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Africa’s North Korea
Inside Eritrea's open-air prison.
As dusk fell on Asmara, the wide, tree-lined sidewalks of Harnet Avenue began to fill with pedestrians. It was a lovely spring Saturday, cool with a light breeze, and Eritreans of all ages strolled beneath a canopy of palm trees, pausing in the evening shadow of Italian-built Art Deco buildings to greet friends and sip macchiatos in sidewalk cafes.
As I watched the scene from one of those cafes, it was hard to imagine a more pleasant city anywhere in Africa. It was harder still to believe that this was the capital of the continent’s most aggressive government — and almost impossible to comprehend the depth of the domestic tragedy unfolding in one of Africa’s most enchanting and unpredictable countries.
With a population of just 5 million people, Eritrea has clashed with all four of its closest neighbors in the 17 years since it broke off from Ethiopia. Eritrea still keeps as many as 100,000 soldiers stationed along that frontier, just in case. Before that conflict, it fought Yemen over a chain of islands that lay between them. And just two years ago, Eritrea launched a brief, surreal attack on its tiny neighbor, Djibouti, in which some 35 soldiers from both sides died. Many of the deaths occurred when Djiboutian troops refused to hand over Eritrean soldiers who had defected — whether in hopes of escaping hardship at home, finding better training abroad, or even just getting a few sips of clean water.
Eritrea has also periodically sponsored rebels in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, occasionally and unapologetically giving refuge to their leaders in Asmara. It has been believably accused of supporting rebels in Djibouti, too. Its involvement in Somalia has been particularly egregious. In December, the U.N. Security Council announced sanctions to punish Eritrea for its support of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab and similar organizations. It was the first time the African Union had ever supported sanctions against one of its own members.
But though Eritrea has been amassing an unrivaled track record of international provocation, the regime’s real masterpiece of destruction has been at home, where the former Italian colony has taken on the aura of the Soviet Union’s final days. This has been an especially ironic turn of events for a country whose independence came about after its improbable and inspiring 1991 victory against the Soviet-backed military dictatorship in Ethiopia.
That revolt’s popular, Chinese-trained military leader, Isaias Afwerki, became Eritrea’s president in 1993 and has continued to agitate for the same national ethos of self-sacrifice and self-reliance that motivated his highly disciplined rebel movement. Nearly two decades later, Afwerki insists that his people’s ongoing deprivations are the price of investing in the future. Private and deeply defensive, Afwerki bristles at criticism, whether foreign or domestic, and fiercely rejects the idea that Eritrea could benefit from any external aid. Having never faced a popular vote, he has no plans to start now, telling the Washington Post in December that Eritreans will not be ready for elections for "a long, long, long time."
Now 64, he has traded his camouflage for a suit, which sits squarely on his slim figure. In fact, he bears a striking resemblance to the dictator of the other pariah state to which Eritrea is so often compared: North Korea. His alleged offenses are not as much the usual suspects in Africa — corruption and graft — as they are calculated tyranny at home and a hand in arming and granting sanctuary to the Somali Islamist militants next door (a charge he has denied). Once hailed as the vanguard of a "new generation" of responsible African leaders, he has long since won the dishonor of being one of the continent’s most repressive.
So though Asmara today looks like a charming Italian hill town circa 1930, that Soviet feel is never far away: shops full of empty shelves, citizens lining up with ration cards, shortages of basic goods, and a government dedicated to sustaining a military machine it cannot afford. With the economy stagnant, there is no hard currency to buy imports. Corner stores stock the same paltry selection of shoddy domestic goods: cleaning detergents, old fruit, a few bottled drinks, perhaps some canned food.
Restaurants are able to serve only a handful of items on their menus, and Coca-Cola halted local production a few years ago for lack of syrup. The bicycles that crowd the streets betray the desperate shortage of fuel; hiring a car to leave Asmara requires at least a day’s notice so that gas can be arranged. Hospitals have reportedly run out of essential supplies; a friend working for the United Nations asked me to smuggle in basic antibiotics no longer available in town. At a popular market that specializes in recycled goods, I watched one metalworker transform castoff artillery shells into coffee urns.
Why the desperate privation? Because the military has taken over virtually every aspect of Eritrean life. Despite its tiny size, Eritrea has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, with as many as 320,000 soldiers. Its number of soldiers per capita puts Eritrea second only to North Korea, a feat made possible by the ruthless enforcement of mandatory national service for all citizens, men and women alike. Over dinner one evening, a resident U.N. staffer whispered to me about a new expansion of the requirement. To graduate from high school, she explained, youth were now required to attend "national camp" during their final year. Although the government claims this amounts to only a week or two of military training, it in fact lasts much of the year. Her agency had learned that the threat of physical and sexual abuse was causing increasing numbers of students to drop out rather than attend. But by failing to complete their service, they put themselves at constant risk of arrest.
Indeed, arrest is an omnipresent threat in what has become a police state. Every vehicle I took outside Asmara was stopped at frequent checkpoints, where police inspected papers and closely scrutinized the documents of young men to ensure they had official permission to be traveling. The state punishes the families of those who escape, but defections are nonetheless on the rise, fueled in part by a growing food crisis. Based on the limited information they’ve been able to gather, international agencies think millions of people are at risk of starving after last year’s poor harvest. Eritrea, however, continues to reject food aid. One indication of just how desperate the situation has become came in December, when the entire national soccer team sought asylum in Kenya. That same month, Eritrea’s ambassador to the European Union told the BBC, "Foreign food aid demonizes the local people and makes them lazy."
Although it’s clear that Eritrea is in disastrous shape, precise details about what is happening are near impossible to come by. This is the only African country with no privately owned media, and the movements of foreign diplomats and aid workers are tightly restricted. For three years running, it has been named by Reporters Without Borders as the worst place in the world to be a journalist, and while I was there the entire staff of one radio station — around 50 journalists — was arrested. Political dissent is no more tolerated; many would-be dissidents have been detained indefinitely, held in a shadowy network of desert prison camps.
Despite it all, I still encountered Eritreans who were unwilling to acknowledge how badly their government has failed them. Particularly among the older generation, those who had spent their formative years as rebels in the "Struggle" against Ethiopia, I found an inability to accept the collapse of their dreams, at least in front of a foreigner. I spoke with one elderly man who had devoted 18 years of his life to fighting the Ethiopians. Pointing out one charming Asmara feature after another, he told me proudly, insistently, "Eritrea is not in Europe — but Eritrea is not in Africa."
He was right, but not in the way that he meant. Isolated abroad and collapsing at home, Eritrea has entered a lonely purgatory in which even the daily parade of evening walkers isn’t enough to sustain a semblance of normalcy. Many of the younger generation have found some brief escape in Western entertainment; people in local bars and Internet cafes spend hours downloading American television programs over one of the world’s worst Internet connections. They then hold screenings of the latest episodes. As I walked around Asmara, advertisements for one show were particularly numerous. The series Eritreans most wanted to watch? Prison Break.