The ELF’s mass jail-break of 1975

The Notable Prison Break of 1975

Source: BBC Tigrinya

An interesting story appeared on BBC Tigrinya website yesterday which instantly stirred a lot of interest in social media all day.

The story was about the historic prison break of 1975 from Sembel and Adi-Quala prisons organised by Eritrean Liberation Front fighters.

SEMBEL is the area around the present Asmara airport which was expropriated for an Italian farm in the 1890s and then developed as a military airport and barracks during the 1930s. The name was applied to the military complex used by the commandos and the Ethiopian army from the 1960s and to the military prison established there mainly for captured Eritrean fighters.

Adi Quala was a small village of no importance before the Italians established a fort there in 1890 to defend the central plateau against a possible attack from Tigray. It remained a garrison town known particularly for its massive stone prison until the British period when primary and secondary schools were established and its Eritrean population began to increase.  By 1962, there were 1,500 residents, and this increased as its Ethiopian garrison grew during the armed struggle.

On 12 February 1975, cadre of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) managed to convince the Eritrean prison guards there and at the prison at Adi Quala to desert and free their captives.

In this simultaneous operations, the ELF released around 1,000 prisoners from Sembel and Adi Quala, including ELF operatives Seyoum Ogbamichael and Woldedawit Temesgen and one of the top political strategists of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), Haile Woldetensae, taking the sick and injured out by truck and using ladders to scale the wire fences for the others.

On that day 700 prisoners were freed from Sembel and 300 from Adi Quala.

However, according to Eritrean Historical Dictionary, the prison was soon filled again with fighters captured around Adi Yaqob and elsewhere, 45 of whom were executed in 1984 after an EPLF raid on the neighbouring airport.

In 1980 Woldesus Ammar, a veteran ELF fighter, had a chance to interview Woldedawit Temesghen (1945–1985), the unwavering ELF operative who committed his short life to the struggle until he was assassinated in Sudan in 1985.

Woldedawit, together with his comrade Seyoum Ogbamichael, played crucial role in the historic prison break of 1975. Woldedawit was a member of the activist cohort at ‘Scuola Vittorio’, the Prince Mekonnen Secondary School, in the 1960s that included many future leaders of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).  The militant group of the 1960s from Prince Makonnen included Woldesus Ammar, Seyoum Ogbamichael, Woldedawit Temesghen, Michael Gaber, Isaias Afwerki, Mussie Tesfamichael, Haile ‘DruE’ Woldetensae and more.

  • Woldesus Ammar lives in Switzerland and he, together with his EPDP group, is still fighting for human and democratic rights of Eritreans.
  • Seyoum Ogbamichael who went on to chair the Eritrean Liberation Front–Revolutionary Council died in 2005.
  • Woldedawit Temesghen who was instrumental in organising the prison break of 1975 was assassinated in 1985 in Sudan.
  • Michael Gaber, a renowned ELF fighter who set up the education system for Eritrean refugees in the Sudan. Michael taught there from 1978 through 1992 when he was killed in a bus accident.
  • Isaias Afwerki is the current unelected president of Eritrea.
  • Mussie Tesfamichael Mussie was a member of a leftist trend that emerged within the evolving front in 1973—the Menqa—to challenge Isaias Afwerki’s autocratic leadership. Isaias Afwerki and his supporters acted ruthlessly to suppress the ‘menqa’ group by executing key organisers and arresting dozens of their supporters. Mussie was among the executed.
  • Haile ‘DruE’ Woldetensae was one of the inner circle among Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) founders and a leading ideologue of the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). He served in a range of cabinet posts in the Government of Eritrea before he was dismissed and then imprisoned in 2001 for his role in the Group of 15 (G-15) reformists who criticised President Isaias Afwerki for his undemocratic rule. Haile was imprisoned on 18 September 2001, together with 10 of the other Open Letter signers who were in the country at that time, and he was not seen or heard from after that.

Woldedawit Temesgen left school with Seyoum Ogbamichael to join the ELF in 1965. Once in Kassala, Sudan, he and Seyoum were assigned to the front’s new Fifth Division and sent back to Asmara to organise a network of secret cells. According to Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, on 31 August, after only 10 days of clandestine meetings with students, teachers, and workers, the two ELF operatives were identified by a government agent working inside the ELF, Ghirmai Yossef, and arrested during a meeting with a teacher in the Kidane Mehret quarter of the city. Woldedawit spent the next decade in Asmara’s Sembel prison before making his escape with 700 others in a daring February 1975 ELF prison break. He remained with the ELF until his untimely death in 1985.

Woldedawit Temesghen (inset) – the prisoner truck used to transport the sick during the escape.

Then and Now

Prison conditions of 60s, 70s and 80s were harsh. Most families, especially those in the lowlands, were severely affected by the imprisonment of their loved ones. Many prisoners lost their jobs for good, families went bankrupt, children grew up without their fathers, young wives were abandoned, the elderly were harassed and left on their own and in short, many more joined the armed struggle after incarceration.

That era under Ethiopian rule was very challenging to many Eritreans, particularly those affected by the imprisonment of a family member.   However, prisoners had some rights then.  Family members could visit prisoners, deliver food, provide them with fresh clothes. There was no such thing as prisoners held incommunicado.

Amnesty International has repeatedly reported that in post-liberation Eritrea “prisons are filled with thousands of political prisoners, locked up without ever being charged with a crime, many of whom are never heard from again. Those detained include government critics, journalists and people practising an unregistered religion, as well as people trying to leave the country or avoid indefinite conscription into national service.”


  1. So what it is meant now, this prison break story for Ethiopia and TPDF. I think I for Ethiopia seems an advice to take the necessary precautions, while to TPLF to try same efforts.
    You must be appreciated!

  2. Those were the days when Eritreans had guts and made the unthinkable possible.

    One cannot help but think what has now happened to us Eritreans to see our country being destroyed in front of our eyes.

    Maybe there is a lesson in the above story we need and must learn. In a nutshell, it is action that counts not words. We can talk all day until the cows come home but that will not bring the badly needed change to our country.

  3. I am the beneficiary of the heroic and historical operation by E L F army and l am a living testimony. I was freed from the prison and joined the army of liberation. I owe to those who dedicated their lives in freeying me an ond others. That is why until today l play my part to see a peaceful Democratic Eritrea

    1. Thanks. Would you be in a position to write up your escape more fully? I would love to have a few hundred words on it. And any photos you have at the time or now. I will be happy to post your story.

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