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East African Log
by Bill Shuey

"At the end of the day we're Americans and we need our things."

     -- Melissa Wyers.

"Some countries are lucky in their leaders; others are not."

     -- Germai Tesmichael.

Monday, May 1st

En route from Frankfurt to Asmara

As I write this, the plane is rising up out of Cairo on the last leg of the journey to Asmara. I'd had a good look at the Nile and the cityscape as our Lufthansa jet came in low over the city and landed around 7:30; the sun was setting then over the dry, dusty city at the edge of the desert. Cairo now has a population of something like 15 million. I wanted to get off there, explore the city, and see how it had changed in the 34 years since I was there as a bushy-tailed 19-year-old Know Nothing during that far-off summer of 1966. (The population having nearly triplled in thirty-odd years, I can't imagine it's changed for the better, but I still had the urge to find out. Not on this trip though).

At night - it got dark as we waited in the plane on the ground for an hour - the city is not blindingly bright. Power is too expensive, so they live differently, and night is solidly night. That this is the desert and that without the Nile it would be nothing, is also obvious. You see small plots of farmIand, the green near the Nile not lasting too long against the enormity of the desert. I'd forgotten how exciting it is to be seeing new places, and how different the Third - or, more properly perhaps, Fourth - World would look to my western eyes. It's ineluctably, indescribably different, even from the artificial distance of a plane's window, looking down into the inky night, the plane ascending rapidly into seemingly infinite black space. Night, Africa! I'm finally here!



Asmara, Eritrea

The flight from Frankfurt to Cairo took somewhere around four or five hours, in a two-thirds full plane; hard to figure duration without a watch and with the disorientation of time zone changes and jet lag. Ate an air meal, drank a gin, and watched a scary American action film about a crazy ex-marine who wants to steal some destructive chemical and sell it to the Pakistanis. Or something. Started Keneally's To Asmara - A Novel, which I'm enjoying. Listened to euro rock on the earphones. Arabic music too on the sound system, and on the map on the screen showing the plane's progress as it crossed down southerly over the Red Sea, closing in on Eritrea's capital city of Asmara, a city of 400,000, and the capital of one of Africa's newest nation-states. No one got on the plane in Cairo, and we proceeded less than a third full, landing around 11 on a warm, dark night.

I was met at the Asmara airport by a woman (name of Esta, surname I didn't get) in her mid- or early 40s, an official from the Foreign Ministry, whose husband is the Governor of the province of Eritrea, and who - I learned talking to her on the drive into the city - had been the Eritrean Ambassador to the US for three years in the mid-nineties. So she had lived in the US and her English was completely fluent. After a wait for my bag, we walked to the car and I was soon graciously deposited at our hotel, a four or five story affair called the Savana International, around midnight - which proved quite satisfactory, the second floor room being quite clean and having a private bathroom with a hot water shower. A window opened out into a courtyard garden and offered a decent view of the city. I fell into bed and thought that the trip, door to door from Boston - including the 4-hour stopover in Frankfurt - only had taken about 18 hours. The miracle of modem air travel! You can go from one world to an entirely different one in less than a day. I don't know if it's good, but it certainly is reality. I slept like a baby, only occasionally waking up to whack a mosquito (Let's hope the malaria pills work!).


Tuesday, May 2nd 6:30 PM, Asmara

I don't dare lie down although the bed looks soft, inviting. This jet lag had me dozing through meetings today. We had five of them, with the head of the US/AID (Agency for International Development; this is a major source of funding for humanitarian relief in the camps, as well as the architect and operator of several health, banking training and other "foreign aid" programs in Eritrea) mission; with the US Ambassador to Eritrea, William Clarke; with the head of the Eritrean Refugee Relief Commission - Ms. Worku Rasmichael; with the Eritrean Deputy Foreign Minister, and with a quite knowledgeable US AID employee, Katharine. From these folks, I learned quite a lot about what is going on here with refugees and displaced people, as well in Eritrea generally, and so now have a much better feel for Eritrea and its challenges. I say this notwithstanding my series of catnaps - some better disguised than others, and some interrupted by kicks in the shin by Joyce Bernstein, one of the eight of us who make up the USCR/IRSA (US Committee for Refugees/ Immigration and Refugee Services of America) delegation of which I am a part - during the course of the long day of meetings (We didn't even break for lunch; Roger is work-driven, I begin to understand, and completely dedicated to our purpose of fact-finding and information-gathering; in this, he reminds me of Hiram Ruiz, when I was with him in 1994 in Vietnam interviewing voluntary repartees; nothing would divert him from the purpose of the mission. This I admire, but it is quite different than my own impressionistic, unfocused style, my tendency to assimilate whatever I am going to assimilate via immersion, via indirection and intuition).

