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The Tragic Beauty of Abandoned Eritrea

A photojournalist looks behind Asmara's fading Art Deco façade.

Stéphanie Buret

The espresso machine at Bar Vittoria stood idle. No steaming milk, no crunch of coffee beans. A handful of customers sat at the counter, chatting with the barista, Saba. For a few hours that day, she had nothing to do but listen to their stories. This was Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and the electricity was out. Again.

Power outages are a daily occurrence in Eritrea, one of the most repressive and secretive states in the world. Once an Italian colony, it won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of war. The capital still shows signs of its former rulers’ love for la dolce vita. In the 1930s, Italian architects lined Asmara’s streets with art deco designs, and the city is still dotted with faded cinemas and cafés, palm-lined avenues and aging Fiats.

But beneath this façade of old-world gentility, life is anything but sweet. A ruthless 23-year dictatorship, drought-induced famines, and mandatory, indefinite military service force some 5,000 Eritreans to flee their homeland each month. An estimated 25 percent of the country’s population now lives abroad.

When Swiss photojournalist Stéphanie Buret traveled to Asmara last year, she was struck by the quiet panic in the people she met. “I could always feel fear,” she says. Locals asked her to expose the brutal reality of life in Eritrea but refused to identify themselves for fear of arrest. Some 10,000 political prisoners currently languish in prison without charges.

Back at Bar Vittoria, after four hours of waiting, the power clicked back on. Saba straightened, and got back to work.

See more of Stéphanie Buret’s work on Instagram @NewRepublic.