Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is a city developed by Italians in the 1920s and 30s to be the Rome of the East. Due to an upsurge in Italian interest in architecture during those decades, Asmara features buildings developed in several modernist styles and almost served as a ‘blank canvas’ for artists and designers. Until the 1940s, Asmara had a status similar to what Dubai now has in the middle east – as a centre of modern and varied architecture and as a cultural meeting point for a fast growing region.
Asmara has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the city with the densest, most intact Modernist architecture anywhere in the world. The masterplans for Asmara and Massawa were authored by the Italian engineer Odoardo Cavagnari. Some fascinating buildings emerged during this period, including the aircraft inspired Fiat Tagliero building, Asmara Theatre and Cinema Impero.
Following on from the Italian defeat in the Second World War, Eritrea fell into British hands, who then merged it with their other territory in the region: Ethiopia. This resulted in three decades of unrest and war, with Eritrea finally declaring independence in 1991. However, tensions on the border continue to this day.
Eritrea is half muslim and half-Christian which is unique to the region. In Eritrea, the people have always lived in religious harmony and fascinating musical styles have developed that fuse different cultures. What is interesting is that while in the rest of Africa, Christianity was primarily introduced by European missionaries during colonisation, in Eritrea, it has had a presence since the 4th century as a result of friendly relations with the Mediterranean world. In fact, the Kingdom of Aksum in Eritrea, was a major stop on the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.
The Eritrea of the 21st century is far removed from the map of positive contributors to the world today. Stifling of media freedoms and the large scale imprisonment and torture of its political opponents, has meant that Eritrea is one of the least free countries in the world.
Eritrea is the worst country in the world for press freedom.
It is difficult to get hold of accurate numbers, but it is estimated that 20% of Eritreans have escaped the country in the last decade – that’s 1.2 million of what was estimated to have been a 6 million population earlier.
Eritrea is not at war anymore but persecution is widespread. Children are forced to serve as soldiers, suffer abuse and work as slave labour; so much so that many lie about their age and are afraid to travel. Any attempts to escape are punished with prison without trials. A complete absence of private media results in the state being the sole provider of newsworthy information. This censorship is even more severe than in North Korea, with Reporters Without Borders ranking Eritrea the worst country in the world for press freedom, for 7 years running.
As The Guardian notes, Isaias Afwerki, who has been the leader since 1991, uses the threat of war with Ethiopia “to justify the absence of a constitution, the destruction of the judicial system, and the implementation of indefinite national service that allows the government to treat each civilian as a modern-day serf for their whole life”.
This modern day slavery of millions should be unacceptable to the international community. Only little steps are being taken. Just a few hours ago, the United Nations extended the arms embargoes on both Eritrea and Somalia. However, there is little political consensus on steps to take to prevent the slavery of Eritrea’s population. Until the free, developed and influential countries of the world make this a priority, the people of Eritrea will continue to suffer and the refugee boats making their way to Europe, will continue to represent stories of suffering that seem unreal in the modern world.