Eritrean Refugees Say Returning Home Means Certain Death

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to send the refugees back to Eritrea created a whirlpool of panic in the shelter.

At a refugee shelter on Tel Aviv's Har Zion Street, Abu was reluctant to be interviewed. When he finally agreed to talk, he asked that his words not be recorded, and wanted to move far away from the crowd, on the shelter's ground floor.

"You have to understand, even here, far away from home, I do not feel safe," he explained, constantly sneaking looks in every direction. "I don't know if whoever is listening to us now is a collaborator with the Eritrean government," he hinted, referring to the other refugees going up and down the stairs of the shelter.

Abu, 30, was an officer in the Eritrean army. "At a certain stage, I stopped understanding why we were fighting, and [started] to notice how corrupt the army and government were," he said. A year ago he fled to Sudan. "The moment I fled, the Eritrean government took my mother and sister and imprisoned them as hostages until I return." He said that when he felt unsafe in Sudan, he decided to flee to Israel via Egypt.

"I believed that it is a democratic country that would give me political asylum," he said. When asked what would be his fate if Israel returned him to Eritrea, Abu could not find the words for a few minutes. Finally, he formed his hand into the shape of a gun and said, "They would shoot me immediately. I am wanted in my own country."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to send the refugees back to Eritrea created a whirlpool of panic in the shelter.

"Is it true?" ask the shocked refugees. "The entire world knows about our government and the monstrous things it does," says Ala, 24, in despair.

"We have no home to return to as long as the government isn't replaced," he explained. Ala refused to join the army and was jailed for a year. "It was an underground prison," he tells.

He was released when he promised to enlist, but he fled with his family to Sudan. "In Sudan I was jailed for three months. I have no documents and they asked me for money in return for [being allowed] to stay in the country - and I didn't have any," he said. "I was released when I promised to arrange the matter, but I fled from there too. If I return to Eritrea they will kill me," he said, and all the other refugees in the shelter nodded in agreement.

Zaura, 27, holds her 9-month-old baby daughter. Her husband served five years in the Eritrean army before he chose to escape with his family to Sudan. "All the time war," she says. In Sudan, her husband was caught and imprisoned when it was determined he was an Eritrean refugee. Zaura and her daughter fled to Israel two months ago. They spent a month and a half in the Ketziot Prison, and now she is in the shelter.

"It is hard here. There is not always food for the child, no money, my husband is in prison in Sudan, I am unable to work and I sit here for days with nothing to do, and I don't even have the possibility of going back. The government won't even ask anything, they will shoot us straight out," she said pointing at her daughter. "They have no mercy, they shoot everyone."