I am sure many of us have wondered what Kagnew looks like today. So after I made my plans to visit Asmara in April, I started to see if I could get on Kagnew. I heard from Rick and others it would be difficult, and they were correct. Tesfi, a friend of mine here in Virginia, is a good friend of Semere Russom who recently moved back to Asmara after serving as the Eritrean Ambassador to the United States. I had met Semere a number of times and was a friend of his, but I do not know him as well as Tesfi does. Semere now works for Eritrea in their Foreign Affairs office, which is similar to our State Department. Tesfi couldn't believe I nor any other American would have a problem getting on Kagnew. I told him what I had heard, and asked if he would talk to Semere and see if he could get me on. He assured me he would, but didnt think it would be necessary.
The first morning I was in Asmara, I had breakfast at my hotel. I looked at my waiter over and over and thought he looked familiar. I thought to myself, no way could this guy have worked at Kagnew. What would be the odds of that? Finally I asked him, if he had ever worked on Kagnew. To my surprise he said, yes, I am David Badge 114 Top Five club. I couldn't believe it. A few days later he brought me the picture of the waiters at the Top Five taken in 1971. He also showed me the certificate they were all holding in the picture. If you ever got sick eating the food in the Top Five club, it is no wonder, we trained the waiters how to poison our food. Check out the Certificate.
The next day Sunday, members of the family I knew told me they could get me on Kagnew. They had friends who lived there and Yakob a cab driver would just drive us on to Kagnew. I wasn't real excited about trying. I wanted to wait until I talked to Semere. They assured me there would be no problem. As we drove up to the gate, I was looking at the stores outside the front gate. I assumed he would stop at the guard, but he just drove slowly passed him. The guard yelled and we stopped. He came over to the window and said, no tsada, no tsada, no tsada Tsada means white.
They talked for quite a while, but the guard told them I couldn't go on. If they would drop me somewhere, they could come back and take pictures but I could not be with them. So they took me to one of the newer hotels and went back with my video and digital camera. I couldn't believe they would let them take pictures because I had heard somewhere that one of the reasons they didnt want Americans on was because they wanted to take pictures. I was worried about my cameras being taken away. I told my friends I didnt care what happened to them just be sure not to lose my cameras. They laughed, I didnt. I waited and waited and waited for them to return. Couldn't believe it took so long for them to finally get back. They were so proud. They get some video but didnt really know what building was what. I asked them what took so long, and they said they had gone into some of the buildings. The Top Five club was under some construction and the workers told them to come back in a week and they could go inside. After I saw the video, I was a little disappointed but it was better than nothing. I thought maybe that was all I would get to see.
Monday I went to the Eritrean equivalent of our White house to meet with the Head of the Eritrean Budget office. While I was there, I went to see Semere to ask him if he had any luck. He was in Canada that week and wouldn't be back until the following week. That was ok because I was going to Massawa for a few days anyway.
While in Massawa I met a young lady whose father was stationed at Kagnew and her mother is Eritrean. She had just returned to Asmara to raise her child. She was probably in her middle or late 20s. I told her about trying to get on Kagnew and she showed the surprised reaction that everyone else had. She couldn't believe there was a problem. I told her what happened and I know she didnt believe me. She gave me her number in Asmara and told me to call her, because she had a friend who lived on Kagnew and that she would take me to visit him. I told her that wouldn't be necessary because Semere was going to take care of me. I figured if he couldn't get me on, there was no way anyone else could.
I was busy that week meeting with various Eritrean groups who could use some assistance from us. I was going to return to the States late in the evening on Monday. I had not heard from Semere all week, and was beginning to think I had put all of my eggs into his basket. So on Thursday, I called the young lady I met in Massawa and asked her if she could try to get me on Kagnew. She called me back a few minutes later and told me her friend was out of town. Things were not looking good at that point. Then on Friday morning, Semere called me back and said he would meet me in the hotel. I waited all day from 10 o'clock to 7 in the evening and no Semere. After lunch on Saturday, I returned to my hotel before going out to see my friends. When I walked into the lobby, Tesfi from Virginia greeted me and said he and Semere had been waiting for me. I politely mentioned he was a day late. Semere was talking with friends and then joined us. Again, he acted surprised that I couldn't get on Kagnew. He said he had nothing to do with Kagnew, however he would talk to the right people and get me permission on Monday. He assured me there would be no problem. I know he did not believe me when I told him what happened two weeks prior when we tried to get on Kagnew. We had a good talk about what I was doing and then they left.
