Postcards From Hell Eritrea: Empire, Last Stop
EMPIRE, LAST STOP (1998) W>Guido SantevecchiWWe-mail the writer
copyright and courtesy of Corriere della Sera

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54118 Railroad warehouse in Asmara

At eight o’ clock in the morning the sun on the plateau is hitting already as a hammer on the sheds of the Asmara station.
The picture seems to have come out from a defective time-machine: a dozen of white-haired men, muffled into patched coveralls, is working around a locomotive. Close to the chimney, a green plate is carrying the engraved writing "Società Italiana Ernesto Breda per le costruzioni meccaniche n° 2456, Milano 1937"
"Giulio, old mouse, where did you hide yourself?". The deposit chief Seium Baraki is proud of showing his authority and he is happy that he can do that in fluent italian, that he learned 60 years ago at the primary school "Vittorio Emanuele" of Asmara.
Giulio is coming out of the boiler of the Breda, he is small and wrinkly, is walking with jumps, like a faulty engine; he could have eighty years, his black skin is grey for the soot. The deposit chief points at him laughing: "His name was Abraha Ikuar; but the italians started to call him Abraha Giulio, at the end he became Giulio and stop for everybody, also for us eritreans" The small man, bent by the arthritis, should have heard this story an infinity of times, but he is still patient: "yes, the italians used to tell me: "Giulio, old mouse, come here, disassemble, scrape, clean. I did not get angry, it was so then..and it is so also now.

54115 One of the skilled technicians back at work in Asmara workshop

Many other things at the Asmara station are still as they were at the time, when Seium and Abraha-Giulio were boys, when Eritrea was "the first-born italian colony" and the Massaua-Asmara railway, built by italian soldiers between 1897 and 1911 was defined by the international press, so critical and suspicious toward the late italian colonial policy, "an astonishing exploit", "an engineering miracle".
Along the 117 km of the line, in order to climb from the Red Sea to the 2400 meters of the Asmara plateau, the italian civil engineers had to place 64 bridges and viaducts and 30 tunnels. An epic enterprise to be finished at all costs: "At all costs", as used to say the italian soldiers who were laying the rails on breath-taking drops and as it can be read still today, proudly engraved under the arch of one of the bridges. (see picture below)

54427 Dogali bridge, built by italian Bersaglieri, still bears the engravure "At All Costs".

In the same years the French were building a railway from Gibuti to Addis Abeba, and since the colonial proudness required that the "italian genius" could not be overcome by the french one, our railway did not stop at Asmara, but went further on in the middle of the country, to reach at first Cheren, and then Agordat and finally Biscia: more than 227 km.
From Italy came the most modern steam locomotives, built by Breda in Milan and by Ansaldo in Genua, that exceeded the wall of the 35 km per hour. In the plain, of course, because in the climbing bends between Massaua and Asmara the speed was so low, that the british writer Evelin Waugh in Scoop described the passengers going down from the train, picking up blackberries and climbing again on the limping convoy.
Almost as an answer to the british irony, from the Fiat works two littorinas were shipped in 1934 to Massaua, having a 120 HP petrol engine and a maximum speed of 50 km per hour; on October 19, 1934, the daily newspaper of Rome could report on the maiden voyage from Massaua to Asmara: "The press men, as soon as they arrive in Massaua, take place on an elegant and very fast Littorina consigned to the tireless skill of the Genio Ferrovieri, that with a three-hour fast run reaches the Capital of the Eritrean Colony".
The italian railway went on with its operation through the Forties, through the world war.
The british soldiers, taking over in Asmara on April 1st, 1944, declared that italian civil authorities would be kept at their places, forced the left-hand drive for cars, as the London gentlemen, named Bristol an hotel built in fascist-imperial style, and took away as a war booty the machinery of many italian factories and the telpherway that climbed from Massaua to the plateau (finally rebuilt in India).
Breda, Ansaldo and the Littorine went on undisturbed to perform their acrobatics on a track less than one meter wide (exact gauge 95 centimeters) also in the Fifties and in the Sixties, when Eritrea was annexed to the Ethiopia of Hailè Selassiè.
In 1965 they established the record, carrying 446 thousand passengers and 200 thousand tons of goods.
Italian railmen did not exist anymore, but one went on saying "rotaie, scambio, caldaia, tubi" (rails, switch, boiler, pipes).
"For sure" explains the depot chief Seium Baraki, "italian language is better: you write ‘acqua’ and say ‘acqua’; in English, instead, you write water and have to say ‘uotar’ and this is not suited to run trains.
Then, one morning of September 1975, one Ansaldo stopped in a cloud of steam in the damp heat of the Massaua station.
She would never more climb toward the clean and dry air of Asmara. From 1962 the eritrean Liberation Army and the ethiopic soldiers were fighting for a barren land, exacly like at the end of 1800 the italians of Baratieri and the warriors of Menelik, with the same wild will.
And the railway day after day went shorter, and then disappeared: the soldiers of both parts used the rails and the sleepers to strenghten trenches and bunkers.
That forgotten war lasted thirty years, the longest african indipendence war.
In 1991 the Addis Abeba regime led by the "red negus" Menghistu collapsed. In 1993 Eritrea had the indipendence.
The government of president Isayas Afwerki, made up of former warriors that after the liberation started to follow University courses by mail, thought of rebuilding the colonial railway, exactly as it was.
A project out of time, too costly, not realizable, declared the american and the british experts: the Saudis offered to buy the old locomotives in pieces as iron scrap.
The Asmara government went on alone. Why? "You italians were able to build roads and bridges, but you didn’t know that this railway would become a symbol of our national sovereignty: now, rebuilding it using just a pile of rusty iron , will proof to everybody the firm will of our people", explains Ammanuel Ghebreselassie, the young former warrior who is coordinating the reconstruction.

