As thousands flee regime, Eritrea would go it alone

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 14, 2009

ASMARA, ERITREA -- With the threat of U.S.-backed sanctions looming over this isolated Red Sea nation, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki recently summed up his defiant attitude toward the United States, and indeed most things he deems foreign -- a free press, certain religions, electoral democracy, political parties, global warming.

"Leave us alone," said the commandingly tall former guerrilla leader who became Eritrea's first and only president in 1993, after a 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia. "We don't want to be pushed around."

Over the past year, the United States and other nations have accused Eritrea of sending money and weapons to al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels in nearby Somalia, and a draft resolution calling for sanctions is now circulating at the U.N. Security Council.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Isaias, 63, dismissed the charges as "fabricated," blamed the United States for pursuing years of failed policies in the region and said of the threatened sanctions: "It will be a regrettable move if it's meant to blackmail or intimidate Eritrea."

But Eritrea's alleged spoiler role in Somalia is only one facet of a country that many observers say should be drawing attention for another, glaring reason: While striving to be an egalitarian, self-reliant utopia, Eritrea has become one of the most unapologetically repressive countries on Earth.

In the name of national security and unity in this nation of 5.5 million people, the government controls all media, officially allows only four religions ("We have enough religions," Isaias said), and so tightly controls the economy that the only Coca-Cola factory here had to close because its owners could not import syrup.

According to Eritreans interviewed here, house searches, arbitrary arrests, and a repertoire of torture that includes stuffing prisoners in tires and rolling them around in the desert are part of a vast system of social control that extends from this petite art deco capital to the tiniest village.

The country's extensive prison system of shipping containers and pits in the desert is by some estimates holding tens of thousands of people without trial, including journalists, Jehovah's Witnesses and citizens who tried to flee the country.

Even so, one young Eritrean said the defining feature of the system is not how brutal it is but how "normal" it now seems. He said he has been arrested without explanation 10 times, once while reporting a crime.

"The first time I was kind of worried," said the young man, who, like most people interviewed here, was afraid to give his name. "But eventually I was like, 'Okay, I'll be out in a few days. Let me get my jacket.' "

Indefinite conscription

The centerpiece of the system is mandatory national service, which forces all 18-year-olds into military training, then duty in the army or ministry for as little as $30 a month. It is a sacrifice many here said they would willingly make, were it not indefinite.

Instead, many young people have a secret motto these days: "Leave to live!" Despite what human rights groups say is a shoot-to-kill order on the border, more than 62,000 Eritreans sought asylum last year, the second-highest number in the world, according to the United Nations.

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