The Ona and Besikdira massacres in 1970

Written by: Ahmed Raji

On the morning of 30 November 1970 (which also happened

to be the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr), Ethiopian troops entered the village of Besikdira, 15km north-east of Keren, rounded up the population and crammed them into a mosque.

The soldiers were on a mission of revenge following the killing of an Ethiopian army general by Eritrean Liberation fighters the week before, and had already burned several villages in the area in the preceding days.

The soldiers positioned their machine guns at the entrance to the mosque and on windows.

They opened fire indiscriminately, killing 118 innocent civilians, including women and children.

(Despite the Ethiopian officers' attempts to separate the population by faith, the people stuck together. After all, they were family. Hence, the victims were both Christians and Muslims).

Besikdira was a prelude to yet another, bigger, massacre.

On the morning of the following day, 1st December 1970, soldiers stationed in Keren descended on the nearby village of Ona and proceeded on a killing spree never seen before in Eritrea. Soon the the entire village was in flames.

Those who were not burned in their huts, were gunned down as they attempted to flee.

An estimated 700 villagers and their guests (there was a funeral in progress) died.

My own memory of that day (I was in 2nd grade) is one of utter terror hearing the seemingly interminable sound of machine guns and seeing a slow-moving shower of soot and little pieces of charred straw and grass that were scattered by winds over parts of Keren.


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