Thursday, 11 April 2013

“We couldn't have picked a worse place to have a fist fight”

Eritrea: Asmara/Massawa

Mike's tendency towards conspiracy theories - his unfounded belief that there were people who were out to get him - was, I surmise, shaped by a traumatic event that occurred when he was a young boy. At the time Eritrea was occupied by Ethiopia. The indigenous population were in the midst of fighting what would turn out to be a 30 year guerilla war for independence.

Mike lived on Massawa Island in a cafe that was owned by his parents. One day some soldiers entered the premises and took his father away. Nobody ever saw him again.

A lot of Eritreans disappeared in this manner. While it is highly probable that the victims of these abductions were executed, in many cases the circumstances surrounding their deaths remains a mystery.

When I first met Mike, he was living with his mother in a small apartment above the cafe. The business had passed into the hands of a new owner. Maybe out of kindness, the proprietor had allowed the old woman to remain on the property. Their living quarters consisted of a small room and an enclosed balcony. The latter was partitioned by hanging blankets and served as a bedroom, kitchen and living area. The pair bickered constantly in Tigrinya, which is the native language of Eritrea.

The extreme daytime temperatures and oppressive coastal humidity of Massawa Island make it a difficult place to do anything other than slump languidly in a chair, with a drink of some description, and engage in laconic conservation. Mike was amiable company and I enjoyed spending time with him. We were quite similar in many ways: A pair of rudderless men who had never found our true place in the world. Like me he had never married and had few friends.

I learned about his past in a piecemeal fashion over the course of our many rambling discussions:

After his father's disappearance his mother had worked as a maid for the family of an American diplomat. When the time came for them to return to the U.S. they had offered to adopt Mike. His mother had refused their offer and this had become a festering source of resentment.

He once told me that he had fathered a son with a woman who he had met in the army, but that the child had fallen ill and had died a few weeks after it was born.

He had back problems, which I came to believe were psychosomatic, as the symptoms were vague and seemed to come and go. He was constantly badgering me to obtain western medicinal drugs on his behalf from my doctor. I tried to explain to him that, in England, doctors prescribe medication according to the needs of the patient in front of them.

“It's not like the pharmacists you have here. I can't go to my doctor and say 'oh by the way, my friend's got a bad back. Can you give him something for it?'”

“But you can pretend it's for you.”

“No I can't. The medicine is paid for partly by the state. The doctor has to make a diagnosis and then he has a duty to treat the problem and keep a record of what he's given to a patient... Look, it's not going to happen, so let's just let it go.”

“Ask anyway,” he replied dogmatically.

We went round and round on this point, with Mike utterly intransigent in his belief that I could acquire medication for him from my GP and then send it to him via airmail. I had noticed in the past that, once he had an idea fixed in his head, it was very difficult to dispel it, or change his mind.

He would often tell anecdotes whose common theme was the misfortunes suffered by people he knew who had left Eritrea to pursue opportunities elsewhere in the world. The living subjects of these cautionary parables would invariably pay the price for their wanderlust with madness and penury.

One afternoon we were sitting on plastic chairs outside one of the cafes. Mike was drinking coffee. I had a glass bottle of Fanta that I was diluting with water to make it last longer. He pointed out a shabbily dressed figure who was shuffling along by the old railway line, on the opposite side of the road, near to where the mini-bus taxis pick up passengers for Gurgussum.

“Do you know him?”

“He went to work in Germany as an electrician.”

“What happened? I take it that things didn't go too well.”

“He went mad. Now he has nothing. Do you know the song by Phil Collins: Think twice, it's another day for you in paradise?”

“Uh huh.”

“He didn't think twice.”


It had been over a decade since Eritrea had regained its independence from Ethiopia. The unfettered optimism that followed in the wake of this improbable triumph was now on the wane.

The government had ruled effectively during the long occupation, promoting the merits of education, sexual equality and religious tolerance, in pursuit of the greater good of national autonomy. In peacetime they had been unable to break out of the isolationist mindset which had been forced upon them during the war, when there was little international support for their cause. The momentum and goodwill that had been bought by their victory had been squandered as the economy began to founder and then stagnate, and the previously upbeat mood of population began to regress towards despondency and disillusionment.

In the space of a decade Eritrea had alienated neighbouring countries and driven out vital investment. The only visible foreign business presence in the country belonged to those corporations who were more interested in brand presence and market domination than they were in short-term profit. Coca Cola was ubiquitous and had an enviable distribution network, with the apparent ability to penetrate anywhere humans might have scraped out an existence, regardless of how remote it might be. As I was gearing up to leave the country, the first mobile phone licences were being granted to civilians. Foreigners had been given access to the network roughly six months in advance. When I had arrived on what was to be my last visit to the country, the customs officer who checked my bags expressed incredulity that I didn't have a mobile.

