Voices from the other side
Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive countries. Every year thousands of people flee to Europe. Now that the nation has begun allowing foreign journalists entry for the first time in many, many years, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson traveled there to find out how the Eritrean ministers are looking at the future.
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- Till gruppen om Eritrea
Nine months later, the plane is taxiing out from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Quatar, where we have a layover on our way to Eritrea. The seconds feel like an eternity and I’m tapping my fingers on my legs while the noise fills the cabin, we accelerate and—thunder off up in the sky. I close my eyes and don’t open them again until I hear the familiar sound of wheels folding up.
“It feels like flying to the moon,” Johan says.
I look down at the light that’s spreading out underneath us. We were both at the gate well before takeoff. Johan doesn’t go nuts if he has to wait for an airplane for more than 30 minutes anymore. We all get older.
There is $5,000 in the tightly packed carryon. Eritrea doesn’t have cash withdrawal machines.
The other passengers, many in traditional garb, are excited; there’s a festival vibe on the plane. I feel more like we’re on the way to our execution.
Just before we left, news by various opposition media reported that military in the capital city, Asmara, had shot ten draftees trying to escape the compulsory military service. Demonstrations in Eritrea are announced the same day we are to land.
The information I’ve heard, that about 20 people have been killed, flickers through my brain. Several of them were civilians, relatives trying to help their sons avoid being drafted by the army. But it is hard to find trustworthy sources to confirm this.
Shortly before our departure, I received a call from the Eritrean Embassy in Stockholm. An embassy clerk wanted to know if I’d heard the news of the fatal shootings.
I give him an “uh-hum” for an answer.
“People die in Africa all the time, but it always turn into front-page news when someone dies in Eritrea,” the embassy clerk says, irritated.
He called to tell me not to worry.
“Asmara is the safest capital city on the continent. You never have to be scared of anything there. You can move about freely and speak to whomever you please. We won’t send anyone with you, because then you’ll just write that. You are on your own. Good luck.”
While I’ve taken care of all the practicalities for this trip, it feels like an impossible journey. Is it really possible to fly to Asmara? I stare at the flight map in the seat-back in front of me and read out loud. It really shows Asmara as a destination. One moment it feels like a “walk-in-the-park” and the next, unattainable. Even though we’ve done our homework and have many reportage-trips like this under our belts, where we are headed is still one of the toughest places in the world to work, for journalists.
But my real worry is that we aren’t worried. This is far from a “normal” or an easy story—the last time we were here, we ended up prisoners and sentenced to 11 years.
I doze off and suddenly I wake up and a bright light stings my eyes. I look out the window, trying to get oriented. Medina? No, it has to be Mecca! I manage to take a picture with my phone before we leave Saudi Arabia behind us and the dark sea spreads out below.
Then a light shows on the black surface, another one and another one. It takes a moment before I realize they are position lights of the ships on The Red Sea. Thousands of tankers and cargo vessels as they move through the aorta of the world economy with oil, electronics, and weapons.
Below us is a canvas of starry positioning lights.
I see on the flight map that the plane has rounded the war-ridden Yemen, before we are in a straight line toward Asmara. Recently, Eritrea entered a new strategic union with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which gave The Arabic League permission to use Eritrean territory, airspace and waters in their military campaign in Yemen. In exchange, Eritrea got fuel and foreign currency.
Ten thousand meters up in the air, Eritrea’s strategic geographic location manifests itself. Aside from the advantage of a long coastline on The Red Sea, the country is also cutting off Ethiopia.
The Captain speaks about the weather in Asmara over the intercom, while the plane is losing altitude and I feel a flutter in my stomach. How crazy are the Eritreans? Could they have had the idea of using us as pawns in some bizarre prisoner exchange? If not, and even if we are able to leave this place: Is it even possible to do any type of journalism from this country?
I know what I think about colleagues who only wrote about Ethiopians eating ice-cream in Addis Abeba or economic growth or an African renaissance while I was in prison. I didn’t like journalists who did not write about those who are imprisoned.
The sound of the unfolding landing gear sends uneasiness through my body. I feel that it’s a very bad idea to return to the Horn of Africa—again. The first feeling on the ground is that something isn’t quite right at the Asmara Airport passport control. Nobody wears a uniform. There are no portraits of the president on the walls and no Kalashnikov-toting soldiers milling about. Our fellow passengers line up in a long queue in front of the sleepy plainclothes men and women who are working the immigration windows.
It feels like buying a ticket to a concert at a youth club.
Nobody checks our luggage and we get our camera equipment and satellite phone through, without problems.
“Are you here to work in the mine?” A well-dressed man asks us in the arrival hall.
I shake my head, but he offers us a ride anyway, since we are going to stay at the same hotel as the international engineers arriving to work at the copper mine in Bisha, who were also on the flight.
Outside the terminal a Canadian man is smoking a cigarette in the cool summer night. He carries a 24-pack of Heineken under one arm.
“I travel light,” he says and laughs.
Then there’s a power outage and everything turns pitch black. The moon, a hammock-looking sliver, and bright stars are the only illumination.
There are familiar scents.
When the power returns, the Canadian man explains his luggage.
“The local beer tastes like shit,” he says, smiling mischievously and stepping aboard the minibus which will bring us to the hotel.
His mining company, Nevsun, have been here for eight years. It was the first international mining company that was allowed. During the first test drills, they found gold and then copper. He’s a man of few words, but says the profits the mining industry has yielded have been substantial, both for Eritrea and his company.
“The mine was able to export copper to China when the prices were on the very top,” he says.
The car rolls through a blacked out Asmara and it’s hard to get geographical bearings. There are some streetlights, but no traffic signals seem to work.
Once in my hotel room, I pass out, exhausted from stress.
The Tank Cemetery April 2016
Rust-infected and bullet-riddled tanks defy gravity by towering against the cloudless sky. Below them, compressed steel beams, tangled power lines, trashed tank threads, sprawling pieces of metal and burned engine parts are pressed down into the earth like tombstones without names.
“It was this one they used to give orders to the other tanks,” says the 57-year-old former tank soldier, Solomon Berhe, pulling up the grooved handle of the old tank’s communication system.
With knowing gestures, his old and scarred hands move over the piping hot metal of the mutilated tanks; he touches rusty levers, tachometers, diesel tanks and engines, all of which have been flattened to a sea of debris.
