In Eritrea, Military Service Is Slavery
Thousands flee compulsory enlistment
Eritrea is the North Korea of Africa. Situated on the Horn of Africa north of Ethiopia and Djibouti, the East African country essentially is one of Earth’s largest open-air prisons.
Under president Issaias Afeworki, the Eritrean government has achieved the dubious distinction of consistently scoring lower on press and political freedom rankings than even North Korea. And its system of almost indefinite forced military service—in ways indistinguishable from the widespread detention of political opponents—stands out as particularly cruel.
Eritrea was born in civil war—the brutal struggle against the communist Ethiopian Derg regime. It’s hardly surprising that rebel leader Afeworki saw the military as the ideal institution to shoulder the state’s development after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991.
In 1995, the National Service Proclamation introduced the “compulsory duty to perform active national service” for all citizens between 18 and 40 years of age, in order to “preserve the culture of heroism shown by the people during the armed struggle [and] create hard working generations to participate in the reconstruction of the nation.”
In the beginning, conscripts attended six months of military training, followed by 12 months of active military duty or development work. After fulfilling his or her service—Eritrea makes no difference between genders when it comes to the national service—conscripts are on the reserve list until the age of 50, potentially giving Eritrea one of the largest potential fighting forces in the world relative to its total population of over five million.
Eighteen months of military service wasn’t particularly unusual at the time, but after another bloody war with Ethiopia between 1998 to 2000, the Eritrean government altered conscription’s terms. From 2002 onward, the “Warsai Yikaalo Development Campaign” extended an individual’s national service term so it’s essentially indefinite.
As U.N. Special Rapporteur Sheila Keetharuth details in her latest report, Eritrean conscripts must work in all kinds of positions, ranging from farming to construction to office jobs, with completely arbitrary procedures for securing one’s release from active service.
The government forcibly drafts virtually everyone who can work, including clerics and minors. Resist the draft and you risk prompt execution at the hands of security forces.
Conscripts’ living conditions are abysmal. Abuse and mistreatment are common. Consequently, many young Eritreans try to flee the country, either before being drafted or during their national service. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees counts more than 2,000 Eritrean refugees arriving in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan each month, despite the considerable risk involved in the escape.
In May this year, UNHCR camps received almost double this number. Eritrea essentially is losing a whole generation—“depleting entire villages,” according to Keetharuth’s report.
Detention without answers
While we know that tens of thousands risk fleeing the country and its oppressive national service every year, we can only speculate how many get caught.
Formally, Eritrean courts can punish deserters and draft evaders with up to five years in prison and force them back into the army after that. But the government routinely extends prison terms. Torture and execution are common in the penal system.
One of the most harrowing accounts of the Eritrean prison system comes from one of its unlikely former inhabitants, ex-fighter pilot Dejen Ande Hishel. A MiG-29 pilot and trainer, Hishel was by his own account arrested and imprisoned without apparent reason after coming back from a mission during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 1999.
He remained in custody in a high-security prison for 15 years before successfully fleeing on Feb. 27 this year. In his interview with Eritrean media in exile, he recounts how fellow prisoners went mad and the cries of torture victims pierced the night in the prison complex in Eritrea’s capital Asmara.
Hishel argues that it was only possible for him to flee because after he developed an escape plan, he waited six years for the ideal conditions.
Estimates by human rights activists put the number of political prisoners in Eritrea in the tens of thousands. The country’s army is believed to be around 250,000 men and women strong, many of whom are probably little more than forced labor. More than 300,000 Eritreans so far have managed to seek refuge in other countries at the risk of their lives.
In some years, thousands of African refugees die on the smuggling routes out of East Africa—many of them originating in Eritrea.