Magazine article The Spectator

The Country Where the 1990s Hit the 1950s

Magazine article The Spectator

The Country Where the 1990s Hit the 1950s

Article excerpt

See Massawa by night, if you can. If you can, see Massawa only by night. Heat and darkness are a heady mix. The warm wind blows in from the Red Sea, dim light bulbs swing their pools of soft yellow light from trailing wires, the shadows dance, the muezzin calls and a million crickets quietly scream.

You can smell the charcoal fires, the hot, sweet coffee, the incense, cinnamon and sandalwood; you can smell the rot. You can hear the ships unloading at a dock where blizzards of moths sweep the floodlights. You can hear children laughing among ruins of mosques and winter palaces.

And, if you stand quite still in the dark where beggars scuttle and roaches strut, you can feel Massawa not as a point in time, but as time itself: 2,000 years of Ottomans, Christians, negroes and Arabs; of dhows and schooners, tankers and freighters; of feasts, famines, sieges, treaties and terrible wars. In the dark, Massawa becomes an age unified within a moment.

Daylight breaks the spell. The rubble of war is everywhere. Two ships are sunk in the harbour. Whole buildings have been mortar-bombed into dust. Walls are blasted away, wood shutters torn from their hinges, palms snapped like matchsticks, doorways and windows sprayed with bullet-holes. Across the causeway on the African mainland, Russian tanks lie shattered into pieces nobody has bothered to collect.

And crueller even than war is the reconstruction. Cranes, concrete, pylons and new tarmac come marching in. Eritrea is emerging from 30 years of almost continuous bombardment, first from Haile Selasse, then from the Marxist Mengistu and his Derg.

In 1952, in what appears to have been a fit of inattention, Britain and the United Nations handed this former Italian colony to Ethiopia, a handover the peoples of the territory never accepted. From the early Sixties to 1991 they mounted a desperate struggle for independence. They fought against all odds. The vile Mengistu was joined by the Soviet Union, which sent advisers, weapons, tanks, Migs, bombs, napalm and money - and the West mostly looked away. Eritrea fought with immense heroism, Ethiopia and the USSR with colossal incompetence. In the end, Mengistu collapsed. In 1993 Eritrea emerged as Africa's newest nation.

All at once, the 1990s have hit a country all but petrified in the 1950s. It is as though Eritrea has proceeded from 1957 to 1997 without passing through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties between. Beneath a slowly revolving fan on the verandah at Massawa post office, Eritreans are learning to use telephone kiosks . . .

Dear Customers, please use cards of 25, 50 and 100 nakfa to telephone by Pay Phone. Use for local calls only. Victory to the masses!

Nowhere do the strands of hope and agony, the ruins and the modernities, tangle into a stranger knot than here in Massawa. One of the country's two Red Sea ports, the harbour was known to the Egyptians, occupied for three centuries by the Turks, developed with enormous energy by the Italians under Mussolini, and shot to pieces by the Ethiopians. After the second world war, facilities were substantially dismantled by the British and sold to Pakistan for scrap. During the struggle against Ethiopia the magnificent palace once occupied by the Italian governor and used by the Emperor Haile Selassie as a winter home was mortared into a ruin, its great moorish dome smashed like an egg. …

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