“We started out with simple weaponry, then we captured these [tanks] from the enemy. They were easy to repair and then it was just to learn how to operate them, load and aim. Slowly, slowly we got the upper hand,” he recalls.
Most engines are adorned with Cyrillic characters and were donated by the Soviet Union to the Ethiopian dictator Mengisty Haile Mariam during the thirty-year war. If Solomon Berhe closes his eyes, he remembers the sound of roaring engines, the plunking of bullets against metal, the smell of burnt rubber, and, the taste of blood and sand in his mouth.
“It’s a cemetery for tanks,” he says and sweeps his arm in all directions.
It’s an apocalyptic place of kilometer after kilometer of panzer. An unintentional Army museum of debris, showing off the destructiveness of the 1900s, in concentrated form.
These objects symbolize the material costs of the war, which lasted from 1961 to 1991. They reveal nothing about the cost of human lives. If this were a painting, it could be named ”The Guernica of Eritrea.” But it’s not a painting; it’s reality.
“It was a long, horrible and bloody war. Just a few of my friends survived,” Solomon Berhe says and walks off among the remains of a history that have characterized his whole life.
He came of age during the first years of the war and the bombs of Ethiopian air raids convinced him to become a soldier by the time he was 15 years old. But he had to wait until 18 to get his military training.
He rattles off stories of about 50 different tank battles.
“What makes our independence struggle different is that it only partially was carried out as a guerilla war. For a long time it was a regular battle between two professional armies.”
Names of battlefields are forever carved into the world history like Verdun, the Somme, Kursk and Stalingrad. Some of the largest land battles after World War II were carried out in Eritrea, but that’s largely unknown outside for the country’s borders. During that time, all attention was on the sundering of Yugoslavia.
“Worst was the battle in Afabet. After three days we’d manage to capture 50 tanks. It was our Dien Bien Phu, our turning point. Until then we’d been fighting on the defense, but then we could come out of the dugouts,” says Solomon Berhe.
The rest of his response drowns in the wind blowing into the microphone. The wind screen has blown off the small and sensitive mic and Johan, who’s filming the veteran, fixes it while Salomon Berhe continues to poke around among the debris.
It’s our first day in Asmara. The sun is scorching and just like the beginning of every trip, it’s hard to know where the reportage will lead. Having seen pictures of The Tank Cemetery we got the idea to use it for images, let a veteran or two guide us around—if there’s anything there’s a lot of in Eritrea, it’s veterans.
Some journalists who’ve been allowed entry to Eritrea have simply put up a camera and then tried to interview people who refuse. It works great dramaturgically, but how would we get close to some of the veterans and learn their stories?
When we’ve fixed the mic and put it back on, Solomon Berhe tells us how his mechanic brigade, during the last years of the war, fought their way southward toward Adis Ababa joined by the Ethiopian rebel group, The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Memories of battles, cities and names of lost friends flow. He rolled into the Ethiopian capital in his tank in 1991.
But the sense of victory was short-lived.
“The last 25 years have been very, very hard with renewed Ethiopian aggression and the never-ending conflict over the border. I hear the battle drums. I had hoped we’d gotten farther by now. But I guess it’s a price my generation had to pay. Not until now could we begin to develop this country.”
We sit down in the shade of a container, to move on to the more formal part of our interview. Solomon Berhe tells us that his children now are old enough to ask questions about the war.
“After I told them, it’s like they went mute. The new generation is not like us. They’ll never understand why we did what we did. We sacrificed ourselves, we sacrificed everything for our children,” he says.
We take a walk and pass an old bus, tipped over on its side. Solomon Berhe describes his generation as one that was driven by ideals. He and his peers were first to jump out of the dugouts into combat. The Eritrean youth of today have different ambitions.
“They want other things for themselves than spending 30 years in a trench. They want a better life, and they have a right to demand that,” he says in a determined voice.
Solomon Berhe has a brother who lives in Sweden and several other relatives who live in other countries and he understands their choices.
“The situation is difficult, war is bloody, and a normal teenager would think about other things. We need a stable peace, we need to become a country like Sweden,” he says.
With peace he believes the economical development will get a boost.
“The way it is now, there are many who want to go to Europe, but if the situation here, at home, changes for the better, I think young people who have left will return,” Salomon Berhe says, climbing up on a rusty engine and looking out over the park of old tanks.
He slowly walks toward the exit, his hands pressed together hard.
“What’s the most important lesson you took with you from the war?” I ask.
“Never turn your back against the enemy—offense is the best defense. In a tank you have 30 centimeters of steel and a canon in the front, its back has a few measly centimeters of metal sheet. Always show your face, never your weaknesses, because then you’re lost,” he says.
That night we turned off the air conditioner and left the windows open. I turned on the TV and flipped around between the world’s news outlets: Al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN, even the Ethiopian state-owned news channel.
According to the Ambassador, this trip would be a ”myth-busting experience.” But I know how many mine fields there are out there.
Such a small detail in reportage runs the risk of becoming a rhetorical punch line. And yet again, it’s the truth.
I have a moment of regret again, wondering if this trip is right. I’m thinking of an Italian TV-team I’ve heard about that decided upon return not to air any of their filmed material because it would have been perceived as “fluff,” too positive.
The difficulty is in the method. As a journalist you can only report what you see and hear. To be invited on a journalist’s visa is both a blessing and a curse. You are not incognito.
In preparation for the meetings of the day, I do some research. I read an interview with one of the Eritreans who fled across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa, the Italian island south of Malta.
I read about how people, in a panic, pulled each other down below the surface. How those who could not cope, didn’t have the strength to tread water any longer in the darkness and gave up, shouted out their names so that the survivors could tell how they died, and that they loved their children.
I read about how this fugitive saw the sun rise, and how she was too tired to keep hold of the lifebuoy when she was pulled out of the water, covered in oil. That night, 366 people drowned. In Italy, all victims were accepted as nationals and given a proper burial. Those who survived were not given Italian citizenship. She was one of them.
I jot down in my notebook that people don’t put their children in rickety boats unless their current living situation is scarier than death.
Outside of an enormous communal breakfast room, two housekeepers are dusting a balustrade. One night in this hotel cost a month’s pay for the employees. The room is empty aside from a Finish mineworker who was turned around because he didn’t have the right paperwork to enter the copper mine.
From here there’s a view of two turquoise pools. Nobody is swimming. This is Asmara’s most expensive hotel. This is also the hotel where a group of Eritreans held a conference about the need to democratize their country in 2001. Dawit Isaak was one of them. Several of the participants in that conference, members of the G-15 group, are either dead or still in prison.
At one of the tables, an Eritrean businessman is enjoying his espresso. When he hears that we are Swedish journalists, he gets slightly irritated.
“Are you going to write this is like North Korea, now?” he says more than asks and puts down his phone on the table.
“I am here to find out what is true and not,” I say, hearing how pretentious it sounds.
“OK, we have no elections where people vote, so I guess we are a dictatorship then, fine write that,” he says, continuing to gush.
“But in the border conflict, we are right. Why can’t the outside world recognize that? Why does everyone keep bullying us? Why do they never criticize Quatar and Saudi Arabia, when they beat down demonstrations? All we are trying to do here is to create a little social justice. Of course we could use reforms, but look at the Arabic spring, it was kidnapped by extremists. And change, what is that really? Should we all change clothes? Should I switch shirts?”
Johan asks if he can take a photo, but the man declines by gesticulating with his hands. I turn on the recorder on my phone, I definitely don’t want to miss anything from this “quote-machine.”
“It was war. We fought. To the last man. All the while, there were 15 people sitting at this very hotel, sipping wine and eating cookies. They stabbed us in the back when we were the most vulnerable. They had plans for who was going to take over the power. Dawit Isaak wasn’t one of them, but he published their list. They should all be in prison, all of them!”
I order an espresso, too, and lean back while our newfound friend keeps on talking.
“The so-called ‘opposition,’ I don’t even want to call them that. They sit in comfortable chairs in front of their computers and complain. Who are they? I know every single one of them from the war. I know who they are, and they are nothing. They complain about our president, he who wears cheap shoes, he doesn’t drink whiskey, or wine, only water in small, small glasses,” he says, showing us on a glass on the table.
I nod and say that we are hoping to interview President Isaias Afwerki.
“What do you do if you don’t have water? Well, you roll up your sleeves and get to work to find some. What do you do if you don’t have electricity? Well, you get to work, draw power lines and build energy plants so we can get some. What does the opposition do? Instead of working they are sitting on their behinds, talking about free elections. I know what types they are—“
I recognize his reasoning from the Järva Field back home in Stockholm and the demonstration in Geneva. The alienation, the suspicion, and, a burning passion for nation-building.
“We are the vulnerable ones, why is everyone attacking us? Look at Abraham Lincoln—he jailed thousands of people—but is still a hero. You have to put yourself in the president’s shoes. What would you have done when Ethiopia attacked? Given up?”
I respond something diplomatic along the lines that it surely isn’t easy to be a president.
That’s when the phone goes off. Johan picks it up after the first ring. We have been granted an interview with the Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel.
The journey through Asmara goes fast. The cafés lining the streets are full of people and palms stand tall in straight lines along the wide boulevards. All traffic signals are turned off, but the streets are very clean. It looks like few other African capital cities. Everywhere: a hard-to-explain feeling of normalcy.
“Gasoline is expensive, 45 naqfa (3.8 Euro) per liter, but the currency reform [of 2015] has brought down the prices of tomatoes and staple foods,” the driver says.
According to him, the black currency market has vanished after the reform and for all foreigners who travel with dollars the prices have gotten three times as high.
Some of the buildings swishing by I recognize as the futuristic-styled gas station Fiat Tagliero, the brutal art deco-styled movie theater Roma, and the enormous Catholic Cathedral of Asmara, which towers over the heart of the city. The Italian influence carried over from colonial days is evident. But it has been a long time since anyone called Asmara Africa’s “Little Rome.”
When the car stops in an intersection, I look around. I see facades with clocks that have stopped, the paint is chipping and the shutters are hanging askew.
”Frozen in time,” I write in my notebook. It’s a cliché that most people who visit Asmara end up using. Still, it feels true.
A few minutes later, the driver stops outside of the Ministry of Information building. It’s located on a cliff, symbolically hovering over the city. I step outside and see that the security post is empty. There’s a mattress inside of it and it looks like someone has slept on it recently. In front of the security building an older man sits on a broken white plastic chair. Next to him are a crutch and a Kalashnikov. It’s the first weapon we see in Eritrea.
He smiles and points us toward one of the bigger buildings on the property and we walk inside without showing ID, or telling him our errand. On the glass door at the entrance is a note that reads: “I am a proud Eritrean” and inside the entrance a banner for the state-owned station ERI-TVI hangs with the motto: “Serving the Truth.” One floor up, we find Eritrea’s Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel, seemingly completely without security.
The English translation of our book, “438 Days” lays on his wooden and glass desk.
“So what do you want to do in Eritrea?” he asks, opening his arms and sinking down into the sofa.
I explain that most of them who are allowed entry can only report about how people are drinking espressos and eating pastries at cafés, all the while there are also reports of people fleeing the country. If they hope to get other views of Eritrea, they have to allow us to travel around in the country. Freely.
I pull out my map and say that we’d love to visit their Ethiopian border in order to write about the border conflict, that we want to go to the sea, interview the President, meet Dawit Isaak, and visit the military school, Sawa.
It feels like a wish list to Santa Clause.
The minister writes down our wishes on a note and tells us to go over the details with his staff. To speak with military personnel, however, is not going to happen. Visiting Dawit Isaak isn’t, either. And visiting a military school is also out of the question. But the border and the sea, we are free to visit.
“How do we get there?” we wonder.
“How about renting a car? This is a free country,” Yemane Gebremeskel says. “You can speak to whomever you want. You can watch the Ethiopian TV and you can surf freely on the Internet. We don’t exercise censorship on anyone. We don’t block web sites, because the people have a right to information and we are not afraid to give it to them.”
He is a new type of Eritrean politician.
Well aware that his country has a poor reputation around the world, he’s become an online detective, keeping track of all that goes viral about Eritrea.
Recently he struck down a news fib spreading like wildfire about Eritreans being forced to take two wives. And to his 3,698 Twitter followers, he commented on BBC’s newscast about two fatal shootings in Asmara, explaining that it was two draftees who “fell off a truck.”
As in all conversations with ministers, also this starts with the war.
