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ICC NOTE: Paranoia has borne the fruit of oppression in Eritrea , which has included imprisonment of those speaking out against the government and Evangelical Christians.

Silenced nation

Once seen as a model of new Africa, Eritrea is now the continent’s most paranoid state, says Xan Rice

Xan Rice

Friday August 11, 2006

For the full article go to Guardian Unlimited

“Don’t call me on this line again,” said ‘Matthewos’. “Set up a Yahoo! chat account and we’ll communicate that way.”

A few hours later, he came online. “Sorry about earlier. But if they hear us talking, they will hunt me.”

Welcome to Eritrea , Africa ‘s most paranoid state. Talk about the football, talk about the 30p beer and 10p cappuccinos in the capital Asmara , but if you want to talk about the government, do it over the internet.

Behind locked doors, and in hushed tones, Asmarinos trace the beginning of real paranoia to 2001, when 15 senior politicians were jailed for suggesting that President Isaias Afewerki was not a democrat. Eleven of them have not been seen since. Shortly afterwards, the independent media was shut down. At least 13 journalists remain in prison. Only North Korea has a worse record on press freedom.

Evangelical groups were the next targets. All churches outside of the Catholic, Protestant, orthodox Christian and Islamic mainstream were banned. More than 1,800 Christians are believed to have been locked away since 2003.

Jail often means a shipping container in the desert and the threat sufficient incentive to keep your lips sealed. “You can’t talk democratically here or you will end up there,” whispered one man at a pavement cafe.

Today’s stifling reality was unimaginable a decade ago. Back then, western tourists were flocking in to see Africa ‘s newest independent country. Economic growth was 6%. Money was pouring in from the diaspora. With its plan for rapid self-reliance, the government was praised as a model for the continent, and Mr Afewerki for being an enlightened leader.

Today you could walk down Asmara ‘s main boulevard at midday and not see a single tourist. The transport links to landlocked Ethiopia – which were the mainstay of the economy – no longer exist. Inflation is rampant, remittances from abroad have dropped off and Eritrea is a political pariah.

For many people the only dream left is to leave: even though there are a little over four million Eritreans, they form one of the largest groups of asylum seekers to Britain . “No dollars are coming into the country, so everything is expensive,” said Petros, a 24-year-old soldier. “We cannot even afford to buy kerosene to cook. It is so hard to live here now.”

It’s especially hard for young people with ambition. Before the border war with Ethiopia in 1998, all men aged between 18 and 40 and women from 18 to 27 were required to do 18 months’ national service, with the first six-months in the army. Now schoolchildren complete their final year at a military camp before entering open-ended national service.

Those not in the army build roads, dams or hospitals; teach in schools; or work in government-owned businesses as part of Eritrea ‘s own “Great Leap Forward”. Pay is typically £20 a month, forcing many people to work second jobs.

One afternoon, my 37-year-old driver, who was on annual leave from the military, told me matter-of-factly that he had been forced to quit his £100-a-month job in the private sector in 2003 to return to national service at a fifth of the salary. He had previously served in the army from 1990 to 1994.

Even the greatest of patriots find the sacrifice difficult to bear. “We Eritreans have something inside us that makes us willing to defend our country,” said Jonas, a young, aspiring musician who has already served four years in the army. “But the problem is that there is no end to this service.” With hundreds of young people crossing the border into Sudan each month to avoid the draft, the authorities have come up with a chillingly effective deterrent: jailing the father or mother instead.

The government is unapologetic about the crackdown on civil liberties and obsession with military might. It is completely consumed by the unresolved border conflict with Ethiopia , which lasted from 1998 to 2000 and cost more than 70,000 lives, and could still reignite. In 2002, Mr Afeworki and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, agreed that an independent commission would redraw their disputed mutual boundary. This decision was to be “final and binding”.