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Eritrea: Escape from modern-day Sparta

An estimated 305,000 Eritreans, or five per cent of the population, have now left the country, fleeing
torture, a stagnant economy, and conscription into a vast standing army that often amounts to little
more than slavery.
The journey described by Ms Nebiat is typical. She started by fleeing over the Sudanese border,
where Eritrean guards have been known to have an East German-style policy of to shooting anyone
who tries to flee. Then she flew to Turkey on a false passport, before boarding the ramshackle
wooden craft that took her to Rhodes.
"I'm so happy," she said later. "We are not sure what we will do but we hope to travel across
So why has Eritrea become the place where no-one wants to live? Unlike the Somalis, Nigerians, and
Afghans with whom they often share their people smuggling boats, the Eritreans are not fleeing civil
war or Islamic terrorism, or even particularly abject poverty. Indeed, many in the West would
struggle to even find Eritrea on a map, never mind put it on a list of pariah states.
As with many of the world's current conflicts, the story has its roots in borders drafted by Europeans
a century ago, when Italy annexed Eritrea from the rest of Ethiopia during the colonial "Scramble for
Africa". The move deprived landlocked Ethiopia of its only port on the Red Sea, and when Addis
Ababa sought to regain it in the post-war era, the ensuing conflict claimed around 200,000 lives.
However, while Eritrea emerged triumphant from the David and Goliath conflict, yesterday's
freedom fighters have become today's despots. Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Libya's late
Colonel Gaddafi, Mr Afwerki is accused of turning the country into a giant prison.
"During the 30 years war, even Eritrea's enemies admired them, they were well organised and
disciplined people," said Professor Gaim Kibreab, an Eritrean himself and Professor of Refugee
Studies at London's South Bank University. "But after they took over power, they seem to have lost
their way, the president has become very dominant."
Eritrea denies the claims, but has refused entry to a UN rapporteur on human rights, appointed two
years ago to investigate the reasons for the growing exodus. The rapporteur, Sheila Keetharuth, is
due to publish a full report in June, but her interim findings are already grim enough, speaking of
"indefinite national service; arbitrary arrests and detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, and
inhumane prison conditions."
Some prisoners, the UN found, were imprisoned in steel cargo containers in 50C temperatures.
Others spoke of having their bodies smeared in milk and sugar so that insects swarm around them
and drive them mad.
The main reason for people fleeing, however, is Eritrea's draconian military service programme.
Officially, it exists in the event of a resumption of the war again with Ethiopia, which did flare up
again between 1998 and 2000 with the loss of 70,000 lives. But as in North Korea, it has become an
excuse to keep the country's menfolk in conditions of near-indefinite vassalage. Recruits speak of
being forced to work in gold mines, with military service lasting up to ten years or more, and harsh
penalties for deserters.

It was to flee this modern-day Sparta that Henok Tekle, 28, took his chances on a people smuggling
boat across the Mediterranean back in 2002.
"I was conscripted into the army as a 16-year-old," Mr Tekle, who now lives in London, told The
Sunday Telegraph last week. "Life in the military was very tough - there was often hardly food or
health care, but they didn't care. And a lot of the time we weren't learning about fighting, but just
doing building work to make houses for people of high rank in the military. After about two months,
I decided I was going to escape."
Having slipped across the border to Sudan, Mr Tekle and some friends headed for Libya, a gruelling
three-week lorry journey across the Sahara. Many who attempt it die of thirst or starvation, and the
sand dunes that Mr Tekle drove through were littered with skeletons.
"Our driver told us: 'they were trying to go Libya like you, but they died on the way," said Mr Tekle.
"It wasn't just one or two, I saw many skeletons."a
Once in Libya, Mr Tekle and his friends paid $1,000 for passage on a people-smuggler across the
Mediterranean. On the second day of the journey, a storm whipped up, and soon the boat was in
"I don't know him to swim, and I thought that was it, I am going to die here," said Mr Tekle. "I didn't
even want to talk to my friends, I was in shock."
The Maltese navy eventually rescued the ship, only for another shock to greet Mr Tekle after he
lodged an asylum bid in Malta. The Eritrean government had learned he and his friends were there,
and pressured the Maltese to send them back, saying that as the war was over, they had nothing to
"Somehow the Maltese believed them, and we ended up being handcuffed and flown back there.
They took us into a warehouse full of soldiers all carrying Kalashnikovs. I was terrified."
His fears were justified. He says he spent the next 18 months in prison, being beaten on a daily
basis. Two of his friends were killed, and others went mad due to the heat and disease. "I got malaria
and all they would give you was paracetomol," he said. "It was a way of killing us over a long time - if
you spent three or four years there you were finished."
Eventually Mr Tekle escaped again, taking advantage of a party held by his captors to Eritrea's
independence day. This time he went straight to a UN refugee centre in Sudan, and was resettled in
Britain in 2005 under an asylum program. Since then he has made strenuous efforts to integrate,
learning fluent English, holding down a job in construction, and watching the news each night to
learn more about his adopted homeland.
Such is the exodus from Eritrea that even the Afwerki government now seems to be softening its
line, apparently anxious about the "brain drain" effect of losing so many of its young people.
Following the visit of a British government delegation that visited to the country last December,
current Home Office thinking is that Eritreans who flee the country illegally - including deserters are no longer automatically treated as "traitors"if they return. That, though, has not stopped the
current flow of people, and with ever larger foreign diasporas - an estimated 40,000 now live in
London alone - the "pull" factor of Europe is likely to remain.
"If you ask me where hell is on earth, I would probably say two places: Eritrea and North Korea,"

added Mr Tekle. "There is no food, no electricity, and your friends can be killed in front of you. No
wonder everyone is leaving - there is no hope."