Issaias Afwerki: Photo by Helene Stikkel.

Prison country
In Eritrea, forced conscription is the new slavery. By Lalon Sander

t is the third lease of life for Yonas Mehari and Petros Mulugeta. They have made it to Germany – they are safe. In recent pictures these men are seen sitting relaxed. Twenty-three-year-old Mulugeta has closely cropped hair. He flashes a friendly grin at the camera. Twentyeight-year-old Mehari is wearing a shirt with patterned stripes in purple and red. He looks more reserved with his hands clasped loosely on his lap. While they are happy to have finally reached the safety in Germany, they are also heavily traumatised, and in need of regular counselling. Yonas Mehari and Petros Mulugeta are finally safe in Germany after escaping from prison in Eritrea – not once, but twice.


That they had to escape twice is due to actions of the German authorities, who refused the two men asylum the first time they reached Germany in November 2007. Their asylum applications were rejected, and they were deported back to Eritrea, where they were immediately imprisoned, labelled as traitors. For months, they were tortured within inches of their deaths, in crowded prisons. That they managed to escape the country a second time is almost a miracle. In 2010, they made their way back to Germany. This time, they were allowed to stay. “I can not understand why the Germans forced us to return to Eritrea. They are well-informed about how dangerous the situation is for Eritrean

deserters,” says Petros Mulugeta. “I am so furious. I wonder if I can sue the German authorities,” Yonas Mehari adds. Both men demand an apology and compensation – unlikely that they will get either. Mehari and Mulugeta are part of a massive exodus of Eritreans. In 2009, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, there were over 209,000 Eritrean refugees worldwide, and 43,000 Eritreans filed new asylum applications. The refugees are on the run from one of the most repressive regimes ruling one of the most isolated countries in the world. The strongman of Eritrea is Issaias Afwerki, a veteran of the thirty-yearlong Eritrean liberation war against Ethiopia. In 1993, two years after de

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He describes the punishment that required the prisoners to roll naked in the mud containing sharp stones and thorns, “Those stuck to the skin and caused wounds. It was horrible to watch.”
facto independence, Issaias became the country’s first and only president. Immensely popular in the 1990s, Issaias has become dictatorial in recent years, refusing to implement the Eritrean constitution or hold democratic elections. After a border dispute with Ethiopia, Issaias cracked down on dissenting voices, and shut down all independent news outlets in Eritrea. According to Human Rights Watch, he has since kept Eritrea “on a permanent war footing,” by indefinitely extending the compulsory military service. Today, almost 300,000 Eritreans are under arms, and almost as many in the reserve forces. It is this forced conscription the Eritreans are fleeing from. “You become a slave of the government, and your slavery will continue until you are sixty. You do not earn anything, you can not start a family,” says Petros Mulugeta, who escaped after he was sent to a military labour camp during his service. “We do not question the military service per se. It would be normal to serve in the army for one year or one and a half, and to return to a normal life afterwards. I would do that and go on with my life.” Yonas Mehari whose military service continued for seven years until his escape says, “If you join the army once, you will stay there forever.” It was not always like this. Once, Issaias Afwerki was an idealistic young freedom fighter. “To resolve the economic problems of our people, to give them a prosperous and tranquil life, we must build a society that is

free from exploitation on men by men,” he says in a video footage from 1974. He was twenty-eight then, with eight years of experience in warfare, and training from China. Today, he is visibly aged, his once thick black hair has receded and the characteristic moustache greyed. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, his eyes look tired and he angrily evades critical questions by playing them down as “a pack of lies.” In one of its recent reports, International Crisis Group comments, “In most Eritreans’ eyes, he is no longer the stout-hearted, beloved leader of the nation-at-arms, but a mentally unstable autocrat with a bad temper and an alcohol problem.” Eritrea is now a country where exploitation has become a routine. Conscripts are paid a monthly pocket money, roughly equivalent to three dollars, during the first six months. Later, they receive more, but never a living wage. They work in all parts of the economy: ministries, departments, regional governments, agricultural schemes, and digging wells. Forty enterprises, owned by Issaias’ ruling party, dominate every aspect of the Eritrean economy, and all aspects of life have been transformed into national service. The main beneficiaries of this system of forced labour are senior officials of the government, the ruling party, and the military. It is a brutal and elaborate system of forced labour in the service of a political-military complex. Issaias and his cronies also control a national system of surveillance and repression. It is he, who “appoints everyone from high court judges, senior military commanders and cabinet ministers to middle-ranking officials,” reports International Crisis Group. Anyone who criticises the government or the president; anyone who tries to evade military service; anyone who tries to leave the country; or, anyone who belongs to an unregistered religion, can be taken

into custody and imprisoned. The families of the prisoners rarely get to know their whereabouts, and often the prisoners never return. In all parts of the country, local government officials keep detailed records of the families in the area, and ensure that those of age are conscripted. In larger towns, the police and military forces capture evaders or deserters through systematic round-ups. Every year, nearly half of the 20,000 new conscripts are recruited straight out of the schools. The only place in the country where secondary schooling is offered is the Sawa military camp. It was here that Petros Mulugeta finished high school. “They tell you that you are a student taking part in a training program,” he says. “Actually, they only offer military training.” He was trained in the use of grenades and Kalashnikovs, while being subjected to harshest of treatments, “The conscripts are not allowed to sit in groups. They are not allowed to talk to each other for more than a few minutes. I thought I had no chance to continue my studies or leave the army, ever.” Yonas Mehari had more patience. He spent seven years in service and was appointed as a prison guard, “I was expected to carry out punishments.” He describes the punishment that required the prisoners to roll naked in the mud containing sharp stones and thorns, “Those stuck to the skin and caused wounds. It was horrible to watch.” When he refused to continue torturing prisoners, Mehari was imprisoned, “By the time I was released, I was absolutely fed up. I decided to escape and started walking towards Sudan.” Around the same time Petros Mulugeta was fleeing a military labour camp. By trying to cross the border, both men risked being shot on sight by Eritrean border guards. In November 2007, they arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, smuggled in by



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Yonas Mehari and Petros Mulugeta: Private photo.

traffickers from Sudan. It was in the transit area of the Frankfurt Airport, they met each other for the first time while waiting to be interviewed by German authorities. In the 1990s, military service in Eritrea was less ominous. According to Human Rights Watch, “During the first four rounds of national service, those who were called up were demobilised after eighteen months. But after war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998, everything changed.” In 2000, a peace agreement was brokered, but Ethiopia refused to give back an Eritrean border town it had captured. Moreover, during the war, deep rifts developed in the Eritrean leadership as Issaias began directing military operations. “Many maintain his interference and refusal to consult or delegate was the cause of military failures during that period,” notes International Crisis Group. After the war, dissenting voices became louder. Most prominently, a group of liberation war veterans known as the Group of 15 criticised

Issaias’ rule as unconstitutional and called for democratic elections. In response Issaias cracked down on opposition. In September 2001, as the world was occupied with the 9/11 attacks, he imprisoned eleven of the Group of 15 – three of them were out of the country, one recanted. The offices of independent media outlets were also raided and many journalists were imprisoned. Shortly afterwards, Issaias’ government extended the military service indefinitely. Eritrea is now the only country in Africa without a single independent media outlet. A British freelance journalist was expelled from the country in 2008, because he refused to disclose his sources. Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea as the worst country in the world for press freedom, even worse than North Korea. And, of the eleven imprisoned members of the Group of 15, nine are now reported dead. In 2007, after reaching Frankfurt Airport, Yonas Mehari and Petros

Mulugeta informed the German Federal Police that they were seeking asylum. During questioning, a representative of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) explained that Mehari and Mulugeta were required to describe in detail their ranks, military units, uniforms, and weapons; and, explain how military identification numbers were composed; also, name military operation areas and commanders. When Mehari said that he did not have an identification number, and named four military zones, his interviewer triumphantly informed him, “It is incorrect that there are only four zones, in fact there are five. I would also like to point out that each and every soldier has an identification number, and must wear this number on his uniform. So, if you tell me that you did not have a number, you were not a soldier in the Eritrean army.” In December 2007, their applications for asylum were rejected as “obviously baseless” since it was “obvious that they had never been

