Eritrea - Anatomy of War and Peace Part 1
Flag of Eritrea
Since I last wrote from Djibouti, I visited Eritrea, a small country of 4 million people on the shores of the Red Sea, bordering Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. Eritrea as a modern political entity was first created by Italians who annexed the Turkish-Egyptian ruled port of Massawa and then moved inland to take over territories subordinated to Ethiopia. Eritrea was merged with Ethiopia in 1950 but soon rebelled against Ethiopian oppression. Eritrean freedom fighters fought the world's longest guerilla war alone, without the aid of any foreign power, and finally gained independence in 1993. For a while, Eritrea was seen as an uncorrupt and progressive state, devoted to reconstruction and development what the US Clinton Administration called "New Africa".
But peace did not last long (as with the case of other "New African" states such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda) and personal rivalries between the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted into full scale war between 1998 and 2000, officially over an useless piece of desert land. Since then, both countries live in uneasy peace and since December 2007, tension has risen again and many speculate the possibility of war resuming anew.
From Djibouti, I flew into Asmara, Eritrea's capital located in the Abyssinian Highlands 2400 meters above sea level. During the flight, I had long conversations with a few bankers from China which helped me gained further insight into China's dramatic entry into African geopolitics. These bankers are young, sophisticated and educated in the West. They belong to the Ethiopia/Horn of Africa team of their bank, and are stationed here for up to 2 years (with quarterly home visits to China) just to do deals relating to these few countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea & Djibouti). They were on their way to Eritrea to evaluate some projects and were very knowledgeable about social-economic-political aspects of many African countries.
The fact that this bank merely one amongst other Chinese banks, has dedicated teams in over 20 African countries, financing all sorts of projects and deals, is to me a clear illustration of China's involvement in Africa. Having worked in a Western investment bank, I could not even recall if any of the western investment banks have any African country team. Anytime they need to do a deal, they fly expensive teams from London, New York or Dubai, and most of these teams won't stay a long time in these "hardship locations". The commitment to the region by banks from the new boy on the block, China, is very impressive indeed. And laden with onerous lending conditions and terms, plus the need of a whole host of environmental due diligence plus an army of overpaid of management consultants and constantly harassed by difficult NGOs and human rights activists, it would be a miracle if the West can compete at all in Africa.
Upon arrival, we went through Eritrean immigration and customs, with rather detailed checks by multiple persons at every point. A job creation exercise or the regime's desire for control? Maybe both. Whatever it was, I have to say that Eritrean officials are friendly and professional, and they all said "Welcome to Eritrea" after they had done their work. Unlike the rampant corruption of West Africa, it was said that Eritrean civil servants are among the world's least corrupt. However, I have also been told that, due to their excessive fear of being accused of corruption, they are also considered the most inflexible bureaucrats who stick strictly to the rule books. The pathetic lack of entrepreneurship on the streets of Asmara, as well as empty shelves in supermarkets, is testimony to the stifling of the economy and its general state of affairs in this country.
Roman Catholic Cathedral, Asmara
Asmara is the secret art deco capital of Africa. During the Italian colonial days, Italian dictator Mussolini built Asmara with fervor for it represents the first building block of the Italian East African empire that he wanted to found. The city was adorned with the latest architectural fashion of the day art deco modernism and fascism functionalism. Asmara, with its Italianate Roman Catholic Cathedral complete with Venetian towers a la St Mark's and numerous el fresco cafes along the key downtown Harnet Ave, looks more like an Italian town than an African capital. The streets are also clean and key buildings well-maintained. In fact, I even dare say Asmara's main boulevard is cleaner than Singapore!
Eritreans fought the Ethiopians for 30 years before defeating the Communist Ethiopian army and achieving independence in 1993. Up till recently (and perhaps still do), there is a tremendous sense of national pride and sense of purpose. For the first time on my African journey, I did not have little kids running after me shouting (and often adults too) "China China" as though they were calling for their pet dogs. Eritreans would nod their heads silently to acknowledge me, sometimes saying "Good morning".
The many cafes of Asmara
Eritrea's tensions with Ethiopia has been rising since end of last year when Ethiopia refused to withdraw from the disputed Badwe region even after the International Court of Justice had ruled the dispute in Eritrea's favour. Both countries had also mobilized their forces, as some say, in preparation for a second war over this useless piece of desert and savannah. The first was in 1998 resulting in at least a hundred thousand dead in these two countries, amongst the world's poorest. UN peace monitors had left the buffer zone between both armies and Eritrea showed its displeasure with perceived UN incompetence in forcing Ethiopia out by deny water and food to UN forces. As a result of rising tensions, travel permits are now needed by foreign tourists who want to get out of the capital, which I obtained without problem.
An art deco treasurehouse
I walked around town and its shops and boutiques. It was soon apparent that, behind the elegant facades, chic cafes and clean streets, Asmara had seen better days. The supermarket shelves are dusty and half empty, with an atmosphere that reminded me of Bucharest and Kiev in the 1990s, after the fall of communism but before capitalism came in full force. The boutiques had little beyond faded, second hand clothing that came straight from the US and Europe. Eritrea is certainly not in good shape. How can a country with draconian currency controls be in a good shape? Three young men on the street greeted me and asked if I had electronic goods for sale. Currency and import controls tend to lead to the emergence of black markets, more controls, more black market activities and the eventual final collapse of the entire control system.
Another art deco structure
At 5pm everyday, the entire city is engaged in that timeless Italian ritual, passeggiata, i.e., strolling up and down the main street to catch up with friends, do window-shopping and generally see how things are in town. I found the streets crowded, especially with retired gentlemen in their suits and ties. All the cafes were full half the city was having coffee at that time.
With the 2002 war with Ethiopia, current rising tension and the unstable geopolitical situation, there has been little foreign investment in Eritrea. With rising oil prices, the country is now going through tough times. The currency, nakfa, is now under pressure. Official exchange rate is 15 nalfa to the USD, but black market rate is, as I have heard, 19 nafka. The government has enacted laws that impose huge penalties on unauthorized trade in foreign currencies. When entering the country, one has to register on a special blue form the amount of cash one possesses. Whenever one exchanges money at an authorized shop, that transaction would be noted down on the blue form. When one leaves the country, the remaining foreign currency cash one possesses would be counted against records on the blue form. So one has to be conscious of what was noted earlier and what was changed or spent.
Art deco Municipal Building
Like Ethiopia, internet is very slow in Eritrea. According to sources, both governments do not like the opposition and limit access to the internet and mobile sms to prevent the opposition from launching mass political action.
Let me backtrack to tell you the story of Abdel, whom I met in a café in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. He works for a travel agency, and was a jovial and knowledgeable guy with high cheekbones and infectious smile that can sometimes turned suddenly into a depressing frown. Together with other travelers I met in Addis, we had coffee more than a few times in the fashionable cafes of cool Addis and joked about life and travel. During one of our drinks session at an Addis bar, he told me his sad "life story".
He claimed that he is Eritrean but his family has always lived in Addis. His dad owned a car business and the family was wealthy and owned a huge house here. He was doing his medical degree in an Addis university when the 1998 Ethiopian-Eritrean War broke out. He was then a top student and had his school fees waived. With the outbreak of the crisis, his entire family was sent to concentration camp and then deported to Eritrea via Djibouti. His family lost all their property and business. It was said that 80,000 people of Eritrean nationality or origins (but Ethiopian citizenship) were deported to Eritrea, and a similar number of Ethiopians in Eritrea was deported in the opposite direction.
In Eritrea, Abdel was conscripted into the army which was then fighting a long drawn tranche war. He didn't want to become a cannon fodder for a country which he had hardly lived in. So he deserted and slipped back to Addis. But he had no papers and couldn't resume his studies. Neither could he live openly and do whatever job he wanted. He met the owner of a travel agency and began helping out since he was knowledgeable about Ethiopia. He was paid very little but he did not know if he could find other jobs if he leaves the company. At least, he had a degree of security while he worked there.
However, tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea was once again rapidly rising and war might erupt again. Abdel was now afraid that it would be difficult for him to move around if war erupted again. There would be many checkpoints with police checking documentation. It was a very intimidating thought. He would rather kill himself than be sent to an Ethiopian prison. He was now depressed, not knowing what he might do next. He was even considering leaving for the countryside, where he thinks the risk of detection might be lower.
It was getting late and I was not feeling well. As I made my leave, Abdel said that it was now too late for him to return to where he lived. He claimed that the landlords would give him the "red card" especially as he had no documents. He asked if I could lend him Birr 75 (about US$7.90) so that he could stay in a cheap hotel for the night, and he would return the money the next day. I couldn't have said no, especially after the sob story. I reckoned the maximum I would lose was the amount and so said ok.
