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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
A ride in the clouds of Eritrea
By Jonah Fisher
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Asmara-Massawa railway
Eritrea hopes the views will help the country's tourism
The reopening of the railway line between Asmara and Massawa in Eritrea has meant people are now again enjoying rides through some of the most spectacular scenery in Africa.

The line descends 2,300 metres in total, nearly all downhill on the way down to the Red Sea.

It goes through steep, cloud-filled mountains of breathtaking beauty.

The railway has had a troubled history since first being established when Italy controlled the country, but now Eritrea hopes the spectacular journey will begin attracting tourists.

"The Italians used to curse us all the time, but on the whole life was not bad with them," said train driver Ato Tesfai.

The British took control when they defeated the Italians in 1941, before being passed to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia following a UN ruling.

During this time, the railway enjoyed uninterrupted service.

War problems

However, in the mid-1970s after Mengistu Haile Mariam's Derg regime seized power in Addis Ababa, the railway started also being used to transport weapons to Asmara - leading Eritrean rebels to target the railway line and force its closure.

Many of those who had depended on the railway for their jobs became unemployed.

Over the next 15 years the line went into what appeared to be terminal decline, with sleepers and track being ripped up to make trenches and bunkers.

Asmara-Massawa railway
The line runs right on the edge of cliffs
But when the Eritrean liberation war finally ended in 1991, a rejuvenation programme was launched. Key to this was the re-employment of the railway's previous workers - hence the large numbers of elderly Eritreans who still work on the line.

But progress was hampered by the lack of available manpower due to conscription, and work was completely halted in 1998 after a border war with Ethiopia flared up.

Two years later, with the war ended, work resumed again, and the track was finally completed late last year.

The project is seen as something of a triumph, as Eritrea has been able to do it with virtually no foreign assistance and is genuinely hopeful of the benefits of tourism.

However the trains remain unreliable and replacing the antiquated engines would cost money Eritrea - with all its problems of drought, food shortages and border disputes - simply does not have.

The full version of this article appears in the July-September 2003 issue of BBC Focus On Africa magazine


SEE ALSO:
Eritrea - Turning swords into ploughshares?
10 Jan 02  |  Crossing Continents
Kenyan tourism faces meltdown
19 Jun 03  |  Business
East Africa's security nightmare
15 May 03  |  Africa



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