Refugee Journeys: Two Eritreans in Sudan

By Dan Connell, August 14, 2015. Two young women reflect on their decision to flee Eritrea, a small state that produces one of the highest rates of asylum seekers in the world. Neema and Afrah, both Muslims

By , August 14, 2015.

Two young women reflect on their decision to flee Eritrea, a small state that produces one of the highest rates of asylum seekers in the world.

Neema and Afrah, both Muslims from Eritrea’s Blin minority, fled Eritrea a year apart. Today they share a small house in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum with Neema’s husband and young daughter. They came together for an interview at the unmarked office of a small Islamic charity half an hour’s drive from central Khartoum.

Both women wore long dresses and the colorful headscarves, or tobs, common in Sudan. Both were shy about telling their stories and asked to do so through a translator, though every so often one or the other would correct the translation.

Afrah, 23, came in 2013, fleeing her home city of Keren as soon as she finished her 11th year of secondary school. She left to avoid a call-up for national service that requires students to do their 12th year at the Sawa Military Training Center, together with Eritrea’s equivalent of army boot camp. When they graduate, they’re soldiers. They don’t get their diplomas until they’ve served 10 years.

She said she feared this would turn into unending servitude in the army or on a public works project or state-run plantation, as had happened to many of her friends since a border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000. The country has been in a perpetual state of emergency ever since, and national service has been extended indefinitely for unmarried men and women between 18 and 40.

She said she also feared exploitation and abuse by military officers, which she’d heard was rampant among young female conscripts.

Neema’s Journey

Neema, 27, came this year. She married right after 11th grade and was excused from service on that basis. But her husband answered the call and then fled to Sudan to escape, after which she was heavily pressured to give the authorities information on his whereabouts. She’d tried to escape a year ago, but she’d been caught and jailed, which only intensified her surveillance — and her desire to get out.

That first time, she paid a smuggler 25,000 nakfa ($1,700 at official rates) to take her, her mother, and her daughter to Sudan. They set off one night on foot, making it as far as the border city of Tessenei before their arrest.

She said they spent a month in jail there, questioned but not beaten, as were the men in cells that were out of sight but not out of hearing. In her case, the questions, always the same, came daily: Where were you going? Who was helping you? Were other persons going with you?

It had only been them, she answered each time. Evidently, she was believed, as they were let go after paying a fine of an additional 25,000 nakfa, plus a bond guarantee of 200,000 more if they fled again.

A year later, they did just that, on foot again, this time reaching Sudan after four frightening nights with little food or water, amid the rustle of snakes in the scrub around them and hyenas tracking their every move. They slept in the brush during the scorching hot days, more worried about border guards than wildlife. The trip cost her 70,000 nakfa, on top of the bond she forfeited.

Once safely in Sudan, she went straight to Khartoum and was reunited with her husband, who had found work in a family-run shop and rented the apartment they were in now. It had all been worth it, she said.

Afrah’s Journey

Afrah paid 100,000 nakfa two years earlier and came across with 13 young people (four girls and nine boys), all of whom were trying to escape national service, she said. Most were from the Christian, Tigrinya-speaking highlands, the area that has also produced many top government officials.

In that respect, her group represented the typical demographic of the flood of people coming from a state with a total population of less than 4 million. The majority of those fleeing are between 16 and 24 years old and include people from nearly all Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups. This diverse cross-section is united by their aversion to endless service at pay so low their families have to subsidize them to survive, and all that for a government many insist does not represent them.

There have never been national elections in Eritrea, nor are there any legal parties apart from the victorious Liberation Front. There’s no independent press, and there are no other organizations or NGOs not under state or ruling party control. A constitution ratified in 1997 has never been implemented.

This exodus has placed the country in the ranks of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in terms of the numbers of asylum seekers it produces. Italian authorities report that Eritreans are the second largest group, after Syrians, in the leaky boats that are ferrying thousands of new refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean.

