Introductory Note

When a good friend of mine asked if I could write about the psychological effect the city of Asmara (capital of Eritrea) has on Eritreans, I said, “Why not!” without even thinking. Hence, if the following analysis, or shall we say impression, doesn’t make any sense at all, you know who to blame.

On a more serious note however, the damage it (City of Asmara) has inflicted on residents of Asmara or Eritreans as a whole and over a long period demands some sort of looking into from various angles. It’s my belief that this is one of the unexplored and central issues and, despite its grave importance in shaping Eritrea’s endless frustrations in trying to establish a healthy society, it has remained unspoken and not subject to debate. The reader is welcome to criticise or express alternative views.

Warning: This article may contain elements that may be offensive to some Eritreans.

Do we see multiples of one on the one hand and extermination of the individual on the other? The ‘righteous’ doesn’t even know what the ‘leftist’ is doing. The word ‘monopoly’ wasn’t coined for nothing.

What is identity? Maybe it is about imitation in the first place that progressively mutates to a behaviour pattern and tends to repeat with slight modifications at every turn. We can ask ourselves a simple question: how does one perceive oneself in relation to the other?

In what sense is identification different from identity? If I identify myself with my own kind (whatever that means), am I supposed to feel perpetually reassured in whatever I do and declare, “Therefore, I know!” without hesitation? To what degree does my identification affect or direct my behaviour and when does ‘my identity’ override my identification?

Is identity a constant not subject to change? If so, what has gone wrong with growth or growing up?

How can the idea of a fixed sense of identity be stretched to an infinite mental space to accommodate the same thing over and over again when everything is continuously changing around us? Is our memory so tangled in raw emotions and incapable of disengaging from deadly realities of the past?

Is it the fear of progressive loss even when all is being lost right in front of our very eyes? Or is it because of the limited time, resources and skills that constrain us to adapt and change to the immediate needs of survival?

And what else can be said about a static and inflexible national identity? Does it not look like burying the head in sand whenever an upgrade is the only option left?

Do I have to be forced to assume an identity against my will and along a borderline marked under my own feet? Have you not perceived the planet from outer space yet? National borders are artificial and arbitrary. Is it not apparent in a view of the earth from outer space?

We often say there is safety in numbers. Perhaps we can equally accept the fact that there is health in multiple identities.

Questions and more questions! I would like to propose that it’s probably better to accommodate a number of identities than get worked up by just one and risk disintegration.


Eritrea is a tiny country in the Horn of Africa. It has an estimated population of about 4.5 million (up to a quarter of which could be outside) with 10 ethnic groups and languages, a standing army of at least 250,000 and all immersed in a colossus of one national identity!


Again, we can’t get a simple answer for that either. We may have to drill through a layer of explanations with a sort of an archaeological brush on a freshly fossilised wound.

Long before Eritreans were called Eritreans or before Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890 and, for that matter, an independent nation in 1991, Eritreans had (and still have) numerous frames of identities that accommodate the individual, the family and communities that embodied the traditional, ethnic, religious or linguistic abilities and associations – a mishmash of containments in any one person sustained by a communal social fabric.

It doesn’t mean it was an ideal state of existence. There were (still are and will be), as in any other society, conflicts on issues of land, marriage, taxation, customs and tradition, resources, ethnicity and religion in their everyday lives.

The armed liberation struggle for the independence of Eritrea that began in 1961 and ended 30 years later changed all that by enforcing a deformed sense of ‘Eritrean identity’ at the expense of all the diverse associations that co-existed before. Diversity of identity was discouraged and an empty shell of national identity swallowed all the elements to propagate a culture in which the value of the individual and its attachments to a greater community was effectively slaughtered in the process and, most insidiously, in the name of all those who died for the now ‘free and independent’ Eritrea.

Those who gave their lives were called martyrs… almost bordering to the religious and it is officially sanctioned. They (those who prefer the martyred version) cannot or do not wish to say that ‘the fighter’ died or gave his or her life anymore. The noun (martyr) has been transformed to a verb. “They were martyred,” is the popular mode of address now. Such modes of expression have elevated the armed struggle years for the independence of Eritrea to a cult status. And, as we all know, a cult organisation operates on secrecy, silence and within a cultural environment that rewards absolute trust and loyalty. It fosters a mentality that works against one’s own personal interest which ultimately accumulates to a collective or national destruction. In the process, it is essential to develop mechanisms by which an inquiring mind is deliberately discouraged and punished. The whole struggle can be seen as abusing the whole purpose of liberation as a justification to ‘inflict’ faith where one is encouraged not to think or, for that matter, make an effort to be different. It was designed (sometimes explained away as ‘out of necessity’) to bypass critical inquiry so as to offer an immediate solution, gratification, belief and perpetual subservience to a feeling of guilt. And that is exactly where the ‘martyred’ comes in. It neutralises every effort to do something different.

