In a March 11, 2019 statement, international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Eritrean government to roll out a timeline for the dismantling of the compulsory national service that has been conscripting young Eritreans since its seceding from Ethiopia in 1995.
It has been months since a peace deal was signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia ending two decades of conflict yet youths in Eritrea are still facing compulsory “national service.” This is despite the fact that Asmara promised the last recruits to national service that it would last no more than 18 months at the time of the signing of the peace agreement.
Although the initial pretext for conscription no longer exists, the statements that it will be disintegrated are probably only political rhetoric, says Fisseha Tekle, a human rights researcher on Eritrea and Ethiopia for Amnesty International.
“For the last 15 years, they were blaming Ethiopia. That excuse is no longer there, so it is high time for them to stop this scheme.”
Activists and human rights groups have condemned and compared the national service to “legislative slavery.” The recruits live under tough conditions, earning only a pittance (reported to be less than US$60 a month) and continue to be isolated from family and friends under inhumane conditions.
At its inception in 1995, the national duty was supposed to last no more than 18 months in an effort to rebuild the country after a 30-year conflict for independence. However, when a border dispute broke out with Ethiopia in 1998, Asmara introduced indefinite service with several recruits having been in the service for almost 20 years.
Eritrean teenagers in their last year of high school are transferred into a military camp before going straight into six months of military training after graduating high school. If one is lucky enough to score good enough grades, they might attend college and be given a civilian role. But the only way out is to leave the country. In its own report, Amnesty International quotes students who have come to view the education system as a trap that leads them straight to the jaws of a system to which there is no escape.
In its statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, HRW says, “Conscripts continue to be used for commercial projects, as well as military and civil duties. Their pay remains inadequate and reports of abuses, including torture, persist. This Council’s Commission of Inquiry labelled Eritrea’s national service “enslavement.”
It is not uncommon for several members of one family to be recruited all at once and posted to different parts of the country. The return of a member of a family may often feel like one is returning from the battlefront. The conscripts often spend months away from their family and there have been reports that most are denied official leave to visit their families. A special UN Commission of Inquiry report in June 2016 stated that "crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean military training camps and other locations".
Young Eritreans continue to leave the country, taking the treacherous journey, a trek through valleys of death, at the risk of being charged with treason if the escape bid fails. Hoards of them often find themselves on the shores of Libya in a bid to make the deadly and dangerous voyage through the Mediterranean. According to UN figures, as many as 5,000 Eritreans flee each year in search of greener pastures.
Image Credits: Madote