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Eritrea : Back from the ruins
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Back From the Ruins : Can this be an African nation that works?

Newsweek International February 26, 1996, Page 40

By Joshua Hammer, Staff Reporter

It's just the kind of reconstruction project that can ensnarl a Third World government. The narrow-gauge railroad that snakes from the Red Sea port of Massawa up a dramatic escarpment to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, was an engineering marvel when the Italians completed it in the 1920s. Nearly a century later it was a ruin. Soviet-backed Ethiopian troops and Eritrean rebels had ripped out its rails and ties to fortify bunkers during the long siege of Massawa. Yet reopening the rail link was vital to the economic health of the nation born in 1993 after the rebels won. An Italian company offered to do the work for $90 million, about 5 percent of the country's annual GNP. In another country, officials might well have borrowed the money - and kept a cut. But the former Eritrean rebels hired hundreds of local workers to retrieve the missing parts. The crews reassembled the track and worked to repair four 1920s-vintage steam locomotives. Freight should start rolling again early next year. Total cost: about $5 million.

From the ruins of war, Eritreans are transforming their new nation into that rarity on the African continent: a country that works. Hundreds of exiles have returned from the United States and Europe, bringing cash and technological expertise to a land starved for both. Former freedom fighters are mending ruined roads and clinics. They show the same unity and self-sufficiency that sustained them during the war, when they built huge subterranean complexes, and filled them with hospitals and schools. Fifty years after the great wave of African independence began, Eritrea could become the continent's grandest success. "The incorruptibility and dedication of these people is extraordinary," says U.S. Ambassador Robert Houdek.

Like South Africa's Nelson Mandela, President Isais Afewerki has shed his wartime Marxist rhetoric, embraced privatization and opened the doors to foreign capital. So far the formula seems to be working: investors committed $250 million last year to ventures ranging from a Red Sea tourist resort to fisheries to apartment and office complexes. One American company, Anadarko, recently signed a $28 million deal to search for oil off Eritrea's coast. After years of shunning the rebels, Western nations are rushing to aid the new government. Last year the United States gave $20 million, making Eritrea its biggest per-capita aid recipient in Africa.

In the once somber capital, crowds of Eritreans stroll palm-lined Independence Avenue until late evening, passing newly opened cafés, restaurants and shops. Exiles like Ytbarek Cuddus, who built a successful oil services business in Houston, have returned with their savings to work day and night launching new firms. "When I set foot on Eritrea's soil I wept and kissed the ground," he says. Tewelde Andu, a former rebel communications chief who helped smash the port, now is Massawa's mayor. Seated on the floor of his office, he unfolds maps charting a $10 million rehabilitation effort that has already restored half of Massawa's graceful Arab and Italianate houses. New hotels host European tourists eager to explore the coral reefs along the coast and its 300 unspoiled islands. "It's a fantastic feeling," he says. "We're rebuilding the city block by block."

Eritrea's bright promise remains just that - a promise. The president has pledged to hold elections in 1997, but it's an open question whether he, like so many other African leaders, will instead cling to power. Drought and erosion have tapped out many farms. Neighboring Sudan's Islamic radicals want to enlist Eritrea's 1.5 million Muslims. The younger generation, untested by battle, may prove weaker. But Eritreans seem determined not to debase the prize they fought for so long. "Our freedom was so expensive," says Hagos Ghebrehiwet, a top official of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice. "If this isn't going to be a country we can be proud of, then it was all a waste of time."

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Postwar Promise: Africa's Newest Nation, Little Eritrea Emerges As an Oasis of Civility

Date: 01 Jun 94 05:27:00 GMT." Subject: Eritrea in Wall Street Journal

Independent at Last, It shows A Seriousness of Purpose Forged in a 30-Year War

By Geraldine Brooks, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

Asmara, Eritrea.- The president of this African country wears plastic sandals to official functions, draws no salary and prefers dusty Jeeps to limousines.

The tree-lined streets of the capital are spotless and safe to walk until the wee hours. There isn't a gun to be seen, even at the airport or at government offices.

Eritrea is Africa's newest nation: a Mississippi-sized slice of rugged Red Sea coast that has become an unlikely oasis of peace and civility wedged between the clan-fighting of Somalia and religious war in Sudan. Secretary of State Warren Christopher calls Eritrea, independent since May 1993, " a beacon of hope astride the Horn of Africa."

The U.S., however, long opposed the Eritreans' struggle for independence from Ethiopia. Since the 1960s, successive U.S. administrations had characterized the rebels as leftist and claimed that their secessionist campaign, if supported, would start a chain reaction that could put all of Africa's fragile borders at risk.

African Model

Instead, the country is emerging as an African model, despite a history of misfortune on an almost Biblical scale. Eritreans scorched air swirls with the fine dust of drought-stripped topsoil and the dry rattle of locust plagues provides a depressingly familiar background tattoo. Too few doctors treat too many famine-ravaged tuberculosis victims, while in the towns, the wheelchair-bound casualities of a 30-year war roll uncertainly down bomb-damaged streets.

A half-Christian, and a half-Muslim population of 3.5 million is further riven by nine separate ethnic groups and as many languages. With a per-capital income among the lowest in the world, the tiny country seems a prime candidate for the kind of tribal and religious strife tearing at so many other nations, such as Rwanda.

Yet at a political congress in February,the country's mufti, or supreme Muslim leader, sat companionably alongside his Christian Ortodox counterpart. Rural women wearing traditional veils joked with bareheaded city women in stores. And by the time the conference ended everybody had agreed to work toward multiparty elections for a democratic, secular government. Perhaps even more astonishing, Eritrea is beginning to develop without the corruption so common elsewhere on the continent.

Nobody to Bribe

"You can't find anyone to bribe here," says bemused American developer,Joseph Torrito, who is negotiating to build a hotel on the Red Sea and apartment blocks in Asmera. Initially, Mr Torrito had his eye on site in Asmera's bouganville splashed colonial center. "In west Africa I'd grease the deal with $180,000 slipped to the city planner," he says. "Here, the guy just said ' over my dead body you will build there'." Citing the Eritrean's intention to preserve the city's picturesque turn-of-the-century heart, the planner steered the developer to less-sensitive sites.

Part of the reason for Eritrea's promise lies in its long and solitary struggle for independence.Colonized late by Italy at the turn of the century, Eritreans emerged from World War II expecting nationhood; instead, they were swallowed by neighboring Ethiopia in 1962.

For the next three decades, an ill-equipped band of Eritrean rebels resisted the takeover, fighting Africa's longest war. From mountain redoubts where schools, factories and surgical wards were gouged into hillsides to protect from aerial bombardment, the gurrillas slowly wrestled victory from black Africa's biggest army.

Ethiopia got millions in military aid from the U.S. during the reign of Haile Selassie and more from Soviets during the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Eritreans had no significant backers and fought a bargain-basement war, largely with captured weapons. Forced to sink their differences in the face of a common enemy, they gradually developed an egalitarian society in wartime trenches blind to gender, class and religion.

"We though they were a bunch of Arabs backed terrorists," says an Israel foreign-ministry official. "Was that ever a mistake." Having supplied military assistance to Ethiopia during war, Israel now is scrambling to offer aid, providing training in agriculture and hydrology, books for libraries and even small amounts military assistance for new state, whose coastline commands a strategic stretch of the Red Sea.

The U.S., too, is struggling to undo years of enmity. President Clinton has turned to the Eritrean president, Isaias Afeworki, to help mediate the bloody clan-war in neighboring Somalia. U.S. Navy ships are making port visits, and major oil companies are negotiating exploration deals. The U.S. military is in advanced talks on installing powerful over-the-horizon radar in Eritrea that would allow monitoring as far as Iran.

Mr. Torrito,who once owned a gold mine in Sierra Leone, was among the first Americans scouting prospects. A retired U.S. Army colonel, he isn't put off by spartan conditions. His most recent hotel room was " what you might call air-conditioned - by a shell-hole in the wall where a small mortar had ripped through." He says it is Arab businsessmen, familiar with the hard-working Eritrean refugees in nearby Persian Gulf countries, who are flocking to explore business opportunities. "It's the smell of money," Mr. Torroto explains. "It's like Fabergé."

Inexpensive Lenses

Among projects already under way is a sophisticated laboratory making lenses that can be surgically implanted to cure cataract blindness. An Australian eye surgeon, impressed by a pharmaceututical plant build by the Eritreans during the war, raised donations to equip the factory. With its skilled but extremely cheap labor, Eritrea can make lenses for $10 that Western producers usually sell for $120.

Despite its roots as a leftist guerrilla movement in the 1960s, Eritrea provisional government now is unabashedly free-market. "I'm glad in a way that the Soviets intervened against us" during the war with Ethiopia, says a foreign-ministry official. "If they hadn't backed Menghistu, we might have kept believing in [the Soviets] and ended up like Angola or Kampuchea."

But while the new investment code is liberal, government policies are shaped by social agenda. To avoid Africa's typical slum-producing rural migration to the capital, the government has turned away investors who want to finance project only in Asmera.

