Eritrea – Death of an African Dream

Eritrea – Death of an African Dream; Reporter: Mark Corcoran (25/05/2004)

Eritrea – Death of an African Dream
Broadcast: 25/05/2004


Reporter: Mark Corcoran


CORCORAN: It’s a dash of Italy in the heart of Africa, Sunday morning in Asmara, capital of Eritrea. The Italian colonisers left sixty-three years ago but the passion for “la dolce vita” remains. These Italian art deco streets are among the cleanest and safest in Africa.

But the good life is elusive. Once Africa’s youngest, most promising democracy, Eritrea is now careering down the path to dictatorship. Soldiers still wear the distinctive sandals made famous by an earlier generation of fighters who fought an epic thirty year war of liberation against Ethiopia, a struggle to create a unique African state, blind to tribe, religion or gender. A revolution now immortalised by this bizarre monument.

When the Eritreans joyfully declared their independence from Ethiopia back in 1993, it was heralded as the beginning of an African renaissance but what has followed has been a decade of war, famine, drought and more recently political repression. For many here, this great experiment in African democracy, a dream supported by so many in the west, is now dead.

In 1962, Ethiopia formally annexes Eritrea – War of Independence begins.
In 1991 Eritreans capture Asmara.
1993 Independence declared.

Just twenty minutes drive from the cafes of Asmara you find a very different Eritrea. This is part of the regular circuit for Askalu Menkarious, the hands-on Minister for Labour and Social Affairs. She’s also a famed veteran of the independent struggle.

Now she must stand and watch as her people are gradually reduced to this. [Women and children scooping up wheat from sacks]

FOOD SUPERVISOR: There are fourteen thousand individuals that are supplied with food today. There is a problem – we don’t have enough but there is nothing much we can do.

ASKALU MENKARIOUS: You know we were distributing twenty kilos per family but now he’s telling me it’s 12.5 kilos per family only per month.

CORCORAN: So you’re basically running out of supplies here?

ASKALU MENKARIOUS: Almost yeah, almost.

CORCORAN: Eritrea is in the grip of drought and will have to import 70% of its food this year.

What percentage of Eritrea’s population are dependent on food aid to survive?

ASKALU MENKARIOUS: At this time you know, you can say almost two thirds.

CORCORAN: It’s all such a long way from the heady days of the liberation struggle. For three decades from the early sixties, Eritreans confronted the mighty Ethiopian war machine which was backed in turn by the Americans, then the Soviets.

As a young revolutionary, Askalu Menkarious travelled abroad capturing the imagination of high profile westerners such as Australian eye surgeon Fred Hollows who became a passionate supporter of Eritrean nationalism.

ASKALU MENKARIOUS: When we met him in Australia, we went to his house for lunch and he wanted to know more about Eritrea and it’s people. You know it was a hidden war for thirty years and people like Fred Hollows were the only few friends that were really following very seriously what kind of struggle, how a just cause it was.

CORCORAN: But Fred Hollows died in 1993, the year his beloved Eritrea declared independence.

What do you think Fred Hollows would make of it all if he was still alive?

ASKALU MENKARIOUS: I’m sure he would be very disappointed with the international community’s treatment of the issue.

CORCORAN: Eritrea asked the international community for a hundred and ninety million dollars in aid this year but many donor nations are baulking, fearing the money will be spent on weapons, not wheat.

ASKALU MENKARIOUS: We cannot blame God for the problems we are facing. It’s all human made or man made and if Ethiopia didn’t invade Eritrea we wouldn’t be in this situation now.

CORCORAN: The peace that finally settled over this land was all too brief. In 1998, barely five years after independence, Eritrea and Ethiopia began arguing again over ownership of Badme, an obscure town down there in the rugged border country. It remains unclear who started the shooting but both sides stubbornly refuse to back down.

The fighting rapidly escalated into a two year bloodbath. By the time they fought each other to a standstill, one hundred thousand people were dead and Ethiopia occupied a quarter of Eritrea.

These Indian peacekeepers are part of a four thousand strong United Nations force now on the ground, monitoring an increasingly fragile peace. They patrol part of a twenty five kilometre wide buffer zone that runs the full length of the Eritrea/Ethiopia border, one thousand kilometres of this imposing terrain.

They may speak the language of diplomatic understatement but the consequences of failure here are clear.

INDIAN OFFICER: Sometimes tempers do run high and that is what we are here for.

CORCORAN: And something like a hundred thousand people were killed here.

INDIAN OFFICER: You’re right, in the last war that’s what the people… that’s what the statistics do say.

CORCORAN: Last year an International Boundary Commission declared Badme and other contested areas to lie inside Eritrea, a ruling Ethiopia refuses to accept. For the moment, peacekeepers occupy the disputed territory, closely monitored by the Eritreans.

