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November 04, 2009

Spy games

I'd been warned before going to Asmara that I might be spied upon. In the extremely small capital of an extremely secretive regime, diplomats told me they assumed they were being watched by their neighbors and probably even by some Eritreans who worked for them.

On my first night in the city I was at a bar with some other foreigners, among them teachers and members of the small diplomatic corps. We were the only non-Eritreans there, and not difficult to spot. A half-dozen of us were sitting around a small, low table, drinking the sometimes skunky but not altogether unpleasant Asmara Beer, when an Eritrean man walked in and pulled a chair up very close to the table. If I turned my head 90 degrees, I was right in his face.

The guy was young-looking and stylish, in a tweed jacket and black spectacles. The bar was dark, but he carried a paperback book. He sat down facing away from us, never once making eye contact. Instead he stared off into the middle distance, the book lying unopened next to him, for at least a half-hour. He puffed on a cigarette or two, but didn't order a drink, and left without saying a word.

To the foreigners I was with, there was no question this man had been sent to eavesdrop on our conversation. They'd had similar encounters many times before in Asmara. I hadn't yet been conditioned into that way of thinking. But I had to wonder: would a real spy be so obvious?

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Comments

Dave

Lol, Who is paranoid now :)

Bob, NY

Apparently the US spies on its citizens too. For no good reason.

But back to Africa, Eritrea is not the only place that has these spies. Ive been to small towns where there are entire offices filled with "intelligence agents" whose job it is to gather information and report local on goings to high ups. It is known in society that they are there to spy on others.

Lets just say its not as subtle in Africa.

Kofi

If this story is true, then their methods are surely clumsy. So I don't think that they gather any info of significance.

José

I think the guy was sent more than anything in order to give you the message "watch your step, we're watching you." Personally, I would have been tempted to start a conversation with him by asking about his book.

Mark

José is right! it was scare tactics. and asking about the book would been i clever move.
However i'm wondering why you did'nt mention that Eritrea has occupation forces on its land and that Ethiopia has refused to agre on the boundy commisions verdict, i think that is why the Eritrean regime is acting the way it does.

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shashank

Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.



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