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.
Nine months later, the plane is taxiing out from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Quatar, where we have a layover on our way to Eritrea. The seconds feel like an eternity and I’m tapping my fingers on my legs while the noise fills the cabin, we accelerate and—thunder off up in the sky. I close my eyes and don’t open them again until I hear the familiar sound of wheels folding up.
“It feels like flying to the moon,” Johan says.
I look down at the light that’s spreading out underneath us. We were both at the gate well before takeoff. Johan doesn’t go nuts if he has to wait for an airplane for more than 30 minutes anymore. We all get older.
There is $5,000 in the tightly packed carryon. Eritrea doesn’t have cash withdrawal machines.
The other passengers, many in traditional garb, are excited; there’s a festival vibe on the plane. I feel more like we’re on the way to our execution.
Just before we left, news by various opposition media reported that military in the capital city, Asmara, had shot ten draftees trying to escape the compulsory military service. Demonstrations in Eritrea are announced the same day we are to land.
The information I’ve heard, that about 20 people have been killed, flickers through my brain. Several of them were civilians, relatives trying to help their sons avoid being drafted by the army. But it is hard to find trustworthy sources to confirm this.
Shortly before our departure, I received a call from the Eritrean Embassy in Stockholm. An embassy clerk wanted to know if I’d heard the news of the fatal shootings.
I give him an “uh-hum” for an answer.
“People die in Africa all the time, but it always turn into front-page news when someone dies in Eritrea,” the embassy clerk says, irritated.
He called to tell me not to worry.
“Asmara is the safest capital city on the continent. You never have to be scared of anything there. You can move about freely and speak to whomever you please. We won’t send anyone with you, because then you’ll just write that. You are on your own. Good luck.”
While I’ve taken care of all the practicalities for this trip, it feels like an impossible journey. Is it really possible to fly to Asmara? I stare at the flight map in the seat-back in front of me and read out loud. It really shows Asmara as a destination. One moment it feels like a “walk-in-the-park” and the next, unattainable. Even though we’ve done our homework and have many reportage-trips like this under our belts, where we are headed is still one of the toughest places in the world to work, for journalists.
But my real worry is that we aren’t worried. This is far from a “normal” or an easy story—the last time we were here, we ended up prisoners and sentenced to 11 years.
I doze off and suddenly I wake up and a bright light stings my eyes. I look out the window, trying to get oriented. Medina? No, it has to be Mecca! I manage to take a picture with my phone before we leave Saudi Arabia behind us and the dark sea spreads out below.
Then a light shows on the black surface, another one and another one. It takes a moment before I realize they are position lights of the ships on The Red Sea. Thousands of tankers and cargo vessels as they move through the aorta of the world economy with oil, electronics, and weapons.
Below us is a canvas of starry positioning lights.
I see on the flight map that the plane has rounded the war-ridden Yemen, before we are in a straight line toward Asmara. Recently, Eritrea entered a new strategic union with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which gave The Arabic League permission to use Eritrean territory, airspace and waters in their military campaign in Yemen. In exchange, Eritrea got fuel and foreign currency.
Ten thousand meters up in the air, Eritrea’s strategic geographic location manifests itself. Aside from the advantage of a long coastline on The Red Sea, the country is also cutting off Ethiopia.
The Captain speaks about the weather in Asmara over the intercom, while the plane is losing altitude and I feel a flutter in my stomach. How crazy are the Eritreans? Could they have had the idea of using us as pawns in some bizarre prisoner exchange? If not, and even if we are able to leave this place: Is it even possible to do any type of journalism from this country?
I know what I think about colleagues who only wrote about Ethiopians eating ice-cream in Addis Abeba or economic growth or an African renaissance while I was in prison. I didn’t like journalists who did not write about those who are imprisoned.
The sound of the unfolding landing gear sends uneasiness through my body. I feel that it’s a very bad idea to return to the Horn of Africa—again. The first feeling on the ground is that something isn’t quite right at the Asmara Airport passport control. Nobody wears a uniform. There are no portraits of the president on the walls and no Kalashnikov-toting soldiers milling about. Our fellow passengers line up in a long queue in front of the sleepy plainclothes men and women who are working the immigration windows.
