Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and Photographer Johan Persson have traveled to Eritrea in April 2016 to explore the truth about Eritrea, the people and its leaders. This is the second part story in a series of three reportage from Eritrea. The other two parts can be found here.
High above the valley—above the fog underneath the clouds—it’s like Eritrea’s intense history has taken a deep breath and holds it in. Not all slogans of the Eritrean Tourist Ministry hold up, but that a trip from Asmara to the port city, Massawa, is a journey of “two hours and three seasons” turns out to be true.
The road is snaking from the top of the mountains, clearing an elevation of 2,500 meters down to the sea. It’s a cinematic landscape. The thermometer on the dashboard of the car quickly increases from +25 degrees Celsius to 35.
The light shifts to steel blue and after another hour of driving, all we see is a thick white wall of fog. It feels like being somewhere in the mountain slopes of the Himalayas and the altitude change makes my ears pop. When the fog lifts, an explosion of chlorophyll green hits us. I immediately understand the foreign correspondents who fell in love with Eritrea during the war. This nature and guerilla soldiers reading philosophy and discussing Italian architecture—it must have been irresistible.
We stop and buy a watermelon. The salesman swears it weighs exactly 1.3 kilos and is “sweeter than sugar.” Our driver doesn’t bother to demand it being weighed, and explains that it’s the unique trust that keeps the country together.
“If it’s not sweet you can come back here and smash it to the ground in front of me, and I’ll give you your money back,” the salesman insists.
We keep on driving East toward The Red Sea. We booked the rental car with a driver ourselves, and we see no roadblocks or checkpoints. The asphalt is new and smooth. This road was built by the Italians during the colonial era, and since then has been an important connection between Asmara and The Red Sea. The parallel railroad, built in the late 1800s, is an impressive display of engineering. Along the road we sporadically see soldiers carrying rocks or planting trees. I remember the minister’s words about how most soldiers doing their military service were not stuck in the trenches, and it seems to be true.
During the two-hour drive we don’t meet one single car. Maybe it’s because of the high gasoline prices, maybe it’s the UN sanctions put on Eritrea for allegedly supporting Al-Shabaab and Asmara’s dispute with Djibouti. But every now and then we see one of the yellow trucks on the road below us carrying copper from the Bisha Mine, moving like ants with their valuable cargo to the coast. We are traveling along Eritrea’s financial artery.
Behind us, the mountains are towering like a fort, and the heat hits me full force. This is one of the warmest cities in the world with a high humidity and an average temp of +30 Celsius. Suddenly my nostrils recognize the familiar smell of seaweed and saltwater.
A dark gray container filled with copper is swaying silently in the air as it’s lifted by an enormous crane up in the air,and loaded onto “African Swan,” a cargo freighter destined for China. It’s surprisingly silent, almost spooky. As goods worth millions fill the bulk of the carrier, the only sound is that of a forklift.
On top of a tall wooden structure, way out on the pier, the port superintendent stands, keeping an eye on the work.
“We have expanded enormously the past few years, thanks to the copper mine. We have new cranes, new trucks and now we’re operating on double-shifts in order to manage the volume,” he says passionately.
He doesn’t want to be interviewed.
“The instructions from my superiors is to only give you factual information,” he says, but the pride over his port and the work they are doing is so big that he agrees to letting me take notes.
“All gasoline, imported food and electronics in Eritrea have passed through this port. Out in the water-way, three more container vessels are waiting to come in,” he explains.
To say that the port in Massawa is at a strategic location would be an understatement. Placed in the middle of Eritrea’s 1,000 kilometer long coastline, the port is a place for projection of dreams for the nation, kind of like a Singapore in Africa. This is the entrance to Eritrea’s isolation.
“The development is going even faster now that investors are beginning to notice Eritrea,” the port superintendent says, adding that he’s hoping for a bigger yard, where there’s room for more containers and fixed cranes.
The port area looks like one large Lego project with yellow, red and blue containers moving silently over the pier and through the eye of the needle.
Even if the copper prices are lower today than a few years back when the Chinese industry was spinning at a top rate, business is still good for Eritrea.
“The only limitation we have is that we have to use mobile cranes, or the ones on the vessels at loading and unloading. With fixed cranes we’d be more competitive,” says the port superintendent, stepping aside as a forklift branded “Kalmar” comes swishing by.
“Part of this port is specially constructed for the unloading of gasoline and diesel, and another part has been expanded and fitted as a container terminal,” he says. “We’ve had Belgians from the port of Antwerp here training us, but know we know how to run everything ourselves, so we’ve sent them on vacation. We like to partner up with foreign expertise. They educate us and then leave so we can run our own port,” he says. He is also the only person in Eritrea whom I hear saying that he’s gotten a raise recently.
