"Asmara Update - 1995"" by Larry Bucher

My roots were in Illinois; I grew up 40 miles north of Peoria and spent many happy summer months on a farm a mile or two southwest of Virden.

The old consulate was reopened in 1991, upgraded to an embassy in May 1993 concurrent with the referendum that established Eritrean independence, a few months before I rearrived. The place was a real mess, a lot of work had been done by the time I left but a lot still remained to be done. (Eritreans used exactly those words: the Dergue army "made a mess" of Kagnew, Tract A, the whole city.)

My impressions of Asmara 1993-95: practically crime-free! Street boys all retired, presumably due to lack of customers. We walked the streets, any hour, any part of town, without fear. Begging against the law; once in a while a beggar would try to panhandle us, but low-key and didn't persist. Gharries almost all gone, replaced by little taxis. Rare to see anyone carrying a shifta stick or a zigheny pot. Far, far fewer Italian faces, but they haven't totally disappeared. Streets noticeably more potholed, sidewalks with many tiles missing -- years of fighting with little attention given to infrastructure. They're working on it, slowly. The railroad was a war casualty; they're working slowly on restoring it also. Low bid to reconstruct was $200 million (if I remember the figure right) from an Italian firm; the Eritreans are doing it at probably less than a tenth the cost, using the expertise of the old men who once ran it. Roadbed and tunnels in good shape but much of the rails gone, ripped up to build defensive positions on the heights along the RR. I believe reconstruction has gone 30-40 miles inland by now.

Jesse Dobbins and wife were still there, stayed through it all, rather aged now of course, still had their shop on the main drag. Kagnew and Tract A now belong to Eritrean Defense Force; there was talk that they hope to turn Kagnew into a college campus eventually. Out at Tract F (navy receiver site) there were rows of tanks parked around the perimeter, ex-Soviet I believe, left behind when the Dergue army surrendered and was invited to walk home. Wrecked tanks and other military vehicles along the roads here and there on the way to Massawa and on the road south to Axum. Hillsides outside and to the right of Kagnew back gate are covered with junk trucks and military scrap. The USIS library survived the years of closure -- a local employee continued to take care of it I understand -- and the new USIS officer moved right back into their old offices there. The statue of the Empress Menen that stood in a traffic circle near Kagnew was pulled down by a Dergue tank in the 70s, the empty pedestal still stands. We happened across the broken pieces, tucked behind a wall, while exploring.

Another war casualty: food. I remembered those Italian restaurants of the old days and sobbed. No more. Italian-style menu items on the menus, but pretty bland. We found a couple of pretty good zigheny places (meal for two, about $4), but the only really, really good zigheny I ate was in private homes.

Post-95 developments: The Ethiopian birr, which has continued to be the currency, is just now being phased out and replaced by the Eritrean nakfa (named after the northern town which was the rebel HQ and the site of much fighting).

Larry Bucher
© Copyright Larry Bucher 1997 All Rights Reserved


All materials, pictures, whatever, except where noted.
©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved