issue 238 - December 1992
Richard Swift accompanies an Eritrean back to his homeland to
discover the perils and the promise for Africa's newest country.
It is 21 June, 1992. After 11 years in exile Ghebre Abbai is returning home to Asmara in his native Eritrea. As the plane banks for its final late-night descent into Addis Ababa airport Ghebre arms himself against what he might find. He is a long way from Victoria, British Columbia, where he now makes his home, and where he earns his living selling electrical appliances. He ponders the fate of friends and relatives with whom he has had little contact for more than a decade. What scars have a decade of war left? What state of mind are people in? He knows that many are no longer alive. He also remembers the cold fear of trying to leave from Addis airport once before.
Those events occurred back in the mid-1970s when he had been working with a US company on a highway project in Ethiopia and was transferred to their New York office. After jumping all the bureaucratic hurdles and finally making it to the last immigration barrier, he was tersely told that 'his departure was forbidden'. By whom? he asked. 'Higher up. The Ministry of the Interior,' came the reply. Next morning at the Ethiopian Ministry of the Interior things got considerably worse. He was told to write out his whole life history and subjected to close questioning. Then he was taken to a special 'interrogation' room where many Eritreans and other opponents or supposed opponents of Colonel Mengistu's military government (the Dergue) had gone before.
Fortunately for Ghebre one of the men assigned to put the final, more physical, touches on his interrogation turned out to be a former student from his days as a high school teacher. So Ghebre escaped the Dergue's torture chambers. But his faith in things Ethiopian was shaken beyond repair. He had to leave Addis Ababa and fast. He made his way by bus through Tigray and finally on foot at night, back home to Asmara.
This time the frontier formalities at the airport are just that. Ghebre and I walk through together, to a memorable welcome by the Addis branch of Ghebre's family, complete with flashing cameras.
The next day, as we drive around Addis, Ghebre is incredulous at the deterioration that a decade has wrought. The city is crowded with refugees who fled here from the many fronts of Ethiopia's civil war and who now live and die on the streets. At every traffic light cars are surrounded by beggars and sellers of everything from chewing gum and single cigarettes to five-month-old copies of Time and Newsweek.
'It's unbelievable,' mutters Ghebre as we pass the scores of unfinished high-rises that last heard the busy sounds of construction four or five years ago. 'They just ran out of money' is the short explanation for the collapse of the Dergue's grandiose development plans under the combined burden of expensive wars, economic failure, recurrent famine and increasingly reluctant Soviet allies. The fact that Addis is an international city that the Organization of African Unity and the UN Economic Commission on Africa both call home, makes the contrast between wealth and poverty all the more acute.
Ghebre muses that the city's chronic housing crisis might be somewhat alleviated if the buildings under construction could be completed and turned over to the homeless. But such a solution defies the market logic so popular these days among major bilateral and multilateral aid donors.
The flight to Asmara leaves late that afternoon. After Addis, Ghebre expects the worst. But thanks to the care taken by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) never to launch a frontal assault on the city, the beloved streets of the Eritrean capital remain relatively unscathed. The tree-lined boulevards are much as Ghebre remembers and the city has retained a southern Italian flavour complete with the compulsory evening stroll typical of the Mediterranean world.
The people of Eritrea have not been so lucky. Three generations of Eritreans were involved in the struggle for independence. When Ghebre asks one veteran fighter the whereabouts of old friends, he is quietly told 'Don't even ask about the first generation'.
We travel back to Ghebre's village, north of Asmara, past the burnt-out hulls of Ethiopian tanks. Our arrival in Adi Agelgil coincides with the time set aside by Eritreans for mourning the sacrifice made by so many in the independence struggle. The atmosphere is charged with emotion. The men and women of the village are already gathered in separate groups. Below the speeches of the Orthodox priest and other community notables, sobs and the quiet murmur of comforting can periodically be heard. Highland villages like Adi Agelgil were the backbone of support for the EPLF's struggle. With a population numbering no more than a couple of thousand, it lost over 200 people in the war.
But even the serious business of mourning cannot hide the enthusiasm Eritrean people feel about their future. As one person puts it 'many things are possible here'. This sense prevails wherever we go. At the small fishing co-op in the Red Sea port of Massawa one woman eagerly explains the possibilities for the fishery and how it can help with Eritrea's chronic food deficit. And Dr Nerayo of the Eritrean Relief Association, although frank about problems of family size and the still difficult position of women, is enthusiastic about the development of indigenous non-government organizations to address these and other issues.
Likewise farmers and foresters in the southern town of Adi Kaieh take great pains to explain how the terracing and reforestation programmes are revitalizing the land and easing the burdens of a difficult climate. But mostly it is the brief day-to-day encounters with people as they go about their tasks that give a sense of hope and renewal. Walking the streets of Asmara with Ghebre is like being with a popular mayoralty candidate in the middle of an election. There are constant greetings, the slapping of backs, the affectionate rubbing of shoulders. It is partly the man himself - with his easy laugh and the mischievous look in the eyes. But it is also people's comfortable sense of finally being captains of their own fate. It brings out the best in them.
Ghebre has it in mind to visit the site of his last job in Eritrea, at the agro-industrial complex on the Keren-Asmara road known as Elaboret. He was once manager of the farm - in fact helped rebuild it and keep it alive as war raged all around it. At one point there had been 1,000 Ethiopian troops stationed on the farm, and separate parts of it were in the hands of the two different factions of the guerilla movement. The delicate task of negotiating between groups of armed men and various parts of the Ethiopian bureaucracy had certainly spiced up Ghebre's already arduous job. His views on politics could have cost him his life.
Today Elaboret remains one of the few agro-industries in Eritrea producing such vital things as tomato paste, dairy products, green vegetables, mangoes and even apples. At one point it even produced wine. It is an irrigated oasis in an agricultural desert and an important provider of local employment.
When the workers discover that Ghebre is back, they drop whatever they are doing and run to greet their former manager. The new manager takes us around and Ghebre remarks how things have deteriorated in the past decade. It is a moving experience for Ohebre, bringing back memories of the circumstances that caused him to flee his homeland - when the tension of running the farm in the middle of a war became almost unbearable. The chances of being shot by the Ethiopian military for 'economic sabotage' were ever present: a crop failure, too little rain, a collapsed building, too many broken tractors - one never knew what might be the cause. Finally a late shipment of tomato-paste containers made things very difficult indeed.
Ghebre was allowed to leave the country and never came back. Today he says nostalgically that being manager at Elaboret was the most satisfying job he ever had.
Ghebre has an eye for the little things that tell you a lot about a place - like how clean the streets are, the lack of visible weapons or even many EPLF soldiers, the old Fiat cabs that date from the mid-1950s, and the ferocious work ethic that Eritreans are famous for. As we make our way up from Massawa and the Red Sea, with an African dusk quickly descending, he shakes his head and wonders out loud. 'No roadblocks or permits. I can't believe it's actually safe to travel on these roads, even at night.'
Although Ghebre no longer lives in Eritrea he often has ideas to improve this or that aspect of life in his native country. But his energy and enthusiasm for his homeland remain thousands of miles from realization. His family is now Canadian and his three daughters have only the remotest memories of Africa. Many other Eritreans are in the same position throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East, for wherever there is war there are few human rights or opportunities, and there are many refugees. Individuals pay the human costs of exile in the sadness of separation. Societies pay the costs of exile in the absence of the skills and the spirit of those who have left. One day soon, Ghebre hopes, he will find a way to stay in Eritrea for a year or so and make his contribution felt.