Eritrea

Off the Grid in Eritrea

As Eritrea improves relations with its neighbors, one writer in exile reflects on the country of his birth

by Abraham T. Zere

Amid news of Eritrea’s rapprochement with its neighboring Ethiopia after 20 years of deadlock and the resulting improved relations in the Horn of Africa, my interest in my home country has taken a new turn. Until these relatively recent developments, Eritrea had been descending into a bottomless abyss, thanks to the reclusive and short-sighted policies of its government. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to adapt to my new home, following my exile and becoming a stateless person.

It has been seven years since I left my home country. Over the years, as I went through several stages of rage/denial/adjustment, my relationship with Eritrea has constantly shifted.

Eritrea has gained adverse notoriety for being the source of a disproportionate number of refugees, fleeing particularly to neighboring countries and Europe, risking the deadly Mediterranean Sea journey. For different reasons, including to explore how this very inaccessible country functions, many people have expressed a renewed interest in visiting Eritrea and experiencing it firsthand.

Recently, I have received many requests for travel tips from independent researchers, journalists and documentary filmmakers who plan to visit Eritrea. At the same time, the opportunity to visit my country and see my family members and friends has been denied to me. I can’t deny that I’ve been reflecting a lot about this.

I have visited multiple countries since I left Eritrea. Each time I’ve traveled, I haven’t been able to resist comparing and contrasting the country I’m visiting with Eritrea. I put myself in the shoes of visitors who go to Eritrea and reflect on how they will react. Why would somebody consider visiting Eritrea and what possible challenges will they face?

Either to paper over the lost years or court the reclusive leadership, the international community has been trying to improve its relationships with the Eritrean government, possibly hoping to bring it in from the cold. U.N. sanctions have been lifted, allowing Eritrea to join U.N. Human Rights Council.

The thawing of relations with Ethiopia has signaled a new dawn, and it seems the Eritrean government wants to prove to the world that it’s changing.

In spite of the high hopes and media fanfare, however, it’s important to remember that no fundamental policy changes have occurred so far, though as a result of the normalization of relations with neighboring countries, the issuance of visas has reportedly improved.

The thawing of relations with Ethiopia has signaled a new dawn

For many years, applying for a visa to Eritrea has been a cumbersome process. (All visitors with the exception of citizens of IGAD member states—the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country trade bloc in Africa—need an entry visa.) What has likely improved after the peace deal with Ethiopia is the attitude of Eritrean consular offices. Their rate of rejection has reportedly declined both in terms of processing time (applications are processed in the capital city Asmara) and requirements.

The most effective way to get a visa is to work with travel agencies in Eritrea. Travel agencies also organize guided tours that can ease a huge burden and save visitors from experiencing the full weight of the tedious bureaucracy and travel restrictions within the country.

Visitors, of course, will miss a lot if they solely depend on guided tours. For the most part, they don’t allow visitors to taste authentic Eritrea. As is the case nearly anywhere, most locals behave indifferently toward a crowd of tourists riding in a travel agency bus. Traveling alone or in a small group is a more productive and illuminating way to travel.  

There are many reasons why someone should consider visiting Eritrea.

In 2017, UNESCO included Asmara on its World Heritage list, describing an “exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.”

For anyone interested in Art Deco or futuristic colonial architecture, Asmara should be top of their list. It’s also a clean and safe city with a moderate temperature at a high elevation (7,600 feet). What else does a visitor want in a new country? Clean air, welcoming locals, and all-organic fresh produce? Eritrea offers all of the above—but ironically, the country cannot afford to offer processed food in stores.

What’s more, despite the wide availability of weapons and the fact that almost every adult is trained in operating firearms, the homicide rate is very low—as is the crime rate.

Its high altitude and a breathtaking scenery make Eritrea an ideal destination for hikers. Of note, Eritrea’s strategic location provided a great advantage to American intelligence agencies who used Eritrea as a listening post to intercept radio communication during the Cold War. As Michela Wrong detailed in her book, I Didn’t Do it for You, between 1953 and 1977 about 4,000 Americans were stationed in Asmara, at a place called Kagnew Station.

Eritrea’s high elevation has also contributed to producing top-caliber athletes, especially cyclists. The country has consistently topped the list of the best cycling teams in Africa. It also has produced some of the best cyclists on international teams, including the first African to win the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour de France in 2015. On most weekends, Asmara’s beautiful streets are crowded with spectators watching their favorite sporting race.

Eritrean cities and towns do not (yet) boast a vibrant nightlife, however. Maybe it’s too early to expect that, considering the country has for so long suffered from a ravaged economy and an authoritarian political climate. Yet, Eritrea still offers long shores of unpolluted seacoast and islands.

The Red Sea at the Gurgussum Beach Hotel near Massawa, Eritrea.

 

The fact that many locals are influenced by the ceaseless state propaganda is also expected to improve. Not that long ago, many Eritreans would have considered expats as potential threats and even spies. This perception resulted in many citizens being guarded when dealing with non-Eritreans, especially from the West. Plus, Eritreans would often be understandably nervous that state security would monitor their interactions with visitors from other countries. On the flip side, some Eritrean citizens might feel more comfortable venting to outsiders, as they could be less fearful that the visitor would report them to state security. Still others might interact with visitors, especially from the West, as if they somehow reflected their country’s leadership.

Eritrea also presents an excellent opportunity for anyone interested to exploring how the ancient Christian and Islam religions coexisted peacefully for many centuries. Christianity was introduced to the present-day Eritrea in the 4th century (before Europe), and over the centuries it maintained its archaic Judeo-Christian practices, eventually evolving into more of a lifestyle than a rigid faith. Similarly, the first Muslims who fled Mecca after facing persecution in the 7th century settled in Eritrea. In the 8th century, Islam started having a great influence in the area.

The fact that Eritreans are a conspicuously peaceful and welcoming people could be a result of this long-standing religious detente, along with the very difficult historical epochs that these people managed to survive. Despite the abject poverty and lack of resources, one can’t help noticing and respecting their perseverance and unflinching dignity.

The deeply entrenched authentic traditions, graced with a modest veneer of modernity, makes Eritrea a perfect meeting point between past and present.

In Eritrea, it’s not unusual for a stranger to foot your bill in a restaurant or invite you to his or her home just based on a shared taxi ride or few conversations. Guests are treated with utmost respect, and everyone tries to accommodate them and offer the best that they have. In some former European colonies, citizens might show undue adoration or rage toward visitors, especially those from the West. Eritreans, however, tend to treat every guest and visitor equally, including those who visit from the diaspora.

The archaic tradition and relatively unadulterated culture, of course, is not without its shortcomings. Today’s Eritrea is a melancholic state that’s frozen in time. It’s reminiscent of places that many people have seen only in films. With its exclusively cash economy, Eritrea has no ATM machines.

Communication with the outside world is very difficult due to extremely slow internet connections. While not impossible, it’s also very difficult to get a local number or SIM card for a short visit. If someone is looking for a real break from our exceedingly chaotic and busy world, however, Eritrea offers an ideal retreat.

This “disconnection” advantage does come with another disadvantage—the lack of available online information means research must be done mainly through personal communication. When planning a trip to Eritrea and during their stay, visitors need to be aware that they will be detached from the outside world in the real meaning of that phrase.

CONTRIBUTOR

Abraham T. Zere

Abraham T. Zere is US-based exiled Eritrean journalist/writer whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Dissent Magazine, and Index on Censorship Magazine. So far, he has only visited ten countries in four continents.

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