London Dispatch / Ray Moseley: Eritrea, once invested with high hopes for democracy, now one of Africa’s most oppressive dictatorships

Saturday, 04 June 2011

Al Arabiya London 

Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war, has become one of Africa’s most oppressive one-party dictatorships and is described by Human Rights Watch as a “giant prison.”

Thousands of its 5.2 million people have been thrown into prison and tortured. Men and women are conscripted for military service, at pitifully low wages, and they can be required to serve until they reach age 55; all secondary students complete their final year in a military camp. The government singles out Christians for imprisonment. No national elections have been held since independence, and in 2001 the regime closed all private media. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Eritrea is the world’s fourth worst jailer of journalists. 

All this has given rise to flow of refugees seeking to escape tyranny that is among the highest in the world. The goal of many escapees is Israel, where they hope to find work. But many of the 20,000 who have arrived there, after arduous journeys and payoffs to smugglers, remain destitute, unable to find jobs even in a robust economy.

The plight of the Eritreans receives little notice abroad but was the subject of a 30-minute British television program on Friday night.

Reporter Ramita Navai, for Channel 4’s Unreported World, said the escape route runs through Sudan and Egypt, with refugees paying $2,000 a head to smugglers to get them into Israel. The journey is a perilous one, with Egyptian border guards often firing on the refugees. So far, 86 are reported to have been killed.

Families of those who escape also are in grave peril. The Eritrean regime subjects them to imprisonment or heavy fines. Would-be escapees who are captured are either tortured or killed.

One man, identified only as Sammy, told Ms. Navai he had fled Eritrea after having been forced to serve more than six years in the army. At the time of the interview, he had been living in a camp in Egypt’s Sinai desert for six months because he had been unable to pay the full amount of money demanded by Bedouin smugglers, and was working for them as a translator to try to pay the balance.

Ms. Navai reported that nearly 2,000 people flee Eritrea every month, one of the highest such figures for any country in the world.

One smuggler who said he had been operating for three years told the reporter that the heads of smuggling rings can earn up to $30,000 a month, and can transport 4,000 refugees every two years.

One refugee told Ms. Navai that the journey had been “very bad” and many died along the way. He said he had been forced to leave his wife and children in a Sudanese refugee camp because he did not have enough money to take them with him. He hoped to earn enough money in Israel to enable him to be reunited with his family.

Of course, refugees risk capture by the Israeli military or border police if they get into the country, and can be sent back to Eritrea, where they almost certainly face torture or death. Ms. Navai said some Israeli soldiers object to this policy and one of them told her he faced possible court-martial because he told his commander he could not be a party to returning refugees to Eritrea. She said Israeli human rights groups are challenging the policy through the courts.

In Tel Aviv, Ms. Navai interviewed Kidane Isaac, a young refugee who said he had been in Israel four years and found work at a bakery. He had wanted to be a journalist but after the Eritrean regime closed private media, he tried to escape and was captured. Isaac said he was tortured in prison but escaped after four months.

Leaders of a charity in Israel told the reporter that more than half of the refugees are subject to physical abuse at the hands of smugglers—punched, chained together for days or weeks and sexually assaulted. About 16 per cent of women interviewed by the charity say they have been raped but the charity believes the true number is twice that high.

During Ms. Navai’s interview with Isaac, he took a phone call from a refugee in Sinai, who said smugglers were holding a group of 29 people hostage, demanding $13,000 from each to smuggle them into Israel. Six of the 29 had already been murdered, he said.

Then a smuggler came on the phone and confirmed that. “If any can’t pay, we will slaughter them and sell their hearts for $50,000,” he said.

One unidentified young woman interviewed on the program said she and four other women had been held by smugglers in an underground cell in Sinai and allowed to use a toilet only once a day. Members of her family living outside Eritrea had been forced to pay $12,000 to secure her freedom, she said.

Israel is building an electronic fence to try to keep further refugees from entering the country.

(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at

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