The shrill blast of a whistle still makes Almaz Russom wince. “You’re sleeping nicely, dreaming something, then it wakes you at 4.30am,” he said, clenching his teeth and mimicking the pitch. “I still don’t 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 Africa’s 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.
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 Afwerki’s 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 Asmara’s 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 Guardian’s 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. “It’s not an adventure: not that much happens here,” the spouse of one said. “It’s very safe. It feels more isolated than when we lived on an island.”
However, Eritrea’s 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 asAmnesty 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 Africa’s Daily Maverick after a recent visit. “It resembles Cuba 15 years ago
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 you’ll 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 won’t 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 you’re going.
“If you’re 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 it’s like a stove: 55C. It’s like you’re 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, I’ll 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 Didn’t 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”.