Lee Ruebush's Trip to Asmara
by Lee Ruebush

(As you all know, Lee just visited Eritrea with some friends and has sent us an initial letter describing his trip. It was very interesting reading and I'm sure that on more than one occasion your jaw will drop when you hear how it's changed.
Thanks for the update Lee and glad you had a great trip - Rick)

When I arrived in Asmara I was met at the airport by Jesse Dobbins and Berhane, an Eritrean friend. We drove to Jesse's villa and on the back of his property he had built a 2nd small villa which consists of two bedrooms, living room, bath and kitchen. I asked if he would stop so I could buy some bottled water and fruit. He responded by saying you people will not buy anything as long as we remain in this house as my guest. Jesse was a very gracious and generous host. The next day we met Bill and Darlene Ramsey at the airport. We took them to the same villa. This villa had two TV sets and you are now able to pickup several channels all day including CNN and BBC. They also have a large selection of VCR tapes that you can rent at a local store. When we were leaving they were getting ready to open a direct Internet and E-mail service.

The next day we drove passed the STRATCOM transmitter site to the water falls several miles further on. It is a gorgeous area. The transmitter site is no longer standing, however, there is an Eritrea military station there. We also drove from the back gate of Kagnew Station to STRATCOM receiver site and the ASA site. Both sites are still standing and are still being used as an Eritrean Military Communications sites. At the back gate of the Kagnew Station there is a huge junk yard consisting of old Russian military vehicles of all types. From the back gate of Kagnew Station to the receiver site is now solid with new homes.

Jesse took us to the American Embassy and we met the Ambassador Bill Clark and the Council, although they are very nice people they did not know any football scores when we asked them. We are both big football fans and were disappointed. We were not able to get on Kagnew as the military are very sensitive to people taking pictures of there installations.

We met with Mike O'Neill who is an American and is an advisor to the Commercial Bank of Eritrea. He was very helpful and gave us some excellent advise. He thought that the evacuation of Americans during the last war was very premature. I might say when on this subject, to be extremely careful when you enter the country and fill out the financial declaration form not to overstate the money you are bringing into the country. When you leave Asmara you must submit this form along with the receipts of the money that you have legally converted. The legal rate for Nacfa is at the present time about 9.5 to the dollar. The black market rate is 18 to one. When you leave they check these forms to see if they match. Usually there is no problem but if they wish they may stop you and check it all closely. I don't think an Eritrean jail would be a good place to be.

The rest of the time in Asmara we spent taking pictures and shopping. We visited the gold and silver store many times as the prices are very good.

The following are some of our observations, both good and bad, about Asmara. The areas that us married people lived in downtown while we were stationed there have deteriorated, the streets are badly in need of repair, the housing is down the tubes. It is creating a typical city ghetto. When we were in Asmara there was between 40,000 to 80,000 people in and around the city. Today there is 400,000. Some of the good things, they are building many new houses, office buildings and businesses. I asked where this money was coming from and was told that Eritreans who have lived in other countries for the last 30 or 40 years are returning and investing in the country. The government has very little money to work with but have built some new roads in the outlining areas. Another good thing is that all children are required to go to school. This is true even in the small villages. Due to lack of space they go a half a day. Children in the villages must still attend to the sheep and goats. When we were there before this task was done by young boys but now girls must also attend to the animals. All of The people were very friendly. Most of the cars are now Toyotas.

Our first trip out of town was to Keran and Agordat. The Italian farm that furnished Kagnew Station with milk, cheese and fruit is no longer there. It is instead a produce farm. About half way to Keran and all the way to Agordat we saw burnt out Russian tanks, personnel carriers and trucks scattered about. We wanted to go to Nacfa to see the trenches but were told that the roads were in terrible condition and would take about five hours each way so we passed on that trip. We spent the night in Keran in an old hotel with restaurant that was just passable. We then returned to Asmara to make ready for our trip to Massawa.

All the small villages on the road to Massawa that use to consist of about 12 buildings are now in the hundreds. All hunting of birds or animals is forbidden and they will literally shoot on the spot if you are caught doing so. All the animals are starting to return. In fact, the bird population is huge. We saw mountain chicken, frankelini and many guinea fowl. We also saw the usual baboons. There is so many cats such as leopards, lynx, etc., that they are now starting to attack the domestic animals and in some cases people. The Halfway House is nearly destroyed and in ruins.

When we arrived in Massawa we were amazed to find all the new modern apartment buildings, all air conditioned. There is a modern power line now that runs from Massawa to Asmara to Keran and on to Agordat. It is not currently in use because the generators that were furnished by Saudi Arabia were damaged during the war. However, at this time there is a team from the Philippines that are now building a new power plant. There are some Koreans constructing housing. The Litterina (train) is now operating from Massawa as far as Ghinda. Gurgusum (North Beach) is now covered by hotels, sun umbrellas, deck chairs and people. They even have camels available to have your picture taken while sitting on the camel. As you enter the city of Massawa there is a monument consisting of three Russian tanks celebrating the victory of the war.

We stayed at the Dahlak Hotel which is the old R&R Center which is now a passable hotel and restaurant. They are building a new Dahlak Hotel next door. Near by is Haile Selassies Palace which was completely destroyed during the war. The shipping docks were completely full of ships unloading grain for the starving Eritreans and equipment for the UN. There were always 8 to 10 ships waiting to get to the docks to unload. The UN Force that is coming in will consist of troops from Denmark, Holland, Canada, and Kenya.

For you single people who were there, the Four Floors is still there and operating.

In order to fish or snorkel you will need a permit from the Port Authority which cost $20. On the form that you sign it states that will not collect either dead or living, shells or coral. You also cannot use a spear gun. If you wish to scuba dive you must do the above plus pay for an Eritrean guide to ensure you stay out of trouble. We paid $250.00 a day to rent a 30-foot boat for the four of us. We rented the boat from Mike, an old acquaintance of mine. We snorkeled at Dissei, Madote and also another island nearby. The snorkeling was great as usual. Berhane has a son in the navy. He is currently stationed in Saudi Arabia. He needed to talk to the commander of the navy and took us along and we were able to meet him. A very nice young man. None of the military wear any insignia of rank.

We then returned to Asmara and got ready to depart for home. Berhane stayed and traveled with us the whole time. He is very good friend and is extremely useful as he speaks all the local languages plus Arabic, Italian and English.