ASMARA, Eritrea — In this lonely corner of the world, the
first sign of distress is the luggage. When one of the few international
flights that are still operating here touched down one recent afternoon, the
returning passengers emerged from baggage claim as if from a big shopping trip.
Old metal trolleys squealed under the weight of mundane items: tires, a laptop
computer, tubs of detergent and duffel bags crammed so tightly with food that
tin cans bulged through the fabric.
The needs are acute in Eritrea, a narrow shard of sand and
rock along the Red Sea that’s presided over by one of Africa’s most secretive
regimes. As its quixotic experiment in economic self-reliance falters, the
Ohio-sized country of 5 million has slipped into its deepest political
isolation in its 16 years of independence.
The United States and others accuse President Isaias Afwerki
of funneling arms and money to Islamist insurgents in Somalia and have threatened
to slap him with sanctions. Analysts say Isaias is bent on wresting influence
from Ethiopia — Eritrea’s large southern neighbor and adversary in a 30-year
liberation struggle — and is backing several rebel groups across the chaotic
Horn of Africa.
In a rare interview, Isaias dismissed the allegations as
“fabrications” by Western interests — including his favorite
bogeyman, the CIA — that traditionally have sided with Ethiopia. The pariah
label has reinforced his belligerent attitude toward a world that long ignored
Eritrea’s cries for independence, and one in which he now seems to have just
one remaining friend, the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.
“Why would you want to have allies?” the
63-year-old president told McClatchy Newspapers. “It’s a sign of
A gruff, imposingly tall former guerrilla with a college
professor’s wardrobe and a Ron Burgundy moustache, Isaias helped lead the
liberation war and has never let go of power. A decade after a devastating
border flare-up with Ethiopia that remains unresolved, he has never held
elections, banned opposition groups and independent media, and reportedly
banished thousands of people to remote desert prisons where they languish
without trial in “harsh and life-threatening conditions,” according
to a State Department human rights report last year.
In recent years, Isaias has seized U.N. World Food Program
stockpiles and expelled or blocked most international relief organizations,
claiming that his arid nation could produce enough food to feed all its people.
Yet after consecutive poor harvests, and amid one of the worst hunger crises in
East Africa in decades, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned last
month that as many as two-thirds of Eritreans may be malnourished.
Isaias rejected the report — “We have no
shortage,” he said — but humanitarian groups say the government blocks
them from accessing the areas that are thought to be the most affected. In the
capital, Asmara, more and more children in frayed clothes and splotchy skin are
begging on the streets, hinting at desperation in the countryside.
“A year or two ago, you never saw that,” a
diplomat said. “It means the safety net is failing.”
Perched atop a 7,600-foot plateau, sun-bathed Asmara is one
of the continent’s safest and most alluring capitals, with wide, palm-fringed
streets and splashes of colorful modernist architecture left over from Italian
colonial rule. Below the surface, however, beats constant fear.
No Eritreans would be quoted by name criticizing the
president. The government, which some have likened to an African North Korea,
controls people’s lives through a program of forced national service that
requires all citizens to undergo military training and then assigns them
indefinitely to army posts or civilian jobs, paying token wages.
Men and women younger than 50 rarely get permission to leave
the country, effectively meaning that the entire able-bodied population is on
reserve duty. People who resist the service routinely are imprisoned and
tortured, as documented in a 96-page report this year by Human Rights Watch,
which found that Eritrean authorities had issued shoot-to-kill orders for
anyone caught trying to jump the border without permission.
“It’s for generations that we’re trying to build a
nation and build an economy, and that requires sacrifice,” Isaias said.
“National service may not be liked by everybody, even by the government,
but it’s a necessity.”
Yet even with these draconian measures, the country remains
far from self-reliant. One-third of the economy, according to some estimates,
consists of money sent home by Eritreans living overseas. The prodigious
shopping on display at the airport — all carried by elderly travelers, the only
ones eligible for exit visas — also suggests that Isaias’ gambit is failing.
“People are losing patience every day,” said a
44-year-old father of three who spent 12 years in the national service,
including a stint as a soldier on the front lines during the 1998-2000 border
war, when a bullet hit him in the back.
His conscript’s salary was about $35 a month, and although
the government provided small rations of goods such as coffee, sugar and
cooking oil, he had to moonlight.
Isaias “always talks about sacrifice, sacrifice,”
the man said at a sidewalk cafe, lowering his voice when a waitress came near.
“People are looking around and asking, ‘What’s the purpose?”’
It wasn’t always so bleak. Following independence, Isaias
pledged to institute multiparty democracy, and he oversaw the drafting of a
progressive constitution. When the border dispute reignited, however, Isaias
dramatically scaled up conscription and put all pretenses of democracy on hold.
When he was asked when he will hold elections, Isaias said,
“We don’t need elections.”
More of the nation’s youth seem to be abandoning hope.
Despite the perils of fleeing, the United Nations refugee agency received
62,700 new asylum applications from Eritreans last year; only Zimbabwe produced
The bulk of the asylum-seekers, according to diplomats and
independent human rights reports, are young army deserters and high-schoolers
evading military training at Sawa, a prisonlike desert camp. Last May, the
State Department reported, several apparent deserters were shot near the border
“The defections have to be a concern for the
regime,” said Dan Connell, a lecturer at Simmons College in Boston who’s
written extensively on Eritrea. “One reason they instituted national
service was to initiate the next generation into the culture of the liberation
movement. The evidence suggests it’s not working.”
One afternoon in a dimly lit bar, a 25-year-old man nursed a
beer and recalled a friend from his military service days who was arrested for
saying critical things about the government. He was hauled off to prison and
hasn’t been heard from since.
That was three years ago. The man sighed and contemplated
his own chances of escaping, perhaps to the United States.
“What’s the best that anyone could hope for here?”
he said. “It’s not very much.”
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.