The December issue of The Broken Rifle, newsletter of the War Resisters International, which supports conscientious objectors from military service around the world, offers this report from a strategically-placed country not often in the news: Eritrea. We noted in our last post on Eritrea that military tensions with Ethiopia are once again growing. The secession of Eritrea in 1993 left Ethiopia landlocked. Ethiopia is much closer to the US, which has an interest in securing the Horn’s access to the Red Sea (just north of the Strait of Djibouti chokepoint, already threatened by Somali pirates) against Islamic militants. Therefore Eritrea’s strongman Isaias Afwerki is playing up supposed Islamist subversion of his regime—both as an excuse to suppress opposition and to win Washington’s good graces. If war comes, it is Eritrean and Ethiopian conscripts who will be the first to pay with their lives in this power game. This report, which starts with a background primer on the country, notes thousands of Eritrean conscientious objectors who have been imprisoned or forced into exile. It seems that many have also been tortured and even executed.
Background to the country
Eritrea, located in the horn of Africa, won its de-facto independence on 24 May 1991 after 30 years of a bitter, bloody and costly armed struggle against rule by its neighbour, Ethiopia. Eritrea formally declared independence on 24 May 1993 after an overwhelming yes vote in a referendum overseen by the United Nations.
The two major ethnic groups are the Tigrigna (50%) and Tigre (40%). The Afar constitute 4% and the remaining 6% include Kunama, Nara, Bielen, Rashaida, Hidarb and Saho. The two dominating religions are Christianity, including Coptics, Catholics and other Protestant demoninations, and Islam. The official languages are Tigrigna, English and Arabic, but diverse ethnic languages persist as well.
The Italians colonised and named Eritrea in 1890. After the Italian defeat in World War II, its African colonies of Eritrea, Somalia and Libya were placed under the protectorate of Britain for 10 years. The future of these three nations was a hot issue in the United Nations from 1945 to 1950, ending in an ill-advised confederation of Eritrea and Ethiopia for a projected 10 years from 1952 to 1962. In 1961, Ethiopia violated the terms of the confederation and declared Eritrea to be its 14th province. In the same year, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) began armed resistance under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate.
In 1970 a faction of the ELF, known as the Peoples Forces of Eritrea (PFE), broke away. It was a revolutionary movement led by the younger generation. After its first congress in 1977, the PFE reorganised as the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and eclipsed the ELF. The EPLF succeeded in achieving independence from Ethiopia after a long war.
The EPLF immediately established a transitional government under Issayas Afewerki, leader of the successful fight for independence. EPLF members took all administrative posts and other key positions. In 1994 the third congress of the EPLF renamed itself the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
Unlike its name, the regime was undemocratic and unjust. Moreover, it was unconstitutional. Its own Eritrean Constitutional Commission, set up in 1994, had produced the constitution of 1997 after ratification by the Eritrean people. The regime ignored this and, after September 2001, imprisoned 11 prominent members of the opposition party which had demanded democratic change and enforcement of the ratified constitution.
Today, the PFDJ is the sole lawmaker in a harsh dictatorship. Eritreans are denied their basic civil and human rights, any protests always ending in arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. For all Eritreans whose vision of their new nation included peace, stability and prosperity, the scale of wars, corruption and abuse of power that followed independence was unbelievable. Eleven years after independence and 13 after freedom, Eritrea is a country where poverty and oppression are the rule.
In the last three years, the military training camp Sawa was established as headquarters for universal national service. All high school students, female and male, are forced to finish their 12th year of study in a school within Sawa. None of them have returned for further eduation at university once they completed national service. The University of Asmara, Eritrea’s only university, has only third and fourth year students who had entered before the draft came into effect.
The government has militarised the country completely. Forced recruitment of young people, underage children and adults under 50 is a daily event. Recruits are treated brutally and there is evidence of sexual abuse of women. Nobody has a right to question the miliary authorities. Nobody has a right to conscientious objection.
Over the past three and a half years, Eritreans have been denied their constitutional right of free expression. There are no independent newspapers, TV channels or radio stations. The only active media are government owned. Only the Internet gives those who have access to it a source of information not coloured by government propaganda.
