FIRST ERITREAN WOMEN FIGHTERS
(Interviews conducted by Wolde-Yesus Ammar at Rassai in March 1982)
I joined the Third Zonal Command of the ELF on 18 October 1967. With me was Rahma Saleh who in 1971 went to the PLF. We attended literacy courses in the field and were later sent to Kassala in April 1968 where we worked in an ELF clinic. In October 1969, we were sent to Iraq for training in public health and returned in August 1970. We were 18 girls and 17 boys; all of us had continued to work at Kassala.
The first ELF women's cell in Kassala was formed in June 1963 whose key members included Jemie Bahdur, Site1 Hamid, Fatna Mahmuday, Khadija Nur, Aisha Osman, and myself. We helped organize cells in Aroma, Walfa and Ghirba. Cells were expanded after the October 1964 revolution in the Sudan. Our cells in Kassala rose to 35. We also encouraged the establishment of cells in Tessenei, Agordat and Keren. Already by 1964, Fatna Jaffar was our contact in Haicota. We in the Sudan were contributing 25 piasters per month each. Besides, we sewed flags and prepared dry food. Bekhita Abdalla joined the ELF in 1970 and had been serving as a nurse ever since then. There were ten women participants in the first ELF National Congress of 1971, eight of them nurses.
I became an ELF fighter in April 1973 together with Ghennet Ghebre-Hiwet. Until that time, I had been a member of a five person cell; there were many .student strikes then. In August 1973, Alem Mesfin joined the ELF in the Akkele-Guzai region. She was martyred in 1974.
Before 1973, therefore, there were no well studied plans to accommodate women in the ELF. We were given a short 20-day training as fedaeen and stayed in the Mensa area around Gheleb sewing and repairing clothes for fighters. We also helped in the preparation of food.
Almaz was my nom de querre. My first name, now totally forgotten, was Nebiyat. By end of 1973, we conducted a public meeting in the Mensa area and wanted to continue doing so in other parts of the country. There were no sexual advances made on women in those days. However, women were not accepted as fighters before us. We met many girls in the countryside who told us that they were sent back with their hair shoven by ELF units
when they asked to become fighters in the 1960s. Ghennet and I started talking to women about their rights and duties in the revolution; we addressed in gatherings like village holidays, and at matrimonial and burial ceremonies. We were later given a two-month course at Debir Sala by martyrs Hassan Bashumel and Idris Omar. In February 1974, we joined a 13-member women's committee already formed in 1973. The Constituent Congress of the Eritrean Women's General Union was held on 27 June 1974 with 40 women participants.
Talking about other women fighters, Almaz added the following:
Saadia Tesfu was one of the early and heroic women participants in the Eritrean nationalist cause. In early 1968, Saadia Tesfu agreed with two ELF fedaeen to help them liquidate Ali Bekhit (Wed-Hayget), a deserter from the ELF who was helping the Ethiopian authorities to arrest many cell members in the town. Ali-Bekhit had terrorized Keren. Many of the town's
inhabitants had some connections with the ELF, and had reason to spend sleepless nights or leave the town to become refugees. It was then that Saadia was asked to help. She soon befriended herself with Ali-Bekhit and had him killed. She left the town with the ELF men but her father was shot dead by the Ethiopians. Saadia spent five months in the field and later went to the Sudan.
Another early woman participant was Rumana Saleh who helped in the liquidation of another deserter, Abu Nurit; the latter had terrorized the town of Agordat until he was killed by the ELF in January 1975.
Mana Mussie was an important political cadre of company 97 until her martyrdom at the battle of Metekel, and Martyr Haregu Gegziabeher was a brilliant platoon leader, After 1975, the number of women fighters became very large.
Source: Eritrea: Root Causes of War & Refugees by Wolde-Yesus Ammar pp. 147 - 149-------------------------------------
Interview with Jumaa Omer in Arabic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8ueJvRyraQ
Interview with Nisrit Kerar in Arabic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dt5kE0wNzo