- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

ASMARA, Eritrea The giant pair of sandals in the center of this sleepy capital in the Horn of Africa is the latest monument to the 30-year war Eritreans endured to win independence from Ethiopia.
At least 60,000 Eritreans died in the war that forged a nation of remarkable unity and self-reliance the rough leather sandals symbolize the staying power of Eritrean fighters.
But a government crackdown on critics is straining that prized unity. President Isaias Afwerki, who led the rebels to victory in 1991 over a much larger, Soviet-backed army, has turned from saint to sinner in the eyes of many in Africa's youngest nation.
"We have no freedom. People are afraid to speak. It's a dictatorship, and Isaias doesn't know how to manage the people," said one resident of Asmara, the capital.
Like most Eritreans, the 23-year-old did not want his name used because of rumors of arrests of anyone seen to be critical of the government.
The crackdown began in mid-September, when the government closed the country's eight private newspapers and arrested an unknown number of journalists. Eight remained in jail without charges at year's end.
The private press kicked off in 1996 with stories about celebrities and romance, but then discovered politics. Besides detaining the journalists, police also arrested 11 senior members of the ruling party who had used the press and the country's fledgling Internet service to criticize Mr. Afwerki.
The detainees were part of a group of 15 core members of Mr. Afwerki's People's Front for Democracy and Justice party who accused the president of acting illegally and unconstitutionally. The other four were out of the country when the arrests were made.
Presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel said the dissidents had compromised Eritrea's sovereignty and security, but he didn't explain how. No charges have been filed.
Much of the political material in the private press came from Web sites set up by Eritreans living abroad. The Internet, introduced here a year ago, has been the main source of information and debate in a country where the single-party state controls broadcast media and three newspapers still in operation.
Credited with forging a rebel movement that transcended religious, ethnic and sex differences that have dogged other parts of Africa, Mr. Afwerki never before had suffered such public criticism.
As cracks appear in the "family," anxiety and confusion are replacing the camaraderie that abounded in this rural country of spectacular mountains and semiarid plains.
The splits surfaced at the end of Eritrea's latest conflict with Ethiopia a 2-year border war that cost the lives of 19,000 Eritreans.
In May, six months after a cease-fire was signed, the 15 dissidents wrote an open letter to all ruling party members saying the country was in a crisis caused by the "weakness" of the government and the war with Ethiopia.
"The president is conducting himself in an illegal and unconstitutional manner, is refusing to consult and the legislative and executive bodies have not performed their oversight functions properly," the letter said.
Some of the half-million Eritreans abroad, whose remittances and investments are vital to the economy of the nation of 2.5 million, also began openly questioning the government's record.
The government contends it had no choice but to defend itself against Ethiopia, but many Eritreans now view the war as a disaster.
At one point, Ethiopian troops drove deep into Eritrea, capturing the most fertile land and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
The war ended with an agreement for the deployment of 4,200 U.N. peacekeepers in a buffer zone while the disputed 620-mile border is demarcated. The buffer zone is almost entirely inside Eritrea, and more than 70,000 Eritreans remain in makeshift camps.
"The war was worthless, mainly because we did not get any benefit. People have lost their jobs the government does not really care and everybody is tired of this thing," one soldier said.
Another disagreed.
"After the military confrontation with Ethiopia, it was natural we get some internal instability," said Michael Tekie. "But the leadership is in control of everything in this country, which is moving toward a better situation."
Analysts say it is unclear what effect the Afwerki crackdown will have, but the economic consequences could be dire.
Five days before the arrests, international donors and lending institutions pledged $130 million to help finance a $197 million program to demobilize 200,000 soldiers in the next 18 months. Hundreds of millions more have been pledged for other projects.
But the funds could be jeopardized as diplomats protest the crackdown.


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