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Last Updated: Monday, 10 March 2008, 08:31 GMT
Not so fond farewell to Eritrea
By Peter Martell
BBC News

Asmara
Press freedom is tightly restricted in Eritrea

Deep inside the tall towers of Eritrea's Ministry of Information, the battle-scarred war veteran leaned towards me across his desk.

His finger pointed towards a heavily-underlined copy of a report I had written the day before.

"Why," he said, spluttering with rage, "do you say we silence critics?"

The former rebel, now a top official in the information ministry, was angry because I refused to name two ex-freedom fighters I had quoted expressing disillusionment at life in Eritrea today.

"You will not work again, until you tell us the names of the people," he added.

Given Eritrea's grim record for jailing its critics, I declined politely to reveal the names. I was then made to surrender my work permit.

After just over a year reporting from Asmara, it was my last official story from inside Eritrea.

Bitter border war

My report looked at fears among ordinary people of a return to war with their larger neighbour Ethiopia, and their frustration over the failure to find a solution.

Eight years ago these long-term enemies signed a peace deal ending the border war which began in 1998 killing at least 70,000.

Eritrea

Both sides remain deadlocked following Ethiopia's refusal to remove its troops from soil ruled by an UN-appointed commission to belong to Eritrea.

Along the 620-mile desert frontier, some quarter of a million troops from these two armies eyeball each other from trenches in places a stone's throw apart.

United Nations peacekeepers patrolling between the two sides are also being forced to pull out of border zones after Eritrea blocked their fuel supplies.

So you might think that it would not be controversial to report that some Eritreans are pessimistic about the future.

It is, after all, a common complaint in a country where military police prowl the streets, religious minorities are jailed - some sealed in shipping containers for months - and where the young are drafted into national service.

Airfield near Asmara after Ethiopian attack
Around 70,000 died in the border war

Many are conscripted for decades - men until the age of 50 and women until 47 - on salaries of less than $1 a day.

Some analysts say the government is using the border stalemate to justify its iron grip.

Thousands flee the country, despite a shoot-to-kill policy across the border to Ethiopia or Sudan.

Eritrean citizens were the largest nationality to seek asylum in the UK in 2006, a trend mirrored in several other nations across Europe.

Press freedom

The leaders of this state are the same ex-rebel fighters who liberated Eritrea in 1991 after a 30-year guerrilla war against Ethiopia.

And now those ex-combatants tolerate no criticism.

All independent media was closed in 2001.

The journalists' rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Eritrea just below North Korea as the worst nation in the world for press freedom.

I was closely watched by security informers, my telephone was tapped and papers would mysteriously move or vanish from inside my locked apartment.

But the treatment was nothing compared to that meted out to several Eritrean journalists.

RSF says they were tortured in a desert prison.

On the wall of an interrogation room, a message had been scrawled: "If you don't like the message, kill the messenger."

Just before I left the ministry, I asked why they wanted the names of those I had spoken to.

"That is not your concern," I was told. "We will deal with them."

Leaving the ministry, high on a hill over Asmara, I paused to stare over the wide palm-lined boulevards of the elegant city that I had come to know as home.

It is a beautiful country, with a generous and courageous people, a nation capable of achieving so much.

But sadly, few here believe their lives will improve any time soon.



SEE ALSO
UN fears new Horn of Africa war
07 Feb 08 |  Africa
Country profile: Eritrea
06 Feb 08 |  Country profiles

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