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  • ‘They’re Going to Come for Us’: A Teenage Girl Caught in a War’s Riptides

    Young soldiers march in Asmara during Eritrea’s Independence Day celebrations, as the country went on alert for possible war over a border dispute with Ethiopia in May 1998

    By Salem Solomon

    • Nov. 28, 2018

    My father knew we were next. “They’re going to come for us,” he’d say, after Meles Zenawi, then the prime minister of Ethiopia, told the country on national television in July 1998 that Eritreans weren’t welcome. “If the Ethiopian government says, ‘We don’t like the color of their eyes, and get out,’ ” Zenawi said, “then they should get out.”

    That year, my family and I were among the estimated 75,000 Eritreans who were deported from Ethiopia at the start of a two-year border war, followed by a protracted cold war that ended this year in a formal declaration of peace. Twenty years have passed since that conflict uprooted thousands of families like mine. But the costly antipathy between Eritrea and Ethiopia goes back much further. During World War II, both states became battlegrounds in the fight against Italian imperial rule. After the war, the United Nations passed a United States-backed resolution to form a federation between the two countries. In 1962, however, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, stripping its language, culture and ability to self-govern. A decades-long armed struggle for independence followed, and tens of thousands of men and women, including my uncle, lost their lives as resistance fighters to win back Eritrea’s sovereignty.

    I would learn these things much later in life. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I attended a Catholic school and was sheltered from politics. I overheard bits and pieces about the war, but I was more concerned with the latest fashion trends and my first crush. Politics became unavoidable when Eritrea gained independence in 1993. Once, when I returned to Ethiopia from visiting my grandparents in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, a classmate thrust a Nakfa bill, the new Eritrean currency, in my face and told me it was worthless. Another time, I saw a magazine cover with a painting of a woman wearing a traditional scarf in the shape of an old Ethiopian map. A noose around her neck suggested Eritrea’s independence had strangled “Mother Ethiopia.” Friends singled me out to explain political developments because I was Eritrean, but I didn’t know how to answer. After the Ethiopian government announced plans to deport people of Eritrean origin, neighbors began eyeing our property and belongings as if they were creating an inventory before an auction. Some we had known for as long as I could remember; my parents, a surgeon and a nurse, had treated them when they needed care. We felt helpless and betrayed, suddenly isolated in a community we had considered home.

    I was a teenager when a loud knock at our door at 4 a.m. upended our lives. One of my brothers and I looked through our front door’s thick glazed glass onto the dimly lit porch. Two men and a woman stood there holding AK-47s. We opened the door, and the armed agents asked for Dr. Solomon. My father, still in his pajamas, appeared. They gave him a few minutes to change. My mom handed him his coat and a gabi — a traditional wrap — to keep warm, but he wasn’t allowed to collect other belongings. I asked the soldiers what was happening. “Where are you guys taking him? Why are you here?” They ignored my questions and took my father away.

    We later learned that my father had been taken to a detention facility in the neighborhood’s administration center, along with other Eritreans targeted for deportation. He had voted in the referendum for independence, and that, along with his stature as a doctor and professor at a top university, most likely made him a target. Four days later, they were loaded onto buses, driven to the border and told to get off. My father called us from Adwa, a town in northern Ethiopia, to tell us he was safe. Soon after, he crossed the border and traveled to Asmara, where he would wait for us to join him. Tense days followed back home. My brothers left immediately for Kenya using their Ethiopian passports, but I had trouble securing travel documents with my mother. Even though my birth certificate showed I was born in Addis Ababa, I was denied a passport when we went to the immigration office because my parents were born in Eritrea. Instead, an officer gave me and my mom a “laissez-passer” document and told us we had 10 days to leave the country.
    The author at her graduation from Asmara University in Eritrea, in 2005.CreditCourtesy photo

    As we prepared to leave, neighbors came to visit. Some offered to help; others offered to buy our furniture or our car. Everything my parents owned was left behind or sold. Their bank accounts were frozen, and my father lost his stake in his medical practice. On the last day, I clung to my childhood best friend, an Eritrean who had not yet been targeted for expulsion. We both sobbed.

    Arriving in Eritrea was a culture shock for my brothers and me. While Addis Ababa is a cosmopolitan city, Asmara is smaller and slower; it’s not uncommon to see goats herded down the main roadways. But the most noticeable difference was the presence of uniformed soldiers on street corners. ID checks were common to keep tabs on people and ensure that those required to join the military served.

