Asmara’s Crumbling Buildings: Let the pictures speak- Part II

By Bana from Asmara

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At the turn of the new Millennium (in 2001), an office for the rehabilitation of cultural assets in Eritrea named CARP (Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project) was inaugurated with World Bank loan. CARP was headed by the MIT-trained Eritrean urban planner, architect and environmentalist Dr. Naigzy Gebremedhin and consisted in its ranks of both Eritrean experts and expatriates. CARP researched and identified Asmara’s buildings; marked out hundreds of modernist buildings and produced some stunning works assembling Asmara’s architectural heritage. Some of these works are Asmara: A Guide to the Built Environment, 2003 and Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City, both books chronicling the history of Italian-era buildings in Asmara. CARP also undertook similar work for the port city of Massawa, a work which culminated in the publication of Massawa: A Guide to the Built Environment, 2003. Other milestones of their work: they helped delineate Asmara’s historical perimeter, which is a 4 square km of area in the centre of the city; they laid out the guidelines for the preservation of the historical perimeter, put together another set of guidelines for how to erect new buildings in the delineated perimeter and strongly recommended that Asmara’s historical buildings be maintained before it is too late and with utmost specialized care (Asmara: A Guide to the Built Environment, 2003, pages 8, 14 - 21). That was ten years ago. Ten years later the buildings find themselves in much worse shape and state and if CARP still existed today, I surmise, it would be ringing alarm bells on behalf of the city of Asmara to Eritreans and the world.  But CARP is no longer among us to deliver its highly sought after services, for it caught at its incipient stage the evil eye of the Eritrean president. Then Asmara lost for good one of its ablest custodians. Of course, it is now public knowledge how and why CARP vanished into non-existence, thanks to Wikileaks.

In one of the famous Wikileaks, the former US Ambassador to Eritrea Ronald McMullen reported on 11/5/2010 under the title ‘IS ISAIAS UNHINGED?’ that the miffy Eritrean president dismantled CARP offended that CARP failed to mention his name in one of its published works.

The Eritrean president or his government has not stopped at disbanding CARP. Time and again, the government also prevented programs by such venerable institutions such as UNESCO, World Bank and European Community for the safe-keeping and restoration of the city of Asmara. What is its ultimate intention?  

Why Does the Government Shirk its Responsibility in Preserving Asmara?

A. Crumbling Administrative System

The current state of affairs in Asmara’s infrastructure is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of the overall crumbling administrative system in the country. It has everything to do with the years of PFDJ’s erratic rule, dereliction of duty, disdainful attitude towards professional work, economic mismanagement, and declining work ethics. There is also a more surprising facet of PFDJ’s administration: the government lives in perpetual denial about problems that have plagued life in the country, be it infrastructural, economic, political, security or what have you. But, unrecognized or not, the problems continue unabated and take their heavy toll. Asmara’s crumbling fabric is subsumed in this overall scheme of things.  

B. Echoes of the Mieda

In the Mieda (the ‘battlefield’ during the war of liberation), destruction was the order of the day. There were only wars and rumors of wars.  That period was not one for reconstruction and building of hopeful, ordinary life. Every endeavor that was made in those days was in response to the emergencies of the prevailing war and humanitarian crises. There was no sober evaluation and planning of years ahead. Life in the field was inured to suffering, bombing, and demolition.

This way of life and the worldview from the field sustained itself after Eritrea’s independence. The old guerrilla and liberation movement-turned- government remains unfazed by the continuing breakdown of the built environment in Asmara and other places in Eritrea. It finds today’s damage in environment immaterial in comparison to the scale of destruction it witnessed in the field. Its taste of aesthetics and preservation seems robbed by the years of war and attendant destruction. Instead of by the appeal of cityscape, the government of former liberation fighters is enamored by war-ravaged field life with its mountains and valleys. Even years after having taken control of cities and towns, it looks at city life as if it is looking at parched earth and rocks in the Sahel. The people in power in Eritrea are just stuck in their old rugged environment.

Several years ago, I was passing by the home of General Gerezghier Andemariam (Wuchu) as he came out to see off three high-ranking military officers. General Wuchu implored the trio to come back quickly as the coffee ceremony at his home was about to kick off. One of the trio responded, “Wedi Etay (General Wuchu’s nickname), take my word we will get back in no time. (Pointing to the hills in the distance) We are to relieve ourselves on those hills and then return.”

These are people who were coming out of a villa that housed two or three toilets, but who years after independence still took to responding to the calls of nature in the open air. Perhaps they were interested most of all in enriching the soil with their organic waste.

A friend of mine who was formerly a colleague of Dr. Gergis Teklemichael, the current minister of National Development, once related to me a story that involved the minister in question. When they went on a field visit to a region in Eritrea, the minister and his entourage were led by their hosts to their respective guest houses. Dr. Gergis was given a guest house that befitted his position. As night fell, however, he refused to stay in the guest house. Instead he expressed his wish to spend the night in his sleeping bag on a nearby hill. The hosts were perturbed by his reaction. But he explained, “Frankly, I love staying in the open under the night sky whenever I have the chance to go on a field trip. I enjoy the way of our old comrades (btsotna) who slept on rugged ground.” And then he granted himself his wish. But he also castigated another senior member of the group who chose to stay indoors.

How blind and naïve we were to assume that such men from the wilderness would lead us in the ways of civilization!

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From Cathedral to Meda Ertra

Between Meda Ertra and Enda Mariam (St. Mary Coptic Church)

Around Kidane MiHret

Around Geza Kenisha.

Weigh Bridge (Mizan) at Geza Kenisha to Bar Tre Stelle

From Bar Trestelle to Mercato

Photos of Taba (Between the Old Presidential Palace and the Road to Asmara Stadium).

On the road from Asmara Stadium to Shell Ogba Haile

From Edga Hamus to Shqu.. and Emba Galiano


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