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Hundreds of thousands have fled this country. This ghastly massacre is a reminder why. – The Washington Post

In Eritrea, your last year of high school is also your first year in the army. Rebels from the country fought a 30-year war against its much larger neighbor Ethiopia, and, because of a continuing land dispute,

In Eritrea, your last year of high school is also your first year in the army. Rebels from the country fought a 30-year war against its much larger neighbor Ethiopia, and, because of a continuing land dispute, hostilities are still considered active. Although conscription isn’t exactly unusual around the world, in Eritrea, there are three huge downsides: Your obligatory service is indefinite, you’re not allowed to leave the country, and the monthly pay is dismal — equal to about $10 on the black market.

The rest of the world doesn’t really hear much about the country, as the foreign media is mostly barred entry, and Eritrea ranks dead last in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index (behind North Korea). But last week, unconfirmed reports began filtering through the crevices of the Internet about the possible killing of conscripts who attempted escape while being transported to a labor camp.

The most complete report describes a scene of utter chaos and desperation. Its version of the carnage goes like this: As a truck full of conscripts passed through the capital, Asmara, two jumped out and were immediately shot by guards in the truck. Then, just down the road, a more planned breakaway unfolded. Some conscripts had apparently alerted their family members in Asmara that they were being transported across the country, and they asked them to wait at a major intersection so that they could jump out of the truck and be quickly whisked away. Family members commandeered a city bus to block the road, but as the conscripts left the truck, they and their families were sprayed indiscriminately with bullets.

The numbers of dead and injured vary in the reports, ranging from four to 29. The tight-lipped Eritrean government indirectly acknowledged the incident in a tweet from its information minister, who claimed that it was an accident and that two conscripts had fallen off the truck.

If the story is true, it offers a glimpse into the terrifying system of conscription and forced labor in Eritrea, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to escape it. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 Eritreans leave their country every month as refugees. The Wall Street Journal recently referred to Eritrea as one of the “world’s fastest-emptying nations.” Many of them are young men, and researchers on the ground have noted that the ages of Eritrean refugees have gotten progressively younger, suggesting that they are leaving before conscription. Ten Eritrean soccer players refused to get on a flightback to Eritrea after a tournament in Botswana in October, two years after another group did the same in Uganda and was granted asylum.

Last year, WorldViews reported on a U.N.-led inquiry of human rights violations in Eritrea. My colleague Adam Taylor summarized some of the findings:

The system leads to arbitrary arrests and detention, with torture and even enforced disappearances a part of life in Eritrea, the U.N. probe found, and even those who commit no perceived crime often end up in arduous and indefinite national service that may amount to forced labor. Escape is not a realistic option for many: Those who attempt to flee the country are considered ‘traitors,’ and there is a shoot-to-kill policy on the border, the report said.”

In the first eight months of 2015, more than 30,000 Eritreans used the central Mediterranean smuggling route from Libya to Italy — more than any other group — and it is presumed that many, if not most, of the about 2,700 of those who drowned during the journey were Eritrean.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gives prima facie designations to Eritrean asylum-seekers, which means they are presumed to have good reason. Eritrea says the United Nations is mistaking conscription for forced labor and accuses the organization of fueling the exodus from the country. As refugees have begun to weigh heavily on European countries, and public opinion has shifted against open-door policies, some nations, such as Denmark, have imposed greater restrictions on Eritreans, citing fact-finding reports that claim human rights violations in Eritrea are not as bad as previously thought.

The surge in Eritrean refugees in the past two years also raises the possibility that the Eritrean government is less and less able, or inclined, to stem the flow of those leaving. Refugees send back remittances that provide Eritrea with hard cash, and allowing them to leave might serve as a safety valve to give the disaffected a way out that doesn’t involve fighting the government.

Review overview
  • Berhe Tensea April 23, 2016

    The young people have chosen to flee rather than depose and throw away the regime for good.
    It is sad that members of the aghelghlot first choice is to die in the deserts, the high seas, and spend their life in their dream land as refugees.

