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The dictatorship that came in from the cold

Despite harsh criticism by the United Nations and human rights organizations, Eritrea’s ministers in Asmara feel more and more positive. Several nations have begun to make contact with Eritrea for different reasons. Eritrea doesn’t want to lose their young generation while Europe doesn’t want them knocking at their door.

The taxi driver looks confused when I tell him to drive to the “party headquarters.” The confusion is not over what party—there is only one—it is over which one of its headquarters. After a moment of back and forth, the taxi stops in front of a large and impressive building marked “Red Sea Corporation,” which is the corporation the Eritrean state has formed to handle collaborations with foreign investors.

After new instructions, the taxi driver takes us to another, equally impressive building, adorned with Eritrean flags and the slogan: “Victory to the Masses!” above its entrance.

On the first floor, the president’s advisor, Yememe Gebreab, receives us. He looks sharper than he did six months ago in Stockholm, after he had gone nine rounds against all of Europe’s media.

We sit down around a small group of sofas. We noisily move the furniture to give space for a camera. Yememe Gebreab looks at us with curiosity.

He appears to be in a great mood, and it’s not just the advantage of being interviewed at home that factors in. The winds have changed for Eritrea thanks to a new agreement with the EU that will give the country €200 million from the union’s development fund, despite loud protests by the European Parliament.

The EU has, in lieu of the massive refugee wave, an interest in a stabilized Eritrea. Eritrea doesn’t want to lose their young generation, and Europe don’t want them knocking at their door, either. On top of that, the war in Yemen has brought Eritrea into a regional coalition with Saudi Arabia, and European politicians have changed their stance on the refugee issue.

“Many European countries are starting to understand the situation in Eritrea and they are contemplating whether it’s so smart to give everyone claiming to be Eritrean political asylum,” says Yememe Gebreab, stressing the fact that he’s been following the change closely.

“More and more politicians, journalists and investors are visiting Eritrea and getting a more balanced picture. They see that we are at peace and in harmony, that people are living their lives and that the government isn’t corrupt,” he continues.

According to Yememe Gebreab, several countries are discussing whether it’s safe to send back Eritreans whose asylum applications have been denied. “But we are still ways away from the situation when Europe sees Eritrea as a place of opportunity, not just as a problem that has to be solved.”

Just a week ago, Swedish Cabinet Secretary, Annika Söder, visited him. He can’t remember the last time a Swedish politician of that caliber visited Asmara.

“We discussed everything, the human rights situation, our relationship to the ongoing investigation by the UN system, the migration to Europe. Everything was on the table.”

Yememe Gebreab hopes that Sweden will be one of the first nations to start a new chapter.

“There are long term relations between our nations to fall back on. Sweden is a part of Eritrea’s history because of the contribution of the education system by missionaries,” Yememe Gebreab says.

He also highlights Sweden’s proactive role on the African continent during the 1960s and 1970s and the large number of Eritreans currently living in Sweden, as two important factors to build a future upon.

He believes the existing differences can be handled through transparent discussions.

“To have an antagonistic relationship hasn’t been productive so we are now trying to find our way back to each other, but we still have some ways to go,” he says.

The interview gets interrupted by Johan, who wants to change camera lenses in order to get the President’s face in focus, instead of my back.

The advisor looks on with interest. During the 30-year war, he was himself a reporter in the trenches. We chitchat about how all media wants more and more visual content and multimedia these days. During our last interview, we spoke a lot about Dawit Isaak and when the lens is replaced, I go straight to the point.

“Yemame Gebreab,” I say. “Do you have any news about Dawit Isaak?”

The President’s advisor leans back and inhales. I stare at his nose. What if I get a scoop now? I think.

“I’m not qualified to discuss his case during this interview,” he says to my surprise.

I’m startled. The President’s advisor, who just six months ago, spoke freely about Dawit Isaak and the Freedom of the Press, now is not qualified to discuss the case at all?

