Eritrean army deserters are denied refugee status by the Israeli government. The question whether desertion from national service in Eritrea is in itself a valid reason for refugee status is pending the appeals tribunal ruling, and that is after the Population and Immigration authority already rejected thousands of Eritreans asylum requests.
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These rejections show a fundamental lack of understanding of army service in Eritrea, and how it operates to oppress the people rather than to serve and protect.
I am an Eritrean army deserter.
I, as every Eritrean, know the importance of national service and of protecting one’s nation. I know that is the obligation of every citizen to serve our people and our country. We cannot rely on foreign forces to protect and defend our nation. I know my duty, just as every Eritrean knows. We Eritreans were raised upon a strongly rooted tradition, with generations of family tales, of protecting our country and culture from oppressors and colonizers.
Even in my own family, I lost five uncles in the 30-year war with Ethiopia for independence and freedom. My own father served in the army for years. I was raised by my grandparents; not because I lost my parents, but because my grandparents were left alone after losing their sons in the war. I grew up watching their tears day and night. They raised me to be responsible, forgiving and caring. No one needs tell me my responsibility to my country. I know I have the responsibility to serve my country and am even ready to pay with my life, as so many of us Eritreans are prepared to do. There are many Eritrean army “deserters” here in Israel who once fought bravely for Eritrea’s freedom for years, standing on the frontline, ready to give their life willingly for their beloved people and country.
If these people have fought for freedom and for the safety of their country for years, why have they left their country now?
The purpose of the Eritrean military has become corrupted. One small group has hijacked the freedom of the country and has begun to rule by fear, not by law. Since our country’s independence in 1991, we have not seen a single election. The dictatorial regime – who were once “freedom-fighters” and leaders of our revolution – have now imprisoned thousands of Eritreans without any due process of law. The regime systematically conscripts men and women, from the age of fourteen to seventy, to serve as slaves to the regime, with their bodies enslaved and their minds diverted, too controlled to resist.
The Eritrean army service no longer functions the way an army should function. Those who are conscripted are forced to serve indefinitely. Rather than serving their country, they are forced to labor as slaves on the farms of their commanding officers, or to build private homes for their generals. These “soldiers” are forbidden from visiting home to see their loved ones. Anyone who speaks out faces prison without trial, where they are tortured, raped and often disappear, never to be heard from again. The prisons I speak of are not like the prisons you know in Israel, but underground prisons where crowds are packed into small rooms or shipping containers, with no space to move or even lay down. They are located in the hottest regions of the country, with barely any water and food given to detainees. I myself was imprisoned in one of these “prisons,” with memories and scars that I would rather not recall. Many who have been held in these underground prisons will never bear children because of the damage done to their bodies. These former freedom fighters and soldiers have now become victims of the totalitarian regime for years.
These men and women who were once willing to give up their lives for their country are now persecuted and oppressed by their own government. They have no tools to shape their country’s future, no acknowledgement of their accomplishments and no voice to speak out. Not only this, they face torture or even death if they rise up and speak out against this injustice. They have seen their family and their friends disappear into the night for voicing dissenting views. They are afraid.
I am an Eritrean army deserter. I have not deserted my people and my country. I have deserted and fled the heartless dictatorial regime that would rather have me oppress my own people than serve them, that imprisoned and tortured and persecuted me for thinking and for speaking as much aloud. I have deserted the army so that I can serve my people, by staying alive and free and speaking out against the injustice done against my country. And the very day the dictator is overthrown and the injustice is undone, I shall return to my country to serve in my homeland.
I appeal to the Israeli people – and people everywhere – to speak to the Eritrean men and women you meet on the street. Listen to their stories, see the scars on their skin and feel the pain in their voice. The recent Israeli court decision – and the Israeli government’s continued denial of Eritreans’ right to asylum – is based solely on misinformation, misunderstanding, and untruth. The people of Israel, the courts, the government, and those responsible for assessing our asylum claims must hear the truth, and must grant us asylum, so that we can live here in freedom and peace, so that we may serve our people and one day return home.
Teklit Michael is an Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel and community outreach coordinator at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center.