Peace may lead to reform in a country that enslaves its young

ERITREA, one of Africa’s newest countries, was born in battle. First it fought for 30 years to break away from Ethiopia, its bigger neighbour to the south, achieving that goal in 1993. In 1998 it was embroiled in another bloody war that cost perhaps 70,000 lives after it invaded Ethiopia over a trifling border dispute. A decade later it invaded tiny Djibouti over an argument about whether the border ran along the top or sides of some hills in the desert.

Reminders of its violent history are everywhere. In Asmara, the highland capital, posters and murals commemorate its war of independence. On the edge of the city lies a graveyard for tanks. In the Red Sea port town of Massawa stand the remains of an Italian-era bank battered by aerial bombardment three decades ago.

Eritrea signed a peace deal with Ethiopia in 2000, but the latter agreed to implement it only on July 8th, saying it would hand back the almost worthless strip of land that was disputed. In the intervening years Eritrea has remained a garrison state. “With the war everything stopped,” says Samuel, a middle-aged Eritrean who grew up in Massawa but later moved to Ethiopia. When war broke out in 1998 he was sent home, along with some 70,000 of his compatriots. Ethiopians in Eritrea were sent the other way. Samuel was forced into military service. Twenty years later he is yet to be discharged.

He is one of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who have either been conscripted to the army or to a system of compulsory non-military service. This was originally set up by President Isaias Afwerki in 1995 to rebuild the newly independent country. Citizens were meant to serve for 18 months, after which they could get on with their lives. But in 2002 the government made the term indefinite, which the UN says amounts to mass enslavement.

Some conscripts serve in the army, though all are expected to head to the front if war breaks out. “We all know how to handle a gun,” smiles Yared Ambaw, a 28-year-old accountant at a bar in the capital. Many do forced labour, such as building roads or dams. The luckier ones are sent to government departments. Many teachers, journalists, accountants and even hotel staff are conscripts paid pitiful salaries. Only married women with children, and the most sickly or well connected, can hope to be discharged early. The UN has said that female conscripts are routinely raped by officers and forced to work as their servants. As in North Korea, the government locks in its citizens. Those subject to the draft cannot get passports or exit visas. Border guards have orders to shoot to kill—a power they often abuse to extort money or sex from would-be refugees.

Apart from two big mines that are joint ventures between the government and overseas firms, there has been almost no foreign investment. The government says this is because investors are frightened off by an arms embargo, yet its own policies are also to blame. There is almost no private sector and construction is carried out only by companies that belong to the ruling party and that are staffed by conscripts. Asmara is littered with boarded-up shops and empty factories, most of which date back decades to when Eritrea was one of the most industrialised parts of Africa. There are no ATMs and no mobile internet. Funerals are advertised on noticeboards so that bereaved families needn’t make lots of calls from public telephone boxes (mobile phones, especially outside Asmara, remain rare). Teff, a staple grain, costs about four times as much as in Ethiopia.

Imports are restricted to control scarce hard currency. Shop shelves in Asmara are spartan. Electronics, such as old televisions, can cost hundreds of dollars because the price includes the cost of the seller’s return flight to the Gulf. In Massawa, a city of pristine beaches that ought to be full of tourists, hotels and apartment complexes are empty and unfinished for want of building materials.

Peace with Ethiopia has brought hope. The government seems to be preparing to unwind national service, though it has not said so. New conscripts have been told they will serve only 18 months. Some of those who completed the programme this year have been sent home.

Meanwhile, the government has released about 100 prisoners (again without any official statement), including some locked up for their faith. Eritrea allows only four denominations: Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic and Sunni. Yet a Protestant Pentecostal preacher from Ethiopia was recently seen proclaiming his faith loudly on a busy street in Asmara. Ethiopian music, also banned, is playing in public once again.

Senior officials have admitted to foreign diplomats that a great deal must now change. But opening up (officials are loth to speak of “reform”) will be hard. The government is said to want to release its oldest conscripts, some of whom are in their 60s. But nobody knows for sure how many there are or whether the government will grant them exit visas. “In principle [reform] should be gradual,” says Mehreteab Medhanie, a ruling-party official.

Mr Isaias, the only president since independence, appears to be gambling that he can bring Eritrea out of international isolation without weakening his grip on power. On July 30th the former guerrilla chief restored ties with Somalia. There is little sign that he plans to introduce political reforms, such as implementing the constitution drawn up in 1997 but shelved with the outbreak of war. Eritrea has never had a national election and parliament has not met since 2002. Mr Isaias governs alone, surrounded by a clique of ageing veterans of the independence struggle. In a café on a tree-lined avenue in Asmara, a 40-year-old conscript points to a photograph of the president on his phone. “You see this man?” he asks. “That man is a dictator.”

Almost everyone in Eritrea lost members of their family during its decades of conflict. “Everywhere you feel the weight of war,” says Yemane Gebremeskel, the information minister. For decades the government used conflict and the threat posed by Ethiopia to justify its repressive policies. But now the war is over.

Correction (August 2nd, 2018): This piece noted that an Eritrean Protestant Pentecostal preacher was recently seen in Asmara. He was in fact from Ethiopia. This has been changed.

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