In July of 1998, war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The rallying cries echoed across both nations, calling on young men to take up arms to defend their women, their families, themselves, from the evil outsider lurking next door. The young men who listened, or who couldn’t figure out how to evade mass conscription, ended up as machine-gun fodder in a conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
Eritreans had been raised on war, and to the veterans who heard the call to arms, the paradigm of battle was something familiar. For the young people that I talked to, those who had never fought in the war of national liberation but had grown up listening to stories of the glory of war, this was their chance to defend the nation. Faith in their leader was unshaken, even after Ethiopian tanks rolled to victory across the south, and Eritrea was forced to accept a brokered peace it had once flat-out rejected. The cease-fire came in 2000, two years into a senseless border conflict over a worthless and barren swath of land that both nations had somehow decided was essential to their very being.
But the cease-fire didn’t bring real peace; instead it brought a fragile stalemate that still holds today, a stalemate that threatened to collapse the week that I landed. The head of the U.N. Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia said that war could break out at any moment. An opposition Web site, based in Sudan, recounted a meeting in which Afewerki supposedly told his highest-ranking ministers that “war is imminent.” But this information, like every other rumor or innuendo, is impossible to confirm because the government control over information is now almost absolute.
Chinks in Afewerki’s armor started to appear in 2001, when 15 high-ranking party members wrote a letter that criticized the way the president had conducted the war with Ethiopia. Newspapers published this letter and began to investigate the allegations. Afewerki waited for the perfect moment, and then in September 2001, just a week after the 9/11 attacks, when the world was looking elsewhere, he struck. Eleven opposition figures from that group of 15 disappeared into the Eritrean gulag, and they have never been seen or heard from again. The members of the press that aired or printed the allegations were also jailed, and most of them remain in prison today. Even foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country.
But the truth was out. And people began to question, for the first time, what their leader was doing. Mass desertions from the army followed. One young man who I met on the street told me flat out, “Please, please ask your country to impose sanctions on our government.” Later I heard many more stories of disillusionment and desertion. One man had served a total of five and a half years in the army when he went home on leave and found his family desperate for him to earn money to support them. After he went AWOL, he was caught in a roundup of deserters. First he was shipped to nearby Adi Abeito prison, where he and hundreds of others ate just a few scraps of bread a day in overcrowded quarters that were never meant to accommodate the masses held there. (In late 2004 Adi Abeito was the site of a riot that allegedly ended with about 25 prisoners dead.) Then he was shipped off to Assab, one of the hottest places on Earth, where he suffered three months in solitary, then spent nine months sharing a 13-by-20-foot cell with seven others like him.
Others were even more desperate to evade the army. One man escaped from the front with three other friends and then tried to make his way to Sudan by paying a smuggler hundreds of dollars to take him across the border. Caught and sent back to prison in Asmara, he bribed a guard and escaped again, only to be finally rounded up and sent away for a year. I wish I could name these men and the many others like them who I talked to, furtively, in the alleys and street corners, the cafes and restaurants of Asmara. But of course I can’t, for that would mean certain imprisonment and persecution for them. In a country where a word of dissent can bring years in jail, young people were still talking to me about the wrongs of the government, knowing full well that their words could land them in deep trouble.
Desertion and betrayal would have been inconceivable during the first war against Ethiopia, when young men and women lined up to fight, convinced of the justice of their cause. But now that zeal has become bitterness—almost every young person I spoke to had nothing but hatred for the government that had sent so many of them to die for nothing. With an estimated 10 percent of the population in the standing army, Eritrea’s cities are without their main pool of labor: young men in their 20s and 30s. I was told by many that some army commanders even used their soldiers for free labor on their personal farms. Everywhere across the nation I saw the signs of war—soldiers drinking in bars, military vehicles speeding down the streets, young men with nothing to do staring into space, rifles by their side—even though there had been no real hostilities for five years. An unending draft has become a way to control and disperse a young urban population that might otherwise rise up in protest and a way to infinitely defer implementing a democratic constitution.
One good thing you can say about the Afewerki government is that it has remained virtually incorruptible, especially compared with its African neighbors. But even this integrity is a double-edged sword—in other nations a dose of corruption might have moderated otherwise harsh official policies, allowing people and goods to pass over the borders if small bribes were paid.
Each morning, like many others in the capital, I would wander into an Internet cafe and browse opposition Web sites that originated outside the country to find out what was going on right around the corner. Strangely, the opposition Web sites have not been blocked in Eritrea. I assume that the reason the government doesn’t bother is that these Web sites reach only a tiny minority of educated elite who can afford to browse the Web.
By official accounts, the government has an answer and explanation for every charge. But after the accumulation of so many different allegations, it becomes impossible to take their excuses seriously. Eritrea has become like an abusive parent caught telling too many lies to explain away their child’s bruises. Perhaps Afewerki really does believe that what he is doing is for the good of the country. After the years he fought, the sacrifices he made, and the struggles he endured, I’m willing to give him that. But that doesn’t make the abuse of power any less damaging to the people on the streets of Asmara.
In Eritrea, peace hasn’t been easy. There isn’t a clear enemy in peacetime. There aren’t simple solutions to solve structural economic and social problems. And peace isn’t won or lost with the clarity of war. War doesn’t just kill, it also unites, at least in the beginning. And war deflects criticism away from home to the outside. Perhaps Eritrea’s leader, raised on war, returned to battle when peace just became too hard.