Foreign policy has isolated the country from human rights organisations, aid agencies and the international community at large. The dictator has used the concept of National Unity to intimidate and discredit opponents of the regime. Religious minorities are being persecuted by means of prison and torture. According to the Compass Direct news agency, 187 Eritrean Christians have been arrested so far this year, including groups at prayer, whole wedding parties, and home Bible study groups, intellectuals and professionals. Often children and the elderly are among those arrested.
According to The Christian Post of 24 February 2005 the Eritrean government since May 2002 has closed down the country’s Protestant churches, declaring their places of worship illegal and forbidding home gatherings. Only four religions are officially acceptable: Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Islam.
Conscientious objection is taboo. COs are branded by the regime as cowardly and unpatriotic. There is no recourse to the law nor substitute civilian service for COs. The consequences of conscientious objection and desertion are severe torture, long-term imprisonment and even death.
After the horrors of the border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, the number of COs within the military increased. Today there are thousands who objected to military service and the military. They are forced to go into exile. Considerable numbers of them are in Europe, Libya, Ethiopia and Sudan seeking political asylum. In Germany, Eritrean refugees founded the Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative (EAI), which supports refugees who had to flee from the Eritrean military and fights for peace and antimilitarism in Eritrea.
Consequences of war
The adverse impact of the long war for independence and later conflicts on Eritrean society and economy have been incalculable. They have exacerbated the cycle of draught, which has afflicted the entire region and caused millions of people to become dependent on external assistance for their survival. The results of these disputes are horrendous: loss of life, impoverishment, displacement of people, land mine hazards, looting, confiscation of property, exile, trauma.
At the moment, more than one-third of the Eritrean population is living in exile. The war has resulted in the disintegration of families and the loss of culture and norms of socieity both at home and in exile.
International and national NGOs
There is little activity by national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). What does exist is under the supervision of the regime. There are no international NGOs that advocate human rights or witness the forced military recruitment with its brutality of recruits and its persecution of COs. Nor does the government tolerate independent national NGOs, human rights groups, international observers or foreign reporters. Investigations demanded by Amnesty International and others are ignored. All international journalists have been officially banned.
Conscientious Objection as one way to peace
The people of Eritrea are in political, social and economic crisis. There is an urgent need to establish a healthy democratic atmosphere with a constitutionally elected leadership and a multiparty political system. There is an urgent need to release all political prisoners and COs. Hence the EAI is advocating the refusal of military service in the above context.
We believe that refusing military service, militarism and war is vital for these reasons:
1. The ideas and teachings of conscientious objection are based on peace, humanity and morality. We believe they are the answer to withstanding the propaganda of national unity and national sovereignty, which are misleading and provacative.
2. The more people say No to war in Eritrea and the more people say No to war in our neighbouring countries, the region and the world, the more governments may begin to think about peaceful solutions, start to develop respect for human life and plan to build a just and secure society for coming generations.
3. Conscientious objection is the check and balance against war and militarism. A CO is at the other extreme of a warlord. We believe COs can confront and divert military objectives.
Steps for lasting peace
The EAI believes that the following steps can help to achieve a lasting peace on the basis of human, civil and political rights.
1. Introduce and cultivate respect for the right of conscientious objection and offer COs alternative civilian service.
2. Establish a culture of pluralism, civility, respect and tolerance.
3. Develop the political leadership on principles of democracy.
4. Adopt nonviolent ways of struggle.
5. Solution of conflicts peacefully through dialogue, mediation and negotiation.
6. Respect for international law.
Yohannes Kidane is a refugee from Eritrea and lives in Germany, where he is active with the Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative
Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative, c/o Yohannes Kidane, Bahnstrasse 51, D-61449 Steinbach, email email@example.com
Many of us might remember the hopes connected with Eritrean independence back in the early 1990s. I myself remember reading about self-reliant development, the formation of cooperatives, and in general about Eritrea taking a path which would not rely on international institutions such as the World Bank, which drove many other countries into huge external debts. However, 14 years later the situation looks entirely differently, and this issue of The Broken Rifle can only give a glimpse of what is actually happening in the country. When War Resisters’ International first received information from the Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative, we were shocked. Forced recruitment and imprisonment/execution of young people — men and women — who avoid military service seems to be a daily feature for Eritrea’s youth, with exile the only “alternative”.
