History of Er Struggle
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 TIMES
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 to
stand on their own on a continent awash in corruption and Western handouts.
They even pay their taxes and spurn foreign aid.
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 sweltering
Red Sea port of Masawa to the blessed cool of the highland capital, Asmara.
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 of the
Eritreans, a proud people free of corruption. Last year, they rejected an $80
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 took food
distribution out of the hands of foreign donors and sought to shift the country
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 Western
perceptions of a continent sunk in calamities, natural and man-made, hunger,
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 doomed
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 State
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 ruin. Per
capita income was around $75 to $150 compared with about $330 for other
sub-Saharan countries. Eighty percent of its people lived off foreign aid.
"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, 1927.
Surely none is being restored - not for fairgrounds or theme parks but to become,
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 cone
above the furnace; it turns out to be the container that discharges a steady
trickle of sand down to the wheels, providing the grip they need to negotiate
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 men who
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 have been
scouring former battlefields for rails and ties, then laying them anew in their
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 and
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. It is
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 Beirut to
wonder at the order and cleanliness of the place, its well-kept public gardens,
at the mere existence, let alone functioning, of such services, virtually unknown
in the Middle East, as public telephone booths, at the few, unarmed policemen
directing a well-disciplined traffic that hardly requires them.
And there are virtually no beggars or crimes.
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 were
fighting alongside the Sudanese opposition inside Sudan. A year later, she
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 concede, is
but the defect of this country's vastly superior virtue; it barely stems the flow
of superlatives like "extraordinary," "exceptional" and "unique" they routinely
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 secession
was an intolerable threat to the sacrosanct principle of the inviolability of
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 doesn't
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 of its
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 it.
"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 that gets
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 to be
strong, but were actually weak, deriving their existence from the repression of
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 civil
society. It might be on the way - the draft constitution largely provides for
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 for its
own sake is meaningless. More important is to ensure the continuous engagement of
the population in political life. If there are no other parties at the moment,
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 Front for
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 frugal of
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 minister
makes an appointment to see someone in the simplest of lean-to coffee shops
outside his ministry. There are no perks, no official cars and, even in new
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 himself.
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 of "leave
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 of
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" which
Eritrea has achieved. "Here," he said, "they fight corruption better even than
Canada or the U.S. The convergence between what they say and what they actually
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 man with
steam-age experience in Asmara, Eritrea, repairs the Ernesto Breda, a 30-ton
locomotive built in Milan, Italy, in 1927.; C) Eritreans are putting trains from
its colonial-era master Italy back into rail service. The extremely self-reliant
nation is doing all the work without outside help in part to save money., All By
David Hirst/The Washington Times; Map, UNDER THEIR OWN STEAM: Eritreans are
rebuilding Italian locomotives that are 60 to 70 years old, illustrating the
determination of a people to stand on their own feet.
The railroad chugs up into the mountains from the coastal city of Massawa to the
By The Washington Times