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Eritrea - testimony of a war resister

Bisrat Habte Micael
"I had had enough of the war"

I was born on 10 January 1981 in Asmara. I went to Hatsey-Yohannes School until 5th grade, for 6th and 7th to the Awet School, and for the 8th to 11th grade to the Halai School.

When I finished the 11th grade and took my school leaving examination [A-levels], I was just 15 years old. I did not have to repeat any year, and had jumped a few classes.

We were told that we would get the results of the school leaving examinations only after basic training in the National Service. That's why at the age of 15 I joined the military, hoping that my exam results were good and I could leave after basic training to study. Thus, in 1996 I was recruited for National Service as part of the fifth recruitment round and brought to Sawa for basic training.

Some of the girls there had run away from home and joined the National Service, although they were still minors. Sometimes the parents came to take their daughters back home. But the authorities always refused that. They said: "She came to us on her own. Now she stays here." Even when the girls wanted to return home later, they were not allowed to.

The time in Sawa was hard. It was the rainy season and the facilities at Sawa were poor at that time. Many became ill, and got hepatitis. Especially women frequently got a hiccup, we call this lewti. Even when ill we were forced to take part in the roll-call. Only when you were very seriously ill was it possible to get a postponement from National Service. We were forced to take part in military exercises until we were completely exhausted. They did not care whether you would die or not. Relatives of high ranking officers were treated differently. They got exempted from military service even without being ill.

Many girls were raped. There were girls who adapted themselves to the situation and made advances to officers out of their own initiative, to avoid being raped. There were only male officers. Those who didn't comply, who rejected the men were given the worst work or sent into the war. The girls who had been raped but didn't want to comply were sent to the front too. The girls who were compliant and pretty were treated well. Often they got pregnant involuntarily.

After six month of basic training I came to the 381st division. First I was supposed to work in the administration, but then I was sent to the front line. This surprised me. I assumed that I would serve a total of 18 month of military service. After deducting holidays, this would have meant 8 month after the end of basic training, which the soldiers usually serve in agriculture. I also had applied for holidays. But my superior wanted to prevent me from doing this. He wanted me to cook for him and to be his puppet. I refused that. So I didn't get any holidays, and was sent to the front line instead.

We were in Baka, in the area of Girmaik. Those girls who refused to play the housewife had to stand on guard service for 3-4 hours at night as a form of punishment. Those young men who wanted to help them were punished too – they were ordered to stand at attention in the sun for an entire day.

The other girls, who played along with the game, were treated well. They got a good room, a nice bed, and got holidays every month to visit their families. But there were only very few who played along. Most refused. We always thought: we would do military service and then go back home.

There were conflicts between the old fighters, the jikaalo, and the conscripts. The old fighters accused the conscripts: "You just want to be among yourselves". They put pressure on us because we, who had gone to school together, supported each other.

Those who could stand it no longer, who wanted to see their family, fled in the end. Some returned on their own, others were caught by the military police and punished with the helicopter or the number eight [1]. In some cases they were doused with milk, before they were ordered to stand in the sun for hours. They were called koblelt, outlaws, deserters.

I too was once punished with the number eight and was forced to lie in the sun for a whole day, because I had refused to do the housework for my commander. I had not deserted. But a commander had an eye on me. When I expressed criticism, they said that this was against the law. I was put in bonds and put into the sun, because I did not comply.

After serving 18 months in military service, we had to stay on for two additional months. Then the war began. It is difficult for me to describe this. It was horrible. For example, there was a rule that when soldiers were wounded, the jikaalo had to be brought to the field hospital first. They were taken out of the front line first, not the common soldiers. Once five or six young soldiers died because of this. They just had been left there.

When the unit withdrew from the front for a break, some went to their families without authorisation. When they returned and the unit had been sent back to the front, these soldiers were sent directly to the front as a form of punishment. Others were even executed.

This is what happened when two people wanted to get married. The family and the bridal couple had agreed on a date, had informed the unit commander and asked for holidays for the wedding. In Eritrea a wedding is a very important event. But the bridal couple got their holidays refused. So they went unauthorised to marry. The military sent an entire unit to the wedding to arrest the bridal couple, instead of at least waiting until after the wedding. They were sent directly to the front.