Why do you think Eritreans keep their mouth shut whenever ‘Eritrean martyrs’ are invoked to win an argument or to fight back a losing one? It’s the pillow upon which they rest their heads, shed tears and hide their inability to reason or face reality.

Some of us are beginning to, at last, suspect if the 30-year struggle was a make-believe nightmare from which we have to wake up. If the outcome of all the sacrifice paid results in the state Eritrea is in, we have the absolute right and, indeed, the responsibility/obligation to question every angle of its development. In other words, every aspect of Eritrean history must be put under the microscope. We just have to open our eyes and get a clearer understanding of the psychic make-up of the so-called Eritrean identity.


Simply because that is where perception of identity begins and ends.

If anything, as it is becoming so obvious these days, the liberation struggle years have succeeded in establishing a culture of fear and absolute control in all aspects of social activities in current Eritrea and if that is being celebrated or accepted as an achievement of ‘freedom and liberty,’ we must be in deep sleep.

At this moment in time, we have to face the fact that Eritrean identity is, both collectively and individually, not functional. It exits – if at all and just like any other internationally recognised passport – on paper. The base upon which it rests sounds incoherent and is visibly dysfunctional.

Such a state of national affairs and an unquestionable loyalty to a fractured identity is, to say the least, unsustainable.


Like in any other crisis, identity crisis has its own time frame. It doesn’t happen overnight and can’t be resolved within that span either. Written history does help but investigating behaviours is much more helpful… if it could only be observed when it happens.

Our memories, if excited with care, can surely open up the layers of an ‘archaeological’ dig and help us locate when, why and where the ‘Eritrean identity’ crisis originated and somehow evolved to assume its current form.

The concept of identity is a complex fabric. However, there is one simple test by which we can figure out whether a certain ‘identity’ is healthy and sustainable or not. Whenever and wherever ‘identity’ is framed strongly against ‘the other,’ there is bound to be an unnecessary waste of life and resources. It comes in all shades, shapes, sizes and colours. To come back to the Eritrean identity, it falls under the unhealthy category. It’s increasingly proving itself to be one of the unsustainable kinds of ‘identities’ to identify with.


Like a sword, the word ‘injustice’ can easily slice through the hub of this humdrum. In other words, Eritrea is a by-product of injustice. But injustice is not specific or unique to Eritrea. It is just part of a bigger picture of man’s inhumanity to man and the only way out is to restore a degree of trust among Eritreans. Unfortunately and long before the independence of Eritrea, Eritreans were remote-controlled and encouraged to build and elevate their ‘identity’ against anyone who is or anything that is against the official idea of ‘Eritrea’ that was against Eritrea. It included, across at least 6 decades, elements of their own kind, the so-called occupiers, invaders of all sorts and/or any imagined threat that came from outside its ‘manufactured’ international borders. In short It even went as far as ‘cooking’ conflicts against (again and again) neighbouring countries to sustain that deadly twist to a newly recognised Eritrean identity.

In a nutshell, it is an identity that is not at ease with itself and whenever that is the case, it is a sign that a culture built on an endless cycle of nurturing its collective wound of having being victimised by outsiders is prone to get excited every time a sense of direction is lost from within. Except for the exposure of atrocities (committed by the Government of Eritrea) being made global in the last 7or 8 years, the injustices committed by Eritreans on Eritreans still remain buried – perhaps long before Eritrea became an Italian colony. That is more than a hundred years span and covers all sorts of injustices (by Eritreans on Eritreans) framed within the colonial setup, inter-religious/ethnic strife, rural/urban rifts, the federal arrangement with Ethiopia, the 30-year armed liberation struggle years and, last and not least, the period after independence in 1991.

