Eritrea: Hope and heartbreak of a fledgling state
Jan 28, 2005 - The Independent - United Kingdom
WHEN A gang of
boys stole my wallet in Asmara while I was covering Eritrea's independence
referendum, it made the national news. Residents were appalled that such a
crime had taken place in the capital of their spanking new nation and assured
me that thefts were rare. Such was the pride and idealism in Africa's youngest
But by 1998, the
unthinkable had happened. Eritreans who had spent 30 years fighting for
independence from Ethiopia were once again in combat. When it ended after two
years, more than 19,000 Eritreans had died fighting over a border with their
neighbour, and the bloom was off the African rose. Western journalists such as
Michela Wrong, who once regarded the fiercely independent state as a
"Shangri-La", were forced to think again.
Wrong has now
written a lyrical, intensely intelligent and wonderfully readable history of
Eritrea, offering a cogent explanation for its seeming failures. She spent
years interviewing fighters, politicians and foreign architects of their state,
delving into long-forgotten documents that detail Britain's complicity in the
Italian colonists' vision of transforming the sun-baked hills of Eritrea into a
breadbasket for the homeland was far-fetched, they set a pattern for
exploitation. When the British ousted Mussolini's forces in 1941, Eritrea was
asset-stripped and its infrastructure sold off or farmed out to other British
colonies. An ineffectual UN commission turned Eritrea into a Frankenstein
state; both autonomous and ruled by Ethiopia.
This idea had US
backing. During the Cold War, the US bowed to Haile Selassie's wishes to
control Eritrea as his country's access to the Red Sea, and in return
established an intelligence post in Asmara. While America safeguarded its place
in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopian leaders locked up dissidents, massacred
villagers and destroyed crops.
Eritreans fought back hard. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Eritrean
People's Liberation Front, funded largely by exiles, grew into an effective
guerrilla army. "Looking back," writes Wrong, "ex-fighters
remember this as a period of supreme happiness, the unthinking happiness of the
very young. But it was also a time of tragedy and heartbreak."
Those years also
forged a loyalty to EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki that, Wrong believes, turned
into a cult of personality. The post-war vision of a democratic nation, proud
of its independence and free from corruption, has yet to be realised. At the
end of this beautifully written book, however, Wrong remains sanguine.
"Surveying Eritrea's future, I feel nothing like the bleak despair that
descends when I try to guess whether Congo will survive as a nation-state,"
she writes. "Eritreans have already achieved too much, against too many
odds, for the country to fail.'