Monday, June 30, 2008


By PETER WORTHINGTON -- Toronto SunIn Africa, a continent racked with wars, revolutions and repression andincreasingly regarded as an economic and social basket case, there is onecountry that is reversing the trend and today is the democratic hope of thecontinent. It is Eritrea, the newest African state and UN member, about the size ofEngland (or Florida) with a population roughly that of Toronto (3.5 million), situated on theRed Sea, above the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Not many know much about Eritrea; even fewer care. It's too bad, because Eritrea is unique in Africa, if not the developing world. It got fullindependence in 1993 after winning a 30-year struggle against Ethiopian dominance thatturned into a full-scale war when emperor Haile Selassie was assassinated in 1974 after amilitary coup led by a homicidal Marxist, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. Prior to World War II, Eritrea had been an Italian colony since the 1880s, then underBritish control when the Brits clobbered the Italians in 1941. The UN ruled in 1952 thatEthiopia should have "trusteeship" over an autonomous Eritrea. Ten years later Ethiopiaforcibly annexed Eritrea -- igniting the struggle for independence. That's a capsulized history of events. But not the real story. Independent since 1993, Eritrea is once again at war withEthiopia, which claims ownership of some of Eritrea'sborder. It seems nutty to outsiders -- and to Eritreans -- but warsoften start for goofy reasons -- witness a murder inSarajevo in 1914. The present war aside, Eritrea is so unusual thatexperienced observers -- diplomats, aid workers,journalists -- have difficulty accepting that what they see isreal and can last. Since it won independence at a cost of some 250,000 lives, Eritrea has confoundedexperts and reversed a trend in Africa that has been depressingly and persistently gloomysince the first country (Ghana) achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1956. I've just returned from Eritrea, seeing the war zones, consulting diplomats, aid workers,Ethiopians, President Isaias Afewerki, and ordinary people. As one who has reported froma score of African countries over the past 40 years, I've no hesitation saying that Eritrea isunlike anything I've encountered in Africa. After his first visit to the capital of Asmara, journalist Frans van der Houdt, with 14 yearsof covering Africa for a Dutch news agency, remarked: "I'd just about given up on Africaas hopeless, until seeing this country. Now I have renewed hope." Aside from the trauma and potential harm of another war (which Eritrea would surely win ifit became serious) what makes Eritrea so special is how it is adjusting to peace and takinga moral lead in Africa. Consider: Asmara is the most civilized city in Africa, despite Eritrea being one of the poorestcountries. In 1993 the World Bank figured the average annual income was $75-$150, andlife expectancy was age 50. There is no begging, little crime, streets are clean and safe. Asmara is a pretty Italian-style city of 400,000 with a palm-lined main street, sidewalkcafes, espresso machines and no building higher than seven storeys. Eritrea has no political prisoners (itself an oddity), there is no corruption in high places, nogovernment limousines, bribery is unknown, all the "leaders" live modestly -- some withoutpay. Eritrea refuses to accept unlimited foreign aid, which it feels iscorrupting; it won't accept big loans (which have to be repaid withinterest), thus refusing to mortgage itself to international banks.Religious aid is accepted only if it's secular. It is the most "multicultural" and ethnically diverse country in Africa,with eight distinct and esoteric language groups (Nara, Tigrinya,Bilien, Kunama, Afar, Saho and others you also never heard of). It'sequally divided between Christian and Muslim with some Animism,yet is a secular state where all passionately, selflessly, proudly,confidently endorse their "Eritrean" identity. An internal revolution has been won for women, who have mostly achieved equality fromtraditional feudalism where culturally they were regarded as "chattel." The law now giveswomen full equality with rights of land ownership, choosing mates and making their owndecisions on divorce. Arranged child marriages (age nine or 10) are forbidden, andhusbands must share property with wives and kids. The horror of genital mutilation(euphemistically called female circumcision and infibulation) is ending for women. There is national service for everyone between 18 and 45, men and women. On thefrontlines today in the disputed border areas where an estimated 200,000 Ethiopiansoldiers are poised, women and their AK-47s are with men in the trenches -- only this timewithout the Afro hairdos and shorts that distinguished them in the liberation war. Today hairstyles vary and all wear camouflage uniforms. How women have blended into the army, where they're all still proudly called "fighters"rather than soldiers, is unprecedented (and something the damn fools who run theCanadian army might study and learn from). The last thing Africa -- and Ethiopia and Eritrea -- needs is another war. Yet that's whathas happened -- another unknown war, like its 30-year struggle, during which Canadasupported the dreadful Mengistu regime with aid and branded Eritreans fighting forindependence as "rebels" (as the CBC liked to call them). If it weren't so unpleasant, the present "war" over apparently