The History of Eritrean Struggle
for Independence in Pictures.
HEADLINE: Eritrea's traits make it stand
alone in Africa;
Self-reliant nation has
October 15, 1998, Thursday, Final Edition
BYLINE: David Hirst; THE WASHINGTON
DATELINE: ASMARA, ERITREA
BODY: ASMARA, Eritrea - Eritreans are
rebuilding pre-World War II Italian
locomotives under their own financial steam, evidence of a people determined
stand on their own on a continent awash in corruption and Western handouts.
They even pay their taxes and spurn
Eritrean Railways once was a triumph
of Italian engineering when Eritrea was the
jewel in the crown of Italy's African possessions. Begun in 1887, it
had taken 24
years to complete. In less than 30 miles, it rises 7,500 feet from the
Red Sea port of Masawa to the blessed cool of the highland capital,
The spectacular railway, in which ancient
Italian steam locomotives have been
brought back to life, is a symbol of the no-nonsense, can-do attitude
Eritreans, a proud people free of corruption. Last year, they rejected
million offer from the European Union to beautify Asmara.
The Eritreans will not accept anything
that smacks of "aid dependency" - the
crippling indebtedness of so many African countries. The government
distribution out of the hands of foreign donors and sought to shift
by swift, perhaps avoidably harsh, stages from an internationally relief-based
economy to a locally productive one.
The railroad is a picturesque metaphor
for this African country that is so
different from almost any other - so much at variance with the familiar
perceptions of a continent sunk in calamities, natural and man-made,
debt, civil war and an ever-growing gap between itself and the rest
of the world.
ONE OF THE POOREST
With Eritrea's fall to the British in
1941 and, a decade later, its absorption
into Ethiopia, the railway kept going until, in the 1970s,it appeared
forever. It was then that, in the war between Ethiopia and its rebellious
province, both sides ripped up every rail and metal tie in the land
for use in
trenches and fortifications. After victory in 1991, the newborn Eritrean
received foreign offers for rebuilding the railway.
"It would have cost us at least $200
million," said railway chief Amanuel
Once one of the more advanced African
countries, Eritrea was by then one of the
poorest, its infrastructure, industry and agriculture an almost total
capita income was around $75 to $150 compared with about $330 for other
sub-Saharan countries. Eighty percent of its people lived off foreign
"It was just too damned expensive,"
Mr. Selassie said, "so we decided to do it
There can be few relics of the steam
era outside of railway museums like the
49-ton Giovanni Ansaldo, Genoa, 1937; or the 30-ton Ernesto Breda, Milan,
Surely none is being restored - not for fairgrounds or theme parks but
once more, an integral part of a country's transport system.
Eritrean Railways boasts about 20 of
these quaint behemoth steam locomotives. All
pipes, pistons, cylinders and pepper-pot funnels, they all have a curious
above the furnace; it turns out to be the container that discharges
trickle of sand down to the wheels, providing the grip they need to
their way around innumerable bends, up those last dizzy heights to Asmara.
Some of these steam engines are still
in a state of seemingly total decrepitude.
Others gleam proudly in a freshly painted livery of red and black. The
wrought this transformation are older than the locomotives themselves.
Some nearer 80 than 70, all Italian-speaking,
they alone possessed the steam-era
skills now being passed on to others. Meanwhile, younger generations
scouring former battlefields for rails and ties, then laying them anew
place of origin.
It will cost Eritrea nothing in foreign
expertise and a few million dollars for a
track-laying machine and a special, indispensable type of nuts and bolts.
NO BEGGARS, NO CRIME
Statistically, Eritrea remains one of
the world's poorest countries, ranked 168th
by the Human Development Index, only two places ahead of its giant neighbor
current military adversary, Ethiopia.
In the countryside, no tractors are
to be seen, and farmers still work their
rugged little highland plots with yoked oxen and primitive wooden plow.
harder in the towns.
It is not necessary to arrive in an
Asmara at war, its airport under attack, from
the anarchy of supposedly more sophisticated capitals like Cairo or
wonder at the order and cleanliness of the place, its well-kept public
at the mere existence, let alone functioning, of such services, virtually
in the Middle East, as public telephone booths, at the few, unarmed
directing a well-disciplined traffic that hardly requires them.
And there are virtually no beggars or
In much of Africa or the Middle East,
observers often find themselves searching
for something positive, something - anything - to relieve the gloom.
It is the
opposite in Eritrea.
"I scratch my fingers in the dirt,"
said a Western ambassador, but I've worn them
to the bone and found nothing."
What may be most troubling is the well-known
case of an Eritrean journalist, Ruth
Simon, former fighter and ambassador's wife. She wrote a story for Agence
France-Presse that, citing President Isaias Afewerki, said Eritreans
fighting alongside the Sudanese opposition inside Sudan. A year later,
remains under house arrest without trial. It is an inexplicable, seemingly
gratuitous blemish on an otherwise good human rights record.
