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Struggle and Survival on the Horn of Africa: Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmerom
The Washington Diplomat / September 2001

By Larry Luxner

For many diplomats stationed in the nation's capital, being their country's envoy to the United States is the toughest and most challenging assignment of their careers. But for Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmerom, Washington is a breeze compared to the tumultuous time he served in Ethiopia.

For 30 years, Eritrea -- a Mississippi-sized strip of land along the Red Sea -- had been locked in a war of liberation against much larger Ethiopia. In 1991, Eritrea finally achieved military victory, paving the way for independence two years later. But in 1997, "Ethiopian troops came back to re-annex Eritrea," says Asmerom, who at the time was accredited to both Ethiopia and the Addis Ababa-based Organization of African Unity.

As border skirmishes intensified, Ethiopian officials declared Asmerom and his entire diplomatic staff persona non grata.

"One day, they told me to leave the country within 24 hours, and I protested," he recalled during an interview at his embassy on New Hampshire Avenue. "I told them they could restrict my movement in Addis, but that I was still Eritrea's representative to the OAU. They threatened me anyway.

"At the airport, they delayed the plane deliberately, so that my 24-hour diplomatic immunity would expire," he said. "Four police officers with guns came, searched me and confiscated all my property, which is a violation of the Vienna Convention. When I arrived in Jedda [Saudi Arabia], none of my luggage was there. My bags had been deliberately confiscated by Ethiopian security. The next day, they went to my residence in Addis and ransacked my files. To this day, the place is occupied by Ethiopian security. They have violated every law and defied all logic."

Asmerom, 51, makes no secret of his hatred for the current Ethiopian government, which he claims is dominated by ethnic Tigray nationalists who comprise only 4 million of Ethiopia's 60 million people.

"During our war of liberation, they were our allies," he said. "When we marched into Asmara [Eritrea's capital], the Tigray People's Liberation Front marched into Addis. But the people of Ethiopia always questioned their legitimacy. There, a minority regime rules over the majority. They ascertain power through the gun. They want to use the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea as cannon fodder for the creation of a greater Tigray."

The Horn of Africa has never been a tranquil place, with complex ethnic rivalries, tribal warfare and abject poverty fueling bloodshed for centuries. But things really began heating up after World War II, when Allied forces liberated Italy's three remaining colonies in Africa: Eritrea, Libya and Somalia. In 1941, the British took over Eritrea for a 10-year period while the newly formed United Nations debated what to do with the problematic territory. In 1952, the UN established Eritrea as an autonomous entity federated with Ethiopia.

Asmerom said U.S. policy in the early 1950s was guided by then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who proclaimed that "in terms of justice, the people of Eritrea deserve their independence, but in terms of America's geopolitical interests in the region, Eritrea must be federated with our ally, Ethiopia."

Yet "the people of Eritrea never accepted this arrangement," said Asmerom. "Our armed struggle for independence began in 1961, when all peaceful means had been exhausted. Then [Ethiopian Emperor] Haile Selassie violated the federal arrangement and in 1962 annexed Eritrea. That's when we began fighting for our independence. After 30 years of war, we succeeded, on our own. No external forces supported us -- the only independence movement in the world that has achieved its objective by its own resources."

For years, Asmerom has been a part of that struggle. Born in Eritrea and raised in Ethiopia, the young man was a talented soccer player who in 1968 traveled to Mexico as a member of the Ethiopian Olympic National Soccer Team. Asmerom took his love of the game to America, where in the early 1970s he even worked as a soccer coach for the District of Columbia's summer recreation program.

But by 1974 -- the year he earned a master's degree in international affairs from Washington's American University -- the focus of Asmerom's life had shifted from soccer to self-determination for the Eritrean people. He joined the Marxist-inspired Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1977, and over the next eight years, headed the EPLF's Amharic-language clandestine radio program and eventually was put in charge of information at the EPLF's self-styled Department of Foreign Relations.

"After AU, I joined the liberation struggle," Asmerom said. "For 14 years, I was fighting in the bush as a combatant."

That struggle ended on May 24, 1991, when allied Eritrean and Ethiopian groups committed to the overthrow of Ethiopia's communist government marched triumphantly into Asmara.

