Dream comes true for father of the struggle: 'Eritrea's Nelson Mandela' tells of his long struggle for independence

THE OLD man lowers himself painfully on to the sofa and apologises for being unwell. 'I did not sleep last night, it is my stomach, too much joy.'

In 1941, Wolde Ab Wolde Mariam was editor of the Eritrean Weekly News. British forces had just defeated the Italians at the battle of Keren, and Eritrea was under British military administration. Wolde Ab used his regular column in the Asmara weekly to promote his dream - an independent Eritrea.

Twelve years and seven assassination attempts later, he fled into exile and stayed there for 37 years. Now 87, he is feted as the Nelson Mandela of Eritrea, and when more than 99 per cent of Eritreans voted in favour of independence in the referendum last weekend his dream finally came true.

He lives with his wife in a small, comfortable house allocated to him in Asmara, where a stream of visitors come to pay their respects. 'Too much joy,' he repeats with a calm smile. Although he is slow and frail, his handshake and his eyes are steady. 'Now I have only one message for the people of Eritrea: 'Never fight an aggressive war. Live at peace with your neighbours.' '

'You know,' he says as though he has just thought of it, 'love is stronger than hate. In the end love wins.' It seems a strange sentiment from the hero of a people who have fought and won a bitter war that lasted 30 years.

I ask him if he had ever carried a gun. 'I would rather die than carry a gun,' he replies. 'There were seven attempts on my life, one attempted poisoning, three by guns and three bombings. I survived not because of guns, it was the will of God. The British said to me: 'You must protect yourself, we cannot protect you.' But I said no. I have never carried a gun.'

It has always been assumed that the assassination attempts were carried out by the Ethiopians, who wanted Eritrea to be part of Ethiopia. After the fourth attempt Wolde Ab moved into a small hotel and continued to publish his newspaper from there, without going out. But strychnine was still put in his food.

After the United Nations decided that Eritrea should be federated with Ethiopia in 1952, Wolde Ab founded the Eritrean Workers' Party to try to get the decision reversed. Ten days later he was shot and spent five months in hospital. This time he left the country and went to Khartoum and then Cairo. He made friends with Gamal Abdel Nasser and was allowed to broadcast his nationalist message to Eritrea.

But after Suez, when the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, offered to mediate between Egypt and Britain, his price was the silencing of Wolde Ab - and Nasser agreed. For the next few years he wandered the Middle East preaching the cause and searching for support.

In the 1960s the Eritrean Liberation Front was founded, fought and fell apart - he, an Evangelical Lutheran, was not the leading member of this largely Islamic movement. He was a founder member of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1970, but when the two movements went to war he tried to mediate, failed and was forced to resign.

On his desk are his half-finished memoirs. He doubts he will finish them before he dies. The bell rings and four grey- haired old men enter the room, tiptoeing with respect. They turn out to be four of the first EPLF fighters. Each one bends and kisses the old man sitting in his dressing gown and slippers on the sofa. He forgets one of their names and apologises profusely several times. One of the old men turns to me and says, 'This man was our hero when we were little schoolboys.'

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