INDIAN OFFICER: This is the region where the new boundary is supposed to cut across in a manner which is not acceptable to one party to the conflict.

CORCORAN: This particular valley here?

INDIAN OFFICER: This particular valley here. The extent of the area you’re talking about is from where we’re standing…


INDIAN OFFICER: … slightly down below into the valley, up to the ridgeline on top.

CORCORAN: In the few years of peace following independence, Eritrea had embarked on a remarkable infrastructure programme that was the envy of the developing world. Much of it now lies in ruins.

INDIAN OFFICER: This is Senafe Town. This used to be a very, very important town before the war. It still continues to be very important.

CORCORAN: And what happened here?

INDIAN OFFICER: This was a telephone exchange. Unfortunately it got destroyed. You can see it bore the brunt of destruction.

CORCORAN: So this looks new. This was built what… after Independence?

INDIAN OFFICER: Yes. I think, if I’m not wrong, ’98 vintage. It got destroyed in 2000.

CORCORAN: Also destroyed was the vision of this man, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerke, once universally hailed as father of the nation.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: Vision is one thing, realising vision is a completely different story.

CORCORAN: President Isaias now leads a nation clearly on a war footing. With a population of only four million, a staggering three hundred thousand are in National Service. He was a brilliant guerrilla commander during the liberation struggle but these days Isaias is a man with few friends left in the world. Apart from Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi who donated the fighters that fly overhead on national day.

Many ruling party comrades believed the border war could have been avoided and was scathing of the President’s handling of the conflict. For Isaias Afewerke, this was treachery of this highest order.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKE: You would find treason, betrayal, vacillation, compromising national security and a number of other things.

CORCORAN: The celebrations now reflect the growing paranoia of the leadership. The snakes represent Eritrea’s many enemies, not just Ethiopia but the traitors within. In late 2001, with the world preoccupied by the aftermath of September 11, the President struck. Elections were cancelled, a draft Constitution suspended. The free press silenced. Cabinet Ministers and Generals were jailed or fled into exile.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKE: It’s not politics. It had nothing to do with views, ideas, opinions but our national security was in danger. We had to take the appropriate measures to defend the nation and its sovereignty.

CORCORAN: Such is the fear and paranoia here in Asmara that no Eritrean dares publicly discuss politics. The dozens of revolutionary heroes, politicians, journalists and businessmen who dared speak out and were later arrested, have for all intents and purposes ceased to exist. To get some idea of what’s really going on here behind the picturesque façade of Asmara, we need to travel abroad to meet those Eritreans who’ve managed to escape the regime.

For fifteen long years during the struggle, Paulos Tesfagiorgis was a key administrator of the independence movement. Now this former member of the ruling circle, endures a lonely exile in the United States. He dares not return home.

PAULOS TESFAGIORGIS: I don’t think I will see my country beyond the airport. I would be arrested there. One sad thing about the way this government operates is that it can arrest people, make them disappear… or held in what’s called incommunicado – no communication. Nobody knows where they are and we’re talking about well-known people, prominent people – and who knows what happens to others who are not known.

CORCORAN: Amnesty International reports that hundreds of Isaias’ critics have been detained including this man, Fessahi Joshua Yohannes seen here in happier times in this 1997 Foreign Correspondent report. He established this touring youth circus to remind the next generation of the sacrifices of the struggle.

FESSAHI JOSHUA YOHANNES: [From 1997 story] We have to teach the children, we have to keep it in mind. We have to preserve it.

CORCORAN: A famous veteran, playwright and prominent newspaper publisher, Joshua personified the Eritrean success story.

FESSAHI JOSHUA YOHANNES: [From 1997 story] We have done our duty, we have done our duty. I believe that.

CORCORAN: But Joshua is now among twenty-one prominent political leaders and journalists held without trial at a secret location. His fate was sealed after writing an open letter to the President criticising his increasingly autocratic rule.

PAULOS TESFAGIORGIS: He was among the journalists who were detained and one of the journalists who went on a hunger strike and taken away from prison and put where nobody knows.

CORCORAN: During our visit to Eritrea, Isaias was suddenly called away on a trip to Libya and Italy but according to western diplomatic sources, also included arms buying but he later agreed to answer questions put to him on our behalf.

Last time ABC Foreign Correspondent visited Eritrea they profiled a former fighter turned journalist and artist named Fessahi Yohannes, known as Joshua. Where is he now?


REPORTER: He was co-founder of the newspaper Setid which was the biggest newspaper here prior to it being shut down.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: I don’t know him. I don’t know.

REPORTER: You don’t know him or where he might be?

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: I don’t know him. If I don’t know him how can I know where he might be?

