Why Strawberries And Cream Made Me Cry, or
Everything You Wanted To Know About Eritrea But Were Afraid To Ask
It was a warm summer's day in 1985. I was facing the prospect of leaving home in order to continue my education at university and, like many others of my age, I was wondering what the big wide world held in store for me. But my immediate concern, reclining at the dining room table, was how full I felt after enjoying a nourishing lunch cooked by my mother. I switched on the TV, to be met, however, by a news report of starving Ethiopians, flies crawling over their eyes and into their mouths. When mother brought me a bowl of succulent strawberries topped with fresh cream, I broke down in tears.
On a warm summer's day thirteen years later, a distant memory surfaced while I was reading a newspaper article about how Eritrea (now independent from Ethiopia) was trying to recover from the devastating legacy of years of war, drought and famine. Starvation, strawberries, tears and an infant state's first, uncertain steps on its own - a few pieces from a jigsaw of many thousands. I decided to try to put some of this jigsaw together, to see the wider picture of which these few pieces were a part.
The picture turned out to be a case study of how millions of people suffer when trampled by the awesome human and natural forces of political and environmental disaster. Hopefully, it can also be seen as a lesson which warns us of some of the larger pitfalls of political folly and which teaches us to respect the demands of the physical environment while we make our demands upon it.
Injera and pizza
"Mancini, the author of well-known writings defending the basic rights of peoples and nations, employed force to conquer Massawa, ignoring the claims of Turkey, Egypt, and the local authorities, thereby laying the cornerstone of the colony of Eritrea". 
Vested interests and hypocrisy have been the motives behind the creation of most nations, and Eritrea is no exception. On the opposite side, from Yemen, of the narrow mouth of the Red Sea opening out to the Gulf of Aden, the Eritrean coastal region of the Horn of Africa has, for thousands of years, been of international trading and military importance. As with most of colonial Africa, this small nation came into existence largely as the result of borders imposed by Europeans mainly concerned with carving up territory amongst themselves, regardless of the wishes of indigenous peoples. As we usually find in such situations, these borders were a recipe for disaster, especially when the regimes within them attempted to maintain national cohesion by the crudest means, often twitching - like grotesque puppets - to the tangled strings of international politics.
As a rough approximation, the population of Eritrea and Ethiopia and of their border areas (Sudan to the west, Kenya to the south, Somalia to the east, and Djibouti pocketed on the Red Sea coast between the coastal areas of Somalia and Eritrea), is half Christian and half Muslim. As we shall see, religious factionalism has been a significant additional ingredient to the region's colonial and cold war tensions. The largest ethnic group, the Oromo, are widely scattered across the whole southern part of this region, from Sudan, through the Ogaden and Somalia; but they are made up of various clans with different languages and customs as well as dividing between Christianity and Islam. The Eritreans - themselves only notionally a single group, being more an artefact of Italian colonial boundaries - similarly are religiously divided, as are the Tigrayans, who occupy a sizeable region roughly between southern Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, it seems that the Eritreans are rather more Muslim, the Tigrayans more Christian.
Hence, when in 1885 the Italian Foreign Minister, P.S. Mancini, brought pizza to this part of the Horn of Africa, he was attempting to impose a consistency of government on a vast mix of peoples, languages and cultures, linked only in the loosest of senses by sharing a regional food, injera , a huge, circular pancake made from various local grains.
Calling their territory at the time "Eritrea", after the classical Greek for "red sea", the Italians extended themselves further in the region, only to be thrown back into Eritrea's current borders after a crushing defeat, in 1896 at the battle of Adowa (in modern day Tigray), by Emperor Menelik II. This was a proud and historic victory against the colonial scramble for Africa, and it laid the foundation for Ethiopia to become the only independent African empire of the period - formally recognised in the Treaty of Versailles. All the same, this empire had its dark side. The ruling elites had come from the Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic groups, who had tended to subjugate the others. Thousands of peoples on the empire's periphery were sold into slavery, which was only banned in 1923 as a condition for Ethiopian membership of the League of Nations; as we discover, boundaries are, consistently, the most sensitive and troubled of places…
Menelik embarked on a program of 'modernisation', continued by the next emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Ironically, it was precisely the destructive potential of modern technology that enabled Mussolini, in 1935, to effect a nationalist redemption of the defeat of Adowa by successfully invading Ethiopia, whose army was ill prepared for the modern European warfare of air power and mustard gas. Haile Selassie escaped to England just before Addis Ababa fell; but despite Ethiopia's membership of the League of Nations, it seems that the Allied powers, in their attempts to woo Mussolini away from Hitler, effectively did little to challenge this act of aggression.