On Monday morning, my last day in Asmara, Semere called and told me he was sending over a man to take me to Kagnew. Tewelde, my friend who had become a "professional" video photographer by the end of my trip, asked if he could go with me. I was glad to have him because I needed someone to take videos while I took digital pictures. Around noon, the gentleman showed up with a driver. When we got to Kagnew, the same thing happened. The guard at the gate would not let us through. The man from Semeres office was upset and got out of the car and went over to talk to him. He stood directly in my line of sight with the guard. He showed him a piece of paper but the guard was not giving in at all. I felt really badly at this point. There was obviously a problem with me being there. It took a few minutes for them to talk before the guard reluctantly gave in and let us proceed. He just stared at me as we passed. I didnt feel any better.
As we drove in, I asked them to turn right and we proceeded up past Finance. I worked there for a few weeks before going to the Headquarters Building. We past the hospital, which was covered in trees, and stopped at the officers club where I worked for quite a while after leaving the Headquarters Building. We got out of the car at the officers club to take pictures. There were four kids sitting under the awning. That was my first clue that Kagnew was now a housing area. I took some pictures of the kids and showed them their image on the back of the camera. They were really excited and so was I to be back on Kagnew for what I called home for a year and a half. We then drove back down to the circle and then up to the Oasis club. Everyone looked at me when we drove passed. Not sure how many tsada folks they had seen on Kagnew. Have you ever taken a short cut through someone's backyard and they saw you? That is how I kind of felt. I was in someone else's home, not mine any more.
I had been to the Oasis club many times, but somehow I didnt remember how far back off the road it sat. As we made the left hand turn from the road past the movie theater, I thought for sure it was down the road a little, but there was that black and white stone wall on the left side of the road that I remember being across from the club. There was no sign of the mini golf course. I took a picture of what I thought was the entrance to the club but I think it was the wrong door. Again we just got out of the car for a quick minute and took the pictures. I felt like some kind of spy, but the man from Semeres office assured me everything was ok. Again people were living in all of the buildings up there as well.
We headed out, but I told myself we will come back here because I didnt feel I got the right entrance and wanted to get some pictures of the area across the street. We drove down past the PX and the back of the Headquarters Building towards The Headquarters and Headquarters Company barracks, turned right toward the Top Five club. Since I lived in the HHC barracks, this looked more familiar to me than any other place. When we pulled up to the Top Five, the man from Semeres office asked us if we wanted to go in and get something to drink. I replied, are you serious? I don't want to push my luck. He said yes, come on. It is difficult to explain how it felt walking into that place after 30 years. First thing I did was to check out the stag bar. The bar itself is gone but you can still see signs of it on the floor. In my mind, I could see Berhane back there and the stories about him and a visiting General's wife. After all of those years in the stag bar, someone made the mistake of making him a waiter when the then Army Chief of Staff visited Kagnew. They had the formal dinner in the Top Five because it was larger than the officers club. Someone made another mistake by making Berhane a waiter for the head table. The General's wife asked Berhane if he knew what a whiskey sour was and Berhane answered in his best stag bar language, F***ing A Lady". Berhane never left the stag bar again. He was my friend, and I helped him with many a bar tricks. I will show some at the reunion.
There are now two pool tables in the stag bar. I took some pictures, but now I felt as if I were talking pictures in a complete stranger's house. Everyone reacted to the flash. It was really weird. I turned the flash off. The cashier area is still there but the slots were gone. We sat down in the club and had some cokes. If you remember what the old cokes tasted like, well that has all changed these taste the same as the ones in the States. The dining room was in two levels. I think it was like that when we were there. There was a glass wall separating the two levels. As you walk into the dining area, the elevated room is to your left. There is a bar to the right as you walk in the main dining area. I believe that is where the bar was when we were there. The room was full of people enjoying themselves. A few folks knew Tewelde because he taught school throughout Eritrea. We finished our cokes and went back to the car. I did not take many pictures because of the flash. Again I felt I was in some strangers living room and not the Top Five club where I showed sports movies on Tuesday nights for $5.00 and all the beer I could drink.