The next day, when I bumped into him again, Abdel did not mention the money lent. Instead, he pulled me aside and said that he had been offered an opportunity by a (corrupt) Ethiopian official to buy papers that would make him an Ethiopian citizen. He even claimed that another tourist whom I had also met earlier (but had left Addis that morning) had agreed to lend him about US$100 and now he needed only another US$100 to complete the transaction. He wondered if I could lend him the amount. The papers would free from his current predicament and he would be free to do what he wanted.
Peace is on everyone's minds, right?
It was a moment I would want to see the last of. I felt sorry for him the night before but was now put in a difficult position. Whilst I had thought his story last night sounded true at that point, my gut feel now was that it all seemed like a story too coincidental. Of course, there was the possibility that he did have the opportunity to buy the papers even when we were at the bar and he wanted to take the opportunity to reveal his story gradually and asked for the funds. However, the fact that the other tourist's coincidental departure this morning that prevented me from confirming the facts cast doubts in my mind. So I told him that, which was indeed partially true at that point, I was having some difficulty drawing more funds for my travels at that moment, due to the fact that my lack of mobile roaming access had prevented me from operating my internet banking account. He was disappointed but said he would seek other means.
So, what is your take of the story? I bet travelers encounter such situations all the time, but this particular one, if true, also reflects the predicament faced by many Eritreans living in Ethiopia and of Ethiopians living in Eritrea, and of how the war has affected them and might affect them if it erupts again. It is certainly something for those of us fortunate to live in countries in peace to reflect and consider.
Eritrean lady in typical national dress
Nationalism and national identity are strange concepts introduced only in the last two centuries. These two concepts are most easily applicable on countries with a single ethnic group and homogenous cultures, the most notable examples of which are Japan and Korea (though some may argue otherwise). Most countries, however, are anything but homogenous. Ethiopia and Eritrea provide enigmatic illustrations. Eritrea, located on the Red Sea coast, is the home of ethnic groups that are found in larger numbers in Ethiopia. The largest ethnic group of Eritrea, Tigrinya, is the third largest in Ethiopia and closely linked and allied to the Amhara, historically Ethiopia's ruling group. The two countries are alike in many ways, whether in culture, language, ethnic costumes and even food.
For centuries, empires that ruled Ethiopia also ruled Eritrea, which was regarded by many as the maritime part of these empires. The largest urban centres and key port of the old Axumite Empire were in Eritrea although its capital was at Axum, Ethiopia. Eritreans also played important roles and a few dramatic moments in Ethiopian history. It was an Eritrean youth who in 1938 interrupted Italian celebrations of their conquest of Ethiopia, by praying at the gigantic sculpture and Ethiopian national symbol, the Lion of Judah, which was removed to Rome by invading Italian troops. It was also in 1937 that Eritrean patriots attempted to assassinate the Italian viceroy in Addis Ababa, prompting the sack of the city and massacre of its intellectuals and educated by rampaging Italian troops.
In spite of a common culture and three thousand years of common experience, the half century of Italian colonization of Eritrea, unlawful abolition of Eritrean autonomy by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and oppression by communist tyrants that convinced Eritreans that they are different from the Ethiopians and inspired them to fight a bitter thirty year war of independence.
In some ways, this complex relationship is not too different from Singapore-Malaysia and China-Taiwan. A few decades of political separation and political differences can severe relationships and common cultures that have lasted for a long time. But once separated, a new national identity develops and within decades, matures into a different creature. Is this necessarily bad? Why can't the larger entity accept the existence of a younger brother who may well be the closest ally in the future? Perhaps China must reconsider its position on Taiwan and seek a creative solution to a problem that does not need to last forever.
I got up early one morning and set off for Asmara's Main Bus Station. The rising sun cast its rays on the church tower as men in sweaters or suit and tie walked to work. Asmara, for its Italian architecture and neatness looked more like a small northern Italian city full of black inhabitants. If African emigration continues rapidly in Italy, this could be what Parma might look like in 30 years time.
I hopped onto a minibus for Massawa, the country's second largest city. At the edge of the city, we stopped at a police checkpoint, where they examined my tourist permit. Local passengers had to show their identity papers. "Before 1998, there were no such checkpoints. You could travel anywhere you wished and the government, though unelected, was friendly and popular," said Mike, who was going to Massawa on business. "The war with Ethiopia changed everything. Now we are ruled by a military dictatorship that uses the threat of war to justify everything they do."
"Our people are tired and worn out. It's a stupid and senseless war between two stubborn and ruthless persons, causing many deaths and lots of sufferings on everyone."
The Highlands scene from Asmara to Massawa
It was indeed what I have read and suspected for a while. After the defeat of the communist regime in 1991 and Eritrea's declaration of independence soon after, both Ethiopia and Eritrea became the best of friends. Eritrea had won its independence from Ethiopia after 30 years of fighting, and Ethiopia's ethnic Tigrinya guerrilla group, TPLF, had also marched into Addis Ababa days after Asmara was liberated by Eritrean nationalist army, the EPLF.
The leaders of the new regimes, Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, and Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, were leaders of their respective insurgent armies who had worked together for many years to fight the communist regime. In fact, both came from the Tigrinya ethnic group that is Ethiopia's third largest ethnic group and Eritrea's largest. Some say that both leaders are even distant cousins. Cooperation agreements were signed between both nations and Massawa, Eritrea's main port city, would resume its role as newly landlocked Ethiopia's window to the world.
However, both countries soon fell apart. By 1998, Eritrea had repudiated the Ethiopian Birr and adopted a new currency called Nakfa, named after the town where Eritrean freedom fighters holed up for over two decades in their fight against the Ethiopian communists. Then, a border dispute arose over the town of Badme and its surrounding region, which is not known for its economic worth except some marble factory owned by Ethiopian leaders.
Both nations expelled their respective citizens and confiscated their property, and war soon broke out when Eritrean forces launched an attack on the Ethiopians, capturing Badme. In 2000, the Ethiopians recaptured Badme and large stretches of Eritrean territory and an uneasy ceasefire agreement was signed.
Mike is an Afar from the port city of Assab in the deep south of Eritrea. Lots of fighting had taken place there. He said, "the Ethiopians marched as close as 60km to the city. Many suspect that they wanted to capture Assab and redraw the boundaries so that Ethiopia would not be landlocked again."
Ceasefire came into force in 2002 but thousands had died and both nations, among the world's poorest, had lost out on years of development all over a small territory with little economic worth. Some critics say it's a personal war between the two leaders, rather than one between the nations and their people. After all, both Ethiopia and Eritrea are similar in many aspects, from some of their key ethnic groups to religions, customs and even food. I have heard the same sentiment from Ethiopians while in Addis.
So far, the ceasefire has been holding (despite tension rising since late 2007) but both countries are suffering from the economic consequences. There has been little investment due to the risk of war. Both countries had devoted so much spending for defence and little else on development. Hundreds of thousands of men have been mobilized, thus depriving the economy of valuable manpower. This is particularly serious for Eritrea, which now has 350,000 men mobilized about 10% of the population. No wonder the currencies of both countries have been depreciating versus the dollar, which is itself fast falling in value.
"Peace is key. Without peace, we are all stuck in this time wrap and moving nowhere," said Mike.
The journey from Asmara, 2400m above sea levels, to Massawa, right on the Red Sea, took 2 hours of racing down good but terribly winding road down the Abyssinian Highlands, which is often described as the rooftop of Africa.2400 meters down to sea level within 100km this is a very sharp descend and the winding road nearly caused me to throw out my breakfast. The green highlands of Eritrea is very densely populated, in contrast to the arid semi-desert and thorny bushland that characterizes the Red Sea coast near Massawa.
Upon arrival in Massawa, Eritrea's key port city and second largest city, Michael helped me to get onto a local shared taxi across the causeway to the islands of Old Massawa. At the other end of the causeway, a monument with three tanks on a black marble raised pedestal greets the visitor. This monument commemorates the liberation of Massawa from the Ethiopians in late 1990, which was the first great victory of the Eritreans, which within a year, led to total victory.
Old Turkish buildings in sleepy Massawa
I walked across to the island at the furthest end of the road, where the old Turkish-Egyptian port city of Massawa was first established. Here, the huge ruined but magnificent shell of Emperor Haile Selassie's palace still stood in silent memory of the long gone imperial days. Its iron gates have been swung wide open, the carving of the Lion of Judah still intact. I walked into the old town. White Italian or is that Turkish porticos and arches decorate the whitewash buildings that house sleepy bars and cafes. A few elderly men having morning coffee, while a few young men, probably jobless and bored, were playing pool. Huge container ships moored not too far away but a quiet port nevertheless.
Glorious past, dilapidated present
Behind the façade of the nicely painted buildings was a whole town in a terrible shape. One could still see signs of a better age, when Turkish and Egyptian warships and trading dhows, and later Italian liners once called. More beautiful arches and simple wall decorations, but totally devoid of colour. Many even had partially collapsed walls and what appeared to be remnants of bullet and shell holes. Indeed, there were more gigantic state buildings in ruins, except for their roofless facades and grand staircases. Asmara might be clean and properly maintained, but everywhere else in Eritrea is typical third world neglect , dirt and trash. All the funds have gone to Asmara, and Massawa remains rotten and forgotten, 17 years after national liberation.
I had early lunch in a café. Friendly locals chatted to me. Yes, they have heard of Singapore. We are both port cities in small nations. Both are small nations without resources. Eritrean leaders have declared Singapore a model for development and the Eritreans, hardworking, educated and full of revolutionary zeal, have looked at us with admiration. But the similarities end here.
The monumental remains of Haile Selassie's palace
Singapore strives to achieve peace and common understanding with its neighbours, without which we cannot prosper. Eritrea has a never-ending quarrel with Ethiopia over a useless piece of land, which nevertheless has been declared Eritrean by the International Court.
Eritrea even has a maritime dispute with Yemen across the Red Sea and sent its newly created navy to capture the disputed islands from Yemen. Whatever the rights and wrongs of any party, the image of Eritrea in the international circles is no longer that of a progressive new nation, but a regional troublemaker. In the last few years, the US has accused Eritrea of supporting Islamist groups and possibly Al Qaeda in Somalia and guerrilla groups in Ethiopia.
Reading the Eritrea Profile, an Eritrean government newspaper, is like reading an old Soviet propaganda broadsheet full of the same you-imperialist-you-bad-guy kind of extreme rhetoric against Ethiopia and the United States. The writers of this newspaper appeared to have been trained in good old Pravda's editorial offices.
The extraordinary Benjamin Ogami
I walked around the dilapidated but picturesque narrow streets of Massawa. It was in a small compound amongst a group of Eritrean men having relaxing tea that I bumped into Benjamin Keiji Ogami, one of the most extraordinary characters I have ever met in my travels. One-legged, eighty year old, somewhat frail-looking but nevertheless with an unusually bright sparkle in his eyes, Benjamin sat on a wheelchair surrounded by his Eritrean mates. With his fading unbuttoned shirt and bald except a few strands of grey hair, he looked like an average venerable retiree in any small Asian town, except that this was Africa, and a remote, not-so-touristy part of the continent. It was this sudden sight of Benjamin's Asian face in this compound that functioned as a kind of community coffee-shop that startled me for a brief moment. An eye contact, I said, "Hello."
"Come here," Benjamin said in what was obviously an American accent, perhaps with a West Coast flavour. "Where are you from? "
"United States, Los Angeles." He turned to a young Eritrean lad who sat nearby, "Get this guy a chair, and give me a pen and paper." The young man tore a blank page from a magazine and produced a paper. Benjamin wrote four words in Chinese characters but it was evidently a Japanese name, "Keiji Ogami," Benjamin said. "Write your name in Chinese," in what is a common ritual that occurs when Chinese, Japanese and Koreans meet. I did, and Benjamin read aloud my name, then giggled, the first of his many almost-childlike giggles in the conversation that follows.
Then in a turnabout, Benjamin threw me a few questions in a rapidfire manner, "What are you doing here? Travelling? Why here? How did you get here?" Then he giggled again.
I replied him, and then asked, "How about you?" "I live here, ten years now." He turned to the young Eritrean again, "Go to my house, to my wardrobe, open the second drawer to the right, get the files and the brochures here."
Miky, his local sidekick, ran ten meters across the compound, to a ramshackle building, got in and returned within 2 minutes with a pile of papers. A few faded photos, a binded set of powerpoint presentation slides, a glossy brochure full of photos of elderly Asian-Americans dancing in formal evening dress, entitled "Manzanar Reunion", and a few ads torn from a magazine. And Benjamin told me his story. Not one, but many stories in his extraordinary life.
First, why was he here? He came ten years ago to help out in Project Manzanar, which was a poverty alleviation project began by Dr Gordon Sato, another Japanese-American. During the late 1970s, Dr Sato, then an eminent US molecular biologist, was shocked when he read about starvation in Ethiopia, in particular, in what was then the Ethiopian province of Eritrea. He retired from his work and made his way to this region to find out what was wrong. Here, he discovered that it was the Ethiopian army that was deliberately starving Eritreans so that they could defeat the Eritrean freedom fighters. The fragile eco-system and frequent droughts did not help either.