Yemane Gebremeskel speaks of the torch that will be carried around the country in 2016 and during the 25th anniversary year of independence, an act to honor the memory of the 60,000 people who died for it.
“In the second war, 1998 to 2000, another 20,000 soldiers died. If you add in the civilian losses, we are up in the 100 thousands,” he says in a grave voice.
He compares it with the 9-11 attacks on the United States and how that affected a country of about 300 million citizens and its foreign policy.
“I don’t really want to compare in numbers, every life is important, but what kind of effect does the kinds of losses we’ve had have on a country with 3 million people?
Yemane Gebremeskel is convinced that things would have been very different for his country, if another war hadn’t hit them. He was himself one of the negotiators during the “border conflict” and to him it’s still an open aggression, and a bleeding wound, and “everything but a border conflict.”
“The war with Ethiopia was unnecessary, it was fueled by other issues, but presented as a border conflict.”
Commenting on the fact that Ethiopia still occupies parts of Eritrea, he blames the rest of the world for not taking responsibility.
“We can’t have double-edge swords in world politics. International law isn’t something you can choose to follow or not,” the Minister of Information says.
He speaks faster and faster and steers the conversation toward the fact that the Eritrean military draft is a direct consequence of the “Ethiopian war drums,” which is also a reason why the young leave the country.
“The mandatory military service is of course a ‘push-factor.” If you are young in Eritrea today, you have to serve for a long time in one place without being able to travel freely, so obviously that’s not an attractive thing. Even if they are patriots and even if they love their country, some of them will not shoulder the honorable responsibility,” Yemane Gebremeskel says.
I am surprised. It is the first time I hear a minister admit the mandatory military service as a reason for why people are fleeing Eritrea. But despite this realization, he’s deeply critical of Swedish asylum policy, which he thinks makes the situation worse and makes more people flee.
“You can’t just automatically give refugee status to anybody-anybody. Political asylum should be given to those who need protection and are persecuted,” he says.
“Yes, but deserting from the Army is a crime, a crime that will send you to prison, and then you’re eligible for asylum if you come to Sweden.”
“Yes, deserting from the army is a crime, but that may result in some form of rehabilitation for a couple of months if you are arrested, it’s not particularly harsh. We can’t crack down hard on it, since we know that the conditions in the Army aren’t easy,” the Minister of Information says.
According to Yemane Gebremeskel, the “refugee issue” isn’t his responsibility, but the media image interests him and he is of the opinion that asylum is there to undermine Eritrea’s military and lure away the cream of the country’s youth. He also refers to a statement by an Austrian minister, who claims that 40 percent of those who claim to be Eritreans are really Somalis and Ethiopians.
“It is the European ‘red-carpet policy’ that has caused this refugee wave. In Sudan, there are 2 million refugees, when they start migrating this summer, how many of them do you believe will say they are from Eritrea?”
I avoid the numbers game and switch topics and ask him if it isn’t difficult to be a Minister of Information in a nation without Freedom of the Press.
“It is true that we don’t have any privately-owned press. But there are newspapers and even if they are government run, people do express their opinions in media without fear of repercussion,” he says.
When I tell him that I’ve read the newspaper “Profile” which publishes in English and I’ve not found one single critical article, he smiles.
“Can the reporters at that publication challenge the reforms of our regime? Theoretically yes. It is not illegal by law, but in practicality it doesn’t happen. It’s because our journalists feel that they don’t want to add more fuel to the smear campaign.”
“But isn’t it the role of journalism to be a watchdog that keeps an eye on power structures?”
“That’s how it’s supposed to work, on paper, but is that how it’s done in reality? I have my doubts, I have my doubts,” the Minister of Information says, pondering.
It’s a big difference interviewing an Eritrean politician at a hotel in Stockholm compared to here in Asmara. I can feel how the sharpness of my questions are slipping. How I am holding back, in hopes of getting an interview with the President himself.
I start a long explanation about the big delegation from Eritrea that came to our murdered prime minister, Olof Palme’s funeral in 1986. About the Swedish missionaries and about the times long ago when the relations between our countries were good. And while I’m talking, I think that I am starting to sound more like a politician than a journalist. It’s a little bit like when you have two great friends whom you think should become a couple and you tell them that the other person said something really great about them, and vice versa. I’m not feeling too hot about it.
“Swedish politicians constantly highlight the issue about a certain journalist who’s been involved in a number of domestic political entanglements and they have tried to tie all bilateral collaborations and contacts to this one particular issue,” Yemane Gebremeskel says in response to the loaded question about the relations between our countries.
The fact that “everything” involves Dawit Isaak makes Sweden’s role and intentions “questionable,” according to him. This while he also notes that even if Eritrea and Sweden have different opinions, he’s hoping for closer relations.
“People are allowed to have differing opinions, a relationship is based on more than one thing. The big problem with our relationship with Sweden is America’s strong position in the region and that Sweden has not wanted to approach the Eritrean position because that would mean that they have to go against the Americans.”
“And Sweden is not prepared to do that?”
“In theory, Sweden backs the border commission’s conclusion that Ethiopia is occupying parts of Eritrean territory, but they don’t do anything to help implement these conclusions since Sweden’s ties to Ethiopia are so strong. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk,” the Minister of Information says.
The border, always the border.
I look down into my green notebook, even though I already know what my next question is.
“You are celebrating 25 years as an independent nation. During 15 of these 25 years, Dawit Isaak has been imprisoned. Isn’t it possible to think that whatever it may be you are accusing him of, it’s about time for a pardon?
The Minister of Information tries to interrupt me several times, while I’m formulating the question.
“These are complex questions way beyond my mandate. I can’t begin answering questions that are outside of the frames of this interview,” he says.
“So you don’t have any news about his case?”
“I do not want to comment things that weren’t part of the conditions for this interview.”
“Is it possible to meet him?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Who can answer questions about him?”
“This particular issue has been handled in a specific way and you can’t just come here and talk about one individual as if it was an isolated question. I don’t want to answer any more questions about his case, or discuss it whatsoever,” says Yemane Gebremeskel, looking down.
Outspokenness has reached its limit and now I know exactly where the limit regarding national security is drawn. We leave the Ministry of Information with a certificate that allows us to travel outside the capital city. We are now allowed to photograph and interview and we have a piece of paper stating that we have the right to buy a local SIM-card for our phone. When we step out into the fresh air, all tension and discomfort I felt when we landed in Eritrea is gone.
