Thursday, September 1, 2011

After 20yrs of Independence, Why The Exodus of Eritrean Refugees? Part I

After 20yrs of Independence, Why The Exodus of Eritrean Refugees? Part I

The Gang watching World Cup Football 2010

First of all I would like to say that I am neither a political analyst nor sociologist, I'm just a private citizen who likes to scribble whatever comes to mind based on past and recent observations, different sources like books & internet as well as the chit-chats that I have had with fellow Eritreans. I'm solely responsible for all the views, opinions, comments etc and they are not intended to make generalization nor attack certain groups; they're rather meant just to depict a very tiny fraction of the sufferings of Eritrean people for almost two decades perpetrated by the very same people who claimed had fought for 30yrs to bring freedom. It's a shame that the world in general and exiled Eritreans in particular allow the present Eritrean regime to commit such hideous gross human rights abuses with impunity. But how many youngsters should die/tortured/starved/thrust/raped in the Sahara desert or eaten by sharks of Mediterranean & Red sea, before the world say enough is enough to the dictatorship? Other Eritreans who don't have relatives/connections/money etc are still living in a 'prison nation', deprived of all the necessities we usually take them for granted. The silence is so deafening and frightening It sounds like Eritrea is less important than Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Libya etc.. Let's go to the refugee camp where I had one-to-one/group talks with the newly arrived Eritrean asylum seekers who saw and experienced firsthand the sufferings in their home-country.

Arrival at the refugee camp

Time flies, it was a year ago in 2010 and I used to live at a refugee camp which is located in a small village of Northern Sweden. We were more than 100 but the majority (nearly 95%) are from Eritrea-mainly young boys & men (as young as a few months old), women (majority are single parents) old (over 50). Norway has a special reception center only for Eritreans in Oslo due to the exodus of Eritrean refugees from their country as well as elsewhere in the world. They were the nicest people I ever met ever since I came to this country, most of them treated me no different than from their fellow country people-they welcomed me to their homes with open-arms whether just for a small coffee ceremony or a big get-together on public holidays. Some of them opened up their hearts and told me the terrible situations they went through back home in Eritrea or en-route to Sudan-Libya-Europe-of course with the exception of the only woman whom I suspect was a die-hard supporter of the regime in power. She is a typical hater and blind supporter (I pity her and her likes) of the current regime, who is brain-washed/programmed by the delusional tyrant leader, to live in a her small fantasy world (self reliant, invincible country). I will get back to you about her at the end, let me talk first about my other Eritrean friends who suffered, jailed, harassed, enslaved and condemned to live in exile by one of the worst brutal and sadistic regime in the world.

Mr. Oldie

Mr. Oldie (all names are nicknames for confidential reasons) was the first Eritrean guy that I met while I was waiting outside our house for the orientation by employees of immigration board who transported us (a group of more than 50 asylum seekers) from a nearby town at the beginning of June 2010. I was tired (traveled almost 12hrs by bus from a transit camp around the capital), hungry, sleepy, and grumpy (our camp is located in one of the smallest villages we came across). Mr. Oldie said kemey (meaning hi in Tigrigna) with a big smile while passing by to the clinic-I told him that I don't speak Tigrigna (honestly, I found that a bit awkward but I understood later why he spoke to me in Tigringa) then he said sorry and introduced himself in a broken Amharic and told me he will come later after finishing his check up at the clinic but I didn't take him seriously. I met two other Eritrean young men later on, they did the same thing like their roommate but I wasn't still convinced that they really meant it. Mr. Oldie however kept his word and came to our house in the afternoon. He told me he came to this place a few months ago and he lives with other 4 of his countrymen and one Somali and insisted me to come and watch TV at their place. A few days passed but we didn't have much except a few salutations when we see each other on the street or at the only shop in the village. Then the world cup started so I got a good excuse to mingle with them-it wasn't as I feared it-everybody welcomed me with open heart & generosity. Thanks buddies, if it wasn't for your hospitality, I wouldn't have enjoyed the match for the first time in my life. I felt guilty for being such a skeptics
(I had a really bad experience with Ethiopians/Eritreans in the past and I was avoiding them at any cost but it shouldn't be an excuse).
Mingle on Sunday Afternoon!
Mr. Oldie is around 50, tall, with gray hair and beer belly who spent almost more than half of his age in Sudan (with exceptional few short stays with his wife and children in Asmara). One thing really stricken me most though was that he liked and tried to speak Amharic notwithstanding his long absence from Ethiopia/Eritrea-this was his favorite Amharic proverb Sira Yataw Melekuse leqobu qedo yesfatal (its literal meaning is- an idle monk who doesn't have much to do, tears down his hat and then resew it) and I couldn't help myself laughing out loud when he said that for the first time. He is spiritual, always happy, helpful, comforting, ambitious, and very energetic for his age-I saw him several times playing football with kids almost who could be his grand children even though he has different ailments including rheumatic. He speaks perfect Tigrigna, Tigre, Aarabic, a bit of Amharic and English. What's sad is time is against him to start a new life afresh, to learn a new language and adapt to a totally different climate (two extremes) but interestingly there are many fellow Eritreans of his age who were/are fleeing their country to all over the world (they deserve to enjoy their remaining lives at home) everyday to scape starvation, imprisonments and other human rights abuses in their home country. UNHCR's January 2010 report shows that a total of nearly a quarter of million Eritrean were under concern that year of whom 209, 168 refugees, 14,394 asylum seekers and 8 refugees were returned. Given these figures, one shouldn't be surprised to see the exodus of Eritreans of all age and sex at four corners of the world. These numbers might be underrated, since UNHCR doesn't have access to Eritrean public records. Mr. Oldie left Eritrea during Emperor Haileselassie's era-the last Ethiopian monarch- and went back home after N'aastnet (Eritrea's independence) but he returned back to Sudan as he couldn't stand the present regime and he has no intention of going back-for fear of execution, imprisonment etc. He would rather go to Ethiopia or Sudan or some East-Asian countries for vacation -I heard such comments from many of the Eritreans which sounds really strange but it's a harsh reality for many of Eritrean refugees around the world. He was eagerly awaiting for his children to join him but he was still uncertain if they could make it to neighboring countries or not since it's not only difficult for the youth to leave the country but also to have a passport to begin with. I haven't heard from him since I left the camp and I hope his kids have joined him after being separated for such a long.