  • Teclay April 23, 2016

    Amanuel Assena
    What is to be done ??The news coming form Bahre-Negash are the same,i.e,. bad and worse .and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to change in the near future.
    I believe you and the other journalists have the means to change the course to some extent..How???By identifying our main problem??What is our main problem ??? = IGNORANCE.
    Yes,our IGNORANCE plus the absence of self-confidence are our problems not Mr.Isaias. e.g,. in the interview with you,Prof,.Araya D . said that (not word to word);All the top Eritrean elite who had a meeting with Isaias in the US to lobby for diplomacy between the US and EPLF didn’t want to include former ELF members, and left Prof Araya D. to face the hyena alone ..When i heard this statement ቶባ ደሕሪ ደጊም ዝብልዎ ኣዘኻኺሩኒ…Imagine those were the top of the top world class Drs and Profs but still they didn’t want to include former ELF brothers for the so called Eritean independence..Who can claim now Isaias was/is the problem.
    So,Amanuel you can upgrade you web by doing the following;1,,Stop all nonsense articles that start and end with Isaias. …2, encourage critical thinking and invite critical writers …3,In your interview try to ask the speakers hard questions etc,.
    ከምዛ እንርእያ ዘሎና መሉእ ሕብረተሰብ ፣ ሓንጎሉ ኣብ ኣእጋሩ ዝኾነ፣ብዘይካ ከበሮ-ጓይላ ካልእ ዘይፈልጥ ህዝቢ ሒዝካ፣ ድሕሪ ኢሳያስ መጻኢ ኣሎና ኢልካ ምጽባይ ግን የዋህነት ጥራይ እዩ።

    • AHMED SALEH !!! April 23, 2016

      First of all the article belongs to Washington post not to assenna .
      Second , we are at different stage beyond old ELF-EPLF politics
      where a movement called DELEYTI FITHI is our umbrella for new start .
      Avoid past negative influences to protect our Youngs minds from getting
      contaminated .
      You have a right to defend Issayas authoritarian rule but your advice to
      Amanuel doesn’t sound genuine . In case issues with ELF members , we can
      not undone our past so let’s move on for common ground and get rid from
      Issayas regime killing field . Support problem solvers not complainers .

    • Semharr April 25, 2016

      Teclay ,
      Eritrea’s #1 problem is leadership. They are all mafia,bandits,vicious dictators.

  • AHMED SALEH !!! April 23, 2016

    I blame those leaders where people had confidence on them to safeguard
    the interest of the country and well being of entire population . In fact we found out they were puppets who couldn’t even defend for themselves .
    If the shepherd can’t protect himself , the herds are easy targets . The
    same goes with our young generation to see survivors and dead bodies scattered at all directions .
    At Ghedli Era we had strong shepherds willing to accommodate and protect but for these generation they have not alternative place to seek refugee inside their country except across the border . Too sad our strong shepherd was brave man everybody lean on his support but enemy bullets finished many of them to leave us behind with bunch hypocrites .
    I think Eritreans better look to produce energetic young shepherds than count on existing no good cowards .

  • Hagherawi April 23, 2016

    “It is sad that members of the aghelghlot first choice is to die in the deserts, the high seas, and spend their life in their dream land as refugees.”

    Berhe Tensea

    When they sow their elder brothers and sisters who happen to be mainly ‘Tegadelti’, tolerate the regime’s crime, giving excuses that make no sense, they had no option but try to find a country where they can live in peace and build a better future for themselves. This is not to say what they have done is good, but they are not the only ones to blame. Anyone in that situation would not have done something different.

    Let’s be very clear on this:

    We the people, i.e. ordinary Eritreans, many of us, in particular those who supported the regime all along, are to blame for what is happening in Eritrea now. When the regime was killing and maiming ordinary citizens like us, either we looked somewhere else or were indifferent, at times even tried to find excuses for the regime’s brutality. We laughed every time the dictator insulted people, and clapped hands for him. Let’s have some courage and take our share of the blame.

    Now, it we are all suffering, the new generation left the country, in search of safe place from extreme cruelty of the regime, and gulag forced labor camps scattered throughout the country.
    Eritrea is hanging at the precipice, only God knows where it will stop, if it starts rolling down the hill. It all depends on how well we are united, and organized to push it back to normality, save its people, and protect it from interference of foreign hands.