We have now tested the waters and tread carefully into a new reality. Slowly but surely we are lulled into a different type of normalcy. We fumble for something solid to grab onto, but every doorknob we get our hands on leads us to another door and another door. Even if we aren’t getting the answers we are hoping for, none of the doors are closed and this is a very good sign. Doing solid journalistic work suddenly feels possible.
Outside the Ministry of Information, the old man still sits on his plastic chair. He smiles and waves with his crutch in the air. His Kalashnikov has slipped down on the ground. I put a hand over my heart.
The sun is still high in the sky. It feels like one of those stories where you’ll be lucky if you manage to get one piece of the puzzle per day. The question for us is how many pieces this puzzle consists of. And, what is its motif?
High above the valley—above the fog underneath the clouds—it’s like Eritrea’s intense history has taken a deep breath and holds it in. Not all slogans of the Eritrean Tourist Ministry hold up, but that a trip from Asmara to the port city, Massawa, is a journey of “two hours and three seasons” turns out to be true.
The road is snaking from the top of the mountains, clearing an elevation of 2,500 meters down to the sea. It’s a cinematic landscape. The thermometer on the dashboard of the car quickly increases from +25 degrees Celsius to 35. The light shifts to steel blue and after another hour of driving, all we see is a thick white wall of fog. It feels like being somewhere in the mountain slopes of the Himalayas and the altitude change makes my ears pop. When the fog lifts, an explosion of chlorophyll green hits us. I immediately understand the foreign correspondents who fell in love with Eritrea during the war. This nature and guerilla soldiers reading philosophy and discussing Italian architecture—it must have been irresistible.
We stop and buy a watermelon. The salesman swears it weighs exactly 1.3 kilos and is “sweeter than sugar.” Our driver doesn’t bother to demand it being weighed, and explains that it’s the unique trust that keeps the country together.
“If it’s not sweet you can come back here and smash it to the ground in front of me, and I’ll give you your money back,” the salesman insists.
We keep on driving East toward The Red Sea. We booked the rental car with a driver ourselves, and we see no roadblocks or checkpoints. The asphalt is new and smooth. This road was built by the Italians during the colonial era, and since then has been an important connection between Asmara and The Red Sea. The parallel railroad, built in the late 1800s, is an impressive display of engineering. Along the road we sporadically see soldiers carrying rocks or planting trees. I remember the minister’s words about how most soldiers doing their military service were not stuck in the trenches, and it seems to be true.
During the two-hour drive we don’t meet one single car. Maybe it’s because of the high gasoline prices, maybe it’s the UN sanctions put on Eritrea for allegedly supporting Al-Shabaab and Asmara’s dispute with Djibouti. But every now and then we see one of the yellow trucks on the road below us carrying copper from the Bisha Mine, moving like ants with their valuable cargo to the coast. We are traveling along Eritrea’s financial artery.
Behind us, the mountains are towering like a fort, and the heat hits me full force. This is one of the warmest cities in the world with a high humidity and an average temp of +30 Celsius. Suddenly my nostrils recognize the familiar smell of seaweed and saltwater.
A dark gray container filled with copper is swaying silently in the air as it’s lifted by an enormous crane up in the air,and loaded onto “African Swan,” a cargo freighter destined for China. It’s surprisingly silent, almost spooky. As goods worth millions fill the bulk of the carrier, the only sound is that of a forklift.
On top of a tall wooden structure, way out on the pier, the port superintendent stands, keeping an eye on the work.
“We have expanded enormously the past few years, thanks to the copper mine. We have new cranes, new trucks and now we’re operating on double-shifts in order to manage the volume,” he says passionately.
He doesn’t want to be interviewed.
“The instructions from my superiors is to only give you factual information,” he says, but the pride over his port and the work they are doing is so big that he agrees to letting me take notes.
“All gasoline, imported food and electronics in Eritrea have passed through this port. Out in the water-way, three more container vessels are waiting to come in,” he explains.
To say that the port in Massawa is at a strategic location would be an understatement. Placed in the middle of Eritrea’s 1,000 kilometer long coastline, the port is a place for projection of dreams for the nation, kind of like a Singapore in Africa. This is the entrance to Eritrea’s isolation.
“The development is going even faster now that investors are beginning to notice Eritrea,” the port superintendent says, adding that he’s hoping for a bigger yard, where there’s room for more containers and fixed cranes.
The port area looks like one large Lego project with yellow, red and blue containers moving silently over the pier and through the eye of the needle.
Even if the copper prices are lower today than a few years back when the Chinese industry was spinning at a top rate, business is still good for Eritrea.
“The only limitation we have is that we have to use mobile cranes, or the ones on the vessels at loading and unloading. With fixed cranes we’d be more competitive,” says the port superintendent, stepping aside as a forklift branded “Kalmar” comes swishing by.
“Part of this port is specially constructed for the unloading of gasoline and diesel, and another part has been expanded and fitted as a container terminal,” he says. “We’ve had Belgians from the port of Antwerp here training us, but know we know how to run everything ourselves, so we’ve sent them on vacation. We like to partner up with foreign expertise. They educate us and then leave so we can run our own port,” he says. He is also the only person in Eritrea whom I hear saying that he’s gotten a raise recently.
Down by the water, the waves are crashing in over the miles upon miles of long sandy beach visible from the pier. While the import and export business is enjoying an upswing, the beach chairs remain empty. This weekend local tourists will come to the beach resort, they say, but right now nobody is there.
Outside of the Eritrean archipelago lays an additional 300 nearly untouched islands with long, sandy beaches.
Grand Dahlak, the hotel at the tourist resort in the city of Massawa, seems deserted. The enormous pool is like glass; nobody is swimming.
In anticipation of potential tourists, the owner keeps all the rooms spotless and the floors polished; he’s ready for the time that may come.
It would be easy to call Massawa a ghost town, but also a little unfair. Traces of war are still visible on the facades in the city. After the Ethiopians were chased out of the city, they responded by bombing Massawa relentlessly for six whole days in February of 1990. Almost all buildings were destroyed or damaged.
One of those buildings that has been restored is home to The Northern Red Sea Museum. It was founded in 2000 to mark the city’s liberation. In front of the museum are captured Ethiopian military boats, and Eritrean flags flapping in the wind at every light post, while inside, the first visible object is a 14-meter-long whale. Photography is prohibited.
