Residents explain why so many risk death to reach Europe, as the Guardian gains rare access to report from inside the country
The shrill blast of a whistle still makes Almaz Russom wince. Youre sleeping nicely, dreaming something, then it wakes you at 4.30am, he said, clenching his teeth and mimicking the pitch. I still dont like the sound of that whistle.
Russom, whose name has been changed here for his own protection, was giving a rare account of a military bootcamp in Eritrea, one of Africas most secretive totalitarian states. It forms part of a compulsory national service for young men and women, an indefinite purgatory that robs them of the best years of their lives and is the key to understanding why so many flee its borders.
Eritreans are now the third biggest group of people embarking on the risky Mediterranean crossing to Europe, with an estimated 5,000 leaving every month, behind only Syrians and Afghans. As the first British newspaper for a decade to gain access to this little-understood nation, the Guardian interviewed citizens, diplomats and government ministers about the motivating forces behind the mass exodus.
Most suggested that while poverty, joblessness and political repression are important, what sets Eritrea apart from many other African countries is the conscription that forces them to take on often interminable military and civilian work for the equivalent of less than $2 a day. Speaking in the capital, Asmara, Russom said: If they told you national service would end, it would be bearable. But it is never-ending.
He recalled being at a military training camp in the fierce heat of the Sahel which houses 20,000 conscripts at a time. A typical stint is six months, but he was lucky to spend only half that time there. The men were forced to sleep on the floor in tents and had to bring their own blankets, he continued. There are guys lying all around you. The food is not for fit for dogs.
You get a timetable showing what youll do today and tomorrow. Today might be running and political school, which is the history of the liberation struggle. Tomorrow might be shooting practice: most guys deliberately miss the target so they wont be recruited by the army. But they never tell you anything beyond that. They can call your name at any time and make you gather your things and you have no idea where youre going.
If youre not in position when they call, they will punish you. They might say Go and lie in the sun for an hour. It is so hot, it is worse than a beating. They can also tie you up in the eight binding your arms and legs behind you and make you lie in the sun for an hour. That is very painful because its like a stove: 55C. Its like youre close to the sun.
The camps are run by military trainers who have the power to impose discipline. Russom continued: You ask yourself, Why am I here? What did I do to deserve this? The next time I see my trainer in Asmara, Ill shoot him for making me lie in the sun. But when you see him in Asmara, you are friends: you buy a beer and tell your friend, This is the guy who tortured me at the camp.
There are usually two responses to any mention of Eritrea, a former Italian colony which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. One is a blank expression: Michela Wrong, author of a book about Eritrea, I Didnt Do it For You, said she frequently encountered people who had never heard of the place. The other is a kneejerk characterisation of this nation of 6 million as the North Korea of Africa.
It is a glib analogy that bestows on Eritrea an aura of mystery that is neither desired nor deserved, and not only because the country poses no nuclear threat. Far from the cult of personality around Kim Jong-un, President Isaias Afwerkis image is harder to find than those of leaders in many African nations, despite his 22-year rule. Tremendous progress has been made in healthcare, with HIV prevalence at less than 1%.
Residents reported that satellite television offers international news channels while Asmaras numerous internet cafes do not block websites except those featuring pornography. The WhatsApp and Viber messaging services are popular because they are thought difficult for the government to monitor. Warnings that the Guardians movements would be followed by government agents in the capital proved unfounded. You can say anything you like here, Russom confided. You can insult the president. It will be treated as a joke.
Foreign diplomats and development workers based in Asmara are mostly baffled by the Pyongyang comparison. Its not an adventure: not that much happens here, the spouse of one said. Its very safe. It feels more isolated than when we lived on an island.
However, Eritreas government has been its own worst enemy in feeding conspiracy theories among the diaspora and western pundits. It has repeatedly denied access to UN investigators and independent human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International. Foreign media have been shut out for about 10 years, with a trickle of reporters permitted only in the past few months. The immense tourist potential of its Italian art deco and modernist architecture and pristine beaches has been squandered.
Instead the country is a political and economic pariah with streets full of bicycles, donkey-drawn carriages, 1960s cars and overcrowded buses. Power cuts are a way of life, the state-controlled mobile phone network is supplemented by public payphones and there are virtually no advertising billboards, newspapers or international brands except Coca-Cola. No, Eritrea does not resemble North Korea, observed Richard Poplak of South Africas Daily Maverick after a recent visit. It resembles Cuba 15 years ago.
The prosaic truth is that this is just another of the nasty regimes that persist in parts of the world. Eritrea is a one-party state with no elections, has had no functioning civil society since 2001 and, with at least 16 journalists currently behind bars, is ranked bottom of 180 countries assessed in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The regime sows paranoia and uncertainty, leading to divergent views over how far the limits of free speech can be tested.
A recent UN inquiry on human rights described extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, indefinite military conscription and forced labour. Its report found a pervasive control system used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in a state of permanent anxiety.
This mood was evident on the streets of Asmara, where a foreign photographer who took pictures of one of numerous beggars was swiftly approached by men in plain clothes and ordered to delete them. Strangers were polite and friendly but, when conversations turned to politics, guarded and hushed. Even standing here talking to a white man, I am taking a risk, one man muttered. If you publish my name, I will be taken in 24 hours.