The 1935-41 Italian fascist rule over Eritrea, sandwiched between two periods of monarchist feudalism, set the stage for an overwhelmingly left-inspired Eritrean separatism.
The emperor's new clothes
After the 1941 military ejection of the Italians by British Commonwealth troops with the support of Ethiopian resistance, Haile Selassie returned to his empire. It was only in 1953, however, that the British Military Administration came to an end. Despite British assistance, in the form of aircraft from Aden, in putting down a Tigrayan rebellion in 1943, Haile Selassie had been stung by his host's duplicity during World War II, and the Americans, instead, now secured a strong foothold in this region. The British had leased to the US a highly strategic communications base - Kagnew (formerly Italian radio station "Radio Marina"), in Asmara, Eritrea's capital - in 1942, and the Emperor, on the lookout for a reliable and powerful friend, had found one. If the US wanted to maintain a military presence in Eritrea, Haile Selassie wanted substantial military input with a view to securing sea access, through Eritrea, for his otherwise landlocked empire, and to rescue his autocratic imperial pride.
The US were keen to secure Kagnew base indefinitely, and so supported Ethiopia's case at the UN for the inclusion of Eritrea within a strong Ethiopian empire. The British argued for a division of Eritrea along religious lines, the coast and highland areas going to Ethiopia, the more Muslim northern and western lowlands to British-ruled Sudan. The Soviet Union, of course, opposed even federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia. Eventually, a compromise UN Resolution 390A was passed in 1950 for Eritrea to become an autonomous territory federated with Ethiopia.
In 1953, a defence pact was signed between Ethiopia and the US that included a 25-year lease of Kagnew. It was one of the largest communications facilities in the world, which became very important during the Korean War for relaying messages to and from Washington, and was used to monitor Soviet communications in the region. The US army and airforce settled into Kagnew and two other bases on the Sudan border, and the navy used the port of Massawa; these installations also served as 'cover' for CIA activity.
The Eritreans - paradoxically having gained their identity due to European colonialism - had been denied their self-determination for long enough, and the situation looked set to continue. Haile Selassie was ruling as a feudal autocrat and, with massive US aid, had built up his military, which he used to quash dissent. The CIA supported him during an attempted military coup in 1960, as did the Israelis (and, possibly, in two other coup attempts). "The Eritreans in general were represented as left-wing Muslim dissidents who, by attacking conservative, Christian Ethiopia, undermined United States strategy centred on the survival of Israel". The situation worsened in 1962 when Haile Selassie eventually totally disregarded the UN resolution which had granted a degree of autonomy for Eritrea; he abolished the federation and fully absorbed Eritrea into his empire, imposing Amharic as the official language.
However, because of the superficial nature of Eritrean identity, opposition was divided, groups fighting amongst themselves as much as against the Ethiopian regime. In 1958, intellectuals, students and urban workers had formed the Eritrean Liberation Movement, but by 1962 it had been broken down by the regime. Factional violence between guerrilla groups eventually led to the founding of the more radical, reformist and mainly Muslim Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), supported by radical Arab states like Syria and Iraq as well as by Cuba and China. They began an armed struggle against the US-backed monarchist regime in 1961, intensifying after Haile Selassie's annexation of Eritrea. Israel explicitly opened diplomatic links with the Ethiopian regime in the same year, stepping up their military and intelligence input. The laws of physics apply also in politics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Ideological and ethnic divisions within the ELF led, in the early '70s to a Marxist offshoot, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). While at the same time engaged in resistance to Haile Selassie's regime, these two groups fought a bitter civil war, the EPLF emerging as the stronger force.