"One of the benefits of starting late is that you can learn from others' mistake," says Saleh Meki, the minister for marine resources, who is moving his own department to the bombed-out rubble of Massawa, the port city that saw the war's worst fighting.

Free Labor

For now many of his staff are still "fighters" - the term used for members of the 95,000 strong guerrilla force which waged the war. The government has asked them to donate their labor for the country's reconstruction. They received only allowance plus food and barracks-style accommodations. At first, some objected to the proposal that they work free for two more years, saying they had neglected their families long enough while they were at war. "If I'm a fighter struggling to liberate my land, who cares if my father is starving in Asmara:" says Mr. Meki."But it's another thing saying I can't help him because I have to build a railway to Massawa."

In protest, many of former combatants took to the streets. The president, Mr. Afeworki, who led the fighters during the war, waded in among the demonstrators, trying to reason with them. Without firing a shot or throwing a punch, the two sides reached a compromise. The government promised that if the fighters worked for nothing a while longer, the government would cut back on opening embassies and delay development projects in order to find money to pay wages. The fighters' sense of duty astonishs outsiders. "Office hour here officially starts at 7," says Sei Etoh, a U.N. development expert working in Massawa, "but the fighters always show up early and stay late." Eritreans say it is possible to tell who is a fighter simply by the way a man or woman speaks. "They use less 'I' and 'my'," explains an Eritrean who recently returned from the U.S. "The way they've lived has made them tend to talk in terms of group rather than the individual."

War-Emancipated Women

But civilian life is putting unexpected strains on that idealism. At a bar in Massawa, a group of young fighters nurse glasses of tea and discuss their predicament. For some, peace has brought bittersweet changes. Fatieha, a slightly built 20-years-old, is glad she won't have to witness any more of the wounding and killing that were a constant during five years in the trenches. She has gladly shed her khaki shorts for a silky dress. She has styled her hair and files newly grown finger nails. Still, she misses the sexual equality of the front.

"Some of the civilians don't understand that a woman must be free to go out, to work, to sit in a bar like a man," she says. While the society sees her as a heroine, she worries that it doesn't necessarily see her as an eligible bride. Some fighters who married at the front have been divorced by husbands under family pressure to take submissive civilian wives.

Meanwhile, Fatieha's friend Saleh misses a different kind of equality. At the front, he says, university graduates shared the same status as fighters who had never had a chance to go to school. Now, he works at an unpaid job alongside non-fighters earning fat salaries from the U.N. "It's hard, when you've been at war and they've had the chance to get an education," he say. "When we were at the front, we didn't need money, but in town, you need clothes, you need cash to have a beer."

The rebels' success in war also has raised high peacetime expectations that aren't easily met with a shattered infrastructure and an empty treasury. So committed to education that they carried blackboards in to the trenches for l iteracy classes during breaks in fighting, the Eritreans now have too few teachers to serve the civilian population. In some areas, children draw lots to see who will go to school.

Good in an Emergency

Health care, too, is a problem. "Their health-care system in war was excellent, but it was an emergency system," says Cesar Manetti, an Eritrean born pathologist from Rockford, Ill. "When it had to meet the needs of a civilian population, it faltered. People in the cities felt `Now our brothers are here - they'll help us.'" Faced by pent-up demand created by neglect during Ethiopian rule, barefoot doctors from the front lines couldn't cope. For at least a year, the health minister (a surgeon) had to divided his day between the operating theater and his government office because demand for his surgical skills was high.

Dr. Manetti is trying to set up a volunteer program to have U.S. experts help the Eritreans with the training. But the government, faced with an acute housing shortage, hasn't yet been able to figure out where to put the volunteers when they arrive. The short-term answer is an infusion of foreign aid, but with the demands from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, Eritrea hasn't enjoyed the attention from donors that it might have merited a few years ago.

That makes one U.S. aid official wistful. Of more than 20 countries he has worked in, he says, Eritrea is the one where you feel comfortable that every nickel you put into place the place is going to be used properly." He hopes the U.S. will open its purse a bit wider. "They're on a takeoff here," he says. "All they need is a little wind."

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HEADLINE: Eritrea's traits make it stand alone in Africa; Self-reliant nation has austere rulers

October 15, 1998, Thursday, Final Edition



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-doattitude 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.


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 Selassie.

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 for ourselves."

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.


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 colonial frontiers.

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 personal lives.


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 capital, Asmara. By The Washington Times

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Can this be an African nation that works?

Eritrea : Post war promise

Eritrea's traits make it stand alone in Africa