Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery

Edward Denison
20 December 2006

Edward Denison, author of "Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City", reports on the architecture and politics of a nation on its knees.

"London good. Asmara bad." In four terse words, Semret had summed up the distilled histories of two disparate capital cities in unwittingly Orwellian tones. Few people have heard of Asmara. Indeed many have not heard of the country of which it is the capital city ­- Eritrea. The journey from good to bad was a necessary one for Semret and me. She was leaving the city where she longed to live by returning to her family, while I was leaving my family by returning to the city I long to love. Our respective journeys seemed to sum up aptly the fortunes of 21st-century haves and have-nots.

For a relatively anonymous and small capital city (population circa 400,000), Semret's home of Asmara has received considerable attention in the world's press in recent years. Much of this has focused on its remarkable architecture and serene character - both qualities that set Asmara apart from most African cities, and indeed most cities in the world. The purpose of my holiday was to accompany some architecture-enthusiast friends to a city where I had worked for several years to promote and preserve the architectural heritage.

Edward Denison is a heritage consultant, writer and photographer. He has worked in Eritrea since 2001. His books include Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City (Merrell, 2003/2007) and Building Shanghai – The Story of China's Gateway (Wiley, 2006/2007), and Modernism in China (Wiley, 2008). An architectural exhibition based on his Asmara book is travelling around Europe until 2008. He is also the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Eritrea, which he is updating for publication in 2007

Also by Edward Denison in openDemocracy:

"Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war"
(18 January 2006)

"Restoring history in China"
(2 February 2006)

Asmara: behind the facade

Asmara has an intriguing history. Once an ancient Eritrean village 2,500 meters above sea level, much of it was designed and constructed during the period of Italian colonialism (1889-1941), when it was said to be Africa's most modern city. Asmara was also the first capital city to be liberated by the Allies in the second world war, on 1 April 1941. Queen Elizabeth II even visited in 1965, by the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie, and had a main street named after her to mark the event.

From 1943-77, Asmara was host to what became one of America's most sophisticated listening stations of the cold war - Kagnew Station. In 1991, Asmara (and, by extension, Eritrea) was liberated by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) after a thirty-year conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia. Today, Asmara is the capital of Africa's youngest nation, governed by the civilian incarnation of the EPLF, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

In spite of such a rich history, the attention Asmara receives today hinges on the western curiosity for nostalgia. The facade of the city's physical appearance bears much of this responsibility. Asmara is often cited as being the art-deco capital of the world, despite the almost complete absence of this generic style. It is revered for its urbane cappuccino culture, despite the region being the birthplace of coffee. Lingering Italian traits are persistently extolled, despite being the legacy of a colonial (and later fascist) venture that systematically degraded and subjugated the Eritrean people. This treatment by the world's news media tends to reinforce a western-centric view of the world that succeeds in belittling those attributes that are inconsistent with this view and promoting only those that are familiar.

While the stereotypical view of Asmara being a quasi-European city frozen in time with a splash of the exotic is lazily leaned upon, a much more consequential issue is repeatedly overlooked. Behind the thin veneer of art deco, cappuccino froth and Italianate chic, a nation is dying.

A shattered dream

Observing the death of a nation is an agonising spectacle - slow, painful and tormenting. Fifteen years since independence, Eritrea is among the most impoverished countries on earth. The recent and spectacular decline of Eritrea's economy has occurred in almost direct proportion to the rise of state control.

Eritreans cite many reasons for their country's sorry condition, but what seems to have changed in recent years is the unanimity in who is deemed responsible. Everyone blames the government, or, more accurately, the PFDJ, Eritrea's only permitted political party. Today, the decision-makers in Eritrea consist of a close-knit and small group of former fighters, headed by the president and former guerrilla leader, Isaias Afewerki.

The increasing pressure on those responsible for the last fifteen years is arguably telling, as the president himself has now relocated to the deserted coastal port of Massawa, away from the dissatisfied intelligentsia and once prosperous business community in Asmara. The reality of life in Eritrea since 1991, most Eritreans keep reminding me, hovers grimly between the English author George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. As power appears to be in transition, Eritreans are more vocal in their demands that the architects of post-independence Eritrea be brought to justice.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to describe, even to remember, the euphoria that followed Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia, then under the control of the communist Derg regime headed by the notorious Mengistu Haile Mariam, who now resides in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Today, the endemic fear that dictates the lives of Eritreans like a macabre anaesthesia is the accumulation of failed policies designed, one has to assume, to improve the lives of ordinary Eritreans. No one sets out to be a dictator, but most who succeed share the desire to pursue and retain power. Now, everyone I meet states, with desolate acquiescence, that even the Derg was better than this.

Eritrea's dreams have been shattered. In today's Eritrea, all men between the ages of 18 and 45 and all women between 18 and 27 are obliged to do national service on a wage equivalent to £17 per month, with very few exceptions. There is no ratified constitution. All school pupils have to complete their final year in a former military camp, Sawa, in which torture has been well documented.

There is no university; it was closed in September 2006. In "the continent's largest prison for journalists" (in the words of Reporters Without Borders), there is no independent news media; it was closed in 2001. The fear of arrest is endemic. The country's prisons heave with individuals incarcerated without trial for their religious or political beliefs, or for trying to do business in a private sector in which access to foreign currency is virtually prohibited.

