P. was saved from forced conscription by a tendency to be late. He was late for school the day of the draft and arrived to find locked gates. Up until that day in February 2006, P. lived with his family in a village of sorghum growers in Eritrea. He is 16, but having lost his father at the age of nine and being the eldest child in his family, he had to help out in the field and was held back a grade several times as a result. When he came home early that day, he recalls with a smile, "My mother was angry that I was late. She said this way I would never complete my studies."
A short time after his return, a rumor spread through the village that the army had stormed the school and drafted "soldiers." Military trucks surrounded the building and guarded the entrance to prevent the children from running away, while armed soldiers conducted a rapid draft inside. Several of P.'s good friends with whom he did his homework and played soccer during recess were forced out from classrooms at gunpoint, and taken with their schoolbags, textbooks and notebooks to a basic training camp in an unknown location. When P.'s sister returned home from school, she told him there were lists on the walls naming those who faced compulsory enlistment. His name was there.
P. is one of a group of several dozen men and women who, like him, fled Eritrea and are seeking asylum in Israel. They currently live in a shelter in the center of the country. He arrived in Israel last Monday. Another two groups have arrived since, all crowding into the same shelter. The African Refugees Development Center, an association whose members are themselves refugees, organized food donations from aid associations such as La Sova, but the food will barely be enough to last through the end of the week.
On foot to Sudan
After hearing that his name was on the list of draft candidates, P. hurried to flee. He didn't say goodbye to his mother so as not to entangle her in his plans. He didn't pack a bag and didn't change clothes. He did, however, manage to take all his money - 200 nakfa (the equivalent of NIS 40) - and left the house, crossed the family's cultivated fields and continued walking. He walked all through the night. Early in the morning, he reached a nearby village, where he a bought some food. He continued walking. He walked at night for fear of being spotted by soldiers patrolling the area and hid and slept during the day.
When his money ran out, he would look for a job as a day laborer in some village, work for a few days, and then continue. Sometimes, he says, people who didn't have any work for him put him up for the night. Some even proposed that he stay, but P. was afraid of being caught and tried as a deserter. While walking at night he sometimes ran into hyenas. But these, he says, frightened him less than the army patrols out during the day.
It took him eight months to reach Sudan. He found his way there with the help of strangers and crossed the border without a problem. "I knew I was in another country only when I reached a village and heard the people there speaking Arabic," he says. In Sudan, he was taken in by fellow countrymen who fled Eritrea years before and settled there. During his month-long stay in Sudan, he contacted relatives who had fled years ago to Malta, and they sent him a little money for food. He used the money to pay a truck driver to take him to the capital city of Khartoum and to buy a train ticket to Cairo. In Cairo, he met some of his countrymen who warned him that he might be arrested there and even expelled back home. They suggested he join them on a trek to Israel, where, they promised, his life would be safer. P. agreed even though he had no idea where he was going. The difficult journey, traveled partially by foot, took only three days. When they crossed the border, they were detained by soldiers who took them to Be'er Sheva. "They were nice to us," he says of the soldiers, fired only in the air, were polite to us, took us in their car to Be'er Sheva and there they dropped us off and left." P. and his friends wandered around the city and asked how to get to the United Nations offices. A student put them in touch with Yohannes L. Bayu, director of the African Refugees Development Center. "I saw people after many hours of walking, exhausted, hungry and despairing," says Bayu. He mobilized the small community of Eritreans in Israel to help them find a temporary place to live, organize a collection campaign and raise money. They also gave the newcomers sheets and blankets, which were used to create makeshift beds.
Afraid of being discovered
The refugees were visited last week by attorneys from the Hotline for Migrant Workers and from the Tel Aviv University law school clinic's refugee rights program. Attorney Anat Ben Dor, who heads the program and, with Jonathan Berman of the Hotline, represents another group of Eritreans, says, "There is no doubt that Eritrea is a totalitarian and oppressive country, and there are known cases of asylum seekers who were sent back there and were imprisoned and tortured, and some have disappeared. In light of these facts, they should be dealt with using extreme caution." Regarding the shortage of temporary dwelling facilities, Ben Dor says, "It is inconceivable that refugees arrive, many of them minors, and there is no one to attend to their most basic needs, such as food and first aid." In her opinion, a shelter should be set up to at least address these needs.
P. and the other Eritreans received a document from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that protects them from arrest for three months, until their request to receive political asylum is investigated. The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia officially ended in 2000, so they are not automatically considered refugees entitled to asylum. But in practice, there is still tension along the border, as well as occasional flare-ups. Worse yet, the situation enables the Eritrean government to institute a totalitarian regime under the guise of security needs.
Eritrea is a one-party state where opposition is banned by law. There are no protests and no strikes, and anyone suspected of political activity may find himself in jail. Eritrea has no free press, the media is entirely government owned or supervised, and foreign correspondents were even expelled several years ago. Military service is compulsory and not subject to time limits. "I know that in Israel there is also a compulsory draft," said one member of the group, "but in Israel, you know when it ends. With us, when you enlist you belong to the state, to the army. Basically your life as a person is over. It's like going to jail."
Officially, the draft age is 18, but the army also drafts younger people. The draft campaign at P.'s school is not unusual, say the members of the group. Because Eritrea has an embassy in Israel, the refugees are doubly cautious and suspicious, lest information they give is leaked and relatives still there are punished because of the refugees' flight.
On the shelter's walls hang no-smoking signs in Tigrinya (one of Eritrea's working languages). Another sign lists the cleaning roster.
And indeed, while the shelter's cleanliness is carefully maintained, two fans and pleasant weather make sleeping there at night tolerable for now. During the day, they sit outside or travel to the UN High Commission for Refugees offices. On Friday afternoon someone played a tape of rhythmic music, P. humming along. When he grows up he wants to be a musician and write songs, perhaps also protest songs about his country.
At night, he sometimes thinks about his brother and sisters, trying to guess what they're doing now, based on the season. Because he has no contact with his family, he doesn't know if they were punished for his flight. He assumes they were and is sorry about that. His trip caused many moments of fear for him, and also loneliness. But when P. is asked what the hardest moment was, he answers unhesitatingly: "The moment I left my home. The hardest thing was to start walking and know that I would never come back."