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    After 30 Years of War, Eritrea is Rebuilding

    By Jennifer Parmelee
    Special to The Washington Post
    Wednesday, July 31, 1991; Page A23

    ASMERA, ETHIOPIA -- Araia Tseggai came home after 25 years from an exile that spanned most of the war of independence in the northeastern Ethiopian province of Eritrea. He felt tremendous joy. But what he saw made him want to weep.

    Crossing the Sudanese border southward into Eritrea, Arais was first struck by the vast array of destroyed military machinery: tanks, antiaircraft guns, artillery, "everything that money could buy," he said. He saw how towns had been transformed by war into "garrisons instead of civilian centers."

    He saw the destitution of the people and the desolation of this rain-starved land. And then he saw the bodies, the government soldiers who fled west from the advancing rebel army and died of hunger and thirst. Hundreds, if not thousands, are believed to have perished en route to Sudan, some taking their own lives.

    "One young man had hung himself from the branch of a tree. He left his small personal belongings at his feet," Araia said. Among them were the soldier's photograph and a scrap of paper on which he had written the names of his father and grandfather alongside his own. He was 14 years old.

    "That sight really explains the tragedy of what happened," said Araia, chairman of the economics department at Grambling State University in Louisiana. "It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's victory and we are glad to be home. On the other, the Ethiopian people themselves were really not the enemy. These soldiers were mostly poor peasants, many of them just children. There is something terribly sad about it. When you look at the cost of this war, it's very high."

    For many Eritreans, the end of a 30-year struggle for independence is bittersweet. They realize how formidable the challenges and adjustments of peacetime will be for a deeply wounded society that was brutally stripped of its former prosperity.

    On the streets of this provincial capital, lined with neat houses and walls that spill over with the vivid colors of bougainvillea and roses, there remains a strong sense of the euphoria that erupted when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front marched to victory here two months ago. It is hard to pass a block without witnessing an ecstatic embrace between returning fighters, their friends and relatives, many separated for 15 or 20 years.

    Unlike the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where a 10 p.m. curfew and the pop of gunfire at night reflect continuing unease between the populace and the guerrilla military front that took over May 28, Eritrea seems a province at peace with itself. There is no curfew here, and the throngs of evening strollers echo the strong Italian accent remaining from 51 years as a colony of Italy.

    Already, the quality of life has measurably improved. Water and power, all but shut off during the last year of siege by the Eritrean front, has been restored around the city. Food prices have declined markedly because there is no longer the problem of transport across battle lines. Two pounds of tomatoes that cost the equivalent of $3.75 now cost a dollar, while ice cream, imported spaghetti and scotch are widely available for the first time in years.

    And there are the sidewalks, an issue of great significance to Asmera residents.

    Under the regime of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, which garrisoned more than 100,000 soldiers here, up to one-third of the city's sidewalks and streets were off-limits to pedestrians because they were considered "security zones" and vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Residents took to walking down the middle of the street, a habit yet unbroken.

    "The Sunday after liberation we took our bicycles and took an almost infantile joy in going down every sidewalk and street we couldn't go down before," said Sister Mary Thomas, a Scottish nun who teaches English at Asmera University and has lived here for 27 years. "It was a symbol of our freedom."

    The Rev. Tewelde Beyene, Eritrean superior of Asmera's Roman Catholic Capuchin community, said he now can teach what he regards as the "correct" version of Eritrea's past in his history classes. "I am able, for the first time, to show my students that it was Ethiopia itself that signed over Eritrea {in 1890} to Italian colonists, giving Eritrea a new and different orientation that remains to this day," he said.

    Two large groups of Eritrean business executives, experts and academics returned to Asmera recently to herald the reconstruction of the province's shattered economy and agriculture. One group, the Nacfa Corp. -- named after the site of a significant Eritrean front victory -- has already raised $10 million to help finance new business activity.

    Although most Nacfa stock is owned by affluent Eritreans in exile, one local farmer stood up during a corporate meeting to announce that he and 399 other peasants had contributed roughly $25 each to buy a single $1,000 share.

    The end of the war also has caused bitter feelings to surface. Many Ethiopians said they left the province after the war simply because their neighbors turned against them, venting their deep anger over the long years of repression under Mengistu, when non-Eritreans ruled their lives.

    "It's the only thing that makes me sad about the liberation," said one local priest, requesting anonymity. "But you must understand how these people lived virtually imprisoned under a reign of terror for all these years. There has been an explosion of unrestrained joy, but also a feeling of uncontrolled rancor against people they see as remnants of the former regime."

    Fighters and civilians are also finding they must readjust to the postwar era.

    Some fighters and civilians say it has been difficult to find common ground for conversation. Many ex-guerrillas are reticent about their painful wartime experiences.

    There is a natural gap in the experience between Eritreans who lived under the regime and those who left to fight, between the women who became housewives and those who joined the armed struggle.

    A former schoolmate of a top Eritrean front guerrilla leader said he is "ashamed" to go see his old friend because "he fought and I stayed and made a living."

    "Many people made compromises to live within the system," said Assefa Takeste, an Eritrean front member who now heads Eritrea's health department. "We have a different mentality from the communities we are coming into. I think they will change their attitudes and learn from us, but we can learn from them too, from the traditional values and family structures that they have preserved."

    The transition to civilian life will also test the former combatants as economic disparities inevitably grow between them, Assefa said. "Out in the field, we were a very idealistic and egalitarian society, where poverty, because it was distributed equally, didn't hurt so much," he explained. "We were equal, unnaturally equal, and I can see problems coming with economic imbalances."

    Particularly difficult will be the adjustment of the estimated 10,000 fighters disabled by injuries during the war. "In the field, they contributed and worked like everyone else. They never expected or wanted privilege, and that contributes to sanity of mind," Assefa said. "This will be another challenge, and our doctors must be prepared."

    But Assefa, while acutely aware of the coming realities, said that in the end, there could be nothing as tough as 30 years of war. He feels Eritreans will rise to the tests ahead.

    "If we retain even 20 percent of the commitment we had in the field," he said, "we will still produce the most progressive government in Africa."


    © Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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