It feels like buying a ticket to a concert at a youth club.
Nobody checks our luggage and we get our camera equipment and satellite phone through, without problems.
“Are you here to work in the mine?” A well-dressed man asks us in the arrival hall.
I shake my head, but he offers us a ride anyway, since we are going to stay at the same hotel as the international engineers arriving to work at the copper mine in Bisha, who were also on the flight.
Outside the terminal a Canadian man is smoking a cigarette in the cool summer night. He carries a 24-pack of Heineken under one arm.
“I travel light,” he says and laughs.
Then there’s a power outage and everything turns pitch black. The moon, a hammock-looking sliver, and bright stars are the only illumination.
There are familiar scents.
When the power returns, the Canadian man explains his luggage.
“The local beer tastes like shit,” he says, smiling mischievously and stepping aboard the minibus which will bring us to the hotel.
His mining company, Nevsun, have been here for eight years. It was the first international mining company that was allowed. During the first test drills, they found gold and then copper. He’s a man of few words, but says the profits the mining industry has yielded have been substantial, both for Eritrea and his company.
“The mine was able to export copper to China when the prices were on the very top,” he says.
The car rolls through a blacked out Asmara and it’s hard to get geographical bearings. There are some streetlights, but no traffic signals seem to work.
Once in my hotel room, I pass out, exhausted from stress.
That night we turned off the air conditioner and left the windows open. I turned on the TV and flipped around between the world’s news outlets: Al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN, even the Ethiopian state-owned news channel.
According to the Ambassador, this trip would be a ”myth-busting experience.” But I know how many mine fields there are out there.
Such a small detail in reportage runs the risk of becoming a rhetorical punch line. And yet again, it’s the truth.
I have a moment of regret again, wondering if this trip is right. I’m thinking of an Italian TV-team I’ve heard about that decided upon return not to air any of their filmed material because it would have been perceived as “fluff,” too positive.
The difficulty is in the method. As a journalist you can only report what you see and hear. To be invited on a journalist’s visa is both a blessing and a curse. You are not incognito.
In preparation for the meetings of the day, I do some research. I read an interview with one of the Eritreans who fled across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa, the Italian island south of Malta.
I read about how people, in a panic, pulled each other down below the surface. How those who could not cope, didn’t have the strength to tread water any longer in the darkness and gave up, shouted out their names so that the survivors could tell how they died, and that they loved their children.
I read about how this fugitive saw the sun rise, and how she was too tired to keep hold of the lifebuoy when she was pulled out of the water, covered in oil. That night, 366 people drowned. In Italy, all victims were accepted as nationals and given a proper burial. Those who survived were not given Italian citizenship. She was one of them.
I jot down in my notebook that people don’t put their children in rickety boats unless their current living situation is scarier than death.
Outside of an enormous communal breakfast room, two housekeepers are dusting a balustrade. One night in this hotel cost a month’s pay for the employees. The room is empty aside from a Finish mineworker who was turned around because he didn’t have the right paperwork to enter the copper mine.
From here there’s a view of two turquoise pools. Nobody is swimming. This is Asmara’s most expensive hotel. This is also the hotel where a group of Eritreans held a conference about the need to democratize their country in 2001. Dawit Isaak was one of them. Several of the participants in that conference, members of the G-15 group, are either dead or still in prison.
At one of the tables, an Eritrean businessman is enjoying his espresso. When he hears that we are Swedish journalists, he gets slightly irritated.
“Are you going to write this is like North Korea, now?” he says more than asks and puts down his phone on the table.
“I am here to find out what is true and not,” I say, hearing how pretentious it sounds.
“OK, we have no elections where people vote, so I guess we are a dictatorship then, fine write that,” he says, continuing to gush.
“But in the border conflict, we are right. Why can’t the outside world recognize that? Why does everyone keep bullying us? Why do they never criticize Quatar and Saudi Arabia, when they beat down demonstrations? All we are trying to do here is to create a little social justice. Of course we could use reforms, but look at the Arabic spring, it was kidnapped by extremists. And change, what is that really? Should we all change clothes? Should I switch shirts?”
