Odyssey of Eritrea’s Lost Generation

August 17, 2012August 17, 2012

Source awate.com

Mai-wray To Mai-ayni

This is the ‘unsung’ story of children who were born after two neighborly countries fought over an ‘’inconsequential piece of real estate’’. It is a story of thousands of Eritrea’s children. It is a story of children born 8 years after Independence, right after the absurd and disastrous border war with Ethiopia. It is a story of children who have no address. All of these children have never known a proper home. They were all conceived and born under tents. Some of them have lost their families, and most have never seen their fathers.

It is a story of children condemned to depend on the generosity of international donors and relief agencies. And these children will only continue to live as long as that generous humanitarian arm is extended.

The main theme-the essential story- is also a story of a map, a geographic location. It is a story that stretches for hundreds of tortuous and winding kilometers across an area that is full of diversity in altitude, climate, and culture. It a story of the burning hot Danakil depression and the Afars who live there. It is a story of the arid and rugged Indelli valley and the soaring and chilling mountain ranges of Soira and the Saho people who live there. It is also a story of the open landscapes around Senafe, Tsorena, Adi-quala and Qu’hayn and the Tigrigna speakers who live there. It is also a story of the lush fertile land of Gash and the Kunama people. And a story of many more Eritrean children affected by the war.

The essential story is of a series of wars and invasions. The story is that of areas held and then abandoned, and then re-held only to be abandoned again. It a story of the empty villages and lands which had become killing fields.  It is also a story of the people who lived in those empty houses.  A story of the people who for centuries used to cross this dynamic border regularly to graze their herds, to smuggle, to trade, or to seek work; and, it is also a story of how drastically their life and livelihood changed for the worse after the war, and, specifically, of how their future generation-offspring’s, have been affected ever since those eventful days.

story of children born in the camps for the displaced, grew up there, and crossed the border to become fully fledged refugees. A story of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who turned into refugees…

Of IDPs and refugees

Berih and Fitsum (not their real name) were playing soccer, kicking a stuffed old sock that passed for a ball, and stirring up clouds of choking dust as they run across the dry land. The time was early, but a burning sun was already dominating the eastern horizon and the temperature was way above 30 in degree centigrade. But the boys were oblivious of the heat as they kept busily kicking the ball to and fro, back and forth between them.


I had come to the Mai-ayni camp a few days back in order to spend the 21st anniversary of our Independence Day with some of my fellow refugee friends there. And on that early Sunday morning, on May 28th 2012, I had just stepped out of the mud brick house of my hosts in order to escape the stifling humidity inside when I saw the two boys playing football outside. Plastic jerry cans were lined up at the water point nearby, and both the boys were playing while evidently keeping a watchful eye on the line.


Berih and Fitsum are 13 and 12 years old, respectively. They were recent arrivals at the refugee camp, having arrived there only three weeks back. They came from the villages of knin and Knito in Tsorena subzone. Their friendship goes back to another camp- a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs)-called the Mai-wray IDP camp, around 5 kms from the town of Tsorena.  They were born at this camp, learned to walk there, and spent almost half their lives there. They did return back to their ruined villages around 2005, but they had barely re-started their elementary schooling there when recently their village was again re-occupied and their education interrupted.

Berih lost his father in the war, and he barely remembers his mother. She had died of a cause unknown to him, and he was under the care of his aging maternal grandmother till the time he crossed the border to ‘graduate’ into a refugee. Fitsum came into this world as a result of an extra marital love affair between his young mother and a conscript soldier assigned to the Tsorena front during the war. He also had never seen his father. He grew up with his maternal grandparents. His mother had immigrated to Israel around 4 years back.

Soon after war broke out on the border area between Ethiopia and Eritrea around 750, 000 people were caught in the cross fire and as a result they were forced to leave their places of habitual residence in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict. To accommodate these multitudes of people dozens of IDP camps sprouted up all over the conflict zone, at a relatively safe distance from the raining bullets, but close enough to hear the sound of the raging war. This sudden emergency was too much for the Eritrean government to cope with all alone, and the policy vis-à-vis international NGOs was reversed, and a few NGOs were allowed to enter into the country in order to help with the crisis.

