Eritrea: Tragic End for Family's Reunion Attempt

Mihret Goitom

16 July 2009


*UK-based lawyer Mihret Goitom tells how his sister-in-law's attempt to escape Eritrea and join her husband ended in tragedy, after she and her children were incarcerated in a refugee camp in Sudan en-route.*

In 2000, my brother, who had married in 1993 and had three children, left Eritrea alone. He left to study journalism in another African country, and he was fully aware that returning to Eritrea would be problematic.

From 1994-95, my brother and I had become acquainted with foreign researchers who used us as translators. Because of those acquaintances, we were both under surveillance and frequently under scrutiny by state security

Around that time I had to accompany my grandmother to Asmara for a cataract operation. In Eritrea, there are checkpoints everywhere. Travelling requires exit and entry permits from the local authorities, which take time to
obtain. While I was away, the military did one of its 'recruitment drives' and came to look for me in the middle of the night. When they found out I was away, they accused my mother of hiding me and took her to the military
training camp in my place.

Neighbours got together and went to the local official who had given me the permit to accompany my grandmother to persuade him to confirm to the military where I was, and for what purpose, so that my mother would be

My brother came to inform me of what had happened to my mother and the threat I was under if I returned: To be sent to Sawa, the military training camp where many people who had been forcefully recruited had already died
due to the harsh conditions (i.e. malaria, forced labour and malnutrition).
For these reasons, I managed to leave Eritrea.

My brother kept out of urban centres - basically living in hiding - until he was able to leave Eritrea for the purpose of studying, but without his family. I hardly need say that both of us would have preferred to stay in
Eritrea, if circumstances had been otherwise.

In 2004, my brother's wife and two of her children were allowed to visit him where he was studying. His wife had to leave the eldest child behind as a guarantee that she would return, together with the equivalent of 50,000
nakfa per person (they were three), also to make sure they would return. Having no money, a neighbour agreed to put his up shop as surety. While she was abroad with her husband, she was approached by Eritrean officials and
asked to return to Eritrea before her visa had expired. That obviously cut
short this reunion with her husband. The reasons why they made this demand is unclear.

When she came back to Eritrea, my sister-in-law, who was teaching at a primary school, began to face questions from the government. She was told that if ever she wanted to see her husband again while he was abroad, she
would be required to produce documentary evidence of what he is doing, how
long he has been out of the country (although this should be plain knowledge, from his passport) and a letter from the Eritrean embassy from the country where he was studying, to confirm he was paying his 'income
tax'. (Eritrea had just introduced a 10 per cent income tax on the whole Eritrean diaspora.) In spite of her efforts to explain that her husband was still a student with no money, they demanded written evidence.

Obtaining such documents would require her husband approach the embassy in that country. He was afraid - journalism is not the favourite subject of the government and he also had a history of contact with foreigners.

As time went on, Eritrea became harsher: Imprisoning mothers and wives when their sons or husbands were 'missing'. In Eritrea, there is a population survey every year, to account for every household. After 1995, births and
deaths were registered for the first time. It has become government business to know how many people there are in a particular household so as to keep account of people's movements.

My brother and his wife agreed that she would attempt to escape Eritrea via Sudan. In 2008, on the pretext of visiting relatives in a remote village, and without an exit permit, she, together with their three daughters -
fourteen, ten, and seven years old - set out to travel by bus to the border. She found the funds for her travel through a charity organisation. The bus stops far from the border of Sudan, so she and the children had to travel on
foot for a long distance to cross into Sudan.

Their plan was to proceed immediately to Khartoum to board a plane to reach her husband. Things turned out differently. They were apprehended by the police and handed over to officers of the Sudan office of the Commission for Refugees. They took them to a refugee camp (Shagharab), on the Atbara/Girba River. Because my sister-in-law was worried that the money intended for air tickets fares would run out, she resorted to desperate means to leave the
camp. Few people realise that refugees need an exit permit to leave camps. My sister-in-law, with her three children, had no choice but to use a smuggler to cross the river. The boat was overcrowded, there was a storm and
torrential rains, and they drowned. Only four Eritrean men and a Somali woman survived; 21 died in all. One survivor reported that everyone had paid the smuggler US$100 for the passage (see Refugees feared drowned in Sudan
river crossing).

When I was told of this tragedy, a long time after it occurred, I went to comfort my brother. I had not seen him since I left Eritrea. Words cannot describe his devastation, and my sadness. At Christmas time, so it happened,
we went to Sudan to see their humble graves. Having been brought up as a Catholic, I had been active in one of the
missions' centres in Eritrea where I stayed during the civil war. When Eritrea gained independence in 1991, we visited the Wodsherifoy Camp which was being closed at the time. In 2008, I was struck by the changes that had
occurred. Eritrean refugees were suspicious of us as strangers; they were uncomfortable, even though we spoke the same language. There were many more checkpoints on the road than I could remember and we faced many problems
obtaining permits to travel outside Khartoum on our sad journey.

The Shagharab refugee camp was set up in 1991 just beyond the river in the middle of a desert. Sandstorms blow with a force that can lift you off your feet and the sun is blazing. The camp is guarded by the Sudanese security services who check movements in and out of the camp; no refugee is allowed out without papers. It is likely that smugglers are from the refugees themselves. We saw the site where our loved ones drowned. The Girba River is
very wide and deep. In Kassala, we found a priest who took us to the camp and introduced us to
those who had shared a tent with my sister-in-law and her daughters, as well as the men who had buried the bodies.They took us to the burial site. The only marking is a scrap of metal on which their names are painted. I
reflected that another sandstorm would make it no longer possible to see their graves. I thought of the European world, where people visit the graves where their love ones are buried, and lay beautiful flowers on them. We
could only leave plastic flowers.

In Kasala, I saw truckloads of refugees arriving from Eritrea and I thought how history repeats itself, knowing that is not history that is repetitive, but the horror. One told us of his recent escape from prison with three companions. They had walked many days across the desert. They had had to pay for water and for someone to direct them across the border to avoid patrols. In Sudan they were helped by nomads on camels who nevertheless extracted a
high price: One of the group had had to call his relative (a recognised refugee, miraculously with papers, which allowed her to move freely in Sudan) to deliver $US5,000 - the cost of leading them through the Sudanese
border to the camp.

The irony is that they had to pay only to end up in a prison again (i.e. a refugee camp where there is no freedom of movement). I could feel my sister-law's despair at being trapped again in a camp when she knew her
husband was waiting for her just a few air miles away. The people in Shagharab told us how much they had warned her against the hazardous river crossing. But the children could not stand the conditions inside the camp
and put pressure on their mother to leave by any means.

This was a closely-knit family. All they wanted was to be reunited. There were no expectations of economic betterment, only the joy of family love, denied them by a few psychopaths who use their power for an alibi for their
criminal activities.

The suffering of refugees does not end when they leave their country. My brother still has no other status than that of an 'asylum seeker'. Even if recognised, he too will be placed in a camp.

** Mihret Goitom is an Eritrean lawyer who has settled in the UK.*

** Please send comments to or comment online at*

Yonas Mehari
Join our Eritrean Human Rights at

"The sun does not forget a village just because it is small”

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