The effects of the conflict, the regime's brutal response and the factional warfare had devastating consequences for the population: "From 1967, vast numbers of Eritrean refugees poured into Sudan. Along with Tigrayans and other Ethiopians, these refugees formed one of the world's largest concentrations of uprooted people".
On top of all this, Haile Selassie sowed the seeds of further disaster by developing a cash-crop economy that disregarded the agricultural self-sufficiency of the mass of the population from whom the landed elite extracted high rents and taxes. The unsustainability of this situation resulted in a famine in the early '70s which the regime simply attempted to conceal. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died.
Yet, all this time, Haile Selassie enjoyed significant international prestige as the head of a notionally independent and stable African empire that had held its own against colonial imperialism. As an effective endorsement of him, Addis Ababa became the headquarters of both the UN Economic Commission for Africa in 1958, and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. The OAU had committed itself to a policy of shoring up the current colonial African borders, allowing itself to turn a blind eye to Ethiopia's denial of ethnic rights, fearing the encouragement of continent-wide independence movements.
But Haile Selassie's continuation of Menelik's drive to 'modernise' had cultivated a Post World War II middle class, many of whom saw the autocratic monarchy as a barbaric anachronism; hence the disaffected members of the military and intelligentsia. General discontent and unrest within the empire had reached a critical point by 1974. "A BBC documentary film of a famine in the northern Wollo region during 1974, edited together with shots of Haile Selassie feeding titbits to his favourite lap dog, caused outrage in Addis Ababa". (Incidentally, it has been reported, "Westerners spend $37 billion a year on pet food and perfumes. The UN says that would provide education, food, health care, water and sanitation for all those now deprived of the basics - with $9 billion to spare".) The EPLF scored a decisive victory over the regime at the Eritrean capital of Asmara, and with insurgencies occurring in all of the empire's main districts, Haile Selassie was overthrown by the largest anti-government grouping in his armed forces. They were to call themselves the Derg - Amharic for "council" or "committee" - and would rule Ethiopia with an iron grip
Empty minds, empty stomachs
After violent power struggles lasting several years, the Derg came out on top, headed by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. Various groups had sought to gain the support of the large numbers of left-leaning people who had become radicalised under the previous monarchist regime. Student and labour groups were calling for a 'people's government' and elements of the armed forces were arguing for a conciliatory approach towards the Eritrean insurgency. The Derg followed the Marxist trend, but its strong-arm outlook eradicated the opposition, and was to go on to eradicate large numbers of the general population over the next decade and a half.
A socialist reform of the currently exploitative situation of land ownership could have been a positive transformation for the region. However, the Derg simply used their brand of socialist ideology to maintain control over the population and to run up an appalling human rights record; a leftist despot had merely replaced a rightist one.
Of course, this political turn-around in Ethiopia had its international consequences. The US continued to sell arms to Ethiopia, totalling $180 million in 1974-7, hoping to stay in with the regime and to try to 'balance out' Soviet aid to Somalia which amounted to some $200 million over the same period. However, relations with the US deteriorated, and US arms sales looked less certain in the future following the 1977 election of President Carter with his emphasis on human rights. In the same year, the Derg turned to the USSR, who wanted to build up a strong presence, around the Gulf of Aden, in Somalia, Ethiopia and South Yemen. The Derg, under attack from the numerous insurgencies, were in need of Soviet support because of the successes of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) in the Ogaden. Soviet support for the Somali government, ironically, was filtering through to the WSLF, since they, in turn, were receiving support from the Somali government. Yet the Soviets made the decision to come to the aid of the Ethiopian regime, the Somalis consequently breaking off ties with Moscow.
So now, in 1978, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany rescued the Derg in its faltering campaign of 'Red Terror' over its peoples. The Soviets swiftly piled in a massive $1 billion worth of arms, and the Derg were joined by 15,000 Cuban troops. Having previously supported Eritrean independence when the Americans had a presence there, the Soviets now supported the Ethiopian regime in fighting it - Eritrea was truly being crushed under the weight of cold war politics. The Ogaden and most of Eritrea were re-taken, halting a period of Eritrean military successes.
