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Last Tuesday, June 5th was a special moment for Ethiopian patriots who were in the Korea war. It was a day that allowed them to meet in Addis Ababa thirteen French patriots who were with them to help South Korea fight off North Korean aggression over 65 years ago.
Though it was planned earlier, the meeting of the patriots became a reality last week with the help of the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Society of the Légion d’Honneur and the associations of Korean War Veterans both in Ethiopia and France. The visit was organized in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice to pay tribute to the Ethiopian and French soldiers who fought for freedom side by side with their allied and Korean brothers in arms from 1950 to 1953.
The Ethiopian battalion dubbed ‘Kagnew’ sent more than 6,000 soldiers. Of this number, 121 died and more than 500 were wounded. France sent 3,763 volunteers and 269 died and 1,000 were wounded. The French patriots who landed in Addis Ababa last Monday first met their Ethiopian counterparts at the old Lagare Railway Station, built with French assistance some 100 years ago to connect Addis Ababa and Djibouti.
They were 3,158 fighters, leaving this very place where we have the immense honor to welcome you, said Teguest Yilma, President of the Ethiopian Society of Légion d’Honneur and Ordre National du Mérite, welcoming the French veterans. Their first meeting with their Ethiopian counterparts was organized in the very befitting place, the Addis Ababa Lagare railway station, a symbol of a historical friendship between France and Ethiopia.
These soldiers the first batch of three successive Kagnew battalions were drawn from the imperial body guard sent by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1951. They were commanded by officers, selected among the best. Tradition had it that the most deserving of the imperial guard were trained at the military special school of Saint-Cyr in France. This was the case of the distinguished Colonel Kebede Guebre their first leader.
“This reunion, 67 years after the Battle of Crèvecoeur where the Kagnew battalion took over from the French Battalion of the UN, are deeply beautiful and symbolic,” noted Col. Stephane Richou, Defense Attaché of French Embassy in Ethiopia.
Both sides have about 250 members each still living.
Even though these former soldiers are no longer young and physically strong, when looking at their face their youthful spirit shines through, despite the fact that most have surpassed 80 years of age.
The French patriots who were given an Ethiopian cross as a present from the Legion d’Honneur Society headed to Afincho Ber to attend the ceremony organized in the Korean War Memorial that opened with the Police March Band performing the Ethiopian, French and South Korean national anthems.
Colonel Melese Tessema, President of the Ethiopian Korean war Veterans Association, Patrick Beaudouin member of French Parliament and president of the Korean War French veterans association, Frederic Bontems Ambassador of France to Ethiopia, and Teguest Yilma President of the Ethiopian Society of Légion d’Honneur and Ordre National du Mérite placed each a wreath in commemoration of the Kagnew battalion soldiers, French UN battalion soldiers and UN soldiers, who fought and have fallen fighting for peace and liberty.
The Ethiopian Patriot’s Association President Lej Daniel Mesfin said at the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Armistice of the Korean war in the presence of French and Ethiopian patriots, “Ethiopia has a history of participation in United Nations peace operations dating back to 1950. We have demonstrated time and time again in the quest for peace. North Korea and South Korea are today in the process of peace talks and our patriots’ sacrifice was not in vain.” He further noted “no better time and date could have been chosen to be witnessing the peace talk that is ongoing between one people and one country that are separated by a different ideology.
The event was completed with a visit to the Ethio-Korean Veterans Monument which listed all the names of the Ethiopian soldiers who died in the war and the Korean War Museum where a special window exists with valuable souvenirs and photos provided by members of the French Korean war veterans.
On June 6th as a tribute to the sacrifices of the international peace keepers, a military ceremony was held at the FDRE Peace-Keeping Main Department (PKMD) compound. The ceremony included ‘Passing of the torch’ between the veterans and the new generation of peacekeepers in the presence of Major General Ataklti Berhe, officers, ambassadors and French and Ethiopian patriots.
Speaking at the ceremony, Frederic Bontems Ambassador of France noted Ethiopia is the world’s leading contributor to UN peacekeeping operations with more than 8,300 peacekeepers in nearly four peace operations as a member of the Security Council since 2017. In addition, there are nearly 4,500 Ethiopian troops under the African Union’s mandate to defend peace and security in Somalia.
He said: “this exemplary commitment is therefore part of a remarkable continuity in the service of international peace. After Korea in 1951, Ethiopian peacekeepers made their mark in the Congo in 1960 and then in many conflicts in Africa, Asia and America. What a more symbolic place for this ceremony, than the Peace Keeping Main Department of Addis Ababa!” “This history, this place, these men, are the proof, if need be, of an Africa committed, alongside other continents, in favor of peace and freedom.”
The sacrifice made by both Ethiopia and France shows their commitment to peace, said Patrick Beaudouin member of French Parliament and president of the Korean War French veterans association who led the patriots visit to Ethiopia. “Shoulder to shoulder, they fought together in the Korean War, a war in a far country, a forgotten war in our modern-day history. With Korean and allied troops, French and Ethiopian soldiers knew tragic and violent times; they knew pain and horror, facing Chinese and North Korean enemies in assaulting waves. However, shoulder to shoulder, they performed with courage, generosity, bravery and skills. They did it for only one word, a well-known word by all the good willing people: Freedom! They fought without relief and won freedom for the Republic of Korea and its population,” he said.
So, let us remember today these heroes who, on the top of Korean hills, gave their lives for the freedom’s victory. With this success, they affirmed that whatever differences exist about origin, culture, religion and colour, Ethiopians and Frenchs fought for freedom, equality and brotherhood. These words belong deeply to France; but in fact, they belong to all the populations because they mean humanity.
Major General Ataklti delivered the same message saying: “Ethiopia and France did great things to stabilize the world and we are really proud of it.”
Before leaving the visiting veterans made a final stop on June 7th at the Hizbawi Serawit School formerly known as Ras Seyoum Primary School where they made a donation and pledged their support through the Society of Legion d’Honneur to the young generation that includes descendants of Korean war veterans.
During their brief stay in Addis Ababa, the patriots received warm welcomes from the Ethiopia Korean Veterans Association. Although neither could speak each other’s languages they communicated via gestures and hugged each other for greetings.
Didier de Chazelles who with his wife also participated in the peacekeeping mission said, “I was 23 years old when I headed in to the war but had no chance to meet other soldiers who were part of the same front like us. Only our bosses had the chance to meet others, we did not.”
The Ethiopian patriots also felt the same thing. Sergeant Melaku Seifu said the coming of the French patriots in Addis is paying respect to our mission in Korea.
“I would like to thank the organizers because they brought first the French patriots to Lagare where the French and Ethiopian economical ties colourfully begin. They brought them also to the monument to witness Ethiopia’s sacrifice for world peace and I am glad to see them to tell what we did and what they did in Korea which is very crucial to pass on to our children which might help them to do the same things when the world is in trouble.’’
“It is a good feeling to see somebody who was in the same mission as you. It was really great to reminisce, we knew that after the war Ethiopian patriots did a great job in fighting North Koreans,’’ Didier De Chazelles told Capital.
“We did our best for the world and Korean liberty, so it is a special moment for us to see the old nation Ethiopia, and to meet patriots who were with us over 65 years ago. We will try our best to invite them to Paris and talk more about what we did in the war and to show the museum and the monument erected in Paris to remember our brothers who died in the war,” said Beaudouin.
For Colonel Melese Tessema the visit means much more than the relationship between France and Ethiopia.
“If you ask what we gave to the young generation to protect the world, our answer definitely will be what we did in Korea. When the world was in big trouble we helped by participating in a peace keeping mission and the world should learn from us when it faces similar problems. I really thank the French and Korean patriots for choosing to recognize our patriots and this must continue.”
“As President of the Ethiopian Society of Légion d’Honneur and Ordre National du Mérite, I am very honored and moved by this historic moment. Ethiopia and France have built a great common history, one that only great peoples can make based on mutual esteem, admiration and respect. The sacrifices you made in Korea and the fraternity of arms that marked this commitment are immortal,” said Teguest Yilma.
They have come to meet their friends on this old land of history and civilization. Despite the weight of their years and the fatigue of the trip, the fact that they decided to come is a message that perpetuates the special bond of friendship between our countries, she said noting how deeply moving their visit is.
This visit she further said first devised by the late General Francois Bigand, founder of the Ethiopian Society of Légion d’Honneur and Ordre National du Mérite was possible thanks to the extraordinary generosity of many French and Ethiopian companies who were equally enthusiastic as us to make it possible.
The Légion d’Honneur is the highest award by which France honors its most zealous citizens, as well as foreign friends. Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 the award recognizes the military merits as well as eminent civilians. The Ordre National du Mérite was instituted in 1963 by General De Gaule and rewards distinguished military or civil virtues.