Eritrea: Rebel Impressions and Beautiful Reflections

By Alex Anfruns

Asmara has the discreet charm of an ancient colonial city whose memory, sealed behind its rationalist-style facades, can erupt into a fortuitous conversation with an old man who addresses the visitor in perfect Italian. The informal sale of old coins and old books is only an excuse to offer us the treasure of words loaded with history.

The city was founded by the Italians over the course of just a few years. Its squares, cinemas and theatre, its cafeterias and its powerful infrastructure, including the road and rail network, were intended to turn Asmara into a microcosm of Rome for the colonial settlers residing in Somalia. But the outcome of the Second World War decided otherwise. After defeating Italian fascism, British imperialism considered that development in Eritrea could not outstrip that of Ethiopia, so it hastened to dismantle all the modern infrastructures already created, and the history of the Eritrean railway stopped forever in time.

Battlefields on European soil are often remembered. Less well known and honoured, despite being equally decisive, were the battles that took place in the African territories. It’s a very moving experience to visit a British cemetery in the outskirts of Keren. The soldiers sent to the front, as can be seen from the names on the symmetrically aligned tombstones, were mainly Hindus between the ages of 20 and 26 … Perhaps some Englishmen had the impeccable tastes of gentlemen, but that was not enough to send their own offspring as cannon fodder to the sacred task of defending their “civilization”.

The Asmara post office, created in 1916 by the architect Eduardo Cavalieri, keeps intact the beautiful decorative style of that period, whose motifs on the ceiling represent the diversity of agricultural products manufactured in the different regions of Eritrea and its main cities. Natural light is introduced into the interior of the building through a roof formed by a grid of stained glass mosaics. At the top of the walls, light also enters through a series of small spheres that symbolize the dial of a traditional phone. The office is a lively place that receives educational visits from a local primary school. Today five different classes have gathered inside. The students are seated while the teachers tell them how to write a letter that will later be sent to their family or friends. Here continues that magical and unique experience of receiving a letter by post which is falling into oblivion because of the “communicational tyranny” promoted by the “most advanced” countries…

On the first anniversary of the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea in July 2019, hate speech circulated on social media using the hashtag “yakl” (enough is enough), calling for the end of the “dictatorship” in Eritrea. The first reaction of an Eritrean is to laugh out loud, as you would when being told joke. But the next reaction is to clarify swiftly and frankly that there is an essential component missing: that humour should produce some goodwill and grace.

Following the historical experience of the long conflict they had with Ethiopia between September 1961 and May 1991, Eritrean leaders have maintained a certain circumspection about political openness, although on repeated occasions President Isaías Afwerki has announced his willingness to hold elections and allow the creation of political parties “when the time and conditions allow it.”

This particular context of “neither war nor peace” is the one that has prevailed since the declaration of independence in 1993 and in particular, after the attacks by Ethiopia on the Eritrean border, which led to a new war between May 1998 and June 2000. This explains why there is still no real political opposition in Eritrea and those who attack the government do so from foreign countries. When you realise the price paid by Eritrean combatants in achieving their independence, it is very difficult to ignore their testimonies and to cede to the allegations made by those who renounce the commitments of collective history in exchange for their personal greed. For Eritreans such an attitude is an insult to their patriotic feeling.

Eritrea is a small country with an independence won at the cost of infinite sacrifices. It emerged victorious from a terrible war against an Ethiopian regime that did not hesitate to dedicate all its efforts to carrying out military operations with the support of world powers, at the same time that its own population died as a result of a famine of biblical proportions. The motto of the Eritrean people is self-reliance, putting into practice the values ​​of “relying upon your own strength” that Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had championed for Africa.

The persistence of a matrix of media intoxication against Eritrea, even after the peace agreement with Ethiopia was signed in July 2018, should alert all those who would defend the sovereignty of peoples and international law. Whoever believes they have the duty to engage in international solidarity with a people must earn the right to do so … by taking some time to get to know them.