Disturbed, Dr Sato revolved to find a way to help people in fragile, infertile environments to feed themselves. He returned year after year to rebel-controlled territories, even helping to set up fish farms so that the freedom fighters can have protein in their diet and ice making factories so that the rebels can have ice for medicine boxes and, amazingly, make good ice cream. When liberation came, he began Project Manzanar, aimed at, as an article puts it, "farming the sea, greening a desert, turning weapons into food, building industries, work and new hope around them." Mangroves were planted along the coast and fisheries began around them.
Benjamin first met Dr Sato at the height of the WWII, in 1942, at the Manzanar internment camp for Americans of Japanese origin. Ten years ago, they met again at a reunion of Manzanar internees. Benjamin had long retired and was bored at home. Dr Sato asked if he wanted to do some good with him in Africa. Benjamin agreed, and so began his African adventure. He had come to like Eritrea so much that he stayed on although he no longer helps in the project. "The project has been turned over to the Eritreans to run. For young people with drive, and the Eritreans cost less than me too! Hahaha!" he giggled again.
Benjamin went on about the WWII and the impact on his family. In 1942, subsequent to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the rounding-up of all Americans of Japanese descent and interned them in concentration camps. 110,000 American citizens and permanent residents were rounded up this way, including Benjamin. They were sent to Manzanar Camp, officially known as "Manzanar War Relocation Center" in the Californian Desert. It was there he met Dr Sato.
Benjamin did not stay in Manazar for long. A number of difficult questions were put forward to the internees, amongst them questions on whether they would want to fight for the United States or to denounce Japanese citizenship. Benjamin's mother was nostalgic about the old homeland and was unwilling to denounce Japanese citizenship, especially when they had suffered tremendous hardship and lost their US property and job as a result of Order 9066. As a result of their replies which was deemed evidence of disloyalty to the United States, the whole family had their US citizenship stripped and then moved to a much harsher concentration camp in remote, freezing North Dakota. In 1946, one year after the end of the war, the whole family, now mostly stateless, was deported to Japan.
They landed in Yokohama and then got onto a train to Kyushu Island. After they got off the train, they tried desperately trying to find his father's home village. Memory had long faded and his parents weren't exactly sure where it was. With their luggage, they walked for miles asking people along the way. It was more than 5 hours when they had finally found it. His sister sat down and cried. It was a pathetic beginning.
He stayed in a war-devastated Japan for a decade, trying hard to stay alive. He was caught selling black market beer but was pardoned after being detained for many days in prison. In 1956, the US Civil Liberties Union overturned the wartime stripping of citizenships on grounds that these people had answered their questions under severe duress. Benjamin's father told him, "You are no good planting rice. You should return to the US."
He was really poor then and had to borrow money for the passage back to the US. He began working as a TV repairman in Pasadena, USA, and later became a landscape gardener till retirement. He bought some annuities with his retirement sum, which now provides a comfortable monthly allowance, especially in Eritrea.
Liberation Monument in Massawa, commemorating victory over the Ethiopian communists in 1990
Benjamin laughed and giggled a lot during our conversation but said that doctors told him he was suffering from chronic depression. Three years ago, he suffered from a rare bone disease and his right leg had to be amputated. So much of him was amputated, all the way up to his hip, leaving him with, in his own words, "half his ass". He told me about how he landed in Frankfurt with no cash but Eritrean nafka in his pocket. He showed me his Eritrean resident card that showed his occupation as "farmer". What else should he be but farmer, since he came here to help in an agricultural project?
Ex-farmer, TV repairman and landscape gardener he might had been, but Benjamin also joked about hedge funds and subprime crisis. When he saw my personal name card that listed leverage buyout as an interest, he commented, "Yes, barbarians at the gates. The crooks, day-light robbers and glorified casino games." And he spoke about long forgotten junk bond tycoons later convicted fraudsters of the 1980s and their love for opera and race horses. And about the US War Against Terrorism, to which he commented that US killing of civilians isn't called terrorism in US political dictionary. I cannot imagine ex-farmers, TV repairmen or landscape gardeners from Singapore talking this way.
Isn't Benjamin an extraordinary guy? Even today, I found it hard to believe that I met him in a dirty alley in the godforsaken town of Massawa.
Then I moved on to Somaliland.