Coming Home to Rebuild Eritrea

Former expatriates return to take part in the renewal of their war-torn, newly independent nation

SHE was only 16, but Genet Semere knew she had to escape.

The Ethiopian police had arrested many of her friends - and executed some. Genet had organized demonstrations against the government, and now the police were looking for her.

It was 1977. Like most Eritreans, she was longing for the day when her people would be independent of Ethiopia. As of May 24, Eritrea has been free - but it took 30 years of fighting to win that freedom. Over the course of the war, some 750,000 Eritreans fled - nearly a quarter of the population. They escaped police persecution, as well as massive bombing raids and ground attacks by Ethiopian government troops on most Eritrean towns and hundreds of villages.

"I lost a lot of friends in the war," Genet recalled during a recent visit here from her home in the United States. Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other Eritreans living abroad, she had come back to participate in the April referendum on Eritrea's future. Eritreans who stayed abroad could vote absentee. The tally was a 98.5-percent "yes" vote for independence. On May 24, two years after the rebels won the war, Eritrea joyously observed its independence.

Now, despite the challenges of an extremely poor, undeveloped nation, many Eritreans living abroad want to move back, to help rebuild their country. Some already have returned.

"A lot of people want to come back and help," says Genet. Eritrea "is going to be a beautiful country soon. I want to be a part of it."

Back in 1977, though, her thoughts were only of escape.

Her father, who owned an oil-tanker truck, hid her in the bed behind the driver's seat, folding it up to fool police at roadblocks. He drove her down the winding road from the Ethiopian capitol, Addis Ababa, to the Red Sea port of Assab. From there she walked to the tiny neighboring country of Djibouti, a 15-day trek, dodging police and military patrols. Discovering her escape, Ethiopian police arrested her parents. After threatening them, the police let them go. Genet emigrated to the US after a year. N ow she is a micrographics specialist in Fairfax, Va.

In an interview in the dining room of the Nyala Hotel here, Genet said she was thinking of moving back. It's a dream of everyone who left, she says.

But life here for the skilled and well-settled abroad would not be easy, she notes. "We take a lot of things for granted in America. You see people here who lived without lights and water for so many years."

Still, it's not the rudimentary comforts that expatriate Eritreans would miss the most; it's the lack of good schools. Many were destroyed in the war. Today the country's educational system is stumbling to its feet, but it still lacks the high quality that educated Eritreans in developed countries have come to expect.

When Eritrea has good schools, says Genet, who has an 11-year-old son, "I'll be the first one to come." Bekit Gerense: Starting an egg business from scratch

Some Eritreans get around the lack of good schools by moving back and leaving their families abroad. Bekit Gerense, for example, returned in May 1991, but left his wife and children in Hanover, Germany. "I returned five days after liberation," he says, standing proudly in front of some of the 500 new metal cages, freshly painted red, that soon will hold some 2,000 chickens. Mr. Bekit, a trained mechanic and electrician, is launching one of Asmara's new businesses - a chicken and egg wholesale enterprise.

There have been a few poultry firms before in Eritrea, but this is the first one to use local materials in the construction, says Tedros Demoz, Eritrean manager of a German-financed program to help Eritreans living in Germany resettle here.

Bekit has already hired three workers and plans to hire seven more. He also intends to use the chicken manure as a biogas source to heat water in his house, use solar panels for the incubators, and eventually build a second poultry house and perhaps the kind of truck and auto repair garage he ran before he fled Ethiopia in 1975.

From 1975 to 1981 he worked in Sudan in the transportation department of the rebels who won the war, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). In 1981 he went to Germany, where he was granted political asylum.

Bekit's poultry business will not be a big operation, but it's the kind of business others can emulate, especially with the help of start-up loans offered by the German government. Eritrean officials hope other countries will copy the German program to help more Eritrean refugees return home.

The rebuilding task facing Eritrea is enormous. "We have accumulated problems, not solutions," says Mr. Tedros of the legacy of a war-shattered nation. But returnees like Bekit are encouraging, he says. "He'll be an example to others willing to make small- and medium-scale enterprises," he says.

As for Bekit, he is running full steam ahead, after years in forced exile. "We have to build Eritrea from A to Z," he says. "I'm really happy." Cahsai Berhane: `This is the most stable country' in the region

At City Park Cafe here, on one of Asmara's broad boulevards, Eritreans gather for refreshment and discussion at outdoor tables under the shade of palm trees. Cahsai Berhane, an industrial consultant who moved back here last year from Brussels, is among them. Because of the housing crunch, he's living in a small room of his niece's home.

"I left [Eritrea] 30 years ago as a teenager," says Dr. Cahsai, sipping pink guava juice. "I've always wanted to come back." Music blasts from a cafe loudspeaker. The cafe attracts a varied crowd: elderly men in skirt-like robes and turbans, young women in stylish slacks, and others in jeans and loose-fitting sport shirts who wear sunglasses and money belts. It's difficult to tell returnees from Western-dressed locals who receive clothes and money from relatives living abroad.

The streets are crowded with little blue-and-white taxis, private cars, trucks, buses, and an occasional horse cart hauling passengers or perhaps a new TV.

Shop windows are jammed, and window shoppers abound. The city is clean - cleaner than usual, perhaps. A citywide sprucing-up preceded the influx of foreign observers for the referendum. Spared the bombings that destroyed many Eritrean towns and cities, Asmara is unexpectedly attractive, safer than most African cities, and extremely friendly.

"This may be a paradox," says Cahsai, "but after 30 years of war, this is the most stable country [in the region]." Ahmed Tahir Baduri: Trying to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees

"All the Eritreans are eager to come back," says Ahmed Tahir Baduri, who heads the Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs (CERA). "The problem is the economy in Eritrea. People cannot sustain themselves if they come [en masse]," he says in his office at CERA headquarters, a two-story building a few blocks from the cafe. Commissioner Ahmed stands up, walks around his desk, and gestures to a glass-covered table. Under the glass is a large map of Eritrea, with about 100 locations marked with dots. Each dot

represents a village that was destroyed in the war.

Of the estimated 750,000 Eritreans living outside the country today, some 100,000 are in Saudi Arabia, where many have found at least low-level jobs. Another 500,000 refugees, most of them former herders and farmers, are just across the border in Sudan. Most would like to return, but lack livestock, seeds, tools - the essentials to start over, Mr. Ahmed says.

The government plans to repatriate most of those in Sudan over the next three years, and is counting on substantial foreign help to do so. A hasty, unsupported return could lead to social unrest, Ahmed notes.

Even if the government can provide livestock and farming supplies, many will demand more, he adds: education, water, and health services - things they have had at least a little of in the refugee camps in Sudan. On the plus side, the refugees would spark a major increase in food production. Jamal Ahmed Moussa: `I'm jobless. How can I survive?'

One of some 80,000 Eritreans who have come back from Sudan without government help is Jamal Ahmed Moussa, who was there from 1971-91. "I'm happy to come back to be a citizen, rather than a refugee," he says, as he sits on a bench in the wide median strip of an Asmara boulevard. But life here is tough, he says. "I'm jobless. How can I survive?" He lives with his mother, who receives a small stipend for her years of cooking and washing clothes for the Eritrean rebels. His mother, like many Eritrean parents , lost track of her son in the confusion of displacement in the long war. "She was very happy to find me alive," he says.

He is applying for a job as a driver, though he lacks the money to pay for a license. But, he adds: "Home is better - even if you are hungry." Tedros Tekle: A former rebel fighter has settled permanently abroad

Not all Eritreans would agree. Some who came back from abroad to vote have no plans to move here.

"I'm settled," says Tedros Tekle, who works for a cable-TV company in Denver and is married to an American. He was a rebel fighter from 1974 to '78. His sister, Fikadu Lucas, and brother, Kibrom Kiros Tekle, are still in the military. She was wounded twice in the war. Another brother and sister died in the fighting.

Mr. Tedros returned for the April referendum - his first visit in 20 years. At the airport, his father had to ask friends if that man was really his son. They wept as they embraced. "It felt like joy tears," Tedros says.

At the time of this interview, Tedros had been reunited with his sister only three hours earlier. They were sitting together in a hotel lobby, his arm around her shoulder.

A fighter for the past 19 years, she was only 13 when Tedros left. "If I'd met him in the street, I'd never have re membered him," she said, sounding surprisingly shy for a fighter. "When I saw him, I cried a lot. Now we're going to start where we left off." Berhane Mesfin: Rekindling chiildhood memories in a mud-walled home

Berhane Mesfin, an engineer who moved back here in early 1992 from Germany, is starting over, too, in several ways.

Well-educated, articulate, and skilled, the elevator contractor clearly represents Eritrea's economic future - but he wants to be heard politically as well.

"We need a kind of government that opens up" to ideas from returnees, Mr. Berhane says.

"This bondage has to be broken," he adds, referring to the tight clique of mostly ex-rebel leaders running the country.

He points to an "ineffective taxation system," and the government's dual exchange rate, which he says contributes to inflation.

"If we don't take the risk to try to correct things," he says, "and [instead] look for higher profits ... it won't help the country." He is trying to jump start this shaken nation economically and politically. Meanwhile, he is also rediscovering his Eritrean roots.

"You see that blue door over there?" he says, walking through a maze of dirt passageways, accompanied by a friend, a reporter, a photographer, and a polite but playful troupe of barefoot children, "That's where I used to live."

The homes in his old neighborhood are are mud-walled; this is one of the oldest and poorest sections of Asmara - a city better-known for its modern, brightly painted villas and shaded avenues.

With some hesitation, and after an invitation from the current owner, Berhane walks into the one-room residence, his childhood home. As he reminisces, I ask to see an adjacent, similarly sized home.

Inside the clean, neatly arranged, small room are a table with a blue and red plastic tablecloth, several chairs, and two beds for the four residents. An oil drum in the corner serves as a grain storage bin. On the walls hang plates and kitchen utensils, and small rugs and magazine clippings. Electricity and water are available just outside the door, in the dirt compound.

Eritrea - whether it is the land of the farmer, the city of childhood memories, or the promise of freedom in a new country - calls to its dispersed people. Some will resist the call. But for many more, the question is not whether to move back, but when.

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