Getting to Know Eritrea

I went to a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center last week on Eritrea’s external relations. As well, I’m reading a book called “I didn’t do it for you” which talks about the history and events that have shaped Eritrea. It is indeed a fascinating country.  I have not yet been there but the more I read, the more I am intrigued by the impact that the country’s history has had on the psyche of the people.  While other countries have statues of people whom they revere, Eritrea has a giant sandal in the middle of the capital Asmara which represents their victory over Ethiopia, which they won in sandals.  The country’s leader President Isais is intent on building a self-sustaining country which is why he is not afraid to make enemies or rather why he’s not concerned with building allies.  The fact that the UN has imposed sanctions is likely not a source of stress for the President, rather the political isolation allows him the independence he desires.

I worry about the people of Eritrea who may suffer hardship by the lack of international support especially for economic development.  One point that was made during this session was the need to ‘engage’ with President Isais.  This was one aspect of Obama’s foreign policy that I found particularly encouraging and unfortunately find myself disappointed by the lack of it. That said, I can appreciate that Eritrea probably doesn’t make the top of any list of foreign policy priorities…but using sanctions as a means of punishing the country is just not going to accomplish anything good.

After World War II, Eritrea fought Ethiopia for 30 years and despite being one tenth the size, they eventually won. They spent a few years enjoying that victory and once again another war broke out with Ethiopia over the border.  The small population of Eritrea has sacrificed an unnatural proportion of their men and women to these wars and as a result, the Eritrean people carry a lot of luggage in their national culture and identity.

My other work in East Africa has focused on Kenya and Tanzania – countries I have ties to since my parents were born there. I thought Eritrea would be a natural extension of my other East Africa work but the more I learn about this small, but unique country in the horn of Africa, the more I realize this is likely to be a unique, educational and challenging experience. Since most of the world is looking away from Eritrea, it leaves me with the feeling that our project to start a residency program in internal medicine may actually have a significant impact on the plight of the nation.

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