No End in Sight

Hardships of National Service Recruits in Eritrea

Eritrea has long had a policy of national service, which conscripts the country’s youth into positions in its army and civil service. However, in spite of legislation limiting the term of national service to 18 months, many people are trapped in their service for many times that limit, even up to nearly 20 years. This, in addition to the already existing issues of low wages, strict anti-desertion laws, and alleges human rights abuses compounds the day to day issues faced by the soldiers. EBR visited Eritrea to get a glimpse at the lives of everyday people who are serving their country.

In the past, the east African nation of Eritrea has been known as one of the most militarized countries in the world. Although the country ensnared its citizens in a web of compulsory military and national service since 1995, two years after seceding from Ethiopia, two decades on, it still maintains unlimited service, since a two-year border war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998.

After the closure of a more than two decade state of ‘no peace no war’ between the two countries, Eritrea has recently come to the fore of international attention, due to the normalizing of relations with Ethiopia, which has brought renewed hope to the issue of Eritrea’s national service policy.

Yet the suffering of many young men and women who have been trapped in the armed forces for months and even years after they were supposed to have left, still continues, with no end in sight.

Robel Belay is a 38 year old Eritrean soldier. After completing his 11th grade education, he was drafted into the Eritrean army. But what was supposed to be an 18-month stretch turned into service of over a decade. “I was expecting to be able to leave the army after my service was up,” he told EBR. “But whenI asked to be relieved of duty, I was turned down repeatedly. Even getting leave is very hard for me. I have no hope that I will be able to leave the army.”

Although the Proclamation of National Service states all Eritrean citizens from the age of 18 to 40 years have the compulsory duty of performing Active National Service, Human Rights Watch (HRW) indicates that, in reality men are obliged to perform national service until the ages of 55 or 57, and women until the age of 47.

Even worse, soldiers in Eritrea face many hardships. They are often assigned difficult, non-military jobs, from construction and agriculture, to teaching and civil service jobs. They are not only deployed on national projects, but also those that personally benefit military commanders and officials, according to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch.

There are also claims of harsh treatment, including physical abuse, and even torture; female conscripts face forced domestic servitude and even sexual violence from their commanders and higher-ups. Even so, there is no mechanism to address these abuses. The price for trying to desert or escape is high.

Violations of the National Service Proclamation, including evasion through fraud, self-inflicted disability, and other methods, are punishable with two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 3,000 Ethiopian Birr. HRW reports cruel punishments used on those trying to leave, like in April 2016, when conscripts trying to escape in a convoy from Asmara were shot at, killing several of them. In addition, a person who escapes from the country to shun national service and does not return to perform her or his duties by the age of 40, will be imprisoned for up to five years on top of revoking their right to a visa and work permit.

On top of the punishment and cruelty, conscripts have to deal with insufficient wages. For example, Robel’s wages are around 1805 nakfa a month (USD120). But even then, he is not allowed to keep all of that. Out of his monthly salary, 300 nakfa is deducted for transportation, 2and 50 nakfa for house rent. Deductions are also made for food, and for Robel’s four children, as well as other expenses, leaving him with only 205 nakfa. This is not enough to get him through the month, but he has no choice.

“I don’t even think about changing or improving my life anymore,” he says. “It has been 15 years since my uncle entered the army and he still has not left.”

In Eritrea, even education is not a reliable method for people to improve their lot in life, with the prospect of national service hanging over their head. Between 15,000 and 20,000 students who sit for the grade 11 exams at the school located in Sawa every year are conscripted into the national service, according to estimates by the University of Leiden.

Selina Girma(whose name was changed upon request), recently took her 12th grade graduation examinations. If she passes with a high enough mark, it could put her into higher education. But Selina is afraid to go check her scores. “If you go to check your scores and you haven’t passed, they take you to Sawa right away,” Selina explains. “I have relatives who went in and they didn’t come out.’

An investigation into the conditions in Eritrea by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2015 found that religious freedoms are also severely restricted in the Eritrean military. Upon arrival at the military training institute in Sawa, conscripts are informed that all religious practice is banned. Those caught praying are severely punished. One conscript told investigators, “On one occasion, a Muslim was killed in front of us for praying, After we were all gathered, the leader read a page of information to us. Basically it said this man has been caught praying against our orders three times and is being sentenced to death. Anyone who does not obey military orders will also be killed. The Muslim man was then shot twice and killed.”

Female soldiers face even more hardship. Luwam Estifanos was taken to Sawa ten years ago, which is near the Eritrean border with Sudan. “After the age of 16, your life is not yours until god knows when,” Luwam said in an interview with New York based Vice News. Luwam is now a human rights campaigner and university student and lives in Norway. “It’s actual slavery, because the service is non-stop,” she explained. “There is no end to it—you can serve for your whole life. We lose our youth there.”

Even though the vast majority of people in national service are stuck there for the long haul, others are able to leave their duty after a certain time, if they are athletes and cyclists; if they can compete on the international stage, they are able to receive special accommodations.

The fear of being trapped in a position with the army for the rest of their lives is part of the reason for the high rate of migration of Eritrean youths. But not everyone has given up hope. Michael Gebremariam is a mechanic who was deported to Eritrea from Ethiopia. When he has some time off from the army, he engages in different jobs to try and make a living. “I have to try and live my life,” he told EBR. “We have to accept what we have been given and try to work within that.”

Yet, even sceptics are currently arguing that the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia will be helpful to end the widely-criticised national service. On the other hand, renewed international media outlets are hinting the dawn of new day is on the horizon. In August 2018, Reuters reported that the latest recruits to the national service have been told it will last no longer than 18 months. Without denying the reports, Yemane Ghebremeskel Eritrean information minister said there had been no formal announcement. “Policy announcements of this significance are invariably made through our official outlets and that has not been done so far,” Ghebremeskel told Reuters.

6th Year • Sep.16 – Oct. 15 2018 • No. 66

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