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This contains a general overview of Eritrean history.
In modern history, Eritreans have struggled with one bad government after another.Italy, lead by Mussolini, occupied Eritrea and forced Eritreans to fight a war with Ethiopia. After Italy was defeated, the British occupied Eritrea before the UN passed control to Ethiopia; their annexation of Eritrea lead to another war. In its description of Eritrea's history the Lonely Planet states:
Eritrea became Ethiopia's 14th province and disappeared from the map of Africa. Little by little, Ethiopia began to exert an ever-tighter hold over Eritrea, as both industry and political control were shifted to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. When in the early 1960s Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea in violation of international law, Cold War politics ensured that both the US and the UN kept silent.
With no recourse to the international community, the frustration of the Eritrean people grew. In 1961 the fight for independence began. In 1978 the Eritreans were on the brink of winning back their country, but the Ethiopians benefited from the logistical support of the Soviet Union. From 1988 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the most important resistance movement, began to inflict major losses on the Ethiopian army. In 1990 amid some of the fiercest fighting of the war the EPLF took the strategically important port of Massawa.
By a fortuitous turn of events, the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu was overthrown in 1991, his 140,000 troops fled Eritrea and a final confrontation in the capital was avoided. The EPLF walked into Asmara without having to fire a single bullet. As a result, Asmara was one of the very few Eritrean towns to survive the war undamaged. Heavy fighting in Nakfa and Massawa saw both towns inflicted with massive amounts of damage that have taken decades to repair.
In the following interview, Meron Estefanos shares her experience living under Ethiopian rule and then escaping it.
After liberation, Isaias Afwerki was elected as the Eritrean president. Soon after, war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In their summation of human rights issues in Eritrea, the One Day Seyoum organization states:
Former guerrilla leader Isaias was careful to consolidate his power in increments - saying that it takes time to build a democracy, so the people gave him time. In 1998, a war broke out with Ethiopia over disputed territory, ending in stalemate in 2000, with Ethiopia refusing to withdraw its troops and demarcate the border. The end of the conflict encouraged Eritreans to openly call for the democratic reforms which had been ‘put on hold’ by Isaias’s regime. However, President Isaias chose to double down on authoritarianism - moving in 2001 to permanently silence opposition, effectively establishing a dictatorship.
The government that promised democracy became an extreme authoritarian government, using the war with Ethiopia as the excuse for their actions. When dissent occurred, the government justified their actions in the name of national security. This earned Eritrea the reputation of being the North Korea of Africa.
In 2018, the Eritrean government signed a peace deal with Ethiopia. The human rights condition has not changed and the amount of refugees leaving Eritrea has increased. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been zero reforms implemented. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic there has been no change in protocol to alleviate the harsh, cramped, and unsanitary conditions of the prisoners and forced laborers.
Each government abused the Eritrean people; human rights were never properly awarded to Eritreans.One of the most severe human rights abuses that occurs is the country's indefinite military service. All Eritreans are required to serve starting around the age of 18 until the age of 50. The Guardian reports:
National service usually lasts between five and 10 years, but can last for up to 20. Conscripts often work 72-hour weeks in extremely harsh conditions with inadequate food and low pay. No one is legally entitled to take leave, which depends on the whim of commanding officers. Some conscripts have reported going for years without being allowed to visit home. If a conscript fails to return after taking leave, their parent may be jailed until they do.
Eritrean teenagers spend the last year of high school in a military camp before going straight into military service. If they get good enough grades, they might attend college and be given a civilian role. But the only way out is to leave the country. ("It's just slavery": Eritrean conscripts wait in vain for freedom)
Human rights went from bad to worse in 2001. When the entire world was focused on 9/11 Isaias Afwerki instituted a severe crackdown. Journalists, students, and political dissenters were disappeared—meaning they were killed, tortured, and/or imprisoned. Freedom of expression is still nonexistent. According to Human Rights Watch:
Arbitrary and indefinite detention the country’s extensive network of official and secret jails and prisons is common. Thousands of prisoners detained arbitrarily languish indefinitely in overcrowded places of detention, including underground cells and shipping containers, exposed to the sun during the day and freezing temperatures at night, with inadequate food, water, and medical care. Many prisoners are denied contact with family, lawyers, humanitarian organizations, or other outsiders. Torture and ill-treatment are common. The government has neither released nor improved the conditions of its most prominent prisoners. Government officials and reporters arrested in 2001 have been detained incommunicado ever since. ("They Are Making Us into Slaves, Not Educating Us": How Indefinite Conscription Restricts Young People's Access to Education in Eritrea)
The G15.The arrest of the G15 and the journalists who wrote about them occurred during Eritrea's pivotal moment in 2001. The One Day Seyoum organization shared the following interview with the children of a G15 member:
Indefinite arrest for attempting to leave the country.
