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There’s spaghetti and pizza, cappuccinos and café lattes. The local cinema shows La Dolce Vita, and most people will answer you in Italian. But this isn’t Italy. It’s Asmara, Eritrea’s capital on the edge of the Horn of Africa.
The country, a former Italian colony, gained its independence in 1993 after 50 years of turmoil — the British expelled the Italians in 1941 before Ethiopia annexed the region in the 1950s — but has retained a strong Italian heritage.
“Everybody in Italy has someone in his family that lived or worked in Eritrea,” says photographer Clara Vannucci, whose own great-grandfather worked as a doctor in the former colony. And yet, she says, nobody in Italy seems to talk about it today. “At school, we spend a lot of time studying World War II but we didn’t study Eritrea, even though it’s part of the history of our country.”
Driven by a desire to learn more, Vannucci traveled to Eritrea. Most journalists have been banned from the country as the government, led by Isaias Afwerki, has “imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses of the population,” according to a 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council report. So Vannucci, accompanied by documentary director Manfredi Lucibello, traveled on a tourism visa rather than a media visa. As she worked in the streets of Asmara, she’d often have to hide their cameras—but the fact that she is Italian helped. “People would just talk with me,” she says. “They would hear me speaking Italian and couldn’t wait to hear all about Italy.”
This curiosity is understandable, says the 30-year-old photographer. As the political and economic situation in Eritrea has remained dire – just last week fighting was reported on the border with Ethiopia – young Eritreans are increasingly trying to leave the country for Europe. “There’s only electricity and water a two hours a day,” she says. “There’s no future. There are no jobs.”
But Vannucci doesn’t want her work to be about the country’s current political state. “It’s about history,” she says.
Clara Vannucci is a documentary photographer based in Italy.
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.
Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent