As thousands flee regime, Eritrea would go it alone

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 14, 2009; A12

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.

"I'd say 90 percent of my peers have left," said one young man who is planning his own exit. "All the best brains are leaving."

Observers say Eritrea's leadership still clings to its rebel ideology, which enforced Marxist and egalitarian values in opposition to imperial Ethiopian rule. Largely abandoned by the world during their fight for independence, the rebels made do with weapons they captured, diaspora funding and a strict discipline that helped them pull off a stunning victory against a far better-armed enemy.

"They won their struggle on their own," said Tasier Ali, a Sudanese peace activist who lives in Asmara. "I think, in a way, time stopped for them there."

Since independence, Eritrea has had a bloody border war with Ethiopia that ended with a U.N.-sponsored border demarcation that Ethiopia, a U.S. ally, has not recognized. More recently, Eritrea has been in a tense standoff with neighboring Dijibouti, where the United States has a military base, over a sandy patch of disputed land at the mouth of the Red Sea.

Isaias, often referred to here simply as "the man," said that national security and economic planning have made national service a harsh necessity. The young Eritreans who are leaving, he said, are simply "weak."

"We are not at all bothered," he said, referring to the swelling diaspora that sends home money totaling about a third of the economy. "The best brains do not make the wrong choice for their lives."

Fierce independence

It was a typically bright morning in Asmara, a palm-tree-lined capital where pale yellow, green and gray buildings are detailed with circles, diamonds and lines that lend an air of fantasy. The controlled economy creates a listless mood. Cafes stay fairly full. Shopkeepers close for three hours at lunch. But these days, there is another sight: skinny women and children from the countryside, where a hunger crisis is worsening, begging on the streets.

Isaias, who said he enjoys "Star Wars" films and Tom Clancy novels, walked to his interview at a presidential guesthouse. Though he qualifies as a dictator, he prefers a humble style. In contrast to African leaders who speed about their capitals in long motorcades of Mercedes-Benzes, his consists of an old BMW and a Toyota.

Isaias said that Eritrea is in the midst of a "social transformation" aimed at self-reliance -- which excludes most outside aid for the country -- and dissolving tribal and religious differences in the mostly Muslim and Orthodox Christian country. The process is also aimed at dissolving tribal and religious differences. Elections held too soon would invite divisive tribal politics, he said. Asked how long it would take until Eritreans are ready to vote, he said: "A long, long, long time."

If there is a sense of quiet submission here, some young Eritreans say they are true believers in a system that has produced, by basic measures, one of the healthiest populations in Africa. There is a sense of pride at places such as Medeber, a massive, clanking workshop on the edge of town where hundreds of workers in blue coveralls hammer scraps from old tanks, trucks, beds and bikes into new items: an Orthodox cross, whose circle is made out of an old tank gear; a hair comb made from a mortar.

"We must do it ourselves," said Isak Ybaye, offering a mantra others repeated. "We are preparing something to serve the people!"

During a rare drive with foreign journalists to the port city of Masawa, Information Ministry worker Raffaele Giuseppe marveled at the beauty of his country.

"This road, we are proud of it -- we built it with our own hands," he said. "That's freedom!"Asked about the tens of thousands of people who apparently wish to be free from Eritrea, Giuseppe said the statistics are propaganda.

"We have the same ideology, we have the same perspective, the same mind," he said, allowing that some might disagree "only if they have the perspective of foreign elements in their mind."

"Only until they get enlightened in the cause," Giuseppe added. "The greater Eritrean cause."

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