By BBC FooC,
The small North Eastern African country of Eritrea is often in the news these days. It’s one of the biggest sources of migrants to Europe. The escapees talk of repression at home of political decent being harshly punished, of media censorship and mandatory national service which can drag on for years.
A century ago, the country was under Italian colonial rule. It left a visible distinctive mark on the architecture of the capital Asmara. The city was once known as Picola Roma “Little Rome” even today many of its shops still have Italian names. There is a bar Vitoria, and Casa del formaggio.
Foreign journalists are rarely allowed in but [BBC journalist] Mary Harper was.
Mary Harper: I pushed back the thick, dark red velvet curtains and find myself in complete darkness. Drops of rains come through the ceiling and hit the floor hard. Someone turned on the switch. A deem flickering bulb does its best to light up the place. I am in a huge Cinema.
Slowly, I make out elegant shapes on the walls. Leaping antelopes, pineapples, and dancing maidens. On the floor, in the front of the screen stand white pillars topped with the heads of lions.
I hear a tap tap tap behind me. A very old man, in red trousers, white shirt, black jacket approaches. “I have worked hear at Cinema Impero for more than 40 years,” he tells me. “We have sits for 1,800 people.”
He takes me out in to the foyer which seems to be a sort of hangout for the disabled of Asmara. A man in a wheel chair, a blind child and a women bent over on to two wooden sticks, cluster around the giant black projector, taller than any human.
Others ordered drinks from the bar, its polished wooden shelves, neatly stacked with glasses. They stems brightly coloured. Film posters on the wall advertise La Dolche Vita and African affair. It is though some kind of magic powder has sprinkled on Asmara, freezing in time, its clean lined 1930 Modernist architecture. I am told the young country’s first and only President, Isaias Afwerki, has ordered it that way.
The buildings are fading and crumbling at the edges, but most still being used. Although not the Fiat Tagliero garage, which was designed to look like an aeroplane of the future. Its concrete cantilever wings stretch out impossibly far with no supports.
Miniature old style Fiat 500s pass by, a lilacBeatle car, horse cart, Toyota land cruisers and yellow taxis. Cyclists with past and bright shiny lycra, two men in a wheelchair propelled themselves along a great speed with the help of a ski poles. Old men sit in a pavement cafes seeping Espresso. It looks more like Rome or Paris than any other part of Africa. They swap war stories, tales from the trenches when they fought and won a 30 year conflict with Ethiopia. Images of young wilthead independent fighters painted on the wall of many buildings including an old style bowling ale which double up a pool hall.
But behind all these charm lurks something else. As in the darkness of cinema Impero, details only start to emerge once you spent time looking, listening and waiting. There are hardly any police visible on the streets but people start to tell me there are informants everywhere. I meet Eritreans who have been in obligatory national service for more than a decade. Some say they want to leave, others to push for change from with in.
But then again, I meet people who have returned from a comfortable life abroad to live and work in Eritrea. One beautiful young women who grew up in Sweden asks, “why does the outside world hate Eritrea? Why are we called the North Korea of Africa? and What can I do to change that?
It’s very very difficult to work out what’s going on. Human Rights group say there are thousands of political prisoners, tortured and kept underground in shipping containers. Government ministers tell me, there are only 30 – 40 and the torture is banned.
I read reports that say Eritreans are afraid to think, let alone to speak. But almost everyone I meet is happy to talk even with an aggressive TV camera and a fluffy microphone pushed in their faces; and I was not accompanied by a minder.
I meet Germans from the Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra who have come to perform as part of Eritrea’s 25th anniversary of independence. They tell me they will want not to come here as the country was dangerous, a sort of giant slave camp. They delighted how safe they feel, how clean Asmara is, how friendly its people.
I start to feel that I am going to have empty my mind and start allover again if I am even going to begin to understand the country.
The German Orchestra plays in cinema Asmara, which was originally built as a Opera house in the 1920s. The crowed whistles, claps and cheers as they perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Eritrea’s national anthem as it has never been heard before.
(* Transcript by TesfaNews)