Berhane Asmelash, a protestant pastor now living in London who opposes the Afwerki regime, receives email messages via proxy servers and intermediaries who can travel outside Eritrea because they are not under suspicion from its sprawling security services.
One recent evening, he read a message from a contact who told him that a “friend” and his wife had been arrested after neighbors had denounced them for holding a prayer meeting in their home — many protestant churches are outlawed in Eritrea and dozens of Asmelash’s fellow clergymen have been jailed for long terms.
No news of the couple had been received for two months, and relatives were caring for their children.
“The government says it is every Eritrean’s duty to inform. All taxi drivers and hotel workers are forced to be informers, so all visitors are under surveillance,” said Asmelash.
He recalled meeting Eritreans in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia, where a man told him a story about his wedding.
“People were visiting him after the wedding, and two boys there talked about leaving the country. Someone informed the government. They arrested the boys and the man too, for being there and not informing. He was put in jail for four years,” said Asmelash.
“When he got out, he took his bride and crossed the border to Ethiopia. People are jailed like that in Eritrea.”
Asmelash left Eritrea in 1999 to study in the UK, couldn’t return due to repression of his church and associates; he was granted refugee status in UK in 2004.
Afwerki trained and studied in China in 1966-67, and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the time is seen as an inspiration for his imposition of tight state control over Eritrea’s economy, mass conscription and forced labor.
The rebel movement led by Afwerki espoused Marxism, but he drifted away from it with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and now it is not clear what political and economic vision the 69-year-old is following for his country.
“They destroyed what we had and replaced it with nothing,” said Asmelash, whose foreign-funded church organization ran education, farming, medical and water projects in Eritrea until it was shut down in 2002.
“No one knows what our government is trying to do, or whether they are still Marxists. All we see is that they are against civilization and free thinking,” he added, describing how military-run colleges now dominate higher education in Eritrea.
“The main feature of the regime is paranoia — anything they are not involved in and do not control, they suspect is against them.”
Afwerki’s allies argue that strict security is essential, given what they call Ethiopia’s continuing aggression toward Eritrea following a 1998-2000 border war, and alleged efforts by Western powers to provoke regime change.
Eritrea said June’s U.N. rights report comprised “vile slanders and wild accusations” aimed at destabilizing a nation that was making progress against great odds, and claims particular success in improving health care.
Senior Eritrean diplomat Tesfamicael Gerahtu blamed human traffickers rather than conditions in the country for driving his compatriots to Europe, and insisted refugees from other African states were falsely claiming to be from Eritrea.
“The whole ideological apparatus of the Western countries has been mobilized against Eritrea, believe it or not,” Gerahtu, Eritrea’s ambassador to the UK, told Reuters in Geneva in July.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have not signed a peace deal to end a border conflict that claimed 100,000 lives, and fears of renewed fighting — constantly whipped up by Eritrean state media — give Afwerki’s military huge power, and is used to justify a system of 18-months of compulsory national service which, in reality, can go on indefinitely.
“The right hand of the government is the military, and President Isaias [Afwerki] rules through different officers,” said Dr. John R Campbell, an expert on Eritrea at SOAS, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies
“The country is divided into different zones, each commanded by a senior officer, and they have carte blanche. Under-age children are conscripted, and they have extended the age of conscription to include people in their seventies. There are two types of national service: into the military or in so-called development projects … a lot of which turn out to be projects to the benefit of senior officers.”
“People are paid a very low minimum wage, on which they can just about survive but, when all the farm labor has been conscripted, the people in rural areas, the older people, just cannot survive,” Campbell explained.
“There are regular round-ups, called giffa, ostensibly aimed at underage youth to recruit them into the military. Conscription into the military is indefinite,” he added.
“Between the conscription drive, extremely low wages and very depressed national economy — as well as the political repression — people have just decided they’ve had enough.”
Eritreans from all sections of society are leaving — in October, 10 players on the national soccer team sought asylum in Botswana after a game.
The U.N. says more than 300,000 Eritreans — about 7 percent of the population — are now refugees; more than 100,000 have fled to both Ethiopia and Sudan, from where many strike out for Europe on a voyage that can take years, and claims many lives.
“I saw no chance in life, because it seemed they would never release me from the army,” said Teame Frewengel, who spent 20 years — half his lifetime — doing national service “in the army, factories, construction — wherever they made me work.”
“They do everything by force, with violence. They move you around from place to place, living in a tent in the desert, with no home. They put me in prison a few times too, because I defied their orders. It’s like they own you, as if you are their property. So I had to do something — I had to go.”
In July 2014, Frewengel did something that happens often now in Eritrea: when he was stationed near the border on guard duty, he just dropped his weapon and started walking through the desert towards Ethiopia.
He asked for asylum once there, but like most refugees soon moved on, using cash sent by relatives to pay people smugglers to move him through Sudan and Libya, and onto a rubber boat that took him and about 80 others to Italy.
Now he lives in the Netherlands, where he hopes to receive asylum, find a job and be reunited with his wife and three children.
“It is just getting worse and worse in Eritrea,” he said.
“Living there, you might as well be dead.”
The trust and credit that Afwerke earned from his people by leading their fight for independence is dwindling, and young Eritreans do not have the same bond, forged through war, which older generations share with him.
Despite their suffering, Eritreans are still deeply patriotic, and it stung them to hear how the then-U.S. envoy to Asmara described the country that they fought for, and for which so many died, in a 2009 cable that he sent to Washington.
“Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant,” Ronald McMullen wrote.
Six years on, that summary seems truer than ever, but Werede and Asmelash, like Eritreans all over the world, still feel great nostalgia for home.
“It’s a small country with everything: mountains, forest, desert and seaside,” Asmelash said in a London café, as locals hurried past in the early evening gloom, heads bowed under autumn rain.
“Asmara is at nearly 8,000 feet, but the seaside is just 70 miles away, and the drive is beautiful. We had good infrastructure, well built towns, roads and hotels, and great Italian food even in small towns,” he recalled.
“It’s impossible to live there now, but I really miss my country.”
Werede also longs for Eritrea’s “Italian architecture, palm trees, pastries and cappuccino”, and remembers the joy that came with victory for the rebel forces of Afwerki and her parents.
“On independence day, when the rebels entered Asmara, I was woken by people shooting into the sky with happiness. There was euphoria,” she said.
“I think we were blinded, and we didn’t realize what was going on until the border war erupted in 1998. We are very patriotic, and we trusted the government.”
Unlike Asmelash however, Werede believes she will go home, and that her three children will experience all the things that she and her parents love, and miss, about Eritrea.
“We have learned our lesson. We got independence the hard way and then we got betrayed, big time,” Werede said.
“I think that when we finally get our country back, we’ll do things right.”