These earlier Eritrean gains had been partly due to a degree of strategic co-operation between the EPLF and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF; formed in 1975). The early phases of the Red Terror had driven many more from the oppressed ethnic groups to join in their respective separatist struggles. The experienced and internationally assisted and trained EPLF helped the young TPLF to develop as a guerrilla force. However, differences between the two groups were significant, and co-operation between them was often very tense. While both were Marxist, the EPLF was pro-Soviet and more Muslim, the TPLF anti-Soviet and more Christian. According to John Young , the EPLF envisaged a future within the Soviet family, viewing the current Soviet support for the Derg as a temporary error of policy; after all, they had an anti-monarchist, -capitalist, and -Western pedigree in their resistance to Haile Selassie. By contrast, the TPLF were opposed to a Soviet-style, state-run revolution and preferred a more thoroughgoing form of independence. Young argues that the greater ethnic homogeneity of Tigray, compared with Eritrea, explains why the TPLF put greater emphasis on rights to secession than did the EPLF, who foresaw difficulties in maintaining their own national cohesion. - We hear distant but clear echoes of the genesis of "Eritrea" in the Italian period…
Despite huge Soviet assistance, the Derg could never uproot the EPLF or the TPLF. Its attempts to crush the resistance of these groups only served to strengthen their popular support, especially since they also organised primary services - on socialist principles - that were neglected by the regime. Mengistu thus wrought terror not only on the EPLF and TPLF themselves, but on the population generally. For decades, resources worth millions of dollars and many millions of roubles had been used to hurl military might at ordinary people, ignoring - and even denying - their basic needs. Mengistu's ideology of collectivisation and villagisation was merely a tool with which to fragment and control the people, and really had little to do with sensible agricultural management. Years of unsustainable farming practices were allowed to continue, until, in 1984-5, with the added effects of war and drought, half a million lives were lost in famine. Mengistu kicked the people while they were on the ground by obstructing international relief work. Unfortunately, relations between the EPLF and TPLF were at a low point, and during the '84-5 famine, the EPLF even denied the use of a main supply route to the Relief Society of Tigray. The EPLF broke off their relationship with the TPLF in 1985, although it was pragmatically re-established in 1988 in order to combine efforts against the common enemy.
As has been demonstrated painfully often, military might alone, while it inflicts immeasurable suffering, is often impotent when faced with the ingenuity and real commitment of oppressed people. Mirroring, in many ways, the disasters of Vietnam and Afghanistan, the Derg eventually fell to native resistance. The Soviets found that they were throwing military hardware into a bottomless pit. It would even boomerang back at them, when the insurgents learned to use large quantities of captured armaments for themselves. The collapse of the Soviet bloc was also a major factor in the weakening of military support. The Israelis, however, continued their quieter but consistent policy of counteracting potentially Islamic movements; for example, in the dying months of the war they supplied the Ethiopian army with cluster bombs which were used against civilians.
In May 1991, the EPLF took the Eritrean capital city, Asmara, and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition headed by the TPLF, secured the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The Derg regime was in ruins, along with the rest of the country; President Mengistu fled.
A brutalising legacy - yet, maybe this time…
"War creates famine in many ways: the destruction caused by battle and scorched earth tactics, the requisition of food by armies, blockade of food and people in sieges, the imposition of restrictions on movement and trade, forcible relocation of the civilian population and enforced rationing of food… They undermined the rural economy, not merely by the destruction of harvests and assets such as oxen, but by making impossible the trading and migration that sustained a peasantry already on the edge of survival". 
"While numerous foreign powers eagerly armed the Horn, similar levels of international support for demilitarization were not in evidence".
"The problems of multi-partyism are not an argument for aborting the pluralist political process, rather one for ensuring that other safeguards and structures of accountability are also developed". 