Mr. Sawa

He is in his 30s, a bit short & restless (I saw him walking aimlessly more than 5times/day back and forth, when I first arrived there) , hard-working (he used to pick up blue-berries from dawn to dusk) humble and very kind man who likes to mingle with other people around in the village. Sometimes, he is too much- like a stalker which sounds a bit harsh-but he wanted to be surrounded by people (it didn't matter if the other person was busy or not). Sometimes we didn't have much to talk and he hums monotonously that really used to annoy me. This strange behavior of his might be a result of his horrific long experiences at the slave farm & one of the worst jails in the world. He told me his bosses at the military camp sentenced him to two years labor punishment after capturing him while he was trying to defect from the national service (he served more than 6yrs for pittance). For some slavery was abolished 100years ago, but that's not the case in present day Eritrea, according to Mr. Sawa. He was imprisoned for some time before he was given the pardon to serve at the slave farm which was by far better than the former-because at least at the farm they were able to see sunlight & breath fresh air albeit of the harsh treatment by their capos. The 'jail' is a small windowless dark underground 3x3m cubicle with one pit-latrine packed with more than 50 prisoners at a time. They eat a watery lentil soup with a piece of bread and allowed to use toilet only once in a day. Some of them faint as a result of suffocation and extreme heat so they've to be taken to the under-staffed/resourced prison clinic. They sleep and sit on rotation to prevent their body from getting numb. Most of the inmates were disoriented about the time as the prison is deliberately constructed windowless below the ground. No visitors, no books, no newspaper, no radio no nothing is allowed. These people are/were imprisoned the just because-thy were trying to defect to neighboring countries/traveling without permit/defying national service/for having a child or children defecting etc. It gets worse if they were caught trying to go to Ethiopia-the nemesis-the boarder 
The Kitchen in Full Swing!
guards were given the right to kill at gun point. My friend served his time (he didn't tell me for how long) and then got a 'promotion' to the slave farm.
It sounds a fairytale but it was/is real and still happening in Eritrea. Here, Mr. Sawa and his fellow inmates worked more than 14hrs under the blistering sun on vegetable and fruit farms owned by high ranking army officers of the ruling party in the name of nation building and Eritrean 'self-reliance' scheme. They had few minutes of lunch break to eat the wild cabbages they collected and cooked with a thin bread which they baked themselves on stones on the open fields. The merciless capo orders the person to roll down on the dust and lashes his subject at the same time if he caught someone slowing down, resting, or eating fruits from the farm, or drinking water/washing his/her face from a nearby river to cool down. They are paraded to the stream to bath every Sunday (it will be skipped, if there's a job) that's the only opportunity to shave each others hairs while waiting on the line for their turn-without being watched;otherwise the punishment would be grave for such crimes.

The shack is a ramshackle (worst nightmare when it rains) with no toilet, so they relieve themselves outside on the field in front of each other. He has managed to escape to the Sudan bribing one of the officers after suffering 2yrs like this, and he was only 45kgs when he arrived there and from the photo he showed me he was only skin & bones.

He said he never forget that day, because he ate real food -meat stew- for the first time in years and it felt like he was re-born. Life wasn't bad in Sudan, he stayed there for a while and then went to Libya where life was hell on earth for most refugees. He said, a small Libyan boy with knife can stop and ask anybody with different looks than the average Libyan for money at any time and if that person doesn't budge s/he will either end up in jail or beaten/stabbed on broad day-light. His relatives from Europe paid a fortune to human-traffickers for him to come to Europe by an overloaded small boat (more than 40 people) which was almost capsized on Mediterranean sea and it took them 2weeks to make it to Europe. He was really grateful for escaping alive, that's why he doesn't take anything for granted and wishes to tell his story on camera to expose the crimes committed by those people whom he hated to death. The only thing he complained about was his little paunch-he gained extra kilos and weighs 68kgs after he came to Europe. He is not only worried about the fate of his younger sister and his parents who were still back home but also anxious how to bring them here so that they can reunite with him to have a better and safe life which is the dream of many of his fellow compatriots. What's the worst thing for him is that he can't go back home to see his aging parents unless the present government is gone; though he is very homesick and would like to go: the situation which hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees all over the world are put in at this moment. Or else, he's to make a 'confession' at the Eritrean embassy that he made a 'mistake' of leaving his country and then agreed to wire 2% of his monthly income to the government in Asmara so as to go back which millions of fellow citizens compelled to do (willingly or out of lack of option) after their host country gives them residence permit/citizenship. Eritrean government which is isolated from the rest of the world has no other option but engaged blackmailing its own citizens to earn foreign direct investment. He just disappeared, a few weeks before I left the camp, after he was told by the immigration authorities that they found his fingerprints from Italy on EUROCODE and I don't know where he's right now. Due to lack of job and financial support from Italian authorities, it's not unusual to see many Eritreans who seek asylum again elsewhere in Europe even though they got the permit to stay at the first country they sought asylum. See you in Part II with Mr. Heavy & Smokey and Ms. Naqfa

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