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Crossing Continents Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 14:01 GMT
Eritrea - Turning swords into ploughshares?
The metal market in Asmara turns war scrap into tools for the future
In this edition of Crossing Continents, Julian Pettifer reports from Africa's youngest nation: the tiny but proud country of Eritrea, which gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after more than thirty years of war.

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The new leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea are today, once again, walking a tightrope. Their two countries are now on the brink of war as they dispute a small area of land along their border. The fighting spirit instilled in Eritreans by years of struggle has certainly discouraged them from backing down.

The programme interviews the people many believe to have won the last war, for an independent Eritrea: the country's women. After playing a crucial role in the seemingly endless fight for independence, Eritrean women are now battling to win basic rights in their communities.

Julian Pettifer, in a trench dug during the war, holds an Ethiopian soldier's boot
During the war for independence women made up at least one third of the 100,000-strong rebel force. Traditional attitudes towards women were swept away. In the gruelling conditions of trench warfare and often under heavy shelling, who until then had been totally subservient to men found themselves commanding battalions, running field hospitals, working as engineers.

Their courage didn't go unnoticed. The conflict has led to concrete changes in the way women are treated. Laws have been passed granting women the right to vote, divorce, own land and choose their own husband. Genital mutilation was outlawed and for the first time girls' education was promoted.

Today women are in a position of authority and power. There are two women ministers, a quarter of MP's are women, and there's a clutch of female entrepreneurs. Eritrea's favourite singer this year, Helen Meles, is an ex-combatant in the war who's made a success of the career transition from fighter to pop star. But old habits die hard and it's really only the privileged who have managed to hold on to their gains and push the limits back even further.

The National Union of Eritrean Women estimate that 90% of women are illiterate, which is why they've invested their time and resources in organising literacy classes for over 26,000 women. Crossing Continents talks to the ex-fighters turned businesswomen, politicians, and pop-stars about the fight for equality.

Haile Selassie's old summer house in Massawa lies ruined
In some ways, the real battle began after Eritrea had won independence. The people have literally had to rebuild an entire country ravaged by the war. Railways, bridges, dams, scores of buildings were destroyed and acres of trees wiped out. But rather than calling for foreign aid, the government has insisted it must be self-reliant. The President believes that relying on hand outs from the West breeds complacency and laziness, and that ultimately the country would be plunged further into debt. So the whole country - young and old - has been mobilised to help piece the country back together.

We visit a huge recycling depot in the capital, Asmara, (pictured above) where scrap metal is refashioned into everyday objects like water tanks and spades, and talk about the policy of self-reliance and the rebuilding programme.

Asmara's main cinema has a clear Italian heritage
Stroll around the capital Asmara and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were in Italy. Italy colonised Eritrea in 1890 and although it's over 50 years since the Italians left, they've left a rich cultural legacy behind. The Italians built the railway, roads, bridges and numerous colonial-style buildings. In fact. so Italian-looking are the buildings alond Asmara's boulevards that the city has been nicknamed "the second Milan".

Eritreans have adopted some unexpected facets of Italian culture. Like the Italians, they share a national passion for cycle racing. Eritrea's favourite drink is the cappuccino. There are countless cafés dishing up pasta and pizza ... and most can even offer them up with a glass of Eritrean-style Italian beer.

Helen Meles, top Eritrean singer in 1998
exhorting young Eritreans to go to the front ...
Bicycle race prizeving, Massawa, October 1998
at one of Eritrea's many bicycle races...
See also:

23 Sep 98 | Africa
27 Oct 98 | Africa
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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