The May-wray IDP camp is one of them. It was a sprawling tent city accommodating more than 20,000 people. The entire town’s folk of Tsorena and people from the outlying border villages (including Knin and Knito) were moved into this camp. As part of my work with the Ministry of Health of the State of Eritrea I have had a chance to visit this camp and so many other IDP camps. I also have had a chance to pass through the desolate, deserted, and haunted villages of Knin and Knito (and so many other such villages).

While the images of sprawling crowded, squalid, and smoke filled tent camps may be familiar to anyone who follow the daily news on television, the reality of life in such a confined place-day after day, year after year-is beyond imagination for most of us. Once people are displaced from their habitual residence, and are forced to live in tents, their immediate concern is not about loss of space, privacy, and dignity. Their immediate concern is that of survival, of food and water, and of their heightened susceptibility to disease and death as a result of poor sanitation and health services.

And children are the most disproportionately affected among the displaced and refugees. The breakdown in physical and social structure, lack of income and basic needs of the family (i.e. for those lucky enough to have intact family), lack of health and education infrastructure have far reaching and far ranging consequences on their immediate life and future. Physical abuse, sexual violence, substance abuse, abduction, and forceful recruitment become a daily reality for many of these children.

The May-aini refugee camp is different from the five other refugee camps for Eritreans in Ethiopia in one aspect: It is home to over 2000 Eritrean unaccompanied children, almost all of them former IDPs. Some have been living there for years (the camp was opened in 2007), and others-like Fitsum and Berih-are new arrivals. But, regardless of the time spent there, their daily life is fraught with the crude realities I tried to enumerate above. I saw with my eyes children as young as Berih and Fitsum smoking and boozing. I also heard of teenage pregnancies and of the high prevalence of sexually transmissible diseases (Yes! Including HIV) among the children. I also heard stories of children that were abducted and taken to the Sinai. I also heard of children being forcefully conscripted.

The increasingly important question is not how to feed, cloth, and educate these children. That is already being taken care of by the organizations-governmental and nongovernmental-that are operating in the camp. I have seen that they live in decent and spacious cement block structures. I have also seen with my own eyes that they are well fed. The educational facility at the camp runs a regular system that covers up to the 10th grade.

No! The issue here is not about meeting the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter. The increasingly important and urgent issue is about the impermanence of their existence, about the perennial dangers surrounding them, and about their future. What will be their life like, say, tomorrow? After one week? Or, after one year? What will become of their future: Will they end up in the Sinai as a hostage? Will they wind up life as an HIV carrier? As a wronged delinquent?  Or as an irritating parasite?

These are all children without an address, home, or family. They have no one to complain to, NO ONE to go running for help. And, so far, nobody seems to heed.

As Eritreans, so far, our response has been pathetic. And our continuing silence and apathy is only making a difficult situation worse. So many of us still continue to duck and dodge emotional bullets of this clear and present danger. The essential debate among serious Eritreans (- and not the empty suits with no weighty grey matter above their colorful neckties) should be: How did this young nation of few millions metamorphose into the horrors of today? How did a few gangsters who are by and large bona fide psychopaths and sociopaths turn the lives of our people into the hell of today?

The great Vaclav Havel wrote in one of his essays the following important observation, which is as important today as it were in the days of the cold war: search for a scapegoat is essentially an abnegation of responsibility; it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of our social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.

When I was returning to Addis-Ababa after my brief stay at the camp, I heard from an official source that a new batch of around 50 new children had just arrived at the transit camp of Endaba-guna near Shire, the reception center for new arrivals. Another 50 Eritrean children who, like Berih and Fitsum, have just ‘graduated’ from being an IDP to a refugee by crossing an international boundary.

When will this tragic flow come to an end? Will it ever stop?

NB: Part II will follow up with my observations of another refugee camp in Ethiopia.