I do not know where to begin to praise this important book. The author, Michela Wrong, is a British writer who is passionate about Africa. She has spent a decade traveling around the continent and has written extensively about it for Reuters and the BBC. Absolutely, she knows her stuff and keeps the reader astonished with what she has learned. Ms Wrong's book is about the sad little country of Eritrea, the Biblical land of the Queen of Sheba. But it is also about the utter failure and betrayal of the United Nations to keep its promises to this country that was forced to wage so many destructive wars to keep its independence. Before the United Nation's miserable failures in Sudan, Dafur, Rwanda, Serbia, etc, there was its model disaster in Eritrea. And before the UN, there was Italy and its colonies in east Africa of which Eritrea, now regarded as a basket case, was once the most modern on the continent. Defeated at the end of World War II, Italy also lost its small colonial empire. The victor, Great Britain, picked Eritrea clean and sold off its factories and infastructure for scrap, leaving its people destitute with nothing to build a real country on. Shortly thereafter, the English dumped the ex-colony, allowing the UN to betray its promises and make way for Ethiopia to absorb Eritrea as a province. Hence the beginning of the wars. And the famines. And they were very nasty wars. Michela Wrong brilliantly communicates how the minds of the "rebels" worked. We are given an excellent lesson in the world of an underdog who knows it is right.Read more ›
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As the world ignores yet another war in Central Africa, maybe they ought to read this book on a pretty much previously ignored part of that continent and its wars. I had read Wrong's book on Central Africa (In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz) which is why I went for this one. Having said that, this is a much denser read. Chapters drag on but do stick with them as Wrong really does come up with great insights and detailed info on what exactly went on with Eritrea's struggles for independence.
What I also love about her writing is it does not come from some bleeding heart liberal nor pro-war neo-con stance. She writes almost matter of factly yet is able to make you feel as if you know (maybe not understand) all the characters right down to the foot soldiers or today's taxi drivers or market vendors that shaped, and continue to shape, the region.
The only thing I can add is this book should be required reading for every single citizen in the Western world. Maybe then, we'll start demanding our politicians wake up and make better geopolitical decisions.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Great book for someone who has been thereAug. 30 2005
George P. Watts
- Published on Amazon.com
Michela Wrong's style of writing is captivating as she brings History to life. She develops the personalities of the people involved very thoroughly and it is almost like reading a novel. She picks a relevant theme (not obvious until read) for her chapters to coincide with each pertinent stage of recent Eritrean History. Her book is not only a lesson in History, but also pleasure to read.
I found myself remembering and reminiscing about things I had long forgotten while I lived at Kagnew Station, Asmara, Eritrea in the early sixties. I was married to an Eritrean lady for thirty-three years before I lost her in a car accident eight years ago. Because of my interest in my spouse's heritage I have read many books and reports about Eritrea over the years. The recent History of Eritrea has confused me in the past, even though I had direct accounts and opinions from my in-laws who lived through those trying times. I was never sure of the big picture, i.e., why the Russians pulled out and where the U.S. stood on all that was happening. And I was not aware of the brutal fighting between the British and Italians during WWII at the Battle of Keren. I also did not understand the extent to which the British dismantled the factories and Italian capital investment in Eritrea. Michel Wrong has provided me with answers to many questions I have lived with so long. She also summed up the G.I. lifestyle at Kagnew Station very well. There was a lot of "Aminal House" type behavior at Kagnew Station. But I think the guys she interviewed for this subject probably exaggerated a bit on just how wild a place it actually was.
While this is obviously a book that has meant much to me and my past life, I found Ms. Wrong to be an excellent author. She has written and easy-reading portrayal of events illustrating how many countries have taken advantage of a small east African nation during our time. She did choose a strange and intriguing title for her book, "I Didn't Do It for You". But I know she did it for guys like me who needed clarification about the recent History of Eritrea.
Thank you Michela!!!
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Any information is better than noneMarch 29 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
After reading Ms. Wrongs book I have mixed feelings about it's content. I lived in Asmara for 2 years and 3 months (71-73)near Kagnew Station.