Notes on the delegation, other than myself:

--Roger Winter, the USCR/IRSA executive director, and seasoned Africa hand and refugee advocate, is our team leader. Widely known and respected for his work in the refugee field and his tireless willingness to monitor little-known refugee situations world-wide, Roger is an expert on the Sudan in particular, but he knows Affica well, and has been in and out of the areas we propose to visit many times over the last twenty years. He has worked at USCR/lRSA for almost twenty years, and has been its director since the early 90s.

--Melissa Wyers, USCR/IRSA's other staff person, its development director in fact, organized the trip and handled the myriad of details related to it both before and during the trip. She had served in the Peace Corps in Morocco in the 80s, and she has knowledge of Arabic as well as a lot of experience living and traveling in Africa.

--Lawrence (Larry) Rosenthal, an independent businessman and consultant based in New York City and western Massachusetts, serves as the President of the USCR/IRSA Board of Directors; he has traveled extensively, and has participated in a number of refugee-oriented trips such as this one.

--Joyce Bernstein, another business consultant and Board member of USCR/IRSA, also lives and works in New York and the Berkshires. Last year she was in Uganda and Rwanda on a USCR site visit.

--Musafir Chisti, legal counsel for the International Ladies Garment Worker's Union (now known as UNITO), is also a USCR/IRSA Board member (its Treasurer) and well-known immigrant and refugee advocate. A naturalized US citizen and native of Kashmir, Muz lives in New York City and is married to my former colleague and friend Helene Lauffer, who used to work at Victims Services, an IRSA affiliate.

--Elisabeth Hubbard, an actress working in New York City, is a USCR/IRSA Board member who has also been on at least one other of these site visits to Africa.

--Joanne Oplustil is the executive director of an IRSA/USCR affiliate in Brooklyn, CAMBA, which is a large (with an annual budget of over $20 million) non-profit that resettles refugees and provides a wide range of services to immigrants and low-income residents of New York City, Brooklyn in particular. Joanne spent seven years in Tanzania working with refugees in the 70s, and has spent time in Kosovo and at Fort Dix with Albanian refugees.

This is the group I'll be spending a lot of time with going forward, and in fact, we all were out to dinner together this evening at the Castelo, a very good Italian-influenced [Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 through World War II; one result of this is that the spaghetti and coffee are excellent, and that Italian is still used; in fact, the following Sunday, stopping in at the city's main cathedral, I witnessed a Mass in Italian] restaurant, only a few minutes' walk from the Savanna, turning in early in order to leave early tomorrow for a three day, two night swing through southern and western Eritrean displaced person and expellee camps via several four-wheel-drive vehicles. The plan is to leave by 8 AM; we will be accompanied by an interpreter/guide provided by ERREC.

And so to bed around 11, as an antidote to jet lag in my case, though not for the others, most of whom arrived on the 29th and have had time to adjust (They even went on a field trip Sunday to Massawa, a port town on the Red Sea, two and a half hours by car from Asmara).


Wednesday, May 2nd, 10 PM

Mendefera, Eritrea

About to call it a night. We spent the day on the road from Asmara as far south as Senafa, thence to this hotel in Mendefera, certainly a presentable hotel. We stopped at two large displaced persons camps, and got a taste of what war does to rural civilians. It's cruel to say the least. As Germai - our excellent guide and interpreter from ERREC, with whom I was traveling in one of the vehicles - said: "Some countries are lucky with their leaders and some are not." His own timing in getting back to Eritrea from Ethiopia was very good - he came back in 1989 after three decades of being educated, working and living abroad, largely in Ethiopia. He's a very perceptive guy and I'm learning a lot from him. He kind of reminds me of Ato (Mr) Michael, the USIS Librarian I hung out with in Addis in the summer of '66; he was also an articulate, intelligent Eritrean who'd come to Addis to be educated.