When seen in the context of the previous decades of violence, events right after the fall of Mengistu went surprisingly smoothly. At a conference in London, held just as the Derg was crumbling, US Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen changed roles from being mediator between the Derg, EPLF, EPRDF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to advisor. The three remaining parties agreed a commitment to a pluralist and democratic society. Certainly, across Ethiopia there were plenty of bitter intra- and inter-ethnic divisions which erupted into violence and continue to do so, but nothing like on the scale to which the population had become so desperately accustomed. In May 1991, the EPLF set up a provisional government in Asmara (Eritrean independence was not yet formalised) headed by its leader, Issiaas Afewerki; in July, the EPRDF, in Addis Ababa, formed the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), lead by Meles Zenawi, TPLF chairman; and in a referendum on 23-25 April 1993, supervised by the UN, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence, on 28 May becoming its 182nd member. Co-operation between Eritrea and Ethiopia looked good. Agreements were signed on cross-border trade, including Ethiopia's all-important sea access through the use of the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa.
But the condition of both nations was quite appalling, after what they had both been through. When Zenawi took power in Ethiopia, he announced that Mengistu had plunged the country into bankruptcy, with a debt of $8.6 billion, mainly for arms. An estimated 60,000 children had been left crippled, and 45,000 orphaned. There were some 750,000 refugees, 500,000 of them in Sudan, living at subsistence level. There was one physician for every 48,000 of the population. 80% of the population were dependent on food aid; environmental degradation, very much avoidable had it not been for the war and Mengistu's policies, had reduced agricultural production by 40% from 1980 to 1990 - this when agriculture is the major economic activity which supports 90% of the population. Average life expectancy at birth was 46. It was - and remains to this day - one of the most impoverished regions in the world. When seen in the context of the immense value of arms poured into the area, the mind boggles.
The legacy of war is hard to shake off. Human Rights Watch, in June 1998, included Eritrea in the group of seven countries in the world with the deadliest levels of land mine infestation. In 1993, Eritrea initiated a two-year Recovery and Rehabilitation Program to attempt to deal with the post-war traumas such as disability, shattered families and the demobilisation into civilian life of tens of thousands of fighters.
The independence which Eritrea and Ethiopia had achieved was, in some ways, double-edged. The IMF made loans conditional on transforming their economies into market-oriented ones, when those fighting all these years for release from oppression had been motivated by socialist ideals! (IMF measures are notorious for landing their greatest burdens on the poor.) Indeed, Britain's Open University set up business schools in both countries, attended by both Afewerki and Zenawi. When Zenawi was warned about the no smoking rule during his MBA exams, he reportedly replied, "I have spent the last 17 years fighting a civil war but I have never been as frightened as I am now. There is no way I shall sit this exam without lighting up." Big business would love to have a share in Eritrea's resources: in addition to the development of the agricultural and fishing industries, there exist both significant reserves of gold and minerals, and possibly of oil and gas. The Ashanti mining company has set up offices in Eritrea, and Anadarko and Agip are planning to drill for oil in Eritrean Red Sea waters.
Now, in 1998, there remains a relative peace, but only relative. Violence and human rights abuses, while at much lower levels than during the reign of Haile Selassie and the rule of the Derg, are still much in evidence. In December 1993, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, supported by Sudan's fundamentalist Islamic theocracy, launched an attack across the Sudan-Eritrea border, and fighting continues in this region; each country has been lending support to the other's opposition groups. Eritrea severed diplomatic relations with Sudan in December 1994, and at the end of 1996, the US delivered $20 million of military equipment to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, intended to assist with undermining the Sudanese regime. As would be expected, Israel continues to be involved in this regard: it has two bases in Eritrea, one on the Dahlak islands, another in the Mahel Agar mountains near the Sudan border, and in September 1998, it announced the go-ahead for the sale, to Ethiopia, of ten upgraded MiG fighter jets. Also, in December 1995, after a long-running dispute, fighting broke out between Eritrea and Yemen over ownership of the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea, a site of possibly lucrative oil and gas reserves. Although the violent conflict here has waned, the dispute remains unresolved.
