As federal troops march on the Tigray regional capital, Mekele, it’s unclear whether the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Debretsion Gebremichael, is still in the city.
Debretsion has said his forces are “ready to die” defending the right to run Tigray, one of Ethiopia’s ten administrative regions based on ethnic lines.
Tigray forces could retreat into the surrounding mountains to wage a guerrilla war, potentially making it harder for the military of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to capture the city.
Former rebel fighter
Debretsion is no stranger to guerrilla warfare. In the 1970s, he abandoned his engineering studies to join the TPLF, which had started as a small band of guerrilla forces in the north of Ethiopia.
The group was fighting the brutal communist Derg regime, under ruler Mengistu Haile.
After being sent to Italy for technical training, Debretsion led a team that launched a covert bush radio station, Dimtsi Woyane Tigray. The fighters used portable broadcasting equipment, moving it on donkeys and camels and hiding it in caves to keep it safe.
“Communication was central to the struggle: it was the essence of the struggle for us,” Debretsion is quoted as saying in The Politics of Technology in Africa, a book by Iginio Gagliardone. “You really had to convert people, to make them think in a different way. And unless you communicate well and deeply you cannot get to the point of converting people.”
With his technology skills, Debretsion also played an important role in eavesdropping on the communications of the Ethiopian troops and jamming their radio signals.
The civil war lasted for 17 years and cost the lives of millions of Ethiopians. It ended when a coalition of rebel groups took control of the capital, Addis Ababa, in 1991 and dictator Mengistu fled the country.