August 13, 2007
Young Eritreans brave the unknown to avoid military service

A DPA feature from about a month ago...

In a dusty northern Ethiopian refugee camp [Shimelba] near the Eritrean border, a policeman snatches a boy by his collar and demands to know his age.

The terrified boy responds, but is caught in his lie when the policeman demands to see his identity card. He is dragged away, kicking and screaming, but no one in the crowd reacts.

Like so many other Eritreans, the boy told the policeman [that] he was under 18 [in order] to avoid getting drafted.

The scene before the smattering of people is a play rehearsal. The performers, all Eritrean refugees in their early 20s, are re-enacting what they say is the biggest threat to their freedom, and what has forced them to flee across the border to Ethiopia: compulsory military service.

The forced service, known as Sawa, is driving away Eritrea's youth, once the backbone of the massive militia army that fought arch-enemy Ethiopia for three decades until independence in 1993.

Despite demobilization efforts following the 30-year guerilla war with Ethiopia, Eritrea has national conscription for both men and women, making for a quick round-up in case the tenuous peace agreed to between the countries in 2000 shatters.

Tiny Eritrea has one of Africa's largest armed forces, with about 200,000 people enlisted out of the country's 4.4 million people.

'Life is very difficult. No one is allowed to work without serving in the military, so everyone is willing to leave,' says 33-year-old Eden, who refused to give her last name [in order] to protect herself and family.

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a brutal 1998-2000 border war that killed some 70,000 people, and tensions between the two foes remain high, with Addis Ababa saying last month [June] it was beefing up its forces for a possible invasion.

Military service begins at the age of 18 for a 16-month period, and Eritreans can only receive a high-school diploma once they complete it. Some say [that] they flee the service because it is discriminatory and [that] they cannot practise their religions in freedom.

This has prompted many to abandon their families and lives in the Red Sea state and head elsewhere, the closest option, but not a simple one, being across the border to Ethiopia.

'Crossing the border is difficult,' said Kisut Gebre Egziabher, a spokesman for the UN's refugee agency. 'They trek for days to cross the border and avoid being caught by border guards.'

Kibrom, who also refused to give his last name, crossed the frontier still carrying his weapon and wearing his fatigues after deserting the Eritrean military.

His biggest fear, the 25-year-old said, is not for himself but his family in Eritrea, who face harsh consequences for his decision to flee.

Mikele, a 20-year-old who arrived to the camp at [the] end of May, echoes this uncertainty.

'They will get punished, if the authorities find that one of their kids has vanished,' said Mikele, who added [that] his family doesn't know [that] he has reached Ethiopia, after an arduous journey through neighbouring Sudan.

Eritrea, fully aware of the growing trend of defectors, enforces a fine on the families of people who flee. They also risk being thrown in jail. Meanwhile, the government has imposed restrictions on exit visas, making 50 the minimum age for an Eritrean to acquire one.

The plight of the refugees isn't over once they reach a camp like Shimelba, which currently houses 14,000 people and welcomes about 300 more each month.

The camp has only basic necessities: each refugee gets 15 kilograms of wheat a month; some health services and elementary education is provided; and the refugees are given plastic sheeting and some building materials to construct makeshift houses.

Egziabher said [that] only a small number of the camp's inhabitants are resettled.

'They cannot go back home, because the things that drove them from home are not solved yet, and they cannot be integrated into Ethiopia. We help them go to countries that provide resettlement, although the number is very small,' he said.

UNHCR is currently sending to the US some 700 ethnic Kunama Eritrean refugees from Shimelba who say [that] they are persecuted in their home country because of their ethnicity.

But despite Sawa and the threat [that] leaving Eritrea might cause to their families, many refugees don't want to leave their ancestral land.

'I don't have a problem with my country,' Yudit, 20, said. 'It's because of the regime that I am here. Wherever I can live in peace and harmony, I'm willing to go.'