I enjoyed reading the stories of the few people she spotlighted. She does know how to spin a yarn, keeping my interest, but also there is something missing. Actually, much is missing.
The first thing I will comment on is about the Italians living under Ethiopian occupation in Asmara. I witnessed many abuses by these privileged, spoiled Italians in Eritrea. From the teenage gangs of the sons of the colonialists who hunted down and beat dark skinned Eritreans (much like the brown shirts of Nazi Germany) to the shunning of the mixed blood people (who were called Cafe-latte). I find it hard to believe that any Eritrean would welcome Italians as "belonging to Eritrea".
The antics of the "gross guys" is very misplaced. It is nothing more than the story of a few drunks who were totally insignificant in the history of Eritrea. I'm sure the experience of Eritrea was as varied as the people stationed there.
My experience was much different. My parents enjoyed the Eritrean people and the beauty of the countryside. We traveled often on weekends to Dekemhare, Keren, Masawa and many placed I have forgotten the names of. We visited orphanages, helping to repair windmills, meeting the British families devoted to the easing of suffering in this forgotten part of the world. These were the acts of kindness. Orphanage volunteers, peace corp workers, religious missions....these were ALL staffed by British and Americans....NEVER Italians.
Mrs Wrong quotes "Zazz" in a discussion about GI guilt about not serving in Vietnam. I think of greater relevance is the story of guilt which seems to be a common thread in all who were stationed in Asmara. That nagging feeling that we didn't do enough for the people we left in despair as we returned to our world.
All in all, I enjoyed reading the book because I was surprised that someone actually cared enough to attempt to write the story of this unknown land.
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Too close to the subject matterMarch 26 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
This is in some ways a good and necessary book. It spotlights a nation and a set of problems that most of the world doesn't pay much attention to. But there is a problem. Michela Wrong is too close to the subject and her emotional attachment at times results in the book not being as objective or as good as it might have been. In particular, she seems to have been far too close to Eritrean rebel groups and their leaders.
Eritrea's history isn't about "betrayal". Its about the same problems that most African nations have faced. Rather than face the fact that the problems of Eritrea today are largely self-inflicted wounds, she falls back into blaming colonialism and cold-war politics in really unconvincing ways.
In her coverage of Italian colonial rule, she confuses events in Eritrea with those in Ethiopia. She is also willing to judge Italy to a far higher standard than she applies to the pre or post-independence governments of both countries. She is also more than a little unwilling to understand the role that Italy played in creating Eritrea.
The lowest point in the book is her coverage of Britain's wartime rule of Eritrea. She advances a theory that the british were racist than the italians because their rule produced fewer multiracial children. Somehow she sees superior morality in men who promoted widespread prostitution and produced children which they abandoned. It makes no sense to me. Her logic is also full of wrong assumptions about the number of British in the country and the nature of the occupation.
She also isn't very good about the details of the war. The war in East Africa and in particular the victory at Keren was not a British victory, but a victory of the British Indian Army. Somehow she misses the basic fact that much of the army that conquered and occupied East Africa was Inidian.
The British wanted out of Eritrea and got out of it seven years after the war ended (1952). As they got out, the issue of Ethiopia's historic and economic claims to Eritrea came to the surface. Wrong wishes to blame the united nations for betraying the people of Eritrea. But its not that simple. Eritrea's national identity has no particular good historical basis and arises mostly from the period of Italian rule and the money Italy spent on their colony. Furthermore, its independence results in two weak states in East Africa rather than one. Eritrea and Ethiopia need each other. Economically, independence is a disaster for both.
The war for Eritrea's independence was a pointless waste of lives for everyone involved. Wrong wishes to see it as a justified noble struggle for "freedom", but as events since independence have proved, it was anything but that.
After the overthrow of the Ethiopian government in 1976, horrible things were done in Eritrea and the author gets that part of the story right. Then she goes on to show the bright future Eritrea had before it in 1993 at independence and how everything went so terribly wrong.
