We hadn’t even arrived in Eritrea when I started to get a sense of the man I had been sent to interview.
Our flight from Dubai airport was delayed.Nobody told us for how long or why. Four hours later, when the plane finally arrived, we found out the president had decided to borrow it for the morning, on a whim.
We were on our way to one of Africa’s most secretive regimes.
Granted a rare interview with the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, a man constantly ranked in the top 10 of the world’s worst dictators and accused of helping turn the Horn of Africa into one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
Our plane – Eritrea’s only carrier – was one of the few international flights that still fly into the country: a desolate place blighted by years of war with Ethiopia and Yemen, and increasing political isolation.
At the airport we were met by unfamiliar silence – no network connections, no SIM cards, no blackberry! And Rafael, our minder.
Rafael is a man of contradictions: even his backcomb appears to grow forward.
“Let me tell you the truth,” he would say every couple of hours, immediately followed by anything but.
He also ominously warned that he could keep a watch on our every movement if he chose to do so, at our hotel, on the job.
Our interview was scheduled for Saturday and we were told it would take two hours to get to the city of Massawa, the
president’s new bunker retreat on the coast.
He is reported to spend more time there after an attempted assassination last year.
The roads are manned by checkpoints. The population’s every move seems to be watched and noted in this country.
And it probably is. Eritreans need a visa to leave and there is very little chance of them ever getting one.
But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands escaping every year.
The UN estimates that 63,000 sought asylum abroad in 2009. Around 1,800 brave the shoot-to-kill police orders to cross over into Sudan every month.
The majority say they are fleeing the permanent military service and repressive nature of the regime.
After several shouting bouts with Rafael, we finally get to Massawa, an exotic port city built by the Turks in the 14th century – a fascinating place with narrow alleyways and looming mosques. It is supposed to be the hottest place on earth. And I would concur.
I noticed then it wasn’t just the capital that was surprisingly clean – everywhere we went in Eritrea was immaculate.
The streets are shiny bright, the hotels are spick and span, even the food is safe.Our interview was delayed by a day and instead we were corralled into watching Massawa’s 20-year celebrations of liberation from Ethiopia.
We decided to shoot a promo for our interview while we were there. People were out in that sweltering weather to see their long-time leader, carefully controlled by police.
What amazed us was that the police had no qualms about beating women and children with sticks a few feet away from where we were shooting. A truly shocking scene. And our cameras were still rolling.
The next day we were all set up and ready at our interview location in time for the planned dawn o’clock interview. We guessed the president would keep us waiting, and he did.
Six hours later he arrived. We were all drenched with sweat and jangled with angst by the time he sat down.
Was he going to throw us out of the country for asking the questions we wanted asked?
Why is he helping Iran supply weapons to Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi fighters in Yemen?
Why does he order the police to shoot-to-kill anyone escaping from the country?
Why is there no free press or free speech? Why were all of his political opponents whisked away never to be seen again?
How come he refuses to let aid agencies feed the two-thirds of his country who are starving?
This was a man who came in on a promise of liberating his people 20 years ago.
Every question I asked was met with a blank stare, a flat denial, cold laughter and finally allegations that we were making it all up. And he told me personally I am simply insane.
Back in the car and back on the winding roads, climbing thousands of feet to the cooler capital of Asmara.
You can smell coffee percolating through the streets: thick, lovely and freshly brewed – the legacy of Italy’s colonial rule under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
All the buildings boast a beautiful jaded art deco influence, and the streets are full of old men cycling with their hats doffed to one side alongside colourful Fiats from the 1960s.
We ended the day with a piece to camera from the tank graveyard on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of armoured vehicles dismantled and stacked heading for the trash heap.
They were used in the 30-year battle against Ethiopia. And although that was two decades ago, Eritrea remains on a permanent war footing.
The majority of the population is conscripted – whether it be in the army, in the hotel bar, as a street cleaner or our ever present minder Rafael.
They remain braced for an Ethiopian attack that may never come.