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And Eritrea left with a Bronze

By Ahirudin Attan ..LD

06 September, 2004 - AHIRUL WANTED TO KNOW IF ERITREA was "as far as Chicago" or "somewhere near Singapore". We were going through the list of countries that had won medals in Athens, at the Olympic Games that ended last Sunday. The nine- year-old had never heard of Eritrea and could not pronounce it easily, as he could the names of most of the other countries on the list.

My son made the reference to Chicago because his dad had gone there as soon as he could remember anything as a toddler. Singapore was the first (and only) foreign country he had visited, so it was used to put the whole thing in context.

All in, 75 countries won medals in Athens. The US topped the list with 35 gold, China had 32, and Russia won 27. Apart from Eritrea, four countries won a single bronze each and occupied the bottom space of the list: Colombia, Mongolia, Syria, and Trinidad & Tobago.

Countries that won not a single medal were not on the list, of course. The fact that Malaysia was not on the list, somehow escaped Ahirul, which was fine by me as I would not know how to explain to him why we did not win anything at Athens.

In any case, seeing Eritrea on the list had perked me up, for a different reason. In Cardiff a little over a decade ago, I met the only person I'd ever met from Eritrea. He was in his 40s, balding and scarecrow thin.

We were in Cardiff for a three-month advance journalism course, together with about 30 others, mostly from Africa and Eastern Europe. There was a journalist from Mongolia, a sub-editor from Nepal, and several young ones from South Africa, which was just emerging out of apartheid then.

All of us had some basic knowledge of the computer, except for our friend from Eritrea. He was sitting in front of a desktop for the first time in his life! During the course of our friendship, he told me of life in Eritrea, especially during the long-drawn war with its neighbour, Ethiopia. He worked and lived in the "bush". He was a photographer with the army. His government paid him in food supplies and clothing.

For many years, and throughout the war, cash had no value for him and his people. By the early 1990s, just before coming to Cardiff, there had been an unexpected long spell of peace in Eritrea and the young people in the villages around the army camp where his family lived, were starting to take up jobs in new factories set up by foreign investors.

My Eritrean friend shared with us some of the pictures he had taken of his country, snapshots of young male factory workers socialising with young female factory workers, the factories where they worked, the football field where they worked out in the late afternoons.

Those pictures, which he had taken using his ancient analogue SLR, showed a country that was young and hopeful. Spartan and not rich... certainly not rich.

Like my Eritrean friend, who wore the same jacket and the same shoes to classes all summer. Who cooked all his meals to save costs. Who stopped smoking immediately upon reaching Heathrow after discovering that a pack of cigarettes was worth almost a week's wages back home.

He had never visited Malaysia but the impression he had was one of fascination. In one of the classes, when one of the journalist-lecturers spoke of Malaysia's "success" story, my Eritrean friend asked me if I thought his country could one day, achieve an "economic miracle" like the one Malaysia was enjoying.

An optimist most of the times, I told him I believed Eritrea could do whatever Malaysia had succeeded in doing. (I said the same thing to some of the journalists from the less developed countries who were admirers of our economic progress and prowess).

Eritrea today, however, is still stuck in the mud of poverty and war. Rebels are still fighting among themselves, the last I heard, denying the country and its people the chance to really progress.

And yet, Eritreans celebrated a bronze brought home by one of its hungry sons, Zersenay Tadesse, who competed in the 10,000m event. Amazing.

Several other countries as poor and unfortunate as Eritrea came away from the Games "richer" than us.

We read that there was hardly enough to eat in North Korea but their contingent brought home four silvers and a bronze. Ethiopia, who was at war with Eritrea, fared even better, winning seven medals, two of them gold.

I've never heard from my Eritrean friend since we left Cardiff but if I do see him again, I will ask him how his country managed to win a medal despite the war, the strife and the poverty.

Who knows, it might help us should we decide to compete in the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. New Straits Times (Malaysia)