    My father took a job teaching at Asmara University’s medical school, and we moved into cramped university housing. My mother continued to practice nursing, and my brothers arrived from Kenya and enrolled at the university. Thirty years of war had hardened Eritrea, and the border war only deepened the scars. I knew just how close we were to conflict when, one day, I saw a fighter jet fly low overhead, roaring so loud that it shook the window panes.

    When I began 11th grade, I tried to assimilate, but the cultural differences were pronounced. Deportees were called amiche, a reference to Italian cars assembled in Ethiopia with parts manufactured in Eritrea. I was an outspoken student, accustomed to raising my hand and proudly answering questions. In Asmara, that drew angry stares from my classmates, who weren’t used to a young woman speaking her mind. As I was finishing that school year, Ethiopian troops advanced to Barentu, a town 90 miles west of Asmara. The entire country was mobilizing, and thousands of high school students, myself included, were sent to military training in Gahtelay — a desert town of makeshift encampments constructed after the main camp, Sawa, had become a target for Ethiopian airstrikes.

    For three months we slept on a riverbed, protected from wind-driven sands by bedsheets strung together and held up with sticks. Every day before dawn we marched in plastic sandals, sometimes stopping to pull inch-long acacia thorns out of our feet. We learned how to fire AK-47s and handle grenades. Dust storms coated us from head to toe, and we endured temperatures well above 100 degrees. I tried to help keep morale up and would sing, on request, songs by Usher and Celine Dion during breaks. At one point, I fell down during a drill and was treated at a clinic for dehydration. Every night, I would lie down on the riverbed and look up at the sky. I prayed to see a shooting star, a sign that someone was watching out for me.

    Soon after we finished our training, it was rendered moot. Ethiopia’s advances came to a sudden halt when a peace agreement was signed. Our round of recruits, the 13th, was called the “peace round,” but the cold war between Eritrea and Ethiopia continued until this summer’s peace declaration by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki.

    The border conflict kept many families separated for nearly 20 years. In addition to the people like me who were deported from Ethiopia, some 70,000 Ethiopians were expelled from Eritrea. What all deportees share is a knowledge of how fragile nationality and identity can be. We were born in a country and believed we had basic birthrights as citizens. Instead, we learned that ruling politicians can make any excuse to take those rights away — even not liking the color of our eyes.

    Salem Solomon is a multimedia digital journalist with the Voice of America’s Africa division. She covers the latest news from across the continent, and she also reports and edits in Amharic and Tigrigna

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    By Frankie | Tuesday, 20th November, 2018

    I know I’ve already had my crack at our own Seven Wonders of Africa series, but I’ve just got back from Eritrea, where together with Will, his son Josh, and Josh’s friend, Noah, we visited the Dahalak Archipelago. A year ago, I’d never heard of it. Today, it’s one of my seven wonders. It has to be one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever visited.

    Eritrea’s located in the Horn of Africa, north-east of Ethiopia. It sits up against the Red Sea. Its capital’s Asmara. In antiquity, it was most probably a part of Punt, an ancient kingdom that traded with the earliest Egyptians. Later it was part of Axum, one of Africa’s greatest trading empires. It was then ruled by different Christian kings and Muslim sultans, and was known by different names, including Ma’kele Bahr and Medri Bahri. It was occupied by the Ottomans from the sixteenth century until the late 1800s, and then by Italy, when it was known as Italian Eritrea and its borders properly defined.

    After Italy’s defeat in the Second World War, the allies and the UN declared Eritrea a semi-autonomous state federated to Ethiopia. The Eritreans weren’t consulted. Resistance began in 1958, and continued for another 30-odd years, before Asmara was liberated. A referendum was held in 1993, asking the people to decide the future. An amazing 99% voted for independence. Until just this year, Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war. Peace overtures by Ethiopia’s new president mean the border between the two countries is open for the first time.

    I arrived in Asmara a day ahead of Will and the boys. Straight away, I loved it. The architecture and the feel of the place are wonderful. The people are amazing. Several approached me in the street to shake my hand, welcoming me to the country. After the others arrived, we based ourselves in the coastal city of Massawa, where we stayed at the one and only Dahlak Hotel, which overlooks the old town and the ruins of Emperor Haile Selassie’s seaside palace (pictured below).

    From here, we took a boat out to visit the islands, specifically Dessi and Madote (pictured above). There are more than 120 islands in the archipelago. Just four, I think I’m right in saying, are inhabited. The sea here is something else. The marine life and coral are untouched, which makes for some spectacular diving. There are 300 species of fish. The water is clear. Pristine is such an overused word, but it means something here. Madote is nothing more than a sandbank in the Red Sea, the only signs of human activity an old lighthouse. We swam, and ate on the boat. The whole experience was simple and utterly beautiful.

