Eritreans Push to Rebuild War-Torn Economy

A YEAR after winning one of the century's longest wars, Eritreans still are fighting with uncanny determination to make it on their own.

"We are a different breed of Africans," says Girma Asmeron, the United States-educated protocol chief for Eritrea's provisional government. "Give us aid, and you will see a miracle in Africa. It's going to be unique in all the third world. We're not going to sit down and mourn and blame somebody else."

The problems facing this land of 3.5 million people becoming an independent nation are staggering.

Three out of 4 Eritreans eat emergency grain. The fields they use for subsistence farming are a virtual desert of scorching rocks, chewed raw by Soviet tanks. Recovery costs estimated at $2.4 billion loom after 30 years of fighting against neighboring Ethiopia. International recognition depends on a promised referendum, which has forced Eritrea to start rebuilding alone, without even telephone links to the rest of the world.

But so far so good. The Eritrean Army of 95,000, one-third women, is being converted into a rehabilitation work force. Soldiers have fixed dams and patched two-thirds of a winding, 70-mile road to the sea. And factories are producing basic cement and soap. Coca-Cola recently began bottling. A rare absence of post-war banditry has encouraged United Nations relief officials to pioneer antidependency experiments such as paying or working for emergency food.

"Eritreans need a lot of help. But they're not sitting on their hands waiting for it to come," says Trevor Page, UN special representative in Eritrea's capital, Asmara.

To build a national economy, Eritrean geologists will look for oil in the Red Sea, says Mr. Asmeron, who is serving as spokesman for the provisional government led by Issaias Afwerki. Tourism along the 720-mile coast also looks possible.

But government officials and Western diplomats agree that what Eritrea really needs, besides rain, is an overhaul of a decimated infrastructure. That means foreign assistance. UN officials are urging Eritrea's leaders to hold elections this year as the sign of democracy needed to lure private investors and the World Bank.

Yet Eritreans bristle at Western demands for instant democracy. Multiparty elections are only "a goodwill gesture" that "can be done any time," Asmeron says. Eritreans will struggle alone if they must, he says.

Eritrea is a half Christian and half Muslim country that was colonized by Italy in 1890. Britain took over after World War II, then in 1952 declared Eritrea an autonomous part of Ethiopia. But Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed the territory. More than 200,000 Eritreans died in the ensuing conflict. But on May 24 last year Ethiopia's Army withdrew just before a coup ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Now some 250,000 Eritrean refugees are starting to return by bus or camel from Sudan, and other s from the US.

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