Eritrean Run

Squeezing the nearest hand-hold, my right knuckles turned red from friction with the passenger door while my left hand clung to the handle of a 10-gallon water jug secured behind my bench. Our driver and translator, Kelata Abraham, honked each time he approached a blind mountain curve. This road of dirt and loose rocks was cut into the largely treeless highlands of central Eritrea, once a part of Ethiopia on the African Home. We were in a 6-cylinder, 4-door Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with a reserve diesel tank whose gauge was conveniently roof-mounted alongside an altimeter. Its needle read 2,200 meters (7,200 ft). Outside my window was a shoulderless drop-off whose end I couldn’t see.

We were on a day trip just outside the Eritrean capital of Asmara, before setting out on our main journey — a 200-mile run, first through the highlands and then down into its desert plains all the way to Eritrea’s western border with Sudan. As freelance journalists, our goal was to find and interview Sudanese guerrillas who had just opened up a new front there against Sudan’s regime.

The product of an Islamic revolution, it is backed now by both Iran and Iraq. En shala, Arabic for God willing, we’d return safely.

My partner, Dan Connel, even with his grizzled moustache and thinning hair, looks and acts much younger than his 52 years. He has been covering wars here for the BBC, The Washington Post and others since 1976. Lengthy time away from home, however, led to family tensions including the painful estrangement of his youngest daughter. But before we left Asmara, Dan received a letter addressed “Dear Daddy,” in which his daughter wrote that she just had a baby girl. “Now I’ve got them both to celebrate,” he gushed, showing faint spider webs around hazel eyes.

Our first stop was an old plantation decorated with rows of violet bougainvilleas, a flowering tree whose limbs grow like vines. Today, they ring farms and vineyards throughout Eritrea — a legacy of the Italians who colonized it back in 1889. Later the Italians tried to expand south into neighboring Ethiopia. Sipping tea under an old log-and-bougainvillea canopy, I contemplated my own maternal roots and link to this region. My great-grandfather, Theodore Mussano, had served here as a non-commissioned officer in the Italian army. He was one of the few Italians to survive the 1896 Battle of Adua, a decisive campaign which checked Italy’s reach on the African Horn until the time of Mussolini.

Next we visited Zagher, a village where Dan is nothing short of a walking legend. Some of his old friends invited us into their home, shooing away two donkeys from the sitting logs on the dirt floor. We were treated to bitter home-brewed beer and a spread of shuro, a chickpea sauce spiced with fiery berbere, served communally over injerra, a flat, sponge-like bread, which is this area’s staple. Respecting decorum, we ate with our right hands, as the left is reserved for a less sanitary chore.

Eritrea, which only became an independent nation in 1993, is itself a mélange of the region’s cultures. The Tigrinya people and language dominate, although Arabic, especially in the lowlands near Sudan, is also widely spoken. Spiritually, the population is about equally divided between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims. There is also a small minority who, like Kelata, are Catholic, converted first by Spanish Jesuits and later the Italians. These differences came clear during our journey. Seeing our white faces, children in the highlands repeatedly yelled “Italiani” to get our attention, while in the lowlands they playfully shouted “Khawagia”, the local Arabic word for white people.

A flat tire in Asmara delayed our departure for Sudan. But the Kumho 16-inch, all-terrain steel-belted radials still had almost an inch of tread. Kelata checked their air pressure, and made sure the diesel tanks were topped off. Our rented 1994 Land Cruiser had an appropriate Sandstone finish embellished with red sport stripes. Despite 53,657 kilometers, its ignition timing and compression sounded perfect. So did its cassette deck. Kelata brought Tigrinya ballads as well as some hybrids of traditional melodies with rock.

Security was a concern. In addition to the civil war in Sudan, Eritrea was fighting its own guerrillas, a small but very dangerous group known as Islamic Jihad or Islamic Holy War. But so far it had been limited to isolated acts of terrorism and assassinations, and, even among Muslims, seems to have little support. One reason is that Eritreans, Muslims and Christians alike just finished waging a 30-year war for independence against Ethiopia, leaving Eritreans everywhere with an uncanny sense of national pride. Take Asmara. It is both the cleanest and safest capital I’ve visited on five continents. Nonetheless, Islamic Jihad was still active in the lowlands, suspected of planting large land mines on rural roads, which had killed dozens of people.

