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
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
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
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
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
Latest stories from i100
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

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little