54104 An open-air railroad workshop between Massaua and Ghinda

So, in 1995, peasants and former soldiers were ordered to collect all the material spread on the battle fields of the thirty years war.
Unbelievably, the rails and the sleepers with the stamp Ilva Savona showed out again, carried by an human chain aware of participating to the rebirth of a country.
The formar soldiers started to lay down the rails on the old track, meter after meter, starting from Massaua.
"We have done seventy kilometers, we are almost at Ghinda, the halfway station", says Ammanuel. But the "almost" means weeks if not months of a beastly effort.
The works are now between Mai Atal and Damas, in a lunar landscape, made out of stones, thorny bushes, and some camel; one proceeds a few meters a day, all by arms strenght: a nine-meters rail section weighs three tons.

54097 Ghinda station, the farest You could travel - at least several months ago - from Massawa

But to recover into operation the Bredas, the Ansaldo and the Littorine, out of production since tens of years, strong will and force could not be enough. The government has recalled into service the only men in the world capable of disassembling and reassembling "by heart" that vintage material: the "surplus" railmen of the italian era.
Slightly less than fifty have answered the call: the youngest is seventy years old. But the will and the memory are still strong.When Abraha Ikuar Giulio started to work as a coppersmith in the workshop of the Asmara station, it was 1935.
Every single day 38 trains used to run, loaded with men and materials for the Etiopia conquest.
Seium Baraki arrived later, on the onset of the world war that should end the "Africa Orientale Italiana". "I am here since 1940, thirteen March 1940" he specifies with the precision of a good clerk. " I was hired by Oreste Maranzana from Bologna" he remembers, confident that the name of his old boss is still well-known in Italy.
He is disappointed in realizing that current italians do not know each other and do not remember a colonial railman like Oreste Maranzana from Bologna; he gets some confort from his tools, brought back to ancient efficiency. "Pressa, ghiera, tornio, paranco, puleggia, incudine [ press, ferrule, lathe, crane, pulley, anvil ] " he lists in italian, like if Oreste Maranzana would hear and judge him.

54469 An old lathe from "Morini e Bossi" factory in Milan, still at work in Asmara Station's repair shop

The sorcerer of the Littorine is Tekné Kirané, aged 73. He has put together two of them piece by piece, and almost quarrels with the chief Seium, when we ask whether they can really assure that the machines are in good efficiency.
"This is ready" says Tekné pointing at the Littorina n. 2, the same which galvanized the special correspondent of the newspaper Roma in that 1935 October morning (just the littorio sign is missing from the front); Seium hits with a fist an Ansaldo of 1929 and states: "not only she is ready to work, she is working" ; Tekné does not give up the last word: "She will work when there will be rails", and seems disappointed toward the people that are working hard along the track, too slow to climb with sleepers and rails from Massaua up to the plateau.
Tekné does not accept as an excuse for the delay the big rain of the last autumn, that has sweeped out two sections of the freshly made track, neither the border conflict blown up in May with Ethiopia, that brought bombs over Asmara .
Another difficult to understand story, this war; old soldiers from the independence war have left for the front without making questions, without complaining. As if the bizarre time machine that decides the eritrean plateau history had decided to recall into life the bataillons of "ascari" [native soldiers associated with Italy] that were going to the massacre in order to give an italian king, which they had never seen, a few more kilometers of stony ground.
The Breda does not start. Pistons and rods lay non operating under the sun. The railmen team decides to push: nothing. It seems impossible that these old men full of arthrosis could shift tons of steel and cast iron. "May God send you a disease!", says Seium, as if in a prayer. The old steam machine has a jerk, puffs steam, moves by herself. Oreste Maranzana from Bologna would be satisfied.

translation kindly provided by Renato Gaudio

copyright and courtesy of Corriere della Sera

Maria Grazia Cutuli
sketch courtesy and © F.Sironi

Farewell, good ol' Marjan...
The lone king of Kabul zoo succumbs to his age at 48, after surviving years and years of deprivations and symbolizing to kabulis the spirit of resiliency itself

Well.....that's sad news, indeed. To my eyes, Marjan symbolized hope.  However, in thinking about that dear old lion's death I choose to believe that when he heard the swoosh of kites flying over Kabul, heard the roars from the football stadium, experienced the renewed sounds of music in the air and heard the click-click of chess pieces being moved around chessboards....well, the old guy knew that there was plenty of hope around and it was okay for him to let go and fly off, amid kite strings, to wherever it is the spirits of animals go.
Peace to you Marjan and peace to Afghanistan.
[Diana Smith, via the Internet]

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