After all the losses suffered in Eritrea, I think there is something we need to recognise by now. Injustice spreads in silence. Whenever a gross and ‘unjust act’ (let alone the little ones we ignore everyday) is not ‘dealt’ with, corrected or made pubic, its negative effect on the family, the neighbourhood, the community and so forth, grow by the day and the stakes are higher for the butterfly to cause a tsunami of a kind. Those who knew and those who now know about any of the injustices committed might have to think twice now.

There is a cliché that goes like, “Don’t let other people see your dirty laundry.” It is valid up to a point and that that deadline is long overdue. How long does it take to see injustice in the eye? It does take time but, if at all possible, I guess it should start from ‘home sweet home.’ That is probably what is meant by ‘bite your own bullet.’

In the case of Eritrea, it’s only a scratch on a surface of a deep-layered history of injustice – not unlike an unreported domestic violence on a national scale. In fact, it is ironic that the family unit is seen as sacred in most Eritrean societies. Would it not be appropriate to suggest that the Government of Eritrea is a reflection of that reality on the ground – just more cover up on a higher level?

That would probably be one of the causes why respect, openness, dialogue and compromise didn’t establish root in the so-called ‘independent Eritrea.’ The history of the armed struggle for the independence of Eritrea is full of it and we are, most certainly, dealing with the aftermath of a broken society.


Just imagine you are moving to a new house, a new neighbourhood, a new job, a new country… in short, to a new and unfamiliar location.

Among other social and economic factors, elements such as age, skill, determination and resilience do matter simply because survival depends on them. On the other hand, what can be done when a totally alien ‘civilisation’ knocks on ones door? One doesn’t even have to travel that far.

If we can compare the distance most Eritreans travelled in the 1920s (or a decade or two later) to how far their descendants managed to cover over the last 50 years, it would give us a fair idea how much has changed.

But let’s go back to what happened in the 1920s first – give or take a decade.

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, was ready for habitation as the new urban centre that attracted around a hundred thousand of Italian immigrants. They were encouraged and supported by the Italian Government who had a long-term plan to populate the new country with its own kind of people. Naturally, the new settlers, in turn, created demand for new labour that attracted the locals.

Where else can the huge demand come from but rural Eritrea?

Imagine a 12 year old boy or girl in search of work being dumped in Asmara at that time. He or she must have heard that the roads in Asmara were paved in gold. If you doubt that, just ask an elderly Eritrean and hear what they have in store. They have endless stories to tell.

It sends shock waves down the spine.

There were tens of thousands like them who joined the exodus to a promised land. This time however, it wasn’t the land but a ready-made city that fell from the skies and was in desperate need of labour – from police officers, soldiers to housekeepers.

These new but local emigrants had a mindset that was formed in a traditionally agricultural community. But what is to be expected when they are thrown into an urban infrastructure and a mode of living that had absolutely nothing in common with their lifestyles? They might as well have crossed a gulf of a 70 km stretch of terrain that took them from Iron Age to an industrial city within a day – on foot, on donkeys and on trucks. For those who lived in what is now the outskirt of Asmara, it was just half an hour walk.

Back in August or September of 2008, there was an exhibition going on in Turin, Italy. It’s about the collection of exceptionally unique buildings of 1920s Art Deco Asmara and it so happened that the most coveted work of architectural fit was a petrol station – Fiat Taligliero by name – modelled on the shape of an aeroplane. It is quite an appropriate symbol that befits the process or event by which Asmara appeared out of the blue. Asked if the structure is of sound design, the architect is reported to have said that the main body will hold the weight of the two floating wings. Whether the society that is currently living under those wings stood the test of time is a totally different question but the petrol station is still holding while Eritrea is almost running out of petrol as we speak.

When Asmara ‘landed from outer space,’ with all the new roads and cars, magnificent buildings and homes that no one could ever have imagined in an African landscape, a rural-based culture is definitely no match for such a regimented and highly organised set up. A different kind of mental software is required. If you can imagine your life without an instant access to the internet or a mobile phone at the moment, you would probably feel the 1980s in zero time and it feels like ages ago. What was happening to Eritreans of the 1920s would, presumably, be of a different order.

Upgrade comes to mind… and “resistance is futile,” to quote the Borg of Star Trek.


Soon after the Italians were defeated by the British Army in 1941, the locals who were the underclass in Asmara suddenly acquired a virtual freedom to be themselves. However limited in their capacity to govern themselves, it was their first taste of freedom.