Down by the water, the waves are crashing in over the miles upon miles of long sandy beach visible from the pier. While the import and export business is enjoying an upswing, the beach chairs remain empty. This weekend local tourists will come to the beach resort, they say, but right now nobody is there.
Outside of the Eritrean archipelago lays an additional 300 nearly untouched islands with long, sandy beaches.
Grand Dahlak, the hotel at the tourist resort in the city of Massawa, seems deserted. The enormous pool is like glass; nobody is swimming.
In anticipation of potential tourists, the owner keeps all the rooms spotless and the floors polished; he’s ready for the time that may come.
It would be easy to call Massawa a ghost town, but also a little unfair. Traces of war are still visible on the facades in the city. After the Ethiopians were chased out of the city, they responded by bombing Massawa relentlessly for six whole days in February of 1990. Almost all buildings were destroyed or damaged.
One of those buildings that has been restored is home to The Northern Red Sea Museum. It was founded in 2000 to mark the city’s liberation. In front of the museum are captured Ethiopian military boats, and Eritrean flags flapping in the wind at every light post, while inside, the first visible object is a 14-meter-long whale. Photography is prohibited.
“Many museums keep replicas of artifacts, that’s why it’s not allowed to photograph here,” our guide explains.
I jot down the number of native Etriean turtles, fish and corals. In glass jars, mollusks rest half-dissolved in alcohol. The museum displays a mix of ethnographic, military memorabilia and natural history.
The guide shows us emperor Haile Selassie’s bed that stood in his summer palace and tells us that the Italians occupied Massawa by 1885 and that it was the colonial capital of Eritrea in 1900. Then the Italians moved it to Asmara, because the climate there was more comfortable.
We see grim-faced Askari, Eritreans who fought for fascist leader Benito Mussolini during World War II. In 1941, the British drove the Italians out and took over the administration of Eritrea.
“According to the British, we have two things: our love of freedom and our love for education. The Italians just saw us as soldiers or farmers,” the guide explains.
After World War II, many hoped for Eritrea’s independence, but the UN decided that the country should be a part of a federation with Ethiopia.
Portraits on the museum walls show the leaders of the resistance movement that began in 1958. About a year later, the armed struggle for independence began. The guide takes us into the next area of the museum, which, according to posters, shows the “bitterness of the struggle, the creativity of the freedom fighters and the malice of the enemy.”
In one photo the president’s advisor, Yememe Gebreab, interviews a Russian prisoner of war. The photo doesn’t display a year “due to national security” but I recognize the advisor.
I’ve heard about these photos before I arrived in Eritrea. The Eritrean war photographer, Seyoum Tsehaye, who was arrested at the same time as Dawit Isaak and has also been in prison for 15 years, supposedly took them. In a glass cabinet next to the black and white photos are the world famous plastic sandals the Eritrean Army wore, where the soles were put on backwards to confuse pursuers.
Other displays show how the camels carried water to the soldiers, homemade gasmasks and short-shorts made of burlap. The explanation behind the short shorts of the Eritrean Army was that the tailor tried to get as many pairs made with what material he had. In another room, the Battle of Afabet and the tanks are on display.
“The revenge by the Ethiopian Army after the loss was horrific, they charged into a village and massacred everyone,” the guide says.
On the floor are gypsum mannequins of an Ethiopian soldier who has killed a child and stands with his foot on its back, ready to shoot the mother. Thirty years and 100,000 dead people later, the war ends and independence is a fact.
It seems as if the time is frozen in 1991. The clocks have stopped, the display cases are locked and the texts are laminated. The state of war and state of emergency becomes eternal. The Ethiopian soldier’s foot on the child’s back is cast solid.
But then I see an artifact from March 7, 2007. On a wall is a mounted seagull that was captured on The Red Sea. On the seagull’s left leg they found a ring from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. After a flight of 5,435 kilometers the seagull was captured, and the museum guide tells us that it was immediately dissected to make sure it didn’t have the bird flu. It didn’t.
He wears a suit, leather shoes and a white shirt. His handshake is firm and he invites me to sit down.
“You have to understand what type of nation Eritrea is. We are children of war, we have a mentality rooted in war based on survival,” says Eritrea’s former Minister of Defense,” Sebhat Efrem, making himself comfortable in his chair.
His office is spacious and filled with maps, books, photographs, souvenirs from a life in the trenches and the inner circle of national politics. He is now Eritrea’s Minister of Energy and Mines.
The sofas are worn and unpretentious. And again, to enter his office, there are no metal detectors or guards. We are back in Asmara. Outside, the weaverbirds are singing.
