The refugee camp at Hitsats, an hour’s drive through the mountains from the town of Shire, in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, consists of simple block structures with corrugated iron roofs. Skinny cows congregate in the shade of the buildings, oblivious to the humanitarian agency traffic lumbering past. Tigray lies along Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, and Hitsats now accommodates at least 12,000 Eritreans, fleeing the regime in Asmara. Last August, during the rainy season, the number stood at 34,000. New refugees were arriving daily, following a 2018 peace deal between the two countries, which threatened to choke off prospective Eritrean asylum seekers.
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
Unesco is currently evaluating Asmara’s bid to be made a World Heritage site. The Eritrean capital’s argument is strong. It lays claim to some of the finest Futurist architecture on earth, built during the period of Italian colonial rule. Many of these buildings – and Asmara’s infrastructure more generally – are threatened by neglect, a resource-poor economy, and the effects of time.
The first things a new nation needs are a football team and an army. The last thing it needs is for either to disappear overnight and it’s an embarrassment to Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, that all 12 members of the national squad should have dumped their strip in the wheelie-bins at the back of their hotel during a CECAFA tournament in Kenya and vanished without further ado. ‘Cazzo,’ I hear the Eritrean leadership whispering to itself. ‘But at least we’ve still got the army.’ The trouble is that the army – or rather military service – is one of the reasons so many Eritreans want to get out. (The UN puts the monthly emigration figures in the low hundreds.) Another is poverty, another is the angular, repressive style of the regime, which hasn’t changed its ways since it got control of the liberation struggle in the mid-1970s.