Braving bullets: Eritreans on first step of dangerous journey to Europe

2015-09-08 10:01
Eritrean refugees speak with one another at the Shire refugee camp in Ethiopia. (Vincent Defait, AFP)

Eritrean refugees speak with one another at the Shire refugee camp in Ethiopia. (Vincent Defait, AFP)

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Endabaguna - Every day they come, hundreds of refugees sneaking across the river, risking being shot on sight as they flee their homeland of Eritrea for arch-rival Ethiopia.

Eritrea is no war zone, yet the people of this Horn of Africa nation make up the third-largest number of migrants risking the dangerous journey to Europe, after Syrians and Afghans, running the gauntlet of ruthless people smugglers and treacherous waters.

But for the refugees who arrive exhausted after fleeing the hardline rule in the hermetic Red Sea state, this is only the first step in a long, tough and extremely dangerous journey in search of basic freedoms and a better life.

'Paranoid' government torturing, killing

On average, around 100 people cross each day, but numbers have risen dramatically in the past year, said Sahle Teklemariam, who coordinates the Ethiopian government's refugee agency ARRA work here, in the far northeastern Shire region.

"This year we have seen a sharp increase, with up to 200 to 300 people a day," Sahle told AFP. "And the numbers are increasing, even though it is rainy season. People are running from every corner."

The UN accuses the government in Asmara of being responsible for systematic and widespread human rights abuses on an almost unprecedented scale, including the mass, open-ended conscription of its people.

A June UN report described how the paranoid government targets opponents, routinely arresting at whim, detaining, torturing or killing.

In 2014, the UN refugee agency UNHCR registered more than 33 000 new Eritrean refugees arriving in Ethiopia. The numbers continue to grow.

'No peace there'

Inside the centre, some 400 Eritreans, mostly young men stranded at the border, wait to be directed to one of four Eritrean camps run jointly by ARRA and UNHCR.

The Ethiopian authorities give them three meals a day and a basic allowance.

Tesfu, aged 20, took a week to escape, travelling under cover of darkness to reach Ethiopia - a country Eritrea remains on an effective war-footing with, following a brutal 1998-2000 border war.

With little if any hope to getting a visa in Ethiopia for onward travel to another nation, the young farmer plans to travel on his own northwards - perhaps to Germany, to join a cousin he believes is there but from whom he has no news, or otherwise to meet another family member in Israel.

"It didn't rain this year, so I couldn't farm the land," Tesfu said. "But even with good rains, I wouldn't have stayed in Eritrea. There's no peace there, you have no peace of mind."

Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle, remains in a tense stand off with Addis Ababa. Troops still eyeball each other along the frontier.

But with Ethiopian soldiers defying an international ruling to leave Eritrean land, Asmara has defended its controversial policy of decades-long national service from which about 5 000 people flee each month, saying it has "no other choice" due to threats.

Asmara has also previously blamed the refugee crisis on a CIA conspiracy and human rights activists.

'People die at sea'

Safe now in Ethiopia, Tesfu appears to know little of the challenges ahead. For now, he is focused on reaching neighbouring Sudan.

"I know that people die at sea, but I'm ready to take my chances," Tesfu added.

Around him, new arrivals seem as poorly prepared, driven by the hope of joining a distant relative in the diaspora, inspired by word-of-mouth stories of those who survived and reached another, better country to live in.

"In Eritrea, we have no other freedom than to live like slaves," said Solomon, who said he fled after serving 18 years of military conscription. "Everybody must be a soldier or a student. Nothing else."

Military service begins in a desert army camp for the final year of school, for both men and women.

Future unclear

Not all continue to serve as soldiers, but it is the government that decides their future and assigns jobs. The salary they receive is minimal, too little to support their families, according to those who flee.

Refugees in military uniforms in Endabaguna indicate the numerous desertions.

"They told us the military service would be one year and a half, but we know from experience of others that once you're in, you just can't leave," said Daniel, aged 21, still dressed in his military uniform, including Eritrea's famous army footwear: plastic sandals.

He took advantage of being posted near to the border zone to escape with three comrades, and was welcomed "warmly" by the Ethiopian army, he said.

Having made it safely across the border however, the next step remains unclear. Daniel dreams of getting to the US, though seems unsure of the exact route and how he plans to cross the ocean.

"It is true, I don't know where America is," Daniel said. "But my brother is in Sudan. He will help me get there."

Read more on:    un  |  ethiopia  |  eritrea  |  migrants

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