Johan asks if he can take a photo, but the man declines by gesticulating with his hands. I turn on the recorder on my phone, I definitely don’t want to miss anything from this “quote-machine.”
“It was war. We fought. To the last man. All the while, there were 15 people sitting at this very hotel, sipping wine and eating cookies. They stabbed us in the back when we were the most vulnerable. They had plans for who was going to take over the power. Dawit Isaak wasn’t one of them, but he published their list. They should all be in prison, all of them!”
I order an espresso, too, and lean back while our newfound friend keeps on talking.
“The so-called ‘opposition,’ I don’t even want to call them that. They sit in comfortable chairs in front of their computers and complain. Who are they? I know every single one of them from the war. I know who they are, and they are nothing. They complain about our president, he who wears cheap shoes, he doesn’t drink whiskey, or wine, only water in small, small glasses,” he says, showing us on a glass on the table.
I nod and say that we are hoping to interview President Isaias Afwerki.
“What do you do if you don’t have water? Well, you roll up your sleeves and get to work to find some. What do you do if you don’t have electricity? Well, you get to work, draw power lines and build energy plants so we can get some. What does the opposition do? Instead of working they are sitting on their behinds, talking about free elections. I know what types they are—“
I recognize his reasoning from the Järva Field back home in Stockholm and the demonstration in Geneva. The alienation, the suspicion, and, a burning passion for nation-building.
“We are the vulnerable ones, why is everyone attacking us? Look at Abraham Lincoln—he jailed thousands of people—but is still a hero. You have to put yourself in the president’s shoes. What would you have done when Ethiopia attacked? Given up?”
I respond something diplomatic along the lines that it surely isn’t easy to be a president.
That’s when the phone goes off. Johan picks it up after the first ring. We have been granted an interview with the Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel.
The journey through Asmara goes fast. The cafés lining the streets are full of people and palms stand tall in straight lines along the wide boulevards. All traffic signals are turned off, but the streets are very clean. It looks like few other African capital cities. Everywhere: a hard-to-explain feeling of normalcy.
“Gasoline is expensive, 45 Nakfa (3.8 Euro) per liter, but the currency reform [of 2015] has brought down the prices of tomatoes and staple foods,” the driver says.
According to him, the black currency market has vanished after the reform and for all foreigners who travel with dollars the prices have gotten three times as high.
Some of the buildings swishing by I recognize as the futuristic-styled gas station Fiat Tagliero, the brutal art deco-styled movie theater Roma, and the enormous Catholic Cathedral of Asmara, which towers over the heart of the city. The Italian influence carried over from colonial days is evident. But it has been a long time since anyone called Asmara Africa’s “Little Rome.”
When the car stops in an intersection, I look around. I see facades with clocks that have stopped, the paint is chipping and the shutters are hanging askew.
”Frozen in time,” I write in my notebook. It’s a cliché that most people who visit Asmara end up using. Still, it feels true.
A few minutes later, the driver stops outside of the Ministry of Information building. It’s located on a cliff, symbolically hovering over the city. I step outside and see that the security post is empty. There’s a mattress inside of it and it looks like someone has slept on it recently. In front of the security building an older man sits on a broken white plastic chair. Next to him are a crutch and a Kalashnikov. It’s the first weapon we see in Eritrea.
He smiles and points us toward one of the bigger buildings on the property and we walk inside without showing ID, or telling him our errand. On the glass door at the entrance is a note that reads: “I am a proud Eritrean” and inside the entrance a banner for the state-owned station ERI-TV hangs with the motto: “Serving the Truth.” One floor up, we find Eritrea’s Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel, seemingly completely without security.
The English translation of our book, “438 Days” lays on his wooden and glass desk.
“So what do you want to do in Eritrea?” he asks, opening his arms and sinking down into the sofa.
I explain that most of them who are allowed entry can only report about how people are drinking espressos and eating pastries at cafés, all the while there are also reports of people fleeing the country. If they hope to get other views of Eritrea, they have to allow us to travel around in the country. Freely.
I pull out my map and say that we’d love to visit their Ethiopian border in order to write about the border conflict, that we want to go to the sea, interview the President, meet Dawit Isaak, and visit the military school, Sawa.