  • AHMED SALEH !!! April 23, 2016

    These courageous men and women in the above picture are owners of the
    miracles made in Eritrean history . Even though politically motivated
    information dubbed our people to give superior credit to high post
    held leaders but everyone who engaged fierce war against enemy army
    knows the true champions ( MERAHTI : ghujile,ghanta,hayli,bottoloni)
    and I remember we use to call that position “invitation for martyrdom”
    because many of them fell down at time of war .
    Issayas and his cronies were behind the scene at safe and comfortable
    hiding place somewhere in Sahel . Well , time proved we own fake figure
    ” ANBESSA NAKFA ” but for me always ANBESSA NAKFA was EPLF Merah bottoloni that his humble nationalist attitude inspired me when I was young teenager ELF combatant in Hamassien is called tegadalay BERHE XAEDA martyred in battle of NAKFA liberation .
    I remember one time we were overpowered by enemy big number and WUCHU
    refused our request for assistance since they were in area . When Berhe
    heard the story he said one word IZI MUSHMUSH . Nowadays after SELEYA
    secret mission revealed I wonder if he was victim of secret party agenda
    because of his stance . To allow two ELF-EPLF haylitat held a meeting
    in XILMA (Seraye ) is a crime against Issayas hidden policy .
    Being too young and disoriented couldn’t understand the details back then
    but when time passed with maturity it hunt us down to find answers . I
    believe it is nature of human life experience we must learn not to repeat
    same mistakes . At the end of the day only a fool feels a winner .

    • Rose April 28, 2016

      That hits the target dead cetren! Great answer!

  • k.tewolde April 23, 2016

    Yep,there is a clear distinction between a conscript[agelglot] who works for a regime for pay and a volunteer gallant freedom fighter who left the comforts of his/her home behind to lay it all on the line.This selfless Eritrean breed is irretrievably gone, we cannot get it back, the least we can do is emulate them if we can. Eternal glory to the men and women who we left behind in shallow graves, I am proud and honored to be in their company at one time in the past when they were young and vibrant. I hold them dearly in my heart,I miss them.

    • AHMED SALEH !!! April 23, 2016

      Obviously yes in deed brother . If we do not know where we came from we don’t know where we are heading and when we don’t exercise our God given gift mind set we surrender our destiny at mercy of others GOHALALU .
      Eritrea heroism hijacked to represent by Kishas and monkeys is a joke for listening ear and blurred sight for seeing eye vision .
      Asha Hamassienay endo aybelunan kab kedemu , nay bihaki ashashu ina .
      Intay yigheber siga khoyna libi ahwatna deki Hamassien werisna , LOL .
      kurub nifishikhta imber deki Hamassien deki hawi abotatey ahwatey iyom
      mebokolna bizeygheds iti haki Nisa iya ab ghibri dima ameskirnaya Ina .

      • Semharr April 25, 2016

        AHMED SALEH,

        Yes you are 100% correct.

  • Simon G. April 23, 2016

    [Eritrea as one of the “world’s fastest-emptying nations.”] WP
    For someone who can barely think this statement should make them awake all night.
    I have reached to the conclusion of this equation for us, Eritreans: men +women < zero
    The world is thinking of the next breakthrough and we don't have the clue where Eritrea is heading. This is really depressing.
    I see some brilliant commentators on both Assenna and Awate. Can't those guys sit and come up with one just simple plan to save Eritrea?
    Shame on you those called Educated Eritreans. It is also shame on us on those Eritreans who can read and write. I, for one, am ashamed.

    • Semharr April 25, 2016

      Simon G,
      The solution is to unite all our people, our provinces, our nationalities against the tyrant Isayas, his blind followers and his burned flag (that stands for tyranny).
      We should all raise one flag, our Liberation flag, Semayawit Banderana; the flag of our forefathers, the flag of our martyrs, the fag that stands for freedom, equality, liberty and justice; the flag that united us from the inception of Eritrea all the way to victory.

  • Setit April 23, 2016

    A country of this many soldiers CANNOT ensure its democracy?! What a paradox time we live in!

  • sidi abdu April 24, 2016

    A dictator will remain a dictator as long as the people are afraid of him. The minute the people rise up and say no more, I would live it to the readers imagination to conclude the domino effect of this action. It is too bad Eritrea lacks courageous and fair leaders. Those who were colluding with the thug and found an opportunity to run away to ask for an asylum in the democratic countries, are too afraid to speak up of their experience and to expose the regime for what is worth. May be we should sue this guys and expose them in the host country where ever they are. There are many examples of that .

  • Danny April 24, 2016

    I am tired of being an Eritrean.