A Trip to Eritrea

Asmara Keren And Massawa Through Ethiopian Eyes

Although optimism about the future of Eritrea was high in the 1990s, Eritrea now exists in isolation; the lives of ordinary Eritreans is tough and many cities remain underdeveloped. In fact, Eritreans now make up a significant portion of those migrating to Europe on dangerous crossings through Libya. EBR’s Samson Berhane, who travelled to Asmara, Keren and Massawa explores the lives of Eritrean residing in these cities.

The one and a half hour flight from Addis Ababa to Asmara on June 23, 2018, five days after the resumption of the air transport service between Ethiopia and Eritrea was not an ordinary flight. A moment after the pilot announced that the plane was about to land in Asmara, the passengers, many of whom were personally impacted by the split between Ethiopia and Eritrea started to react, some crying, and a few cheering the moment. Others struggled to hide their feelings. A woman, in her mid-50s, was crying out loud, calling the name of her mother who died just six months ago. “Mom, had you been here, all of your wishes [seeing her sons and daughters in Eritrea] could have become true,” said the woman, who was heading to Asmara to meet her siblings after 21 years.

This was the feeling shared by almost all the Ethiopians who went to Eritrea to meet their families and loved ones. The normalization of relations between the two countries, a few months after Abiy Ahmed’s administration took power, resulted in the reunion of families who were unable to meet for over two decades because of the cold war between the two sides. Ethiopian Airlines even tweeted, “The bird of peace has just flown to #Asmara #Familyreunion #Ethiopia #Eritrea” on the day it resumed flights to Asmara.

It was not only those waiting for their loved ones or family who lined up at Asmara Airport, but also other Eritreans who were eager to meet the neighbors they’d been separated from for so long. Taxis, private cars, and buses with stickers displaying the flags and leaders of the two nations gathered. Bars, cafes, as well as other businesses put similar stickers on their walls to show their support for the peace proceedings.

Alem Berhane, a sales manager at Catholic Cathedral, is amongst the many Eritreans who welcomed the move. “We were waiting for the resumption of the war. Rapprochement was unthinkable, because we were unsure about the stand of the Ethiopian government until the new administration took power and decided to accept the Algiers agreement,” said Alem, a father of seven, who was unable to see his daughter for 21 years after being deported by the Ethiopian government in 1998. “Now my daughter, who is in her mid-30s, will able to meet her sisters and brothers whom she never seen before.”

The happy faces of the immigration officers at Asmara Airport are the first indication of the positive impact of the peace pact. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to get visa on arrival at Asmara Airport, and there is no visa fee. The Airport hosts only 2-5 flights a day because of the government’s isolationist policy and the travel alerts issued by many countries. Unlike many other countries, dozens of aircrafts and war jets are visible at the airport.

The services provided in the airport are less advanced than those in other international airports. There is one forex window with one employee in front of an old-fashioned desktop computer, and it can take more than 15 minutes to get service. The airport only has seven duty free shops, far behind other international airports.

Just a few miles away from the Airport are the starred hotels, most of which are above 30 years old, with unique architectural designs. Rooms are available for between USD45 and USD120. Even though the cost is almost equal to similar hotels in Ethiopia, the services provided to tourists are fewer, in terms of hospitality and utilities.

By contrast, the transport service, which is available at the entrance to the airport, is very efficient. Four-seater taxis are available everywhere in the city. Depending on the distance and the customer’s negotiation skills, taxis charge an average of between 10 and 20 nakfa a kilometer.

Asmara, with unique beauty, lies in the highlands of Eritrea. With an elevation of 7,630 feet above sea level, Asmara welcomes tourists with comfortable weather, which doesn’t usually exceed 25 degrees Celsius. Palm tree branches leisurely wave above the old cafés, which have a culture of their own, and make for a unique experience for visitors. The warm smiles and kind hospitality of the people provide an unfading memory.

Travelling to Keren
Keren is a passage for Eritrea’s mining exports, so it is common to see at least one truck, mostly Chinese-made Sinotrucks, carrying copper and other minerals. As the second biggest city in Eritrea after Asmara, Keren is situated 94 kilometers from the capital. It used to be one of the most heavily militarized areas during the Dergue regime, paving the way for marriages between Ethiopian soldiers and Eritrean locals.

Keren was home to many Eritrean soldiers who gave their lives for the independence of their country. One Ethiopian woman, in her late 30s, has an Eritrean mother and Ethiopian father. “My mom lost her four brothers, who fought and died during the war against the Dergue regime,”she told EBR.

