In one of the latest jokes from Eritrea, Isayas Afeworki goes to the immigration office in Asmara and joins a long queue to see for himself of what was going on. He then observed the long queue melting down in minutes. Wondering of what was happening; he stopped a limping old man and asks him why the people who lined up on the queue since the early hours of the day left the place upon his (Isayas’) arrival. The old man replied: "I know you can send me to prison even at my age, but all the same I will answer your question. The people went home because you are finally here asking for an exit visa. We will have no more mass departure out of home after your exit, my dear ex-hero".

The ‘dear ex-hero’ of Eritrea’s liberation struggle, now nothing but a brutal dictator and a shadow of his past, will for sure face his final exit out of his small dig-out. But until then, the exodus of Eritrea’s youth and its elderly will continue unabated. Latest reports had it that 7 young soldiers and officers, among them a woman, reached Port Sudan from the sea in the eve of the New Year 2004. Other 50 members of the Eritrean defense forces also reportedly crossed the border to the Sudan on 23 December 2003.

During the year just ended, Eritrea continued to suffer of painful experiences under the callously selfish and oppressive PFDJ. The flow of new waves of refugees out of the country, all fleeing from the excesses of the dictatorship, was one of the indicators of how life in Eritrea has degenerated to sub-human level.

We have never been good at counting our casualties. We don’t actually know our total losses during the long years of the struggle, both peaceful and armed. We don’t know how many of our compatriots perished in the hands of Isayas Afeworki’s security apparatus or are still languishing in the dungeons of his PFDJ regime. We have no idea whether we lost 19,000 or 49,000 in Isayas’ latest senseless war. And indeed, we do not know how many of our youth are perishing every year on the high seas and the deserts while trying to escape from equally inevitable death at home under the militarist regime of the ‘ex-hero’.

One of the ‘routes of death’ to Eritrea’s new wave of refugees is a line unmarked on the map but all the same stretching from the Eritrea-Sudan border and passing via Khartoum and Suq-Libya to Unwainat and Ejabiya on the Sudan-Libya border, through the killing and always moving sandbanks of the Sahara Desert, to Kufra, Bengazi and Tripoli in Libya and on to the drowning waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Malta is one of the unintended destinations.

Alongside the reported arrival in the Sudan of 57 army ‘deserters’ during the last week of year 2003, we also received the good news about the release of about 70 compatriots from the detention barracks of Malta. During the past 24 months, Eritreans in the Diaspora were expressing deep concern about the plight of their compatriots who were caught up in Malta and unfairly treated by the authorities of that island state. Worse than that, many of them were deported to Eritrea where they would not expect just and civilized treatment.

The Eritrean Newsletter and other organs of the ELF-RC have been highlighting the causes and effects of the new wave of refugees out of PFDJ’s Eritrea. The article below, presented in the form of an interview with a survivor of the dangerous trip from Eritrea to Malta, tells the dangers and difficulties faced by our youth today.

Many human rights activists and Eritreans among the civic societies in Europe have extended a helping hand in raising awareness about the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers in Malta. As told by the interviewee below, the ELF-RC was in the forefront of raising the required awareness among human rights organizations starting in the spring of 2002 when the Malta crisis was in its making. Only to remind the reader, it was in the spring and summer of 2002 that the ELF-RC urged humanitarian organizations to intervene on the side of the Eritrean refugees stranded and unjustly detained in military barracks in Malta. The president of Malta was repeatedly urged by messages from the ELF-RC to reconsider the detention of Eritrean refugees and treat them humanely. Prominent humanitarian and human rights personalities who received messages on the subject from the ELF-RC included the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, and the UNHCR High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers.

When the situation of the asylum seekers in Malta worsened in September 2002, the ELF-RC Chairman sent messages to all those concerned. The message partly read: "In this moment of outrage, [we in the ELF-RC] once again appeal to the UNHCR, the UNHCHR, the EU, the US and all humanitarian and human rights bodies and states to seriously turn their attention to the lot of persecuted Eritreans now under fire in Malta".

Those efforts were partly thwarted when the Maltese authorities on 30 September 2002 started deporting a total of 223 Eritrean asylum seekers back to Eritrea.

The exodus of our youth out of the homeland will continue until the removal of the regime which is the root cause of our people’s ever widening problems. Until then, the struggle to mitigate those problems caused by the regime will be continued alongside our relentless struggle to bring real change and democratization in the country.



A staff writer for The Eritrean Newsletter met on 2 January 2004 with a compatriot who spent nearly two years in one of the Malta detention camps for asylum seekers before arriving where he is today. He requested anonymity due to his current situation but was willing to talk his heart about what is happening to Eritrean youth inside home, which he described as a ‘burning hell’, and to those fleeing from home only to plunge into another hell outside home – the likes of detention camps in Malta. When asked if he wanted to be called by any alias of his preference, he said: "call me a survivor of the Sahara Desert and Malta". For the sake of brevity, this article will refer to him as ‘The Survivor’.

