By Billion Temesgen
When did you first come to know about Eritrea?
In 2001 I served as a technician for the UN and was stationed at the Asmara airport when peacekeeping forces were stationed along the Eritrea and Ethiopia border. Immediately after the Algiers Agreement, an international mission was established to ensure that the two countries would abide by the agreements reached in Algiers during the transitory period. This was the period in which the two were to withdraw to their respective borders prior to the conflict and wait for the final and binding decision of the Border Commission.
So when did your fondness for or “pact of friendship” with Eritrea start?
After the EEBC passed its final and binding verdict we moved out of Eritrea. I went back home to Italy. At that point, I began reading the distorted stories that were being published in the mainstream media. Things like how Eritrea started the war by invading Ethiopia, untruthful news of how Eritrea was defeated, fabricated famine reports, and many other things that totally contradicted what was really going on in the newly-liberated African nation. For the very same reason that I was here during the peacekeeping mission, I felt responsible to tell what I saw. I am not a journalist by profession, I am a military man, but I started my battle against fake news about Eritrea. I developed a website to counter the stories and journalists that were spreading baseless information. Every time there was something negative out there, I would write a piece or simply put up a photograph to contradict it and somewhat put a slice of truth out there.
For example, say if something was circulating under the heading of “University Shut Down; Dispersed Students”, I would post pictures and share brief articles about the opening of colleges around the country. If the header was of drought, I would post photographs of dams which, by the way, were much fewer compared to the extensive chain of dams dotted throughout the country and activities carried out nationwide towards water conservation. I was collecting my material, studying about Eritrea and its people, integrating with the extremely humble society, and fighting fake news as much as I could.
You are passionate about the unique traits of the Eritrean railway. Did you, perhaps, notice the Eritrean railway from above during your mission in 2001?
I grew up in Rome with a big passion for trains, especially the Eritrean type. I like the old, classic railways. When I first came to Asmara, I sensed the scent of the trains in the outskirts of Asmara. I went to see and it was just so beautiful! I met the director of the railway who was assigned to the post soon after independence. The rehabilitation project for the railway was highly organized and planned. The first step was inspection. A thorough assessment of what was left after decades of war was conducted. The second phase consisted of restoration, followed by attaining whatever was needed to completely restore and expand the railway to eventually integrate it into the country’s overall developmental drive. For the overall project, three commissions were established. One was assigned to track the railway, the second commission was to assess the dispersed materials, and the third was to locate and organize the senior employees of the railway. At that time, they were old, and over the years most of them have passed away. Slowly, one kilometer after another, bolt after bolt, the Asmara-Massawa railway was finally completed.
What was your impression?
It was great. Like I said, I had the great fortune of meeting the former director of the railway. Unfortunately, he has since passed away. I knew his office was being encouraged to fully engage in the restoration of the railway. The Eritrean landscape is amazing. And the uniqueness of the Eritrean railway with the beautiful landscape in the highland will surely promote tourism in the country, especially now that the “no war, no peace” situation is finally over. I know there are national plans to extend the railway nationwide to boost the national development drive. Moreover, wait until the train starts running through the capital. It will be great!
Why is Eritrea so special to you?
Eritrea is a place of great values. The people are nice and humble. The history is wonderful and only a few people in the world know the true image of the country. The young people offer help to the elderly, and in buses they give up their seat for someone older than they are. The values here are incredible and what fascinates me most is that the whole identity of the nation revolves around such values. Eritrean values are my passion.
(Note: Stefano Pettini has been, and is still, highly involved in the national railway rehabilitation project)