“Many museums keep replicas of artifacts, that’s why it’s not allowed to photograph here,” our guide explains.
I jot down the number of native Etriean turtles, fish and corals. In glass jars, mollusks rest half-dissolved in alcohol. The museum displays a mix of ethnographic, military memorabilia and natural history.
The guide shows us emperor Haile Selassie’s bed that stood in his summer palace and tells us that the Italians occupied Massawa by 1885 and that it was the colonial capital of Eritrea in 1900. Then the Italians moved it to Asmara, because the climate there was more comfortable.
We see grim-faced Askari, Eritreans who fought for fascist leader Benito Mussolini during World War II. In 1941, the British drove the Italians out and took over the administration of Eritrea.
“According to the British, we have two things: our love of freedom and our love for education. The Italians just saw us as soldiers or farmers,” the guide explains.
After World War II, many hoped for Eritrea’s independence, but the UN decided that the country should be a part of a federation with Ethiopia.
Portraits on the museum walls show the leaders of the resistance movement that began in 1958. About a year later, the armed struggle for independence began. The guide takes us into the next area of the museum, which, according to posters, shows the “bitterness of the struggle, the creativity of the freedom fighters and the malice of the enemy.”
In one photo the president’s advisor, Yememe Gebreab, interviews a Russian prisoner of war. The photo doesn’t display a year “due to national security” but I recognize the advisor.
I’ve heard about these photos before I arrived in Eritrea. The Eritrean war photographer, Seyoum Tsehaye, who was arrested at the same time as Dawit Isaak and has also been in prison for 15 years, supposedly took them. In a glass cabinet next to the black and white photos are the world famous plastic sandals the Eritrean Army wore, where the soles were put on backwards to confuse pursuers.
Other displays show how the camels carried water to the soldiers, homemade gasmasks and short-shorts made of burlap. The explanation behind the short shorts of the Eritrean Army was that the tailor tried to get as many pairs made with what material he had. In another room, the Battle of Afabet and the tanks are on display.
“The revenge by the Ethiopian Army after the loss was horrific, they charged into a village and massacred everyone,” the guide says.
On the floor are gypsum mannequins of an Ethiopian soldier who has killed a child and stands with his foot on its back, ready to shoot the mother. Thirty years and 100,000 dead people later, the war ends and independence is a fact.
It seems as if the time is frozen in 1991. The clocks have stopped, the display cases are locked and the texts are laminated. The state of war and state of emergency becomes eternal. The Ethiopian soldier’s foot on the child’s back is cast solid.
But then I see an artifact from March 7, 2007. On a wall is a mounted seagull that was captured on The Red Sea. On the seagull’s left leg they found a ring from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. After a flight of 5,435 kilometers the seagull was captured, and the museum guide tells us that it was immediately dissected to make sure it didn’t have the bird flu. It didn’t.
He wears a suit, leather shoes and a white shirt. His handshake is firm and he invites me to sit down.
“You have to understand what type of nation Eritrea is. We are children of war, we have a mentality rooted in war based on survival,” says Eritrea’s former Minister of Defense,” Sebhat Efrem, making himself comfortable in his chair.
His office is spacious and filled with maps, books, photographs, souvenirs from a life in the trenches and the inner circle of national politics. He is now Eritrea’s Minister of Energy and Mines.
The sofas are worn and unpretentious. And again, to enter his office, there are no metal detectors or guards. We are back in Asmara. Outside, the weaverbirds are singing.
“If you look at buildings and the infrastructure, you could say we’re stuck in time. In the 1930s we were like South Africa, now the difference is enormous. What happened to us?” he asks rhetorically, and puts down his coffee cup on the table before answering his own question.
“War with Ethiopia, war with Sudan, war with Djibouti, and war with Ethiopia again,” he says and knocks with his knuckle on the table.
In Eritrea, Sebhat Efrem is known to be a tough rhetorician. This is how he summarized his philosophy after the war: “If there is a crack in the boat it will sink. Eritrea is like a boat and the enemies’ main goal is to create a crack and we must ensure that the Eritrean boat will not crack.”
According to him it’s the nations “soft values” that will shape Eritrea’s future.
“National security is comprised of several things. Weaponry is one thing, but a country’s psychosocial aspects, the soft values, is where things really are decided and if you fail with this, you fail with everything.”
As a Minister of Defense it was his responsibility to disarm the army after independence.
The demobilization began in 1994 and the nowadays infamous compulsory military service was instituted to “build dams and roads.”
Four years later, Sebhat Efrem had his hands full with a new war.
In his mind, the cause of the war didn’t have anything to do with a border dispute or even the city Badme, but about ”Ethiopian domestic policy.”
“Our country is small and completely lacks strategic depth, we had no other choice but to stay and fight. There was nowhere to retreat,” he says.
During the three attacks by Ethiopia, the only order he could give was for them to buckle down and fight to the last man. He draws parallels to Sparta and Battle of Thermopylae. He describes Ethiopia’s actions during the war as ”madness.”
“Einstein’s definition of madness is to repeat the same mistake over and over and that’s exactly what Ethiopia did.”
The former Minister of Defense describes the neighboring country’s regime as petrified of losing power, constantly paranoid.
The current situation with a “no-war-no-peace” scenario is, according to Sebhat Efrem, a hard nut to crack, one that only time can resolve.
“What happened was a tragedy, and still, nobody has learned anything. In the situation we are now, time is the best teacher both for our country and Ethiopia, but also for the international community,” he says and pours himself more coffee.
I’ve requested a meeting with Sebhat Efrem to talk about Ethiopia and what he thinks of the risk of another war. First he wants to know if I’ve been in Fisksätra, a small town on the outskirts of Stockholm. I nod.
“I have a sister who lives there,” he says, excuses himself and walks over to his desk to grab his laptop.
He tells me about the Swedish missionaries who laid the foundation for the educational system in Eritrea, but says it’s been a long time since he had any visitors from Sweden.
“I wish more Swedes were interested in Eritrea so we could begin new partnerships,” he says, sitting down again.
I sit down next to him and wait the moment it takes for his old laptop to start up. The screen turns blue and he clicks on a PowerPoint presentation with the name “National Security Strategy.”
