“Don’t write my name, a brother has already been arrested. . . . We tell them not to, but people here are willing to do just about anything to get out. . . . You don’t know this, but those desperate skeletons you pick up off your coastlines are the lucky ones, survivors.” So many stories that explain the big exodus that is pushing thousands of Eritreans to take all sorts of risks in a desperate attempt to flee a country that has become a prison.
In Eritrea, things have been this way since 2001 when President Isaias Afewerki took advantage of an international community traumatised by the shock of 9/11 to do away with the opposition. On 19 September 2001, 15 generals and ministers disappeared in the dungeons of regime. Their crime was to criticise the paranoia of a leader who, after the disastrous war of 2000 against Ethiopia, imposed a permanent mobilisation on a country isolated by the war, led according to practices the former guerrilla leader and future tyrant learnt at Chinese training camps.
The imposition of compulsory military service in 2002 was the first step towards the new dictatorship. Now men must serve until the age of 50, women until 47, this in accordance with an edict titled Warsay Yika'alo (‘Youth and Veterans’). Fully in place by 2007, it has turned the country into a huge army camp.
“This edict is a reaction to international isolation,” representatives of the international community in Eritrea said. “This law provides the regime with manpower to react to any unexpected attack and the means to keep in check large armies of the unemployed who could protest or rise up.”
Such tight social control has been enhanced by the obligation of Grade 12 students to attend the Sawa Defence Training Centre, a facility that has become the regime’s grand social laboratory. Here, the regime’s future cadres are selected; its troops are trained to become cheap labour; potential rebels are singled out for re-education and prison.
“Senior officers have their own capital like shops, bars; they run businesses and the workers are the national service. The conscripts are working for the benefit of the higher ranks,” a former member of the military administration told Human Rights Watch. Overall, they are “paid an allowance of 400 Nafka a month ($24).
If anyone does not abide by the rules, they could end up in the furnace of Klima, a base in the Danakil Desert where rationed water and food test conscripts’ capacity to survive.
Outside Sawa, chances are not much better. Women who get pregnant during a rare leave to see their boyfriend can get married and obtain an honourable discharge but must accept a life of poverty far from their conscript husbands.
Those who are not married by the time they are called up by the national service must give up the idea of getting married. The upshot of this is that the number of families is falling.
“It is an appalling situation,” a priest said. “Young men have no hope to find a wife or a job. They have no future; slaves, forced to choose between prison, forced labour or run the risk of an escape that will probably end with their death.”