Frontline: Asmara - Eritrea struggles to get on track but flies high in war

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The Independent Online
A WHISTLING black steam engine and a string of canopied rail carriages chug out of Ginda station, claiming a place, without shame, at the turn of the millennium. Renovated, refurbished and moving at a maximum speed of 50 kilometres an hour, this is Eritrea's most ambitious contemporary transportation project - the reactivation of an engine system built by Italian Alpine troops in 1897. It has taken four years to relay the tracks as far as Ginda, 50 kilometres from Masawa port, and will take more to get as far as the capital Asmara.

It epitomises the philosophy of self-reliance in Africa's newest state in the Horn of Africa, where what is used is what is at hand. When Evelyn Waugh wrote fondly of the train in Scoop, he said passengers used to get off to pick blackberries in the mountains approaching Asmara, then jump back on.

This is a project that the Eritrean President, Issaias Afewerki, has personally nurtured - jumping on for an inaugural ride this month - turning down an offer from Saudi Arabia to pay good money for the "scrap metal", and instead mobilising veteran octogenarian mechanics to reactivate history.

Considered mad at first - or at least eccentric - it really is working, and, donors now agree, shows remarkably good economic sense for a poor, developing country.

But hold on, apply the brakes ... Isn't this, too, the country that has just spent more than an estimated $120m (pounds 75m) on the latest MiG fighter jets, in order to have the capability of bombing the capital of neighbouring Ethiopia? Is this not also the country where some 30 Russian mechanics drink vodka and collect girls in the bars on the airport road. The Russians are here to service - and probably fly - technology that is so sophisticated and deadly that even the most skilful Eritrean pilot finds himself behind the times. It is where the expanding airport facilities in Asmara manage to accommodate foreign military cargo planes, including, last week, the massive Iranian-flagged Illusion - whose secret load was unlikely to be spare parts for the steam engine from Masawa.

The cost of war also extends to making your neighbours' enemies your friends. Somalia's fighting factions have, already - according to regional weapons experts - received more arms from the two sides over the last few months than from anywhere else over the last few years.

Preoccupation with the war with Ethiopia - briefly a friendly neighbour which facilitated Eritrean independence in 1993 but, in the larger picture, historically seen here as the repressive empire state which, under Emperor Haile Selassie, annexed the tiny Italian colony in a sell-out deal - has made a huge impact on a country of only 3.5 million people.

The steam train has come to a halt. "We are waiting for the go-ahead to lay the rails to Asmara," says Yohannes Asmelash, deputy station manager at Ginda.

He appears convinced that nothing, not even a high-tech war, can stand in the way of the locomotives.

One setback is the loss of Ethiopian labour. When the conflict started last May, many Ethiopians left. They had a special role in the railway project in tracing the millions of pieces of railway track that went missing when, in 1974, Eritrea started its war of independence against Ethiopia's notorious Soviet-supported Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Some 270kms of railway disappeared, ripped up by Ethiopian soldiers to reinforce the trenches and bunkers. Hundreds of former fighters have been mobilised over the last few years to find the old shelters and retrieve the precious metal.

Now, the Ethiopians have retaken the bit of land that Eritrea claimed as its own - to great fanfare in Addis Ababa - but there is no official ceasefire. The tension over colonial borders, and access to the Red Sea, will continue. Eritrean television runs emotive scenes from the days of Emperor Haile Selassie, of Mengistu Haile Mariam screaming and parading in Revolutionary Square, and, it seems, can comfortably extend the footage to include today's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi - once considered a friend.

It was not difficult for hundreds of thousands of former fighters to slip back into old roles abandoned only eight years ago.

Mobile hospitals and tea canteens were skilfully set up in the network of trenches, which run like rabbit warrens along the gullies and ridges of the unforgiving mountainous terrain.

"It's all a bit too Napoleonic for me" said one aid worker, watching pictures on satellite television of a shell-shocked, Eritrean soldier vomiting in the trenches, hair grey with dust from an exploded shell, clutching a Kalashnikov rifle and staring wildly at the camera.

It is a conflict where the past is as important as the present, and is unlikely to be solved by today's diplomats pleading peace, development and democracy.

Ancient languages will be redeployed; and military solutions - which worked well enough before - will punctuate a regional dialogue, while the dollars, sadly, flow abroad.

Lucy Hannan