Inside the insular and secretive Eritrea

Barney Jopson – The Financinal Times

Copyright The Financial Times
September 19 2009
On the sun-bleached heights of the Asmara plateau, July is beles season, a few weeks of wild cactus fruit and ostentatious metropolitan chic. It is when the fig cacti, the beles, yield their knobbly pellets of fruit to sure-handed children, who pick them to earn their families some cash. July is also when Eritrea’s diaspora engine goes into reverse and expat families hustle through Asmara’s tiny airport and out on to the tiled streets of the capital, where they parade in the Gucci glamour and hip-hop bling of London and New York. Because their arrival coincides with the ripening of the cactus fruit – and because they have disappeared by the time the fruit is gone – they, too, are dubbed beles by the compatriots they leave behind.
The two cross paths on street corners in Asmara, where plastic buckets filled with the pickings from the cactus fields sit at the knees of female traders, swathed like mummies in the white cotton shawls of the Christian highlands. Some diaspora families sweep past, Dad speaking to the kids in Tigrinya, the local language, the kids replying in English or Swedish or Dutch. Others pause to buy handfuls of the fruit, whose yellow skin conceals a fleshy orange core that tastes of mango.
At 2,300m above sea level, this is one of Africa’s cleanest, calmest, most crime-free cities, a home above the clouds for 400,000 people and the capital of the continent’s newest nation-state. It’s a cauldron of cultural influences – domestic and foreign, old and new, beles and beles – but ranks as an outlier in Africa. It’s a sliver of rock that clings to the continental shelf like it’s afraid of slipping into the Red Sea, but its four million people refer to their neighbours as “Africans” with a cool detachment.
Eritrea’s admirers praise the dignity of its people, lean, elegant and proud. The critics lament the character of its geopolitics, belligerent, bossy and headstrong. Both are rooted in a powerful belief in Eritrean exceptionalism, the driving force behind a 30-year armed struggle for liberation from Ethiopian rule that finally ended in independence in 1993. It was a remarkable victory for a guerrilla army of Marxist fighters after the rest of the world had written off their cause as hopeless, or simply stopped caring. But in the years since, Eritrea has become a study in what happens when the heroes who win the war cannot recast themselves to live in peace.
. . .
Six o’clock on a Monday evening and the poky members’ room of the Casa degli Italiani was full. Half a dozen Eritrean men, all past their 60th birthdays, sat in corduroy blazers and leather jackets behind battered wooden school desks, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. The men grew up when Eritrea was an Italian colony, as it was latterly under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Some even fought for Italy during the second world war. They spoke fluent Italian and greeted each other at the club that evening with “Come stai?” and “Bene, bene”. Then they sat down, slipped into silence, and locked their eyes on to the television, which was tuned into the Italian channel Rai Due and beamed out the final kilometres of stage 16 of the Tour de France.
British and French colonies rarely absorbed the habits of their colonial masters with ease, but Eritrea did – in spite of a humiliating fascist apartheid system. The colonisers wanted to make Asmara a home from home, so they built a city of pastel shades, mottled brickwork and ornate stone mosaics. It was also a laboratory for bold architectural styles – rationalism, futurism, monumentalism – that would never pass muster in Italy. The result is a cocktail of convex façades, jutting balconies and porthole windows. Ancient Fiat 850s still trundle down Harnet Avenue, the main drag, which is lined with palm trees reminiscent of southern Italy. And when the sun sets, the avenue floods with Asmarinos out for the passeggiata, or evening stroll, which they punctuate with espressos in cafés, plates of lasagne or scoops of ice-cream from the gelaterias. No wonder so many travel writers write glowing accounts of an African dolce vita.
But they omit the country’s dark side. The guerrillas of the liberation struggle have become the ministers of an autocratic regime whose secrecy, sealed borders and intolerance of dissent have attracted the same “pariah state” labels often applied to Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. “They have always been control freaks,” one Eritrean told me in Nairobi before I left for Asmara. In that conversation, I first felt the shadow of fear cast by the regime’s iron rule.
Michela Wrong, a former FT journalist and author of I Didn’t Do It For You, which charts the country’s history, told me by e-mail: “Trouble is, no one will want to be seen talking to you inside Eritrea itself. And you need to be very careful not to quote people and not to get people into trouble by even being seen with them.” A United Nations official who has worked in the country warned: “People may sidle up to you and say critical things to test you. Best to respond positively and say how great Eritrea is.” When I tried to fix a meeting with another Eritrean in Nairobi via a friend of a friend, I first had to persuade him I was not an Eritrean government agent; he was convinced there was no other way I could have got a visa. (I got it by sending an e-mail request to the information minister and following it up with a phone call a week later.) By the time I arrived at Asmara airport, where a flunky from the information ministry tapped me on the shoulder as I was changing money, I had been sucked into the culture of suspicion. Then I opened my hotel wardrobe. It was lined with an old copy of the Financial Times.
Diplomats in Asmara said they took it for granted that some of their Eritrean employees were spying on them. The manager of a café told me his regulars included security agents who sat eavesdropping on conversations. I was warned there were informers on every corner. A taxi driver expressed the mood by clenching his fist into a trembling ball of tension. “The generals, the colonels, they are sooo…” he said with a grimace, struggling for the word as his knuckles looked ready to snap. “So straight.”
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