ASMARA—Eritrea is a country of whispers. When I first check into my hotel, a man whispers to me, “Change money?” Only later do I learn exactly why he is whispering: Possession of any foreign currency lands an Eritrean in jail for two years. The government is running out of hard currency reserves, and they are desperately trying to get their hands on every dollar or euro that enters the country. Then there are the whispers of war, imprisonment, persecution, and collapse that regularly circulate through the streets of the capital, from table to table at the Italian-style cafes where men sit sipping just one tiny glass of tea for hours, all they can afford. But these whispers never materialize into a full voice or a shout, never pass from rumor to recognized fact, never circulate outside of the ring of gossip and hearsay. People are afraid.
I meet one young man who tells me that his friends witnessed a massacre of prisoners at a nearby detention center for army deserters. I ask him to find his friends and then come and talk to me. We make an appointment for that afternoon. He never shows up. Another person promises the same thing, and when this guy does finally find me, eating dinner in a restaurant, he takes me outside, down a dark alley, and whispers, “Nobody will talk.” None of this would be particularly surprising—intimidating African dictatorships are a dime a dozen—if Eritrea hadn’t been one of the most promising countries I’d ever seen when I first visited seven years ago.
Nowadays Eritrea merits media coverage only when some tangential connection to terrorism emerges—that one of the London copycat bomber suspects originally hailed from Eritrea or that Donald Rumsfeld visited Asmara to converse with another global ally in the war on terror (even if that ally can do little to help that war). But this insistence on terrorism as the only story about Eritrea masks truths that are much more important to the people on the ground: like the fact that there is no end in sight to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea or that the economy, crippled by the war, makes it barely possible to survive here. The real story isn’t terrorism, it’s Eritrea’s tragic journey from the possibility I saw seven years ago to the desperation I see today.
Back then, the ink on the referendum for freedom from Ethiopia was barely dry. People on the streets displayed a pride in their nation that would have put a July 4 celebration in the deepest heart of Texas to shame. And this wasn’t empty sentiment: The Eritrean triumph over Ethiopia was one of the great underdog stories of the century—a small grass-roots army with no international support going up against an African superpower backed by the most powerful nations in the world. Women fought alongside men. Children were schooled in the battlefield. Doctors worked in a vast underground hospital built to withstand carpet-bombing from above.
After independence, Eritrea seemed to have in Isaias Afewerki a shrewd, forward-looking president who eschewed the standard-issue African leader’s cult of personality. He wouldn’t be bullied by the West, and he had helped draft a constitution that promised extensive protection for civil liberties and minority rights. Though Afewerki insisted on a single-party system until the country was ready to implement that constitution, it seemed like he was serious about eventually democratizing the nation. Clinton even identified him as one of the leaders of an African renaissance.
I remember going to cafes in Asmara where they wouldn’t let me pay the bill. Every time I would try, some old man would have taken care of it, and he’d tell me, “Welcome to Eritrea.” Young people loved their country. Old people were ecstatic that their long struggle for freedom had finally paid off. And everyone looked forward to the peace and prosperity that independence would bring.
Seven years ago, Eritrea was dirt poor but brimming with hope. There were no beggars on the streets of Asmara. Little kids didn’t follow me around and ask for pens, or food, or water. Afewerki preached an ethos of self-sufficiency: demanding that all foreign aid be on Eritrea’s terms and rejecting aid programs that wasted too much money on costly foreign consultants. This belief in self-sufficiency seemed to trickle down to the streets of the new nation, making it inconceivable that anybody, no matter how poor, would beg.
This time, I noticed the difference right after I landed in Eritrea—as soon as I took a seat at a sidewalk cafe, an army of beggars and street kids accosted me. When I looked into their hungry eyes, I couldn’t blame them. Eritrea had become a beggar nation, and the man who once so proudly rejected the aid of the West was now feeding his people through foreign food grants. I shared a table with a foreign NGO worker who pegged a nearby vehicle as the secret police. “They follow me everywhere,” he said. When I hailed a taxi to my hotel, about a half-mile away, the taxi driver wanted $5 for the trip. I thought he was just fleecing the foreigner, but when I got in the cab, I found out that gas was selling at $6 a gallon. Taxi prices were on par with New York City in one of the poorest nations in Africa. The next day, someone offered to buy my cell phone, sight unseen, and when I asked him why, he told me that the government hadn’t allowed any new electronic equipment into the country for months. Every cell phone was valuable now.
What a difference those seven years have made. This African renaissance is now over. They’ve sunk back into the dark ages. Eritrea has been dealt one of the cruelest hands in Africa. First there was brutal oppression at the hands of Italian colonists. Then there was a bloody struggle against Ethiopia. Now there is the specter of a homegrown despot, intent on retaining power even when that means driving his nation to ruin.