(The Guardian, Patrick Kingsley Migration correspondent, 22 July, 2015) Adam is just 16 years old, but the events of his short life illustrate why so many Eritreans are fleeing their country. At 14, he became the oldest male member of his family still living at home, as the others had been called up for indefinite military service.
With no father or older brother to look after his remaining siblings, Adam dropped out of school to help tend the family’s land. No longer in education, he lost his right to a permit that allows Eritreans to move in public. Without it, he was soon arrested just for going outside.
Still a 14-year-old child, he was then forced to become a military conscript – a fate that normally befalls Eritreans in their last year of school, and continues for the rest of their life. But after six months of abuse and what amounts to slave labour, Adam escaped for home. There he was arrested again, and spent three months in prison without trial before being returned to military service.
He escaped a second time, was caught a second time, returned to prison, and then sent for yet another spell of military service. By the time he finally fled to Sudan, aged 15, he had been jailed twice, and forced to become a child soldier three times. After being kidnapped and tortured by Libyan smugglers, he finally reached Italy by boat this summer.
“The day I arrived here, that’s my new date of birth,” Adam said in a recent interview in Sicily. “The 16 years I previously lived, they don’t count. In Eritrea, I never used to think about the future – I never knew if I’d survive the day. But now I’m trying to do that.”
By embarking on the same deadly odyssey as the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have tried to get into Europe in recent years, Adam is part of a curious statistic. Of those who crossed the Mediterranean this year, Eritreans formed the third-largest national group, behind Syrians and Afghans.
Why? What is it about this small, relatively new country perched on the Horn of Africa that is driving so many people to leave – as much as 3% of the 6 million-strong population according to some estimates?
Dozens of recent Eritrean exiles like Adam have provided something of an answer in interviews with the Guardian, describing a country that is effectively an open-air prison – a totalitarian state where most citizens fear arrest at any moment and dare not speak to their neighbours, gather in groups or linger long outside their homes.
Eritrea is not at war, but its first and only president, Isaias Afwerki, plays up the possibility of a return to conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia – the border town of Badme was the focus of a bloody territorial dispute. This threat is used to justify the absence of a constitution, the destruction of the judicial system, and the implementation of indefinite national service that allows the government to treat each civilian as a modern-day serf for their whole life.
In other words, he has created an African North Korea, if its recent exiles are to be believed. But Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, does not believe them She recently argued that Eritrean refugees were in fact fleeing for economic reasons. However, the UN thinks differently: according to a recent 500-page report, “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” in Eritrea, violations which “may constitute crimes against humanity”.
The most obvious reason for the exodus is the country’s indefinite national service, the defining feature of contemporary Eritrea. Through this system, the government controls almost every aspect of a civilian’s life – male or female – from the age of 16 or 17. Where you live, your daily routine, and how often you see your family – all this is decided by the government, thanks to the national service system.
“We are just like slaves for them,” said Kibrom, 24, who spent the entirety of his adult life as a conscript until his escape a few months ago. “That’s why we’re leaving. It’s become one big prison for us.”
Conscripts are technically paid. Different exiles report different monthly wages, but each fell between 500 and 750 nakfas (the local currency) – a negligible fee that equates to between £20 and £30. The amount is so low that it is virtually meaningless, former conscripts say.
“It is only enough for three days – so for the other 27 days I would go hungry,” said Kibrom. “To buy a chicken, it’s 600 nakfa. And that tells you everything. If I want to have a family, to marry, to have children – that 600 isn’t going to be enough.”
In exchange for this meagre salary, the government takes away almost any prospect of personal choice. Eritreans are posted where the government orders them, and remain there for months and often years on end without being allowed home. Fathers are sometimes away for so long that their children forget who they are.
“There are kids who, when they see their fathers for the first time, think they’re a stranger, and react violently, and tell them to go away,” said Ahlam, a housewife in her 40s, who escaped to Egypt earlier this summer. “It happened to my son and his cousin recently – when they found my husband in the house, they said: ‘Who is he? Get him out!’”
According to Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, the former head of the Eritrean central bank, ex-ambassador to the EU, and one-time president of Eritrea’s only university, “the idea of national service was supposed to be along the same lines of that of Switzerland”.