"Ours was a peoples' war. Everybody contributed," he said. "The other side was an occupation army, which came with tanks and airplanes. It's not fair to call this a civil war."

In April 1993, Eritrea held a referendum in which 99.98 percent of voters supported independence. Ethiopia's new leaders were sympathetic to the Eritrean cause, even though millions of Ethiopians were angered over the loss of their country's long Red Sea coastline.

In May, just a month after the referendum, Eritrea became the world's newest country, and it established friendly relations, not only with Ethiopia, but with dozens of other nations.

By the time he became a diplomat, Asmerom had already served as chief of protocol and later as African affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the head of Eritrean television at the Ministry of Information and Culture. After his sudden departure from Ethiopia in 1999, Asmerom served as Eritrea's envoy in South Africa for two years before taking up residence in Washington just four months ago.

Despite its small population, Eritrea encompasses nine ethnic groups, which speak nine languages. The two main languages for business are Tigrinya and Arabic, and English to a lesser extent. Italian is also used, but it is "fading away," says Asmerom, adding that "30 years of war has given us a common bond. We all fought in the trenches together."

Only Tigrinya and Tigre use the ancient Ge'ez script which is also common to Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. Asmerom himself speaks Amharic, English and Arabic in addition to his native Tigrinya.

Sadly, although the two countries have many differences, about the only thing they have in common is desperate poverty. Eritrea's per-capita gross domestic product is only $200 a year, twice that of Ethiopia's but still one of the lowest in the world. Average life expectancy at birth is 49 for males and 52 for females, while adult illiteracy is 34 percent for males and 62 percent for females. That's why neither country could afford the war that broke out between them in 1997 and only ended last year.

That latest conflict -- coming on the heels of Eritrea's long struggle for independence -- was sparked, among other things, by Ethiopia's refusal to accept Eritrea's new currency, the nakfa, for bilateral trade. Around the same time, minor incidents broke out in the Badme border area in Tigray. Since there had been some border discrepancies already, a bilateral Ethio-Eritrean commission had been set up in November 1997, meeting alternately in Asmara and Addis Ababa.

Yet the commission wasn't effective, and a full-scale border war finally erupted in May 1998. In its aftermath, said Asmerom, Ethiopia forcibly expelled more than 70,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians with Eritrean blood. Eritrea denies having deported any Ethiopians in return, saying instead that Eritrean authorities -- acting under the supervision of the International Red Cross -- "repatriated" 20,000 Ethiopians who specifically expressed a desire to return to their country.

When it was all over, more than 19,000 soldiers were dead and around one million civilians left homeless on the Eritrean side. Estimates are that at least 60,000 people died and some 350,000 were displaced by the war on the Ethiopian side.

In April 2001, a temporary security zone was established along the entire Eritrean-Ethiopian border, and it is patrolled by UN peacekeepers under the terms of a ceasefire agreement signed in Algiers in December 2000.

One consequence of the continuing hostilities is Ethiopia's loss of the Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa. Now suddenly landlocked, Ethiopia has been forced to divert all its shipping traffic through neighboring Djibouti. Likewise, Ethiopian Airlines lost a substantial amount of passenger and cargo traffic when it could no longer offer direct service between Addis Ababa and Asmara. The airline is also prohibited from flying over Eritrean territory, forcing it to fly circuitous routes and adding to operating costs.

"As far I'm concerned, the regime in power [in Ethiopia] does not want a peaceful resolution of the conflict, because its ambition is to annex Eritrea. They have to pretend there's an external threat to stay in power," says Asmerom, adding that "they themselves withdrew their rights, because they declared war on us. It's costing them fortunes, and it's not our fault. It has never been Eritrea's fault."

Asmerom quickly adds that "we have never had a problem with the people of Ethiopia, only with the clique which is in power and which wants to secede from Ethiopia. They control the security. They control the army. They control all the government apparatus."

Although the actual fighting has stopped, a war of words continues in cyberspace, with hostile Web sites maintained by both Eritrean and Ethiopian exiles in the United States fanning a propaganda battle that has done nothing to bring reconciliation between the two peoples.