“If you look at buildings and the infrastructure, you could say we’re stuck in time. In the 1930s we were like South Africa, now the difference is enormous. What happened to us?” he asks rhetorically, and puts down his coffee cup on the table before answering his own question.
“War with Ethiopia, war with Sudan, war with Djibouti, and war with Ethiopia again,” he says and knocks with his knuckle on the table.
In Eritrea, Sebhat Efrem is known to be a tough rhetorician. This is how he summarized his philosophy after the war: “If there is a crack in the boat it will sink. Eritrea is like a boat and the enemies’ main goal is to create a crack and we must ensure that the Eritrean boat will not crack.”
According to him it’s the nations “soft values” that will shape Eritrea’s future.
“National security is comprised of several things. Weaponry is one thing, but a country’s psychosocial aspects, the soft values, is where things really are decided and if you fail with this, you fail with everything.”
As a Minister of Defense it was his responsibility to disarm the army after independence.
The demobilization began in 1994 and the nowadays infamous compulsory military service was instituted to “build dams and roads.”
Four years later, Sebhat Efrem had his hands full with a new war.
In his mind, the cause of the war didn’t have anything to do with a border dispute or even the city Badme, but about “Ethiopian domestic policy.”
“Our country is small and completely lacks strategic depth, we had no other choice but to stay and fight. There was nowhere to retreat,” he says.
During the three attacks by Ethiopia, the only order he could give was for them to buckle down and fight to the last man. He draws parallels to Sparta and Battle of Thermopylae. He describes Ethiopia’s actions during the war as “madness.”
“Einstein’s definition of madness is to repeat the same mistake over and over and that’s exactly what Ethiopia did.”
The former Minister of Defense describes the neighboring country’s regime as petrified of losing power, constantly paranoid.
The current situation with a “no-war-no-peace” scenario is, according to Sebhat Efrem, a hard nut to crack, one that only time can resolve.
“What happened was a tragedy, and still, nobody has learned anything. In the situation we are now, time is the best teacher both for our country and Ethiopia, but also for the international community,” he says and pours himself more coffee.
I’ve requested a meeting with Sebhat Efrem to talk about Ethiopia and what he thinks of the risk of another war. First he wants to know if I’ve been in Fisksätra, a small town on the outskirts of Stockholm. I nod.
“I have a sister who lives there,” he says, excuses himself and walks over to his desk to grab his laptop.
He tells me about the Swedish missionaries who laid the foundation for the educational system in Eritrea, but says it’s been a long time since he had any visitors from Sweden.
“I wish more Swedes were interested in Eritrea so we could begin new partnerships,” he says, sitting down again.
I sit down next to him and wait the moment it takes for his old laptop to start up. The screen turns blue and he clicks on a PowerPoint presentation with the name “National Security Strategy.”
“On paper Ethiopia is a major power, supported by the legend of an empire, but there’s been a paradigm shift in the country, something that the outside world has not noticed,” the former Minister of Defense says, and clicks up more slides of the presentation while explaining how the country is overconfident in its military force.
I move closer to the former minister to be able to see the screen better, while he describes a paranoia in Ethiopia that he believes will lead to a collapse of the state.
“A minority is trying to rule a majority and to succeed, they chose war. That’s their only chance to keep the nation together and divert attention from the real problems.”
Sebhat Efrem’s analysis also leads him to believe that there’s a big risk of future wars, and that he’s troubled by what he hears from the other side of the border.
“The Ethiopian state is tearing at the seams and we know how a state like that collapses; In the hands of those where the final decision rests, isn’t the rebellious strength but the weakness of those in power. Insurgents used to be a figment of imagination they frightened the citizens with, but now they are a reality. They have created a Frankenstein’s monster.”
I take notes and ask how he can be so sure about this looming collapse.
“Their ethno political culture is a time bomb, which will explode and then Ethiopia will vanish in its wake. Their entire huge army will fall apart without us having to fire a single gun,” he says confidentially.
He says that during the last war he already warned the Ethiopian regime about the risks of building a state where a minority of six percent, those from the Tigray region, would hold all the power positions . Eritrea chose a different path and disbanded the ethnically divided units already before their independence. He shows me a slide over Ethiopia with red arrows pointing away from the Amhara-, Afar-, Ogaden- and Oromo regions, and toward the capitol city.
“This is the map of the state collapse, how armed rebel groups are sweeping in toward the epicenter from all geographic directions. It will be a catastrophe of biblical proportions.”
The most pressing issue is the protests by the Oromo people. During this year alone, Ethiopian security forces have shot 120 civilian protesters to death.
“They are looking for revenge because they’ve been treated like secondary citizens for too long. They make up a majority of the population and is a power that could eradicate everything,” Sebhat Efrem says.
Unless the constitution is changed, he believes the state apparatus will lose its legitimacy within a few years.
