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Eritrean Field Notes: A lonely nation under a glass
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009 7:01 PM
I set off for Asmara having read about Eritrea's extraordinary liberation struggle against Ethiopia, about its fierce sense of independence and its experiment in self-reliance.
I also knew that many people now consider Eritrea to be one of the most repressive nations on Earth. I had read about its desert prisons full of journalists, believers in banned religions, army deserters. One U.S. official outside the country -- citing allegations that Eritrea is sponsoring al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Somalia -- described Eritrea to me as "an aspiring rogue state."
And yet the feeling upon arriving in Asmara was anything but rogue.
At first, it just felt lonely, almost abandoned. In contrast to chaotic, crowded African airports I've been through, Asmara's was almost empty. My 115-passenger jet had had 14 passengers. It was one of only two jets on the long runway. At the clean-swept, gray-marbled arrival hall, which was the size of a convenience store, the loudest noise, literally, were crickets.
Though there were no lines, a friendly government minder ushered me VIP-style through the gauntlet of passport-checking and declaring of currency, and soon we walked out into the mostly vacant parking lot and the crisp, orangey light of a late Saturday afternoon.
It took about 10 minutes to reach Asmara. And that is the first thing you notice about this pretty, palm-lined capital: how small it is, how petite, really. It feels as if it was placed, intact, on its high plateau.
For the week I was there, the weather was conventionally perfect, each day bright and warm, each evening refreshing and cool. Asmara is a famously crime-free city of art deco buildings built by Italian colonizers, who once envisioned it as the jewel of their never-realized African empire. It was built, in a way, to manifest that dream, and for that reason and others, the city feels like a movie set. Its ice-cream colored palette, its fantastic buildings and many cafes, its bicycles, its older men dressed in sharp hats and old suits, convey the feel of a benign netherworld operating at the behest of some unseen director.
Soon, though, a slightly less benign feeling settled in. I was told to expect that my phone calls would be monitored, that anyone I spoke to, especially Eritreans, did so at great personal risk, and, at lunch at an outdoor café one day, that the man sitting rather conspicuously alone at the next table was probably a spy. He was a nice-seeming spy, a kind of comic book version -- an older man in a suit, taking notes in a little black book. My lunch companion sent him a beer, and the man waved, smiled and nodded a thank you.
Walking around, I began to notice how empty many of the shops were of products and customers. Eritrea's economy operates almost completely at the behest of the government, and the mood of hustle in many African cities is oddly absent here. People essentially sell what they are told, work when they are told, and even eat what they are told, as most Eritreans subsist on an array of government-subsidized rations.
Though one U.S. dollar was officially trading at 15 nakfa, the local currency, I was told that the black market rate was around 41. (The price for using the black market, however, is detention.)
Foreigners and Eritreans alike began to tell me, always anonymously, how they saw Asmara. "My own personal 'Truman Show,' " was one description. "Animal Farm," came another. One young Eritrean explained the country's system of indefinite national service as a kind of never-ending forced labor camp. Another, explaining how complete social control is here, told me: "Resistance is futile -- the only escape is to flee!"
The fact that Eritrea produces more asylum seekers than all but one other country on the planet became more striking with each gently passing afternoon.
Many Eritreans told me they had brothers, husbands, uncles and others who had disappeared over the years, presumably into desert prisons. Sometimes, just as mysteriously, they would reappear, often with scars. One person told me a friend reappeared with brain damage.
I asked whether ordinary Eritreans discussed this situation in their homes, and several people told me no. The repression is so common, one young man explained, that it has become a kind of quiet understanding, something so commonplace that it is no longer remarkable. The other explanation was that no one trusts each other, that even family members have been known to turn one another in.
By the second or third day of the trip, Asmara began to feel like a kind of snow globe, a city hermetically sealed under a glass dome, an alternate, un-globalized universe where virtually nothing comes or goes.
One day, a man walking down the street began screaming into the quiet afternoon. His words, a few explicatives inappropriate for a family newspaper, bounced around the pale pink and yellow buildings. Then he stopped, and kept walking.