"At this moment, there is a UN-sponsored international peace agreement, which is now working on demarcation of the boundaries," says Asmerom. "We don't have diplomatic relations. They have their embassy, we have our embassy, but there's no official contact with Ethiopia anywhere in the world. I can meet the Ethiopian ambassador here in Washington and even joke with him, but I cannot have any official business with him."

Asmerom says that although Washington has never taken sides in the conflict, the relationship between the United States and Eritrea is "good, very good, excellent, one of the most exemplary relationships you could imagine."

During the years of its struggle for independence, the EPLF maintained a liaison office in Washington on 14th Street. In 1995, the Eritrean government purchased the current six-story embassy on New Hampshire Avenue, and since then it has become a focal point for Washington's large Eritrean community--the largest in the United States.

"We have a big constituency, and there's a very active Eritrean community here," says Asmerom, estimating that between 25,000 and 30,000 Eritreans live in the United States, including 6,000 in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Since 1986, with few exceptions, an annual Eritrean festival has been held here every summer. More than 10,000 people, including Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, attended the 1999 gathering.

This year's cultural festival, which took place Aug. 10-12, was held at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.

One example of entrepreneurship among Washington's Eritrean community is Lilly Tesfay, publisher of the new English-language fashion magazine Lela. Tesfay, a 24-year-old business student who came to the United States three years ago, says the quarterly magazine's mission is "to serve as a cultural bridge to those citizens of Eritrea who were born and raised in the diaspora."

Lela's circulation stands at around 5,000, and according to Tesfay, 35 percent of the profits from the sale of the magazine are donated to the Eritrean War Disabled Fighters Association.

Asmerom says the large Eritrean community in the United States is an ideal source of potential investment, as are the 100,000 or so Eritreans believed to be living in Germany, Italy, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

"Eritreans believe in partnership," he says. "That's our embassy's major activity, to talk to potential investors and work for economic development. We believe the dependency syndrome of the third world must be cut. We're not rejecting foreign aid, but we don't believe foreign aid is the solution."

The country has a huge potential for gold, copper, petroleum and other resources, says Asmerom, not to mention agribusiness and tourism.

Some companies, such as oil and gas conglomerate CMS Energy, have already begun exploratory drilling work in Eritrea. To the east, estimates of Sudan's recoverable reserves have been rising considerably, while to the southwest, Djibouti has been showing positive results from earlier explorations. Analysts also expect Eritrea's sector of the Red Sea to contain oil reserves; recently, CMS signed up for the 13,860-square-kilometer onshore and offshore Dismin bloc in northeast Eritrea.

Yet "large-scale exploration is unlikely to happen while the political landscape is uncertain," concludes Africa Monitor. The London-based newsletter, in its July 2001 issue, reports that 15 members of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), including government ministers and army generals, have signed a declaration that President Afwerki's behavior "had plunged the country into crisis." They also accused Afwerki of "conducting himself in an illegal and unconstitutional manner."

According to Africa Monitor, the PFDJ is currently the only legal political movement, and "it is unlikely that there will be time for other credible political parties to be formed before the elections set for December 2001."

In the meantime, Eritrea has its hands full with other disasters. The economy has been severely damaged by war and persistent droughts. Growth will depend largely on aid from international financial institutions and other bilateral donors as well as overseas investors. Agriculture will main depressed again this year, reports the newsletter, as rains have failed, and food aid will be needed to prevent widespread starvation.

"Eritrea used to be a major exporter of oranges, bananas and papayas to the Middle East and Europe," said Asmerom. "We are reactivating that. We also have 1,200 kilometers of coastline, so there's also huge potential for fishing. And we have virgin coral reefs to attract tourists."

In Asmara, there's only one five-star hotel, the Inter-Continental, and a few three- and four-star hotels. Tourism is almost non-existent, and only a handful of bona fide tourists have braved their way into Eritrea since the cessation of the latest hostilities.

"Eritrea has been in existence only for 10 years," says Asmerom, ever the optimist. "We are now putting in place the proper infrastructure for tourism development. We are literally asphalting every city. We are building big electric supply stations. We're building a big airport in Massawa, which can accommodate any type of plane, with concrete runways. Once we put in place the proper infrastructure, investors and tourists will come."

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