PAULOS TESFAGIORGIS: He can afford to say that, you see, but that is his problem. He can deny and put himself in a problem because he has become incapable of facing the truth and doing the right thing.

CORCORAN: Eritreans may be short on food but there’s an abundance of political rhetoric. State TV feeds the masses a steady diet of propaganda as the regime attempts to merge the sacrifice of the liberation struggle with the present confrontation with Ethiopia.

PAULOS TESFAGIORGIS: If you look at the propaganda, there is no tone of reconciliation. There is no tone of calming down.

CORCORAN: Notably absent is the once vibrant, outspoken media. In Eritrea today the State is the truth.

REPORTER: Why isn’t there any free press in Eritrea?

ISAIAS AFEWERKE: What is free press?

REPORTER: Press which is not led by the Government.

ISAIAS AFEWERKE: There is no free press anywhere. It’s not in England, it’s not in the United States. I would like to know what free press is in the first place.

CORCORAN: (TO ASKALU MENKARIOS) There are no elections yet, there is no free press and you’ve locked up a large number of critics of the government, both politicians, generals and journalists. I mean how do you respond to that?

ASKALU MENKARIOS: Well you know, basically what’s said doesn’t mean it’s true. How do you define democracy? How does it work? It’s always context based. We cannot have you know, imported models and you know frames to really fit into that. There is no democracy that fits all, you know?

CORCORAN: Amid the relative luxury of Asmara, there’s an all pervading sense of war weariness. Originally conscripted for two years, many young Eritreans such as musician Johannes Tquabo have now been in the army for a decade.

JOHANNES TQUABO: Since 1994 I am in military service and a military fighter. It’s very bad. I feel so bad about it, but if there is a war we can’t leave, you know?

CORCORAN: Before his call-up, Johannes was one of Eritrea’s most popular young singers. Today on leave, he’s still instantly recognised by his many fans. But celebrity counted for little when he found himself just another soldier fighting for his life.

JOHANNES TQUABO: I lost many friends and I may kill many enemies too. I got a fragment injury in my right side leg. I came back to hospital and after that they called me to sing here. [Singing]…they imprisoned love but we got out on bail.

CORCORAN: By day he performs in a military propaganda band but my night Johannes attempts to rebuild his career. Most of the audience are like him, urban middle class conscripts. There is no youthful exuberance here. Too many friends and relatives are missing for that.

This is Asmara’s other war memorial know locally as “The Tank Cemetery”. A vast resting place for the wreckage of four decades of conflict. Many now fear this is how the great Eritrean dream will all end if Isaias doesn’t address a growing resentment from within his own ranks.

PAULOS TESFAGIORGIS: This kind of frustration developing within the military, we don’t know where it’s going to, you know what the channel is for this frustration. It could be some kind of coup d’etat and this is not uncommon in Africa. Coup.. counter-coup.. counter-coup – so forget stability, forget development and forget the rest of the people.

CORCORAN: But the President couldn’t care less what his critics think, he’s the father of the nation and as far as he’s concerned it’s a job for life.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: For me retirement means retiring from what you do in life from what you aspire to achieve in life in a nation and I don’t think that will ever cross my mind again any time in the future as long as I am alive.

PAULOS TESFAGIORGIS: Power became the only aim of the President of Eritrea. Power at any cost.

CORCORAN: Out on the border, the UN peacekeepers are acutely aware that any minor shooting incident could trigger another war.

This is the end of the road is it?

INDIAN OFFICER: This is the end of the road. Beyond this you will enter Ethiopia.

CORCORAN: A big problem is the lack of a physical boundary here. Nomadic cattle herders from Ethiopia often wander across, accompanied by armed Ethiopian militiamen.

What happens when they come in contact with the Eritreans?

INDIAN OFFICER: No we don’t let that happen. That much of a hold we have in this region, that we do not allow the two populations to get in contact.

CORCORAN: The peacekeepers’ job is not being made any easier by the extraordinary outbursts of their increasingly belligerent host.

REPORTER: Is the UN peacekeeping force here doing a good job or indeed a fair job in your opinion?

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: I don’t think they’re doing any job at all.

REPORTER: In what sense?

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: There is nothing to be done here. I mean they are not keeping peace and there is no peace to be kept here. They live like tourist, they live like I don’t know, they have no job to do.

CORCORAN: The long years of military service are slowly destroying youthful hopes and dreams of a better life but Johannes is resigned to his fate. It’s his country right or wrong.

JOHANNES TQUABO: Always we are with our government you know? We don’t like it but we don’t have a choice.

CORCORAN: For this generation the inheritors of the so-called “African Renaissance”, there’s very little to celebrate except a future promising war, famine and dictatorship.

Source: ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

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