    All in all, we spent a week in Eritrea. Having been closed to pretty much the rest of the world, travel here is still hampered by the need for permits. People live on very little. Many of the buildings in the cities we visited have been left to themselves. However, I felt wonderfully alive here, and very safe. Getting about was slow work, but all the better for the experience of being able to properly meet people. I’m going back, as soon as I can!

    We are just in the process of gathering text and images for Eritrea, soon (January 2019) to join our portfolio of country destinations. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, please to do get in touch with Frankie McCarthy or Will Jones.

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  • Eritrea Ranks Highest in the Region in Antenatal Care

    Eritrea Profile

    Eritrea has made commendable progress in achieving MDG 4 to reduce infant mortality, and MDG 5 to reduce maternal mortality. The under-five mortality rate (MDG 4) was reduced from 151 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990,to 47 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2015. During the same period, the maternal mortality rate (MDG 5) fell from 1,700 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, to 352 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015, surpassing the MDG 5 Target of 425 deaths per 100,000 live births.

    Eritrea ranks highest in the region in antenatal care attendance at 95 per cent, and coverage of health services and interventions for maternal and child health is high. More than 90 per cent of children are breastfed within one-hour after birth, and exclusive breastfeeding is at 69 per cent. This means Eritrea falls among the good performers in terms of breastfeeding rates globally. With such a good start for  newborns, tackling malnutrition in children is possible if efforts are invested in the education of mothers on adequate child feeding practices and in enhancing the existing national integrated household food security approach.

    Eritrea’s overall immunisation coverage of infants is above 95 per cent at the national level, and it has maintained a polio-free status for many years now. Eritrea’s national immunisation programme has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF as one of the best in Africa, winning the Ministry of Health a number of international awards.
    Beginning on November 20th, the Ministry of Health will undertake a large immunisation campaign for measles and rubella, which seeks to inoculate 1.5 million children aged 6 months to 15 years of age. This is a nationwide campaign that seeks to reach every child in all six regions of Eritrea.

    The Ministry of Health’s combined management of neonatal and childhood illnesses approach ensures that health workers (including community-based) are trained and equipped to detect and manage common childhood illnesses at health facilities as well as the community level. This also seeks to ensure that mothers, caregivers, and parents are trained in and taught about appropriate feeding practices for infants and young children, so that they can provide nutritious foods to their children.

    Universal health care coverage is a paramount equity goal as it means leaving no one behind. The Ministry of Health will start procuring mobile health clinics this year to reach additional children and communities in rural areas, reinforced by barefoot doctors in the remotest areas. This will enable more children and women to access quality health care, and we are proud to support this health services delivery approach.

    Last year the Ministry of Education and partners completed a very important study on “Breaking the Silence”, which highlights the
    problems faced by adolescent girls during menstruation. This resulted in the menstrual hygiene management programme, which is being scaled up nationwide.

    The menstrual hygiene management classes and provision of menstrual hygiene materials in schools, encourages adolescent girls to attend school with dignity. These efforts will contribute to retention rates of girls in school, and accelerate their transition to secondary education.

    To ensure more access to quality basic education for all children, the Government’s complementary elementary education programme provides elementary education over a three-year course for children aged 9-14-years old, many of whom have never attended school before. This programme enables many children, particularly from rural and nomadic communities, to re-enrol in school and to enter formal schools after completion of the course. It is good that, for the coming years, the Government has prioritised quality education (teacher training, improved learning achievement and environment, etc.). 

    The child protection and social protection programme by the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare supports vulnerable children
    and poor female-headed households with cash stipends, including the Donkey for School programme for children with disabilities. Since its implementation in 2009, this programme has enabled over 1,500 children with disabilities to attend school.

    A number of Government sectors and civil society (Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare) have teamed up to elevate community-based work on child rights to go beyond female genital mutilation (FGM) and underage marriage to encompass violence against children and women, and other traditional harmful practices.

    It is also worth mentioning that the recent election of Eritrea to the UN Human Rights Council is an opportunity in terms of influencing the advancement of child rights at global and local levels. Now, as we enter the dawn of a new era of peace and friendship in Eritrea and in the Horn of Africa, there is a sense of renewed hope and of achievable results for children. UNICEF looks forward to more strengthened partnerships and to continue to support these on-going nationwide programmes, and the  sustainable development goals on the horizon.