The man from Semeres office asked me if I wanted to walk instead of going in the car. I asked if he were sure it would be all right and he assured me it would. This was an unexpected treat. Here are two pictures as we walked out of the Top Five club. To the right was the bowling alley and gym. We headed up the road from the Top Five club past the mess hall and the HHC barracks. I didnt want to go in my old barracks because families were living there. Clothes were hung out everywhere. At the intersection, we turned right and headed towards the Stratcom barracks. The pool area was all fenced in. I found a hole in the siding and peeked in. The hole was big enough for my camera, so I took a picture of my old roommate's office. He was the lifeguard. Best job on Kagnew. We walked past the pool and turned left towards what I think was the housing area. Here is another picture.
We stopped by another good size club and took some pictures. The inside was much nicer that the Top Five. This could have been a dependent rec center or something like that when we were there. There was a fountain outside that I remember being across from the Oasis club. But it appeared to be too large to move. It was made from the same black stone as the wall across from the Oasis. Maybe someone will remember it. There was a beautiful garden around the fountain.
We continued to walk past some of the senior officers' houses towards the front of the Headquarters Building where I worked for a short time before going to the officer's club. It too was used for housing. I really wanted to go in. My first office was just to the left as you walked in the front door. I shared it with the American guy who took reservations for Keren and Massawa. He died in a motorcycle accident at the circle in front of Bar Fiori. After he died, I moved across the hall to the first office on the right as you enter the building. An Eritrean man named Afwerki took over the reservation assignment. He shared an office with the quarter's accountant, a man named Beiene. I was very close with these two guys and was hoping to see them if they were still alive. I didnt know any last names. All I knew was that Beiene had something to do with a Shell station downtown. He took me there once but I had no idea where it was. While visiting the Eritrean Culture and Civic Center in Washington, D.C., a man told me that he thought Beiene's wife worked for the Commercial Bank of Eritrea. So before I headed to Asmara, I asked Mike O'Neill if he knew of such a lady. I realized I did not have much information to go on. Mike explained to me how large of an organization his bank was and that it would be impossible to find her without more information. So on Sunday, my second day there we stopped at a Shell gas station near the Commercial Bank of Eritrea. A lady told me she knew his wife and for me to come back the next day, Monday, and she would take me to her at the bank. When I returned on Monday, I man had Beiene's telephone number and we called him. He didn't remember me at all. We drove to his auto parts store and after a few minutes of talking, he began to remember me. He told me Afwerki was still in Asmara and we would go surprise him. When we walked into Afwerki's office Beiene greeted him then went to talk to a woman he knew. I sat down and Afwerki just looked at me and didn't say anything. He told me later he thought I was a German auto parts person who had come with Beiene. Finally, I looked at Afwerki and said, "I need to make a reservation at TTU and I need a crib for my baby." He hated it when people would ask for a crib. He looked at and said, "We don't make those reservations here." I then said, "Do you want me to report you to 2LT Patterson?" He didn't say anything for about 15 seconds and then said, "ATO Tsada?" I said, "That's me." We went and had drinks together. And I met Beiene's family at dinner one night. I was great seeing them again. As it turned out, Mike O'Neill and Beiene's wife work right next to each other at the bank.
From the Headquarters Building, we walked towards the Chapel. The trees were so much larger and fuller than 1971. If it weren't for the stained glass windows, not sure I would have remembered it was the chapel. Father Joe would have been upset to hear me say that. I saw him a lot on Sundays, however it was in the afternoon on the golf course. He would preach to me as we played. The chapel was also used for housing, with the clean clothes drying outside. We left the chapel area and headed to the front gate. I was so excited to be there, I forgot all about going back to the Oasis club. Before I knew it, we were walking out the front gate and the driver was waiting for us. It was weird to see the small shops set up out there selling coffee and other things. I tried to get a picture of the front gate but the sun was directly behind the gate and it did not turn out so well. But what a thrill it was to be on Kagnew again. Kagnew is now called Denden Camp.