I have had enough of the war. I reported ill, although that meant I had to stay there and couldn't go home. After several requests and complaints I finally got five days of holidays, but I stayed away for 10 days. Then I got very scared. I returned. As punishment I had to carry a big water container up and down a hill for a full week.

In May 1999 the unit commander tried to rape me. I screamed and others came to help me and prevented it from happening. I demanded that he be punished, but it was his responsibility to pass on my complaint to his superiors. He did not get punished.

After the 2nd invasion our unit received training and did a course on financial auditing. I served in the administration of the unit and checked its income and expenses. My superior put me under pressure and told lies about me, because I did not comply to his demands. For example he accused me to have stolen money, although he didn't leave any money. He passed on this kind of accusations to his superiors, so that I would be punished. It was unbearable. Therefore I went to my family in Asmara. After one month I was arrested, and was brought to the police station in Gegjeret. After that I was sent to Adiabeto. I demanded repeatedly: "I want to be brought to my unit. If I am to get punished, then I want to get punished there." However, after some weeks I was able to escape from the prison in Adiabeto and went to Adisegdo.

I managed to stay there for more than a year. I had to hide all the time, guests were not allowed to see me, and I could not leave the house. The neighbours were not supposed to see me, so that they could not report me to the police. During this time I got in contact with friends of my father, who gave me opposition papers, for example from the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front).

Because I had been gone for a long time, the authorities put pressure on my father, and finally arrested him.

With the help of his friends, I was finally able to flee to Sudan. I dressed in the way girls from the villages normally dress, and was brought by car to Teseney. There I stayed for one more week to prepare the rest of my flight. Then I went over the green border to Sudan.

In Sudan too I feared to be arrested. The Eritrean president Afewerki had given order to arrest deserters and to bring them back to Eritrea. The Eritrean government demanded that young people who had fled to Sudan be handed over. Sometime the Sudanese government complied with this request and deported young people to Eritrea. Some of the deserters were shot, some simply disappeared.

Also the Eritrean Secret Service is active in Sudan, and sometimes kidnaps Eritrean secret carriers, but also common soldiers. In addition, the Sudanese soldiers, for example in Kessela, are corrupt. Because of the conflicts between Sudan and Eritrea, they do not care what happens to deserters. Those who won't give them money are arrested and brought back to the border. Deserters can't even expect help from the United Nations. Deserters have to go into hiding far away from the big cities or they have to leave the country. Therefore many youths try to go through the Sahara to Libya, and try to cross the sea in inflatables – under great danger of drowning. But even those who escape are in danger of being returned. Malta deported 200 refugees to Sudan. From there they were handed over to the Eritrean authorities. Nobody knows where they are. Luckily, some youths were able to escape again to Europe. And luckily now they are allowed to stay in Europe.

In Sudan I stayed for one month with a relative in Khartoum. With his help I was able to get to Germany with the help of people smugglers.

Here in Germany I am fine. I have found rest. My application for asylum, however, has been turned down by the authorities. I am appealing against the decision, but I don't have much hope.

I don't know how my family is doing, and I am really worried. I cannot phone them or write, because they are probably watched. I am scared that my family might get even deeper into trouble if the authorities knew that they had helped me. I don't have any information about my father. I do not know if he is still alive. My siblings have been called up for National Service. My mother is on her own. I do not know how they can bear it.

Interview with Bisrat Habte Micael from 28 May 2004, Translation from Tigri into German by Yonas Bahta and Abraham Gebreyesus. Translation from German to English by Andreas Speck
Source: Connection e.V./Eritreische Antimilitaristische Initiative: Dokumentation: Eritrea: Kriegsdienstverweigerung und Desertion

[1] The helicopter and number eight are common torture techniques. Amnesty International describes them as follows:
"The helicopter": the victim is tied with a rope by hands and feet behind the back, lying on the ground face down, outside in the hot sun, rain or freezing cold nights, stripped of upper garments. This is a punishment allocated for a particular number of days, the maximum reported being 55 days in the Dahlak Kebir island prison, but it is more often one or two weeks. The prisoner is tied in this position 24 hours a day, except for two or three short breaks for meals and toilet functions.
"Otto" (Italian for "eight"): the victim is tied with hands behind the back and left face down on the ground, but without the legs tied. (from: ‘You have no right to ask’ –  Government resists scrutiny on human rights)

Veröffentlicht in CO-Update, February 2005, No. 6