Within a decade or two, most Italians had left and the few who stayed had to contemplate expatriation. Properties were up for sale everywhere. By the late ‘50s, Asmara was swarmed or owned by Eritreans and mostly by those who migrated from the rural areas at least two decades earlier.

The table had turned for the previous occupiers and overnight, Eritreans became the new owners of a city that was the size of small Italian town. The Scramble for Asmara was complete. A new consciousness evolved. It blended a rural upbringing with a superficial knowledge of city life – a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character.

The new residents of Asmara (or shall we call them the new occupiers) assumed a new identity. They even thought or behaved as if they were better or more ‘civilised’ than their counterparts from their home counties while their initial job descriptions always had something to do with housekeeping and low-level law enforcement.

Once in control, they began laughing at their country folks for not ever having seen a toilet – let alone use one.

It’s always tough when a ‘slave’ becomes a ‘master’ and vice-versa within a short span of time. Memory loss or a kind of brain damage does take place. It is a surreal phenomenon and comes up with weird forms of justification – on the oppressor and the oppressed – to sustain its rise to a newly acquired power or deal with its downfall from grace.

Anyway, the new occupiers became the masters and started eating with knives and forks and dressed themselves up so elegantly to the extent of putting the Italians to shame. Now, they could afford to laugh at people who couldn’t manage that either.

“Nostra terra [our land]!” shouts an Eritrean to insult an Italian sometime in the early ‘50s for injustices committed years before.

The Italian got the message and was angry alright. He bent down, took a fistful of earth from the ground and shouts back, “Mangi [Eat!]”

Their language changed as well. It adopted a lingo of local, Italian, English and Arabic blend. It was part of the growing up process… incorporating ‘civilising’ elements as they went along.

All was going well except for one crucial factor.

Those who migrated to Asmara in their childhood and early teens in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s assumed a full-fledged new identity with a tendency of denying their rural background. A couple of decades later, it fostered a behaviour that would dig deep into a collective amnesia with deadly consequences.

There was this unspoken agreement of pretending not to be that connected or related to the countryside. They honestly assumed they were of a different make-up while their instinct operated on values related to social systems based on bygone agricultural modes of living. When issues of giving away a daughter finally comes to a head, for example, the big question they worry about happens to be: which village does he come from or to what religion does he subscribe? These become more pronounced when it comes to how far the village is from the one they intended to accommodate or the religion they prefer to welcome.

Many young women were unable to marry simply because the father refused to accept an offer for an arranged marriage. They were left to fend for the father and the family or risk getting married to someone they fancy and be ostracised.

So much for city civilisation! They had this confused software not fit for city life – more like a split personality unable to inhabit either – a not-yet-identified branch of schizophrenia.

It was understandable that parents of bygone years were keen on sending their kids to school. Education was one of the important social issues people talked about. Those who didn’t manage to do that would feel ashamed.

On another front, it is ironic to observe that the issue of equality of women in Eritrea was recognised when it was announced that 30 percent of the armed liberation fighting force were women. It was like saying we recognise you in dying beside us but not while you are alive and breathing with us. After the much celebrated ‘independence’ years, all went back to square one within a few years but the lip-service for the equality of women is still going on.

The girls and women retained the traditional responsibility of taking care of the children, the big boys and, for that matter, the whole family and its extensions. Along the same sentimental logic, a substantial number of women (and men) have even managed to adopt a new and unfamiliar family group – the Government of Eritrea.

How far they can go with that kind of misguided perception is anybody’s guess.

Even after exile, migration and resettlement in neighbouring or western countries, they keep on doing the same thing while most Eritreans are ignored, standing aside or losing their patience or ability to take care of their own selves in mainland Eritrea.

“Please let’s not talk about politics or nationalism,” most Eritreans would say with resignation and as if it doesn’t affect them at all. They have no idea that it is that kind of distancing oneself from what is really going on in real Eritrea and incessant lack of critical observation that caused the mayhem in the first place.

It’s a subject some Eritreans indulge to pass the time with a resigned attitude. Although not clearly articulated, they probably know they are going nowhere. It’s all about letting off steam.

“Let’s evade or change the subject,” is the customary way of addressing a problem. If they dig deep into it, they would miss the point or probably lose their sanity in the process. What they do best is avoid or denounce people who are willing not to change the subject but discuss issues till some sort resolution is reached.


The majority of girls had a hard time competing with the boys. The boy was (and probably still is) a priority.

