Thomas Keneally's journey into Eritrea

THOMAS Keneally was reading the rugby league scores from Australia. The results, faxed from his homeland, are the only things that distract him from the strange new passion in his life.

Eritrea, Africa's border with the Red Sea, is an odd place to find a 58-year-old prize-winning novelist. The author of Schindler's Ark, winner of the 1982 Booker prize, had just returned from a gruelling drive from Massawa, three hours of hairpin bends from the sweltering, ruined port to the capital of Eritrea, more than 6,000 feet up 70 miles of a narrow, twisting, disintegrated, pot-holed road through mountains that rocket up into the clouds.

He had passed an accident where a car had gone over the edge of the precipice. There was nothing he could do to help. And he had met the incarnation of the reason he is here. 'We passed a soldier in the terrible heat of the plain just before the foothills. He had his rifle and his belt of grenades, and he was wrapped in the blue flag of Eritrea. He was walking to Asmara to collect money for the children of Massawa. We gave him money and he gave us a receipt, and I have no doubt he will turn that money in. He started at eight this morning and it would not surprise me if he walked half the night.'

Keneally is not here collecting material for a new novel - he's done that. He is here observing an election. He cuts a peculiar figure among the suited diplomats, the casually dressed aid workers and journalists draped in cameras. He is a short, round, bald man with a round red face, a round grey beard and round twinkling eyes. Give him little horns, a tail and a pipe to play and he could model as a satyr. He skips along at a great pace, and at dinner with a group of heavy Australian senators who have also come as observers, he drops mischievous asides and chuckles richly.

In 1987 Keneally 'did the Eritrean trip', flew to Sudan, then made the long trek by road across to the Ethiopian border, up into the mountains, bouncing about in a Land Cruiser on rough roads to Orotta, the makeshift capital and military camp of the Eritrean People's Liberation Army (EPLF). Journeying on through the mountains, anxiously watching for enemy aircraft which bombed and strafed any vehicles on the roads, he went to the front, whose miles of trenches and deep bunkers at times resembled the Western Front in 1916.

As a result of his trip, he wrote Towards Asmara, which he describes as 'an attempt at fiction'; the characters are fictional but the setting is Eritrea 1987, taken from the notebooks and tapes he filled during the trip. The New York Times compared it to For Whom the Bell Tolls in its open support for an armed struggle. But Keneally was no tourist and, like many who visited Eritrea during the war, he was overwhelmed and fascinated by the spirit of the Eritreans. Two years ago, after the longest war of the 20th century, the Eritreans and their allies in Ethiopia overthrew the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and secured their independence. Yesterday was the last day of a three- day referendum to ratify that independence, and Keneally is an official observer.

'What you inevitably think about is the Israelis. These people should have given up years ago. I would have given up . . . they should have fragmented and disintegrated, they should have been, as Mengistu said, ground in the dust of Sudan, they should have been driven into the Red Sea.'

He first became involved with Eritrea in the mid-1980s through a friend, Fred Hollows, an Australian eye specialist. Hollows met the Eritrean representative in Australia, who had come to him with eye problems, and decided to see the country for himself. He kept visiting Eritrea until he died of cancer a few months ago. Hollows set in train Keneally's visit and the novel and the large Australian delegation here now.

This delegation has won appreciative thanks from the Eritreans, whose allies on the international scene during the war could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Keneally had other reasons for coming. Towards Asmara begins with a thinly disguised picture of Bob Geldof and his campaign to raise money for famine in Africa in 1984.

'I was fascinated in the early 1980s as to whether drought was the ultimate determinant here. I never quite believed that the laudable generosity and energy of the youth of the West could ever end hunger. I didn't believe that 'we were the world' because there was someone out there stopping us, and that someone was that sod Mengistu. I was horrified at the scale of the war, but I was exhilarated by the EPLF. They were manufacturing things; that's what everyone liked about them, the way they could repair vehicles over and over, and there was equity in the food distribution. It was the best operation in Africa.'

Like the others who arrived sceptical about the EPLF's cashless society, its ability to organise and improvise and survive and fight, he became convinced that it had created a unique society. 'Quite obviously there was a motivation generated from within each person . . . there was no big stick visible to me, and the people spoke in real sentences. There was a lingering tinge of Marxist rhetoric, and for a time they used the same rhetoric as Mengistu. But they delivered what the rhetoric said; when Mengistu said it, it was doublespeak.'

Keneally went right to the front. 'I spent a week at Nacfa, and at four o'clock every afternoon as dusk fell the Ethiopians would start shelling, so we would sit in this deep bunker and listen to the BBC Africa Service.' He recalls the aftermath of the attack on Keren by the Ethiopian infantry: 'They launched this World-War-One-style assault on the trenches above Keren, about division strength, and the Ethiopians made a salient in the line and then, as happened in World War One, the Eritreans closed it and poured fire down on them. Three thousand died there, most of them very young. There were family photos blowing up and down the trenches. The Eritreans in their front line had to wear face masks because of the stench. It's been an unspeakable tragedy.' Keneally ponders whether military victory will lead to the democratic open society that was promised, even in a crowded land whose economy has been wrecked by war and drought, and which has almost no natural resources.

He points out that the EPLF has appointed to senior positions many people who are not its members. 'Another revolutionary group that had suffered as much as this crew have might well say, 'Well, bugger you, you were in the cities drinking arak when we were out there fighting, and so to hell with you. We are going to put our guy in now and he's going to boss you bastards around.' But they haven't. They surprise you at every turn.' And his own plans? 'I want to come back and do a non-fictional book about what went on in the war, and get beyond the cult of impersonality in the EPLF, and find out who their Stonewall Jackson was and who their Montgomery was.' Former-president Mengistu is now in exile in Zimbabwe, and I asked Keneally if he would like to interview him. 'I'd love to, but I'd find it difficult not to physically attack the bastard.' We start to walk away from his hotel towards the partying and dancing in the main street of the town, which has made this referendum one week-long carnival. He swings jauntily through the hotel door, but his companion stops him and reminds him that he has to be up at 5.30am to go to a village 50 miles away for poll monitoring. Reluctantly he gives in. 'Ah well - another night.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice