Last Updated: Sunday, 25 March 2007, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Eritreans risk death in the Sahara
by Martin Plaut
Africa regional editor, BBC News

Eritrea refugees in the Sahara desert
Three of Haile's seven fellow refugees died crossing the desert

Every day, in the barren lands along the Sudanese border, young Eritreans risk their lives to flee from their country.

It is rugged terrain, tightly patrolled by Eritrean armed forces who have orders to shoot anyone trying to slip over to Sudan.

According to opposition sources, between 400 and 600 Eritreans a month make this dangerous journey.

Some flee poverty. Eritrea, which was already desperately poor, has poured money into weapons and its military since the war with Ethiopia that ended in 2000, but failed to resolve the border dispute between the two countries.

Others try to escape conscription - years spent in trenches facing Ethiopian forces dug-in across the border.

And many try to leave behind the routine political repression. Eritrea is a one-party state, with no free press of any kind. Amnesty International reports that anyone suspected of supporting the opposition faces indefinite detention and torture.

One man's story

Haile - not his real name - is one such refugee, who is now in Libya, having made the journey of over 5000 kilometres.

Haile was a translator for an international organisation, until he was arrested, accused of selling state secrets to an enemy. It is a charge frequently laid against translators working for foreign embassies, the United Nations and even aid agencies.

"We started the journey and it was very difficult... Nobody can cross the Sahara, it's too difficult"
Haile, Eritrea refugee

"They asked me: 'Why are you talking to those people?'. I told them I'm translating. I told them several times to make them understand, but they couldn't understand me.

"They said: 'You're selling our country to another people. You are selling secrets of our country'. I don't know what they're talking about, what I've been arrested for - I don't know the reason. I was arrested for two years. Many many many people are just like me, they're arrested for nothing."

Haile says he was beaten - "until I was nearly dead" is how he put it.

Finally, as he was being transported from one prison to another, he saw his chance. A group of prisoners made a bid for freedom. Some were rounded up. But Haile, who had served in the Eritrean army for 10 years, managed to escape.

No safety in Sudan

Walking at night, he travelled west to the Sudanese border. Evading the patrols, he found a way across. There he was arrested by the Sudanese. They were looking for money.

"We had a problem - a Sudanese soldier caught us. I had no money. He asked: 'Do you have money? Bring money.'

"They hit us several times but they checked our pockets - everywhere we could hide money. They didn't get any, and then they released us. And then we entered."

Hitching a ride on a bus, Haile made it to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Sudan is home to more than 120,000 Eritreans, most of whom left their country during the 30-year long war of independence from Ethiopia.

Haile had family in Khartoum, but even there he was not safe. Eritrean government agents came looking for him.

Fearing that he would be arrested or abducted, he got together with a group of seven others, and hired a truck to cross into Libya. At first it went well, but deep in the Sahara, the truck broke down.

Fatal journey

"We started the journey and it was very difficult and very bad. Nobody can cross the Sahara, it's too difficult. We had water but finished it. The car was spoiled (broke down).

"We stayed three nights and three days - we couldn't do anything. The driver had a phone. He tried to call, but the satellite communication was no good. We lost three friends there. But before that, we'd seen several dead bodies in the Sahara."

Burying his three companions, Haile's only option was to remain by the truck in the scorching sun. Finally, on the fourth day, another truck appeared.

Haile's driver arranged for a new vehicle to come to pick them up, and finally, after six days in the Sahara, the Eritreans made it to the oasis of Kufra in south eastern Libya.

Kufra was a welcome sight, but their problems have still not ended. Hundreds of Eritreans are detained in the town. Those lucky enough to leave will try to make it to the coast before boarding a rickety boat to cross the Mediterranean. Malta, which is already crowded with Eritreans, might be a destination. The other would be Italy.

Only then could refugees like Haile feel safe. But for now he is trapped in Kufra, waiting and hoping, but still longing for his own country:

"I feel very bad. I feel my country should be free. I feel very bad".

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