Eritrea - Introduction

Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea [attested by Shashank Bengali, McClatchy Newspapers, November 10, 2009 ]. There is only a scant amount of open source material available on this notoriously secretive country. A U.N. commission detailed in a report 08 June 2015 "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations" committed under the Eritrean government's authority. "Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country," the report said.

The June 2015 Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea noted that "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.... the initial promises of democracy and rule of law, incarnated in the never-implemented Constitution of 1997, were progressively suppressed and then extinguished by the Government.... the Government has created and sustained repressive systems to control, silence and isolate individuals in the country, depriving them of their fundamental freedoms. Information collected on people’s activities, their supposed intentions and even conjectured thoughts are used to rule through fear in a country where individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed."

The challenges posed by the 'not war, not peace' situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the fragile regional context, are a formidable burden on Eritrea's development. Eritrea is also highly susceptible to drought as there are no permanent rivers and there is an acute lack of fertile land.

The authoritarian regime of the Government of the State of Eritrea [GSE] is controlled entirely by the president, who heads the sole political party; that party has ruled the country since 1991. National elections have not taken place since then. Regionally, Eritrea has had military confrontations with Ethiopia and Djibouti over border disputes. It has also been cited by the UN for destabilizing activities in the broader Horn of Africa and remains subject to two UN Security Council sanctions resolutions.

The international community has been remarkably complacent about the refugee crisis. The government’s recourse to coercion to achieve security and to give effect to its nation-building vision further widened the gap between the liberation generation and the ensuing national service genera- tion. The State of Eritrea, which formally acceded to independence on 24 May 1993, covers an area of 121,144 sq km (46,774 sq miles)….Eritrea, which has a coastline on the Red Sea extending for almost 1,000 km, is bounded to the north-west by Sudan, to the south and west by Ethiopia, and to the south-east by Djibouti. The population is fairly evenly divided between Tigrinya-speaking Christians, the traditional inhabitants of the highlands, and the Muslim communities of the western lowlands, northern highlands and east coast.

The capital is Asmara and the main port cities are Massawa and Assab. Several languages are spoken, including Tigrinya, Tigre and Amharic. Arabic and English are also widely spoken. The national or official language is English.

Eritrea itself is unique. Its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia was waged in isolation, and as a result, the country possesses an exceptional sense of self-reliance and self-determination. This country disdains dependence on foreign aid and takes the rhetoric of the 1990s -- partnership, participation, "African-led," and accountability -- and turns it into reality.

The Government of the State of Eritrea [GSE] maintains checkpoints, military patrols, and frequent roundups throughout Asmara to check the documents of Eritrean citizens. The GSE raids bars, church services, residences, restaurants, buses, and taxis, arresting Eritreans at will. Males and females of draft age who cannot prove they have completed their mandatory military service are immediately arrested and conscripted into the Eritrean military for indefinite periods of time. In early 2008, the GSE raised the minimum age for Eritreans to leave the country to 54 years old for males and 47 years old for females. All others are refused. The GSE's internal repression has resulted in thousands of its citizens, mainly its youth, attempting to flee to either Ethiopia or Sudan. In summer 2007, the GSE reportedly issued a "shoot-to-kill" policy on the borders, authorizing Eritrean police/military to kill Eritreans attempting to flee Eritrea.

Asmara is a very mountainous city with dangerously steep and curving roads leading out of the capital. The roads are narrow, some in poor condition, minimal or no guard railings. Roads are frequently littered with fallen rocks and debris.

Driving is challenging. Road rules are often not observed, and it is not uncommon to find vehicles stopped in active traffic lanes. Trucks hauling products from Massawa are sometimes not well-maintained, due to the expense and lack of spare parts. Thus, people tend to improvise repairs. They travel on precarious roads where fog and haphazard driving result in a number of fatalities each year. Defensive driving is a must.

The biggest hazard is non-vehicular traffic in the roadway (pedestrians, persons in wheelchairs, bicycles, donkey carts, etc.). Pedestrians and bicyclist are a particular hazard because they tend to disregard vehicular traffic. Many walk and ride with earphones and are not cognizant or situationally-aware of road hazards.

Walking the streets of Asmara between 6am-10pm is generally safe. Asmara is a very active city during the night, and as long as there are people on the streets, and isolated areas are avoided, Asmara is a relatively safe city in which to walk. The downtown area of Asmara is generally populated with people from morning until midnight.

Crime is generally higher in the early morning hours and in areas with high bar/club concentrations (the Expo Center). Downtown is also a high bar/club concentrated area. Some bars stay open until 5am. Assaults during these hours are common, and youth gangs are indiscriminate of who they target. Women walking alone during these hours are particular vulnerable. Power outages can make walking at night dangerous.

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