My torture in the sun

I was born in Asmara on 12 December 1978. In 1996 I was drafted into the national service in Sawa.

During basic training the food was bad and so was the training. Our instructors did not stick to the training program but, for example, they had us wash their clothes or fetch water, forcing us to submit to their will. There wasn't enough to eat. Spoilt flour was used for baking.

After six months of military training, we went on a military march of more than 120 kilometers from Ketan to Sahel. Then we were taken to Nakfa to dig trenches for 15 days. It wasn't clear what we did that for; the trenches were completely useless. Moreover, it was cold out there but we didn't get any blankets, so sometimes we were forced to use earth to cover ourselves with. After that I came back to Division 2001, 2nd Brigade, 1st Battalion, 3rd Unit, 2nd section. We were deployed at Ambori in the Dembelas area, because the Jihad (Eritrean Islamic Jihad, EIJ), a small, Sudan-based insurgent group that has mounted attacks in the north and west since 1993, were there and conflicts were very likely.

In November 1997 I was relocated to Mensura to attend a military course, where we were taught the American system of fighting in small units. That was two month before my service was supposed to end. Later I grasped that this was in preparation for war. In early April veterans, who had been called up for national service during the first until the fourth draft wave, were drafted. As a pretext it was stated that they were to be involved in development measures. Actually, they were called up for war and sent to us.

On 12 May we attacked Badime. We marched until we got to Dembegedamu, 18 to 20 kilometers on Ethiopian soil, occupied the area and moved into positions there. After one week Division 381 relieved us. We were relocated to Zorona. Initially, there wasn't much to be done. We dug trenches. The unit's leaders had us do private jobs, such as helping to grow vegetables. After harvest we had to pay for these vegetables with our own money. The proceeds went into their pockets. An engineer who was serving military service was assigned to build a house for them.

I had accepted to do national service. I was an Eritreian and ready to be a soldier and fight a war for a good cause, that is if Eritrea was really in danger. But now I was to die while others forced people to work for them, which made them richer and richer. I didn't see why I should sacrifice my life.

A leader of just a section has the authority to enforce his will on women. The men also have to do jobs for him. With the leader of the unit it is even worse, all the more when it comes to a battalion leader. The situation was getting more and more insufferable.

I started to oppose. I said, "I'm doing military service. Although I don't agree with what is going on, I'm a soldier. Why do you have me work for your private interests? I don't see the sense of it."

I was arrested, released, rearrested. Once I was detained for three months and had to work in the fields from 6 am to noon and from 2 to 4 pm together with 22 other soldiers. It was meant to be a sort of brainwash. We harvested tomatoes and onions.

Later on, they offered to promote me to section leader. This was not because they thought I was cut out for the job but because they wanted to catch me out at some time. I had to take on this job and lead a section of four soldiers.

At that time, it was February 1999, the second invasion began. We were in Onoshahok when there was uninterrupted fire for 1½ days. Fortunately, I made it out of there unhurt. In my section a man and a woman were injured. She was sent to the front because she had refused to submit to her leaders. We were stationed there until May. Then I was supposed to attend a course for unit leaders. I refused. I didn't want to be involved in private business and I didn't want to oppress my friends.

Because of this I was arrested. They poured a mixture of milk and sugar over me, tied me up and exposed me to the sun continuously for two and half days. The days were very hot and the nights extremely cold. My skin got burned, blisters developed on my face. I also had a terrible headache. Because of the pain I almost fainted. A doctor appeared and called for medical treatment. Initially, the battalion leader rejected this demand. The doctor said: "I cannot take the responsibility. In case something happens you will be responsible." Then the battalion leader agreed to medical treatment. They took me to a military hospital, peeled my skin, cleaned my flesh with disinfectant, and gave me tetracycline and antibiotic tablets. This was it. I stayed in hospital for two weeks. In spite of the tablets I got an infection. It got very ugly. For punishment they didn't treat me properly. Eventually, they took me to a military hospital in Alla. There I wasn't able to see anything with my left eye for about four months. I tried to have the battalion leader prosecuted but never received a response.

Sometimes my wounds healed, sometimes they got infected again and blisters reappeared. It was a continuous up and down. Eventually, I was granted sick leave lasting months so that I was able to travel to my family. I applied for a discharge, which was rejected on the grounds that as soon as I recovered I would be sent back to the front.

Interview with Saed Ibrahim, Translation: Thomas Stiefel