Michela Wrong,
I Didn't Do It for You
(HarperCollins, 2005)

This history of the African nation of Eritrea is one of serious neglect, punctuated by vicious interference on the part of the Great Powers, according to this historical narrative by Michela Wrong, a gifted journalist living in Britain.

The strength of this version of Eritrea's last hundred years of misery at the hands of Italy, Britain, Ethiopia, the United States and Russia, is her empathy with a people that have never had anything handed to them. Eritreans have had to fight for everything. As we know, this can make a people independent-minded and even prickly.

Yet Eritrea's history is central to the world's 20th-century story -- from its turning-point role in World War II to its Cold War status as a pre-eminent listening post, this tiny country figures more prominently than one would expect.

Italy's first and longest-lasting colony, Eritrea was linked with Ethiopia since Mussolini's successful invasion of that country in the mid 1930s. Later, Britain smashed the Italian army at the battle of Keren, freeing the area from Euro-fascism. But before leaving, the Brits dismantled and sold the entire infrastructure of the country, Wrong asserts.

After the war, the United Nations decided the two countries would be linked through a federation, but the Eritrean parliament was soon bought out by Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie (a.k.a. Ras Tafari) -- Ethiopia wanted access to the sea.

Meanwhile the U.S. set up a massive but little-publicized listening post not far from the Eritrean capital of Asmara. From there the Americans could listen in, first on the Nazis, then on the Soviets. (In one stunning sequence, American soldiers listen in horror as Israel strafes and napalms an American naval ship in 1967.)

Later, Russia began supplying arms to the Ethiopian ruling council, known as the Derg. The Derg's insatiable need for weaponry was a mystery to Russian leaders, who wondered why a regional power like Ethiopia could not keep Eritrea's independence movement under control. The end of the cold war saw the balance tip again and Eritrea finally emerge as a state after a 30-year war. But the story continues.

Wrong fills in all the blanks on this amazing story backed by solid research and many hours of interviews. It's a fascinating read about an obscure, but not unimportant, part of the globe.

by David Cox
4 February 2006

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