Deported from Eritrea!
Mar 29, 2005
David Rich 1300 Words
D E P O R T E D F R O M E R I T R E A!
What an adventure I'd planned! I'd explore the art deco city of Asmara, capitol of Eritrea, the newest nation in Africa that had gained its independence in a bloody war with Ethiopia. Then I'd bike 120 kilometers steeply down to Massawa to join a group of Brits sailing up the Red Sea to Alexandria and Cairo, carefully skirting Sudan and Saudi Arabia. I could only think about the next stop being Eritrea while the immigration officer at Sana'a International Airport dithered, fingering my passport and finally slamming down the rubber stamp to cancel my Yemen visa, an action I was to sincerely regret 8 hours later. I traipsed into the shabby departure lounge for the flight to Asmara. Let the adventure begin. And it did in spades.
The short hour's flight landed in Asmara and I was first in line for Eritrean immigration, pushing past the sign that said "Visa $20". The officer impatiently leafed through my passport.
"I don't have a visa," I said.
"Over there," he thumbed me.
I ducked out of line and pushed my passport under the sign promising visas for $20, fidgeting as the new officer leafed through a huge double entry ledger, apparently looking for my name that I knew couldn't possibly be there. "I'm not in your book," I said. "I'm just a tourist, here to get a visa."
He ignored me and kept flipping and after a long ten minutes instructed me brusquely, "Stay right there." I froze the restless pacing.
I looked on incredulously as another officer grabbed my arm and asked, "Do you have any luggage?" I nodded and he said, "Follow me," dragging me through immigration to a carousel silently circling with two lonely bags, my bags.
"Those are mine," I said pointing. Without a word he grabbed them, swung them onto a cart and took off as I struggled to stay in his wake. "Where are we going?," I called to his departing back.
"You have to pay for a plane ticket back to Yemen...."
"What plane ticket back to Yemen. I'm here for Eritrea, to go to Asmara."
"But you don't have a visa. And you can't get one here." I'd checked the latest visa information on line and visas were supposed to be available at the Asmara airport.
"Then what am I supposed to do?" He ignored the question, tossing the bags on a cart as we rushed into the gathering dusk toward the plane I'd gotten off of half an hour before.
I repeated the question and as he pushed me up the stairs for the waiting plane he said, "Go to the Eritrean Embassy in Yemen. It'll only take an hour to get a visa."
"Thanks, " I said as he strode off. "I'll see you on Tuesday," when the next flight left in the twice weekly escapes from Yemen to Eritrea. I weakly collapsed into the nearest seat as everyone on the full plane stared at me, the reason for their delay. I'd been deported.
The return to Yemen was a nightmare, the airline refusing to return my passport until I shelled out $276 for a roundtrip ticket, Asmara to Sana'a to Asmara. If for some reason I didn't return to Asmara they'd generously shell out a $48 refund. Crafty those Yemeni Airline employees.
When I returned to earth in Yemen I had another rude awakening. Though I hadn't legally left Yemen they'd cancelled my visa and that required $60 for a new one. I was frazzled, irate and fried by the time I got back to my former hotel in Sana'a, 10 long hours after I'd left on my exciting Eritrean adventure.
First thing next morning I took a taxi to the Eritrean Embassy, way out in the southwest suburbs of Sana'a, chatted with the nice fellow in reception and was told to return the next day when the consul would be available to interview me. Twenty four hours later I stood in the same spot and in fifteen minutes was granted an interview with the Eritrean Consul.
"Hmmmmm," he said, leafing through my passport. "Are you a resident of Yemen?"
"Well, no. I'm just a tourist traveling around Africa and the Middle East. I just want to get a visa for Eritrea."
"Where do you reside?", he asked, as if he didn't know with the blue USA passport dangling from his gnarly hand.
"Then you have to get the visa from the Eritrean Embassy in Washington D.C. We only issue visas to residents of Yemen."
"But I only travel," I said. "I haven't been back to the States for years." Surely he was kidding. But his baleful glare told me he wasn't. "Isn't there anything I can do?"
"Yes. You can leave because I'm late for a meeting." And he literally shooed me out, vigorously flipping his hands to conjure my disappearance.
I told the sad story to my new friend in reception and asked his advice. He leaned over conspiratorially and said, "Don't tell the Consul I told you but you should go to the US Embassy and see if they can give you a letter."
"You think that would work?"
"Sure. It always does." I realized the implications of that as I reeled out the door, the second time I'd been kicked out of Eritrea.
The US Embassy has never been the slightest help to me except for getting extra pages in my passport. Otherwise American career diplomats are usually too busy to talk to mere citizens, existing only to issue visas for locals in Riga, Latvia and other embassies I'd haunted over the years. But I had no choice because the sailing Brits had arrived in Massawa, Eritrea that morning and were patiently awaiting my arrival before heading up the Red Sea.
The US Embassy bunkers down in a far northeast suburb of Sana'a, across the sprawling city of a couple of million. I hadn't assaulted a US Embassy since 9/11 and was therefore flabbergasted at the fortifications: armored cars with submachine guns in front and at the corners of the square block complex, a line of soldiers in camouflage toting M16s, directing me with their gun barrels through the maze toward the Embassy's single entrance one block away. I got my passport checked and then trudged onward to the building entrance under the glare of an armed battalion, through sensors and metal detectors, state your business and miracle of miracles I was in the consular section and a nice lady said she'd call the Eritrean Embassy. Ten minutes later I was paged and the nice lady, said, "There's no problem. Take four passport sized photos with $40 and they'll give you a visa."
This sounded too good to possibly be true. "Who do I ask for at the Eritrean Embassy?"
"I'll check on the name," she said. "Just wait a few minutes."
A few minutes later she gave me the sad news, "The lady I talked to at the Eritrean Embassy said she may have been mistaken but I'll give you a form letter and you should get an appointment tomorrow." She slipped me a card with her direct line and cell phone number and said call her tomorrow.
So I did and was asked to return to the US Embassy to pick up a letter the Eritrean Consul had said would do the trick, actually get me a visa for elusive Eritrea. So I did that too and then taxied back across Sana'a for the next interview with the Eritrean Consul who was described by the US Consul as "squirrelly". Tell me about it. He seemed to memorize my passport and the form letter from the US Embassy, finally saying with utmost reluctance, "We can give you a visa. Leave it here with two photos and $20 and pick it up tomorrow."
"But my flight is this evening."
"Take it or leave it," he said. To which I replied something about putting his visa where the sun don't shine and left Eritrea, for the fourth and last time. Deported voluntarily.