Railway bridge in mist
Wilson: For 75 years, a railway built by Eritrea’s Italian colonisers, made the tortuous journey through these mountains, from the country’s main port at Massawa, to the capital, Asmara. 17.32.20
GiorgisSuper: Dr. GIORGIS TEKLEMIKAELEritrean Minister for Transport Giorgis: The railway was completed dismantled, destroyed during the war. For more than 20 years it was non-operational. In fact, there was only some traces that the railway really existed by the time of independence. 17.54.08
Italian archival film Wilson: When the Italians started the ambitious construction of the railway line in 1887, it would take them more than 40 years to complete the 360 kilometre line, with the track rising from sea level to 2,400 metres. Its construction was hailed as a major engineering feat. 18.10.01
Train Today, three years after declaring its independence, Eritrea has begun an extraordinary project to rebuild this critical piece of infrastructure. 18.39.06
Harnessing the sheer determination of its people, the Eritrean government is reconstructing the railway with no outside help.
Giorgis Giorgis: It is symbolic in the sense that it reflects the policy, the philosophy of the Eritrean government, that we have to mobilise our resources first and foremost, before we go around the world and ask for any help.
Rail workshops Wilson: At the rail workshops in Asmara, Debesai Zemmu is part of a group of veteran workers recruited to help to bring Eritrea’s railway history back to life.
On a pension for 20 years, Debesai has been called out of retirement and is now in the cabin of the pride of Eritrea’s rail fleet — a 1957 Krupp diesel locomotive.
These veterans are the only ones who know how the trains work. Experience that must be put to use before it’s lost.
Debesai Debesai: What I’m doing now is to train the younger generation, so they can take our place. If we don’t train them, they can’t take our place. 19.59.14
Wilson: At the other end of the Asmara railway yards, 76-year old Cardelli Ghereziher and his colleagues are restoring the ancient steam engines that will form the backbone of Eritrea’s rail fleet.
The work is back-breaking, and would challenge many men half their age.
Cardelli Cardelli: We remove the parts, check them and put them back in order. All this is taken down, checked — like the pistons, cylinders, distributors — and put them back
like before. 20.34.01
Workshop Wilson: The remarkable thing about this restoration project is that the work is being done entirely without the use of modern technology. In the electric workshop, parts are individually drilled and machined by hand. 20.45.02
Outside, these 80-year old sleepers are being oiled, ready for use again.
But rebuilding these trains is only half the project, as yet there are no rails for them to run on.
Map Eritrea Building the track is a job that begins 117 kilometres away, and 3,000 metres below Asmara, in the ancient Red Sea port of Massawa. 21.22.12
The fall of Massawa was the turning point in Eritrea’s independence war. The job of rebuilding this once thriving port now lies with the local mayor, Twelde Andu.
Twelde Andu: During the liberation almost 90 per cent of the city has been demolished. All the houses, the infrastructure of the roads, the lights, the water system, the drainage system — everything was destroyed. So to rehabilitate or reconstruct the remains of the war is not an easy matter. 21.59.10
Trolley Train Wilson: Project number one is Massawa’s tiny trolley train. This represents the rebirth of the Eritrean railway system. 22.14.07
Trundling along six kilometres of reconstructed track, students, workers and families use the train to travel between the town centre and the outskirts of the city.
Twelde Twelde: It’s a small one. It works for the students and for the daily workers. It can help because it’s cheap, it cost only 25 cents, so it can give a service to the public.
Wilson: Now, a train ride like this might not appear much to most people, but it fills the Eritreans with pride.
Giorgis Giorgis: It is not only its material aspect of it, or its economic aspect of it, but the fact that the people are of the mind to rebuild what existed and expand it to develop it. This gives naturally a necessary satisfaction, a psychological satisfaction. 23.04.03
Wilson: Outside the city limits, the hard work of rebuilding the main line from the coast to Asmara is underway. But first, the precious rails and sleepers have to be found.
YohannesSuper: YOHANNES WOLDEYESUSFormer Soldier Yohannes: The Ethiopian troops used it as a trench,
especially the sleepers and the iron bars. They used it as a trench to protect from our attack. 23.40.01
Workers retrieving rails Wilson: Now, far and wide across Eritrea, gangs of workers are returning to the scenes of battle, to retrieve their pilfered railway. All up, 169,000 of these steel sleepers have been dug from the ground. 23.50.03
From here, these sleepers and rails will be hauled back to the railway track to be returned to their original use.
It’s here that you realise the difficulty of the task ahead. Every one of these 9 metre long rails, each weighing a quarter of a tonne, will be straightened and carried into place by hand.
Like the veterans in the Asmara workshops, passing on their skills to the younger generation it’s the same for
Zeggai Zemmu, working on the track.
Mr Zemmu has been a track-layer for 41 years.
Zeggai Zeggai: There are a few problems because the rails were not kept properly. So are bent so we straighten them and use them again. 24.54.08
Workers straightening rails Wilson: It’s back-breaking work to bend into shape these 80-year old rails so they can be used again. 25.04.13
That’s 26,000 rails in all, for the journey between Massawa and Asmara.
But the Eritreans’ determination to rebuild this line, on their own, and virtually by hand, is deeply rooted in their philosophy of self-reliance.
Twelde Twelde: During the war, we were having this principle of self-reliance. This 30 year’s war, we have many experiences and if we are not self-reliant, we will always be waiting for donors, to be waiting for aid. So if you are going to wait for aid then you are not going to work. And if you don’t work, you can’t change your lifestyle, your economic situation. 25.39.20
Rails being laid Wilson: So far, it’s taken more than a year to build the line, just 29 kilometres across the desert. 29.59.11
But this is where the hard part begins, laying 90 kilometres of track through the mountains to the capital.
It may seem an almost impossible task, but it’s one the Eritreans refuse to shy away from.
Zeggai Zeggai: According to my guess we hope to reach Asmara in two years — but we lack certain tools. Some of our tools are getting old so unless we are delayed by this we will reach Asmara in two years. 26.28.20
Giorgis Wilson: But the Minister for Transport is more pragmatic. 26.45.11
Giorgis: It is true it has been said that it could be perhaps done, or completed, with two years. But then there a lot of factors, natural and others, which could delay it by some months, a year, but that’s not very important for us.
Cars on railway track Wilson: Near the small village of Nefasit, we were able to drive on to the tracks, which have been carved into the mountainside. 27.11.01
As the line snakes its way through these mountains, it passes over 44 bridges, and through 30 tunnels — the biggest, some 400 metres long.
The Eritreans hope this project will cost less than ten million dollars to complete, a fraction of what the Italians said it would cost to rebuild the line.
Giorgis Giorgis: The Italians they say about 200 million dollars is needed, without wagons and locomotives. Who is going to pay for it? It think if you cannot pay for it, you cannot. 27.46.13
Wilson: In two years time, these trains trapped in the graveyard of a 30 year war should again be shuttling between Eritrea’s main port and its capital.
The ‘can do’ people of Eritrea are showing the rest of the world what can be done with determination, self-reliance and very little money.
Negus Negus: Ben Wilson and the indomitable Eritreans. Not an easy bunch to keep down. And that’s the program for another week. Join us again next week at the same time for another Foreign Correspondent. See you then. 28.32.09