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Prison country

Prison country

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Published by WorldReport
In Eritrea, forced conscription is the new slavery: "Mehari and Mulugeta were driven to the military camp in Wia, one of the hottest areas in Eritrea. Mulugeta was placed in a zinc hut above ground, inside forty people were crammed into a sixteen-square-metre area."
In Eritrea, forced conscription is the new slavery: "Mehari and Mulugeta were driven to the military camp in Wia, one of the hottest areas in Eritrea. Mulugeta was placed in a zinc hut above ground, inside forty people were crammed into a sixteen-square-metre area."

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Published by: WorldReport on Apr 24, 2011
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Independent World report ISSUE 6 49
t is the third lease of life for YonasMehari and Petros Mulugeta.They have made it to Germany– they are safe. In recent picturesthese men are seen sitting relaxed.Twenty-three-year-old Mulugeta hasclosely cropped hair. He flashes afriendly grin at the camera. Twenty-eight-year-old Mehari is wearing ashirt with patterned stripes in purpleand red. He looks more reserved withhis hands clasped loosely on his lap.While they are happy to have finallyreached the safety in Germany, theyare also heavily traumatised, and inneed of regular counselling. YonasMehari and Petros Mulugeta arefinally safe in Germany after escapingfrom prison in Eritrea – not once, buttwice.That they had to escape twiceis due to actions of the Germanauthorities, who refused the two menasylum the first time they reachedGermany in November 2007. Theirasylum applications were rejected,and they were deported back toEritrea, where they were immediatelyimprisoned, labelled as
. Formonths, they were tortured withininches of their deaths, in crowdedprisons. That they managed to escapethe country a second time is almost amiracle. In 2010, they made their wayback to Germany. This time, they wereallowed to stay.“I can not understand why theGermans forced us to return to Eritrea.They are well-informed about howdangerous the situation is for Eritreandeserters,” says Petros Mulugeta. “Iam so furious. I wonder if I can sue theGerman authorities,” Yonas Mehariadds. Both men demand an apologyand compensation – unlikely thatthey will get either.Mehari and Mulugeta are partof a massive exodus of Eritreans. In2009, according to the United Nationsrefugee agency, UNHCR, there wereover 209,000 Eritrean refugeesworldwide, and 43,000 Eritreans filednew asylum applications. The refugeesare on the run from one of the mostrepressive regimes ruling one of themost isolated countries in the world.The strongman of Eritrea is IssaiasAfwerki, a veteran of the thirty-year-long Eritrean liberation war againstEthiopia. In 1993, two years after de
Prison country
In Eritrea, forced conscription is the new slavery.
By Lalon Sander
Issaias Afwerki:
Photo by Helene Stikkel.
50 ISSUE 6 Independent World report
facto independence, Issaias becamethe country’s first and only president.Immensely popular in the 1990s,Issaias has become dictatorial inrecent years, refusing to implementthe Eritrean constitution or holddemocratic elections.After a border dispute withEthiopia, Issaias cracked down ondissenting voices, and shut down allindependent news outlets in Eritrea.According to Human Rights Watch, hehas since kept Eritrea “on a permanentwar footing,” by indefinitely extendingthe compulsory military service.Today, almost 300,000 Eritreans areunder arms, and almost as many inthe reserve forces.It is this forced conscription theEritreans are fleeing from. “Youbecome a slave of the government,and your slavery will continueuntil you are sixty. You do not earnanything, you can not start a family,”says Petros Mulugeta, who escapedafter he was sent to a military labourcamp during his service. “We do notquestion the military service per se. Itwould be normal to serve in the armyfor one year or one and a half, and toreturn to a normal life afterwards. Iwould do that and go on with my life.”Yonas Mehari whose military servicecontinued for seven years until hisescape says, “If you join the armyonce, you will stay there forever.”It was not always like this. Once,Issaias Afwerki was an idealistic youngfreedom fighter. “To resolve theeconomic problems of our people, togive them a prosperous and tranquillife, we must build a society that isfree from exploitation on men bymen,” he says in a video footage from1974. He was twenty-eight then, witheight years of experience in warfare,and training from China.Today, he is visibly aged, his oncethick black hair has receded and thecharacteristic moustache greyed. In arecent interview with Al Jazeera, hiseyes look tired and he angrily evadescritical questions by playing themdown as “a pack of lies.” In one of itsrecent reports, International CrisisGroup comments, “In most Eritreans’eyes, he is no longer the stout-hearted,beloved leader of the nation-at-arms,but a mentally unstable autocratwith a bad temper and an alcoholproblem.”Eritrea is now a country whereexploitation has become a routine.Conscripts are paid a monthly pocketmoney, roughly equivalent to threedollars, during the first six months.Later, they receive more, but never aliving wage. They work in all parts of the economy: ministries, departments,regional governments, agriculturalschemes, and digging wells.Forty enterprises, owned byIssaias’ ruling party, dominate everyaspect of the Eritrean economy, and allaspects of life have been transformedinto national service. The mainbeneficiaries of this system of forcedlabour are senior officials of thegovernment, the ruling party, and themilitary. It is a brutal and elaboratesystem of forced labour in the serviceof a political-military complex.Issaias and his cronies also controla national system of surveillance andrepression. It is he, who “appointseveryone from high court judges,senior military commanders andcabinet ministers to middle-rankingofficials,” reports InternationalCrisis Group. Anyone who criticisesthe government or the president;anyone who tries to evade militaryservice; anyone who tries to leave thecountry; or, anyone who belongs toan unregistered religion, can be takeninto custody and imprisoned.The families of the prisoners rarelyget to know their whereabouts, andoften the prisoners never return. In allparts of the country, local governmentofficials keep detailed records of the families in the area, and ensurethat those of age are conscripted. Inlarger towns, the police and militaryforces capture evaders or desertersthrough systematic round-ups. Every year, nearly half of the 20,000 newconscripts are recruited straight outof the schools.The only place in the countrywhere secondary schooling is offeredis the Sawa military camp. It was herethat Petros Mulugeta finished highschool. “They tell you that you area student taking part in a trainingprogram,” he says. “Actually, theyonly offer military training.”He was trained in the use of grenades and Kalashnikovs, whilebeing subjected to harshest of treatments, “The conscripts are notallowed to sit in groups. They are notallowed to talk to each other for morethan a few minutes. I thought I hadno chance to continue my studies orleave the army, ever.”Yonas Mehari had more patience.He spent seven years in service andwas appointed as a prison guard, “I wasexpected to carry out punishments.”He describes the punishment thatrequired the prisoners to roll nakedin the mud containing sharp stonesand thorns, “Those stuck to the skinand caused wounds. It was horrible towatch.”When he refused to continuetorturing prisoners, Mehari wasimprisoned, “By the time I wasreleased, I was absolutely fed up. Idecided to escape and started walkingtowards Sudan.” Around the same timePetros Mulugeta was fleeing a militarylabour camp. By trying to cross theborder, both men risked being shoton sight by Eritrean border guards.In November 2007, they arrived inFrankfurt, Germany, smuggled in by
He describes the punishment that required the prisoners to roll naked in the mud containing sharpstones and thorns, “Those stuckto the skin and caused wounds. It was horrible to watch.” 
Independent World report ISSUE 6 51
traffickers from Sudan. It was in thetransit area of the Frankfurt Airport,they met each other for the first timewhile waiting to be interviewed byGerman authorities.In the 1990s, military service inEritrea was less ominous. Accordingto Human Rights Watch, “During thefirst four rounds of national service,those who were called up weredemobilised after eighteen months.But after war broke out with Ethiopiain 1998, everything changed.”In 2000, a peace agreement wasbrokered, but Ethiopia refused to giveback an Eritrean border town it hadcaptured. Moreover, during the war,deep rifts developed in the Eritreanleadership as Issaias began directingmilitary operations. “Many maintainhis interference and refusal to consultor delegate was the cause of militaryfailures during that period,” notesInternational Crisis Group.After the war, dissenting voicesbecame louder. Most prominently,a group of liberation war veteransknown as the
Group of 15
criticisedIssaias’ rule as unconstitutional andcalled for democratic elections. Inresponse Issaias cracked down onopposition.In September 2001, as the worldwas occupied with the 9/11 attacks,he imprisoned eleven of the
Groupof 15
– three of them were out of thecountry, one recanted. The officesof independent media outlets werealso raided and many journalistswere imprisoned. Shortly afterwards,Issaias’ government extended themilitary service indefinitely.Eritrea is now the only country inAfrica without a single independentmedia outlet. A British freelance journalist was expelled from thecountry in 2008, because he refusedto disclose his sources. ReportersWithout Borders ranks Eritrea as theworst country in the world for pressfreedom, even worse than NorthKorea. And, of the eleven imprisonedmembers of the
Group of 15
, nine are
now reported dead.In 2007, after reaching FrankfurtAirport, Yonas Mehari and PetrosMulugeta informed the GermanFederal Police that they wereseeking asylum. During questioning,a representative of the FederalOffice for Migration and Refugees(BAMF) explained that Mehari andMulugeta were required to describein detail their ranks, military units,uniforms, and weapons; and, explainhow military identification numberswere composed; also, name militaryoperation areas and commanders.When Mehari said that he didnot have an identification number,and named four military zones, hisinterviewer triumphantly informedhim, “It is incorrect that there areonly four zones, in fact there are five.I would also like to point out that eachand every soldier has an identificationnumber, and must wear this numberon his uniform. So, if you tell me that you did not have a number, you werenot a soldier in the Eritrean army.”In December 2007, theirapplications for asylum were rejectedas “obviously baseless” since it was“obvious that they had never been
Yonas Mehari and Petros Mulugeta
: Private photo.

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