You are on page 1of 4


Issaias Afwerki: Photo by Helene Stikkel.

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

I 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.
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
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
Twenty-three-year-old Mulugeta has asylum applications were rejected, they will get either.
closely cropped hair. He flashes a and they were deported back to Mehari and Mulugeta are part
friendly grin at the camera. Twenty- Eritrea, where they were immediately of a massive exodus of Eritreans. In
eight-year-old Mehari is wearing a imprisoned, labelled as traitors. For 2009, according to the United Nations
shirt with patterned stripes in purple months, they were tortured within refugee agency, UNHCR, there were
and red. He looks more reserved with inches of their deaths, in crowded over 209,000 Eritrean refugees
his hands clasped loosely on his lap. prisons. That they managed to escape worldwide, and 43,000 Eritreans filed
While they are happy to have finally the country a second time is almost a new asylum applications. The refugees
reached the safety in Germany, they miracle. In 2010, they made their way are on the run from one of the most
are also heavily traumatised, and in back to Germany. This time, they were repressive regimes ruling one of the
need of regular counselling. Yonas allowed to stay. most isolated countries in the world.
Mehari and Petros Mulugeta are “I can not understand why the The strongman of Eritrea is Issaias
finally safe in Germany after escaping Germans forced us to return to Eritrea. Afwerki, a veteran of the thirty-year-
from prison in Eritrea – not once, but They are well-informed about how long Eritrean liberation war against
twice. dangerous the situation is for Eritrean Ethiopia. In 1993, two years after de

Independent World report ISSUE 6 49

free from exploitation on men by into custody and imprisoned.
men,” he says in a video footage from The families of the prisoners rarely
He describes the punishment
1974. He was twenty-eight then, with get to know their whereabouts, and
that required the prisoners to roll eight years of experience in warfare, often the prisoners never return. In all
and training from China. parts of the country, local government
naked in the mud containing sharp
Today, he is visibly aged, his once officials keep detailed records of
stones and thorns, “Those stuck thick black hair has receded and the the families in the area, and ensure
characteristic moustache greyed. In a that those of age are conscripted. In
to the skin and caused wounds. It
recent interview with Al Jazeera, his larger towns, the police and military
was horrible to watch.” eyes look tired and he angrily evades forces capture evaders or deserters
critical questions by playing them through systematic round-ups. Every
facto independence, Issaias became down as “a pack of lies.” In one of its year, nearly half of the 20,000 new
the country’s first and only president. recent reports, International Crisis conscripts are recruited straight out
Immensely popular in the 1990s, Group comments, “In most Eritreans’ of the schools.
Issaias has become dictatorial in eyes, he is no longer the stout-hearted, The only place in the country
recent years, refusing to implement beloved leader of the nation-at-arms, where secondary schooling is offered
the Eritrean constitution or hold but a mentally unstable autocrat is the Sawa military camp. It was here
democratic elections. with a bad temper and an alcohol that Petros Mulugeta finished high
After a border dispute with problem.” school. “They tell you that you are
Ethiopia, Issaias cracked down on Eritrea is now a country where a student taking part in a training
dissenting voices, and shut down all exploitation has become a routine. program,” he says. “Actually, they
independent news outlets in Eritrea. Conscripts are paid a monthly pocket only offer military training.”
According to Human Rights Watch, he money, roughly equivalent to three He was trained in the use of
has since kept Eritrea “on a permanent dollars, during the first six months. grenades and Kalashnikovs, while
war footing,” by indefinitely extending Later, they receive more, but never a being subjected to harshest of
the compulsory military service. living wage. They work in all parts of treatments, “The conscripts are not
Today, almost 300,000 Eritreans are the economy: ministries, departments, allowed to sit in groups. They are not
under arms, and almost as many in regional governments, agricultural allowed to talk to each other for more
the reserve forces. schemes, and digging wells. than a few minutes. I thought I had
It is this forced conscription the Forty enterprises, owned by no chance to continue my studies or
Eritreans are fleeing from. “You Issaias’ ruling party, dominate every leave the army, ever.”
become a slave of the government, aspect of the Eritrean economy, and all Yonas Mehari had more patience.
and your slavery will continue aspects of life have been transformed He spent seven years in service and
until you are sixty. You do not earn into national service. The main was appointed as a prison guard, “I was
anything, you can not start a family,” beneficiaries of this system of forced expected to carry out punishments.”
says Petros Mulugeta, who escaped labour are senior officials of the He describes the punishment that
after he was sent to a military labour government, the ruling party, and the required the prisoners to roll naked
camp during his service. “We do not military. It is a brutal and elaborate in the mud containing sharp stones
question the military service per se. It system of forced labour in the service and thorns, “Those stuck to the skin
would be normal to serve in the army of a political-military complex. and caused wounds. It was horrible to
for one year or one and a half, and to Issaias and his cronies also control watch.”
return to a normal life afterwards. I a national system of surveillance and When he refused to continue
would do that and go on with my life.” repression. It is he, who “appoints torturing prisoners, Mehari was
Yonas Mehari whose military service everyone from high court judges, imprisoned, “By the time I was
continued for seven years until his senior military commanders and released, I was absolutely fed up. I
escape says, “If you join the army cabinet ministers to middle-ranking decided to escape and started walking
once, you will stay there forever.” officials,” reports International towards Sudan.” Around the same time
It was not always like this. Once, Crisis Group. Anyone who criticises Petros Mulugeta was fleeing a military
Issaias Afwerki was an idealistic young the government or the president; labour camp. By trying to cross the
freedom fighter. “To resolve the anyone who tries to evade military border, both men risked being shot
economic problems of our people, to service; anyone who tries to leave the on sight by Eritrean border guards.
give them a prosperous and tranquil country; or, anyone who belongs to In November 2007, they arrived in
life, we must build a society that is an unregistered religion, can be taken Frankfurt, Germany, smuggled in by

50 ISSUE 6 Independent World report

Yonas Mehari and Petros Mulugeta: Private photo.

traffickers from Sudan. It was in the Issaias’ rule as unconstitutional and Mulugeta informed the German
transit area of the Frankfurt Airport, called for democratic elections. In Federal Police that they were
they met each other for the first time response Issaias cracked down on seeking asylum. During questioning,
while waiting to be interviewed by opposition. a representative of the Federal
German authorities. In September 2001, as the world Office for Migration and Refugees
In the 1990s, military service in was occupied with the 9/11 attacks, (BAMF) explained that Mehari and
Eritrea was less ominous. According he imprisoned eleven of the Group Mulugeta were required to describe
to Human Rights Watch, “During the of 15 – three of them were out of the in detail their ranks, military units,
first four rounds of national service, country, one recanted. The offices uniforms, and weapons; and, explain
those who were called up were of independent media outlets were how military identification numbers
demobilised after eighteen months. also raided and many journalists were composed; also, name military
But after war broke out with Ethiopia were imprisoned. Shortly afterwards, operation areas and commanders.
in 1998, everything changed.” Issaias’ government extended the When Mehari said that he did
In 2000, a peace agreement was military service indefinitely. not have an identification number,
brokered, but Ethiopia refused to give Eritrea is now the only country in and named four military zones, his
back an Eritrean border town it had Africa without a single independent interviewer triumphantly informed
captured. Moreover, during the war, media outlet. A British freelance him, “It is incorrect that there are
deep rifts developed in the Eritrean journalist was expelled from the only four zones, in fact there are five.
leadership as Issaias began directing country in 2008, because he refused I would also like to point out that each
military operations. “Many maintain to disclose his sources. Reporters and every soldier has an identification
his interference and refusal to consult Without Borders ranks Eritrea as the number, and must wear this number
or delegate was the cause of military worst country in the world for press on his uniform. So, if you tell me that
failures during that period,” notes freedom, even worse than North you did not have a number, you were
International Crisis Group. Korea. And, of the eleven imprisoned not a soldier in the Eritrean army.”
After the war, dissenting voices members of the Group of 15, nine are In December 2007, their
became louder. Most prominently, now reported dead. applications for asylum were rejected
a group of liberation war veterans In 2007, after reaching Frankfurt as “obviously baseless” since it was
known as the Group of 15 criticised Airport, Yonas Mehari and Petros “obvious that they had never been