But she can't bring herself to hold the right people accountable. She can't bring herself to admit that the rebels she had admired so much once in power turned to be little better than a criminal gang. A gang that destroyed the economy of the country, introduced a dictatorship and then threw the country into a disasterous war with Ethiopia. The world didn't do these things. The world's "betrayal" didn't make these decisions. It was the rebel "freedom fighters" who are responsible.
And thats the fatal flaw in the book. The author wants to give critiques of colonialism and the UN from on high. But the truth is that the country's problems are not a matter of "I didn't do it for you", they are "we did it to ourselves".
The end result of the great "struggle" for Eritrean independence has been an economic disaster for both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The political result is a government running Eritrea that is as bad (or worse) than what the author claims were the "repressive" Ethiopian governments of the 1950s and 1960s. Eritrea's government budget is wasted in preparations for more war with Ethiopia. The country is trapped in a situation where things will never get better. Its not a situation that outsiders should be credited or blamed for.
When the author says things like: "the national character traits forged during a century of colonial and superpower exploitation were about to blow up in Eritrea's face.", she in engaging in massive political self-deception. Her (dated) anti-colonial/anti-imperialism rhetoric leads her to excuse every bad decision made by an African as someone elses fault.
She also goes out of her way to make the American soldiers stationed in Ethiopia in the past look like they were exceptionally bad. Having worked and travelled in Africa, she must know how soldiers behave in most countries. Go to the area around any military base (including those on American soil) and you will find all sorts of unpleasent things going on. I'm not trying to excuse the behavior of anyone, but the selective moral outrage in the book is of little value to anyone.
I wanted to like this book and I want to see the author write more books about Africa. But she needs to put her political ideology to the side and report on Africa as it is. She did a far better job in "In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz" than she did in this book.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Excellent backgroundNov. 27 2005
Shaun M. Overton
- Published on Amazon.com
I read this book after travelling to Eritrea less than a year ago. I wish I would have read it before going. It went a long way towards explaining the Eritreans' reserved character and the abundant desolation of its countryside through the history of the powers involved.
I give the book 5 stars. It's not 100% perfect, but the information within it is first rate. Wrong effectively sets the context for all the parties involved from their own perspectives. The reader understands throughout what each player is thinking and how these actions impact the Eritrean psyche.
My nit-picky complaint is I wish Wrong would have placed more narrative emphasis on the Eritrean side of things. Eritrean narrative appears on occasion, particularly with the pharmeceutical director and the gourmet chef from the trenches. It is the exception rather than the rule. She discusses in depth Eritrea's first colonial administrator, a WWII battle, an American base, Ethiopian history, the Soviet Union and the roles each respective country played in shaping Eritrea. Anecdotes from the Eritrean side, however, are compartively limited.
Also, the end of the book, the section which discusses the latest war and Eritrea's current political climate, felt hurried.
Overall, this is an excellent background read for anyone hoping to learn more about Eritrea and its wars. It has a few very minor shortcomings, but the book completely achieves its goal of introducing the reader to Eritrean history.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
complicated storyOct. 2 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
"I didn't do it for you"
An excellent addition to the number of recent books on African history.
Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in the early nineties, and the two countries fought another war in the late nineties. These conflicts, and the growing authoritarianism of the government of Eritrea, are the recent events covered. But the bulk of the book is a survey of the nineteenth and twentieth century history of Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia, focusing on Italian colonization, then British occupation, and then the involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The self-serving cynicism of Italy, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union is made abundantly clear, but Wrong is not an anti-Western dogmatist. There is plenty of blame to go around for the Eritreans themselves, and the other countries of Africa, especially Ethiopia, in this case.
And, it is not all about blame. This is not a hopeless lament. Among the images of hope that Wrong describes is the reconstruction, by Eritreans, of an abandoned railroad originally built in the early days of the Italian occupation.
In other words, it is a complex story, with no simple conclusion.
This is clearly the work of a journalist - she likes to present history by telling the stories of interesting people who she has actually met. The frequently flippant tone can be a little grating, but I think that is just Wrong's Britishness - she is serious and uncondescending through-out.