1 AM (May 3rd)

Woke up about 12, and have been lying here in problematic wait for the numerous mosquitoes and occasionally nailing one, dozing, thinking about everything and nothing. What was that film I saw at the French film festival a couple of months ago? "Life on Earth" it was called; set in a small town in Mali, and made by an African, it gave a real feel for the continent. What else? 1) the cast of characters, including Germai; 2) last night's dinner at the Castelo; 3) yesterday and the day before yesterday - my life so far, here in Aftica in particular.

4 AM

Melissa's definitive line (She was out last night with Joyce, buying supplies for this trip - bottled water, crackers, canned cheeses and meats for lunches on the road, etc; she's our quartermaster, basically.) said in precisely what context I can't recall: " At the end of the day we're Americans and we need our things." That will I suspect become the mantra for this trip; it just may be the line of the trip in fact.

7 AM

The sounds of roosters crowing and of people ... this room, on the second floor overlooking a (if not the) main street of the town, has been filled with voices since 6.

Schoolkids by the boatload are walking by, chatting; hard to believe this is a country at war, but it is. Just breakfasted with Roger and Melissa; apparently we are planning to be back in Asmara by early in the evening tomorrow.

R. says that yesterday's displaced persons camps - which seemed pretty Spartan and minimal to me - were the best displaced persons camps he's ever seen! I asked why and he said simply "because they're Eritrean." There is still, here in Eritrea, he says, a commitment to doing things right, "by the book." And in talking to Gennai, I can see that officials are highly principled and incorruptible. R. says that the camps in Kenya will be very different. Everything is for sale and everyone is on the hustle. Eritrea is definitely a different kind of Africa.


Thursday, May 4th, 11 PM

Barentu (in western Eritrea toward the Sudanese border)

This is the end of my third full day in Eritrea; I'm beginning to get acclimatized, and am liking the place a lot. Amazingly arid and treeless for the most part, yet people somehow survive. They are herdsman, farmers ... Children are everywhere; it's really quite a wonderful place, in spirit if not materially.

We're in Barentu, and will visit one more camp tomorrow, before heading back to Asmara. Nary a paved street in the town. The hotel - which we didn't check into until after 8 - seems to have electricity, a working fan in the room, and running water down the hall. Presentable plate of spaghetti for dinner last night, downstairs in the hotel restaurant. People ordering enj era and wat (the local stew and flatbread) fared not so well; the meat was leathery from the taste I got of it.

Roger is apparently leaving for the Sudan with some rebels tonight, to visit rebel-held territory that he hasn't been to in some time, an 18-hour drive apparently. God bless him.

Friday, May 5th, 6 AM

Barentu, Eritrea

My room - again, on the second floor - offers a great view of the town's bus station, as well as the front doorstep of the hotel. This location accounts for the persistent noise since about 4, which woke me up - it wasn't just the crowing of the roosters and the braying of the donkeys.

A nice, crunchy layer of dust out here on the balcony, where I've come to be cooler. Inside the room it was extremely hot, especially after midnight, when the electricity - and hence the fan, went out. Opening the window wasn't especially helpful for cooling; happily, however, no mosquitoes manifested themselves - probably too dry for them. This is the desert; the Sudan is just to the west, and the people are predominantly tribal and Nilotic (tall and extremely black), not fine-featured and relatively light skinned like the Tigrinya speakers of Asmara and the East. It's only 6, and it's already hot, so today will be the hottest day yet.

Watching some human drama being played out at the bus station. A couple and their four kids missed a bus and the father was pretty upset. He actually threw a stone at the kids; then the unhappy group slunk over to be nearer to the buses. Then I watched a woman with two kids trying to hitchhike on to one of the buses, to no avail. When a couple of soldiers in an army pickup truck stopped and she was able to jump in with her meager possessions and two youngsters I practically burst into applause.

Flies omnipresent. Donkeys wandering around looking for a blade of grass where virtually none exists. If donkeys could eat rocks or dust, they'd be fat. But here you can forget grass. It's true that there are some flowers and signs of greenery in the hotel garden - which, incredibly, given the fact that the electricity and water are off here, show signs of having just been watered - but any donkey trying to get in the front gate here would be chased off, doubt it not.