Finally, and most significantly, on 6 May 1998 conflict broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia near the border town of Badme. The superficial reason was a dispute over the precise line of the border between the two states, but the long-running EPLF-TPLF tensions had increased mainly due to issues of trade and access between Ethiopia and the Red Sea. Eritrea had been using Ethiopia's birr as her currency, but adopted her own in November 1997. This was called, perhaps rather provocatively, the "nakfa", after the town of Nakfa which had become a potent symbol of Eritrean resistance to Ethiopian domination after one of the EPLF's most successful military victories there in 1988. As a result, Ethiopia found itself paying more for the use of the ports of Massawa and Assab, deciding then to pay only in hard currency. The significant cross-border trade was hit hard, and relations between the two countries plummeted.
Needless to say, many members of the armed forces and hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded as a result of these current conflicts, and many thousands of civilians have been displaced from their homes.
Human rights have improved since the Derg, but then this is not a comparison worthy of contemplation. Amnesty International's account of Eritrea in its 1997 and '98 Annual Reports, while not as damning as those for some countries, do not make for pleasant reading: "disappearances", unfair trials, executions, severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the effective banning of opposition political parties, political imprisonment, and the apparently intentional targeting of civilians in the on-going military conflicts.
Our expectations are often contradicted. We may expect war and
famine to continue, or we may now expect a new dawn of peace and
scenarios are conceivable, but maybe wisdom, combined with a sensitive
compassionate understanding of Eritrea's character, could help to
the better outcome.
Africa: South of the Sahara, 1998, 27th Edition, Regional Surveys of the World, Europa Publications, 1998.
BBC Online Network News, World: Africa; http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/africa/default.htm
Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, Country Studies: Ethiopia ; http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ettoc.html
By Keith Fisher, October 1998.
bitter taste in the mouth. 'Falling coffee prices have
contributed to Ethiopia's current food crisis.'
famine. 'While the western humanitarian focus is on Iraq,
are starving in Africa in what is becoming a permanent continent-wide
of coffee, one more starving family. 'We are all connected
a web of inequality, even in some of our most apparently harmless
turns to catastrophe in a cycle of hunger and desperation. 'Crops
are failing, prices soaring and people are on the move in search of
So why is disaster looming once again in Ethiopia?'
plea as Horn of Africa raises hungry to 40m
proves there can be life after death. 'Three decades ago,
Dimbleby came out of Ethiopia with harrowing images of hunger that
at least 100,000 lives. Now he returns to find despair has been
by hope that the country can escape the new famine.'
world's problems on a plate . 'The shift from food to feed
apace in many nations, with no sign of reversal. The human consequences
the transition were dramatically illustrated in 1984 in Ethiopia when
of people were dying each day from famine. At the very same time
was using some of its agricultural land to produce linseed cake,
cake and rapeseed meal for export to the UK and other European nations
feed for livestock. Millions of acres of third world land are now being
used exclusively to produce feed for European livestock.
Tragically, some 80% of the world's hungry children live in countries with actual food surpluses, much of which is in the form of feed fed to animals which will be consumed by only the well-to-do consumers.'
The Kosovo of Africa . 'Eritrea's capital, Asmara, seems a sophisticated city - yet it is just a morning's drive from the Ethiopian troops who may soon overrun it. Thomas Keneally reports from a place he has come to love.'
The war on the dark side of the moon . 'Little has changed since Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Ark, first visited Eritrea in 1987. Its people are still dying from hunger, disease and the on-off war with Ethiopia. And the West still behaves as if it is happening on another planet. Here the celebrated novelist reports from the frontline of what may go down in history as "a gross episode of human dishonour."'
Fighting entrenched mentality of war . 'It is the kind of thing you thought just did not happen any more. The young conscripts were told by their superiors that it was time for the big push. They were to go over the top and run upon the enemy trenches. Out they climbed. As instructed, they linked arms and - singing patriotic songs - advanced at a slow running pace upon the bunkers of the foe. The machine-guns spat and swivelled along the approaching string of men. From one end the khaki conscripts began to fall, like a line of dominoes. But behind them came another wave. And another. Tens of thousands died that day to capture a few miles of mud...'
The IMF on trial . 'Ethiopia will be the spectre at the meeting.'
Forgotten War - A deadly family feud . 'Conflict
between Eritrea and Ethiopia reveals a continent's tensions. First of
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