Photo by Jenny Matthews / panos
A metal statue of a pair of giant sandals towers over a major thoroughfare in downtown Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The sandals represent the decades-long struggle for independence. These rubber sandals, made from old tyres, were the main footwear of the Eritrean fighters. The statue makes a refreshing change from the usual hawk-faced national hero.
Eritreans themselves symbolize the tenacity of a small people determined to make their own way in the world – but have unfortunately also become an example of how tenacious nationalism can turn from hope to despotism in the wink of an eye.
The country, once one of Italy’s few colonial possessions, covers an 800-kilometre strip along Africa’s Red Sea coast, stretching from Sudan in the north to Djibouti in the south. Eritrea’s land varies from the relatively cool highlands where the Italianate capital Asmara is perched (one of Africa’s urban jewels) to one of the driest and hottest places on earth – the Danakil or Afar Depression, the lowest point in all of Africa, where temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees celsius. The country is, by and large, a dry rocky land that demands much from the people who try to wring a living from it. More than half of the population lives on less than $1 per day, and about a third subsists on fewer than 2,000 calories per day.
The recent history of the Eritrean people has added its own series of challenges to those of the topography. In the early days of World War Two, the British expelled the Italians from Eritrea and controlled the country until 1951, when it was federated to its landlocked southern neighbour Ethiopia, despite the objections of a growing Eritrean national movement. Nationalist agitation continued to grow, however, and a war of liberation was launched against first feudal despot (come Rasta hero) Haile Selassie and then the ruthless Stalinist military regime headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), along with allies from inside Ethiopia, finally triumphed. This was followed by an April 1993 referendum in which Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence.
It was never going to be easy. This small country of just five million people is divided along many lines – between Christians and Muslims, between different ethnic groups, between highlanders and lowlanders, between the settled and the nomadic. It is sandwiched between a hostile Ethiopia and a Sudan in the thrall of Islamic fundamentalism. The economy, as in much of Africa, is based on smallholder rain-fed agriculture prone to drought, with few other natural resources.
The fragile economic situation has been made far worse by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the new face of the EPLF) Government of Isaias Afwerki which has, in the eyes of many Eritreans, betrayed the promise of the hard-fought liberation struggle. It has repressed all internal dissent, refused to implement the 1999 constitution, and postponed national elections for over a decade.
In regional politics the Afwerki Government has been in a state of continual tension with Ethiopia that erupted into armed conflict in 1998 over a couple of hundred metres of rocky territory. Almost 80,000 people were killed and Eritrean profit from Ethiopia’s use of its Red Sea ports came to an abrupt halt.
The main resource of Eritrea has always been the resilience of its people. Even under the martial conditions imposed by the Afwerki regime they have achieved much: revitalizing the spectacular Italian-built railroad that drops from Asmara to the Red Sea port of Massawa, and building a Red Sea highway from there to Asseb in the south.
After years of hard independence struggle, the Eritrean people are again faced with the uphill task of regaining their self-rule – this time from internal rather than foreign despots.
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