I try a different angle and ask about possible amnesty.

“Isn’t it time to move on, now that Eritrea is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary as independent nation?”

“In regards to amnesty, the regime can decide and give it, but I am not qualified to speak about this issue during this interview,” he repeats.

Unprepared for the curt response, I swallow and say that I have to respect his unwillingness to discuss the issue.

Perhaps the fact that I’m still hoping for an interview with the President makes me back off.

I study his face and think that a man like him must have had dreams and hopes during the decades in the trenches. He and his party didn’t just fight for independence, but also for “democracy and justice.”

“After 25 years of independence, there are no privately owned newspapers, no elections have been held, just to name two things I associate with democracy. Is the Eritrea of today the nation you dreamed of?”

Yemame Gebreab moves in his chair.

“Most elections held in the world today are over rated and I do not believe all those elections represent the desire of the people. We can disagree on this, but look at the election in Ethiopia where the ruling faction won 100 percent of the seats in parliament. Is that democratic?”

He believes in a “unique electoral system,” which they are experimenting with themselves. Nobody from the outside should believe that they can influence Eritrea with their reprimands and ‘good advice.’”

“We are not against elections, ideologically, but we’re also not trying to do what appears to be the most popular way of doing things in the world this particular month,” Yemame Gebreab says.

But he rejects that the reason being for why no elections are held would be fear of losing power.

“We don’t have an interest in keeping power, none of us have become rich from our positions. We all would have made more money if we had done something else instead of being politicians. We want our people to get their freedom and are open for a discussion as to what works and what doesn’t.”

The fact that their goal has not been reached, he explains is due to the war and border conflict.

“It wasn’t as easy to build this country as we thought, and that’s why we ended up in a new war and have had to do the building during a turbulent period.”

To offer context, he urges those who judge Eritrea to also look at all that could have happened in the country, and what’s been avoided— the facts that Eritrea isn’t hit with violent ethnic conflicts and that members of the ruling party have not made themselves a ruling class.

“We haven’t made ourselves rich and we do not travel around in large convoys with bodyguards. We have remained true to the people who fought in the war. We live in the same neighborhoods and our children attend the same schools.”

Despite the heated rhetoric between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Yemame Gebreab, believes another war is unlikely, but at the same time wars sometimes come as complete surprise.

According to Yemame Gebreab, “The refusal of Ethiopia to stop occupying our land, based on their hopes that we will collapse, [the idea] that we are a weak nation and that they feel they have the support of the US and the EU” all represent outdated values.

“Our economy is growing and the outside world has begun to doubt Ethiopia as an ally. Those who put money on the collapse of Eritrea will be deeply disappointed,” he says.

SJÄLVSTÄNDIGHETEN. Det råder ingen personkult i Eritrea och på väggarna i Asmara sitter inga porträtt av presidenten. Denna målning är en av få i stadsbilden som påminner om kriget.

Meala Tesfamichael

The following day, I rig the tape recorder on a rickety coffee table. Johan fiddles, restless, with his new camera and fires off a couple of shots.

Both of us are starting to get frustrated over the number of interviews we’ve done so far without getting the voices we are looking for. And now it’s time for another one. It’s clear that we’ll have to make another trip, that this reportage is an ongoing journey.

The Facebook logo is painted on one of the walls of the Internet café. One hour’s worth of surfing costs $10. Nobody checks your passport upon signing in, and no websites are censored. A hand written note urges the users not to watch porn. Around us are youngsters, chatting with relatives around the world. Still, getting online feels like breathing through a straw due to the extremely slow connection.

We talk about Eritrea as a vacation destination. About whether there may be a type of nationalism in third world countries that are foreign to the so-called first. It feels like the current “state of emergency” slowly but surely becomes the norm— even for us. We’ve gotten used to it and the realization is unnerving.

We are now part of a number of journalistic teams who can say that we were “allowed entry.” You are free, at the same time you are not. No matter how many questions you ask, or what angle you take, you still can’t reach all the way in, and we realize that after this trip, we have to also get to the refugee camps in Sudan.