If you are caught trying to flee Eritrea, you are arrested and can be jailed indefinitely.
Even children and young adults are sent to these prisons when they try to leave Eritrea. Hanna, the young woman from the One Day Seyoum video, was caught and detained when trying to cross the border into Sudan.
Escape from Eritrea.
Leaving Eritrea is difficult. You have to avoid being caught by Eritrean authorities, survive the harsh environment, get across the border, dodge kidnappers, and establish yourself in a new country or repeat the process by moving on to the next one. Despite the danger, many people still choose to take their chances because of the terrible conditions in Eritrea.
Hear from some refugees in Ethiopia about their journeys and see what it is like in the camp:
Crime rates committed against refugees are extremely high. People are often kidnapped, smuggled, robbed, and/or raped. The UNHCR shares a story about an Eritrean refugee named Gabre by Greg Beals.
They crossed the border at midnight, grief-stricken at the death of their daughter the previous day. Gebre’s two-year-old girl Arsama perished from the flu. The night after they buried her, Gebre, 28, and his wife Teka, 25, decided to make their way to Ethiopia.
Arsama’s death was just one reason for their escape. Gebre was exasperated with seven years in the military - part of Eritrea’s obligatory decades-long national service - with not even enough money to pay for food for his family. There seemed no end to the misery, Gebre recalled, here in Ethiopia.
The crossing took place under a new moon. The plan was to go first to Sudan, stay for a bit and then move to Ethiopia. Gebre had friends who knew the trails across the mountainous border and they guided them through, avoiding the Eritrean patrols. By dawn, the family was walking to Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan, where they would regroup for the next leg of their trip.
Gebre asked for directions from local residents. After their conversation another group of men pulled up in a pick-up truck. These men, called raishida, were light-skinned and carried AK-47s. Gebre and his wife were ordered into the back of the vehicle, which was then covered with canvas. The men told the couple that they would be taken to Shagarab camp.
In many respects Gebre and Teka’s journey is typical. An hour-and-a-half after they were forced into the pick-up truck, the pair found themselves in the compound of the smugglers, who demanded 45,000 Eritrean nakfa (US$3,000) to secure their release. “They told us that if we did not find the money they would wrap us in plastic then burn us,” Gebre said. “They beat me, but not badly. They beat my wife hard enough to leave a scar on her back.”
For 10 days the threats continued. Gebre told his captors the truth, that he didn’t have the money to pay their ransom. “We didn’t think about anything except just to escape or to wait and see what happened,” says Gebre.
He and his wife didn’t escape and they weren’t killed. Instead they were sold and taken in another pick-up to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they were sold again - this time to Bedouin.
They were taken to an enclosed compound where they were fed a small amount of rice and porridge. There were about 35 other captives. Sudanese, Somalis and Ethiopians sat quietly. Every attempt was made to isolate them. Everyone was told that if they spoke they would be killed.
The Bedouin allegedly told Gebre and Teka that they must come up with US$6,000 ransom or be killed. The couple believed them. They gave Gebre a telephone and told him to call his family in Eritrea.
He got through, but it was more than his kin could afford and they had to beg for help from others. The negotiations for payment lasted more than five weeks. Having paid the ransom, the Bedouin now left the couple in the desert.
“I had never wanted to go Egypt and I never wanted to go to Israel,” Gebre says. “But we knew what we would face if we stayed in Egypt so I asked the Bedouin which way to the Israel border.” The captors pointed their fingers and Gebre and his wife began to walk.
It was only a few minutes before they heard the shots ringing through the air. The tribesmen had pointed Gebre and Teka towards an Egyptian patrol. Gebre was shot in the lower back, the bullet exiting near his stomach. Teka had a part of her arm ripped off by another shot.
They were taken to a hospital in Sinai, where a female doctor treated their wounds. Gebre described her as the first person during their journey to treat them with kindness. After a month, they were taken to an Egyptian prison. “It was underground and you couldn’t see anything,” Gebre recalls. “We were separated - males and females. I couldn’t talk to my wife.”
Finally, the kindly doctor came to the prison to treat the couple’s wounds. She told them she would return. Several months later she arrived, this time with a representative from the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo. The man took the couple’s photo and their address. The doctor told Gebre that she would pay their airfare to Ethiopia.
A year after their ordeal, Gebre and Teka are living in Mai-Aini Refugee Camp and have a child named Samuel. “I think of my son and I have at least some hope in my life,” says the proud father, smiling. “I hope that he will go to school and become responsible. I hope that one day when I grow old that he will take care of me.”