Roger just appeared below, drinking some sort of yogurt concoction (it looks too risky for me). Apparently he didn't leave for the Sudan last night, as I thought he was going to.

Germai is now also down there, looking quite frustrated by the 'no water' situation. Fortunately I grabbed a quick shower last night just before dinner, and so am less desperate right at this moment.

Germai, Muz and I took a short walk last night after dinner. Rain, incredibly, looked imminent, but of course all it did was blow and bluster, with only a miniscule trace of actual precipitation occurring. We were looking for bottled water, but could only get carbonated mineral water from one of the bars along the dusty road. The bar girls looked available, dancing desultorily with some soldiers, but a bottle of water you couldn't get. So Muz settled for the carbonated stuff for tooth brushing. The presence of streetlights was a surprise, given the infrastructure situation in this town.

After midnight, Friday, May 5th (Saturday the 6th technically)

Savanna Hotel, Asmara

What a day! We got back from Barentu fairly late yesterday, like at 6:30 or so. We'd got a fairly late start, breakfasting at the hotel we couldn't get a room at last night. I bet they had water! Part of the problem was the shape the tires were in on one of our vehicles. Dealing with that took some time.

R. left for the Sudan around 9, and the rest of us headed out to a displaced persons camp west of Barentu; it was a rugged ride on a lousy road, hardly a unique situation. The IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp we visited also contained a significant number of rural expellees - "Eritreans" expelled by Ethiopia during the last two years for being "Eritrean." Classic ethnic cleansing. Their property, animals, etc. all confiscated; they're expelled on the spot, from the fields, sometimes without their children even able to join them. Pretty horrific, and it speaks very poorly for the government now ruling Ethiopia - apparently dominated by the Tigre and excluding all other ethnic groups for the most part.

Anyhow, I found this particular camp almost inspiring. For example, there was a fullfledged school in session, staffed for the most part by young people (mostly young women) doing their "national service." The furniture was modest, rocks sometimes serving as seats, but there were chalkboards and eager young faces chirruping along, rote memory being the order of the day. Another big positive was the conversation we had with a sweet woman living in a round hut - standard for the region - that her husband had built himself with some minimal assistance from ERREC. Her five or six (or seven) kids looked pretty content and cheerful, happy to watch the strange white people chatting with their mother. At this same camp we also visited the wells and watched people fetching water, taking showers in the half dozen or so shower rooms, and generally horsing around (What is it about water that is joyous, liberating, playful?). We were soon surrounded by children. Our final stop was up on a hill, where we could see the blue plastic-sheeted tents of this camp of some 35,000 people spread out all around us. The human race, in dire conditions, can make do with extraordinarily little. Americans may "need their things," but millions make do with hardly any things at all.

The 200-kilometer trip from Barentu back to Asmara was largely tarmac. We stopped at Keren, a hill town known for its silver, around 3:15, took a coffee/shopping break for an hour, and then watched our drivers push hard for the next two and a half hours; they deposited us back at the Savanna around 6:45. Not a bad trip and only a couple of near accidents, most almost involving herds of goats or cattle, or a lone recalcitrant donkey. As the sun sets, animals are on the move all over Africa and this fact does affect traffic flow on any and all roads.

Our group had a previously scheduled dinner date at 7:30, hosted by Ms. Worku, the ERREC director; it took place fairly close to the hotel, and we got there around 8 - there was actually a rainstorm in progress as we pulled up to the restaurant! (I guess rain does occasionally happen in Eritrea, although I do know that there is only one year-round river in the whole country.) The meal was quite authentic and featured injera and wat as well as mead wine, or tej (the Amharic word, not the Tigrinya one, which I can't summon up). A number of ERREC staff joined us and we had some great conversations with these folks. The guy I mainly talked to was a 45-year-old veteran of the "Armed Struggle" (as they call the 15-year-long war of independence from Ethiopia, which lasted from 1974 to 1991). He'd lost an eye at some point, and he also told me that two of his sisters had died, one by the Ethiopians in a massacre and one by her own hand in despair and guilt at having survived that massacre. He had one other anecdote that got my attention. He said he left the farm - his parents were poor rural people - to join the resistance at age 17 and didn't see his family for another 16 years. His family farm was in the occupied zone and he couldn't get to them for all that time. He said that when he finally was able to visit his mother she didn't recognize him, and said: "You aren't my son."

