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.
Why the desperate privation? Because the military has taken over virtually every aspect of Eritrean life. Despite its tiny size, Eritrea has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, with as many as 320,000 soldiers. Its number of soldiers per capita puts Eritrea second only to North Korea, a feat made possible by the ruthless enforcement of mandatory national service for all citizens, men and women alike. Over dinner one evening, a resident U.N. staffer whispered to me about a new expansion of the requirement. To graduate from high school, she explained, youth were now required to attend "national camp" during their final year. Although the government claims this amounts to only a week or two of military training, it in fact lasts much of the year. Her agency had learned that the threat of physical and sexual abuse was causing increasing numbers of students to drop out rather than attend. But by failing to complete their service, they put themselves at constant risk of arrest.
Indeed, arrest is an omnipresent threat in what has become a police state. Every vehicle I took outside Asmara was stopped at frequent checkpoints, where police inspected papers and closely scrutinized the documents of young men to ensure they had official permission to be traveling. The state punishes the families of those who escape, but defections are nonetheless on the rise, fueled in part by a growing food crisis. Based on the limited information they've been able to gather, international agencies think millions of people are at risk of starving after last year's poor harvest. Eritrea, however, continues to reject food aid. One indication of just how desperate the situation has become came in December, when the entire national soccer team sought asylum in Kenya. That same month, Eritrea's ambassador to the European Union told the BBC, "Foreign food aid demonizes the local people and makes them lazy."
Although it's clear that Eritrea is in disastrous shape, precise details about what is happening are near impossible to come by. This is the only African country with no privately owned media, and the movements of foreign diplomats and aid workers are tightly restricted. For three years running, it has been named by Reporters Without Borders as the worst place in the world to be a journalist, and while I was there the entire staff of one radio station -- around 50 journalists -- was arrested. Political dissent is no more tolerated; many would-be dissidents have been detained indefinitely, held in a shadowy network of desert prison camps.
Despite it all, I still encountered Eritreans who were unwilling to acknowledge how badly their government has failed them. Particularly among the older generation, those who had spent their formative years as rebels in the "Struggle" against Ethiopia, I found an inability to accept the collapse of their dreams, at least in front of a foreigner. I spoke with one elderly man who had devoted 18 years of his life to fighting the Ethiopians. Pointing out one charming Asmara feature after another, he told me proudly, insistently, "Eritrea is not in Europe -- but Eritrea is not in Africa."
He was right, but not in the way that he meant. Isolated abroad and collapsing at home, Eritrea has entered a lonely purgatory in which even the daily parade of evening walkers isn't enough to sustain a semblance of normalcy. Many of the younger generation have found some brief escape in Western entertainment; people in local bars and Internet cafes spend hours downloading American television programs over one of the world's worst Internet connections. They then hold screenings of the latest episodes. As I walked around Asmara, advertisements for one show were particularly numerous. The series Eritreans most wanted to watch?