Slave soldiers: Why young people want out of Eritrea

Saturday December 05 2015

Imagine this. You are an African teenager, about to enter your last year of high school. You know you are headed to a military training centre for a year.

If you do well enough there, you will be deployed to a course in one of seven colleges. From whence, you’ll move on to what is meant to be military service for no more than 18 months. If you don’t do well enough, you’ll go straight to what is meant to be military service for no more than 18 months.

So far, so good. Many African and other countries think that military service is necessary — a good way to instil discipline and patriotism across whatever ethnic or religious divides may exist in those countries. And a good way to maintain a permanent military reserve.

In this particular case, however, despite the law governing National Service, you end up in service for not 18 months, but between 10 and 15 years, even up to 20. You end up not being deployed solely militarily but also to a whole range of public and, increasingly, private sector jobs — ranging from agriculture to construction. These are not civilian jobs within the military.

They are public and private sector jobs that conscription is used to fill at low-cost.

You — or your family — decide this is not for you. You drop out of school before your time to evade conscription. If you’re a girl, you may marry earlier than anticipated because if you do so and get pregnant, there’s hope that you may be exempted from conscription.


But there’s no escape. Your government routinely searches for and rounds up would-be deserters. As a punishment for this offence, regardless of your reasons, you can be detained incommunicado, for months on end. In one of many undeclared sites of detention — which include shipping containers underground.

You may decide instead to leave your country. You and your family may scrounge up whatever money you have to pay a trafficker to get you across the border. You know the stories about what may happen to you along the route — of girls repeatedly raped. Of body parts removed and additional ransoms extracted to pay the additional trafficking fees.

You don’t care. You just want to leave. And you do. You take care not to cross over into Ethiopia — would-be deserters are shot there, not arrested and detained.

You may make it out. You may eventually find yourself, an unaccompanied minor, in a ramshackle boat crossing the Mediterranean. You may even reach Europe’s shores. Only to find that some European countries now consider you not to be a genuine asylum-seeker. But an economic migrant, placing you at risk of involuntary return.

You try to tell your story. You say what will happen to you if you are returned. You are ignored. The United Kingdom, for instance, in the first half of this year, rejected 64 per cent of all Eritrean asylum cases.

The fact is that Eritreans — albeit from a tiny country that is not in conflict — comprise the third largest group of asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. Behind only Syrians and Afghans.

This is the third millennium. It is unbelievable that this can be happening— even in Africa.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes