Eritrea’s unique architecture under threat

Updated 12 October 2013
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Eritrea’s unique architecture under threat

Eritrea’s capital Asmara boasts buildings unlike anywhere else in Africa, a legacy of its Italian colonial past, when architects were given free rein for structures judged too avant-garde back home.
Modernist architectural wonders in this highland city include a futurist petrol station mimicking a soaring aircraft and a funky art-deco bowling alley with checkered, colored glass windows.
“The city is a living museum of architecture,” said Medhanie Teklemariam, an urban planner in Asmara’s city administration.
Yet while many of the buildings survived a decades-long liberation war from Ethiopia that ravaged settlements elsewhere, preservation and restoration projects have been hampered, threatening to erode the country’s rich cultural heritage.
Medhanie said money remains a critical obstacle, along with a lack of local technical expertise required for specialized restoration projects.
“To undertake a major restoration of all these buildings is very, very challenging because of one, the funding issue and, second, technical capacity,” he said, sitting before a map of central Asmara.
But Medhanie is pushing for change. He is lobbying for the historic city center to be included on the United Nations World Heritage list and working to renew a European Union-supported project to restore a market building and the Capitol, an Expressionist-style cinema.
He sees the preservation of Asmara’s precious buildings — mainly from the first half of the 20th century — as a matter of maintaining the country’s national fabric.
“This heritage... it is very important for Eritrea’s identity,” he said.
World Heritage status would also be a rare opportunity for Eritrea to win positive international exposure. The Horn of Africa nation normally makes headlines only for its raft of repressive policies.
“The international reputation... would be boosted,” said Edward Denison, a photographer and co-author of “Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City.”
Most of the buildings in the former Italian colony were constructed between 1936 and 1941 as part of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s plan to expand his foothold in Africa.
Asmara used to be known as Piccola Roma, or “Little Rome.” In the 1939 census, more than half the city’s inhabitants were Italian — 53,000 out of a total of 98,000.
Italian architects were brought over and encouraged to experiment with innovative designs that were frowned upon in conservative Europe.
Asmara gained a reputation as an “experimental playground” where wacky designs were welcomed.
Today, Eritreans have a deep appreciation for the buildings — even though many were built by compatriots carrying out forced labor under colonial rule — and are proud of their unique city.
While some buildings sit unused, such as the Teatro Asmara, with its high arched awnings and Roman-style pillars, many of them remain functional.
Tables are busy at Cinema Roma, as regulars sip macchiatos on the terrace beneath the marble facade. Inside, dated American movies and Eritrean shows are screened to visitors who watch from plush red seats.
According to Denison, the buildings could be a major boost for the sagging tourist industry.
“The opportunities are boundless, and Eritrea is very aware of that with the various other cultural and natural attractions that it has. I think architecture is a key component of that,” he said.
Luckily, the city’s slow development has preserved many of its old buildings, most of which have been left untouched since Eritrea’s war for independence kicked off in 1961.
Dennis Rodwell, architect and author of “Conservation and Sustainability in Historic Cities,” describes Asmara as a “time warp.”
But preservation efforts have been held back in part by Eritrea’s staunch principle of self-reliance. Rodwell said that outside support is sometimes seen as “a threat rather than an opportunity.”
The $5-million World Bank-funded Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project ended in 2007 as funding dried up and relations between the World Bank and Eritrea soured.
EU funding earmarked for architectural restoration projects remains frozen for review.
Denison, the photographer, agrees that preservation efforts could be improved through greater collaboration with outsiders, but notes Eritrea’s rebel-turned-politician leaders have long struggled to balance “self-reliance and collaboration internationally.”
Yet despite stalled progress in recent years, he says he is hopeful that Eritrea’s rich architectural heritage can be preserved.


Hacked and scammed: investors navigate cryptocurrency ‘wild west’

Updated 18 October 2018
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Hacked and scammed: investors navigate cryptocurrency ‘wild west’

  • ‘We have studied this for about a year before investing, so we are aware of the risks’
  • ‘It’s impossible to track and return the funds. We live and die with this technology’

NEW YORK: When Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke learned in January that hackers cracked a 40-character password and cleaned out their cryptocurrency wallet, they did not go to the police or alert the tokens’ issuer, the Berlin-based technology group IOTA.
They bought more coins.
The Cyprus-based German couple, who describe themselves as financial educators, figured they had no chance of recovering the coins and it was not even clear who might take up their case. Yet they took the roughly $14,000 loss in stride — something that comes with the territory when one bets on a new, exciting technology in a yet unregulated market.
“We really believe in cryptocurrencies. We have studied this for about a year before investing, so we are aware of the risks,” Peggy Lachmann-Anke said. “There was nothing we could do.”
Far from unusual, the episode is emblematic for a market where few rules apply and where investors’ faith in the blockchain technology goes hand in hand with the belief that it also helps criminals cover their tracks so well that trying to catch them is a fool’s errand.
Patrick Wyman, FBI supervisory special agent at the financial crimes section of the agency’s anti-money laundering unit acknowledges cryptocurrencies pose some unique challenges.
“A decentralized currency system like bitcoin, or another form of virtual currency is not governed by any entity, suspicious reporting activity, and any anti-money laundering compliance,” Wyman told Reuters.
Various estimates show cryptocurrency crime is on the rise, keeping pace with the market’s rapid growth. That forces investigators to focus on high-profile cases, security professionals and officials say, effectively leaving small investors to their own devices.
“We do not pretend that every law enforcement agency is devoting resources to every single crime. That would not be possible,” said Jaroslav Jakubcek, an analyst at Europol, which serves as a center for the European Union’s law enforcement cooperation, expertise and intelligence.
Officials still encourage people to report cryptocurrency theft to local police like any other crime, saying failing to do so only emboldens criminals.
Yet because many victims simply do not see the point, cryptocurrency theft is far more common than any published estimates suggest, security professionals say.
According to financial research firm Autonomous NEXT and Crypto Aware, which works with investors affected by crypto scams, about 15 percent of cryptocurrencies have been stolen between 2012 and the first half of 2018, representing a cumulative $1.7 billion in value at the time of the theft and with a rising tendency. In the first half of this year alone, more than $800 million has already been stolen, according to the data. Yet Lex Sokolin, a partner and global director of fintech strategy at the firm, estimates that as much as 85 percent of crimes go unreported and says the published statistics only represent publicly reported heists.
Reuters interviews with half a dozen victims paint a similar picture. Out of that group only two reported their losses to the authorities and one soured on cryptocurrency investments.
Armin Fischer, a Vienna-based IT specialist said he lost about $5,300 in ether coins in a phishing scam in the summer of 2017 and immediately alerted the local police just to find out that the duty officer had no idea what he was talking about.
He said it took many months of knocking on doors to get his case ultimately taken up by Vienna prosecutors’ office, but it is still pending. Fisher says by now he has had enough.
“I have seen firsthand how big the security leaks are.”
Others are more philosophical.
Dave Appleton, a blockchain developer for HelloGold, a gold trading app company in Kuala Lumpur, said he lost about $3,000 of ether coins when scammed by a fake site touting a startup’s token pre-sale. He said he just moved on, glad he did not lose more.
“The point is there’s no one to report the crime to,” Appleton said. “I am not sure what country or jurisdiction it would come under.”
According ICO tracker Coinschedule a record $21.3 billion flowed into new tokens so far this year as investors keep snapping up “initial coin offerings,” undeterred by high-profile heists, bitcoin’s and other currencies’ slide from late 2017 peaks, and government warnings of widespread fraud and theft.
David Jevans, chief executive of cybersecurity firm CipherTrace in Menlo Park, California, estimates that even when exchanges or trading platforms get hacked, perhaps only a fifth of stolen coins is recovered because of the ease with which digital tokens can move across several borders.
“You have to get law enforcement in five countries interested enough, have time enough, and have evidence enough to open a case,” he said. “By the time they agree, get the information, do all the paperwork, the money has been moved.”
Security experts say in most cases millions need to be at stake to justify such an effort.
US entrepreneur and long-time cryptocurrency investor Michael Terpin, who says he got robbed twice, learned firsthand that not all hacks are created equal.
He said first time when criminals accessed his cellphone with stolen SIM card credentials, emptied a wallet connected to it, and tricked his friends into sending money by impersonating him on Skype, he contacted a friend at the FBI.
But once she learned that only $60,000 got stolen, she advised him to file a report via the FBI’s Internet crime center website. Terpin said he did, but never heard back.
Then, when last January he lost almost $24 million in tokens from his mobile account, he went straight after the service provider AT&T, filing a $224 million lawsuit accusing it of negligence that allowed “digital identity theft,” a claim AT&T denies.
Undeterred, Terpin says he remains committed to blockchain comparing it to the early days of Amazon.com Inc. when the online retailer faced much skepticism and even derision.
“That’s similar to today’s narrative that all ICOs (initial coin offerings) are scams and nothing will ever be developed of value because they’re not already fully deployed,” he said.
Steadfast commitment to the new technology and belief that it gives sophisticated criminals the upper hand means that even some multimillion heists go unreported.
For example, when hackers stole about $9 million worth of ether tokens from a Zug, Switzerland-based company Swarm City in July 2017, the peer-to-peer digital platform did not report the theft to the police, business leader Bernd Lapp said.
“It’s impossible to track and return the funds. We live and die with this technology.”