20 September 2003

Filed under Travel

Letter from Asmara

The Africa Pension has seen better days. Its floors are marble, the bedrooms are airy, the ceiling are high and at five dollars a night one shouldn’t complain. But the paint is peeling, the ancient wiring is dangerous, the communal shower is unreliable and the only phone has a confusing crackle.

Did yesterday’s call come from the man who led Eritrea’s fearsome bicycle-borne assassination squad which during the country’s liberation war against Ethiopia, would pick off their targets and then pedal furiously down the back streets of Asmara as they made good their escape? Or was the call from the ruling party’s leading ideologue, tight-lipped on policy matters, but who cannot wait to declare his loathing of Manchester United and love of Arsenal?

To be fair, the Africa Pension, built in the heyday of Italian rule in the 1930s was never intended to be a hotel. It began life as a high court, and was used by the Ethiopian navy for a spell. Now the building is listed as a national monument, along with dozens of others from that period, most in the art deco style that makes central Asmara seem set in architectural aspic.

Seldom can a national motto - “never kneel down” - be more appropriate. Eritrea is as tough and bloody-minded as it is poor, with a prickly gift for making enemies and alienating friends. Its sandal-clad fighters triumphed in the world’s longest running guerrilla war and the dogged determination that secured victory against its neighbour is woven into the national psyche.

Just as the beat of a butterfly’s wings is set to cause hurricanes on the other side of the world so the affairs of tiny Eritrea have reached onto the stage of superpower strategists and cold war warriors, African emperors, European idealists and land hungry colonialists.

The freak atmospheric conditions that help account for the city’s glorious blue skies have been a curse as well as a blessing. Asmara and its half million residents sit atop a plateau so high that clouds lap around the distant escarpment like the spray of waves breaking over east Africa’s corral reefs. But it was here in the 1950s that Washington built Kagnew station, then the world’s biggest listening post from where the US eavesdropped on much of the world for little more than a decade. Today Kagnew is no more, dismantled when emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and the excesses of the Ethiopian military dergue got too much for Washington. But the city’s location makes the reception of the BBC World Service as clear as the birds at dawn, carrying reports of the terrible drought in neighbouring Ethiopia - although Eritrea, itself badly hit, gets far fewer mentions.

Yet if British intelligence reports are accurate, Asmara could soon be in the headlines for another reason. Along with Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Eritrea was included in a recent travel warning so alarming that British Airways suspended its service between London and Nairobi.

About half of Eritrea’s 4 million people are Muslims, but there are few signs of tension, even though the govermnent played a low key role in the Iraq war. The
Soviet built naval base on Dahlak islands, strategically placed on the Red Sea shipping route and the mainland port of Assab, were made available to the US for military use. A more likely terrorist target say diplomats, are members of the 4000 strong UN force, monitoring a fragile agreement reached in 2000 which ended the 3 year post independence conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Huge concrete blocks now protect the headquarters of the UN mission. Not surprisingly foreigners are keeping a low profile, including the 100 or so resident Italians, an ageing legacy of the days when as many as 30,000 of them lived in Italy’s north African colony.

Yet there is an undercurrent of strain. The economy, hard hit by the war is struggling, and the drought makes it worse. Relations with Ethiopia are deteriorating, and the government has yet to fulfil its promise made 18 months ago to hold multi-party elections. And the authorities are becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent, imprisoning many of its critics, and clamping down on the press.

But the Italian legacy does survive, including Jeannie and Giana’s beauty salon, opposite the cathedral on Independence avenue which at five dollars a session surely offers the cheapest facial in Africa. Follow the facial with a stroll in the cool evening air along the palm-lined independence avenue, where the occasional donkey drawn cart vies for the right of way with old fiat bubble cars from the fifties. And the cappuccino is particularly good at the Modka caffe (sic) a hundred yards down the road from the Pension. A cup of coffee, a thick wedge of spicy pizza, still warm from the oven, and a tall glass of fresh pink papaya juice comes to l7 nakfa - about 1 US dollar and a third less than that if you are using the black market to change your money.

Yet the meal is out of the financial reach of all but a comparative handful in a country where per capita income is less than a dollar a day.

Talk at the café tables is dominated by last week’s European cup final. My caller from the ruling party is not taking side: “I am just happy that Manchester United weren’t playing.” At least I think that is what he said. And I think it was him. The phone line at the Africa Pension was particularly bad that day.