Ibrahim Was a Slave on the Eritrea Border When He Saw His Chance
It's a long, bloody road from conscription in Eritrea to freedom in America
“It really is beautiful,” Ibrahim says as he takes a sip of his tea. He’s talking about his homeland of Eritrea. We’re sitting together at a small Ethiopian Café in Burien, Washington near the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Ibrahim is a 22-year-old refugee with dark curly hair and intense eyes. He’s seen and endured more than many men four times his age.
As beautiful as his homeland is, Ibrahim has sacrificed a lot to get away from it. He’s crossed deserts and oceans, surviving beatings, storms and the crossfire of civil wars.
He lives in a small apartment with two other Eritrean refugees. He’s a Muslim but lives with Christians. He says it makes no difference to him—they all endured the same trials and oppression, so as far as he’s concerned they’re his brothers. Eritrea is a small country, but Eritreans make up a sizeable portion of those caught up in the global refugee crisis. Yet few Westerners know much about Eritrea, nor the repressive state they’re risking their lives to flee.
The administration of Pres. Donald Trump recently announced plans to deport more Eritreans and is trying to pressure the Eritrean government to accept them. However, Eritreans returned to their country would likely risk imprisonment, torture and possibly death at the hands of their government.
Ibrahim speaks bitterly about the government of Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s long-serving president. “We have no freedom,” he says. Ibrahim’s story is not dissimilar from that of many other Eritrean refugees, and offers a window into an international catastrophe. Abandoned by the world, Eritreans rely on a shady network of smugglers that exploit and abuse them, all the while profiting from a global crisis.
It’s also a look at the nearly limitless perils and hardships refugees are willing to endure to seek a better life.
Eritrea was once home to the ancient kingdom of Aksum. It’s a country with a vibrant mix of cultural influences owing to its location on the Horn of Africa.
It’s also waged a long struggle for independence against other powers — and long has been a battleground for competing empires. In 1962, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the Eritrean parliament and annexed the territory. Eritrean rebels fought back for decades, at various times backed by the Soviets and Americans. In 1991 the fighting ended.
Rebel leader Isaias Afwerki became the first the country’s first president … and he has ruled ever since.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have continued an uneasy standoff punctuated by occasional violence. The joy many Eritreans felt at attaining independence gave way to uncertainty as Afwerki became increasingly authoritarian.
Eritrea currently ranks second-to-last on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, just above North Korea. For eight years it ranked last. One silver lining is that the country isn’t torn much by ethnic strife or religious conflict—Christians and Muslims are oppressed in equal measure in Afwerki’s Eritrea.
In 1995 Eritrea instituted a system of compulsory national service. Officially, conscripts—both male and female—serve for 18 months. That consists of six months of military training and 12 months doing “national reconstruction.” This can include traditional military tasks but often just means construction or mining.
However, national service enlistment times can be extended during times of “national crisis.” In practice, national service can last indefinitely, as military commanders often have the final say on when an individual’s service is over. A 2016 U.N. report found that officials used this conscription program to turn Eritreans into slaves. Currently, Canadian firm Nevsun Resources—which does business in Eritrea–faces a lawsuit from several Eritreans alleging that the company used them as slave laborers during their conscription.
Ibrahim wanted to avoid that fate. He was a bright student—he speaks four languages and had plans to go to college. But he was worried that when he became old enough, he would get sucked into endless servitude through the conscription system. He dropped out of high school in the 12th grade. His plan was to flee the country and pursue his studies elsewhere.
But then one night after dropping a friend off at her home, he attracted the attention of the police. He fled, knowing that they could force him into military service. When the police caught up, 10 officers beat Ibrahim until one officer stepped in, telling the others they wanted him alive. They hauled the bloodied teenager back to the station. Next stop for Ibrahim was military training.
“It’s the very worst place,” he recalled. “They changed the training place because most of the people got dead, they died … they died because they didn’t give them good food and the weather was very hot.”
Ibrahim was assigned to a unit guarding the Sudanese border. They were lightly-equipped with rifles and a few trucks. They lived in tents and makeshift shelters—they were mostly left to their own devices. The pay was measly—roughly $20 a month. They had to scrounge for the most basic provisions.
Ibrahim was a newcomer. But he spoke to others who’d spent who’d spent up to 20 years there watching that border. He didn’t know how he would cope. “Two months was like 20 years to me,” he says. “I asked them to go on leave to see my family. They told I couldn’t do that and that I had to wait one to two years.”
After three months, Ibrahim decided he would simply do what he’d planned to do before his arrest—he would leave the country. He’d spent months literally looking at his escape route. One day, when he got the chance, he simply ran for it. “I ran away by myself,” Ibrahim says. “If they caught me, they could have jailed me or shot me. But I was lucky.”
“They’d trained me to run,” he adds with a chuckle. “The army trained me very well.”
