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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Disturbing Look at African Nation Used as Pawn

The Plain Dealer -- The battle-weary British Army captain barely looks at the old Eritrean woman standing on the dusty road. It is 1941, and she is thanking him for driving the Italian fascists from her country. "I didn't do it for you, [expletive]," he snaps. And crisply marches away.

In her striking and disturbing new book, "I Didn't Do It for You," journalist Michela Wrong tells us that this nasty encounter has become a popular story among Eritreans. Although it might not have actually happened, it has achieved the status of a parable -- a revealing story about how Eritreans perceive the outsiders who have used the country like a geopolitical Game Boy.

Tiny Eritrea, at 45,000 square miles just slightly larger than Ohio, gets its name from the conflation of the Latin words for Red Sea, whose waters form the country's northeastern boundary. To the south is Ethiopia. Eritrea was once part of this neighbor and often has been at war with it.

Wrong writes with the authority born of comprehensive research and multiple visits to the region. She also writes with attitude. Her previous book, "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz" (2001), dealt with the plundering of the Congo and indicted outsiders for causing its perpetual poverty and violence.

In her new work, she pins the tail of culpability on many of the same donkeys. The Italians colonized Eritrea in the late 19th century and deeply imprinted their culture on the clay of the country. Wrong calls the capital city, Asmara, "the city that time forgot" because it features Art Deco and other design touches of Mussolini's reign.

America's interest and presence began in World War II. When the United States recognized that a high Eritrean plateau provided one of the world's great sites for electronic eavesdropping, the American military erected Kagnew Station, complete with movie theater, bowling alley, swimming pool, craft shop. And more.

Some of Wrong's most disgusting discoveries involve U. S. military personnel stationed at Kagnew. Some of the men tested -- and then shattered -- the outer boundaries of sexual, alcoholic and scatological behavior. These pages add some grubby, unpleasant brush strokes to the sordid portrait of the Ugly American.

Wrong shows how the Cold War crippled Africa's social and economic development. Both the United States and the Soviets supported brutal regimes whose single virtue was a willingness to align themselves with Washington or Moscow. If genocide or rape or environmental destruction ensued, each side seemed to decide, well, at least the country didn't go communist -- or imperialist.

Wrong views recent events with surpassing sadness. In the mid-1990s, just when it appeared that Eritrea might emerge from the morass, it joined rival Ethiopia in a ruinous arms race and went to war once again with its southern neighbor. It took the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations to stop it.

"The Eritrea I visit these days is not the country I knew," she writes. Civil liberties have vanished; the economy barely functions; people are afraid -- of their leadership, of one another.

It is easy for Americans not to think about Africa. But as this courageous writer shows us, when we look at Africa, we are peering not through a window but into a mirror.

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