This is not an isolated story. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every household lost a family member in the two-decade war. Now decades later, Keren is trying to rebuild.

As one of the major agricultural centers in Eritrea, the city has more Muslim residents than other cities. Every Monday, clothes, crops, electronics and food items are sold in the big market at the center of town. Livestock products are also available. But trade is not as vibrant as it used to be. “I remember how busy Keren used to be, especially right after Eritrea’s independence in 1991,” says a trader.

Historical evidence also suggests that Keren was once a favoured resort for European visitors and Italian colonialists because of its temperate climate and fertile soil.

Keren has a population of less than 100,000, with Belen and Tiger as the dominant ethnic groups. Night time is when the streets become more active, with youths, the elderly, and tourists walking along the streets of the city at night. Bicycles are the most popular mode of transportation, besides walking, while taxi services are less available.
While other cities have an older population, Keren has a significant number of young people. Even though a young population should have ensured economic growth and development, most of them have been unable to contribute much; the majority of them are soldiers and are unable to engage in any business activities. As a result, there’s low career-related stress, as only very few youths have regular work outside the army.

Italian colonists left inedible marks on Keren, as they did in Asmara. Keren Hotel, the Grand Mosque and Debresina Monastery are among the city’s historical landmarks. Like many parts of Eritrea, Keren is a city stuck in time, even though it has potential to grow. In fact, no significant changes have been seen in the last two decades. Payphones are still largely operational and technological advancements and economic progression are at a standstill.

Keren connects with the world using satellite television. The aluminum satellite dishes are on the roof of every house. Internet is almost non-existent and very expensive. A very slow internet connection, which cannot even load a single webpage, costs 10 nakfa (ETB19) an hour. It is also impossible to use credit cards in Keren, and all of Eritrea, as there are no ATMs.

Technological lags do not mean the population is uneducated though. There are many people in Keren who can speak English, Arabic, as well as the official language of Tigrigna; a few elders still speak Italian.

Hotels are much cheaper in Keren than Asmara. A room in one of the 15 hotels costs from 250 nakfa to 500 nakfa. Food service and hygiene is excellent. While few hotels serve both local and foreign dishes, almost all foods are organic as the city is heavily dependent on local production. Packaged foods imported by contrabandists from Sudan are available in kiosks.

Massawa: the sleeping giant
Eritrea’s former capital city, Massawa, is the most economically active city, next to Asmara. The two cities, which are connected by an Italian-built railway and roads, share many things in common, from their uniquely designed architecture, to their history.

Retailers who sell beles- a fruit which grows in the semi-desert and desert areas of Ethiopia and Eritrea- welcome travelers on the rough journey from Asmara to Massawa, complicated because of the complex natures of the road. While providing an opportunity to visit modern Italian complex road engineering, it is also one of the most dangerous roads in Eritrea.

Even though it is the only gateway for imported items into Eritrea, gone are the days when Massawa was an active source of business opportunities. Unlike two decades ago, trailers and trucks that used to transport cargo in and out of Massawa are idle; many have been pushed to change their line of business, like a tanker truck designated to transport oil, which now carries water in and out of Asmara.

Once referred to as the country’s most robust and tenacious city, Massawa has survived for centuries and houses a collection of magnificent Ottoman architecture. At the edge of the city, two Red Sea islands-Batse and Tulul- form the heart of Massawa. The Shrine of Sahaba, Sheikh Hanafi Mosque, Bazaar, and Imperial Palace are a few of the most valuable landmarks in the city.

A few heavily damaged trucks, tanks and buildings, which were destroyed during the Dergue Regime, circling the edges of town, are a reminder of the intense fight that raged up and down the Eritrean escarpment for over three decades. Restaurants and hotels which were busy during Eritrea’s golden age, especially between 1991 and 1998, are not as vibrant as they used to be.

Despite being strategically important and having historical significance, the city, as well as the port, has been unexploited. The international airport, roughly located 20 kilometers from the port, is almost idle. The resort, which has the capacity to serve thousands of tourists at once, is now underdeveloped because of weak infrastructure. Cost of living is also expensive in Massawa, where a single dish costs between 100 nakfa and 200 nakfa.

Despite the hurdles, however, the port town certainly has a chance to restore its golden age as the government starts to open up its economy to the rest of the world and prepares to resume trade activities with Ethiopia.

6th Year • Sep.16 – Oct. 15 2018 • No. 66

Samson Berhane


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