It was in July 1996 when over 17 thousand Eritrean youth were sent to a military service in the pretext of ‘fifth round national service’ to the infamous Sawa camp. Despite their expectations that they will be returning home after 18 months of service, these young Eritreans are turning their 14th uninterrupted year in the military service without any sign of demobilization. Unfortunately, many of them have died in the unwarranted wars with the Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Many of these young women are impregnated by military commanders and are forced to raise their child as single moms while many of them are crossing their fertile ages without fulfilling their social mandate. It is an irreversible reality where the only solution appears to be crossing the border without counting the over a decade sweat and blood shed to serve the selfish needs of few.
I have recently talked to a friend of mine, I will cite him as Yosief in this article, who was 20 at the time of conscription and now he is turning 33. He has been assigned to so many places in the country, spent most of his years in the borders. During the years, he survived three bullets that awfully penetrated his body and the six months underground arrest for being 48 hours late to return to his place of designation.
Yosief completed his secondary school in one of the high schools in Asmara struggling with the little income that he earned as a part-time mechanic. I remember that he often came to school with grease in his hands and his hair looking dusty from working several hours underneath motor vehicles. He was always very hopeful that one day he would be able to support his family to get them out of the deep poverty that they were buried in. Yosief had endless ambitions on his plans after completing school. However, the call for slavery dashed all his hopes and dreams and left him with the nightmare of going from trench to trench and from one heavy risk to another.
Yosief remembers most of the nightmares that he went through during his military training in the arid region of the country with almost no basic life facilities. He remembers the derogatory commanders who enjoyed the suffering of the youth and kept them aimlessly wondering in the bushes as a test for endurance and survival in places with little or no water. ‘They are emotionless creatures with no compassion towards the nature of human being’ he says. ‘When Eritrea was liberated, it was never in my mind that something like this will symbolize the new nation’ he adds.
Yosief continues his narration of the long story and says, ‘during the initial years of conscription, we used to complain for the quality of food that we were getting. It was often lentil soup and few breads. But after witnessing our daily life in the subsequent years, I crave these moments as it is now common to eat a slice of bread on its own or even go hungry. It is even worse when they punish you for complaining about the quality of life or asking for any hopes of demobilization.’ ‘Don’t ask these kinds of anti-revolutionary questions!’ is their usual answer followed by series of punishment measures.’ ‘It is very tragic and unbelievable that this is happening to human beings in the 21st century’ Yosief said.
‘What surprises me most is that after serving them [PFDJ] for almost 14 years for free, they are still suspicious of you and treat you as disloyal if you raise any question or if you are late by a day or two to return to your place from the allowed days to visit your family’ Yosief utters.
For example, ‘my mother was ill on one occasion and I had to ask for permission from the commander to send me home to take care of my mom’ Yosief recalls. He said ‘you are given 8 days and you must be here in the morning of day 9!’ I didn’t want to argue but it was obvious that the trip takes a day-and-half to two due to lack of adequate transportation and lengthy road. This adds up to 2 to 3 days on the road. So the actual time that I could spend with my ill mother was only 96 hours. I was very angry to see someone tell me how much time I have to see my dear mother. What could be worse than a leadership without compassion? What could be more intolerable than someone revoking your freedom and telling you when you should come and go?
Anyway, Yosief says he decided to make use of the few days that he was granted as a vacation and headed to randomly look for a motor vehicle that takes him to the next city where he could catch a regular bus. It took him about 3 hours by foot to reach to a road where vehicles pass and then another 4 hours until he could find someone to give him a lift to the bus station. This was physically and emotionally hard for Yosief whose mind and soul was with his ill mother. In the bus station, the driver had to wait until the bus gets full which took a couple of hours before heading to the capital Asmara. In total, Yosief reached home after about 16 agonizing hours.
Before deciding to rest, he hustled to his gravely ill mother and gave her a big loving hug. She responded by smiling in the face of her serious illness. Yosief immediately started making her light meal and tea. While she was eating, he was in deep analysis of his life in the trenches and the misery that he is bearing under the oppressive PFDJ rule.
He thought of the fruitless 13 years in the military and the aimless war that he was forced to participate and the three bullets that are still stashed in his body. He could not think of the end to his slavery and the slavery of the very many Eritrean youth. He thought escape by crossing the border as an option but that would cost him dearly. They will arrest his already ill mother and ask her to pay 50,000 Nakfa while the reality is that she does not even have 500 Nakfa. In addition, to cross the border is a risky plan with a very good chance of being caught and shot. Even if he makes it out safe, then he will not be able to see his mother up until the lifetime of the oppressor. The questions were endless in Yosief’s mind with no tangible solution.
Yosief spent six days helping his mother at home and taking her to the hospital. He did not get any chance to rest and it was about time to return back to his assigned place of slavery. It was very hard for him to leave his mother while so sick and he decided to stay a few more days.
It was two days after his movement paper has expired and his mother asked him to buy her a medication from one of the pharmacies in Asmara. As Yosief was walking back home with the medication in his hands, he was stopped by two military police (MP) and was asked to produce a movement paper. He took out the one he had and handed them over. The one MP instantly looked at Yosief and yelled at him ‘why are you still wondering in Asmara while your movement paper has expired 48 hours ago?’ Yosief tried to explain the reasons for his delay and told them that he is the only one to his family and showed them the medication in his hands with explanation about the condition of his seriously ill mother.
It was in a split of seconds that the two MPs started throwing their sticks all over Yosief’s body and beating him bitterly. They literally took the law, if any law exists in Eritrea, into their own hands. Yosief was semi-conscious from the beatings and he was taken into a temporary custody until his transfer to his assigned place. When he gained consciousness he tried to appeal with the prison guards and asked them if they could at least send the medication to his gravely ill mother. All his requests was turned down and he was taken to his assigned place without wishing well to his mother and without delivering the medication that she asked him to buy for her.
While on the road, Yosief started thinking about his mother and if she will ever recover. He was also thinking about the bitter punishment that is waiting for him once he arrives in his assigned place. He rewinded his memories to the inhumane punishments that many of his colleagues suffered for being a day or two late to return to their assigned place, for reading the bible, for speaking about the living hardship and for not serving their commanders with absolute devotion.
As expected, Yosief was immediately taken into the operation’s underground prison and was tortured for about six months before he managed to escape from his cell with the help of one of the prison guards. He travelled in the deserts for three days and nights before he crossed the border to the Sudan. Yosief realized that it was about seven months since he was confronted by the two MPs while on his way home and remembered the cruelty of the beatings and underground prison.
As soon as he got the chance, Yosief made his first call to his mother from a foreign land to let her know what happened to him while he was on his way home carrying her medication. It was very unfortunate that he was told his mom had died about 4 months ago while he was still suffering his underground imprisonment. This was unbearable to Yosief and could not stop thinking the evilness of the PFDJ and the countless crimes that are being committed against the Eritrean public. Yosief was forced to turn his back from the country that he dearly loved and served for nearly 13 years. Instead of receiving the honor and compensation that he deserves, he is now paradoxically a wanted man for committing the act of treason. It is Yosief’s everyday question as to how many more years his colleagues and the Eritrean public at large have to still suffer in the hands of the barbarians before human rights and democratic principles prevail in Eritrea.
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