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Eritrea: Hope and heartbreak of a fledgling state

Jan 28, 2005 - The Independent - United Kingdom
Julie Wheelwright

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 state.

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 country's plunder.

Although 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.

But the 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.'