He's the only son left in his family of six. His three brothers were killed in Eritrea's 30-year war of secession from Ethiopia. Describing the capital, Asmara, under occupation, only his sad brown eyes show any emotion. "It was an inferno. Asmara was a prison camp. There were trenches inside the city, dead bodies in the street," says the 38-year-old merchant, who does not want his name in print. Throughout Eritrea, still a province of Ethiopia until a plebiscite in April makes sovereignty official, roads are smashed, rail links severed, bridges destroyed. The struggle, which began when Ethiopia annexed the territory in 1961, left most areas without running water and little electricity. Hospitals and schools were destroyed.
That all seems unreal now as we chat in a packed cafe. Eighteen months after the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) retook the city, this corner of Asmara almost looks the tranquil Italian colonial capital it once was. An ancient cappuccino machine hisses in the background. The crowd is relaxed and amiable. There's not a policeman in sight. The wide, clean streets are lined with thick palms, and bright pink bougainvillea spills down whitewashed villa walls. Strolling the city, I spot the newly named Freedom Cafe and the Peace Laundry.
CAVE LIFE. While a new regime in Ethiopia copes with bitter ethnic conflicts, in Eritrea the citizens who banded together in war are sticking together in peacetime to rebuild. And because foreign-aid donors are holding back reconstruction funds until the U.N.-sponsored referendum in April, the people are doing most of the work themselves. Even as the war raged, in liberated areas Eritreans dug out four-story cave hospitals, opened underground schools, and operated industries at night while Ethiopian planes bombed during the day.
Now, despite crippling poverty--at an estimated $115, Eritrea's annual per capita gross national product is among the lowest in the world--the people are footing the bills. Taha Seraj, for example, gave $8,000 to build a four-room health clinic on Dakalia Island. A thin 40-year-old with an easy smile, blue jeans, and white sneakers, he owns a fish shop in Asmara where he proudly diplays a recently drafted map of liberated Eritrea. "One man can't do everything, but at least I can help," he says.
Immersing themselves in reconstruction may be one way for Eritreans to move beyond their grief. Many of its 3 million people lost three, four, sometimes five family members. Tesfai Afreoai, a port assistant for the U.N. World Food Program, lost three brothers. "This is how the Eritreans got their freedom, because everybody helped as much as they could," he says.
In Hamassiem, the region surrounding Asmara, the people raised $600,000 for the reconstruction effort--double the provisional government's contribution. One EPLF armed division cut its food rations and donated the extra money to a training center for people handicapped by war injuries. Government officials have been working without salaries for two years. Some still live in military camps. The communal spirit may stem from the pro-Marxist force that led the rebellion. But the government now promises democracy and capitalism.
Amid the rebuilding, the most basic problem remains feeding the people, three-quarters of whom rely on food aid. Last year, grain output quadrupled, from 70,000 metric tons to 260,000. But refugees--500,000 Eritreans fled to Sudan during the war--are drifting back. All along the 50-mile road from Asmara to Massawa stand bunches of hovels covered with plastic, fabric, and newspaper. Strategically settled on the main route for food-aid distribution, these returning families sit outside with their sparsely clothed, malnourished children.
LITTLE PATIENCE. Massawa, once a pretty town of pastel-colored Ottoman architecture, arched passageways, and castles, now looks more like a Greek ruin. For 10 days in February, 1990, the Ethiopians bombarded the town from sea and air. "It is impossible to describe what it was like during the bombing," says a 60-year-old woman I meet one day at Massawa's vegetable market.
Rebuilding Massawa is just one of the many enormous tasks ahead. Land mines litter the countryside. Many areas still lack water and electricity. Industry is operating at one-third capacity. And the people, who sacrificed so much during war and are working so hard to rebuild, have little patience--even for the victorious EPLF, which has promised a multiparty political system. "I think the EPLF will hand over power. But if they don't, we will fight," says my merchant friend. "We fought for liberation. If we have to, we will fight for democracy, too."