The man, who did national service for 11 years, reflected: Now Im 32. What future do you think I have at 32? How old are you? What had you achieved by 32? The situation hits us hard, especially young people. They are leaving because there is no hope.
On the bustling, tree-lined Harnet Avenue, a young student kept walking as she remarked: We dont have diplomacy, we dont have freedom. I cannot speak as I want. There are no jobs. I want to study in London because my university cannot afford a lab.
And the head of an English language school pre-empted an interview by apologising: Im sorry, I dont know anything about politics. I wasnt born for that. Your questions are very interesting. If you find anyone wholl help you, youll succeed.
Money is scarce and opportunities are few. Solomon Beraki, 30, earns just 1,000 nafka (£43) a month as a student nurse. This is very little when you see it with our standard of living, he said. This is the main problem, not because people dislike the government or president, but because of their financial situation. There are many educated people who dont have enough work. They dont dislike national service but there is no cutoff point: it is lifelong.
Yafet Russom, who was running a small shop, said he earned just 800 nafka a month from national service. He was selling a loaf of bread for 3 nafka, a can of beans for 40, bottles of water for 35, tins of sardines for 58, cheese for 75 and a box of tea for 120. At the central fruit and spice market, a kilo of oranges went for 85 nafka, while a kilo of onions cost 60.
A different view was offered by Rebecca Haile, a retired nurse who now lives in the US but returns home to Eritrea regularly. The government doesnt torture people, the 65-year-old insisted. Its just politics. When people go to America, they just say it to get a green card. Most of them are not Eritrean but have come by an Eritrean name. Real Eritreans love their country.
A sticker with the words I love Eritrea adorns a locker in the offices of the government-backed National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, whose courtyard has a full-size replica of the classical statue Discus-thrower (Discobolus). Okbay Berhe, 37, its deputy chairman, admitted that conscription was driving young people away but claimed it was for economic, not political reasons. Its not national service any more, he said.
Its uncertain time and its not easy for the youngest to tolerate that. This creates unemployment by default. If youre on national service you cant make money. It is killing opportunities as you cant make money for your family. There may be people who say they are leaving because the government is repressing them but they are trying to politicise these things. When they go to Europe about 70% send money back to their families because they know how their families are living. This is the main reason they go to Europe, logically.
Berhe believes that an additional factor is that western governments give Eritreans special treatment when considering asylum applications. The west motivates Eritreans to leave, he added. And many Ethiopians in Europe and Israel are registered as Eritreans. If someone asks where are you from, they cant differentiate.
The Eritrean government justifies national service as a necessary precaution in case of fresh conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia the countries remain in dispute after a 1998-2000 border war killed tens of thousands of troops. This followed three decades of conflict that resulted in Eritreas independence but left almost no family untouched by loss.
Yemane Ghebre Meskel, the information minister, insisted that there was still sabre-rattling from Ethiopia and a tense limbo of no war, no peace. If you talk about the issue of prolonged national service, that might be debatable, but what are the alternatives? These are not hypothetical issues we are talking about existential threats. He claimed migration happens everywhere and in Eritreas case there are push factors but I think the pull factors are much stronger, in particular America and Europes willingness to accept Eritreans. Were talking about several countries which for their own reasons wanted to grant asylum for people from the national service.
During an interview at the information ministry sitting on top of a hill along with the state broadcaster overlooking Asmara, Meskel rolled his eyes heavenward before answering each question. Its automatic to say, parliament is not there, no elections for 20 years, he said. It does not take into account the special circumstances that forced the government to abandon the project of nation building that had begun. The absence of formal opposition does not mean there is not debate within society.
There is a demonisation campaign focused on the government and the president. I know him. There is a huge different between how hes portrayed by the negative media and him as a person. They say dictator but dont talk about certain attitudes of his character. Sometimes you wonder if they are talking about the same country.
Meskel dismissed the recent UN human rights report, claiming it was based on interviews with Eritrean exiles who have an agenda against the country. He continued: The UN said the government doesnt allow people to meet. If there is a wedding here, what happens? I go to weddings, on buses, in taxis, nobody cares. People gather together and say whatever they want. I dont have anyone arrested for talking negatively about the government. I find it difficult to say this country is governed by fear and nobody wants to talk.
With many of the best and the brightest living abroad there is little sign of an uprising against one-time liberator Afwerki, and that suits the international community just fine. Eritreas location in the Horn of Africa, notably its proximity to Yemen across the Red Sea, makes it an important bulwark.
Christine Umutoni, the UNs resident humanitarian coordinator, said: Eritrea is in a very strategic position. It should be in everyones interests to have stability in this country for the sake of international trade. Half the population is Christian, half is Muslim. There is no sign of fundamentalism. Its an important ally. If things were to go wrong in Eritrea, it would affect the region.
For many here, however, the peace, stability and remarkably low crime rate are illusory. Russom observed dryly: Most Eritreans are suffering but it is in our culture to act as if we are living nicely. We like to pretend. If you go to bar, someone is pretending to live well, but if you go to their home you will see they are struggling. If you could ask 20 people how they are doing, only two will actually be living well. People like the president but, in their hearts, they do not like the president.