“On paper Ethiopia is a major power, supported by the legend of an empire, but there’s been a paradigm shift in the country, something that the outside world has not noticed,” the former Minister of Defense says, and clicks up more slides of the presentation while explaining how the country is overconfident in its military force.
I move closer to the former minister to be able to see the screen better, while he describes a paranoia in Ethiopia that he believes will lead to a collapse of the state.
“A minority is trying to rule a majority and to succeed, they chose war. That’s their only chance to keep the nation together and divert attention from the real problems.”
Sebhat Efrem’s analysis also leads him to believe that there’s a big risk of future wars, and that he’s troubled by what he hears from the other side of the border.
“The Ethiopian state is tearing at the seams and we know how a state like that collapses; In the hands of those where the final decision rests, isn’t the rebellious strength but the weakness of those in power. Insurgents used to be a figment of imagination they frightened the citizens with, but now they are a reality. They have created a Frankenstein’s monster.”
I take notes and ask how he can be so sure about this looming collapse.
“Their ethno political culture is a time bomb, which will explode and then Ethiopia will vanish in its wake. Their entire huge army will fall apart without us having to fire a single gun,” he says confidentially.
He says that during the last war he already warned the Ethiopian regime about the risks of building a state where a minority of six percent, those from the Tigray region, would hold all the power positions . Eritrea chose a different path and disbanded the ethnically divided units already before their independence. He shows me a slide over Ethiopia with red arrows pointing away from the Amhara-, Afar-, Ogaden- and Oromo regions, and toward the capitol city.
“This is the map of the state collapse, how armed rebel groups are sweeping in toward the epicenter from all geographic directions. It will be a catastrophe of biblical proportions.”
The most pressing issue is the protests by the Oromo people. During this year alone, Ethiopian security forces have shot 120 civilian protesters to death.
“They are looking for revenge because they’ve been treated like secondary citizens for too long. They make up a majority of the population and is a power that could eradicate everything,” Sebhat Efrem says.
Unless the constitution is changed, he believes the state apparatus will lose its legitimacy within a few years.
“The army consists to 60 percent of people from the Oromo region, so when the politicians play the ethnicity card, it’ll be like pouring gasoline on the fire.”
When I ask the former Minister of Defense to show me some facts to support his doomsday scenario, he says it’s “hard to quantify the decline.”
“But you can already now anticipate the massive flow of refugees, epidemics, lawlessness and how the Ethiopian Security Service increasingly becomes a state within a state?”
He presents his theories, not with malice but with sadness. Ethiopia faces a choice, he says. The violence will either continue to escalate, turn into ethnic cleansing and a state collapse, or, if they change their constitution and retreat from Badme, there is a chance they can avoid disaster.
“Ethiopia is pressed up against the wall, and their options are running low. If they don’t retreat, their regime will collapse under its own power.”
His summary of Ethiopia is “a poor nation that has never won a war.” But despite his description of a galloping crisis, the former Minister of Defense thinks the process will be slow.
“Ethiopia is like a dinosaur, you won’t kill it quickly. It will take time. But they are afraid, wounded and surrounded now.”
In order to save Ethiopia, Sebhat Efrem believes nations like Sweden can play a role. But it demands quick action.
“The international community has ignored the warning signs, because they’ve had a romance with the country. But politics needs to be established in reality, not emotions,” he says, closes his laptop and calls for more coffee.
“What will you do to make sure Eritrea doesn’t walk down the same path?”
To that question is only one answer, he says—develop the Eritrean culture.
“Some politicians want to exaggerate their roles. Take the Cold War, for example, it ended by itself. Suddenly the people destroyed the Berlin Wall. Nobody saw it coming. Politics is full of surprises and I don’t think we should underestimate the spontaneity of human kind,” he says.
He also believes that right now, Eritrea’s “soft powers” are strong.
“Culturally and psycho-socially we are in great shape, especially in comparison with our neighbors, and if we only have the moral strength, the development will come by itself.”
Another advantage for Eritrea is time, he says.
“The road to economic growth and stability is more of a steady trickle, than a quick economic miracle. The best teacher is time.”
The fact that Eritrea is celebrating 25 years of independence, he says, is mostly a numbers game.
“That’s like counting the feathers of a flying bird. What does that say about anything more than that time has passed?” he asks.
But if he was to give one example of time as a good teacher, it is that the new generation is inheriting a nation in relative peace.
“The children of this country don’t follow in the footsteps of their fathers. The daughter of a farmer can become an engineer.”
The only worrisome detail, says the former Minister of Defense, is that potential investors can be scared off by all the “noise.”
In a month or two, the UN Commission of Inquiry will present its findings about whether Eritrea is guilty of human rights crimes or not.
On the walls of the former Minister of Defense/current Minister of Energy and Mines hangs a photograph of the circumscribed copper mine, Bisha. A huge open-cast mine, located 150 kilometers west of Asmara and on the border to Sudan, which so far has replenished the Eritrean Treasury with $800 million. On the question of whether he’s read Amnesty International’s report, accusing the Bisha-mine’s management of slave labor, he nods.
“I read all of Amnesty’s reports, all of us in government do. But what do you do with a report like that if you’ve thrown blood and fire? If your country is threatened by war? I wish we didn’t have to have mandatory military service. If they would have tried to come here in person, they would have seen that we are doing great.”
In a Canadian lawsuit, lawyers demand that the mine be closed because “all cooperation with the Eritrean government supports the abuse.” Several witnesses in the report describe a torture method called “the helicopter” where the victim is undressed and has their arms and legs hogtied on their back.
Mining and Energy Minister Sebhat Efrem would rather highlight the unique aspects of the Bisha mine’s operation.
“In many African nations we’ve seen how all that’s left after a few years of foreign mining is a contaminated hole in the ground. We wanted to see if it could be done a different way. We were curious if it would work to collaborate with a foreign mining in extracting minerals.”
The result was an Eritrean-Canadian project where the goal was for the foreign mineworkers to educate the Eritreans, so that eventually, the Canadians would no longer be needed. The Mining Minister also wants to downplay the enormous expectations what income a single mine could yield.
“So far we only have one mine. The money from it will not go far. Today we don’t pay the soldiers or the veterans well.”
The plan is, now that they have experiences from the Bisha mine, to invite more mining companies, as well as open up the market for oil, natural gas and tourism.