While we are discussing our dilemma, Meala Tesfamichael walks up to the silver coffee table and sits down. She pushes her sunglasses up on her head and orders tea.

“I am so tired of the question: ‘Why did you return to Eritrea when so many others flee from here?’” she says and laughs.

Three years ago, Meala Tesfamichael decided to move from Switzerland to Asmara and work, for free, at the Ministry of Information.

“Life in Switzerland was different. I had everything: a car, an apartment, a job, I instagrammed my breakfast and paid my bills, but was I happy? Here in Asmara I feel alive, that life is real, serious.”

In Switzerland she also felt like a secondary citizen and as soon as she was in touch with the government, she was constantly lectured on “how it works here in Switzerland.”

Meala Tesfamichael also wanted to break Eritrea’s isolationism and give Eritreans a voice.

“I know I am swimming upstream, but I feel like my country is constantly bullied, in social media and in world politics. I wanted to defend Eritrea on location and not just support my country from behind a desk.”

Eritreans who live only part time in their native country, the vacation diaspora, are called “beles,” after a cactus that only blooms in the summer time.

“Many arrive with lots of money, living the high life at the luxury hotels and then go back home again. They think us who really live here don’t know anything about anything, but in all honesty, it’s them who couldn’t hack it here.”

I recognize Meala Tesfamichael from reportages on BBC and France 24. She’s the one who the Ministry of Information sends out to “guide” foreign journalists in Eritrea. With her background in strategic communications, she often offers her services when her government asks for her help.

“I don’t get paid. I am here by my own will. The politicians asked me to revitalize the English speaking newspapers and improve the quality of Eritrean media.”

As a volunteer, she educates others in journalism.

“When people hear about our mandatory military service, they oftentimes believe that it’s just about carrying weapons at the border. But at the Ministry of Information, we have many who are doing their service as journalists. They learn a profession and serve their country.”

She defends the system because it gives the state cheap labor.

“Without the military service, we would never be able to afford to hire journalists at real salaries. This way we also keep youth unemployment to a minimum,” she says.

Currently, she feels that too much of the reporting on Eritrea is done by “patronizing Europeans” in a “Human Rights language” and that it’s always about Freedom of the Press and not about the UN proclamations concerning the right to have food and a place to live.

“I guess the right to not go hungry isn’t sexy enough for you journalists. You want to find stories that tickle and provoke.”

Meala Tesfamichael is one of the architects behind the new media strategy, allowing foreign journalists into Eritrea.

“This past year the country has opened up and we want for people to come here and try to understand us.”

They are tired of the countless headlines about “the North Korea of Africa.”

“It’s always the same story— the Eritrean refugees, the two-percent tax, oppression. I can feel that in terms of PR, we are far from what we could be. We aren’t strong enough.”

According to Meala Tesfamichael, the new strategy is most of all to show the outside world that there are people living “normal” lives in Asmara.

“I think too many people believe that my country is a war zone. If they come here, they’ll see first hand that people are enjoying themselves, drinking coffee, they get a feel for the tourism potential. But we also want to show off Eritrea for potential investors.”

She agrees with the fact that journalism isn’t just about producing “good news.”

“Of course a journalist’s job is to highlight problems and challenges, everything isn’t perfect, but a lot of what’s reported about Eritrea is too cheap. It’s oftentimes ‘cut-and-paste-journalism.’ The same quotes are used over and over again, you’ll see them at both BBC and Al-Jazeera.

“The only way to change this is to simply open the country up, allowing more journalists entry”, she says.

“Even if you write a negative story about Eritrea when you get home too, at least you’ve been here and talked to real people. And even journalists who have reported with a negative slant are welcome back.”

When I tell Meala Tesfamichael how hard it’s been to get regular people to agree to filmed interviews, she believes that there are cultural aspects factoring in.

