From the World’s Biggest Prison
It seems almost contradictory, talking to many Eritrean refugees in Khartoum. They all speak with this great love of their country, extolling the beauty of Asmara and claiming that “you will never find another country like Eritrea anywhere in the world”. Yet every one of these tales came from the mouth of someone who has fled their country and was now living as a refugee in Sudan.
So with such fondness for their country, why do they leave? Their love comes from the country, and their countrymen, but not the regime running the country. Eritrea has been described by numerous sources as “the world’s biggest prison”; freedom of expression, and of the press, are non-existent. Last year, Reporters Without Borders placed Eritrea as the world’s worst ranked country in terms of press freedom. Human Rights Watch describe the situation in the country as follows:
There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no freedom of worship, and much of the adult male and female population is conscripted into indefinite national service…
Human Rights Watch — ”Service for Life” (link)
(To get more of an idea, read the first paragraph on this page of the report.)
This military service is a major factor amongst those I spoke to. Notionally lasting four to five years, it can become never-ending, fuelled by on-going tensions with Ethiopia. I heard a story of a police officer who at the age of 59 was “still defending his country”, along with his eleven children. He wants two or three of his children to return home to help with keeping the house, but is told he should be “proud” that they are serving the nation. When his first child was killed by war, he accepted this fate, attributing it to a sacrifice for his country. The death of his second child was more difficult, and when the third was killed during national service, he came home sick. His remaining eight children are still serving. “Even if you had a twelfth child”, the man was told, “he should be defending his country”.
And so, many flee. Eastern Sudan is home to around 66,000 Eritrean refugees, many of whom live in the crowded camp that is the first port of call for anyone “legally” seeking refugee status here. Those here officially rely on the work of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to process their applications and to place them in other countries. Others take a more clandestine route, passing through Sudan and the Libyan desert before risking their lives on crowded boats crossing the Mediterranean en-route to Europe.
The whole of this journey is fraught with danger. One refugee spoke of crossing the Sahara, the desert that envelops over 90% of Libya, packed into the back of a pick-up truck with very little water and the constant risk of becoming lost or stuck in the desert sand. He now harbours a great fear of going thirsty.
Once through the desert, the sea crossing to southern Italy is no less dangerous; over-crowded boats do not always make land. This option is becoming increasingly less viable, with Italian police patrolling the Libyan coastline, and Gaddafi asking the European Union for $6 billion a year to help keep out a swathe of African migrants destined for Europe.
For those who seek legitimate refugee status through IOM, they face a long wait in Sudan, a country—and culture—which is not always easy to live with. Female refugees I have spoken with describe the discrimination they face in the street, often attracting comments from men who regard them as Ethiopian prostitutes. They don long robes and veils before leaving the house, and talk of feeling “scared” when leaving the house. Add to this is the oppressive climate of Sudan—the heat and the dust—and they reminisce of the pleasant climate of their native Asmara.
But the Sudanese government does welcome these refugees, allowing them to work and live, and never refusing them at the border. It is in Sudan that they apply for refugee status, an identity card and an Eritrean passport. It is from Khartoum that flights leave, bound for Europe, Canada and Australia.
“My husband is in Norway”, one girl said. She is waiting on her application to go and join him, but it is a slow process. In the meantime, she works as a cleaner for an expatriate working in the NGO sector in Khartoum. Before coming to Sudan, she worked as a video editor, and loved her job.
Another refugee has been here for over three years, finding little jobs fixing computers. “Life here is hard”, he says, but he feels that he was “reborn” here. He had served for six years in the military before deciding to leave. He had been arrested with some people from the university, just before they graduated, because police found “some writing” on the wall and blamed them for it. When he eventually escaped to Sudan, he had walked for four days across the desert to the Sudanese border, without food and with little water. When crossing the border he was shot four times by his own border guards. “The Sudanese doctors saved my life” he says. But now when he does work, he still has to fight, or beg, for his salary, because he is an immigrant. “I can’t wait to get out of here, it’s been too long.” His process is in the final stages, and he will soon—he hopes—be relocated to a Western country.
Not every Eritrean in Sudan is here as a refugee, though. One girl I met had completed her military service, was married and had children, and had come here seeking work, sending money home to her family. She says her children are “kept” in Eritrea, unable to travel, a guarantee that she will return. “Of course, I miss them.” She lives in a room measuring four metres by three metres, which she shares with five other people. They cook on a small gas burner, and their only running water is a tap outside.
“Why aren’t they doing anything about it, when they see the President lie?” one refugee laments. Last month, however, eight Eritrean opposition forces had formed a military coalition, a move to enable the deposition of the President and his authoritarian party.
» More photographs and stories of Eritrean refugees in my portfolio.