The recent peace agreement with Ethiopia presents the Eritrean authorities with the opportunity to end the indefinite national service that has robbed the country’s youth of their dreams, creating a generation of Eritrean refugees.
The Eritrean government introduced compulsory national service in 1995. By law, every high-school finalist undertakes 18 months of national service, which include six months of military training.
When relations deteriorated with neighbouring Ethiopia following the bitter 1998-2000 border war, the national service was extended indefinitely.
This near-permanent national service has torn apart many families and ripped apart the fabric of society. It is common for several members of the same family to be conscripted at the same time and posted in different parts of the country.
Girls are married off early to avoid conscription, and many children are growing up without both parents.
Binyam, 18, told Amnesty International that his father was conscripted before he was even born. The family are lucky to see him once every six months. Some conscripts go years without seeing their families because they are not granted annual leave.
“I don’t want to have children who see me once every six months; I want to see my children every day,” Binyam told us in 2015. Nothing has since changed in Eritrea’s indefinite national service.
Sawa Military Camp
Mariam, another 18-year-old, told us about the heavy toll national service had taken on her family. Both her father and her eldest brother had been conscripted, and when it was her turn, she fled because she couldn’t tolerate the idea.
In their final year of high school, students attend the infamous Sawa Military Camp, where food and water are abysmal, and temperatures are extreme. Harsh punishment is meted out for minor infractions.
Students have come to view the education system as a trap that delivers them right into the jaws of national service. Some drop out of school to escape conscription, but this is a dead-end choice because without a clearance certificate from national service, they cannot access food rations, or register a business, acquire a mobile phone line or a driving license, or open a bank account.
Furthermore, the military conducts random house-to-house searches to round up anyone suspected of trying to evade national service.
Not only is national service never-ending, it pays a pittance – certainly not enough for people to live with dignity and enjoy their rights to food, shelter and healthcare.
Filmon, 29, fled Eritrea a month after deserting military service. He had done seven years before deserting in September 2017. Like many Eritrean youth we interviewed, Filmon lamented the lack of freedom and absence of bankable prospects in his country.
“My salary was a mere 1,500 Nafka ($100), which was higher than that of people assigned to the military service, because I held a civilian job. I lived with my mother who had no income. It was impossible to support her and live on my income,” he said.
As such, Eritrean youth appear to have only two life options: Undertake the compulsory, indefinite national service in conditions that amount to forced labour, or flee the country, risking their lives in search of a better life overseas.
Former conscripts we interviewed compared national service to modern day slavery, saying they suffered torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest, and lacked basic sanitation and hygiene.
A UN Commission of Inquiry concluded in June 2016 that "crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean military training camps and other locations.”
In addition to military service, the recruits also worked in farms, mines or construction sites for less than $60 a month. This system of indefinite, involuntary conscription amounts to forced labour, and is a human rights violation under international law.
It is therefore not surprising that thousands of Eritreans flee the country every year, taking treacherous journeys to Europe at the risk of being kidnapped by human traffickers, imprisoned by hostile governments, or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict has been a convenient excuse for compulsory conscription and wide-ranging human rights violations in Eritrea.
With the stalemate now resolved, the government of Eritrea must end compulsory and indefinite national service and allow the people to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, movement and fair trial.
The authorities must now urgently come up with a clear, time-bound plan to demobilise those trapped in endless national service, while ensuring new conscripts are not forced into national service. The government must also make provision for conscientious objection to military service.
Fisseha Tekle is the Amnesty International researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea.