I Didn’t Do It For You (Eritrea)

book cover imageby Michela Wrong

In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to suppress a student uprising. The Hungarians fought them off with their bare hands, with Coke bottles, with stones. The outcome was inevitable. A frantic Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister, sent out radio call after radio call to the West, pleading for help. But London and Washington had their eyes fixed on the Suez canal. They did not answer. Imre Nagy was captured, taken away, and “disappeared.” (I wrote a report on it in college–I was outraged.)

In 2000, while the West fixed its eyes on the smoking remains of the World Trade Center, a small African dictator in Eritrea shut down his country’s free press and arrested a group of his former freedom fighters, his government, and threw them in jail for “treason”. Again, nobody in power cared.

The Hungarian Revolution was ended by an invading force of foreigners, but the events in Eritrea constituted an internal betrayal; a betrayal of former comrades in arms, survivors of a 30-year war to free Eritrea from its own invading force, the Ethiopians…but it was something more. It was a betrayal of the ideals of the Movement, the revolution itself. And it cracked the faith of the True Believers, many beyond repair.

The Fall-Out of Colonization

Still, is it too far-fetched an idea to think that a people so brutally and so frequently colonized by the West and indeed, by their own neighbors, have somehow internalized this disdain for their own lives? Not hardly. At one point in the book, author Wrong talks about the PTSD that the entire country seems to be suffering.

Still, if I were an Eritrean, I might be tempted to grumble: “I didn’t spend 30 years at the Front just to…” (It is a familiar refrain. You can hardly blame them.)

They didn’t spend 30 years at the front, just to end up with a dictator like the EPLF’s Isaias, who apparently shot a bunch of his colleagues at the Movement’s beginning for disagreeing with him, and saying so. (Krushchev too displayed this appalling lack of regard for human life in the conquered: “If just 10 or so Hungarian writers had been shot at the right moment, there would have been no Revolution,” he famously said.)

Moscow is not blameless in the Eritrean-Ethiopia war, nor is Washington. Eritrea was colonized first by Italy and then by Britain. The title of the book comes from a story about a British soldier after the liberation of a part of Eritrea from Fascist Italy. As he walked toward an old Eritrean woman, she began ululating in joy and welcome. The soldier supposedly snapped, “I didn’t do it for you, nigger.” (Eritrea, and its clear, high mountain air played a major role in decoding operations during World War II. Americans on the base behaved badly.) And let’s not forget Ethiopia.

Cut on the Bias

Ethiopia feels they have a right to the seaports of Eritrea, historically and religiously. That is, of course, the government’s opinion. The only part of the book where I felt journalist Wrong stumbled was in the section describing Ethiopia’s creation myth, the one linking their kings to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Her scorn for this idea practically rolls off the page, despite her unquestioning acceptance that the Biblical and Koranic version of events must be the correct one.

I did like her portrayal of the Eritrean national character–without giggles, fairly sophisticated, dedicated, etc. Quirky. They’ve been through a lot, and they’ve inflicted a lot on others.

One man in particular lived among the Ethiopians for years, always feeling apart, before robbing a medical supply store and taking himself and the supplies off to the Front. His former friends still feel betrayed by him, but he feels he was never really their friend.

This book is a sad, and sometimes buttock-clenching, but very necessary read. Five rusty tanks.



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