December 2014

Inside Isolated Eritrea


Eritrea is one of a handful of countries, outside of the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia, to have achieved its independence within the last 25 years.


In its initial years of  independence from Ethiopia, recognized internationally in 1993, it was widely admired for being progressive, egalitarian and a model of self-reliant development. That changed in the late 1990s, the key factor being a war over a border dispute with Ethiopia.


Over the last fifteen years it has become increasingly repressive, isolated, and has earned to sobriquet as the “North Korea of Africa”. Reporters Without Borders now places it dead last on the Press Freedom Index, below North Korea. Like Belarus, it has become one of the handful of less well know “pariah states” of the international community. NGOs have been expelled, UN peacekeepers were ordered out of the country, and diplomats movements outside Asmara restricted, even in access to consular cases, flouting international law.


Travel to the country, relatively open and unrestricted in the 1990s, has become increasingly difficult and bureaucratic. I failed on my first two attempts to obtain a visa, only succeeding on my third time. This was the most protracted and difficult process for any country I have ever visited. Once inside, additional permits are needed to travel anywhere outside Asmara. More than  80 percent of the country remains completely off limits. Air links to the rest of the world have dwindled. The only land frontier open  is with Sudan, itself hardly a welcoming destination for prospective visitors. There were only a small handful of other travelers I saw in the country and only two outside Asmara…..but yet…..


Once inside it remains an immensely friendly, charming and attractive country, although infrastructure has frayed around the edges.


Asmara at 2300 metres above sea level, is a very pleasant “time warp” jewel with a spring-like climate. It is among the most appealing cities anywhere in Africa, and an absolute delight for those who manage to jump the hurdles to get there. The closest, albeit imperfect parallel I can think of…organized, quiet, light traffic, threadbare faded colonial elegance, clean air, tidy streets, pleasant low-key interpersonal interactions…might be to a mid-sized city in Cuba. Despite its isolation and an economy in tatters, visitors are treated well. Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1892 to 1941 and the residue of this period still predominates. This is a city of art deco architecture, macchiatos, pasta and pizza. The city is filled with atmospheric cafes, particularly along the main drag of Harnet Avenue.


In our time, we managed to get to almost all of the limited areas that are open to foreign visitors.


Keren was about 90 kilometres away and a two hour drive away. Its atmosphere is very different from Asmara and the town shows influence from neighbouring Sudan. Visiting the camel market is a significant highlight. A major battle was fought here during the Second World War between the Allied forces led by Britain, and the Italians between January and March 1941, marking the most important battle that saw Britain take over control of Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is an Italian war grave cemetery along with a Commonwealth War Grave, in separate locations, commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict.

The drop from the highland to the Red Sea coast is dramatic. There are now two roads. One was constructed in the last decade about thirty kilometres to the west of the old road and is in very good condition. However, it is practically unused. Why it was constructed at all is a mystery to me as it passes through no population centres, and the existing main road between Asmara and Massawa is in good condition and is hardly over utilized.


The port town of Massawa in recent years has slid into a slightly surreal semi-ghost town. In 1990, near the end of the conflict, the Ethiopians bombed the port, destroying about one-third of the buildings of the old town, none of which have been restored.  Even more dramatic has been the gradual abandonment of the city over the last decade.  It is a bit like stumbling upon a “down at the heels” Zanzibar-like port town along America’s Route 66, with a few bars and small hotels remaining amidst the general abandonment. We stayed at the Grand Dahlak, a grandiose and impressive hotel  (the best I saw in Eritrea) maintaining its elegant facade as the rest of the town slides ever more into a ghost town. Some sixty kilometres away are the Axumite ruins of Adulis,  with some excavated ruins of a “port” that is now seven kilometres away from the sea.


Our last destination was to Adi Keyh and Qohaito. These are the highest villages in Eritrea at around  2450 metres and 2700 metres respectively. Qohaito is situated on a high plateau and has a few excavated ruins dating back some 1500 to 2000 years…..  This high plateau ends abruptly in a gigantic canyon cascading down dramatically towards the Red Sea. It is a jaw-dropping vista and  is easily the peer of the better known topography of the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. There is also prehistoric rock art accessible by hiking a mule track along the edge of the gorge to an overhanging cave where drawn images of animals, including lions and camels, painted red are  carved into the stone. The steep trail hugging the edge of the precipice into the canyon is not for the faint of heart.


It marked a fitting end to this fascinating, if isolated country.