ASMARA, Eritrea — In this lonely corner of the world, the first sign of distress is the luggage. When one of the few international flights that are still operating here touched down one recent afternoon, the returning passengers emerged from baggage claim as if from a big shopping trip. Old metal trolleys squealed under the weight of mundane items: tires, a laptop computer, tubs of detergent and duffel bags crammed so tightly with food that tin cans bulged through the fabric.
The needs are acute in Eritrea, a narrow shard of sand and rock along the Red Sea that's presided over by one of Africa's most secretive regimes. As its quixotic experiment in economic self-reliance falters, the Ohio-sized country of 5 million has slipped into its deepest political isolation in its 16 years of independence.
The United States and others accuse President Isaias Afwerki of funneling arms and money to Islamist insurgents in Somalia and have threatened to slap him with sanctions. Analysts say Isaias is bent on wresting influence from Ethiopia — Eritrea's large southern neighbor and adversary in a 30-year liberation struggle — and is backing several rebel groups across the chaotic Horn of Africa.
In a rare interview, Isaias dismissed the allegations as "fabrications" by Western interests — including his favorite bogeyman, the CIA — that traditionally have sided with Ethiopia. The pariah label has reinforced his belligerent attitude toward a world that long ignored Eritrea's cries for independence, and one in which he now seems to have just one remaining friend, the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.
"Why would you want to have allies?" the 63-year-old president told McClatchy. "It's a sign of weakness."
A gruff, imposingly tall former guerrilla with a college professor's wardrobe and a Ron Burgundy moustache, Isaias helped lead the liberation war and has never let go of power. A decade after a devastating border flare-up with Ethiopia that remains unresolved, he's never held elections, banned opposition groups and independent media, and reportedly banished thousands of people to remote desert prisons where they languish without trial in "harsh and life-threatening conditions," according to a State Department human rights report last year.
In recent years, Isaias has seized U.N. World Food Program stockpiles and expelled or blocked most international relief organizations, claiming that his arid nation could produce enough food to feed all its people. Yet after consecutive poor harvests, and amid one of the worst hunger crises in East Africa in decades, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned last month that as many as two-thirds of Eritreans may be malnourished.
Isaias rejected the report — "We have no shortage," he said — but humanitarian groups say the government blocks them from accessing the areas that are thought to be the most affected. In the capital, Asmara, more and more children in frayed clothes and splotchy skin are begging on the streets, hinting at desperation in the countryside.
"A year or two ago, you never saw that," a diplomat said. "It means the safety net is failing."
Perched atop a 7,600-foot plateau, sun-bathed Asmara is one of the continent's safest and most alluring capitals, with wide, palm-fringed streets and splashes of colorful modernist architecture left over from Italian colonial rule. Below the surface, however, beats constant fear.
No Eritreans would be quoted by name criticizing the president. The government, which some have likened to an African North Korea, controls people's lives through a program of forced national service that requires all citizens to undergo military training and then assigns them indefinitely to army posts or civilian jobs, paying token wages.
Men and women younger than 50 rarely get permission to leave the country, effectively meaning that the entire able-bodied population is on reserve duty. People who resist the service routinely are imprisoned and tortured, as documented in a 96-page report this year by Human Rights Watch, which found that Eritrean authorities had issued shoot-to-kill orders for anyone caught trying to jump the border without permission.
"It's for generations that we're trying to build a nation and build an economy, and that requires sacrifice," Isaias said. "National service may not be liked by everybody, even by the government, but it's a necessity."
Yet even with these draconian measures, the country remains far from self-reliant. One-third of the economy, according to some estimates, consists of money sent home by Eritreans living overseas. The prodigious shopping on display at the airport — all carried by elderly travelers, the only ones eligible for exit visas — also suggests that Isaias' gambit is failing.
"People are losing patience every day," said a 44-year-old father of three who spent 12 years in the national service, including a stint as a soldier on the front lines during the 1998-2000 border war, when a bullet hit him in the back.
His conscript's salary was about $35 a month, and although the government provided small rations of goods such as coffee, sugar and cooking oil, he had to moonlight.
Isaias "always talks about sacrifice, sacrifice," the man said at a sidewalk cafe, lowering his voice when a waitress came near. "People are looking around and asking, 'What's the purpose?' "
It wasn't always so bleak. Following independence, Isaias pledged to institute multiparty democracy, and he oversaw the drafting of a progressive constitution. When the border dispute reignited, however, Isaias dramatically scaled up conscription and put all pretenses of democracy on hold.
When he was asked when he'll hold elections, Isaias said, "We don't need elections."
More of the nation's youth seem to be abandoning hope. Despite the perils of fleeing, the United Nations refugee agency received 62,700 new asylum applications from Eritreans last year; only Zimbabwe produced more.
The bulk of the asylum-seekers, according to diplomats and independent human rights reports, are young army deserters and high-schoolers evading military training at Sawa, a prisonlike desert camp. Last May, the State Department reported, several apparent deserters were shot near the border with Djibouti.
"The defections have to be a concern for the regime," said Dan Connell, a lecturer at Simmons College in Boston who's written extensively on Eritrea. "One reason they instituted national service was to initiate the next generation into the culture of the liberation movement. The evidence suggests it's not working."
One afternoon in a dimly lit bar, a 25-year-old man nursed a beer and recalled a friend from his military service days who was arrested for saying critical things about the government. He was hauled off to prison and hasn't been heard from since.
That was three years ago. The man sighed and contemplated his own chances of escaping, perhaps to the United States.
"What's the best that anyone could hope for here?" he said. "It's not very much."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009