“Here in Eritrea, we don’t even talk to our neighbors about our problems, we say ‘everything is great.’ In addition to that, few people want to discuss solutions for problems with foreigners, since it could be considered a criticism of the country. But with my generation, this will change.”

A new generation and social media will affect the nation a lot, she believes.

“But I don’t think we’ll get an ‘Arabic Spring’ like they did in Egypt, turning it into a revolution. That mentality doesn’t exist here. People are too tired of conflicts. They want a simple life: work and get paid. Look at the hashtag #eritrea on Twitter—there you’ll get some action,” she laughs.

Meala Tesfamichael believes that a “constructively”-used social media can be a great platform for debates.

“The Internet is free, there aren’t any blocked websites, everyone can listen to radio stations where there’s a call to replace the regime. Everyone can watch Ethiopian TV, or documentaries at Al-Jazeera about the ‘oppression.’ You can download reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty [International].”

As a journalist in Eritrea, she feels free to write about what she wants. But the word “constructive” is recurrent in her answers to my questions.

“If I write an article where I urge Eritreans to overthrow the government, well then it’s not going to be published since it would be a threat against national security. But if I want to foster a debate, let us say I think there should be elections with multiple parties, for example, well then I can write an editorial about that.”

An editorial that has to be in context, she says.

“We could hold an election with a ton of ‘pretend political parties’ like they do in other African countries, but what kind of democracy is that? We became independent in 1991 and can learn from the mistakes of other nations, build our democracy from scratch.”

Meala Tesfamichael is one of the few of her generation who have returned to Eritrea. A substantial number of young people flee in the opposite direction.

“I am of the same generation as many of the refugees. I know how they are thinking. They have ambitions, they want to see the world, they are hungry for life. If they’ve decided to do it, they will do it, regardless of the risks.”

And then, the exchange of an argument I now think I could repeat in my sleep.

“Many say they’ve fled the compulsory military service but have never laced on an Army boot in their lives. Some of those who flee are 14 years old— they aren’t even old enough to be drafted yet. Others are women over 25, which is the age when women here become demobilized.”

The real reason behind the mass flight is the poverty, not oppression, Meala Tesfamichael says.

“Those who flee don’t make enough money in Eritrea and when they hear that there’s free education for their children and money every month, of course they leave.”

“But they risk their lives out there on the Mediterranean. They drown and disappear in the desert.”

“Yes, it’s sad, but that has a lot to do with the fact that the European embassies in Asmara refuse to give them visas,” she says confidently and finishes her tea.

According to Meala Tesfamichael, the refugees’ strategy is to flee and then sort things out at the embassies in Europe so they can travel back on vacation.

“If they were so persecuted, why would they come back here on vacation, flashing their money? They don’t seem too persecuted, if you ask me,” she says.

I can tell that Meala Tesfamichael gets irritated over the constant discussion about the refugees.

“I’m not trying to say that everything is perfect, but it seems to be a trend to escape from the army and claim that one has been transported in a container. A few years ago, everyone belonged to some religious group, and before then they were all homosexual. I’m telling you, there are trends amongst these refugees.”

Lately she has, happily, not only received TV-teams but also foreign delegations and noticed first hand that more European governments are getting closer to Eritrea.

“It’s politics. They don’t get a friendlier attitude toward Eritrea because they think it’s a good country, but Eritrea is very strategically located and that’s valuable for them, but to say that they would respect us, I’m not so sure.”

If the outside world really respected Eritrea, there is one simple and diplomatic thing to do.

“If that was the case, they would stand with international law and prove that it pertains to all countries, Eritrea too. The occupation is an assault and by keeping their silence on that issue, it means that those nations are accepting it.”

Meala Tesfamichael can understand that people who aren’t from Eritrea wonder why there’s so much emphasis on the border. She says the reason is both political and emotional.

“During 30 years of war, our citizens fought alone without any help from the outside world. The border conflict is an open wound, a wound that hurts and constantly stops us from relaxing.”

