BICICLETTA rules in Asmara.

Author:Belloni, Milena
Position:In Depth
 
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Unlike most African cities, choking in traffic and pollution, cars are to be seen rarely in Eritrea's capital, Asmara. Instead the bicycle is king of the road. But with the lifting of sanctions and the rapprochement with Ethiopia, will new investment destroy the country's proud environmental record? Analysis by Milena Belloni and James Jeffrey.

Residents of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, ride bicycles of all kinds and colours: mountain bikes, city bikes, racing bikes. Young and old, women and men, athletes and housewives --all seem to embrace the bicicletta, the Italian word for bicycle that is part of the local language, Tigrinya.

While most African cities are portrayed as, and often are, subsumed in traffic and congestion, buildings under construction and pollution, Asmara offers a very different landscape: it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its art deco architecture, where much of the population hops on bicycles to get around. The reasons behind cycling's popularity are also steeped in Eritrea's dramatic history and related issues that continue to direct the country's present challenges.

"Buses are so old and so few!" Salam, a 30-year-old graduate, says about decades-old overcrowded buses that represent the main public transport in the Eritrean capital. "Having a bicycle is life-saving here."

Asmara only has about 500,000 inhabitants, which combined with low salaries, high import taxes and fuel shortages means the city has few cars. Those you do see often tend to be from a different age.

Roads are not only empty of cars; locals lament the departure of many of their loved young ones. Great numbers of Eritrean youths have fled during the last 20 years due to hardships brought about by regional conflicts and enforced national service under a government that brooks no dissent. There are about 400,000 Eritrean refugees worldwide, according to the UNHCR.

A combination of conflict, diplomatic isolation and UN sanctions has contributed to an economy in dire straits--what cars and buses there are, often have to be parked up for a long time--leaving people few choices other than walking or pedalling to get around.

But the recent opening of the border with Ethiopia and the lifting of UN sanctions in July last year means that Eritrea is at a particularly important juncture, with many big questions still to be answered about the direction the country could go in.

Environmentally-friendly

Despite all the criticism the Eritrean regime comes in...

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