Nakfa that we defended for two years would be at risk of falling to the enemy.
The July heat, enemy shells, and the warplanes’ napalm bombs turned the area into a burning oven. Blood from both sides muddied the vast ground. At 13:00, disappointed at the progress of the units fighting forwards, the enemy decided to move its reserve soldiers camped at Kassa’s command post to join the frontal attack.
With my few comrades, I was watching this move from my shadeless command post. I started patiently counting, saying “One company descended. Second and third company have followed….” I did this until the enemy’s force at the command post was at its minimum. When I made sure the soldiers around Colonel Kassa’s command post were at a minimum, I instructed Weldeab, Mekonen Tekle, Ali Majus, and Tsegai Mehary to start the planned ambush immediately.
Weldeab’s hideout was only 20 meters from the road that the enemy used for its logistics. It was frustrating to remain completely silent all day long in anticipation of a command to come. From the cave, they heard all of the enemy soldiers’ conversations. When the platoon received the word “to start the ambush,” it felt like a bird set free after being caged for a long time. In no time, they inundated the enemy, launching an attack using hand grenades and small arms on the unsuspecting command post.
Tsegay Mehary’s platoon was positioned facing the mountain range leading toward the HidaQ River. On an hilltop to the left of the river was the only narrow pathway for the enemy army to retreat to its command post. This pathway was blocked by Tsegay’s platoon’s firepower. We made sure that the command post would not get help from the units fighting in the front.
Simultaneously, the platoon that we hid in the cave located in the middle of Mount Maedenen started its ambush, climbing the treacherous cliff. They were able to block the western side of the enemy line that connected the post to the soldiers fighting in the front. This gave our units camped in the north side an opportunity to climb Mount Maedenen from the north side. The area was hilly and rocky. Therefore, mostly hand grenades were used on the attack. The area was not convenient to position heavy machine guns.
Installing itself in the belly of the enemy, and as soon as Woldeab’s platoon reached the highest part of Mount Maedenen, it faced a close-range, Kalashnikov shootout with Colonel Kassa’s immediate location. In the barrage of the Kalashnikovs, Woldeab was hit and martyred.
Undeterred, the platoon continued its attack. At that moment, Colonel Kassa was squeezed from three sides (from east, west, and north). He ordered quick backup support form his units fighting at the front, but the road to the command post was blocked by Tsegay Mehari’s platoon. Part of the units that turned back to save the post was decimated by Tsegay’s platoon, and what was left of it headed towards the water source.
Putting a small radio on my lap and using my binoculars, I was attentively following our gallant force’s ambush of the post from a distance. Using the PRC 77 radio, Abed, the operator, was in continuous communication with Ali Manjus and Mekonen Tekle. Debesai was on my side observing the area.
Suddenly he said, “Wedi Woldeyohannes, we have intruders,” and he picked up his gun quickly. I then saw fifteen enemy soldiers with one of their machine guns approaching our way.
Immediately, barrages of bullets started flying over our heads. We couldn’t tell where the bullets were coming from. We all started shooting, using whatever weapons we had. It was confusing. The fifteen enemy soldiers were equally confused with our sudden gunfire and, without firing a single shot; they headed west towards the water source. When members of our food logistics battalion heard the shootout, they started climbing towards us. They met the soldiers heading to the water source. They killed some and they captured most of them. We understood later that these soldiers were part of the units who were returning to help the command post but dispersed by Tsegay’s platoon.
The person who shot over our head was a young Tegadalay by the name of Girmay Haile. Before the ambush, Girmay was given a post little farther from his team. When the team left for the ambush to attack, they forgot Girmay. Unaware that he was left behind, Girmay remained, holding his post until 1400 (2:00 pm) the next day. When he realized he was alone, he decided to climb toward our post. Soon after he started the climb, he saw the fifteen soldiers approaching us, and he started shooting at them.
Girmay joined us and became part of my team as an operator for seven years. He later joined the fighting forces until independence. Debesai Gebermedhin (Wedi Arbaete) was on my team working as a driver since the famous strategic retreat. At that time, he was driving day and night: Seyidishi to Mai Atal, Seyidish to Embatkal, Seyidishi to Gaden.
I then joined our soldiers in Embatkala on our retreat on foot to Dirfo. Debesai however, found enemy soldiers blocked the road to Ghatelay. He burned his car and he retreated to Solomona on foot and joined us. Until 1985 he worked for me as a driver. In 1985 he was assigned to the mechanized 74th Division and became a tank driver. In our campaign to liberate Massawa in the operation called Fenkil, his tank was hit, and he was martyred in Dongolo. In his memory, I was told his burned tank remains on an hilltop at the side of the road at Dongolo. Our operator, Dawit, continued to fight as an operator and later became in charge of a station until independence.
The enemy units that were fighting westward with our forces at the Agrae frontline met fierce resistance from our forces. The units were also weakened from thirst and food shortages and realized that the Command post was no more. After losing the command post, the units retreated toward where the water was.
Our general army commanders were not aware of the initiative we took that destroyed the command post of the enemy coordinating the fight to advance to Nakfa. Our comrades, including the leader who was coordinating the defense of the frontal attack by the enemy in Agrae , Isaias Tewolde (Wedi Flansa), and the EPLF political office, who coordinated the general war effort, did not know about our operation.
