Reporter visits Eritrean city, where stunning modernist architecture clashes with deep poverty
Cloistered for decades by war and a reclusive policy of self-reliance, Asmara is a study in contrasts: Stunning modernist architecture clashes with deep poverty in a nation facing one of the world’s fastest emigration rates.
Those paradoxes were immediately visible when a Wall Street Journal reporter landed in the city last month, becoming one of only a handful of foreign journalists to report from Eritrea since correspondents were deported in 2008. The reporter had been told there would be a handler, but there was none. Her movement was restricted to the capital, home to about 600,000, but she was left on her own.
Slow-paced, manicured and perched at 7,900 feet altitude, Asmara looks like a film set: Hundreds of people idle at cafes and bus stops like extras waiting for the next scene to be shot.
They have been waiting for a long time.
In 1993, Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year struggle. Just five years later, it fought another war against its powerful neighbor, and it says Ethiopia still occupies Eritrean territory.
Ethiopia denies that. In any case, the single-party Eritrean regime, headed by former rebel commander Isaias Afewerki, has had the country in a state of emergency for 17 years. It has never held an election, and a constitution drawn up after independence was never implemented. Asmara has stayed in a time capsule: unspoiled but economically stagnant.
European colonial influences are on bold display in the Red Sea nation of 4.5 million.
Palm-tree-lined Harnet Avenue, the main boulevard, is dotted with modernist and art-deco buildings bequeathed by Eritrea’s erstwhile colonial masters, the Italians. Fascist leader Benito Mussolini saw Asmara as a jewel in his “new Roman Empire” project but left in a hurry in 1941 as the Italians were losing World War II.
The British took over. A pristine war cemetery in the outskirts of Asmara, on the edge of one of Africa’s most dramatic escarpments, is the final resting place for hundreds of young British and African soldiers who died here fighting the Italians.
Isolation has stunted development, the sluggish pace of life interrupted only by young cyclists in bright Lycra whizzing past, evidence of the country’s growing prowess in competitive cycling.
At the popular Zara Bar, six different flavors of Absolut vodka were being served to young men and women who, like their peers across the world, gathered around smartphone screens and flirted into the night.
But unlike their peers, young Eritreans face the prospect of mandatory military service that could last decades.
All 15,000 or so Eritrean boys and girls who finish high school each year are conscripted and receive military training. Most are later assigned state jobs on a pittance—a starting salary equal to $10 a month. They aren’t allowed to change jobs or leave the country until they are demobilized.
European Union officials said they proposed spending part of a €200 million aid package on demobilizing a group of conscripts. Regime officials said they declined because this would violate the principle that no one is exempt from patriotic duties.
“National service is for two purposes: to defend the country, but also to engage in economic development of the country and to train them while we are in this [emergency] situation,” said Hagos Ghebrehiwet, who controls the state’s purse strings.
Mr. Ghebrehiwet drove the Journal reporter around in a battered white Toyota Corolla at least a decade old. Diplomats here say there is no evidence local elites enjoy luxuries common among Africa’s ruling classes.
But the split between older fighters invested in Eritrea’s independence and their freedom-craving offspring is driving a wedge within families and between generations.
Bissrat Ghebru, a scientist in charge of standards for the country’s higher-education degrees, studied at Birmingham University in the U.K. and the University of California San Diego and now earns roughly $200 a month.
“My friends and family tell me that I’ve achieved nothing after all these studies, because I don’t even own a house,” she said. “But it’s not about money.”
Her 29-year-old daughter Batseba had a different vision. While her mother returned to Eritrea voluntarily, Batseba left illegally, without demobilization papers, five years ago. She is in London, close to getting U.K. citizenship, and dreams of working as a photojournalist.
“She can’t come home to see me because she left illegally,” Ms. Ghebru said. “But one day she will, and until then, we meet abroad when we can.”
Write to Matina Stevis at firstname.lastname@example.org