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Yale 62

Refugees in Eritrea, 1969

By Steve Buck

Steve and Hala Buck today

Hala and I were married in Beirut, Lebanon on October 26, 1968. A week later we arrived in Aden, Southern Yemen, newly independent after 140 years of British colonialism and neglect. A year later the South Yemeni government broke diplomatic relations with the United States, and, for obscure reasons, Hala’s birth country, Lebanon. The Embassy chartered an antique DC-3 and flew us to Asmara, Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia. We spent 6 weeks in Asmara, a lovely city built when Eritrea was controlled by Italy and housing a large U.S. communications base.

Coming from hot (100+ degrees) and humid Aden, Asmara was a welcome relief, situated almost 8,000 feet above sea level, and having the best strawberries (and pizza) we had ever tasted. Three memories linger – 1) wanting to explore, we took what seemed like a much too vertical cog railroad down to sea level and tried a café on the red sea. The temperature and humidity was awful, and the soup the worst I have eaten anywhere (and I have been to some dumps). 2) The consul general of our consulate in Asmara gave us a briefing on the political situation. Because Ethiopia’s then Emperor, Haile Selassie, was a friend of the U.S., the CG went on and on about how well the Emperor was doing until I interrupted and asked him what about the four days he was held hostage by the Eritrean Liberation front? He glossed over that as if it had not happened, and concluded with a ringing endorsement of U.S. – Ethiopian relations! 3) We flew on a very small plane to Lalibela, Ethiopia to see the famous churches there, carved downwards into hard rock. There was nothing resembling a hotel in Lalibela, but some kind Ethiopians had basically turned what had been a chicken coop into overnight accommodations. Now, 50 years later, Ethiopia is rapidly developing under a charismatic and wise new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother who has freed political prisoners and made peace with Eritrea after a brutal war. Bad situations can be turned around by the right leader!