Eritrea's economy, which relies on remittances from its diaspora community of over one million, is on its knees. Even Coca-Cola has pulled the plug on its once lucrative monopoly and withdrawn from the country. Although life for foreigners in Eritrea is still markedly cheap, many things are disproportionately expensive - petrol now costs £1.25 per litre, up from twenty-three pence in 2001. Long queues for staple foods, such as bread and milk, snake around many of Asmara's city blocks from the early hours.

Under such conditions, many seek to supplement their meagre earnings by undertaking private work to support their extended families. However, this, too, is problematic, as national-service employees are prohibited from doing private work in their own time. Under this ruling, thousands are believed to have been arrested, including all the engineers and architects from Asmara's municipality, as all construction work has been ordered to stop (except for government-owned construction firms). At no time since the late 1930s, when the Italians built the brutal Casa del Fascio (now the ministry of education) overlooking Asmara's main street, has architecture been such a political force in Eritrea.

A struggle to survive

For those who see such machinations of this seemingly insignificant nation as irrelevant to the wider international scene, unless framed in the context of seductive tourist sound-bites, consider the tens of thousands of Eritreans who have escaped in recent years and now reside outside Eritrea. Consider also the cost to the international taxpayer who funds the various United Nations agencies that maintain the troubled status quo on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In this context, the disparate fortunes of Semret and I coalesce. Why was she returning to Asmara and not seeking asylum overseas along with the rising tide of Eritrean escapees? Her motivation was simple: she has a young daughter in Asmara, Alganesh, whom she cannot leave behind. Alganesh was granted a European visa so that she, too, could visit her extended family - but her own government was not so benevolent. Every Eritrean must apply for an exit visa to be permitted to leave. Children, often denied this permit, assume the role of an effective deposit. Who would be so desperate to contemplate leaving their own offspring behind in order to grasp personal freedom? In fact, many would. So many in fact, that the Eritrean government now punishes the families of escapees by imposing fearful measures such as heavy fines, the rescinding of business licences, or imprisonment.

Fear has become such an effective silencing tool that few Eritreans and foreign workers in Eritrea dare to speak out publicly against the government. To observe the intoxicating power of fear is both remarkable and terrifying. Over a year ago, the fear of war was paramount in people's minds, but Eritreans have grown increasingly weary of government blustering over the unresolved border conflict with Ethiopia (an issue over which the Eritrean government's position has been vindicated by international law, but to which the international community has not lent its support).

Today, the threat of war has not decreased: it has simply been overlaid by the far more pervasive and suffocating effects of economic misery. The daily struggle of feeding oneself and one's family penetrates every thought. Eritrea's struggle was once a national one, but today even that seems a decadent pursuit, as personal financial ruin undermines the national project. Long-term aspirations have been replaced by the primeval instinct to survive - everyone for themselves - the mortal struggle that leads to national decay.

Also in openDemocracy on the Horn of Africa:

David Styan, "Tony Blair and Africa – old images, new realities"
(26 May 2005)

Peter Hurst, "Somaliland’s democratic lesson"
(5 October 2005)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia’s thorny road""
(2 August 2006)

Harun Hassan, " Somalia slides into war"
(3 November 2006

Jawahir Adam, "A window to the future"
(21 November 2006)

The price of the ticket

Another element entwined in Eritrea's plight is the regional instability involving such neighbours as Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The pursuit of regime change by any or all of the factions vying for power in the Horn of Africa has the potential to cause a regional catastrophe. Most Eritreans seem to believe that their government is supporting Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts against the transitional federal government backed, allegedly, by the Ethiopian government, whose own woes are many. (Not least of those woes are the power struggles between Ethiopia's most powerful ethnic groups - the Amharas (the traditional ruling elite), the Oromo (the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia) and the Tigrayans (those currently in government).)

A war between Ethiopia and Somalia would present the Eritrean government with a tempting prospect of forcing Ethiopia into a war on two fronts and likely cause the implosion of their despised counterparts across the border. Such an outcome would horrify Ethiopia's international supporters, which include Britain and the United States, who see Ethiopia as a vital ally in their "war on terror".

While these issues could and should have been resolved diplomatically over the past five years, the political will, both domestically and internationally, has not prevailed, in spite of an annual United Nations budget exceeding $180 million to resolve the impasse between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

When one returns from bad to good, Eritrea's manifold tensions and aspirations weigh heavily on the soul. Semret and Alganesh are reunited and - although the odds are stacked against them - will plot their eventual escape, while I, armed with a European passport, have only to board a plane at the end of a holiday and return to those I love in a country that, up to now, affords me the freedom to travel when and where I choose.

Leaving Asmara is never pleasant. Despite Eritrea's problems, it is, in my opinion, one of the world's most delightful cities and the capital of a nation populated by an extraordinarily generous, diligent and kind people. During my visit, so many Eritreans sought to draw a distinction between ordinary Eritreans and the Eritrean government in an attempt to excuse the overwhelmingly poor state of their beloved nation. But as long as the disparity between these two groups prevails, Eritrea will likely remain a land of misery.

All personal names in this article have been changed

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