It feels like a wish list to Santa Clause.
The minister writes down our wishes on a note and tells us to go over the details with his staff. To speak with military personnel, however, is not going to happen. Visiting Dawit Isaak isn’t, either. And visiting a military school is also out of the question. But the border and the sea, we are free to visit.
“How do we get there?” we wonder.
“How about renting a car? This is a free country,” Yemane Gebremeskel says. “You can speak to whomever you want. You can watch the Ethiopian TV and you can surf freely on the Internet. We don’t exercise censorship on anyone. We don’t block web sites, because the people have a right to information and we are not afraid to give it to them.”
He is a new type of Eritrean politician.
Well aware that his country has a poor reputation around the world, he’s become an online detective, keeping track of all that goes viral about Eritrea.
Recently he struck down a news fib spreading like wildfire about Eritreans being forced to take two wives. And to his 3,698 Twitter followers, he commented on BBC’s newscast about two fatal shootings in Asmara, explaining that it was two draftees who “fell off a truck.”
As in all conversations with ministers, also this starts with the war.
Yemane Gebremeskel speaks of the torch that will be carried around the country in 2016 and during the 25th anniversary year of independence, an act to honor the memory of the 60,000 people who died for it.
“In the second war, 1998 to 2000, another 20,000 soldiers died. If you add in the civilian losses, we are up in the 100 thousands,” he says in a grave voice.
He compares it with the 9-11 attacks on the United States and how that affected a country of about 300 million citizens and its foreign policy.
“I don’t really want to compare in numbers, every life is important, but what kind of effect does the kinds of losses we’ve had have on a country with 3 million people?
Yemane Gebremeskel is convinced that things would have been very different for his country, if another war hadn’t hit them. He was himself one of the negotiators during the “border conflict” and to him it’s still an open aggression, and a bleeding wound, and “everything but a border conflict.”
“The war with Ethiopia was unnecessary, it was fueled by other issues, but presented as a border conflict.”
Commenting on the fact that Ethiopia still occupies parts of Eritrea, he blames the rest of the world for not taking responsibility.
“We can’t have double-edge swords in world politics. International law isn’t something you can choose to follow or not,” the Minister of Information says.
He speaks faster and faster and steers the conversation toward the fact that the Eritrean military draft is a direct consequence of the “Ethiopian war drums,” which is also a reason why the young leave the country.
“The mandatory military service is of course a ‘push-factor.” If you are young in Eritrea today, you have to serve for a long time in one place without being able to travel freely, so obviously that’s not an attractive thing. Even if they are patriots and even if they love their country, some of them will not shoulder the honorable responsibility,” Yemane Gebremeskel says.
I am surprised. It is the first time I hear a minister admit the mandatory military service as a reason for why people are fleeing Eritrea. But despite this realization, he’s deeply critical of Swedish asylum policy, which he thinks makes the situation worse and makes more people flee.
“You can’t just automatically give refugee status to anybody-anybody. Political asylum should be given to those who need protection and are persecuted,” he says.
“Yes, but deserting from the Army is a crime, a crime that will send you to prison, and then you’re eligible for asylum if you come to Sweden.”
“Yes, deserting from the army is a crime, but that may result in some form of rehabilitation for a couple of months if you are arrested, it’s not particularly harsh. We can’t crack down hard on it, since we know that the conditions in the Army aren’t easy,” the Minister of Information says.
According to Yemane Gebremeskel, the “refugee issue” isn’t his responsibility, but the media image interests him and he is of the opinion that asylum is there to undermine Eritrea’s military and lure away the cream of the country’s youth. He also refers to a statement by an Austrian minister, who claims that 40 percent of those who claim to be Eritreans are really Somalis and Ethiopians.
“It is the European ‘red-carpet policy’ that has caused this refugee wave. In Sudan, there are 2 million refugees, when they start migrating this summer, how many of them do you believe will say they are from Eritrea?”
I avoid the numbers game and switch topics and ask him if it isn’t difficult to be a Minister of Information in a nation without Freedom of the Press.
“It is true that we don’t have any privately-owned press. But there are newspapers and even if they are government run, people do express their opinions in media without fear of repercussion,” he says.