The driver asked if we wanted to go back to the hotel, but I said no, I wanted to go to the Bar Fiori. I mean where else would one go when leaving Kagnew? I have to admit, that I didnt spend too much time in Bar Fiori. I remember going there a few times, probably right after I arrived. At 4 o'clock on Monday afternoon, we were the only customers. The name of the place has just recently changed to Lilay Bar. The inside was very clean and looked like a brand new bar. The owner came over and talked to us after she saw the flash from the camera. I explained who I was and the whole story. As it turned out, she worked in the reception area at TTU in the late 60s and early 70s. I thought she was only in her late 40s but she must have been a little older. I told her I had to ask this question for the guys who used to frequent the place, do the ladies still visit this place in the evening? She said, they start showing up at 8 o'clock and the place is very crowded. She then said she would be happy to reserve me a table. I thanked her for the offer, but told her I had to be at the airport at 9:30 to check in for my flight home. She reminded me the airport was only a ten-minute drive. We thanked her, finished our drinks and left for the tank graveyard behind Kagnew. I had been there before but taped over the video. Yakob, the cab driver who took us to Massawa picked us up and we headed to get some more video.
It is impossible to explain just how large the area is. My digital and video camera did not get best shots of the area. All of the equipment there was put out of action, or captured from the Ethiopians, during the 30 year war. It is just unbelievable how much is back there. Here are a number of pictures: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eight, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth.
From there we drove out the back way to the golf course. I didn't realize you could get there using the road in front of the Italian and Eritrean graveyards. I was the paid bookkeeper at the golf course for about a year. Not only did I get $125 a month for keeping books, I was able to play there everyday. I never knew you could get there, from Kagnew, by driving through the stone housing area to the left side of the golf course. Kagnew was pretty much what I expected it would be like. The golf course was nothing close to what I expected it to be. Except for the club house that was still standing, there was no sign that a golf course was ever there. We had to get permission from the Veterinarian office, go on the facility.
As soon as we got out of the car, a man who worked for the veterinarian named Waldu came up to me. Here he is putting on the what was the practice green outside the front door to the club house. He said he used to be a water boy and talked about getting Dunlop and Titlest balls out of the "water." I remember those kids being called fore caddies. But he kept saying he was a water boy. (By the way, I learned that the "water" that ran through the golf course was actually raw sewage on its way to the treatment plant just down the street from the entrance to the golf course. That's way the grass was always greener near the "water.")
Waldu immediately became our tour guide. He showed us where the ninth hole used to be, but now there were houses built on the area. We walked around to the front of the clubhouse. I was hoping we could go inside, even though the building was in very bad shape. On the ground there were many signs of the war. There was a small pit in front of the club house containing about 100 Russian helmets. I wanted to take one, but wasn't sure if that would be appropriate or not. I may ask my friends to send me one. I also saw this next to the pit. I stood in front of the club house looking down at 17th and 18th holes. They were the two holes to the right side of the road as you drove in. Later they were changed to the 1st and second holes, I believe. When I played there, the first through fifth holes were to the left side of the road as you drove into the golf course. This is a view just a little to the left of the 17th and 18th holes.
The building was open, so we went inside. We entered the building through this door what was the old patio. As you can see, the windows in front of the outside eating area were replaced with siding. The building was not in very good condition. As we walked into the club house from the patio, my office was to the right, the bar was to the left. The bar was gone however. The fireplace was still there, but the kitchen was bare. The pro shop was also still there. Here is a view from the outside looking down at the front door from the parking lot.
As we left the golf course, I thought how great it would be, if we ever do have a reunion in Asmara, to have a small golf tournament there. Three holes could easily be put in and local people like Waldu could also play. Something to think about.
Next will be, Asmara, the ride to Massawa and the city of Massawa. Hope you have enjoyed this.