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Eritrea’s last native Jew tends graves, remembers

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Itongadol.- Tending graves knee-deep in dry grass and purple flowers, Eritrea\’s last native Jew clutches memories of a forgotten community.

Sami Cohen was born 58 years ago in the tiny Horn of Africa state into a vibrant Jewish community, but death, war and emigration have left him all alone in Asmara, a city overlooking the Red Sea.

"A lot of people, a lot of friends, a lot of parents, a lot of families," he says with a shrug. "Now they are all gone. You can imagine how I feel. You need family, need celebration."

When Cohen was growing up, Asmara was home to hundreds of Jews whose ancestors had crossed from Aden — then a British protectorate — in the late 19th century. Cohen\’s mother was born in Asmara, his father came from Aden as a child.

The Italians had just colonized the port of Massawa, and business opportunities presented themselves across the region.

For decades, Eritrea\’s Jewish community thrived under the protection of successive colonial regimes: the Italians, the British and later, the Ethiopians.

Then, in the mid-1970s, Eritrea\’s war of independence from its giant neighbor Ethiopia reached the capital, shattering peaceful lives, Cohen remembers, and triggering an exodus of Jews from Asmara.

"The fighting started sometimes in the street. No electricity, no water. People were scared," he says. "I have seen bodies in the street. I don\’t want to see any more."

Eritrea triumphed in the 30-year struggle in 1991, but deep mistrust remained and the two nations soon slid back into conflict.

This time, in 1998, Cohen\’s wife and daughters fled to Italy, leaving him behind. They meet up from time to time in various countries. His four sisters live in Britain, the United States and Israel.

Times are tough and economic stagnation has hammered business, but Cohen plans to stay on in his home town, making a living from his import-export business.

"I was born here," he tells Reuters with another shrug.

Walking past old men dozing on the steps of a nearby mosque or in the sun under their newspapers, Cohen says the easy relationship with other religions in Eritrea is another reason to remain.

"Everybody sees me, everybody knows me," he says, smiling greetings to passers-by. "We never fear anything here."

At Asmara\’s empty synagogue, Cohen\’s voice bounces off the bare walls as he talks. But it wasn\’t always so.

"I can almost remember where each member of the community sat," he says, touching his dark kippa before pointing to seats once packed with family and friends.

Cohen looks after the synagogue, which can seat between 150 and 200 people, but there are few services. There are only a few non-native Jews living in Asmara, some attached to the Israeli Embassy.

Cohen learned Hebrew in a classroom next-door. Pinned to its walls are old pictures of Jewish festivals, fishing trips and picnics in the mountains.

"Lots of people. Funny people. Bad people. Nice people," he says quietly, smiling with the memories. "Lots of gossip."

Despite the exodus of Jews from Asmara, Eritrea and Israel maintain strong ties. Both nations were born of a violent struggle and Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Eritrea\’s independence in 1993.

Israel\’s Ambassador in Asmara, Menahem Kanafi, says Eritrea has a certain strategic importance for Israel, whose access to the Red Sea is also bordered by Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – all of which are hostile to Israel.

But the personal links between Eritrea and Israel have all but died out, leaving only Cohen, who is caretaker of Asmara\’s small Jewish cemetery. The last grave was dug in 1996.

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