While the road out of Asmara was paved, there was little if any shoulder, even as we climbed to 2,800 meters (9,240 ft). When there was a guardrail, it was only a series of white cement squares, each just a few feet high, and spaced out with almost a car length between them. Adding to the challenge, oncoming vehicles, especially large Fiat trucks, tended to hug the middle of the road, while mountain goats herded by mongrel dogs and Tigrinya shepherds often appeared as well without warning.

The terrain looked dusty and dry, even though it was the end of the highland’s rainy season. Topsoil here had little to cling to with most of the trees either cut down for firewood or otherwise destroyed during the war. Reminding us of it, about every hour we passed the rusted carcass of a tank. The more mangled ones had clearly been blown apart by large mines, while others looked like they had simply broken down and been abandoned by their Ethiopian drivers. Models included Soviet T-54s, and M-48s designed by Chrysler.

Each superpower had backed Ethiopia at different times against the Eritrean guerrillas, as what was an intense struggle between local forces was only part of a larger contest for them. The United States armed Ethiopia until 1977, when its new government turned east toward the Soviet Union. Regardless, the Eritrean guerrillas fought each foreign-backed regime with equal vigor.

Meanwhile, neighboring Somalia, which had been a Soviet ally, flipped in the opposite direction. At the same time, Sudan stayed in the American camp — until 1989 when its Islamic revolutionaries seized power.

Blacktop soon changed to dirt and rocks. Softer coil springs made this ’94 Land Cruiser a serious improvement over the durable, but spine-jolting ’70s and ’80s models that I had endured covering wars in Central America. Though the Land Cruiser’s oversized radiator can make it hard to get the heater fired up in winter, here — where temperatures can climb as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit — our temperature gauge stayed well below the medium mark.

Descending to 800 meters (2,640 ft), we began to pass mountains of meteor-size boulders cracked from once-solid rock by the sun. Yet, Dan remarked that he had never seen the surrounding plains look so green. Abundant rainfall had made the brush and even some grass flush with color, while acacia trees, whose limbs branch out in a natural canopy, were also blooming. Dan had been here back in late 1984, when Ethiopia, then including Eritrea, suffered the worst famine in memory.

We stopped for the night in Keren, a small city settled between two jagged rows of mountains that open up into the desert. Kelata took us to see a giant baobab tree where, 141 years ago, Italian Franciscans had made a shrine. During World War II, according to legend, Italian soldiers who were under attack from British planes took refuge inside the tree and Survived. But many on both sides of this battle did not. Near the shrine today is a cemetery for British soldiers still maintained by the United Kingdom. Back in 1935, Mussolini reversed the defeat at Adua to finally annex Ethiopia along with Eritrea, with Italian forces staying in both until being driven out by the British in 1941. (The winning allies later made Ethiopia and Eritrea one state). According to the British Cemetery book, “the most bloody and decisive battle, took place here at Keren.”

The graves were adorned with freshly planted flowers, with a caretaker just finishing for the day. I gravitated to one, that of Captain H.S. Frost of the Cheshire Regiment, who, at 27, died on the battle’s last day. His headstone read: “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This. That a Man Lay Down His Life for Friends.” I wondered if this was an embellishment granted gratuitously to fallen officers. But only a few men, officers and enlisted men alike, had any such inscription. Next to Frost were I. Ulrich and S. Wajnsztejn, “pioneers” in the same unit. Engraved into each of their headstones was a Star of David.

More heat followed the dawn. Most of the riverbeds were dry, as they only have water during and right after a rain. But in a few places their banks were overgrown with tall palm trees, a green oasis in a dusty sea. We still had to stop often for passing herds of goats as well as sheep, and several times for camel trains loaded with firewood and led by bearded men wearing thin, white cotton jebel alias, one-piece mountain covers.

