Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A conversation with author and poet, Emilio De Luigi


Issayas: As you know Eritrea is an old country . The National Museum of Eritrea states that there are 80,000 historical/archeological and paleontological sites in Eritrea. It has lots of rock paintings that are scattered all over the place. You mentioned  in your book that you found a cave (traces that may go back to prehistory) outside Asmara  whose wall was covered with pictures of hands. Do you remeber the name or the location?

Emilio: I am not sure about the name of the area, it could be Sembel. But I can tell you this: it was in an area on the opposite side of the city respect to the highway going down to Nefasit and then to Massawa. So, it must be roughly on the west side of the city. To reach the area, I usually took the road going up to the American Base. It was a very small cave. The paintings were represented exclusively by imprint of hands. When you entered the cave, the paints were on your left. I went there three times. The last time I went with a friend of mine that knew a bit more than me on prehistoric Eritrea, and he told me that they were probably of the same type and the same age of similar hands imprints found in the Sahel and the Sahara Desert. The last time we were there we cleaned the cave, because the floor was full of empty cans and other waste. Lonely persons, I was told by people of the nearby village, were sometimes taking refuge in the cave and they were warming themselves with a small fire, traces of which were visible. We also spoke to one of the elders of the nearby village recommending to him to explain to the children that the cave was an important testimonial of the Eritrean past. I can't remember if there is any mention  of the cave in the book "Guida dell' Eritrea"
published before WWII by the Touring Club Italiano (a precious book for the quantities of information on the territory).

Emilio two weeks before his escape in 1976.

Issayas:  In your book, there are lots of philosophical discussions with the fighters  who were helping you. What I gathered from reading about it, it feels  that the discussions were open and honest. Am I correct in thinking that?

Emilio: Discussions came spontaneously and  frequently because we didn't have much else to do. But they were mostly limited to a few people. As I said in the initial part of this interview, people of all walks of life had joined the EPLF, so most of them only spoke Tigrigna. But I met several educated folks along the way, like Fasil the accountant, first in Durfò and then in Fah. I also met a lawyer, and I met a veterinary doctor I already knew in Asmara, where he had an excellent rank in the Ministry of Agriculture. In Durfò I also met a woman fighter, Freinì. She was very much a reserved woman, but she was an educated person. When I was about to reach Fah, in a campsite where we were parked for a few days I also met people in charge of security, a couple of local commanders, and a man who looked like a politician. All those people spoke English. The discussions were normally originated by what was happening around us. Many times we discussed the political situation of the country. The fighters were never forgetting  their main aim of fighting the Ethiopians to build a free, modern society. Position of women in the future new Eritrea was also discussed. There was a variety of opinions on that subject. Another subject that frequently came up was the economy.

In the book, I have put those discussions that seemed to me more meaningful. For example, I described how one early morning a large number of children passed by, and from that we initiated a long conversation on education and aims in life that came back a few times around the campfire. Nobody seemed worried about respecting some ideological principles. As far as I could say, there were no  "official opinions" stressed or exalted. They were sincere.

Issayas: Also  how were you able to remember all those discussions?

Emilio: Well, Issayas, think of this: When I left Asmara, at forty five years of age I had to abandon my work, my house, and more than anything else a country I was in love with; in short I was leaving behind all my achievements, all the positive things I had won in twenty years of hard work. I had to go to Italy, I knew very little of that country, and there I had to start my life again. From scratch. Synthetically, I was a desperate. I plunged in a world of hardship where there were people that had lost or abandoned every thing they had! Nothing different from my own situation. But they were looking at their future with an inner smile, because they knew in their hearts  that eventually they would have built their free country, all new, enthusiastic, capable of aiming high! How could I have not learned from them? And how could I possibly have forgotten their words, and the greatness of their their example? You know, I may be boring and repetitive, but the feelings expressed around me,
and the behavior of the Eritrean fighters, were revealing that they were motivated by two wonderful drives: First of all, dedication. They were all doing things, many times hard and difficult, because they wanted to. They didn't need to be told.They didn't need surveillance. Therefore they were accustomed to operate with a large margin of freedom. Second thing, faith in themselves. They believed in their purpose, they had absolutely no doubt about the end result of their struggle.

In the field, I kept making comparison with the ugly atmosphere of depression, suspicion, fear, frustration, and worries about the future that was predominant in Asmara. The  rebels' society kept marveling me, because individual danger there was probably 100 times what it was in Asmara, but nobody seemed really worried or depressed.

Emilio's escape route with the help of the EPLF

Issayas:  Before he died, your father refused to leave Asmara while most of the Italians who resided in Eritrea were leaving?  Why?

Emilio: As I explained in the book, my father was an old fashioned man. Dedicated to his family, he was an old socialist, very attached to his job. When the civil war exploded in Asmara,  he told to the staff to leave their work, but didn't want the office to be abandoned. So he stayed.

Issayas: As you know Eritrea is blessed with the pristine sea life. As you mentioned in your book,  Luciano Perino established a tropical fish trade (a business venture which was unheard of  in Eritrea at that time) and was very successful at that. He had a business who had 50 employees who knew all the fish by their Latin names. It's an incredible story, I won't go into detail here, but I wish he could go and re-establish the same business in Eritrea (since the business investment opportunities
are good). Given the age and health factors, do you think former Eritrea resident Italians would go back and establish businesses?

Emilio: Luciano Perino managed to rebuild his business in the Hawaii, where he still lives. Due to the age, I don't think he would go back. As for the old Italian entrepreneurs, they are too old! But their children keep in touch with Eritrea, where they regularly go for tourism. For them Eritrea is the true homeland. They also promote local charities. For example, St. Francis Institute for Hoteliers in Massawa has been patiently built by Father Delfino Protasio over the years, with the money raised by former Italian residents of Asmara and Addis Abeba. Other Italians, former  residents of Asmara, support local schools in the city, or in remote rural areas. All small repayments for the hospitality, the opportunities, the possibilities of life and economic achievements that Eritrea has offered to so many Italians.

Issayas: Leaving the details for people to read, the stories of  Drs. Mario and Nino Daolio and Lorenzo Saliviati was courageous and incredible. Where are they now?

Emilio: Dr. Nino Daolio passed away in 2001.Dr. Mario Daolio lives in Italy, near Conegliano Veneto. Lorenzo Salviati is an invented name, The doctor was afraid to have problem, because he works for an international company and he was deeply involved with the Eritrean Fighters and didn't want this to be known. He works in Europe, has great mobility because of his work. I have no contact with him since I asked him if I could use his name in my book. I suspect he has still part of the family in Ethiopia.

Issayas: You mentioned that you met (briefly) Issayas Afeworki during your escape in 1976.The fighters told you who he was after he left. What were you thoughts after they told you that?

Emilio: I was not too much surprised. The fighters on the fields didn't have real division of work at the "operative" level, even though obviously there were ranks. He was following with great attention our conversation, but he never spoke. I remember that we were chatting with an Eritrean pilot who avoided participating to the war in Eritrea landing in Somalia, where in any event after landing he crashed the plane to avoid its use by the Somalis. He managed to reach the fighters.

Issayas:  Emilio, thank you for conducting this interview.

Emilio: You're welcome.

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