We got back to the hotel around 10 and several of us sat around the hotel lobby - which also serves as a bar - and jawed until midnight or thereabouts.

Saturday, May 6th, 3:30 AM


A characteristic chorus of dogs barking. One imagines packs of them, a la Erzurum. Maybe another side of this wonderful place, but I hope not. The people are absolutely appealing.

Barking seems to have subsided, or receded at least. Whew . . Some mosquito annoyance. Only last night - in Barentu - have there been no mosquitoes. There's a connection: no water, no mosquitoes.


Sunday, May 7th , 12 noon


We were to leave at noon today for Ethiopia, but plans have changed. Roger just got back from the Sudan and he needs some recovery time. So it's apparently to be early tomorrow in a plane chartered out of Nairobi; the pilot is an enormous, drawling Texan named Dale Ruark. He turned up this morning - or last night - with a three man Kenyan crew and a former priest, an Irishman named Dan Eiffey (I think that's the surname), who works for Norwegian People's Aid, knows the Sudan very well apparently, and speaks with a heavy brogue. The Texan also has a heavy-duty accent, but not an Irish one. - more like deep Texas Americana, exaggeratedly so. Plus, he (the Texan) has plenty of opinions verging on a sort of Libertarian populism. Loves to bad mouth the UN, for example, as well as the World Bank, etc. In any case, both these characters are quite an addition to our group.

I was out until something like 3 in the morning, at a "disco" called Warsa. The scene there was pretty amazing, featuring incredibly loud music and two different dance floors - one with live local (I reckon) Eritrean overlay rock and roll, one with recorded Western stuff, hip hop and disco and Marvin Gaye and you name it. A young crowd, heavily local; apparently it's the place to be. I only knew about it because this German Food Aid worker with whom our group had dined earlier in the evening had said he was going. So I thought, "what the heck," and it proved to be one of the more interesting cross-cultural experiences of the trip so far. Obscene (and you can bet, not understood) hip hop lyrics in the African night, a marvelously - and wonderfully talented in my white man's judgment - dancing crowd pulsating to some great rhythms. An almost innocent feel to the whole thing, with girls dancing with girls and boys with boys - indeed, the girl-boy partners dancing were the exception. Magnificent hairdos of all sorts on the women, some fairly outlandish outfits, European style, but a la africain. These folks can dance! And there was a complete lack of hostility; the vibes were absolutely lovely and I detected no menacing druggie hustle or anti-white subtext - one or both elements which could have easily been present in a comparable US context I suspect. (Actually it would have been tough to get anything illegal or dangerous into the place; there were a couple of guys with rifles at the entrance and I suspect they were frisking anyone who looked half suspicious, armed, or hemp-laden).

One vignette comes up from the memory bank: In the midst of this dancing chaos and noise at Warsa, a traditionally dressed (in the white shama, or cotton dress) woman was sweeping,using a broom - the kind Isaw all over Asmara, folks using them to sweep sidewalks especially - made of brush or sticks. What was going through her mind, as she tried to maintain order and minimum "broom clean" standards in the midst of hundreds of beer drinking, dancing fools? I will say that she was one of the very few women in the place wearing the traditional hair style of 95% of the Eritrean women, the hair on the head itself corn-rowed, with what is left clumped behind the ears; she was probably also one of the few people - and certainly the only woman - anywhere near my age in the place! It was an unforgettable image.

