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'We don't waste a thing'

At Eritrean market, one person's trash is fashioned into usable goods.

ASMARA, Eritrea - A rhythmic clamor of pounding hammers, buzzing grinders and clanging metal reverberates from the stone gateway of Eritrea's oldest open-air market.

At first glance, the dusty bazaar behind downtown Asmara appears to be little more than a junkyard of rusted car parts, broken appliances, and scraps of steel.

But this isn't where old metal comes to die. It comes to be reborn.

Used artillery shells are recast as combs for beauty salons. Empty vegetable-oil tins morph into coffeepots. Greasy petroleum barrels get new lives as bread ovens.

"Nothing is trash," said Abdulqadir Fereja, 77, waving a hand at his giant pile of splintered door frames, metal chair legs and aluminum roofing. He has been selling at the Medebar recycling market for more than 25 years. "It all gets used. We don't waste a thing."

Founded by Italian colonialists nearly 100 years ago as a trading depot and animal way station, Medebar today is home to scores of tiny workshops, where mostly self-taught artisans turn garbage into goods.

It is a tribute not only to this nation's historic resourcefulness but also to its isolation. The culture of conservation and recycling was born of necessity.

Italians were the first to learn to make do with limited resources in this Horn of Africa country on the Red Sea. Separated from the wealth and materials of Rome, colonialists melted scrap metal to make horseshoes and farm tools.

After World War II, Eritrea was briefly ruled by Britain, which dismantled many of its factories, bridges and other infrastructure, and took the materials to its other colonies, such as Kenya. Ethiopian rule followed, and a 30-year struggle for independence left the nation marginalized and neglected.

Today, Eritrea's isolation largely is self-imposed. The government's distrust of foreigners and desire for self-reliance has led it to seal the borders and cut off most foreign trade. That has caused shortages of food, electronics, and other consumer products, and difficulty importing spare parts for anything foreign-made.

Once again, Eritreans, rich and poor alike, are flooding to Medebar.

"This place is just part of our lives," said Aracia Keidane, 88, a 44-year veteran of Medebar, as he used a hammer and vise to twist old sofa springs into clasps used on traditional dining tables. "This is how we survive."

Day and night, workers in blue overalls can be found toiling in workshops and narrow stalls. The market's winding dirt alleyways are lined with piles of raw materials: hubcaps, car axles, tires, oil cans, gasoline barrels, soup cans and logs. Many work by hand with little more than a knife and hammer. Others operate heavy machinery, including electric saws and smelting furnaces that look as if they, too, were constructed from scraps.

The final products are displayed on tables in front of the ramshackle shops: pots and pans, cookie cutters, candlesticks, water tanks, curling irons, church bells.

"It's cheap, and the quality is usually quite good," Yordanos Yehdgo, 36, a smartly dressed Asmara homemaker, said as she scrutinized a selection of kitchen strainers. "And if it breaks, you can bring it back to have it fixed," she added, noting that she was waiting for the handle on her coffeepot to be repaired.

No job is too big, too small or too odd for Medebar. There is an umbrella repairman who will delicately solder a broken spoke. Carpenters will fashion a door from wood scraps. Auto experts can smelt a new plate to squeeze another year from a car's carburetor.

One couple requested a meat rack, made of pipe and construction rods, to hang goat and cow carcasses brought to their wedding as gifts.

The most famous of Medebar's fabrications probably are the rubber sandals made from old car tires. During "the Struggle," as Eritrea's fight for independence was called, fighters wore the handmade footwear because they couldn't afford military boots. The sandals were repaired by simply softening the rubber over a campfire.

Later, the sandals were enshrined in a giant war-memorial statue downtown. Today, President Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled since 1993, is more apt to be seen sporting sandals than Western dress shoes.

Seated in front of a pile of well-worn Korean-made tires, Welde Gabriel, 67, uses fast hands and a sharp knife to slice the rubber into soles. If he cuts with care, he can make several dozen pairs from one tire, each pair selling for about $3. His 16-year-old daughter works by his side, learning the trade.

In better times, Gabriel preferred leather.

"But you can't find leather in the shops now," he said. "We have no other choice."