    On a positive note, many of these goals are already within sight. Eritrea is also gaining steadily on eliminating all harmful practices
    such as child, early, and forced marriage and FGM. The Government outlawed FGM in 2007, and the National Union of Eritrean Women and partners have been making steady progress in reducing this nationwide. The Government has announced it would end FGM/C by 2030.

    Pierre Ngom, PhD
    UNICEF Representative,

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  • Why I’m voting for Saron Gebresellassi for mayor of Toronto

    By Milan Gokhale
    October 15

    The 2018 Toronto municipal mayoral election has largely been overshadowed by the interference of Premier Doug Ford and his band of cronies at Queen’s Park. In the aftermath of his short-sighted, undemocratic, election gerrymandering, it has never been clearer that a 21st century Toronto requires a reboot rooted in really, really, really big thinking. By the end of the next election cycle in October 2022, the gap between rich and poor will be so wide that we may have entire generations of new, young, underrepresented, marginalized, oppressed community members, friends and family in Toronto with no improved transit, no access to affordable housing, no options for child care, no improved access to information and no way to find work in fields like the high-technology sector.

    The Canadian media has mostly focused its coverage on a head-to-head “showdown” between current Mayor John Tory and former Chief Planner of Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat. This simplistic narrative ignores the absence of 31 year-old civil rights lawyer Saron Gebresellassi in a mayoral race that should be described as a larger Canadian story about “old” vs. “new” Toronto. The absence of this larger lens exposes traditional Canadian media as a remnant of “old” Canada. Saron is a new kind of mayoral candidate whose story resonates deeply with me: she is the daughter of Eritrean immigrants, raised by hard-working parents who lived in the suburbs. Like many first-generation new Canadian parents, Saron’s parents preached about the importance of higher education as a tool of liberation. She is a civil rights lawyer and racial justice activist, following in the footsteps of Toronto based human rights champions like Charles Roach and Lennox Farrell.

    Saron has run on an excellent, progressive mayoral platform, with a particular focus on universal affordability, indigenous sovereignty, police reform, civil rights, anti-poverty, mental health and social justice. At every turn, she has correctly diagnosed Toronto’s embedded root problems, and she has continuously proposed bold ideas to solve these problems permanently. In debates, she has argued passionately and forcefully for new thinking and new people at the centre of our politics. She is every bit as audacious in her demands for meaningful change as John Tory is in his demands for status quo. Her election platform is a blueprint document that current and future left-leaning candidates should study.

    There will be some in Toronto who will vote for Jennifer Keesmaat believing she is the more “likely” progressive candidate to win. At this point, unless you support the city’s direction under John Tory, your vote should be going to the candidate that has the best chance of affecting future change. A vote for Jennifer Keesmaat is a wasted opportunity to send a message to the political establishment in Toronto that a dramatic change is necessary, and it will come whether they want it or not.

    Saron, transit and me

    I met Saron after the transit debate on the Scarborough RT, and we had a long conversation about the viability of “free” public transit. I loved her platform plank in principle, but I loved the conversation with Saron even more. She was honest in saying she was still learning from transit, anti-poverty, environmental and social justice activists. She was earnest in asking me questions about why free transit was such a difficult proposition, even within small overlapping circles of transit advocates. “I don’t think there’s a single answer that’s going to satisfy everyone,” I concluded. Her response: “I don’t have all of the answers, but I don’t think I have to.”I am tired of candidates who make empty election promises. If you’re running for office, you should be able to tell me what you don’t know, what you’re curious to learn more about, and who you intend to learn it from. I don’t expect you to solve my problems unilaterally. I just want elected officials who will filter policy ideas, whether I understand them or not, through important civic values: dignity, honesty, universality, sovereignty, justice, truth, fairness, youth, democracy and equity. There is no one running for mayor in Toronto who embodies these values better than Saron.

    In a change election, Saron is the only change candidate.

    There are angles to Saron’s candidacy that are worthy of public discussion, even within Canadian media’s older, upper-middle-class, predominantly white gaze. If elected, Saron would be the first racialized person to become mayor in Toronto’s history, a fact that becomes more relevant as Toronto moves into the 21st century as a majority-minority city. She would also become the youngest mayor in Toronto’s history and the first female mayor in post-amalgamation Toronto. Saron is the only candidate who speaks Spanish, the only candidate who is fluent in sign language and the only candidate whose campaign office is located in the suburbs. These and many other aspects of her unique campaign should be media stories worthy of coverage.

    A vote for Saron Gebresellassi doesn’t fix everything. But it’s the first step in how all of us take back a city that belongs to us.

