Do you know anything about Eritrea? Do you know anyone who has ever been to Eritrea? First of all, known as one of the hottest countries in the world, it was well over 40C when we arrived. Imagine a country where every single citizen knows about the Peace Boat. The Peace Boat is the only passenger ship to dock at the port. There are some cargo ships but the Peace Boat is a pioneer in Eritrean tourism. The Peace Boat is so appreciated by the government of Eritrea that despite nightly black-outs of electricity, they decided to provide a full two days of electricity in the country to make sure everything ran smoothly! I must admit that I really had little idea about this mysterious country so I did my research before we arrived.
Eritrea was established as an Italian colony on January 1, 1890. Italian rule lasted until World War II (1939-1945) when British forces conquered the territory. British military administration lasted from 1941 until 1952 when the United Nations decided to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims for annexation and Eritrean demands for independence. Once in control, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie moved to end Eritrean autonomy, and by 1962 Eritrea was transformed into an Ethiopian province.
Eritrea was recognised as a country in 1993. In mid-1998 clashes broke out between Eritrea and former ally Ethiopia along the countries border, each country accusing the other of seizing territory. Hundreds of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian troops were sent to the border, which had not been precisely delineated when Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. By early 1999 the dispute had become a bitter war. Tens of thousands of soldiers were killed in the fighting before the countries declared a ceasefire in June 2000. In December Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement that formally ended the war and established a commission to demarcate their border.
The scars of war were immediately visible upon arrival. We walked out of the port gates and the town was mostly in ruins. Crumbled buildings and holes in buildings with bombing marks produced the most surreal scene. You could easily imagine yourself in a backdrop scene for some film with a war plot. It was sometimes hard to realise that this was indeed a real city and not a film set.
A group of us headed out with great intentions to bus up to the capital city, Asmara, to see the legacy of Italian colonialism through its well known architecture. The taxi hire was too expensive so we went to the bus station. There was an enormous queue for a bus including residents, goats and any other animal or vegetable you could possible imagine getting on those buses. We caved in and got a taxi hire. However, at the first check-point we were sent back since we seemed to lack the correct permits. You cant imagine the scenery we drove through. There was no life, just sub-Saharan desert with complete poverty. Houses were made from pieces of scrap plastic, basically any piece of scrap that could be found and tied together in a square shape. I have seen poverty around the world and often have said that poverty can resemble itself in any corner of the world. However, sub-Saharan poverty cannot compare to anything else. You could occasionally spot a UN relief truck driving by but any other signs of food were not present. Hungry people in rags were on the side of every village. It was really unimaginable. I thought that I had witnessed the vast depths of misery but I wasnt prepared for what I now saw.
We didnt know what to do. We found an unpleasant beach with camels. We went back to the port town in disappointment but then found treasure after treasure. Walking in the streets talking to people, seeing women performing the mysterious coffee ceremonies in the street and seeing children come up to us with curiosity was fascinating. The most memorable moment for me was when an old woman called to Ayse and I. We sat outside her house as she made her coffee. She told house the horrors of the war and the death of all her children as they fought against Ethiopia. Sadness fills the streets of Eritrea but there is a sense of hope in the future as the war has ended and the country begins to heal.