More ominous than Eritrea's precarious economic situation were the flashes of paranoia being exhibited by those in power. The incumbent administration saw dissidents lurking in every shadow. There were rumours of extremist groups operating in the north and this part of the country was barred to tourists. Down south, in the more habitable regions, arrests were being made and it was hard to tell whether these were a response to a genuine threat, or the early indicators of a government losing its grip and lashing out, seemingly at random. Christian groups unaffiliated with the powerful Catholic and Orthodox churches were a prominent target. Some individuals who I spoke to in private muttered darkly of secret prisons in the desert.

This climate of suspicion sent Mike's own paranoia into overdrive. In the cafe bars of Massawa he would often point out men on adjacent tables who he identified as government informers. I found it hard to know how seriously to take these claims.

The situation was made worse by Sharif – a half Tanzanian/half Yemeni man, with nebulous business interests, who had employed Mike in some capacity. Sharif would get drunk early in the day and then speak in conspirational whispers across the table of “dangerous men in England.” All of this was overheard by Mike and it probably played some part in what was to happen later.

“Sharif, there is absolutely no point in you telling me this...” I would reply, completely exasperated.

“...What am I supposed to do with this information? You tell me a place in the world where there aren't dangerous men.”

Sharif always had plenty of money and was generous with it to the point of recklessness. Where this stream of disposable income originated was beyond my understanding. He had started a company in Eritrea but I never saw any evidence of him doing anything that resembled work. There was mention of a cargo boat sailing from Saudi Arabia, although it was never made clear what was on it, where it was going, or how Sharif would profit from the voyage.

Whenever we were together in Asmara we would eat out, in what were, for Eritrea, some pretty decent high-end restaurants. Usually our party would consist of myself, Sharif, Mike and another man called Tekel. Sharif would always pick up the tab. In the beginning I made attempts to pay for my share however this proved problematic. Sharif who would act as if I had gravely insulted him and would become quite physical in making me put my money away. After a while I gave up offering.

One evening, in one of the more trendy bars, Sharif paid for a round of four drinks with a large denomination bill. The waiter took the money but never returned with any change. Sharif was too drunk to realise what had happened. I spoke to a few of the staff about it and was eventually assured that somebody would “bring the change soon.” They never did.

It was a few hours earlier on that same day that Sharif had recounted an incident that had occurred on the western coast of Yemen, in which he claimed to have shot a man in the leg in a dispute over a stolen fishing boat.

I felt like I had been drawn into a world where everyone I knew (including myself) was either crazy, drunk, or paranoid, or some combination of the three. In an attempt to gain perspective and perhaps have a normal conversation I went to see Sharif's business partner, Sami, at the hotel where he was staying. This turned out to be the same hotel that I had stayed in on my first night in the country, having fetched up at the reception desk in the small hours of the morning.

Sami was a model of Islamic sobriety. He lived modestly and attended prayers at the mosque. He never came out on the town with us, although he would sometimes join us for tea during the day. He spent long periods of time in his hotel room and had started to furnish it to his liking. We sat on the floor and drank tea together.

“The other night Sharif told me that he shot a man in the leg.”


“So this actually happened... Because Sharif is a lovely man but drinks a lot and I don't know whether I should take his stories seriously.”

“It happened.”

“Were you there when it happened?”

“No.. This man. He attacked Sharif with a knife.”


A few days before I was due to travel back to the UK, I returned to Massawa for the last time. As a parting gesture of thanks, I took Mike out to dinner.

“Tomorrow I'm getting on the bus back to Asmara...” I told him.

“...Then, on Thursday, I'm flying home to England and I'm never coming back here again because this whole country has gone completely fucking mad. So this is goodbye, because after tonight, we're not going to see each other again.”

The following day I was surprised to find Mike waiting for me at the bus station. He told me that he would be travelling to Asmara too.

“Great,” I said.

When we arrived in town, he went off to his sister's house. I checked in at the Salem Hotel, which is next door to the British Embassy.

When I met Mike again, later that afternoon, he told me that Sharif had gone back to Tanzania for a couple of weeks.

We had a drink in a cafe. Afterwards he seemed reluctant to part company and we ended up wandering aimlessly around the capital, which is an extremely small city, and in any other more populated country would be regarded as a town. Eventually we reached an area that was relatively deserted and sat down on a bench.

“I think there is something you want to tell me,” he said.

“Only what I said to you in Massawa. Thank you for your help and for your company over these past months. And you know... Take care of yourself and your mother...”

“Maybe there is something else that you want to say to me in private.”

“If there's something on your mind then you're going to have to tell me, because I don't know what it is that you want me to say.”

“Maybe when you go back to England I can help you with information.”

In that moment the penny dropped and I suddenly understood the reasoning behind a lot of Mike's recent odd behaviour.

“I see what you're driving at. I know we talk a lot about this country and the politics. That's only because I'm interested in what's happening here. That's all there is to it. There's nothing else going on.”

Mike seemed put out by my response.

“Maybe you don't trust me.”

“I do trust you. I think that you've got an idea about me that isn't real. If I've said or done anything to make you think that, then I'm sorry.”

“We can talk about this another time. Maybe you have to speak to someone first.”

No. Look I don't have to speak to anyone. We're not going to talk about this any more. Okay”

The following day I met Mike again, this time at an outdoor cafe, in what was described as a park, although there was more concrete and paving than there was foliage. Here we shared a conversation that was almost identical to the one we had the previous day. By now my amusement at Mike's misinterpretation of the facts was wearing off, and I was beginning to get a bit concerned.

“Look Mike. You need to stop talking like this because if the wrong people hear what you're saying you could get us both into serious trouble. We could both go to prison and it would be for nothing.”

Undeterred he went on to explore the possibilities of his proposed information-sharing relationship, as if attempting to gain purchase on an opportunity that didn't exist.

I pleaded with him: “You've got to stop talking like this. Please just stop it. Why can't we just have a normal conversation?”

The next day – the day before I was due to fly home - I got a phone call in my hotel room. It was Mike. He said that he wanted to meet up with me and talk.

“I don't think that's a good idea. I've got a lot to do before I go. When I get back to England I'll write to you.”

I put the phone down. It rang again a minute later but I didn't answer. It continued to ring throughout the afternoon. In the evening when I came down for dinner Mike was waiting for me in the lobby.

“I can't talk to you,” I said, as I brushed past him.

He followed me out in the street.

“You're acting like a crazy man,” I said. “Your behaviour is going to get us both locked up.”

“THIS IS BULLSHIT!” he shouted as I walked away.

As I headed towards Harnet Avenue I was vaguely aware that Mike was behind me, dogging my footsteps. He finally caught up with me alongside a large compound that had formerly been the Presidential Palace, although it was no longer used for that purpose. I was on the side of the street across the road from the curtain wall that surrounded the extensive grounds.

“I can't have a normal conversation with you. Just leave me alone.”

“I want to talk to you.”

"We have talked and you won't listen to what I'm saying. You're going to get us into trouble. Just go...”

We stood facing each other, then I said something that broke the stalemate:

“...You know Mike, if you're not careful you're going to end up like your father.”

A split second later I was staggering backwards. I could taste blood in my mouth.

We exchanged a flurry of punches. I don't think either one of us was holding anything back.

The building to our left was evidently some kind of guard house or garrison because suddenly soldiers began pouring out of the doorway and onto the street. As the seriousness of our situation became apparent we both backed away from each other.

“What is going on here? Why are you fighting?” asked one of the men.

“It's finished...” I said. “...I'm going to go this way and he's going to go that way.”

As I turned and walked away I half expected to be arrested.


When I came downstairs the following morning, Mike was waiting for me. He looked suitably remorseful. I hope that I did too. I apologised to him for my part in what had happened.

We made our way over to the cafe in the park where we had met the previous day. As we sat down, a pair of children approached us and apparently asked Mike if he wanted anything from the kiosk down the road. He gave them some money for cigarettes and the pair ran off to get them.

Our usually free-form conversation was stymied by a new-found awkwardness, as we attempted to work out how best to repair our damaged friendship.

“We couldn't have picked a worse place to have fist fight,” I said, ruefully attempting to break the ice.

“Those soldiers.”

“I thought we were going to end up in jail.”

The conversation quickly petered out. I rummaged around in my head for a neutral topic that would fill the silence; one that was unconnected with the madness of the past few months.

“You know it's been ten minutes. I don't think those children are coming back with your cigarettes.”

Mike turned around and scanned the near-empty park, as if he was confirming their absence.

“It's comforting to know that it's not just the tourists who get ripped off.”

We ate lunch at a Muslim restaurant near the big Mosque. Mike knew the owner and introduced him to me. After our meal we shook hands on the pavement outside.

“I'll stay in touch,” I said.

A couple of weeks after I returned to England I received a postcard from Mike. A few months later he sent a letter. I never replied to any of his correspondence.

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