Eritrea, next to the people

Publish date 23-07-2023

by Mauro Palombo

As far from the clamor of the news as the devastating war was – at least 600 thousand and more victims and an immense horrible humanitarian crisis – the process of peace in Tigray has begun, which began with the signing on 2 November 2022 between Ethiopia and TPLF of a “permanent cessation of hostilities agreement”. Trusting that it will proceed, among so many weapons in circulation and very strong resentments, it will certainly take many and many years to establish something like an effective peace.

The hope is that the wind of change can also blow towards Eritrea, which, as a relatively hidden but perhaps decisive ally of Ethiopia, is the other protagonist of this umpteenth bloody chapter in recent history of the Horn of Africa. The war marked its history for a long time. For thirty years, from 1961 to 1991, Eritrea fought for independence from Ethiopia, which had absorbed it after the Second World War. Immediately after, a few years of great serious commitment to recover the conditions of the country, but since 1998 new hard clashes with Ethiopia for border disputes; conflict resolved only in 2018, on the initiative of Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Mehamed and Eritrean President Ysayas Afewerki.

The threat of invasion and other reasons have been pretexts to maintain unchanged a one-party state, where power is entirely concentrated in the hands of the president, whose mandate has continued since 1991. The constitution exists, but it has never actually been applied. The society is highly militarized. Compulsory military service begins at the age of 17, and has an indefinite duration; the last grade of high school is done in the boot camp, then everyone is registered in a department and "the best" are sent to "boarding schools", which are the only university in Eritrea.

Many young people, isolated, and seeing no prospect of growth for themselves, have sought escape. Dangerous journeys in search of a better place, but the desert, the marauders, the sea... many end up swallowed up . The population of Eritrea is estimated at 6 million, but today there will be four million at most.
This too weighs on the situation of the economy, which could count on good mineral resources: gold, copper, gas and more, now in the hands of the Chinese and other foreign companies. The industrial sector is limited to textiles, especially cotton, once grown in the country but now imported. There is potential, but the economic situation is very precarious. Most of the people live on agriculture and pastoralism, with traditional methods. Little automation, only the government can import materials.
The economy was then still severely worn out by the Covid pandemic, with the imposition of a long closure time. The war in Tigray still drained national resources, making life difficult for the population; as well as snuffing out many young lives thrust into the fighting.

The Catholic Church is a small minority, around 3-4%, compared to the Orthodox majority and the strong Muslim component. But she does everything she can and, as usual, towards everyone: for this reason she is appreciated and well liked by everyone. What can today is much less than in the past; first the nationalization of all clinics and clinics, and all schools shortly thereafter. Clearly with serious repercussions for those who benefited from this service, the most needy. The Church continues to carry out its mission of evangelization. And at the same time, she continues to remain close to the people, who remain relegated to poverty, precarious scarcity. Bringing, as far as possible, emergency aid; maintaining a presence in the villages to educate on hygiene and provide some health services. Offering training opportunities as permitted, promoting women with workshops for them, assisting older people.

The field of work is not lacking, the possibilities and the means are lacking. As Sermig we want to continue to feed the hopes of an evolution, with everything that may be possible for us. In particular, to continue assistance in the villages where means of transport and work - donkeys and camels - and safe water for consumption are requested as a priority, by digging new wells and rehabilitating others that are no longer usable, i.e. their photovoltaic pumping. Resources as simple as they are essential, to preserve lives, and the hope of a new turning point in economic recovery and lasting peace in the country.

Mauro Palombo
NP April 2023

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