When I tell him that I’ve read the newspaper “Profile” which publishes in English and I’ve not found one single critical article, he smiles.
“Can the reporters at that publication challenge the reforms of our regime? Theoretically yes. It is not illegal by law, but in practicality it doesn’t happen. It’s because our journalists feel that they don’t want to add more fuel to the smear campaign.”
“But isn’t it the role of journalism to be a watchdog that keeps an eye on power structures?”
“That’s how it’s supposed to work, on paper, but is that how it’s done in reality? I have my doubts, I have my doubts,” the Minister of Information says, pondering.
It’s a big difference interviewing an Eritrean politician at a hotel in Stockholm compared to here in Asmara. I can feel how the sharpness of my questions are slipping. How I am holding back, in hopes of getting an interview with the President himself.
I start a long explanation about the big delegation from Eritrea that came to our murdered prime minister, Olof Palme’s funeral in 1986. About the Swedish missionaries and about the times long ago when the relations between our countries were good. And while I’m talking, I think that I am starting to sound more like a politician than a journalist. It’s a little bit like when you have two great friends whom you think should become a couple and you tell them that the other person said something really great about them, and vice versa. I’m not feeling too hot about it.
“Swedish politicians constantly highlight the issue about a certain journalist who’s been involved in a number of domestic political entanglements and they have tried to tie all bilateral collaborations and contacts to this one particular issue,” Yemane Gebremeskel says in response to the loaded question about the relations between our countries.
The fact that “everything” involves Dawit Isaak makes Sweden’s role and intentions “questionable,” according to him. This while he also notes that even if Eritrea and Sweden have different opinions, he’s hoping for closer relations.
“People are allowed to have differing opinions, a relationship is based on more than one thing. The big problem with our relationship with Sweden is America’s strong position in the region and that Sweden has not wanted to approach the Eritrean position because that would mean that they have to go against the Americans.”
“And Sweden is not prepared to do that?”
“In theory, Sweden backs the border commission’s conclusion that Ethiopia is occupying parts of Eritrean territory, but they don’t do anything to help implement these conclusions since Sweden’s ties to Ethiopia are so strong. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk,” the Minister of Information says.
The border, always the border.
I look down into my green notebook, even though I already know what my next question is.
“You are celebrating 25 years as an independent nation. During 15 of these 25 years, Dawit Isaak has been imprisoned. Isn’t it possible to think that whatever it may be you are accusing him of, it’s about time for a pardon?
The Minister of Information tries to interrupt me several times, while I’m formulating the question.
“These are complex questions way beyond my mandate. I can’t begin answering questions that are outside of the frames of this interview,” he says.
“So you don’t have any news about his case?”
“I do not want to comment things that weren’t part of the conditions for this interview.”
“Is it possible to meet him?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Who can answer questions about him?”
“This particular issue has been handled in a specific way and you can’t just come here and talk about one individual as if it was an isolated question. I don’t want to answer any more questions about his case, or discuss it whatsoever,” says Yemane Gebremeskel, looking down.
Outspokenness has reached its limit and now I know exactly where the limit regarding national security is drawn. We leave the Ministry of Information with a certificate that allows us to travel outside the capital city. We are now allowed to photograph and interview and we have a piece of paper stating that we have the right to buy a local SIM-card for our phone. When we step out into the fresh air, all tension and discomfort I felt when we landed in Eritrea is gone.
We have now tested the waters and tread carefully into a new reality. Slowly but surely we are lulled into a different type of normalcy. We fumble for something solid to grab onto, but every doorknob we get our hands on leads us to another door and another door. Even if we aren’t getting the answers we are hoping for, none of the doors are closed and this is a very good sign. Doing solid journalistic work suddenly feels possible.
Outside the Ministry of Information, the old man still sits on his plastic chair. He smiles and waves with his crutch in the air. His Kalashnikov has slipped down on the ground. I put a hand over my heart.
The sun is still high in the sky. It feels like one of those stories where you’ll be lucky if you manage to get one piece of the puzzle per day. The question for us is how many pieces this puzzle consists of. And, what is its motif?