As dusk fell on Asmara, the wide, tree-lined sidewalks of Harnet Avenue began to fill with pedestrians. It was a lovely spring Saturday, cool with a light breeze, and Eritreans of all ages strolled beneath a canopy of palm trees, pausing in the evening shadow of Italian-built Art Deco buildings to greet friends and sip macchiatos in sidewalk cafes.
As I watched the scene from one of those cafes, it was hard to imagine a more pleasant city anywhere in Africa. It was harder still to believe that this was the capital of the continent's most aggressive government -- and almost impossible to comprehend the depth of the domestic tragedy unfolding in one of Africa's most enchanting and unpredictable countries.
With a population of just 5 million people, Eritrea has clashed with all four of its closest neighbors in the 17 years since it broke off from Ethiopia. Eritrea still keeps as many as 100,000 soldiers stationed along that frontier, just in case. Before that conflict, it fought Yemen over a chain of islands that lay between them. And just two years ago, Eritrea launched a brief, surreal attack on its tiny neighbor, Djibouti, in which some 35 soldiers from both sides died. Many of the deaths occurred when Djiboutian troops refused to hand over Eritrean soldiers who had defected -- whether in hopes of escaping hardship at home, finding better training abroad, or even just getting a few sips of clean water.
Eritrea has also periodically sponsored rebels in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, occasionally and unapologetically giving refuge to their leaders in Asmara. It has been believably accused of supporting rebels in Djibouti, too. Its involvement in Somalia has been particularly egregious. In December, the U.N. Security Council announced sanctions to punish Eritrea for its support of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab and similar organizations. It was the first time the African Union had ever supported sanctions against one of its own members.
But though Eritrea has been amassing an unrivaled track record of international provocation, the regime's real masterpiece of destruction has been at home, where the former Italian colony has taken on the aura of the Soviet Union's final days. This has been an especially ironic turn of events for a country whose independence came about after its improbable and inspiring 1991 victory against the Soviet-backed military dictatorship in Ethiopia.
That revolt's popular, Chinese-trained military leader, Isaias Afwerki, became Eritrea's president in 1993 and has continued to agitate for the same national ethos of self-sacrifice and self-reliance that motivated his highly disciplined rebel movement. Nearly two decades later, Afwerki insists that his people's ongoing deprivations are the price of investing in the future. Private and deeply defensive, Afwerki bristles at criticism, whether foreign or domestic, and fiercely rejects the idea that Eritrea could benefit from any external aid. Having never faced a popular vote, he has no plans to start now, telling the Washington Post in December that Eritreans will not be ready for elections for "a long, long, long time."
Now 64, he has traded his camouflage for a suit, which sits squarely on his slim figure. In fact, he bears a striking resemblance to the dictator of the other pariah state to which Eritrea is so often compared: North Korea. His alleged offenses are not as much the usual suspects in Africa -- corruption and graft -- as they are calculated tyranny at home and a hand in arming and granting sanctuary to the Somali Islamist militants next door (a charge he has denied). Once hailed as the vanguard of a "new generation" of responsible African leaders, he has long since won the dishonor of being one of the continent's most repressive.
So though Asmara today looks like a charming Italian hill town circa 1930, that Soviet feel is never far away: shops full of empty shelves, citizens lining up with ration cards, shortages of basic goods, and a government dedicated to sustaining a military machine it cannot afford. With the economy stagnant, there is no hard currency to buy imports. Corner stores stock the same paltry selection of shoddy domestic goods: cleaning detergents, old fruit, a few bottled drinks, perhaps some canned food.