Wings of Valor: Colonel Nebiyu Abraha’s Courageous Journey Through War and Exile

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It was a time of panic. Asmara had been surrounded by rebel forces from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), as Ethiopian general staff and army headquarters prepared to evacuate. Colonel Nebiyu Abraha Gebrekidan, a captain in the Ethiopian Air Force was tirelessly flying round trips in an Antanov 12, carrying soldiers from Asmara to Debre Zeit, Ethiopia’s main airbase. Many Ethiopian soldiers feared being captured and tortured by the EPLF rebels.

In his memoirs, Colonel Abraha recounts flying evacuation missions during a period of intense mortar shelling of the airport in Asmara. His former deputy Debela Tsegaye recounts the moment. “We were one of the last batch of airmen and general staff to be evacuated, if we had fallen to the enemy, we would have certainly been tortured and killed”.

Colonel Abraha was the last one out after getting his comrades to safety. He flew across the Red Sea in a MiG aircraft to Jizan, Saudi Arabia, where landed safely. He remained hidden there, avoiding extradition for a few years. The early 1990s were a dangerous period for members of Ethiopia’s armed forces, numbering some 300,000. Newly minted rebel governments in both Addis Ababa and Asmara had many veterans imprisoned, accusing them of serving the Dergue Regime. Suddenly demobilized in mass, many veterans struggled to find work, some becoming homeless and fleeing the country.

Colonel Nebiyu Abraha Gebrekidan’s Funeral Procession at Holy Trinity Church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

At the time both the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia were on the hunt for veterans in exile. Saudi Arabia helped Colonel Abraha seek asylum in Denmark, where he remained. The Danish government would put him to work, gaining insights on Ethiopia’s Air Force, and particularly its largely Russian-made aircraft. These were early days since the fall of the Berlin Wall, ending the Cold war. NATO countries still retained a high interest in Russian military equipment. “They were interested in how we managed and how we operated antiquated Soviet Aircraft like the F5”, said Colonel Abraha, in one of his letters to his siblings back in Addis Ababa.

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Born in the small town of Dabat, Gonder to a large family, Nebiyu strove to be top of his class graduating with full honors before joining the Air Force in 1970. There he excelled, finishing his training, and becoming one of the youngest airmen. In 1982, his aircraft was badly damaged by a surface to air fire. Sustaining a head injury and bleeding, Colonel Nebiyu managed to descend in altitude very quickly, regaining consciousness to fly back to base. His colleagues recall the time and his dedication to save his aircraft and himself, rather than fall into enemy hands.  

Tragically, after a prolonged battle with Parkinson’s Disease, Colonel Nebiyu Abraha passed away on November 20, 2023, leaving behind a legacy of bravery and altruism. He is survived by his brothers and sisters. In the words of Debela Tsegaye, “He was selfless and brave. I couldn’t imagine how we would still be alive today without him.” His body was rested at Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa on November 26, 2023.

Colonel Abraha’s life story serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who strive for the greater good, even in the face of adversity. His memory will forever be etched in the annals of Ethiopia’s Air Force history, a beacon of inspiration for generations to come. 

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