Like Asmarino.com’s recent interviewee who was talking direct from Malta, The Survivor was also an agriculture graduate from the University of Asmara where he once was a frontline campus activist within the generation of Semere Kesete. As is the case with every member of Eritrea’s latest category of ‘lost generation’, The Survivor had to escape from PFDJ because of unbearable life conditions in the homeland. The long chat with The Survivor can be summarized in the following Question and Answer notes:

Newsletter: Why and how are young Eritreans escaping from home?

The Survivor: To start with, the why is very simple to answer: in my case, for example, I was running away from insecurity, oppression and lawlessness in today’s Eritrea. The country is not only declining but literally sinking to the bottom in all aspects: political, social and economic. I was one of those who left Eritrea during the second half of 2001. One of the escape routes continues to be the Sudanese border. As was the case in the long past, it still takes pains and risks to reach the Eritrea-Sudan border and become a refugee in hiding – in hiding because of the existing irony: the UNHCR and the Sudan do not recognize Eritreans fleeing from ‘their own’ regime as refugees. What people generally do is buy internal mobility permits (menqesaqesi) from the corrupt regime officials/officers, and until crossing the border one has to camouflage oneself as a trader, or as a soldier going to his/her unit or government functionary on internal travel. The mobility permit alone costs several hundred dollars. Road guides who claim to know the ‘safe’ passages also charge a lot of money, which sometimes is worth it because the know some of the people planted by the GOE in the border areas to pass intelligence to its security services. I paid a lot of money to reach the Sudan.

Newsletter: What happened next – to you and to others in a similar situation?

The Survivor: Once in the Sudan, you look for addresses of relatives and friends in the Diaspora and ask for urgent financial support. Preparation for the next destination (wherever it may be) takes a lot of time. The ‘Dem’ (el Duem) quarter of Khartoum is the staging centre for most of Eritrea’s youth packing for further exile. My turn to travel out of Dem fell on 1 December 2001. Each traveler collected his/her share of food and water and reached nearby Suq-Libya, located north of Khartoum. That same night, three small trucks, each packed with 40 souls, drove us out of Suq-Libya towards the Libyan border. The first day of the travel is normally considered to be safe. The difficulties and dangers augment on the second day in the Sahara Desert. This road has claimed many Eritrean lives. For the luckier travelers, the road usually takes five or more days, depending on correct knowledge of direction and sheer luck. In our case, it took 26 days to cross the Sahara Desert. At half road, we found Eritreans and others with faulty trucks which could not proceed. We had to accommodate 10 Eritreans in our already overloaded trucks. Soon after, ourselves faced mechanical failures in the trucks and waited several days until rescued trucks arrived from Libya. We were running out of drinking water. To economise on water and to restrain us from drinking, the truck owners put oil in the water. During the last days, we had literally nothing to eat. We felt it was by miracle that we reached an urban centre in Libya safely. The suffering and fear from always pending death was enormous. No statistics are taken but many young people disappeared in the desert. It is an ongoing tragedy.

Newsletter: How much does the transport from Khartoum to Libya cost?

The Survivor: It was not terribly big. We paid $250 per person, excluding cost for food and water. There are also other costs, like bribes, when the need arises. We also had to contribute in paying $200 per each of the three trucks for the additional 10 Eritreans we gave lift on our way to Libya. It is important to mention here that an unknown number of those non-Eritreans we left on the road with their damaged vehicles died because they tried to walk and then lost direction.

Newsletter: You mean death is very common on the road?

The Survivor: Many, many die on the road. Only friends and relatives know who died. (Zmotu, zTef’u adi’om tuqtserom. BzuHatyom.) If the incoming trucks are apprehended by the Libyan police, then they are returned to Eritrea forcibly. While I was in Libya, 41 Eritreans were arrested upon arrival and then imprisoned for six months. The Eritrean Ambassador at that time, a certain Mr. Omar, refused to help in their release. In August 2002, the Libyan authorities attempted to send them back to the Sudan. But fortunately for this group, a Libyan police office agreed to receive bribes and released them on the way to the desert.

Newsletter: How was life in Libya and where did you proceed from there?

The Survivor: It was not easy to stay in Libya. Some are arrested and languish in prisons before deportation to Eritrea. In my case, my wife was selling tea in the streets, which is common in that country, and I remained inside a rented room. Every survivor of the desert trip soon starts the third round of preparation for another risky journey, usually to Italy, which is a spring-board for travel to other destinations. Again, considerable time is lost in that preparation until the required finances are somehow obtained. A journey in smugglers’ boats going to Italy costs US$1,000 per person. It is Arab mediators who collect that fee from each potential traveler. The middlemen promise to arrange the right boat as soon as possible, but some of them disappear with the money they collect from us, ‘illegal refugees’. I stayed in Libya for seven months because a middleman disappeared with the money he collected from me and many other Eritreans. The fishing boats engaged in smuggling refugees have small capacity but they are always overloaded. The usual embarkation takes places are Zwara and Zeleta. When our turn came, my wife and I made a party of 250 ‘passengers’ that left Zeleta on 25 July 2002. The ages of passengers ranged between 8 months and 50 years. There were 30 children in that boat which aimed to take us to Italy. It was a terrible journey. The high seas were very violent with waves rising up to the sky and then plunging it down a violent stream. The boat was full of water. We felt the end was approaching very fast. No one was sure how we survived. The Italian coast guards tried to locate and save us but failed. The Maltese finally managed to come to our rescue and transferred us to a safe ship. That is how we unintentionally landed in Malta.

