From the very beginning the Italians had seen Eritrea as a staging point for a further invasion. With this in mind, a road-and-railway network was built and a settler population installed, bringing new technological skills along with it. Thousands of Eritreans left their ancestral villages to work on the Italians’ huge projects. A modern capital rose up in Asmara, which, with its yellow stone houses and adorned with bougainvillea, is still one of the loveliest cities in Africa. The coming of fascism in Italy led to further investment in Eritrea. In order to convey military and other supplies from the port of Massawa up to Asmara, 7,000 feet above sea level, the world’s longest aerial ropeway was built. The new transport system allowed Eritreans to visit parts of their country they had never seen before, facilitating the growth of a modern national consciousness. Trade unions were established, and political culture came to be more advanced in Eritrea than anywhere else on the continent outside Egypt and South Africa. Whatever its sins, Italian capitalism proved to be a liberating social experience for the Eritreans.
By the time the Italians met defeat at British hands at Keren, northwest of Asmara, in 1941, Eritrea was vastly different from the rest of Ethiopia, where the Italian presence had been pretty much restricted to the brief but brutal military occupation of Addis Adaba and other garrison towns. In the aftermath of the war, however, the outside world failed to recognize that difference. The British occupied Eritrea until September of 1952. By the time they left, the Western powers had imposed a United Nations mandate on the region and made Eritrea a semi-autonomous territory under the sovereignty of Ethiopia. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, explained: “From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interest of the United States … [makes] it necessary that the country has to be linked with our ally, Ethiopia.” In Eritrean eyes this was a gross betrayal of outside powers; that it has never been forgotten is apparent in the EPLF’s obsession today with self-reliance.
Selassie never respected the autonomy agreement Eritrea’s independent institutions were gradually subverted, political parties were banned, and Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic were suppressed as the languages of Eritrea and replaced by Amharic. In 1961 an organization called the Eritrean Liberation Front, or ELF, was formed. Civil war broke out in September, when the guerrillas began mounting hit-and-run attacks with antiquated Italian weapons. The following year Eritrea was formally annexed by Ethiopia and became just another of its many provinces.
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The Eritrean guerrilla struggle began as very much a Moslem0oriented movement. Tom J. Farer, in War Clouds on the Horn of Africa, writes:
Its launching was facilitated by the 1950s recession-bred migration from Asmara and the port cities to Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. The workers, plus young [Eritrean] Muslims who went to Cairo for a university education, formed a pool of latent militants who could be organized beyond the Emperor’s reach. A second early asset was the 1962 eruption of civil war in the Yemen. Weapons from patrons poured into and overflowed the arsenals of the Yemeni belligerents. Some of these weapons filtered into the hands of the ELF.
But Eritrea is not Arab and is only part Islamic. The population is equally split between the Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopian Orthodox Christians of the highlands and the Tigre- and Arabic-speaking Moslems of the coast and western plains. The EPLF was formed in 1970. It had a strong Christian element and, as its name implies, a distinctly Marxist tinge at the beginning. Initially Isaias Aferworki, a Christian, commanded its field forces, and foreign relations were in the hands of Osman Salih Sabbe, a Moslem renegade from the ELF. Perhaps inevitably, even as they waged war on Ethiopia the ELF and the EPLF themselves came to blows, and as many as 3,000 Eritrean guerrillas lost their lives in a struggle that ended with no clear-cut victor By then—1975—the American-backed government of Emperor Haile Selassie had, amid worsening famine, been overthrown in a coup and a new government, headed by a committee of junior officers known as the Dergue (Amharic for “committee”), had come to power. The Dergue’s initial egalitarian posture and talk of reform raised hopes that it would seek a compromise with the Eritrean resistance, which was being heavily supported with money and arms not only by Arabs but also by the Russians. These expectations were dashed in November, when the figurehead chief of state, General Aman Michael Andom, a man of Eritrean heritage who had been negotiating with the Eritrean guerrillas, supposedly on the Dergue’s behalf, was killed in his Addis Ababa villa by Dergue troops precisely, it is said, because he was believed to be close to achieving a settlement.