Hill, who taught in Eritrea for two years, beginning in 1996, digs deeply, humanely, and with political keenness into the country’s history.
In 1993, after more than thirty years of fighting against their Ethiopian occupiers, 99.81 percent of Eritrean voters cast their ballots in favor of independence. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine why, writes the author: the Ethiopians had been brutally destructive. Hill provides a crisp, colorful history of this strip along the Red Sea, from the ancient kingdom of Axum through the period of Italian colonial rule to the quashing of Eritrea’s post-WWII dreams of independence due to the duplicity of the US government, determined to reward Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie for his anti-communism. The author then chronicles the long-odds struggle of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) against Selassie’s troops and those of the foul junta that overthrew him. As most of Hill’s acquaintances were EPLF fighters, readers get a good inside look at their political vision, a kind of Maoism scrubbed of Mao that advocated land reform, education, health care, and gender equality. Here, Hill (the novel The Drink and Dream Teahouse, 2001, etc.) shows, things get tricky: the Eritrean government, now under EPLF control, was still dedicated to social revolution, but the EPLF at its height had 60,000 members, and the nation’s three-million civilians would not so quickly adopt their policies. In a country that had essentially been reduced to rubble, full of war-ravaged people without jobs, any prospects for a rapid swing into democracy were slim. The new government played favorites, and the acting president seemed not at all eager to call elections. The revolution was crumbling, dreams were turning sour. All this emerges in Hill’s descriptions of his trips about the country with Eritrean friends, painted with the exquisiteness of Persian miniatures. Then it was back to fighting and goodbye to well-meaning foreigners. At embarkation, Hill writes bitterly, “Eritrea was returning to war and we were leaving them to it.”
A grim filigree of turmoil during peacetime.