Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fleeing Eritrea

Of those migrants who crossed the Mediterranean this year, Eritreans formed the third-largest national group, behind Syrians and Afghanis. The UNHCR says 5,000 leave every month. As many as 3% of the 6 million-strong population have migrated.

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. This threat is used to justify the absence of a constitution, the destruction of the judicial system. Until the early 2000s, Eritrea had the semblance of a judicial system but for the past decade, multiple reports suggest police are simply locking people up without trial. And there is the implementation of indefinite national service that allows the government to treat each civilian as a modern-day serf for their whole life. It is 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. Gathering in groups of more than two is effectively banned: an invitation for the police to stop and hassle you. Citizens cannot travel freely without written permission. The government has a wide web of informants, a network so extensive that some Eritreans claim they are wary even of speaking to their friends and family about politics. “The distrust between people is very high,” one told the UN’s Eritrea commission. “You do not even trust your own brother; he could be even part of the national security.” Phones are tapped, but most people aren’t allowed them anyway. Interviewees claimed people on active military service are barred from owning a mobile. Anyone else who wants one has to apply at a government office in the capital of their province. There is no private media. The only public meetings allowed are those of Afwerki’s political party.

There exists an indefinite national service and 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. The government takes away almost all prospect of personal choice. Conscripts are posted where the government orders them, and remain there for months and often years without being allowed home.

“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 pay 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.”

To help people access food, the government gives out coupons, but even then this is essentially a system of control. If you’re not in good grace with the regime, you don’t get any coupons and if you don’t get any coupons, you don’t get anything to eat.

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, when Eritrea won its freedom from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, after a decades-long liberation struggle led by, among others, President Afwerki, the period of service was meant to last for just 18 months. The aim 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.” Welde Giorgis explained: “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.”

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. xiles often describe a torture position known as “the eight”, whereby a conscript lies on their front, has their hands and ankles tied together behind them, and is then hoisted into the air. One victim recalled hanging like this for days on end, as punishment for scuffling with a fellow conscript. When he was finally freed, it took weeks for him to regain control of his legs.
“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.”

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. 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.” Most of the experienced teachers had already fled the country, so the staff were largely young conscripts, whom the students had little respect for. “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.”

Welde Giorgis 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.”

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