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soldiers in the Eritrean army.” Ines Welge of Pro Asyl, a refugee rights group, analysed the treatment of Mehari and Mulugeta, “The BAMF representative subjected Yonas Haile Mehari and Petros Aforki Mulugeta to a military quiz, apparently to argue that they were in fact not deserters, based on their wrong answers.” As Frankfurt’s administrative court upheld the BAMF decision, Welge noted, “The administrative court in Frankfurt failed in its monitoring capacity and its intended role as the guardian of the fundamental rights of asylum applicants.” In January and February 2008, German police tried to deport Mehari and Mulugeta on passenger flights – they kept on yelling so loudly that the pilots refused to fly them. So, in May 2008, a private plane was arranged to take the two men back to Eritrea. Four policemen and two doctors flew with them. It was a small plane, one that would require refuelling in Egypt. “There were only six seats,” Petros Mulugeta recalls. “Two persons had to sit near the toilets on our luggage.” At the Asmara International Airport in Eritrea, they were handed over to Eritrean police. The Eritrean regime holds thousands of prisoners, for that, as Human Rights Watch notes, “Eritrea has a formidable network of detention facilities, some of which are well-known, and others secret, some authorised, and others not. Each town and administrative district in Eritrea has a jail. Wherever there is a police post is a cell and each military division has its own prison.” While beatings are regarded as normal, a number of harsher torture methods are also routine in Eritrean prisons, like Helicopter, in which the victims’ hands and feet are tied together behind their backs and they are left face down under the sun; or, Jesus Christ, in which they are tied to a tree or a cross and beaten while

suspended. In a room at the Asmara International Airport, Mehari and Mulugeta were interrogated for hours about what they had been doing in Germany; how they had managed to escape from Eritrea; and, what they had told the Germans as they applied for asylum. Later that night they were transferred to the local police station, where they were interrogated again and again. Petros Mulugeta feared for his life. He recalls what the interrogators were saying, “You are traitors, traitors to your own country. Beating you would not be enough, you are going to receive worse punishments, that you deserve.” After a month, 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 sixteensquare-metre area. He witnessed prisoners trying to escape a number of times, “They knew for sure that they were going to die in Wia, and if they died while escaping, their death would be a faster one.” “We believed that the dead men were the luckiest,” says Mehari, who was placed in an underground room. With over four-hundred people in that room, it was too crowded to lie down, “It was best to be standing because if you lay down, your skin stuck to the floor. The floor was terribly hot.” Both men became so sick, that their captors moved them to military hospitals, Mulugeta in Keren, and Mehari in Gheden. Thanks to the hospital care and food, they regained some strength and ran away for life at the very first opportunity they got. Meanwhile, the Eritrean foreign ministry confirmed to the German authorities that Mehari and Mulugeta had indeed been imprisoned for desertion and leaving the country illegally. Their lawyer in Germany managed to get their asylum claims

• Service for life: State repression and indefinite conscription in Eritrea is a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch. • Eritrea: The siege state – report by International Crisis Group.

recognised, then located Mulugeta in Sudan and Mehari in Ethiopia. Despite the ordeals, life for Mehari and Mulugeta in Germany is far better, when compared to the fates of Eritreans in some other countries. A much larger number of refugees never make it this far – in 2009, almost two thirds of the refugees fleeing from Eritrea ended up in Sudan and Ethiopia. Many try to make it to Europe via Libya but are either imprisoned or robbed and exploited by traffickers and policemen on the way. In Libya, hundreds of refugees are reported to be detained in prison. Others, who have made it to the European Union territories, are detained in Malta or forced to beg in the streets of Italy. In June 2008, Egypt forcibly returned around 1200 Eritreans who had fled Sudan fearing deportation. Human rights groups estimate that at least 740 of them were imprisoned upon return and remain so to date. It is the third lease of life for Yonas Mehari and Petros Mulugeta. As Mulugeta puts it, “We have been born again.” With the help of the Eritrean diaspora in Frankfurt and a human rights group, they have now moved into their own apartments. They plan to learn German and find jobs – far away from Issaias Afwerki’s Eritrea.

Lalon Sander is special correspondent of Independent World Report.



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