The most common complaint among foreigners
is a certain inflexible, we-know-best,
we-are-always-right attitude on the part of officials. But that, they
but the defect of this country's vastly superior virtue; it barely stems
of superlatives like "extraordinary," "exceptional" and "unique" they
bestow on it.
What is Eritrea's secret?
It seems rooted in that Eritrea was
both the last African state to win
independence and the first to do so from another African state, and
that it did
so in one of the most remarkable "people's wars" ever waged.
In that crucible of formidable challenge
and ultimate triumph were forged the
qualities that continue, in large measure, to animate the newborn state.
"Doing it ourselves" - as the railway
chief said - sums it up: self-reliance,
ingrained, passionate, stubborn, at times to the point of masochism,
lies at the
heart of the "ethics of the bush."
It was inculcated, above all, by the
sheer loneliness of that 30-year war. Until
the end, the Eritreans endured the indifference or outright hostility
of most of
the world, and not least an Africa for which the prospect of Eritrean
was an intolerable threat to the sacrosanct principle of the inviolability
Other virtues they learned in those
heroic years were self-denial, solidarity,
patience, a high sense of national purpose that nonetheless accommodated
pragmatism and adaptability.
Eritreans remain deeply anchored in
themselves and their own experience. So it's
almost a fetish of their leadership that, while open to the world, it
accept "models" or formulas of any kind. If anything, in fact, post-colonial
Africa has served as a model of how not to proceed with the construction
own latecomer state. The country has yet to ratify a constitution.
It is typical that the leadership should
have taken so long to draw up a
constitution and has brought the entire people into a great debate about
"They sometimes study things to excess
here," said a Western banker, "but it pays
off. President Afewerki rightly says that Eritrea is like the tortoise
there in the end."
In their debate, the people were urged
to consider the consequences, throughout
Africa, of the "blind transfer" of foreign models, "regimes that appeared
strong, but were actually weak, deriving their existence from the repression
the people, the plunder of natural resources and subservience to others."
The Eritrean solution is clearly not
a fully-fledged, functioning democracy by
the standard criteria of multiparty pluralism, independent media, sturdy
society. It might be on the way - the draft constitution largely provides
such things - but it's not there yet.
"We think all Eritreans should have
the right to establish parties," said Yemani
Gebreab, a presidential adviser. "But we also think that having parties
own sake is meaningless. More important is to ensure the continuous
the population in political life. If there are no other parties at the
that's because no one feels the need for them."
Almost anywhere else such discourse
would be the deeply suspect, special pleading
of a proponent and beneficiary of the existing order, in this case the
unchallenged ascendancy of the single party, now called the Popular
Democracy and Justice, which led the liberation struggle. But here it
is not. For
here, for starters, the speaker in question leads the most tellingly
All the former guerilla fighters worked
for nothing until 1995 and then took
salaries of which the highest - the president's - is about $800.
"Most African leaders are emperors,"
said a Sudanese opposition leader, marveling
at the modesty of Eritrea's ruling class. For example, a government
makes an appointment to see someone in the simplest of lean-to coffee
outside his ministry. There are no perks, no official cars and, even
buildings, no elevator to a fourth-floor minister's office.
People can walk virtually unchecked
into the presidency itself or chance upon the
incumbent in any bar or restaurant, where he insists on paying the bill
Such a lifestyle is one reason why the
government, if not yet a true democracy,
is highly popular and respected. The trust it, and especially Mr. Afewerki,
inspires is palpable, almost excessive, breeding as it does a mentality
it to him."
So seemingly pure itself, it can demand
high standards from others. Mr. Afewerki
has said Africa's curse is not this or that objective, but the corruption
regimes that embody them.
Another African, Martyn Ngwenya, head
of the U.N. Development Program in Asmara,
bears lyrical witnesses to the "corruption-free development environment"
Eritrea has achieved. "Here," he said, "they fight corruption better
Canada or the U.S. The convergence between what they say and what they
do is almost complete."
GRAPHIC: Photos, A) The Giovanni Ansaldo,
a 49-ton locomotive built in Genoa,
Italy, in 1937, is being rebuilt for use in Eritrea.; B) A railroad
steam-age experience in Asmara, Eritrea, repairs the Ernesto Breda,
locomotive built in Milan, Italy, in 1927.; C) Eritreans are putting
its colonial-era master Italy back into rail service. The extremely
nation is doing all the work without outside help in part to save money.,
David Hirst/The Washington Times; Map, UNDER THEIR OWN STEAM: Eritreans
rebuilding Italian locomotives that are 60 to 70 years old, illustrating
determination of a people to stand on their own feet.