Holding up a grubby, worn banknote, the ex-rebel fighter points proudly to an image famous across Eritrea — defiant liberation soldiers raising a flag on a mountain peak.
It’s 10 years this month since Africa’s youngest nation enthusiastically launched its own currency in November 1997, the nakfa.
”There was so much optimism when these notes were new,” the veteran sighed wearily, drinking Asmara beer in a smoky bar off the capital’s main Independence Avenue.
”We wanted to rebuild our country, to enjoy the freedom we had fought for.”
The banknotes eschewed war images for drawings of schoolchildren, farmers, a busy port and a renovated railway — all areas Eritrea needed to focus on to reconstruct the war-shattered infrastructure.
But a decade on, times are tough. Fears of renewed conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia — still at odds after a bloody 1998 to 2000 border war — worry many.
”Things have changed, we are so tired of a pointless situation,” said the fighter’s companion, careful not to be overheard and asking not to be named. ”People are suffering and the arguments must stop to find a solution to the border.”
It is a growing complaint in a tightly restricted country where the young are conscripted into mass national service, critics are silenced, military police prowl the streets, and where trade, industry and investment are choked by an austere war-time economy.
Eritrean fighters liberated Asmara in 1991 from Ethiopian forces after a bloody 30-year guerrilla war, finally achieving independence in a 1993 referendum.
The two nations — both led by former rebel chiefs who fought the same Soviet-backed Ethiopian regime — developed good ties, with land-locked Ethiopia using its former Red Sea ports, now in Eritrea, as its main international trade route.
But use of the Ethiopian birr as the official currency meant Eritrea remained shackled to economic decisions of a separate nation.
Asmara celebrated the launch of the nakfa — named after the northern town and rebel stronghold where fighters held out against relentless assaults by Ethiopia — as a final stage of independence.
But Ethiopia reacted angrily to its loss of fiscal control and relations soured, fanning old enmities that finally exploded half a year later, in mid-1998, in the dusty border town of Badme.
The result was the grim, two-year conflict that left at least 70 000 dead.
Troops face off at the border
Today, despite a peace deal and a border ruling, about a quarter of a million troops eyeball each other in a tense stand-off from trenches, in places just metres apart.
Ethiopia has threatened to pull out of the 2000 peace deal that ended the war.
Meanwhile the UN-appointed independent border commission tasked with demarcating the frontier is scheduled to dissolve later this month, despite failing to get the two sides to agree on a solution. That will leave a frontier fixed on maps alone, while on the ground the town of Badme and other areas that legally belong to Eritrea will remain under Ethiopian control.
Eritrea’s entirely state-run media is working overtime to boost morale and stem disillusionment, promising a ”bright horizon of prosperity in the near future”.
But it has also warned of the consequences of any attack.
”Ethiopia … should consider beforehand that the war drums they are currently beating will only bring them failure and disgrace,” the Eritrea Profile newspaper warned, a government mouthpiece.
Such rhetoric is not always shared by the international community. Some analysts say the Eritrean government is using the border stalemate to justify its iron-grip control.
Washington has accused Eritrea of fuelling tension in the region by backing rebel groups to fight Ethiopia by proxy, including Somali insurgents fighting Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu — allegations fiercely rejected by Asmara.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on both sides to show ”utmost restraint” following ”shooting incidents,” and analysts continue to voice concern that the border dispute could again flare into a fully-fledged war.
”Ethiopia showed last December when its troops so quickly marched into Somalia that militarily, it is fully willing and able to act,” one Asmara-based Western analyst said.
”Eritrea is worried because its sabre-rattling is only that, it does not want actual war. The situation could stay as stalemate for a long while yet — but could also explode at any time.”
Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki, meanwhile, insisted in a recent interview in the state media: ”This conflict was imposed upon us [and] we were obliged to defend this nation.”
”It has not been our desire to engage big chunks of the population into the defence forces,” he said.
But back in the bar, the old fighter lifts a banknote up to Asmara’s bright mountain sunlight so its watermark shines through.
It’s not an image of the president, but the head of a camel, Eritrea’s national symbol.
”That’s the secret, the Eritrean people,” he smiled, tapping the note.
”Camels survive in drought and hardship long after all others have died. It’s like us: Eritreans just never give up.” – AFP