Eritrea, as most people have barely heard about, is one of Africa’s fastest growing nations in terms of population number, and at the same time, also one of the world’s poorest. The country, throughout its independence, has been faced with wars with virtually all of its neighbors: Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, and a tiny country hosting a huge US military base, Djibouti. Nonetheless, it is the all-out war with Ethiopia that affected this country very severely. All able-bodied men, and even women, were enlisted for military service, leaving the nation completely paralyzed, in terms of economy, social progress, and political dynamism.
As the war ended, with 100,000 casualties on Eritrean-Ethiopian War, the country was completely devastated. Hundred thousands of refugees flooded neighboring countries, and some of them, probably as many as 40,000, even sought refuge in Israel. To stop the migration flows, though, Eritrean government imposed very harsh sentences for the populace, restricted their movements, and even inhibited them from going overseas. The economy was totally put to centralized control by the state, and they now mostly depend on scrap metal to keep the bustle going.
Now led by strongman Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea now solidifies itself as a totalitarian state, whose brutal uniformity, as media would like to refer, matches only that of North Korea.
French photographer Eric Lafforgue visits the country and summarizes what he finds out in his website.
Bonus: a 2010 Foreign Policy article highlights this African nation. Click this link to read more.
So though Asmara today looks like a charming Italian hill town circa 1930, that Soviet feel is never far away: shops full of empty shelves, citizens lining up with ration cards, shortages of basic goods, and a government dedicated to sustaining a military machine it cannot afford. With the economy stagnant, there is no hard currency to buy imports. Corner stores stock the same paltry selection of shoddy domestic goods: cleaning detergents, old fruit, a few bottled drinks, perhaps some canned food.
Restaurants are able to serve only a handful of items on their menus, and Coca-Cola halted local production a few years ago for lack of syrup. The bicycles that crowd the streets betray the desperate shortage of fuel; hiring a car to leave Asmara requires at least a day’s notice so that gas can be arranged. Hospitals have reportedly run out of essential supplies; a friend working for the United Nations asked me to smuggle in basic antibiotics no longer available in town. At a popular market that specializes in recycled goods, I watched one metalworker transform castoff artillery shells into coffee urns.