Public transport in Eritrea. Photo via Wikipedia
On the move
Sudan is home to thousands of Eritrean refugees. At the camp where Ibrahim settled, he met Eritreans who had lived there for a long time. “There were refugees that left in 1961 to flee the Ethiopian regime. They tried to return to Eritrea in 1991 and the regime told them they weren’t Eritreans and they now live in the same camp. They are not Eritrean right now and they are not Sudanese.”
Ibrahim traveled to Port Sudan to find work. He got a job as a cook and shared a house with a fellow Eritrean who also hoped to leave the country. “I was good in Sudan. But the thing is, in Sudan, they don’t give you full respect if you are not Sudanese.” Ibrahim says his boss was decent man, but many other Sudanese were abusive.
Ibrahim moved to the capital, Khartoum. Within a week he ran into a familiar face, an army friend who had also deserted. The friend told Ibrahim that he’d met some smugglers who could take them to Libya through the Sahara.
They met up with a Somali smuggler who took them and a several others through the desert. Ibrahim quickly learned that the journey would not be easy—and that not everyone would make it all the way. He recalls the fate of an Ethiopian woman traveling with them. “She was absolutely beautiful,” Ibrahim recalled. “And one of the smugglers, he wanted her.”
Ibrahim and the others tried to convince the smugglers not to separate them. “We told them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t take her, she’s our sister,’” he says. “But there was nothing we could do. They had a gun and they shot at us … so we left this woman in the desert and went all the way to Libya.”
The smugglers packed them tight, 20 people in the bed of a truck driving through the desert for five days through the sweltering heat. They moved nearly nonstop day and night, with only one day of rest mid-journey. “After we reached two days, the Sudanese smugglers went back to Sudan and then Libyan smugglers took us,” Ibrahim recalls.
But almost straight away, the Libyans threatened to leave Ibrahim and his friend in the desert. The first group of smugglers had taken all of their money—and now the Libyans wanted a cut. “We told them we don’t have money right now, but we guaranteed when we get to Libya we will double it.” When they arrived in Libya, they were able to call their families in Eritrea to get the money wired to them.
It could have been worse. Ibrahim knew of other Eritreans who had suffered a much more grisly fate at the hands of much more ruthless smugglers. Some were known to kidnap people directly from refugee camps and ransom them.
“They take you all the way to the Sahara—to the Egyptian and Israeli Sahara—then they call your family. They ask for huge money, like $40,000. Who can pay that? Most of the people don’t have that kind of money, so they kill the person and take all their parts. Like their kidney, lungs, everything.”
Israel and Egypt are popular destinations for East African refugees, particularly Eritreans and Sudanese Darfuris. For years, Israel offered relatively high-paying work opportunities for refugees and asylum-seekers, but in recent years Israel has cracked down. Tel Aviv has taken to bribing African countries to take deported Eritreans in return for military aid in a sort of refugees-for-guns scheme.
Libya had also been popular for years, but when Ibrahim arrived in 2011 it was far from an ideal place to start a new life. The uprising against dictator Muamar Gadhafi had erupted into war. Ibrahim and other migrants hid in a farmhouse on the Libyan border.
The smugglers didn’t give them much food and occasionally refugees would go missing with little explanation. The survivors feared the worse. Eventually, another group of smugglers arrived to take them to the coast, where they would try to escape by boat to Italy. “There was another crew,” Ibrahim remembers. “They were like a mafia.”
They hid them in the back of large truck — 250 people hidden precariously amongst freight in the darkness and heat. “If something happened, if there was an accident, all of us were going to die.”
Refugees on the Mediterranean in 2016. Photo via Wikipedia
At the coast they met and Egyptian crew with a large wooden diesel boat with an Egyptian crew. It was a sturdy craft that could have moved 100 people somewhat comfortably — which is what the crew had expected. They weren’t prepared for 250. The Egyptians got into an argument with the Libyans but eventually relented. Despite their misgivings, they did their best to accommodate the refugees.
It was supposed to be a five-day voyage. After two days, the weather turned. Rain poured onto the boat. It started taking on water. The smugglers had given the ship’s captain a satellite phone. He called a human rights activist, Meron Estefanos, for help. “She’s a freedom fighter against the regime,” Ibrahim says. “She was living in Sweden. She saved our lives after that.”
Estefanos pressured U.N. and European officials. The Italian coast guard refused to help. Eventually the Maltese coast guard grudgingly sent three craft. They arrived as the refugees’ boat was nearly breaking apart. Miraculously, no one died.
Ibrahim and the others settled in refugee housing in Malta. “The government is good in Malta. They really tried to help. But the people weren’t good.” The locals heckled and jeered the refugees. When Ibrahim applied to resettle, refugee interviewers deemed him a good fit for the United States.
He then underwent a long vetting process with U.S. Homeland Security — interviews, background checks and medical screenings. It took a year for him. For others, it’s longer.
Today Ibrahim works full-time as a driver. He’s hoping to raise enough money for a car of his own and to move into a nicer apartment. His long-term plan is to get back to school. As he takes a sip of his tea, he says he’s decided to study medicine. “I always knew I’d have to work for it. But here, I can.”