Eritrea: The People Who Were Never Free

10th February 2017  By Edoardo Iacobelli

True independence – some have it, some have fleetingly felt it, and others are willing to expose themselves to extreme danger just for the opportunity to fully grasp it in its essence. Of course, independence does not always equal freedom, even though it is a fundamental step towards it. Often, when independence has been achieved, it has emerged from a history of oppression and violence. Within the struggle towards freedom, something very human tends to come forth; something stronger than authoritarian rule, that eventually break the chains of oppression.

But what we forget when discussing many so called failed states, or postcolonial states, is the fact that they are not only failed but broken; broken in their nature, with scars that only oppression can create. It is therefore important to draw attention to those issues to truly understand the complexity of their political situations and the daily fight of various societies for their improvement.

The Eritrean history of oppression is long. It can be dated as far back as the 15th century through the Ottoman Empire, which partly ruled until the 20th century. The oppression continued when the Italian Empire, the British (for a short period of time) and later the Ethiopians ruled the country.  Between 1890 and 1942, Eritrea was under Italian rule and functioned mainly as a trade and production unit for the empire. The full extent of conditions under the occupation are unclear and one must dig deep in academic literature to understand the situation in detail. The facts surrounding this time lapse are fairly hidden – but what one do find is not surprising. The literature reveal racism, forced labor and forced military service.

Oppression during Italian rule

It all began in 1869 when an Italian company named “Rubattino Navigation Company” bought a large amount of land from a sultan. The purpose was to build a coaling station, which did not last very long.[1] In 1880, the Italians incorporated the company into a governmental body, and Eritrea subsequently became a colony. Many reforms were thereby enforced, including segregation and the creation of the so called Ascari, a military troop consisting solely of Eritreans under Italian command.[2] The segregation measures included separate schools divided along religious and ethnic lines. Furthermore, the entire city of Asmara was annexed when General Baldissera took over a village nearby Asmara and made it only accessible for individuals with an Italian background.[3] This example in particular illustrates how extensive the measures were.

The oppression was extended in 1902 when efforts were made for improving hygiene conditions for the exclusively white areas.[4] A new city plan was enforced 1908. The purpose was to improve the conditions of the neighborhoods for the Italians and to confine the Eritreans to the north of the city. Eritreans who had property within the city center were forced to sell their land and leave.[5] Asmara was divided into zones, one for Italians, one for native Eritreans and one for people of mixed decent. Racial segregation in the urban planning of Asmara was not only a perspective of architects and urban planners of a racist culture, but conscious acts from the colonial government’s policy to institutionalize segregation. The Eritreans were thereby integrated into the colonial project as the lower class with subordinate and servile functions. [6]

The first Italian-Ethiopian war in 1895 resulted in a loss for the conquerors, but in the same wave many Eritreans died. The war was fought mainly by Italian forces but they took also use of the Ascari[7] who paid the price with their life; approximately 2000 Ascari were killed[8]. During the second Italian-Ethiopian war of 1935-1936, the number of Ascari deaths was between 3500 and 4500. The propaganda says that the Eritrean soldiers were well rewarded for their loyalty and courage. Regardless of the truth of that claim, they were not free from racist humiliations. The separation between soldiers in the military was absolute. The Eritreans marched barefoot and shoes were given only to Italians. While white soldiers drank from glasses, the Eritreans drank from metal containers. Furthermore, there was a division between the types of punishments the soldiers received. Depending on the violation, an Eritrean soldier could receive from twenty to seventy lashes. The conductor of this cruel punishment would be no other than a fellow Ascari, either for demonstrative purposes or to further extend the humiliation. Either way, this barbaric and vile crime is an example of how far the colonialists took the separation. A testimony by former soldiers Tekeste Tewuoldeberhan Ghebremariam, Tesfamichael Beya and Berhane Ghebregherghis can be found here[9].

Mussolini’s racial segregation

The situation worsened during the fascist regime and the walls of segregation slowly grew even more profound. It began with a stricter application of the arbitrary laws, and later in the form of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s infamous Italian racial laws. They reaffirmed the previously mentioned uses and customs. Schools remained separate for the ethnic groups, as well as churches, hospitals and public transportation. The fenced fields and European neighborhoods were forbidden for blacks, who implicitly could not attend the restaurants and the white bars there. Eritreans could not dress in European fashion or buy European clothes, and were also forbidden to enter certain occupations.

Perhaps even more grotesque, but no less surprising, was the implementation of the “The Organic Law for ‘Eritrea and Somalia”´ of 1933. The law implemented decrees that took steps to carry out ethnic anthropological analyses to evaluate the different races. This was to define standards in purpose of limiting the granting of citizenship to children of mixed couples. The regime continued authorizing discrimination based on physical characteristics. In 1935, Mussolini began to formulate more clearly his racist ideas by asking the Ministry for a plan of action to prevent a generation of mulattoes, which resulted in the law of 1937 “Measures for the relationship between national and indigenous peoples”.  This was to keep the “integrity” of the white man through preventative measures such as fighting intermarriage. In 1938, Italy, together with Germany, were one of the countries in Europe to transform the practice of racial discrimination into law. The colony of Eritrea became the first laboratory of experimentation for the racial laws of 1938, that would later be extended towards other races.

In June 1940, death was knocking on the door of western civilization, and its echo was heard in every cornerstone of the world – also in the small east African country of Eritrea. Italy joined the second world war and it was only a matter of time before the English and the Italians, being opposite belligerents, brought the war to east Africa – a geographically important point for both of the empires as colonizers. In 1940 the war in East-Africa commenced and went on until 1941, to continue partly through guerilla warfare until 1943. On a bloody day in Gondar, Ethiopia, the colonial fascist rule of the Italian empire fell against the allies, which freed Eritreans from their colonial masters. This, however, was rather a beginning of a new oppressive era.

The degrading, humiliating and scarring way of ruling countries has unfortunately remained largely unnoticed throughout history. This is not only the case for Eritrea, but for many previously colonized countries. That the public knowledge of such issues is not higher is a disgrace. It is a disgrace towards the people who have suffered, a disgrace towards the culture which is forever scarred, and a disgrace in political terms, since no assistance to heal such scars has been provided, even though the marks are stretched beyond culture and throughout the structure their systems lay upon.

In Eritrea, the country’s oppression simply changed its face. This will continue to be discussed in the next article, but up until then we must draw our thoughts and attention to the suffering of the victims of this undiscussed phenomenon; to the millions of people that were affected and continues to be, directly or indirectly as a result of vile and barbaric inhumane behavior. Their cries must be heard and their silence must be broken.


[1] Lionel Cliffe and Basil Davidson, The Long Struggle Of Eritrea For Independence And Constructive Peace (1st edn, Red Sea Press 1988) p.16-17

[2] Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary Of Eritrea (1st edn, Scarecrow Press 1998 p.92

[3] G. BARRERA, A. TRIULZI, GABRIEL TZEGGAI, ‘Asmara- Architettura E Pianificazione Urbana Nei Fondi Dell’isiao,’. p.43

[4] G. BARRERA, A. TRIULZI, GABRIEL TZEGGAI, ‘Asmara- Architettura E Pianificazione Urbana Nei Fondi Dell’isiao,’p.53

[5] Ibid. p.54

[6] Ibid. p.54

[7] Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary Of Eritrea (1st edn, Scarecrow Press 1998 p.92

[8] note that the facts from this time are uncertain

[9] Volterra, Alessandro. Sudditi Coloniali. 1st ed. Milano: F. Angeli, 2005. Print.



TRIULZI, GABRIEL TZEGGAI G, ‘Asmara- Architettura E Pianificazione Urbana Nei Fondi Dell’isiao,’

Cliffe L and Davidson B, The Long Struggle Of Eritrea For Independence And Constructive Peace (1st edn, Red Sea Press 1988)

Killion T, Historical Dictionary Of Eritrea (1st edn, Scarecrow Press 1998)

Websites ,’Eritrea%20e%20la%20Somalia%20Italiana_RCI.pdf


Edoardo Iacobelli
Edoardo Iacobelli was born in Italy, Rome in october 1995 and moved to Sweden in 2003. Right now he’s soon done with his first (BA) Degree in Human Rights in which he will specialize in Human Rights Law. He hopes to continue to study even after his specialisation to broaden his competence. He is also the current head-chairman of Amnesty International in the Malmö region, a political activist and writer on Eritrea for Untold Stories.

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