Shewit Yakob Gebretensae (27) was shot dead by armed police in the streets of Mendefera, Eritrea, on 4th February, 2020. Whilst peacefully walking home at 9 pm, without having committed any offence, Shewit was grabbed by police and handcuffed. When he and others tried to escape this unjustified detention, police shot him dead on the spot.
Shewit’s father was a martyr who was killed during the 1998 -2000, border war with Ethiopia. His mother, who became disabled during the war for Eritrea’s independence had been dependent on Shewit for day-to-day support.
According to the Eritrean National Service proclamation, National Service obligations apply to citizens from 18 years of age. The implementation of an education policy that requires students to complete grade 12 at the Sawa Military Training Centre, and the fact that many of the students are under 18. Conscripts are paid a token sum too small to live on, and there is no time limit to the military service. Since there is no legal avenue to exit National Service, conscripts often find themselves effectively state prisoners in the military or in slave labour in mines, constructions or agriculture for the rest of their lives. Very understandably, many find unofficial ways to escape from National Service and work incognito, and tens of thousands a year make the dangerous journeys across closed borders to leave their country, despite the government’s shoot-to-kill policy.
Shewit completed his 12th grade studies and his initial period of military service, at the Sawa Military Training Camp during the 25th round of Eritrea’s National Service, in 2011/2012. He was then sent to the port city of Assab and surrounding areas, very far away from his family, and he continued serving for many years, without infringing any regulations. Since his disabled mother (as mentioned earlier, injured during the war for Eritrea’s independence) and his younger brother urgently needed his support, Shewit left National Service without official permission and went to live in Mendefera, where he started working as a welder, earning enough income to be able to help his family to survive adequately. He and tens of thousands of others who have left military service are regarded as “deserters” by the Eritrean government, and, if found, are almost certain to be detained, harshly interrogated for an extended period, abused, tortured, and returned to the equivalent of “slave labour” in the military or the mines. That is why Shewit attempted to escape police custody, for which he paid with his life.
Elizabeth Chyrum, Director of Human Rights Concern-Eritrea, commented, “This callous murder in the street of a former National Service conscript highlights one of the most serious problems in Eritrea: the virtual imprisonment for life of whole generations of young men and women in the military or in slave labour. Time-unlimited National Service has created a huge number of so-called “deserters” of two kinds: (1) an underclass of escapees from National Service – hidden unofficial workers in Eritrea who cannot afford to be found by police; and (2) a wholly unsustainable drain of tens of thousands of young refugees escaping Eritrea who become endangered victims of people traffickers or the helpless pawns of hard-line immigration strategies in Europe and other continents.
“This tragic situation will only end when a short time limit is imposed and effectively enforced in the National Service conscription system of Eritrea. So long as National Military Service has no time limit, Eritrean police round-ups and violent “press-gang” arrests will continue, as will the injuries and deaths associated with them. And until an independent legal system is able to intervene and prosecute the unjust actions of the police, such inhumane and violent conduct by them will undoubtedly continue.”
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)
10 February 2010