It was incongruous with this lovely and subdued capital, and yet, somehow, understandable.
Ed's Note: FYI. The current edition of Airports of The World magazine has an article about Asmara's airport. You can find the magazine at your local bookstore or newsstand worldwde. Article is not available online for non-subscribers.
pls US or european community generally world ppl help us .we eritreans are suffering evevthough we left our country .here and there all the same but better than the government of eritrea.
why the world only talk they dont help us ,i read news paper for 10 years they write about eritrea but no action ppl r suffering .pls take action help the ppl if not my family will follow me to the desert and the world will c new thing old age in the desert.that is it.
It is not a crime to plan for a great self sufficient well to do country. I thought it is every government’s plan or dream to be self sufficient. The problem with tigrigna people is the way to acieve the plan. Instead of working they seat in power and let other sweat to death. They send their famillies to the weast but shoot when other ethnic groups to do so. Instead of saling what they produce or producing for sale they get profit giving shelter and training for all the oppostion groupes by money comes to distabilize the read see region from differnt nations to controll the strategic see rute. They new how profitable it is when they got innumerous some of financial aid and weapoen to wipe russia and derg from read see. Tplf’s grip is strong because at home and abroad the majority so called poletician are from tigrigna people. but it wont be long.
Pol pot Issayss is suffocating eritreans with his malaria infected brain .
Errem, You Eritreans are simply harvesting what they sow. you should be happy my dear, just like in 1991 when you laughed on the face of Ethiopians. Good luck luck matey.
Asmara = Animal farm
Abeet ye Ethiopia amlaak, God punishing these traditional traitors, haleluyaaa,
nazret, you should mark this article in red. these askari idiots deserve as much bashing as possible.
nazret, thanks for the info about an article on Asmara airport, but for those of us who don’t live in the US, I think the writer of this article has said it all. An airport the size of convenience shop.7/11 may be.
it has been 18 years since Eritrea become an independent nation but still we are Obsessed with Eritrea.
This is Ethio Forum, I don’t understand what the purpose is to post Eritrean issue here.
“…..People essentially sell what they are told, work when they are told, and even eat what they are told, as most Eritreans subsist on an array of government-subsidized rations.
That is the result of our Ethiopian Tears….
We, Ethiopians, did nothing other than begging the Eritreans to stay together for good or bad……but look who is paying back.
Washington Post can write anything if they are funded from TPLF’s. The point here Eritrea will never neal down !!will continue what’s been established as a true one nation, Hade Hizbi Hade Liby!!!!And that is that, and you Stephanie McCrummen u must have not got the attention u expectd but we are managing our economy, if u did not enjoyed it then it’s the end of your journey we wont adjust our nation for one dooosh bag!
Poor eritrea ! what happen the so colled NASENET ??? now you need to start fighting to integrate with emmama ethiopin without us you are nothing well it might takes the next 10,000 years.actually you deserve it i am having fun when i hear those kind of information.pr minister Meles thanks so much you make me happy by the way when we are going to bring back our port ?
I know the now eritrean government did a good job to liberate Eritrea in the thirty years of war but there mistake is they should give the power for properly elected, who can manage the country properly and Issayas would have a very good respect among the Eritrean people. Even till now people have respect for him so it is not late to arrange every thing and pass the government to a well educated, organised and politically and socially matured person to correct all the past mistakes. How ever we will not compromise about Badme. When the right time comes and the American administration changes his policy in supporting about Badme then we Eritrean kick weyanes ass to run away not only from badme but also from the whole Ethiopia. We had and will have no problem with Ethiopian let alone tigrays people. But we had and will fight for the integrity of the country let alone for Eritrea but even for our neighbouring countries including Ethiopia because we don’t afraid of sacrificing for the right cause. Long live east Africa and the whole world.
Efrem, please don’t pretend as you are an Eritrean. I know you are from the weyane elite (A.g.a.m.e neh).
Articles like this one make me ask questions like “WHAT THE HELL ARE PARKING-LOT NEFTEGNAS COMPLAINING ABOUT MELES FOR"?
Let them reap what they sow.
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