When Eritrea won its freedom from Ethiopia in the early 90s, after a decades-long liberation struggle led by, among others, President Afwerki, the programme was meant to last for just 18 months. The point was both to safeguard the fragile new nation’s security, and provide a temporary workforce to rebuild its war-shattered infrastructure and economy.
“It had a military aspect, a social aspect, an economic aspect, and also a cultural aspect,” said Welde Giorgis, a one-time ally of Afwerki who became an exile in 2006, and later wrote a history of his country. “But all of that was abused when it became indefinite. When it was proclaimed in 1994, people were in their late teens – and now they’re in their early 40s. How can they sustain families? The objective consequence is the destruction of the nuclear family. If you don’t have a nuclear family, you don’t have a community, and you don’t have a society. It’s modern-day servitude.”
Conscripts describe military service as a mixture of humiliation and tedium. “It’s not just about serving, it’s about being tortured,” said Sofia, who spent four years as a conscript before fleeing to Egypt.
“Another [torture method] is when they spread tea powder mixed with sugar and some water – and then spread it on you, so that it attracts flies,” Sofia recalled.
The serving part of military service often involves providing cheap labour for the government. “Sometimes they say: ‘Go to the mountains to quarry the stone,’ sometimes they say: ‘Go to the forest to cut wood,’ and sometimes: ‘Go and clean the streets,’” said Omar, 27. “Everything that the government might need doing, they use the conscripts as slaves.”
Often the tasks seem pointless and demeaning. “There’s no specific thing that you do,” said Kibrom. “Sometimes you have to wash [officers’] underwear – and you can’t say no.” At other times, Kibrom said he had been asked to hunt members of the Rashaida tribe, who he said illegally mined for gold near his military camp.
“If we caught them, it would take days to bring them back on camels, and when we arrived at the camp, [relatives of] the Rashaida would come in cars and pay to free their men again. We are a joke for them because the officials take money from these guys, and then they set them free.”
A child from Eritrea holds a placard during a protest in Madrid. It reads: ‘We are not leaks, refugees with rights.’ Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters
Unless they escape Eritrea, the unlucky majority of conscripts will stay in this limbo for their entire life. But a minority will play out their national service in a partly civilian context. After their first year, which is spent in a mixture of army training and classroom education, Eritreans take an exam. Those who do well are trained to fill a range of roles within the civil service – as teachers, nurses, or even newscasters within Eritrea’s amateurish state television network, Eri-TV. The pay is as low as it is in the army.
Interviewees who were sent down this route said they had been given no say in where they were assigned. “For 20 years, I had no choice except to do what they told me to do,” said Elmaz, a translator for the police, who escaped this summer. “I made so many requests to work in television, but they refused. They don’t want anyone to do anything they want to do. It’s like they want to stunt your development.”
Some conscripts within the civil workforce say they also had to fulfil military duties by night. Mehari, 22, who arrived in Italy this summer, was assigned to be a primary school teacher. “But when I say teacher, I mean that in the day I’d work as a teacher, but at night I would wait for orders from the army,” said Mehari. “At any time they can tell you to guard a building. It’s very tiring. You end up slumped on your gun. All night you have to splash your face with water to keep awake – because if you’re caught, you get in trouble.”
Mehari described his school as having an anarchic atmosphere. Most of the experienced teachers had already fled the country, so the staff were largely young conscripts, whom the students had little respect for.
“Students mostly come to school to get permission to travel around the city,” Mehari said. “No one wants to stay. They know that at the end of the day they will have to go to military service. So no one wants to learn. And the teachers know that. So the teachers don’t want to teach.”
Mehari’s reference to travel permits is a nod to the restrictions on those who aren’t in military service. Citizens cannot move outside without written permission – which for children is only obtainable from school. So if a child drops out of education in order to earn money for their family, then they – like Adam – run the risk of arrest.
Gathering in groups of more than two is effectively banned: an invitation for the police to stop and hassle you. Some people even avoid being seen to socialise at home, in case they arouse suspicion. “Sometimes we will jump over the wall [of a house] to meet with people,” said Kibrom. “We don’t enter through the door, because otherwise the police will see you and come inside to ask what you are doing.”
Generally, Eritreans avoid meaningful conversations with even their loved ones, so wide is the government’s web of informants.
