By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009 7:01 PM

I set off for Asmara having read about Eritrea's extraordinary liberation struggle against Ethiopia, about its fierce sense of independence and its experiment in self-reliance.

I also knew that many people now consider Eritrea to be one of the most repressive nations on Earth. I had read about its desert prisons full of journalists, believers in banned religions, army deserters. One U.S. official outside the country -- citing allegations that Eritrea is sponsoring al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Somalia -- described Eritrea to me as "an aspiring rogue state."

And yet the feeling upon arriving in Asmara was anything but rogue.

At first, it just felt lonely, almost abandoned. In contrast to chaotic, crowded African airports I've been through, Asmara's was almost empty. My 115-passenger jet had had 14 passengers. It was one of only two jets on the long runway. At the clean-swept, gray-marbled arrival hall, which was the size of a convenience store, the loudest noise, literally, were crickets.

Though there were no lines, a friendly government minder ushered me VIP-style through the gauntlet of passport-checking and declaring of currency, and soon we walked out into the mostly vacant parking lot and the crisp, orangey light of a late Saturday afternoon.

It took about 10 minutes to reach Asmara. And that is the first thing you notice about this pretty, palm-lined capital: how small it is, how petite, really. It feels as if it was placed, intact, on its high plateau.

For the week I was there, the weather was conventionally perfect, each day bright and warm, each evening refreshing and cool. Asmara is a famously crime-free city of art deco buildings built by Italian colonizers, who once envisioned it as the jewel of their never-realized African empire. It was built, in a way, to manifest that dream, and for that reason and others, the city feels like a movie set. Its ice-cream colored palette, its fantastic buildings and many cafes, its bicycles, its older men dressed in sharp hats and old suits, convey the feel of a benign netherworld operating at the behest of some unseen director.

Soon, though, a slightly less benign feeling settled in. I was told to expect that my phone calls would be monitored, that anyone I spoke to, especially Eritreans, did so at great personal risk, and, at lunch at an outdoor café one day, that the man sitting rather conspicuously alone at the next table was probably a spy. He was a nice-seeming spy, a kind of comic book version -- an older man in a suit, taking notes in a little black book. My lunch companion sent him a beer, and the man waved, smiled and nodded a thank you.

Walking around, I began to notice how empty many of the shops were of products and customers. Eritrea's economy operates almost completely at the behest of the government, and the mood of hustle in many African cities is oddly absent here. People essentially sell what they are told, work when they are told, and even eat what they are told, as most Eritreans subsist on an array of government-subsidized rations.

Though one U.S. dollar was officially trading at 15 nakfa, the local currency, I was told that the black market rate was around 41. (The price for using the black market, however, is detention.)

Foreigners and Eritreans alike began to tell me, always anonymously, how they saw Asmara. "My own personal 'Truman Show,' " was one description. "Animal Farm," came another. One young Eritrean explained the country's system of indefinite national service as a kind of never-ending forced labor camp. Another, explaining how complete social control is here, told me: "Resistance is futile -- the only escape is to flee!"

The fact that Eritrea produces more asylum seekers than all but one other country on the planet became more striking with each gently passing afternoon.

Many Eritreans told me they had brothers, husbands, uncles and others who had disappeared over the years, presumably into desert prisons. Sometimes, just as mysteriously, they would reappear, often with scars. One person told me a friend reappeared with brain damage.

I asked whether ordinary Eritreans discussed this situation in their homes, and several people told me no. The repression is so common, one young man explained, that it has become a kind of quiet understanding, something so commonplace that it is no longer remarkable. The other explanation was that no one trusts each other, that even family members have been known to turn one another in.

By the second or third day of the trip, Asmara began to feel like a kind of snow globe, a city hermetically sealed under a glass dome, an alternate, un-globalized universe where virtually nothing comes or goes.

One day, a man walking down the street began screaming into the quiet afternoon. His words, a few explicatives inappropriate for a family newspaper, bounced around the pale pink and yellow buildings. Then he stopped, and kept walking.

It was incongruous with this lovely and subdued capital, and yet, somehow, understandable.