Thousands of Eritreans flee forced conscription
“I didn’t want to be a soldier,” he says with a shy smile, revealing a mouthful of crooked teeth.
Getting out, however, was a harder challenge. He is one of thousands of youngsters risking death to sneak across Eritrea’s heavily militarized border every month into neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia.
Most, like Ablel, are running from open-ended military conscription imposed by the autocratic, isolated and impoverished government of the Red Sea state.
“The ones who become soldiers, even they are escaping, so why would I want to be in military service?” Ablel said, sitting in Ethiopia’s Endabaguna refugee camp.
He escaped Eritrea on foot in June, leaving without telling his family — a common practice in a country where family members are reportedly often jailed after a relative leaves, accused of involvement in helping their escape.
Ablel said he left because authorities closed his school to use the land for military training, with a new school not due to open for two years.
“I couldn’t wait,” he said.
This month marks the tenth anniversary of mass arrests of hundreds of politicians, journalists and suspected spies by Asmara. Experts say the country’s human rights record has deteriorated in the past decade.
The United Nations refugee agency said nearly 3,000 Eritreans flood into Sudan and Ethiopia every month from Eritrea, a country of some five million people and about the size of England.
“(They’re escaping) gross human rights violations, including forced conscription into the army,” UN spokesperson Kisut Gebre Egziabher told AFP.
National service is compulsory for all citizens — male and female — at the age of 16, completing their final year of school in military camp.
Conscripts earn about $3 per month for the first 18 months and the service can last for decades. Many end up working as indentured labourers building roads or in the country’s newly opened foreign-run mines.
Amanuel Giorgio, Eritrea’s first secretary to the UN, said national service is an obligation and denied the program is connected to human rights abuses.
“I don’t know how national service is in any way related to human rights,” he told AFP.
Eritrea is one of the least developed countries in Africa, with a per capita GDP of $369 and one of the worst human rights records in the world, according to the UN.
The regime of former rebel Issaias Afewoki is propped up by a compulsory two percent remittance tax extracted from Eritreans living abroad, which the UN estimates to be 1.2 million people.
Newly arrived refugees in Ethiopia’s north say there is little industry and therefore few jobs available. The country’s only university was shut down in 2006, with military-run colleges opening instead.
“The only option for a farmer, for a soldier or for a student is to leave the country,” said Eritrean refugee Isaak. “If you are lucky you will make it across. If not they will shoot you.”
Fellow refugee, 18-year-old Samson, said he was frightened of dying at the border, but said he had no choice but to leave Eritrea.
“I didn’t want to join the military service,” the acne-riddled teenager said. “When I heard the rumour that some people were killed by soldiers (at the border) I was so scared. Still, when I reached the border I could not believe it, I feel so lucky.”
The effect of losing so many young men is far-reaching, according to Human Rights Watch Africa researcher Ben Rawlings.
“The best brains are leaving,” he said. “I think it’s having a terrible effect on Eritrea.”
Last month, Eritrea applied to rejoin the East African peacekeeping bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development and Afewoki visited Uganda, suggesting that the closed country is trying to end its regional isolation.
But author Michela Wrong says the move is not likely improve relations for the country viewed as a “troublemaker” in the region.
“It’s too little, too late,” said Wrong, who wrote a book about Eritrea’s 30-year long war for independence with Ethiopia.
The UN recently called for tighter economic sanctions after releasing a report linking Eritrea to a failed bomb plot at the African Union and of supporting Somalia’s extremist Shebab rebels, claims Asmara rejects.
Eritrea became “very alarmed at the level of hostility that is being shown in the international community and also in the region,” Wrong said.
A former colony of Italy and then part of Ethiopia, Eritrea fought a 30-year war with Ethiopia and only gained independence in 1991.
A subsequent border conflict with Ethiopia from 1998-2000 still simmers, which analysts say Asmara uses as an excuse for its continued iron-rule.
“There’s no sign of any improvement of basic freedoms in the country,” Rawlings added. “At the moment, the future looks bleak.”