Eritrea's war of independence, waged against its imperial neighbour Ethiopia, lasted 30 years and ended in 1991. Often, in the British media, the case against covering the conflict was that if no one had heard of it, it couldn't be worth the trouble. That kind of argument, which plumps the cushions for the proof to lie on, is hard to counter. Telling the story to a wide non-specialist audience is a daunting prospect and few people have tried; the most successful, until now, was Thomas Keneally, whose novel Towards Asmara (1989), set in the guerrilla-held areas at the time of the liberation war, was a picaresque homage to the Eritrean people. Michela Wrong has attempted something different: an idiosyncratic, free-ranging history of Eritrea, from colonial times to the present, marvellously full of anecdote, archive and interview material. The book moves easily along, driven by Wrong's relentless fascination with her subject. Her theme, resumed in every chapter, is that meddling and cynicism on the part of Eritrea's neighbours, the European colonial powers and chiefly the two main Cold War adversaries, created the moral and political catastrophe of which so few outsiders had an inkling. Even twenty years ago, at the time of Bob Geldof's involvement in the regional famine, Eritrea remained an obscure subject.
LRB 20 July 2006 | PDF Download