War Resisters’ International’s contacts in Africa are still poor. Four years ago, in 2001, we highlighted the situation in Angola on 15 May (International Conscientious Objectors’ Day). Prisoners for Peace Day 2005 with a focus on Eritrea is therefore a good opportunity to reach out to African antimilitarist groups, where they exist. The articles in this issue — the interviews with objectors — show very clearly how urgently Eritrean war resisters need our support. More information on the situation in Eritrea is available in a documentation published on WRI’s website at http://wri-irg.org/news/2005/eritrea-en.htm. Feel free to download and distribute.
[Interviews with Eritrean conscientious objectors]
I’ve had enough of the war
I was born on 10 January 1981 in Asmara. I was just 15 years old, and we were told that we would get the results of the school leaving examinations only after basic training in the National Service. That’s why I joined the military, hoping that my exam results were good and I could leave after basic training to study. In 1996 I was brought to Sawa for basic training.
Some of the girls there had run away from home and joined the National Service, although they were still minors. Sometimes the parents came to take their daughters back home. But the authorities always refused that.
Many girls were raped. There were girls who adapted themselves to the situation and made advances to officers out of their own initiative, to avoid being raped. There were only male officers. Those who didn’t comply, who rejected the men were given the worst work or sent into the war. The girls who had been raped but didn’t want to comply were sent to the front too. The girls who were compliant and pretty were treated well. Often they got pregnant involuntarily.
We were in Baka, in the area of Girmaik. Those girls who refused to play the housewife had to stand on guard service for 3-4 hours at night as a form of punishment. Those young men who wanted to help them were punished too — they were ordered to stand at attention in the sun for an entire day. The other girls, who played along with the game, were treated well.
Those who could stand it no longer, who wanted to see their family, fled in the end. Some returned on their own, others were caught by the military police and punished with the helicopter or the number eight . In some cases they were doused with milk, before they were ordered to stand in the sun for hours. They were called koblelt, outlaws, deserters.
After serving 18 months, we had to stay on for two additional months. Then the war began. It is difficult for me to describe this. It was horrible. For example, there was a rule that when soldiers were wounded, the jikaalo (old fighters) had to be brought to the field hospital first. They were taken out of the front line first, not the common soldiers. Once five or six young soldiers died because of this. They just had been left there. When the unit withdrew from the front for a break, some went to their families without authorisation. When they returned and the unit had been sent back to the front, these soldiers were sent directly to the front as a form of punishment. Others were even executed.
I have had enough of the war. I reported ill, although that meant I had to stay there and couldn’t go home. After several requests and complaints I finally got five days of holidays, but I stayed away for 10 days. Then I got very scared. I returned. As punishment I had to carry a big water container up and down a hill for a full week.
In May 1999 the unit commander tried to rape me. I screamed and others came to help me and prevented it from happening. I demanded that he be punished, but it was his responsibility to pass on my complaint to his superiors. He did not get punished.
After the 2nd invasion our unit received training and did a course on financial auditing. I served in the administration of the unit and checked its income and expenses. My superior put me under pressure and told lies about me, because I did not comply to his demands. For example he accused me to have stolen money. He passed on this kind of accusations to his superiors, so that I would be punished. It was unbearable. Therefore I went to my family in Asmara. After one month I was arrested, and was brought to the police station in Gegjeret. After that I was sent to Adiabeto. I demanded repeatedly: “I want to be brought to my unit. If I am to get punished, then I want to get punished there.” However, after some weeks I was able to escape from the prison in Adiabeto and went to Adisegdo.
I managed to stay there for more than a year. I had to hide all the time, guests were not allowed to see me, and I could not leave the house. The neighbours were not supposed to see me, so that they could not report me to the police. During this time I got in contact with friends of my father, who gave me opposition papers, for example from the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front). Because I had been gone for a long time, the authorities put pressure on my father, and finally arrested him. With the help of his friends, I was finally able to flee to Sudan.
Interview with Bisrat Habte Micael from 28 May 2004.
 “The helicopter”: the victim is tied with a rope by hands and feet behind the back, lying on the ground face down, outside in the hot sun, rain or freezing cold nights, stripped of upper garments.
