May 17, 2001 - EDF Online: When Ethiopia bombed the Asmara airport in June, Peace Corps flew us out with no intention of coming back any time soon

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Eritrea: The Peace Corps in Eritrea: May 17, 2001 - EDF Online: When Ethiopia bombed the Asmara airport in June, Peace Corps flew us out with no intention of coming back any time soon

By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, April 20, 2003 - 4:43 pm: Edit Post

When Ethiopia bombed the Asmara airport in June, Peace Corps flew us out with no intention of coming back any time soon

When Ethiopia bombed the Asmara airport in June, Peace Corps flew us out with no intention of coming back any time soon

This is perhaps a good time to start this series of articles, stories, snippets of daily life in Eritrea. A good time in the sense of what's going on now in Eritrea, but also a good time in my life here in Eritrea.

I'm now nearing my 6 year anniversary after coming to Eritrea with the U.S. Peace Corps on July 2nd, 1995. I came to do a two-year stint in this tiny, little known country in the Horn of Africa. I had my doubts as to whether or not I could actually do it. It was somewhat daunting and I was a bit afraid. I'd spent most of my time outside the U.S. in Europe and was certainly accustomed to living outside my own country; but this? Africa?? I just didn't know if I could do it.

Then I picked up Dan Connell's book, then Thomas Keneally's book and I began to have second thoughts about this strange little country.

Just a few months into my first year, I knew that I'd stay for a third. Into my second year, I was already thinking about my fourth.

Then in 1998 the war came and tore us out of our communities helter skelter. When Ethiopia bombed the Asmara airport in June, Peace Corps flew us out with no intention of coming back any time soon.

I can still very clearly recall that ride out of Adi Tekelezan (some 40 km north of Asmara) in a Peace Corps landcruiser. My puzzled students wondering why I was heading out of town instead of walking in to school to teach my classes. My close friends waving sadly, knowing they'd never see me again. Looking at the meter-high trees growing along the side of the still newly paved road, the mile after mile of fresh terracing on every visible hillside.

I remember the sense of despair and disbelief. Eritreans had worked so hard since independence to build all that up and now, for all we knew, the war with Ethiopia was set to swallow it up again. The students -- my students -- would soon be on the frontlines fighting for their lives and for the renewed independence of their country -- the very existence of their country. Again.

And I thought how unfair life can be.

Then I left them.

It took me three weeks of traveling around Europe, visiting old friends and old haunts to figure out what I had to do. There really was no choice. I had to return.

Perhaps now that seems like an easy decision. At the time, it wasn't. For all we knew -- and certainly from all we heard from the international press (mostly filed from the Hilton in Addis Ababa...) -- Eritrea had been overrun. It had been devastated. There was no food. There were riots in the street. Asmara had been leveled. The government was on the verge of being toppled. At least that's what we got at the time.

So, I arrived back to my family's home in Virginia, sat them down and very seriously told them that I'd be going back to Eritrea, no matter what. I waited for the protests, the tears of my mother, the demands to be sensible.

Instead my mother and father looked me in the eye -- a very serious and somewhat melodramatic eye (I was making a statement after all!) -- and they laughed out loud. I was wondering what to do with all my pent up melodrama and cleverly thought out ripostes.

"We knew you'd be flying back as soon as we got word you were evacuating," they replied chuckling. Yeah, they knew before I did myself.

The Neverending Story
Three months later, I was back in Eritrea, developing curriculum and teaching English at the Pavoni Technical Institute (PTI) in Asmara. But only for one year. When friends asked when I'd be returning to the States, I told them with no small degree of certainty that I'd definitely be back by September.

Then came an extension of my contract teaching at PTI. Okay, so one more year. But only till September. My friends again asked when I'd be coming back. "September," I'd reply, somewhat defensively.

I no longer answer that question when anyone asks me. Too much egg on my face. I'll be staying in Eritrea till I leave, I suppose. That'll just have to do as an answer.

But where are we now? I can remember May 24th, 1996. I decided to stay in Adi Tekelezan for the Independence Day celebrations instead of heading to Asmara with most of my other friends. I wanted to spend that special day with my neighbors and students. It was a wonderful day with zigny, taita, endless sewa, dancing and music. It was simple, it was basic, and it was one of the best holidays I'd ever spent. The next year was even better.

And I thought to myself, if it's this good for the fifth or sixth anniversary, I wonder what it'll be like for the tenth? But there was no way I'd be here for that one, and that was a shame, I thought with some regret.

Flash forward to the year 2001. It's the tenth anniversary of Eritrean independence. And I'm still here. Who would've thought it?

What a Difference a Year Can Make

The colored lights are strung up all along Liberation Avenue and Martyrs Avenue. Public buildings are hung with long streaming banners in the colors of the flags and dripping with lights. Shops all over town are painting their windows with congratulatory messages, images from the Struggle and a great big number 10. Concerts, parades and little dramas pop up in the most unexpected corners of Asmara and at the most unexpected times. More organized and bigger celebrations have been going on for the past week or more on Bahti Meskerem (First of September Square), while Eri-TV plays special programs all night, every night on different areas of the country, the Struggle and a hundred other topics.

And it's working. There's a buzz and an excitement building. I can feel a distinct tingle of excitement and certainly anticipation when I walk along the main road. We're ready for this. We need this. It's not just for the anniversary that we'll be celebrating, but also for the fact that after three long years, we've got peace again. We're not fighting, we're not dying, we're not worried about what's going to happen tonight or tomorrow or next week.

Borrowing rather heavily from a poem by the German author Bertolt Brecht, this calendar fairly well sums up our recent experiences:

For the first time in three long years, we can feel the heat, we can feel the cold, we can notice the lights strung up and we can dance in the streets without a twinge of guilt, knowing that our friends, our neighbors, our children, our brothers and sisters are possibly dying on the front. For three long years, nothing was certain. Everything was written in pencil, as someone once said, because we didn't know if it would be true the next day.

Last year at this time, Ethiopian forces had punched through the frontlines, had taken Barentu and were on the way toward Agordet and Mendefera and Asseb. We didn't know if they could be stopped. We didn't know if Asmara would stand or fall. We didn't know if we'd wake up to a free Eritrea or not.

The lights were still strung up, the music still played and we all walked up and down Liberation Avenue to celebrate independence, but it was perfunctory. We were just going through the motions. We were scared and we were worried.

What a difference a year can make.

We can breathe again. We can see the world around us. It feels like we've been tensed up, holding our breath, waiting for that final blow for three years. But now we can let it out, we can relax our muscles and settle back down to our lives.

And that's a really good feeling.

No, the peace process isn't finished and there are many problems we're facing and will continue to face over the coming months and years. The Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) is fraught with problems, we're extremely worried about the internal problems of Ethiopia, we're still facing a massive humanitarian crisis here in Eritrea. But...

But something. The air is different. The wind is blowing again. The sun is shining again. It's somehow different now. We'll really and truly be celebrating Independence Day this year.

There's a sense that now it's real. Eritrea's done it. It really does exist. Of course, it's been an independent, internationally recognized country since 1993, but there's also been some sense of tenuousness, of wait-and-see. We've just been through a particularly nasty war and have suffered a great deal. We're facing a situation very similar to the one we had in 1991. A lot of very hard work and sacrifice has been undone and vast swathes of the country now stand in ruins once again. But now we've reached the ten-year mark and there is peace again. And that brings with it a feeling of solidity -- a concrete existence.

Eritrea finds itself at a new crossroads and the decisions it makes now will have repercussions well into the next decade and beyond. It's a very exciting time to be here, to watch the birth and the growing pains of a new country, struggling with very real issues and finding its way in an increasingly complex world.

This 10th year anniversary will certainly celebrate the past, but is also celebrating the present and the future. Especially the future.

Jeffrey L. Shannon,
Country Representative
Eritrean Development Foundation
Asmara, 17. May 2001

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Story Source: EDF Online

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Eritrea; Safety and Security of Volunteers



By yonas ( on Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - 12:53 pm: Edit Post

i was one of the peace corps local employeres since 1997-2000 and i alwayes remembered that time specialy the volentary friends.. and from country director tim donney,mike jange,terry,debera medicanl officer and susan adimin unit .but now i am in norway b-z of the condution.they put as in prisen b-z they thouth we are the spyign to american so scaping is the only way to save my life .and i need to know about jeffery shannon b-z he was my freind at that time , if i can to get his address?
yonas kidanemariam

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