Our group had been out to dinner at the Blue Nile, a good restaurant quite near the hotel; we were joined by the German food worker earlier mentioned, a Swedish guy working at the university, and a Dutch reporter (for Reuters) and his lovely, quite young Eritrean girlfriend - she'd lived most of her life in Europe apparently, and barely spoke Tigrinya as I recall. I didn't eat much as I had earlier attended a barbeque hosted by the US Ambassador at his official residence (We were all invited to this barbeque, but it turned out to be at 4 instead of 7, which is when everyone had it down for; I happened to be at the hotel around 3:30 when Bill from A-ED called and reminded me it was at 4; everyone else in our group was out shopping and thus missed this unique event - it turned out to be a touch of Americana in the midst of Africa. Happily there were plenty of people there - many of the US government (AID, Embassy staff, the USIS librarian, military attaches, etc.) employees were on hand, so at least our group's absence wasn't all that noticeable. I had the feeling that the Ambassador often had these gatherings. Many of these folks had worked overseas for years; indeed Ambassador Clarke himself has worked for State for more than 30 years, primarily in charge of security in assorted embassies. There was extensive discussion of fishing in the Red Sea, living in Asmara, tennis, etc. It was a classic American-style barbeque and we could have been in the DC suburbs, except for the very tasty and different Red Sea fish. The Ambassador and his wife oversaw the cooking of the beef and fish, although there were a couple of uniformed helpers serving drinks and passing hors d'oeuvres.

This morning our delegation met for about three hours with a large (30 or so) group of Eritreans who had been expelled from Ethiopian cities, primarily Addis Ababa, beginning in 1998, which is when the Ethiopians began to seriously persecute their citizens of Eritrean origin, often confiscating their property summarily and forcing them and their families to go to Eritrea. We had earlier in the week of course spoken with a number of rural expellees, but these urbanites were a more sophisticated lot. Many - both urban and rural expellees - were very assimilated and in more than a few cases spoke better Amharic than Tigrinya! In short, these folks described in depressing detail classic ethnic cleansing, but without the actual murder that would make it genocide. The other heartbreaking factor was that in several cases the children had remained in Ethiopia, and thus families were separated. Often in such cases accurate information on the whereabouts and condition of their children was not available to these expellees.


Sunday, May 7th, 11 PM


I managed to reach Frances on the phone for the first time since I left a week ago. It was Sunday afternoon, and I'd guessed she'd be on the Cape, and sure enough she was. Lil and had been there overnight with F., and Jessica was also on hand. Apparently the two grandsons were also there for part of the weekend, so Lil had had a chance to bond with Nicholas and Benjamin.

I spent much of the afternoon with Musafir Chisti, a guy I like a lot. We (or rather, he) did some shopping for some artifact-type stuff near the hotel; then, after a break, we walked downtown, in search of the Mercado, or market area. We found it closed down for the Sunday afternoon, but we did get inside - after some negotiation with a man who appeared to be the majordomo of the place - a large mosque. We also stopped at a Catholic church - where there was a Mass in progress in Italian - and I bought a couple of tapes of what I hope is authentic local music at a shop that was open.

We all - Roger was now back from his Sudanese foray - went out to dinner around 8. While gathering for dinner, Esta - the woman from the Foreign Ministry who met me when I arrived and who lived in DC when her husband was ambassador - and her very pretty and smart 16 year old daughter showed up at the hotel (The young woman wanted to meet Elisabeth, our soap opera star; since they'd lived in the States they actually had seen her on the tube!) We couldn't persuade them to join us for dinner, so after a brief chat about Esta's daughter's educational aspirations and options, we headed out to a place called "Milano;" it proved to be quite good. Joining us were several NGO types and a Reuters reporter. One guy, an American whose name escapes me, was a Californian about my age and he and his wife (who was not present) had been in the Peace Corps in Eritrea in the late 60s; they were living and working in Asmara, and he had some good photos and written materials on the IDP camps. I think he was connected with a Norwegian aid group of some sort.

Joanne and I left the dinner around 10 and took a cab out to the newest - and most bizarre in the context of Eritrea - of the tourist hotels, the Intercontinental, only up and running in the last year, apparently. There, at the "Irish pub" we bought two of the most expensive drinks in Asmara, but we couldn't get a Guinness! It was a weird scene altogether, this marble palace with fancy shops and US prices! A little went a long way and we left after only three quarters of an hour we went back to the Savanna.

Monday, May 8th, 5:30 AM


We're scheduled to leave Asmara this, morning, so this has been my last night in Eritrea. Sigh. I kind of hate to leave. I think I'll have a final hot water shower. Gambella, where we're headed to in Ethiopia, is reportedly pretty rough with respect to the amenities. We shall see.

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