Eritrea: The price of peace

In a city in flux, impromptu peace talks can spring up in the most unlikely of situations In a city in flux, impromptu peace talks can spring up in the most unlikely of situations

By Nick Redmayne for National Geographic Traveller. 

I was anxious about what to expect ahead of my visit to Asmara, having heard the Eritrean capital described as ‘the North Korea of Africa’ — a somewhat damning epithet. But after a day here spent drinking cappuccino, eating pizza, watching Lycra-clad cycle racers and joining the afternoon passeggiata along 1930s-style art deco boulevards, I have to conclude the city seems more Rome than Pyongyang.

I’d arrived at Bar Crispi to find all the tables occupied, so I’d taken a seat at the counter. “Hey, remember me from yesterday?” I hear a voice say. “I invite you to a beer?” said Yohanas, pulling up a stool next to me. Before I can answer, two open bottles of Ethiopian Habesha beer arrive.

Yohanas is about 50, balding, and thicker set than many Eritreans. “Ethiopian beer is everywhere,” I say.

‘Since two months. Before, nothing,” replies Yohanas, referencing the recent peace agreement with its southern neighbour. “You know what this ‘Habesha’ means? It’s like Abyssinia.” We both take a long gulp. “You know, Eritreans and Ethiopians, we are brothers.” He pauses. “But we fight so long.”

Yohanas is right. The first shots in a fight that became a bitter, all-out war for Eritrean independence were fired in 1961. A brief hiatus surrounded Eritrea’s victory some 30 years later, to be followed by 20 years of unresolved ‘border conflict’. In July 2018, a peace agreement was reached.

More Habesha arrives. A TV starts showing a UK Premier League match. The volume in Bar Crispi rises. Yohanas leans towards me; “I’m in the military,” he whispers. I’m surprised and a little wary. “In logistics, since 1997. It’s National Service. On paper 18 months, but it’s more than 18 years. I’m paid 600 Nakfa [£31] a month. Some people abroad, family, they help me. If they didn’t, life would be hard. But what can you do? It’s the military. You can’t say no.”

One of Eritrea’s largest exports is its own people. The UN estimates that around 4,000 of its citizens — most of working age — leave every month. Avoiding indefinite national service is usually the reason. “There’s no work. National Service keeps people busy,” says Yohanas raising his eyebrows. “So they don’t overthrow the government.”

Having downed his beer, Yohanas orders a shot of colourless arak — think Ethiopian ouzo — and lights a cigarette. He leans in again. “They think all foreigners are spies. Tomorrow they will ask me, ‘Who was he? What was he doing here? Did he offer you money?’”

Really?” I reply.

“Yes, some among those here.” He looks around, appraising the crowded bar. “But I will say you are a from England and a tourist, and that will be it.”

Largely the brainchild of Ethiopia’s dynamic, young prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, the July peace deal, caught the world and, to some extent, the Eritrean administration, by surprise. Borders reopened, reuniting families separated for over 20 years. By contrast, the Eritrean government, led by President Isaias Afwerki since 1993, looks to many of its people to be old, slow and entrenched in policies that haven’t evolved from the independence struggle.

“We need a new generation,” Yohanas states plainly, though respectfully, as I leave. Other Eritreans have said as much. Later, in my hotel’s lobby, the TV relays President Afwerki’s first interview since the peace agreement. An expectant crowd gathers. Some record the President’s words. All listen intently.

I ask the receptionist if he’s announcing anything new. “No,” she says flatly. “Just the same. Nothing new at all.” The crowd starts to drift away. Much has changed, but much remains the same. For young Eritreans asking where their future lies, the President’s apparent inaction provides the definitive answer. They too will drift away.

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