“In Eritrea you’re even afraid to talk to your family,” said Sofia, an Eritrean in Cairo. “The person next to me [in a cafe] could be a spy, and they are looking at what you are doing. People disappear every day.”
A friend of Sofia’s once did exactly that, after making small talk in a cafe with a stranger who turned out to be a foreign diplomat. “They were just chatting. And [the police] said she was a spy passing information to him. We don’t know what happened to her. She is in jail till now. One day they told us she was in hospital with high blood pressure but we were so afraid that we didn’t go because we feared they might arrest us too. This is Eritrea.”
Until the early 2000s, Eritrea at least had the semblance of a judicial system. But for the past decade, multiple reports suggest police are simply locking people up without trial. One refugee, Omar, 27, said he had not even heard of the concept of a lawyer until he reached Italy.
Welde Giorgis said: “You’re not brought before a court of law. You’re not allowed to defend yourself. Your family has no rights of visitation, they don’t know where you are, they don’t know about the physical and mental condition you are in. Once you have disappeared you have one man acting as the accuser, the jailer, the judge and the executioner.”
Afraid of arbitrary arrest, Eritreans say they try to avoid hanging around outdoors. In particular, people fear being caught up in what’s known as a “giffa” – a flash raid on a certain area by troops looking for truant conscripts. In a giffa, anything goes: the raiders can arrest people in the street or at home.
“They can get you anywhere,” said Samuel, who arrived in Italy earlier this summer. “For me personally they came to get me when I was in bed with my wife. They searched all over the house – even under the bed. It’s a very bad feeling, to think they can just enter your room like that.”
Phones are tapped, but most people aren’t allowed them anyway. Interviewees claimed that those aged under 35 – or on active military service – are barred from owning a mobile. Anyone over 35 who wants one has to apply at a government office in the capital of their province. Even if permission is granted, the bills are often prohibitively high.
More generally, interviewees complain that life is dull. There is no private media. The only public meetings allowed are those of Afwerki’s political party. The internet is rare and several people said they had not heard of Facebook until they left Eritrea. Frequent powercuts mean that even the propaganda of state television is often unavailable.
In the capital, Asmara, the presence of a small elite and the flow of remittances from relatives overseas allegedly allows for a more vibrant life. But outside of the city, people said streets are often empty and public spaces are almost lifeless. The majority of people seen outdoors tend to be children, mothers and pensioners. The few businesses run by individuals, rather than by the state, are often staffed by youngsters yet to reach national service.
Were there more adults at large, they would struggle to set up their own companies – the government largely forbids it. Sarah, a dentist, was able to run a small private practice outside of her work for the state until 2010, but then she says the concept was banned, along with many other private enterprises. “From 2010 onwards everything had to be run by the government,” Sarah said.
Small shops are thought to be the only enterprises that individuals can easily set up by themselves. But even then, it is hard to turn a profit, due to the poverty of potential customers: their government salaries are not enough to live on. To help people access food, the government gives out coupons, but even then this is essentially a system of control, Welde Giorgis argues. “If you’re not in good grace with the regime, you don’t get any coupons,” he said, “and if you don’t get any coupons, you don’t get anything to eat.”
Most exiles are pessimistic about what can be done to change the situation. Dan Connell, a journalist and academic who has chronicled Eritrean history for 40 years, believes Afwerki’s regime is weaker than it has ever been – something that could explain why many Eritreans have recently been able to escape the country.
“But the main question is: what is there to replace it?” Connell asked. “It’s hard to predict, because you can’t see evidence of an organised opposition, and the only time we did was in January 2013, when a military unit launched a protest that never really amounted to much.”
Welde Giorgis himself left Eritrea in 2006 because he no longer believed internal reform was possible. The average Eritrean is now “a helpless victim”, he says. “And that’s why you see these large numbers of Eritreans leaving the country at great risk to their lives. Many die from dehydration in the Sahara. Many have drowned in the Mediterranean. Many have become victim to organ harvesters in the Sinai. But nobody cares. Eritrea has become an earthly hell, an earthly inferno for its people – and that’s why they are taking such huge risks to their personal lives to escape the situation. It’s become unliveable.”
Additional reporting: Manu Abdo and Abdel Fatah Mohamed