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eritrea recalls veteran

electronic Telegraph

ISSUE 1527 Saturday 31 July 1999

  Eritrea recalls veteran drivers to fire up railway idle for 24 years
By Anton La Guardia


 THE oldest railway in East Africa, snaking its way up the precipitous mountain slopes between the Red Sea port of Massawa and the Eritrean capital of Asmara, is being brought back to life again.

The narrow-gauge railway has fallen into dilapidation since it stopped operating in 1975, at the height of the Eritrean secessionist war against the Ethiopian Marxist military regime known as the Dergue.

The track was repeatedly mined and later its parts were scattered around the country. The steel rails and sleepers were ripped up to strengthen war trenches. The steam engines were cannibalised for their copper and bronze parts and the carriages turned into shelters for soldiers and refugees, or dismantled for firewood.

With the birth in 1993 of an independent Eritrea, the Asmara government, run by the same fighters who once blew up the tracks in their fight against the Ethiopians, decided to restore the railway. This has become a central part of the rebuilding of Africa's youngest country. The railway is a tangible link between the Muslim-dominated coast and the predominantly Christian highlands.

Built between 1887 and 1928 by Italian colonisers, who created the very entity called Eritrea, the railway is a symbol of Eritrean identity and national rebirth.

For the impoverished Eritreans, the restoration work is as much a feat of engineering as was the original task of carving out the twisting mountain trackbed. The railway has 30 tunnels and 65 bridges, and climbs up from sea level to more than 7,000ft.

Septuagenarian engine drivers, engineers and other experts have been called out of their retirement to provide the crucial technical knowledge. Many of the veteran workers are older than the steam engines, which date from the Twenties and Thirties. The newest machines are diesel engines that were built in 1957.

Debesai Zemo, a 73-year-old engine driver, who worked on the railway for 34 years, said: "After they shut down the railway, I went home and sat there for years. When they decided to rebuild it, they called me back. I am very happy. I feel good. I did not expect the railway to open again. I don't want any payment, and I will work for as long as I have the strength."

The railway has reached the town of Ghinda, about half-way up the 70-mile route between Massawa and Asmara. The refurbishment of the rail bed is making good progress further up the mountain. Schoolchildren, farmers and railway workers already make informal use of the railway.

Amanuel Ghebremselassie, the project co-ordinator, said: "We hope to finish by the end of the year 2000, or by mid-2001. It will take some freight, but the main idea is to use it to take tourists." He said the journey should take about three-and-a-half hours.

The work is being done entirely within Eritrea, except for the production of some nuts and bolts to fasten the rails. The whole country is being mobilised for the task. Work teams, from schoolchildren on summer holidays and teenagers drafted for their 18 months of national service, have been seconded to the railway project.

Volunteers from all walks of life have gone out to the old battlefields to recover rails and sleepers from the trenches. Each rail has to be re-shaped manually.

The latest war with Ethiopia, in which up to about a tenth of the Eritrean population has been drafted into the army, has drained the manpower needed for the restoration work. However, six of the 11 steam locomotives have been repaired so far. Two of the four diesel engines were damaged by mines but the remaining two have been refurbished.

The trusted workhorse is a Russian lorry which has been modified to run on rail tracks. Eritreans are so proud of this piece of mechanical improvisation, representing the resourcefulness of the country, that it graces the 10-Nakfa banknote. Despite this, a Western diplomat noted: "They are building a museum piece, not a real means of transportation."

Mr Amanuel responded that Eritrea did need yet need a modern railway and, in any case, it could not afford to pay for one. The home-made rebuilt one will cost a fraction of the lowest estimate produced by foreign experts. "You can have a beautiful shoe, perhaps made of gold," he said, "but if it is not your size, it is no use."

The rebuilding of the railway also adds to a footnote in British colonial history. Whereas the Italians are remembered with some fondness by Eritreans, the British, who ruled the territory between 1941 and 1952, still arouse feelings of bitterness.

In contrast to the Italians, who built the infrastructure, the British are accused of dismantling some of the country's most valuable assets. They did away with the old cable-way between Asmara and Massawa, floating docks and the airfield at Dekemhare.

While the Italians created Eritrea, the British tried to wipe it off the map by carving up its territory between Ethiopia and Sudan.