In the street cafés of Asmara, which serve some of the best macchiatos and cappuccinos outside Italy, opposition politicians and rebel leaders gather to discuss how they are going to overthrow the government.
Eritrea is one of Africa’s most repressive countries, a place where dissent is stifled and those who speak out are swiftly arrested. But these rebels are free to plot because they are planning to oust the rulers in Eritrea’s neighbours.
In the past decade, Eritrea’s mountain capital, Asmara, has become a haven for a host of rebel groups from across the Horn of Africa. Darfur rebels, Ethiopian separatists and Somali Islamists have all made their home here.
“We feel free in Eritrea,” says Abdul Aziz Dafala, a leader of the Revolutionary Forces Front, one of numerous rebel groups in Darfur. He has been issued an Eritrean passport and was given help finding an apartment.
Abdul Aziz often meets his fellow rebels at the Peacebuilding Centre for the Horn of Africa, an organisation that hosts discussion groups and seminars for Asmara’s disparate opposition groups. During Eritrea’s long war for independence its rebels – the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front – were given support by Sudan and Somalia.
“From Islamists to Communists, from far right to far left, those people helped us, says the centre’s Eltigani Elhag. Now that Eritrea is independent it is returning the favour.
Some of the support is for more selfish political reasons. Eritrea waged a long war for independence against Ethiopia and the two countries have since fought over the border, a conflict that has cost more than 80,000 lives. The Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, both fighting for autonomy inside Ethiopia, have offices in Asmara.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have also been accused of fighting a proxy war in Somalia. In the past, Ethiopia provided support to the government, while Eritrea backed the Islamist opposition. One of those Islamists was Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who spent two years in Asmara as the head of the Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). Sheikh Sharif became president of Somalia earlier this year – although by then he had fallen out with Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki.
Abdul Aziz, the Darfur rebel, still supports him. The two men became friends while Sheikh Sharif was in Asmara. “We would talk about the Horn of Africa, share ideas,” he says. “He’s a good man.”
Life in Asmara is a lot easier than fighting in the deserts of Darfur. Many of those who now drink coffee in cafés used to be commanders. “When I go to the field I am a warrior,” says Osman Wash, another Darfur rebel. “When I am in the city I live the city life.” Wearing a smart grey suit, he says he particularly enjoys going to Asmara’s cinemas. The Impero, an art deco masterpiece on Asmara’s Liberation Avenue, recently showed the Guy Fawkes-inspired film V for Vendetta, a picture that rebels – both Eritrean and foreign – would have appreciated.