Islamic Jihad was still on our minds. The previous night we ran into an Eritrean doctor who is an old friend of Dan’s. He told us about two recently captured Jihad fighters. One he described as a young, impressionable lad who left his pastoral life here to move to Sudan’s urban capital of Khartoum where he was introduced to revolutionary Islamic ideas. But since his father had supported the Eritrean struggle, Eritrean officials saw him as a good kid under bad influence, and eventually let him go. The other one, however, admitted to being with jihad for six years. “He had a knife and a gun,” said the doctor, who had removed a bullet from his chest before turning him over to authorities from Asmara. “He told me that he shot Christians, but that he only used his knife to cut the throats of Muslims who failed to support their Holy War.”

The next morning for breakfast we had an egg, bean and onion dish, served with injerra and shai, Arabic for tea, with lots of sugar. On the way out of town, a young woman asked us for a ride. Selam, as I’ll call her, wore plastic gold shoes and a red-flowered dress with long sleeves, along with a green-print scarf covering her hair. She is an elementary school teacher. After she climbed in, one of her pupils, a beaming girl, ran up to hand us a clear plastic bottle of mineral water. Selam, who speaks Arabic as well as English, thanked her in Tigrinya. Shy at first, Selam displayed a delightful sense of humor. She told me that she had relatives living in Sudan. But mostly we played games with language and guffawed together when a redheaded bird perched on the back of a grazing goat.

Later we approached a deep riverbed, where a crowd of people and vehicles had gathered. Selam, to avoid giving the wrong impression, re-arranged her scarf to also cover the sides of her face and neck. It had rained heavily several days before, with the flood washing out the packed dirt, which had made a passageway through this depression. (Its bridge had been knocked out long ago.) A group of men pushed first a truck and then a bus through successfully. Once the way was clear, the Land Cruiser’s 4-wheel drive low range easily conquered this slippery challenge.

We dropped Selam off in Tessenei, the last town before Sudan, and then went on to find our Sudanese guerrilla contacts. Later, they took us to see a group of about 25 fighters dug in behind the rocks of a ridge just over the border. Armed with Kalashnikov rifles and larger machine guns, they peered out over the open plain at a Sudanese Army outpost. Two weeks before, these same fighters had ambushed a group of Sudanese militia riding in a Toyota Land Cruiser, destroying it and killing seven. Now the guerrillas handed me binoculars to see another Toyota Land Cruiser, a white 4-door with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted in back, raising a train of dust as it raced for the safety of the outpost.

Back in Tessenei, we met with Eritrean Army officers. They told us about two anti-vehicular land mines that had recently been uncovered on rural roads — planted, they said, by Islamic Jihad. Driving off to inspect one we got a flat. After changing it, we went back to town to get it fixed. An Eritrean Army colonel joined us in the cab before we left again — only to get another flat. This time we just changed it and kept going. Then at about 45 mph we hit a football-size rock, blowing a third tire. Without an extra spare to go on, the colonel flagged down a 6-wheel Russian military truck, while Kelata stayed behind with the Land Cruiser.

The colonel took us to see one of the mines with both its pressure plate and detonator safely removed. A new one made of plastic, it had markings in French, German and Italian. While waiting for Kelata to fetch us, an 18 year-old Eritrean Army soldier, Aden, prepared a batch of spoon-standing coffee. Following tradition, she first crushed the grounds, and then boiled water over charcoal fire, before brewing the grounds several times in a smaller silver pot filtered with horse hairs to serve the three progressively less potent rounds. Later Aden showed us her less traditional side, brandishing her Kalashnikov rifle.

We left a day later after lunch — soon to be overcome by a group of Eritrean Army soldiers in, of course, a Toyota Land Cruiser. They had just discovered a land mine a few miles back on the very same road that we were traveling. We went back to inspect and photograph it. Except for the lot number, it was identical to the other mine. Although the soldiers had already disarmed it, they feared lifting the charge itself for fear that it might also be booby-trapped.

Like the villagers who pass by every few hours in crowded buses, we were lucky. The only reason that nobody hit this mine is that it must have been planted over a week ago, before the last strong rain. The shifting mud and sand had changed the course of the road, with vehicles passing now only about 100 ft away. Fortunately one of the laborers sent to repair it saw part of the mine’s pressure plate sticking out of the dirt.

In single file we walked back to our Land Cruiser, and drove on. I prayed, to no particular deity, that we wouldn’t find any more mines. Humdillylah, Thanks Be to God, we didn’t.