During the Italian occupation, the indigenous Eritrean was denied education above the age of 10. The Italians obviously failed to recognise the long term advantage of having educated Eritreans. Immediacy of control somehow ended up justifying short term gains. Strangely enough, that is exactly the policy the current Government of Eritrea has adopted. What is worse is that the high schools of Eritrea have been relocated next to military training camps while those who are older and reasonably educated must follow government policy of total control in almost every field of activity while tens of thousands are fleeing the country.

Going back to the Italian legacy, maybe that was why when the UN was conducting a referendum on the future of Eritrea in the late ’40s or early ’50s, the majority of Eritreans in Asmara and elsewhere were unable to galvanise themselves to opt for a united front to govern themselves. There were all sorts of parties: pro-Italy, pro-Britain, pro-Ethiopia, pro-partition and pro-independence.

“Now we know we made a terrible mistake and we are sorry,” says an elderly Eritrean who had an influential position in the pro-Ethiopia party. “All we wanted to say at that time was…” he goes on, “we didn’t want to be under the Italians again!”

They probably opted for a confederation with Ethiopia on the assumption that they shared more with Ethiopians – skin colour and culture – and thought it would be better to be ‘occupied’ by someone who looks alike. They couldn’t even realise they had a heavy handed influence on the fate of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans living in the countryside and the future generation. It was a movement dominated by ‘urbanised’ men who lost touch with their rural background.

A spectacle of an occupied mind at its best!

It’s probably much more complicated than that but the freedom that suddenly dropped on their lap from nowhere had more to do with the choice of an ‘occupier’ than freeing themselves from a history of occupation.

For residents of Asmara and those who came later however, the city of Asmara was a given. It wasn’t about emigration from the countryside anymore but more like a natural settlement that became part of their brain grain. But there still was something inorganic about it. A time-bomb was on a countdown.

Unborn babies that were destined to fight for the independence of Eritrea in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were in their mothers’ wombs while some others were in teenage years or early childhood. Unfortunately, their fatal fate had been decided back in the late 1940s and ‘50s.

The sons and daughters who inherited the bad luck trying to reverse the whole idea of occupation without the know-how – not that different from having to deal with the right cause but with the wrong tools – had obligations imposed on them for a variety of reasons. In hindsight, it has to be acknowledged that had they been offered an alternative, they would have probably declined to give their young lives for sacrifice. After the border war of 1998, the new generation of young Eritreans have proved the case. Thousands were lost and many more returned home with lost limbs, lost youth and a range of post-traumatic stress disorders that put independent Eritrea under the current spin of unstoppable blunders.

Analyse Asmara Part 2 and 3 will explore reported or perceived events of 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s Asmara and use that observation in an attempt to locate and relate how the Eritrean identity crisis built up in time – only to get stuck in the current quagmire. The ability to hear is a given but the capacity to listen is an acquired taste and some Eritreans have probably lost both in the process. If there is such a thing called ‘Eritrean’ culture exists – however outward-looking it may appear to be (exile being one) – it has nurtured an inward-looking sense of identification and unless we come up with something that puts the spotlight on that unhealthy heritage, the next generation of Eritreans will spend their wretched lives doing more of the same. That is probably why Eritreans have become experts in that kind of internal dialogue or squabble across the whole cross-section of the Eritrean society for quite a long time. It’s one long monologue of a kind. Some might find it offensive but that is the way it looks… better spread the seeds than let the grain store rot in silence.

We have been so good and efficient at accusing ‘outsiders’ for all the injustices of the past to the extent of nurturing a culture of a victimised mentality. This cycle of internal silence has to be broken. Otherwise, as it is with all ‘occupied’ minds, it will again encourage another kind of incest of injustice that will put the Eritrean people in a much more compromising condition than they are now. The finger-pointing should probably begin at looking at our own selves and see what we look like for real.

Part 2 and 3 will open up a debate (in various colours) on the fundamental flaws of the armed liberation struggle of Eritrea that ignored the immediacy of survival. Understandably, the injustice from outside was brutal. But the ability to compromise and prevent conflict was out of range from within as well. The three most significant elements that flash back in mind for now are: the culture of prolonged silence that entertained injustice, the impact of involving women in combat and the lip-service paid to the value of education.

There will be more… questions and observations!

Gabriel Guangul
10 March 2009