My torture in the sun
I was born in Asmara on 12 December 1978. In 1996 I was drafted into the national service in Sawa.
During basic training the food was bad and so was the training. Our instructors did not stick to the training program but, for example, they had us wash their clothes or fetch water, forcing us to submit to their will. There wasn’t enough to eat. Spoilt flour was used for baking.
After six months of military training, we went on a military march of more than 120 kilometers from Ketan to Sahel. Then we were taken to Nakfa to dig trenches for 15 days. It wasn’t clear what we did that for; the trenches were completely useless. Moreover, it was cold out there but we didn’t get any blankets, so sometimes we were forced to use earth to cover ourselves with. After that I came back to Division 2001, 2nd Brigade, 1st Battalion, 3rd Unit, 2nd section. We were deployed at Ambori in the Dembelas area, because the Jihad (Eritrean Islamic Jihad, EIJ), a small, Sudan-based insurgent group that has mounted attacks in the north and west since 1993, were there and conflicts were very likely.
In November 1997 I was relocated to Mensura to attend a military course, where we were taught the American system of fighting in small units. That was two month before my service was supposed to end. Later I grasped that this was in preparation for war. In early April veterans, who had been called up for national service during the first until the fourth draft wave, were drafted. As a pretext it was stated that they were to be involved in development measures. Actually, they were called up for war and sent to us.
On 12 May we attacked Badime. We marched until we got to Dembegedamu, 18 to 20 kilometers on Ethiopian soil, occupied the area and moved into positions there. After one week Division 381 relieved us. We were relocated to Zorona. Initially, there wasn’t much to be done. We dug trenches. The unit’s leaders had us do private jobs, such as helping to grow vegetables. After harvest we had to pay for these vegetables with our own money. The proceeds went into their pockets. An engineer who was serving military service was assigned to build a house for them.
I had accepted to do national service. I was an Eritreian and ready to be a soldier and fight a war for a good cause, that is if Eritrea was really in danger. But now I was to die while others forced people to work for them, which made them richer and richer. I didn’t see why I should sacrifice my life.
A leader of just a section has the authority to enforce his will on women. The men also have to do jobs for him. With the leader of the unit it is even worse, all the more when it comes to a battalion leader. The situation was getting more and more insufferable.
I started to oppose. I said, “I’m doing military service. Although I don’t agree with what is going on, I’m a soldier. Why do you have me work for your private interests? I don’t see the sense of it.”
I was arrested, released, rearrested. Once I was detained for three months and had to work in the fields from 6 am to noon and from 2 to 4 pm together with 22 other soldiers. It was meant to be a sort of brainwash. We harvested tomatoes and onions.
Later on, they offered to promote me to section leader. This was not because they thought I was cut out for the job but because they wanted to catch me out at some time. I had to take on this job and lead a section of four soldiers.
At that time, it was February 1999, the second invasion began. We were in Onoshahok when there was uninterrupted fire for 1½ days. Fortunately, I made it out of there unhurt. In my section a man and a woman were injured. She was sent to the front because she had refused to submit to her leaders. We were stationed there until May. Then I was supposed to attend a course for unit leaders. I refused. I didn’t want to be involved in private business and I didn’t want to oppress my friends.
Because of this I was arrested. They poured a mixture of milk and sugar over me, tied me up and exposed me to the sun continuously for two and half days. The days were very hot and the nights extremely cold. My skin got burned, blisters developed on my face. I also had a terrible headache. Because of the pain I almost fainted. A doctor appeared and called for medical treatment. Initially, the battalion leader rejected this demand. The doctor said: “I cannot take the responsibility. In case something happens you will be responsible.” Then the battalion leader agreed to medical treatment. They took me to a military hospital, peeled my skin, cleaned my flesh with disinfectant, and gave me tetracycline and antibiotic tablets. This was it. I stayed in hospital for two weeks. In spite of the tablets I got an infection. It got very ugly. For punishment they didn’t treat me properly. Eventually, they took me to a military hospital in Alla. There I wasn’t able to see anything with my left eye for about four months. I tried to have the battalion leader prosecuted but never received a response.
Sometimes my wounds healed, sometimes they got infected again and blisters reappeared. It was a continuous up and down. Eventually, I was granted sick leave lasting months so that I was able to travel to my family. I applied for a discharge, which was rejected on the grounds that as soon as I recovered I would be sent back to the front.