BEDAGAD. Den italienska tiden har satt sina spår. Men det är länge sedan Asmara omskrevs som ”Afrikas Rom”.

VARDAG. Eritrea har börjat ge utländska journalister visum. En av tankarna bakom den nya strategin är att visa upp att det finns en vardag i Asmara – bortom rubrikerna om repression och krigslarm.

The sound of hooves against asphalt is the only sound we hear. Dried sweat testifies that a saddle has been removed from the horse’s back. It’s bony, but not starved. Behind the horse, on the rooftops, the satellite dishes are angled up toward the sky. The horse stands completely still, one of its hooves lifted.

On the street, the pedestrian crossing has been painted white for the celebration of Independence Day. The traffic signals are still shut off. There is something elusive with Eritrea. The chaos in other capital cities on the continent is missing here as much as democracy.

“Have you noticed…where are all the people in this city?” Johan suddenly says. “Doesn’t it feel like they are missing?”

While we are chitchatting about the missing human element an Eritrean who lives in Canada comes up and asks us if we have permission to photograph.

I nod.

“I’m just asking for your own safety, it can turn ugly if you don’t have the right paperwork,” he says.

I nod again.

We walk past the townhouses where Dawit Isaak had plans for a future with his family. Modern structures. Lawns with sprinkler systems. Satellite dishes. Lush gardens. We also pass the location where the newspaper, Setit, once was. Setit, which is the Eritrean word for free-flowing rivers, was the first independent newspaper after independence and Dawit Isaak worked there as a reporter and eventually became a part owner, before he was imprisoned.

Across the street from the townhouse where they lived, Davit Isaak’s daughter tended school. These places are mentioned in some of his poetry. One of the newspaper’s founders says that when the first issue came from the printer, a group of school children sold 50 copies on the streets of Asmara and came right back for more.

All 5,000 copies printed in the first edition were gone in one day. The next issue sold out just as quickly. After all the years of war and the new press law of 1996, media was booming. Every other week a new publication sprouted. The country was full of optimism.

There was, however, a clause in the press law of 1996, warning against spreading “documents or classified information that was in the interest of the nation, people and security.” The details were vague. No one knew how the law would be interpreted in a real-life situation.

Before I traveled to Eritrea, I met Dawit’s daughter, Betlehem Isaak, at an outdoor restaurant in Gothenburg. We drank espresso. The sun warmed us in the cool spring air. She told me that she was seven years old when the door bell rang at home in Asmara. Two men in sunglasses asked for her dad. They were invited in for tea and bread, and then they took her dad with them. “I’ll be back,” he told his family. Betlehem turns 23 this year.

I asked to meet with her because I had planned to record a short message from her to play in interviews with Eritrean politicians. When I presented her with the idea she studied me with serious eyes and said: “I’m never going to beg them for anything. They should beg me for forgiveness, respect human rights laws and let him stand trial or release him. That’s the only thing I have to say. I want to be stern just like they seem to be while they have deprived me of my father. I want him to get a lawyer, that’s my only demand.”

While I walk on the same streets in Asmara that Dawit Isaak once walked, I think about the lively debate in Sweden over the best strategy for gaining his freedom. Several influential Eritreans have perceived the fight to get him released as degrading, and, according to them, led to Eritrea closing the door on Swedish efforts: No dialogue, no negotiations, no silent diplomacy.

According to the organization “Free Dawit,” the campaign has still not succeeded in his release, but “kept him alive.” The goal with the ongoing campaign is “to get the Swedish government to act more staunchly against Eritrea.”

But what kind of threats is Sweden supposed to use against Eritrea, I wonder. What powerful language is left after 15 years of captivity?

Critics of the strategy mean that the efforts to try and pressure Eritrea into cooperation by sanctions, or threats of sanctions, are doomed to failure as it is based on ignorance of the current Eritrean leadership. After 30 years in trenches, there is no pressure in the world that can get Eritrea down on its knees to start following Swedish orders.

