Old timers put Eritrea's trains back on the rails

David Orr makes tracks to Asmara to find old men coaxing an ancient transit system back to life, as their country recovers from years of conflict
Click to follow
The Independent Online
His colleagues in the railway yard call him Hakim nai Transport - Doctor Transport. It is their little joke, but also a mark of respect for a veteran worker who has come out of retirement to help restore Eritrea's once venerable railway system.

At 76, Gherezghiher Cardelli is the oldest man at work on the restoration project. But he is by no means the only old-timer busy with spanner and wrench in the railway yard of Eritrea's highland capital, Asmara. More than a dozenhoary-headed elders have joined him in helping to restart the steam locomotives. Some of the trains are nearly as old as Mr Cardelli.

"I am happy, especially when I hear the trains whistle," said the septuagenarian mechanic. "I love working with the trains. For 33 years I was employed on the railway. Then, for 20 years, I had no job because the trains were not going during the war. Now here I am back at work."

It was 1976 when the last train travelled from Asmara to the town of Massawa on the Red Sea. After 15 years of fighting between Eritrea and its southern neighbour, Ethiopia, it became impossible to maintain the line. Soldiers favoured the steel rails and sleepers for shoring up their trenches.

Railmen did their best to make repairs but eventually gave up. After the railway's demise, Eritrea's struggle for freedom was to continue for another 15 years, making it the longest war in modern African history.

The railway, begun in 1887 in the dawn of the Italian colonial rule, occupies a central role in Eritrean history. In 1935 it was used by the Italians to facilitate their invasion of Ethiopia. During the 1940s, when Eritrea was a British protectorate, the line was temporarily extended to link with the Anglo-Egyptian condominium of Sudan.

By 1991, when fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) marched into Asmara and freed their country from three decades of Ethiopian occupation, the railway was but another ravaged feature of their war-torn land. Up to 80,000 people, including 60,000 EPLF fighters, had died in the struggle - Mr Cardelli lost a son at the front line. Countless thousands of people were disabled, and nearly three- quarters of a million had fled abroad, most of them into neighbouring Sudan.

With the economy in ruins and the soil barren from neglect, nearly everything in Eritrea - a country the size of England - had to be rebuilt from scratch.

The two railway lines - the 70 miles which linked the capital with the coast, and the 120 miles which ran from Asmara to Agordat in the interior - had been literally scattered about the countryside. The engines and carriages languished, rusting and broken, in sidings, while the stations were almost completely destroyed. Only Asmara station, with its stores, workshops and running shed, had been untouched by the conflict.

Two years after the liberation, in the same year as Eritrea officially declared its independence from Ethiopia, the EPLF government started making plans for the reconstruction of the railway. By last year the work had begun in earnest.

Young people were drafted in to work alongside older men like Mr Cardelli, who were the only ones with the expertise to run the antique engines. Teams of people, mostly volunteers, were sent to scour the countryside for rails and sleepers.

With the dogged self-reliance and resourcefulness characteristic of Eritreans, the railway committee decided to use home-grown know-how to rebuild the system.

"We approached various countries to get quotations for repair work", said Amanuel Ghebreselassie, head of the railway rehabilitation project. "One Italian company said they would do it for $100m (pounds 65m). An American company offered to undertake a feasibility study for $190,000 (pounds 125,000). The British Steel Corporation presented us with an estimate which would have come to pounds 5m just for the rails from Asmara to Massawa. So we decided to do it all ourselves."

So far, 26 miles of track have been laid inland from the port of Massawa.

Little more than 3 miles of the line is actually operational and even that is having problems; the day The Independent arrived for a jaunt, the little diesel locomotive which had been plying the route stood stranded in a siding, its engine broken. A few days later, however, a huge 1957 Krupp replacement, lashed to a trailer with steel cables, set off from Asmara down the sinuous road to the coast.

The yards of Asmara are something of a train-spotter's paradise, with steam locomotives and other railway hardware scattered about as if the country had just awoken from a prolonged sleep - which in a way it has. In addition to three steam-driven shunting engines, vintage 1929, there are three large Italian steam locomotives dating from 1938, and a Littorina, or passenger bus, built by Fiat in 1935.

The rolling stock which lies rusting behind the station looks beyond repair, though the station foreman, Tzeggai Abraha, insists this is not so. Another former combatant, Mr Tzeggai, one-armed and limping from his war wounds, was happy to take The Independent around the Asmara yards, but he insisted no photographs should be taken of the displaced families squatting in the goods cars. Like the beggars who have been removed from the streets, the homeless represent the darker side of the new order which the authorities prefer to hide from view.

Enough rails and sleepers have now been collected for the rebuilding of the whole Asmara-to-Massawa line. The tunnels, all 30 of them, have been unblocked. If the work goes according to plan, the planners believe it will be possible to travel from capital to coast by next year.

"We're hoping to buy two or three more locomotives from Italy," said Mr Ghebreselassie. "If we can transport one-third of our goods by rail, that will be enough. We'll use the diesel engines for that [and] the steam locos could be used for tourism".

It could be one of the world's great little railway journeys, chugging at a leisurely pace through the Eritrean highlands, amid ragged peaks and terraced slopes, to the coastal plain which, during certain months, counts among the hottest places on earth.

"I'm happy and proud to have helped repair the trains", said Mr Cardelli. "I'm healthy and hope I'll live long enough to make the journey to Massawa once more before I die."