Newsletter: You also mean that like on the Sahara Desert many others die while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea?

The Survivor: Oh yes, many. Take for example the boat that capsized in June 2003 near Tunis with about 250 on board. Only 14 survived. No one knows how many Eritreans died in it but many did die! There were other boats that faced similar fate carrying other nationalities, among them a few Eritreans. The tragedy is taking place all the time, but no one takes count of the loss of Eritrean lives.

Newsletter: What is the frequency of the journeys from Libya to Italy or Malta?

The Survivor: As I know, there were major sea trips every month with up to 250 persons. But there also are smaller boats trying to cross the sea all the time, some making it successfully others not. For example, a young Eritrean known as "Teklit" and his 9 friends bought a small motor-boat at US $10,000 and crossed the sea to Italy after facing real death under stormy sea waves. We knew about them because they somehow survived. Debesai of "Glas" and his friends were traveling with Arab youth in June 2002 but all perished etc.

Newsletter: How would you summarize your experience in Malta?

The Survivor: It was very bad experience to a large number of us. It was in March 2002 that the first group of 150 Eritreans landed in Malta unintentionally. Those of us who arrived there in late July 2002 were the largest group (250 persons). Other smaller groups of Eritreans and other nationalities also joined us in Maltese detention camps during 2002 and 2003. To be very brief: staying in the military barracks of Malta for over a year without getting the very basic human needs for livelihood was extremely depressing and damaging to the human person, both physically and mentally. We expected decent treatment as asylum seekers but were treated as sub-humans and as criminals. We felt our human worth was taken from us. And it is no exaggeration to say that every one of us who was detained at those barracks known as Al Safi, Halfar, TaKandjia and the Floriana police station still shudders at the very mention of the name Malta and its military barracks.

Newsletter: What was your worst day in Malta?

The Survivor: The day the Maltese authorities started deporting some of us back home. I was one of those listed to return on 30 September 2002. My case was reconsidered and my deportation to Eritrea postponed because my wife gave birth in Malta only a few weeks earlier. Otherwise, I would have been sent as the 224th deportee that week. I was among the government critics in the University and outside it, and my forced return to Eritrea would have been very risky. We pleaded that they be deported not directly to Eritrea but at least to the Sudan or Ethiopia, but the Maltese authorities were not interested in the lives of those Eritreans. I know many compatriots deported to Eritrea had very serious cases. I don’t think some of them are still alive, especially among former members of the Defense Forces. I later on learned that about 10 of the deportees from Malta, including Major Fitsum Haile, were taken away from the Asmara airport to unknown prison and no one knew their whereabouts. The rest were detained at Adi Abeito and later taken to detention centers in the dry Dahlak islands.

Newsletter: What contacts did you have with Eritreans outside Malta, for example, and how did you leave those camps?

The Survivor: The first contact we had starting in the spring of 2002 was the ELF-RC. We talked to their Khartoum and Frankfurt offices from the detention barracks. We always talked with Drar Mentai of ELF-RC in Khartoum and Dr. Yussuf Berhanu and Negusse Tsegai in Frankfurt. They were very helpful and we in Malta heard with satisfaction about the messages their organization was sending to the President of Malta, to Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations. This campaign made many Eritreans aware of our plight. We also recall of what Arta’a of the same organization has done in Kassala a year ago in convincing the Sudanese authorities to stop deporting to Eritrea of about 60 Eritrean youth who were returned from Libya. Former detainees in Malta will also always remember the indomitable Father Mintoff and his Peace Lab, and Aba Marino of Milano who was among the first to reach us. I am also thankful to others who gave support to the cause of the asylum seekers in Malta during 2003, among them Elsa Chyrum, and in doing so drew international attention to the suffering of Eritrans in Malta and, hopefully, in other places.

Newsletter: You still feel you would say much more on the subject of your experience in the past two years?

The Survivor: I did not even say a small fraction of what I saw, what I heard and what I experienced

on those high risk trips from Eritrea to the Sudan, then life in the Sudan, the life-or-death journey on the Sahara Desert, life in hiding inside Libya, the risky boat journey across the Mediterranean, and then landing in the Maltese barracks as a detainee without a known crime and the fear of deportation back to Eritrea. I hope to say more about these experiences when I find time to say them freely and fully.