barren and empty land wouldhave overtones of the great novel Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, which was inspired by Italy'sinvasion of Ethiopia in 1935. However it's become sinister, what with Ethiopia "ethnicallycleansing" itself of some 40,000 Eritreans who lived and worked in Ethiopia, some of themfor all their lives. Last spring Ethiopia's parliament in essence declared war and bombed Asmara, whileEritrea retaliated without formally declaring war. Through it all, Eritrea has so far remainedsomething of a paragon of patience, resolve and even democracy, while bloodyingEthiopia's nose. Unlike other African countries, Eritrea spends little on the trappings of power. PresidentIsaias is informal, preferring open-neck shirts and occasionally having a drink in a local baracross the street from his modest presidential offices. (People recall that when the Congo'scontroversial and brutal President Laurent Kabila visited Eritrea, Isaias suggested a drinkand much to the horror of Kabila's bodyguards and perhaps Kabila himself, Isaias tookhim across the street to a bar) All over Eritrea roads are being repaired, new roads andhouses built. Education is a priority, with Englishmandatory ("knowing English is a passport to the world,"a teacher told me in 1988). Asmara's main street,Independence Avenue (renamed from Haile SelassieAvenue), has been turned into a mall with only taxis andbuses allowed. Curiously, it must have more photo shops,bars and public pay phones than any other African city. Starvation has been replaced with flourishing markets. Toa Westerner, the country is astonishingly inexpensive.Credit cards are not used, except in one hotel, which is a problem if the tourist tradeexpands as Eritreans hope. In short Eritrea is an oasis of hope for democracy, stability,security. My interest in Eritrea dates back to 1988 when I was with the barefoot guerrilla army ofthe EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) along with Toronto's Rob Roy, doing a TVdocumentary on that war and the Ethiopian famine. We had the privilege -- luck -- of being the only Western journalists who witnessed theEPLF rout of an Ethiopian corps in the war's most decisive battle, now immortalized inEritrean folklore as the Battle of Afabet. Some 20,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed --one third of the total Ethiopian army in Eritrea. Afabet rates as one of history's decisive battles; the biggest battle in Africa since the British8th Army routed Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Corps at el Alamein in World War II. ToEritreans today, Afabet rates as the Battle of Kursk does to Russians, when Hitler's tankarmy was destroyed and the tide of war changed. Roy and I saw and photographed 10,000 bedraggled Ethiopian prisoners. We also foundstacks of bags of Canadian flour, a "gift of the Canadian people" to the starving ofEthiopians, in the kitchens of the Ethiopian army. Gallon cans of cooking oil from the U.S.and Europe supposedly for starving refugees, were also in army kitchens and village stores.Afabet was the pivotal battle of the war. For miles, the mountain road and desert plainswere littered with the charred remains of Soviet armour, trucks, guns. Ethiopian deadlittered the scenery, desiccating in the dry heat. Being with these guerrillas left a lasting impression. Movement was mostly at night, sleeping in caves andhollowed mountains to avoid Ethiopian airstrikes. The EPLFhad constructed a 1,000-bed hospital inside a mountain,complete with dental and plastic surgery, operating theatres(every type of operation except heart surgery) and labs thatproduced penicillin and medical drugs according to worldstandards. The Eritreans established a hidden factory that churned out plastic sandals for the "fighters,"30% of whom were women. (The EPLF refused to call themselves "soldiers" because thatimplied a permanent occupation.) Women went into battle with men, some as platoonleaders and both killed and were killed alongside men. The "liberation war" was fought without military aid from the U.S. or Soviet Union, or anycountry. Eritrean weapons all were captured from the Soviet/Cuban/East German-suppliedEthiopians. At Afabet, as at other battles, captured Soviet tanks and artillery were turnedaround and used immediately against the Ethiopians which boasted the largest,best-equipped modern army in Africa. Three Soviet military advisers were captured atAfabet. The Ethiopians were driven from Eritrea in 1991 and Mengistu sought asylum inZimbabwe, courtesy of his ideological soulmate, Robert Mugabe, who is in the process ofscrewing up Zimbabwe. Mengistu resides in that country today. The feat of 3.5 million Eritreans thrashing a country of 58 million, using the enemy's ownweapons, remains remarkable and unprecedented -- the first successful "war of liberation"in Africa against an African oppressor rather than a colonial power. Ethiopia has always been revered as the only country in Africa that escaped Europeancolonization. Until he was murdered, Haile Selassie was regarded (wrongly) by Westerners(as well as by Jamaican Rastafarians) as something of a deity when, in fact, he was a feudalimperialist. That was then, this is now. Eritrea deserves better than another war, and deserves support and encouragement --which it is not getting, and has never received from Canada or the U.S. which have alwaysopted to back Ethiopia. Maybe this will change.

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