Independent World report ISSUE 6 51

soldiers in the Eritrean army.” suspended.
Ines Welge of Pro Asyl, a refugee In a room at the Asmara • Service for life: State repression
rights group, analysed the treatment International Airport, Mehari and and indefinite conscription in
of Mehari and Mulugeta, “The BAMF Mulugeta were interrogated for hours Eritrea is a 2009 report
representative subjected Yonas Haile about what they had been doing in by Human Rights Watch.
Mehari and Petros Aforki Mulugeta to Germany; how they had managed to
a military quiz, apparently to argue escape from Eritrea; and, what they
that they were in fact not deserters, had told the Germans as they applied • Eritrea: The siege state – report
based on their wrong answers.” As for asylum. by International Crisis Group.
Frankfurt’s administrative court Later that night they were
upheld the BAMF decision, Welge transferred to the local police station,
noted, “The administrative court in where they were interrogated again
Frankfurt failed in its monitoring and again. Petros Mulugeta feared recognised, then located Mulugeta in
capacity and its intended role as the for his life. He recalls what the Sudan and Mehari in Ethiopia.
guardian of the fundamental rights of interrogators were saying, “You are Despite the ordeals, life for Mehari
asylum applicants.” traitors, traitors to your own country. and Mulugeta in Germany is far
In January and February 2008, Beating you would not be enough, better, when compared to the fates
German police tried to deport Mehari you are going to receive worse of Eritreans in some other countries.
and Mulugeta on passenger flights – punishments, that you deserve.” A much larger number of refugees
they kept on yelling so loudly that the After a month, Mehari and never make it this far – in 2009,
pilots refused to fly them. So, in May Mulugeta were driven to the military almost two thirds of the refugees
2008, a private plane was arranged to camp in Wia, one of the hottest areas fleeing from Eritrea ended up in
take the two men back to Eritrea. Four in Eritrea. Mulugeta was placed in a Sudan and Ethiopia. Many try to make
policemen and two doctors flew with zinc hut above ground, inside forty it to Europe via Libya but are either
them. people were crammed into a sixteen- imprisoned or robbed and exploited
It was a small plane, one that square-metre area. He witnessed by traffickers and policemen on the
would require refuelling in Egypt. prisoners trying to escape a number way.
“There were only six seats,” Petros of times, “They knew for sure that In Libya, hundreds of refugees
Mulugeta recalls. “Two persons had they were going to die in Wia, and if are reported to be detained in
to sit near the toilets on our luggage.” they died while escaping, their death prison. Others, who have made it to
At the Asmara International Airport would be a faster one.” the European Union territories, are
in Eritrea, they were handed over to “We believed that the dead men detained in Malta or forced to beg
Eritrean police. were the luckiest,” says Mehari, who in the streets of Italy. In June 2008,
The Eritrean regime holds was placed in an underground room. Egypt forcibly returned around 1200
thousands of prisoners, for that, With over four-hundred people in that Eritreans who had fled Sudan fearing
as Human Rights Watch notes, room, it was too crowded to lie down, deportation. Human rights groups
“Eritrea has a formidable network of “It was best to be standing because if estimate that at least 740 of them
detention facilities, some of which are you lay down, your skin stuck to the were imprisoned upon return and
well-known, and others secret, some floor. The floor was terribly hot.” remain so to date.
authorised, and others not. Each town Both men became so sick, that It is the third lease of life for Yonas
and administrative district in Eritrea their captors moved them to military Mehari and Petros Mulugeta. As
has a jail. Wherever there is a police hospitals, Mulugeta in Keren, and Mulugeta puts it, “We have been born
post is a cell and each military division Mehari in Gheden. Thanks to the again.” With the help of the Eritrean
has its own prison.” hospital care and food, they regained diaspora in Frankfurt and a human
While beatings are regarded as some strength and ran away for life at rights group, they have now moved
normal, a number of harsher torture the very first opportunity they got. into their own apartments. They plan
methods are also routine in Eritrean Meanwhile, the Eritrean foreign to learn German and find jobs – far
prisons, like Helicopter, in which ministry confirmed to the German away from Issaias Afwerki’s Eritrea.
the victims’ hands and feet are tied authorities that Mehari and Mulugeta
together behind their backs and they had indeed been imprisoned for
are left face down under the sun; or, desertion and leaving the country
Jesus Christ, in which they are tied illegally. Their lawyer in Germany Lalon Sander is special correspondent
to a tree or a cross and beaten while managed to get their asylum claims of Independent World Report.

52 ISSUE 6 Independent World report