“The army consists to 60 percent of people from the Oromo region, so when the politicians play the ethnicity card, it’ll be like pouring gasoline on the fire.”
When I ask the former Minister of Defense to show me some facts to support his doomsday scenario, he says it’s “hard to quantify the decline.”
“But you can already now anticipate the massive flow of refugees, epidemics, lawlessness and how the Ethiopian Security Service increasingly becomes a state within a state?”
He presents his theories, not with malice but with sadness. Ethiopia faces a choice, he says. The violence will either continue to escalate, turn into ethnic cleansing and a state collapse, or, if they change their constitution and retreat from Badme, there is a chance they can avoid disaster.
“Ethiopia is pressed up against the wall, and their options are running low. If they don’t retreat, their regime will collapse under its own power.”
His summary of Ethiopia is “a poor nation that has never won a war.” But despite his description of a galloping crisis, the former Minister of Defense thinks the process will be slow.
“Ethiopia is like a dinosaur, you won’t kill it quickly. It will take time. But they are afraid, wounded and surrounded now.”
In order to save Ethiopia, Sebhat Efrem believes nations like Sweden can play a role. But it demands quick action.
“The international community has ignored the warning signs, because they’ve had a romance with the country. But politics needs to be established in reality, not emotions,” he says, closes his laptop and calls for more coffee.
“What will you do to make sure Eritrea doesn’t walk down the same path?”
To that question is only one answer, he says—develop the Eritrean culture.
“Some politicians want to exaggerate their roles. Take the Cold War, for example, it ended by itself. Suddenly the people destroyed the Berlin Wall. Nobody saw it coming. Politics is full of surprises and I don’t think we should underestimate the spontaneity of human kind,” he says.
He also believes that right now, Eritrea’s “soft powers” are strong.
“Culturally and psycho-socially we are in great shape, especially in comparison with our neighbors, and if we only have the moral strength, the development will come by itself.”
Another advantage for Eritrea is time, he says.
“The road to economic growth and stability is more of a steady trickle, than a quick economic miracle. The best teacher is time.”
The fact that Eritrea is celebrating 25 years of independence, he says, is mostly a numbers game.
“That’s like counting the feathers of a flying bird. What does that say about anything more than that time has passed?” he asks.
But if he was to give one example of time as a good teacher, it is that the new generation is inheriting a nation in relative peace.
“The children of this country don’t follow in the footsteps of their fathers. The daughter of a farmer can become an engineer.”
The only worrisome detail, says the former Minister of Defense, is that potential investors can be scared off by all the “noise.”
In a month or two, the UN Commission of Inquiry will present its findings about whether Eritrea is guilty of human rights crimes or not.
On the walls of the former Minister of Defense/current Minister of Energy and Mines hangs a photograph of the circumscribed copper mine, Bisha. A huge open-cast mine, located 150 kilometers west of Asmara and on the border to Sudan, which so far has replenished the Eritrean Treasury with $800 million. On the question of whether he’s read Amnesty International’s report, accusing the Bisha-mine’s management of slave labor, he nods.
“I read all of Amnesty’s reports, all of us in government do. But what do you do with a report like that if you’ve thrown blood and fire? If your country is threatened by war? I wish we didn’t have to have mandatory military service. If they would have tried to come here in person, they would have seen that we are doing great.”
In a Canadian lawsuit, lawyers demand that the mine be closed because “all cooperation with the Eritrean government supports the abuse.” Several witnesses in the report describe a torture method called “the helicopter” where the victim is undressed and has their arms and legs hogtied on their back.
Mining and Energy Minister Sebhat Efrem would rather highlight the unique aspects of the Bisha mine’s operation.
“In many African nations we’ve seen how all that’s left after a few years of foreign mining is a contaminated hole in the ground. We wanted to see if it could be done a different way. We were curious if it would work to collaborate with a foreign mining in extracting minerals.”
The result was an Eritrean-Canadian project where the goal was for the foreign mineworkers to educate the Eritreans, so that eventually, the Canadians would no longer be needed. The Mining Minister also wants to downplay the enormous expectations what income a single mine could yield.
“So far we only have one mine. The money from it will not go far. Today we don’t pay the soldiers or the veterans well.”
The plan is, now that they have experiences from the Bisha mine, to invite more mining companies, as well as open up the market for oil, natural gas and tourism.
“Wars are ravaging around us, but here, in the eye of the storm, is where the stability and possibilities exist. We are open for investments, but we have to keep the control of our cultural identity. If we lose that, we have no use for the new income,” he says.
The sun slowly sets outside Sebhat Efrem’s office.
If Eritrea’s economy continues to grow, the former Minister of Defense has one single wish.
“The money would immediately be invested in our national healthcare.