After listening to all these ministers and soldiers, I don’t believe that even a military intervention in Eritrea would lead to such results. That would likely result in the Eritreans heading back up into the mountains, digging their heels in, surviving on injera bread and waiting it out for another 30 years.

It’s impossible not to compare it with my own case. I walk the streets of Asmara as a free man since Sweden, from the moment I was captured, prioritized the relationship with Ethiopia. Sweden immediately came to the conclusion that a dialogue with the dictatorship would offer the best chance for a desired outcome: the release of two Swedish citizens. Letting Ethiopia feel like they were in charge, and that way, it saved the face of the regime. Focus was on getting the Swedish citizens home, not to humiliate a dictatorship. I feel like I’m seeing signs of a change in Swedish politics. Perhaps the newly appointed ambassador, Per Enarsson, is loosening up some of the knots on the tangled relations between Sweden and Eritrea.

In the last declaration on foreign policy, Dawit Isaak wasn’t even mentioned. When the European Union recently gave Eritrea €200 million in aid, his name wasn’t mentioned either. Upsetting, according to some; smart, say others.

In Canada, the Foreign Ministry’s website warns all exiled Eritreans against paying the tax the Eritrean embassies are collecting around the world.

The Foreign Ministry of Sweden chose to keep the tax on the down low. A sign of change in strategy? The last gasp after 15 years of harsh rhetoric?

Meanwhile, that strategy will reach its end when the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights will consider the regime guilty of human rights violations against their own people. The lack of a proper justice system, a free press, a constitution, free elections and a military service extended for decades will be classified as slavery and crimes against humanity. Anticipating what a future Eritrean response will look like feels like watching a crash in slow motion.

FRAMTIDSDRÖMMAR. Framför en enorm läktare spelar ett hundratal ungdomar fotboll. De flesta ska nästa år rycka in och göra sin värnplikt: ” Om man får bra betyg under slutproven kan man läsa till läkare, agronom eller ingenjör, säger en spelare.

At a gravel soccer field in Asmara, in front of a huge yellow grandstand , about a hundred youngsters are playing soccer, kicking up a dust cloud. One of the players gives it all he’s got and sends the ball flying way over the containers, which mark the goal. Their jerseys are emblazoned with the words “Arsenal” and “Manchester United.”

In the distance, a young man is taking a break in the shadows of the Acacia trees.

“If I want to become an international soccer pro? Yeah, you always have to dream. It’s important with ambitions,” he says and smiles mischievously.

Next year he’ll turn 18 and him and his friends will travel to Sawa for their three-month military training and graduation.

“If you have good results during final exams, your can study to become a doctor, agronomist or engineer,” he says, adding that if one gets bad grades, he has to stay in [the military] for 18 months.

Every Sunday he’s here, playing soccer with his friends.

“I have to go,” he says and runs with light steps over the dusty-red dirt.

At the corner of the gravel field, a man operating a backhoe is removing piles of dirt. In a few weeks a large military parade with thousands of soldiers will march by here. A marching band will play and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, dressed in khaki, will hold one of his most uncompromising speeches in a long time.

MONUMENT. Den enorma katolska katedralen Sankta Maria som reser sig som en pelare mitt i staden.

VETERANEN. Kalshu Mohamed som besöker gravarna säger att freden är värd priset ”Se dig omkring, inga bomber föll i dag, inga civila brann inne i sina hus. Freden. Det är så otroligt vackert.”

The newly planted trees reach for the sky and offer shade for the stray dogs who have made a home at one of the monuments. The white, half-moon-shaped grave markers are lined up on the cemetery for the martyrs. In front of every marker is a pile of pebbles. The yellow grass is so dry it crackles under my shoes when I walk around to read the dates and names. While in Sweden we were worrying that our computers would crash at the entrance of the new millennium, the Eritreans buried tens of thousands of their own.