“Wars are ravaging around us, but here, in the eye of the storm, is where the stability and possibilities exist. We are open for investments, but we have to keep the control of our cultural identity. If we lose that, we have no use for the new income,” he says.
The sun slowly sets outside Sebhat Efrem’s office.
If Eritrea’s economy continues to grow, the former Minister of Defense has one single wish.
“The money would immediately be invested in our national healthcare.
The Children’s Hospital
Just before midnight, pediatrician Samson Abay is woken up by his colleagues at the Mendefera Referral Hospital. He half walks, half runs the short distance between the house he rents and the ward for premature babies.
The oxygen saturation alarm has gone off in one of the incubators and he quickly washes his hands, puts on a pair of gloves and begins to correct the oxygen line that goes into the baby’s nose.
After a few minutes, the level is almost back at 100 percent again, and everyone around him can relax. Samson Abay gives instructions to the night shift personnel and walks with tired steps back to his house. In four hours, he needs to be up again.
When I meet Samson Abay, he’s had a few hours of sleep. The sun is high in the sky and it’s warm in the hospital rooms. In the background heart rate monitors are beeping.
Most reports from Eritrea are about refugees, repression and the lack of free press.
There are other stories also, stories that rarely make it outside of the small nation’s borders.
In the waiting room families are waiting to visit a patient in all the different departments of the hospital. Around them is a lush courtyard with fruit trees that are harvested by personnel and patients.
“Most of those who seek medical attention come in with different infections in the respiratory tract, pneumonia, and some with dental problems. But we are starting to get cases of high blood pressure, hypertension and diabetes, so-called Western diseases,” says Samson Abay.
For a long time, Eritrea was the country with the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Today, that’s been reduced by 75 percent. The mortality rate for children under five years old has decreased by two-thirds and even the malaria cases have gone down, dramatically.
“Today 93 percent of all pregnant women in the region come to the hospital for a check up, but about half of them still choose to deliver their babies at home,” Samson Abay says.
I thought for a while before I said yes to the invitation of a tour of the hospital. On one hand, this is exactly the type of story that the government wants written. On the other hand, a visit is necessary in order to understand what the regime-friendlies are defending.
“We have managed to reduce infant mortality, but the prenatal-mortality remains the same. It’s the same today as it was 25 years ago,” Samson Abay continues, and I notice that he walks with a slight limp.
When he was four years old he fell down a staircase and the doctor who treated him kept him in a cast so long that the muscles in his legs were paralyzed.
He opens the doors to the pediatric ward, where there are about 10 empty beds in a row.
“Five years ago this room was filled with babies, but after the new way we organize our work now, we catch people out in the villages in an earlier stage,” he says.
Even if the infant mortality is going down, it’s a big challenge to save the premature babies born out in the villages. This hospital covers a region with 800,000 people and 2,300 children are born here every year.
“It’s in the villages where we need to put in more resources. To get these rates down, we need to be out in the villages where they are born, and assist. Once they come to the hospital, it can be too late,” Samson Abay says.
To spread the knowledge of how to rescue premature babies, he has written an educational textbook.
”The basics are hygiene, food, warmth, and breastfeeding. In educating on these issues, we can save a majority of babies who aren’t in need of high tech care”.
The explanation for the improved statistics is that they have managed to do a lot with the resources on hand.
“We cannot afford to spend millions on technology, so we are trying to work with informative care. A majority of people dying in Eritrea, do not die from cancer or car accidents, they die from simple and treatable diseases. That’s best solved by developing our society. Ensuring the access of clean water and building schools,” Samson Abay says.
In the nearby villages, he educates volunteers who can handle diarrhea, pneumonia and dehydration. The last case of malaria was discovered three years ago.
“We have worked with these ‘killer diseases.’”
At the same time, he is also up against prejudice for modern medicine.
“In parts of Eritrea people believe that it’s the ‘evil eye’ that has fallen upon sick children. And some people believe they have to cut off the uvula in children who vomit a lot”.
Sometimes the hospital receives children who have had their teeth pulled because relatives believed that’s what caused the diarrhea.
“But it gets more and more rare as awareness increases. And here, women’s organizations play a larger role than that of the hospital,” he says.
Samson Abay studied medicine in Ethiopia when the war broke out in 1998. Shortly thereafter he, just like 70,000 other Eritreans, received an order that he was to be deported back to his home country. Colleagues of his were literally pulled away in the middle of ongoing surgeries and sent to the border, in busload after busload.
“I hid so I could finish my education, my small frame made people think I was younger than I was and that was my advantage,” he says.
A lesson in math is being taught in a classroom at the hospital area. In addition to care, those who are hospitalized longer also get education during their time there.
“When I came here I knew nothing about nothing, but now I’ve learned how to write and do math. I have my own cellphone and can call whomever I want,” says 28-year-old Fatima, who is being treated for a fistula.
Suddenly I notice that Johan stopped taking photos.
“Why are you not taking pictures?” I ask.
“We can’t include a scene like this? It’s straight propaganda!” Johan says.
“There’s a story here, how it will fit into the reportage, we’ll see,” I say.
After the tour of the hospital’s different wards, we sit down under the comfortable shade of a tree at the hospital cafeteria.
Sweet tea is carried up to us and Samson Abay takes out his iPad to show pictures of children he has treated. When a team from BBC, recently visited Eritrea, he was the one showing them around at the hospital.
“After the tour the reporter walked around a corner and whispered into the camera that everything felt ‘choreographed’.”
He finds the video clip on his iPad and plays it for us.
“I am very disappointed, it was my patients she met,” he says and shakes his head and turns off the clip. “My patients are real and this hospital is real.”
His distrust of foreign journalists looms large.
“When I meet a mother and her child that I’ve cared for, and they know that I’ve made a difference, then BBC can say whatever they want about my work here,” he says and puts down his tea cup.
Before he goes back to his hospital ward, he looks through his iPad again.
“I work for my country, not for the money,” he says. “If it was about money, I would have moved abroad, why doesn’t the BBC understand that?”
Samson Abay explains that he has decided to live at the hospital compound in order to check in on the children he’s treating once at 8 pm, then at 10 pm and one last time before he goes to bed at midnight.
“We are a poor nation, who have been at war for decades but have to do what we can with the resources we have. Good luck in your hunt for the truth,” Samson Abay says to me as we part.