Interview with Saed Ibrahim, Translation: Thomas Stiefel
For the right to conscientious objection
Abraham Gebreyesus Mehreteab addressed the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights on behalf of War Resisters’ International. We document his statement below.
I’m representing War Resisters’ International. We conduct research on conscientious objection to military service in many countries. Last year, we undertook a preliminary survey on the issue of Eritrean conscientious objectors. We learned that there are thousands of Eritrean conscientious objectors and deserters.
In Eritrea the right of conscientious objection is not recognized by law with the present government. Some members of religious groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses are in custody since more than 10 years because of their convictions to refuse to serve in the military. They never had a hearing in court.
Arbitrary detention, torture, deployment at the front line, forced labour – all without any hearing – have been common ways to punish deserters and objectors. A very often used way of military punishment is to tie victims and to lay them in the sun for days or sometimes weeks.
Furthermore relatives of deserters are threatened to push their children to send them to their units.
Although it is difficult to know the exact number, thousands from the army are evading the military service. They declare their objection through various means. They conscientiously object, desert or flee the military dictatorship. A lot of the deserters are asking for political asylum in foreign countries.
We request the UN Commission on Human Rights to take note of the continuous violations against conscientious objectors and that it take further measures to ensure that conscientious objectors and deserters get asylum protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees..
We also request the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to investigate the situation of conscientious objectors and other members of the army, particularly in Eritrea.
And we request the Eritrean government that it comply with Commission Resolution 1998/77: and in particular that it
1. releases immediately all conscientious objectors;
2. recognizes the right to refuse the military service on reasons of conscience, including profound convictions, arising from religious, ethical, humanitarian or similar motives;
3. introduces an alternative service compatible with reasons for conscientious objection.
Thank you very much.
Abraham Gebreyesus Mehreteab
Abraham Gebreyesus Mehreteab is an activist with the Eritrean Anti-Militarism Initiave, based in Germany, and represented War Resisters’ International at the Commission on Human Rights
Thousands of people held at Adi Abeto army prison
Thousands of people arrested on suspicion of evading military conscription and held at Adi Abeto army prison are thought to be at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment. At least a dozen prisoners have reportedly been shot dead and many more were wounded following a disturbance at the prison. On 4 November Eritrean security forces in the capital, Asmara, indiscriminately arrested thousands of youths and others suspected of evading military conscription. The arrests took place in the streets, shops and offices, at roadblocks and in homes. Those arrested were taken to Adi Abeto army prison just outside Asmara. Conditions in this military holding centre are harsh, with severe overcrowding, little food or sanitation. Many detainees have reportedly been forced to sleep outside in the very cold weather without blankets or shoes. Prisoners have no access either to their families or to lawyers.
Towards midnight on 4 November, a prison wall was apparently pushed over by some prisoners, possibly in an escape attempt. Soldiers opened fire and shot dead a number of the prisoners, wounding many more. On 8 November, the Minister of Information said that two prisoners had been killed. Other sources claim at least a dozen people were killed, and that bodies were buried without being returned to their families. Those wounded were taken to hospital and held incommunicado under military guard.
Amnesty International, 9 November 2004, AFR 64/008/2004
Relatives of COs arrested
Amnesty International reported on 28 July 2005 about the arrest of several hundred relatives of people who have evaded or deserted from the military. The arrests took place in the Debug region of southern Eritrea since 15 July.
Amnesty reported: “Those arrested were the fathers, mothers or other relatives of men or women over the age of 18 who have either failed to report for national service since 1994, failed to attend the compulsory final school year at Sawa military training camp, abandoned their army unit, or left the country illegally. The relatives have been accused of facilitating their evasion of conscription or flight abroad. Officials reportedly offered them release on bail of between 10,000 and 50,000 nakfa (US$660 to US$3,300), if they guaranteed that they would produce their missing relative.”
Those arrested are held incommunicado in different prisons. “Many held in Adi Keih town prison reportedly began a hunger strike in protest at their detention and have been moved to Mai Serwa military camp near the capital Asmara”, Amnesty reported.
Amnesty International, 28 July 2005, AFR 64/011/2005
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