Our ambush to take the Colenel Kassa’s command was difficult. It involved hand grenades in close contact. As a result, our units paid a heavy price. Numerous Tegadelti were wounded and martyred. These included twenty-three platoon leaders that lost their lives. Our attack started at 2 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m. It ended with our units standing at a site of Colonel Kassa’s corpse. Five hundred hand grenades were used in this attack. The Ethiopians claimed Colonel Kassa Gebremariam committed suicide, but the fact is he was killed in the intense fire exchanged between Woldeab’s platoon and his soldiers.
When we controlled the top of the mountain, enemy soldiers who were fleeing from the north side of the mountain and the units that were fighting in the west side to take Agrae regrouped at a place called Hidaq. The regrouped units were in disarray, fighting over water, killing some of their officers, and some even committed suicide.
The next morning we had radio contact with Isaias Tewolde (Wedi Flansa). Wedi Flansa saw that the units who were fighting them were retreating, but he did not understand why. He did not know what had transpired from our side. He said,
“The enemy units that are fighting us are retreating. Therefore, you need to coordinate an attack on Mount Maedenen tomorrow morning. Our general commanders are saying that they are sending a 37mm gun that can attack the mountain from a distance, and one or two tanks will be sent to you as well. So what do you think we should do?”
Wedi Flansa and our leaders were right to plan this because they did not know what we did. We did not inform them when we took the initiative of the attack. Before I could tell them the result, I had to receive complete report of the attack. Wedi Flansa’s radio communication arrived right about the same time I received all the reports of the attack I needed.
I told Wedi Flansa,
“We have finished Mount Maedenen. You are not able to see it, but enemy soldiers are assembled at the water source and they are in disarray. Many of their soldiers are killing themselves. Also, a helicopter was sited taking something from there.”
Hearing this he could not believe it. “Hang on. I will get back to you,” he said, and I knew he switched channels to inform our headquarters. Ali Said was in command of the left flank, the third front that included my unit. Wedi Solomon was commanding the Nakfa front from Apollo Mountain. I switched to their channel, and I was listening quietly as Wedi Flansa was informing them.
When Wedi Flansa said,
“Filipos is saying that his unit has taken Mount Maedenen,” Ali Said laughed and said “Maedenen is not a joke. He just came from the highlands. How does he know Mount Maedenen? He must be mistaken”
“That is what he is saying,” said Wedi Flansa. “Let’s switch to his channel to talk to him,” said Ali Said, not knowing that I was eavesdropping. I switched back to my channel quickly.
After saying “Hello,” Ali said asked me. “What is Wedi Flansa telling me?”
I said, “about what?”
“About Maedenen,” he said.
“Maedenen is in our control,” I said.
He said, “ Do you know what Maedenen is?”
I said, “Yes.” I took my map and I read him its highest peak. I added, “I am not new to the area. When I was a member of the ordinance department, it was on our route to Nakfa, and we were using it as our rest area then.”
Surprised he said, “Hold the line. I will get back to you.”
Ali Said and Wedi Flansa switched to Wedi Solomon’s channel. Wedi Solomon could not believe it either. The three of them came back to my channel, and Wedi Solomon asked me, “Do you really know Maedenen?”
I said, “I know it very well.”
He said, “I think you are wrong.”
I said, “Can you see the mountain from where you are?” He affirmed that he could. It was dusk. I told him, “Watch me shoot three RPG rockets from the mountain towards the west, where the enemy army is located.”
Ali Manjus was on top of the mountain, and I instructed him to shoot three RPG rockets. When Wedi Solomon saw that, he did not reply. Elated, he ordered all the channels to be open and broadcasted the popular song of the time, titled “All Sahel Was Freed,” to announce the victory.
Ali Said came back and asked me, “What is this riddle?”
I said, “I will tell you later, and you should you know that we also killed Colonel Kassa Gerbemariam, the commander of the army.” This was more pleasant news.
Our last task was to rout the remaining army grouped at the water source. We decided to attack the next morning from north and south of Debretlul. As planned, we attacked the next morning. Our units, however, were exhausted from thirst and hunger. Before the two units from north and south met, some of the enemy soldiers, including the traitor, Tekie Keshi, managed to escape.
The units we defeated were well-experienced members of the elite army that came for Ogaden and who were chosen for this special operation. All of its soldiers were veterans with twenty to thirty years of experience.
The late famous leader, General Aman Andom, groomed these units. Many of the soldiers killed themselves that night to avoid being taken alive. The next morning, we captured seven hundred of them. Sending a shocking wave through the enemy, this was its Fifth Campaign ended.
After three days, Wedi Solomon and Ali Said sent a car for me so that they could personally hear my full report. When I told them everything in detail, they were proud. At the same time, they were saddened by the death of the critical platoon leader, Woldeab.
The next day, Ali Said asked me to take him see Woldeab’s grave. We took a car up to lower part of Hidaq. We walked for four hours, passing by many corpses, and we reached Maedinen. Mekonen, Ali Manjus, and I had seen Woldeab’s grave few days earlier. We showed Ali Said the grave. As he placed an olive branch on the grave, Ali Said was overwhelmed. He could not hold his tears. We, too, followed him in tears. Every time I remember that day, I see Ali Said’s tears. I am in tears as I write this last sentence.
* The above story was first published on an a local magazine in Tigrnuya and translated by Menghis Samuel, courtesy of Tesfaye Gebreab. The author, Gen. Filipos Weldeyohanes, is the Eritrean Army Chief of Staff. With this piece, the General shed light over a decade old mystery behind the death of Col. Kassa Gerbremariam, a riddle that never got an answer until this date.