A monument in downtown Asmara definitively symbolizes such self-reliance, collectivity, and rudimentary survival. The monument celebrates not an individual, or even a generic guerrilla fighter, but a giant pair of sandals—shedas, in the native Tigrinya language. Such sandals, worn by every Eritrean fighter during the long struggle with Ethiopia, were homemade from recycled tire rubber, and gave fighters the ability to move quickly in the stony desert war zone. The monument shows what mythic proportions the conflict with Ethiopia has achieved in the minds of Eritreans; it has come to supersede the power of religion itself, in a society split evenly between Islam and Orthodox Christianity. This is an impressive achievement on a continent where Muslims and Christians are forming increasingly antagonistic group identities.
Eritrea's clarified sense of nationhood, rare in a world of nation-states rent by tribalism and globalization, is in part a legacy of Italian colonialism. "We acknowledge that the legacy of colonialism was not all negative," says Yemane Ghebreab, the political-affairs officer of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice—successor to the country's guerrilla force, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Having conquered Eritrea in the late nineteenth century, the Italians had by the late 1930s turned their new colony into one of the most highly industrialized places in Africa, with road and railway networks that united a people previously divided by mountains and deserts. To drive from Asmara to Massawa—a descent of more than 7,500 feet in only seventy miles, down tangled vertebrae of coppery-green peaks, on a road of never-ending switchbacks, bridges, and embankments, built by Mussolini in the mid-1930s and kept in excellent condition by Eritrean highway crews working seven days a week—is to experience the historical energy of the industrialized West transplanted successfully to an African nation.
Another benefit of Italian colonialism, according to Ghebre Meskel, was town planning. Rather than concentrate everything in Asmara, the Italians developed Massawa and similar towns so as to prevent the overcentralization that now plagues other developing countries. To stem migration into Asmara and preserve this legacy, the Eritrean government has tried to improve life in rural areas; thus Asmara is not surrounded by shantytowns that might breed political extremism.
Following the defeat of Fascist Italy in World War II, and the dissolution of its East African empire, the new United Nations voted to incorporate Eritrea into Ethiopia. The Eritreans, unhappy with this decision, finally revolted in 1961. For thirteen years Eritrean guerrillas fought an Ethiopia backed by the United States. In 1974, when Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown, leading to a Marxist regime headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eritrean guerrilla activity did not cease, and from then on the Eritreans fought an Ethiopia backed by the Soviet Union. Despite their ability to grind away at a Soviet-supplied war machine, which featured MiG fighter jets in the air and Soviet generals on the battlefield, the secretive and independent-minded Eritreans received no aid under the Reagan Doctrine (a U.S. program for arming Third World anti-communist insurgencies). Nevertheless, in 1991 Eritrean and Tigrean guerrillas, fighting on separate fronts, defeated Mengistu, and Eritrean tanks rolled triumphantly into the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. In the minds of the Eritreans, they had fought and won a three-decade struggle against a state ten times as populous, with no help from either of the superpowers or anyone else in the outside world. They now feel that they owe nothing to anybody, and they are filled with disdain for international opinion. (A taxi driver berated me for the West's focus on the crimes of the former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic; Mengistu, he said, was responsible for at least twice as many deaths through his collectivization programs, but now lives in lavish exile in Zimbabwe.)