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  • “Asmara should be regarded as a central part of the modernist canon ” Edward Denison

    By Asmait Futsumbrhan

    Asmara, or as the Italians call it, the little Rome, is a city with marvelous architectural wonders. Not long ago, in fact, the city was recognized by UNESCO, which added it the prestigious World Heritage list. Increasingly, tourists from around the world are flocking to see Asmara’s rich architectural sites.

    Q&A speaks to a group of architects and others interested in architecture. The group, which is from the Research Collegium at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, is studying Asmara’s unique historical buildings and architecture. The research project will also involve a comparison of Asmara’s architectural heritage with Scandinavian architectural designs.

    -(Dr. Gertrud Olsson) Thank you for being with us today, Dr. Gertrud Olsson. Would you please introduce yourself?

    Thank you for having us. Well, to start with, I am an architect and a researcher in architecture and different areas. I am interested in colors, tiles, the connection between different cultures and its modernity. I am a member of the Research Collegium at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.

    -When did you decide to come to work in Eritrea?

    We have been reading about the historical architectural buildings of Asmara and the Ottoman Empire expanses for a very long time now. However, we have been planning and preparing to come here with a project for about three years. It is a wonderful thing to be here, to walk around the beautiful city and talk to the friendly people. I just want to say that the Eritrean people are kind and fun to be with. We have enjoyed our stay to the fullest. We had an amazing time in Asmara. We had the chance to visit Adulis to see the influence of the Ottoman Empire cultures.

    Eritrea has many interesting and spectacular architectural sites which are in good condition, particularly bearing in mind the time in which they were built. There are a number of cinemas that are very interesting when it comes to conservation. Some of them are in a good state and some are in need of urgent restoration. When one country possesses as impressive a heritage as Eritrea, it is necessary to look after the buildings so that they are maintained for the coming generations.

    -(Prof. Johan Mårtelius) It is nice to meet you Professor Johan Mårtelius, would you please tell us a little about yourself?

    It is my pleasure, I am an architect and I am also a professor in Architectural History at the Royal Technical University in Stockholm. I specialize in Ottoman architecture and architectural historiography. For three years, I have been working as the Director of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. That is one of the reasons I am here today, besides my great interest.

    -What is your group’s mission?

    It was quite many years ago that Edward Denison published a book about Asmara and how it should be considered an important puzzle to the modernist norm. Accordingly, we had many discussions about how we could do something in the country regarding architecture. I am glad to say that it is nice to finally be here. One of our main purposes was to visit the main architectural sites to observe and document them, in terms of structures, materials, spaces, and other aspects.

    Our study looks to explore the modernist architecture in Asmara in an international and regional framework. If our studies are a success, we plan to publish them. Of course, this will help spread recognition of Eritrea’s unique, modernist architecture and design. We are going to first write the articles in Swedish and then translate them to other languages. Part of the project is to see the traces of the Ottoman Empire, which we have seen more in Massawa than in Asmara.

    -As an architect, what architectural site fascinated you the most?

    To be honest, every single day, everywhere we went, we kept being amazed by every building that we saw. I would be lying if I said that I had a favorite one because there are just too many to select from. I mean, we have seen and read about the buildings before in books, but to actually see the excellence of the buildings and how they are connected is just mesmerizing.

    -(Greger Widgren) Hello. I see that you are not an architect, unlike the others in the group.

    Yes, my background is different. I am a former lawyer and Deputy Director-General at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I used to be fascinated by the stories I have heard and read about the beautiful historical sites of Asmara. I am glad to be here. It’s my first time, like the others. It is extremely interesting to see so many unique buildings. I didn’t expect it to be so much in just one city. It is remarkable to see so many historical buildings all over town.

    -How do you think your projects will influence the country?

    Eritrea has been isolated for a long time now. Not many people know about it. We hope that we can do more to expose its beauty to the world. This is only the first step. We have been here for a week and we had a lot to cover during our stay. I hope that all goes well and we can be here to continue to work.

    -In your projects, you plan to compare Eritrea’s architectural sites with Scandinavian ones. Would you please elaborate on that?

    Modernity in architecture is sometimes labeled as an international style, which is in some aspects true. But there are also many regional styles and other features to be considered, as well. We think that Asmara is capable of being compared with some of the countries with great architectural styles.

    -What other aspects will you include in your project?

    We are going to consider the relationship between the Italian architects and local Eritreans. Also, we are going to include details about the buildings that we see and we plan to do an exhibition of the buildings.

    -Anything you would like to add?

    From the minute we took a step in Asmara, we had a great reception from everyone. I want to express my gratitude to all the people who supported and guided us. In particular, we are thankful to the people from the Asmara Heritage Project.

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