Vetera, Kalshu Mohamed sits at one of the graves.

“I feel alive when I’m here. I live with their hopes and am reminded about what they sacrificed. This place gives me strength to carry on what the dead started, to fight until the end for my country with all my power and knowledge,” says the now 54-year-old woman.

She is one of the few visitors who walk along the asphalt paths through the cemetery. The reason why there are so few visitors is that the memory of the dead is still so fresh in everyone’s minds, people say.

“I can’t express what I feel when I’m here but I have to do a lot more than what I’m doing today.”

She doesn’t visit any grave in particular. “They are all my brothers and sisters,” she says, adding that even if she would like to, she doesn’t know their real names. Everyone had nicknames back then. At the far end of the cemetery, a backhoe is digging out new spaces for more graves. A nation that has been more at war than peace plans for new martyrs.

“I remember the feeling when I as an eight-year-old and saw women with large afros and weapons hanging over their shoulders, walking—proudly—through my village.”

Kalshu Mohamed joined the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) in October, 1978 and the first year as a rebel was a life on the run, constantly retreating higher and higher up in the mountains.

“It was a tought time. Everyone was retreating and everything was rationed— soap, clothes, food. We walked day and night because we received word that the enemy was closing in.”

Back then she didn’t know that for years she would work in the world’s longest underground hospital.

“I took care of the injured, cooked for them, cleaned injuries, built laboratories and everything else needed. Men and women, we dragged rocks, carried weapons and cut firewood together.”

The underground hospital had everything: generators, operating rooms, classrooms, a theater, even.

“We had every Wednesday off and then we drank our own beer, performed theater, sang, played volleyball and danced.”

During the long nights, while the Russian Antonov planes bombed, they often listened to lectures by other soldiers, doctors or foreign guests.

“The hospital was my university. We studied philosophy, political science and learned about the world outside Eritrea.”

Sometimes the hospital was bombed.

“It was a nightmare to evacuate, we constantly worried about the wounded and hope they’d survive.”

The cohesiveness during the war is usually considered the reason for victory. But some people say that the total discipline and the political schooling were also the key to why it went the way it did.

How does a group of people change to a peace organization after 30 years of war?

At the end of the war, Kalshu Mohamed started working for the Ministry of Information.

“I listened to the radio and heard the reports from the battles in Massawa, and when the victory came, I was happy, of course, but I also cried. I mourned all of those who were no longer alive.”

The celebration was shortlived and she understood that now they had to do everything in their power to rebuild their nation.

“Everything was destroyed and people were in the wind, but we started with what we had.”

Twenty-five years later, Kalshu Mohamed wishes more had been done.

“I think we all hoped that the improvements, the development, would go faster. But what we hoped for and what happened are two different things.”

When her children ask questions about the war, she finds it hard to explain.

“I tell them what we ate and how we were listening for the bombers. They look at me, wide-eyed, but to them it’s like a bedtime story. They will never be able to realize what we went through. How we, literally, lived in caves for decades.”

Her dream during the war, aside from the obvious—an independent country—was that her children would grow up in peace.

“My generation sacrificed everything for our children and we continue to sacrifice. Unfortunately the dream is something that hasn’t become reality yet, but it will. One day, one day it will,” Kalshu Mohamed says and stands up, looking over the rows upon rows of graves.

The sun is slowly going down and over Asmara and the cemetery of the martyrs bathes in a golden light. Kalshy Mohamed fixes her shawl and starts walking toward the exit. Then she stops, turns around and says in a low voice:

“Look around, no bombs fell today, no civilians burned to death in their houses. Peace. It is so incredibly beautiful.”

This was the last story in a series of three in Martin Schibbye’s and Johan Persson’s reportage from Eritrea. The two first parts can be read here: 

Part 1: One country – two realities

Part 2: Voices from the other side

Part 3: The dictatorship that came in from the cold

Hjälp oss skriva mer om Eritrea!

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