The Dream

The journey starts at the Sudan border, but it can take many branches from there.

Neema dreams of going with her husband to London, where she has relatives. She hasn’t made up her mind whether to risk the trek across the Sahara and the perilous sea-crossing. Though a Muslim, she, like most Eritreans with whom I spoke, is acutely aware of the latest danger in Libya — the Islamic State, which last spring beheaded some 30 Ethiopians and Eritreans.

For her part, Afrah is biding her time.

A boy she knew since childhood and met again in Khartoum survived these dangers and won refugee status in the Netherlands. He has proposed. Their families have agreed to the union. All she has left to do is an interview with Dutch authorities, now scheduled for November.

If all goes well, her fiancé will fly to Khartoum, marry her, and take her back with him, giving her full legal status for the first time since she left Eritrea.

But would she ever consider going back home, I asked?

“Of course,” she responded. “But we need a big change.”

When asked what change, she listed three needs: the prisons to be closed, people to have the freedom to come and go as they like, and a limit to national service.

Dan Connell is a visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Center. He’s reported on Eritrea for almost 40 years is working on a book on the refugee experience. Visit his for more information.

Review overview
  • k.tewolde August 16, 2015

    ‘What change?’. Despite the horrors this youngsters face,nobody interviewed by western media has answered that question head on by addressing the root cause of the problem.Sad.

    • Natnael August 17, 2015

      you are too honest. I think you live in the western world. By now you should have known them well – they or represent or defend only their interests/strategies. How can you then expect this type of questions that nare irrelevant to Dan & co? The answer of such questions would return to the initial position from where the question came, like a boomerang. This is also the logic within the whole crisis in our region.

      Finaly we have to note that we will never hear from COI or any ICC ! With COI the UN&co gave us only a solace. The issue COI has gradually disappeared and DIA is still the Herro of the African North Korea.

    • Sarah M. August 17, 2015

      What is the root cause of our problems then? To me it is Ghedli and ghedli romanticizers, and not ghedli romanticizers or supporters of higdef/PFDJ but especially the so called ghedli romanticizers in the opposition camps. Because these langa langa indecisive people in the opposition are the ones to be blamed for prolonging the suffering of Eritrean people and for keeping DIA’s regime in power longer.

      Otherwise, the Eritrean regime has been making one argument over and over : Eritreans who leave their country are doing so for economic reasons and have no quarrels with the Eritrean regime. If that is the case, why doesn’t the Eritrean regime speak on behalf of the thousands of Eritreans, its own citizens, who continue to be brutally victimized, assaulted, molested, kidnapped by the criminal Rashaida in collaboration with Sudanese security officials?

      • k.tewolde August 17, 2015

        If the victim boldly is not confronting his/her predator, why would the victimizer? It is like a rape victim expecting the rapist to speak on behalf of her.

        • Sarah M. August 17, 2015

          Poor, poor and pathetic k.tewelde, is that all you could come up with? You are not making any sense at all and it is best you just give it up.

          • k.tewolde August 18, 2015

            Take it easy ,Sarah. I am just answering your question ‘why don’t the Eritrean regime speak on behalf of the victims.’

          • true lies August 18, 2015

            Brilliant Sarah M.,

            Some times we misunderstand comments ,I have more with you than Tewolde K. although I do not view K. Tewolde as having an agenda.He was tegadalai ,he will always think gedli was holy through the romantocized gedli cliches ,however ,in the case of his comment (If the victim boldly is not confronting his/her predator, why would the victimizer? It is like a rape victim expecting the rapist to speak on behalf of her.)..he is saying the instigator and part of the business is higdef ,so, why shouled it plead or stand on behalf of his victims ,while K. Tewilde is almost always half rifght in his comments due to beliweve in the bogus gedli ,he is making a good point.

            Your admirer
            true lies (Mr)

    • Sarah M. August 18, 2015

      How could I take it easy when you are too far away from answering my question. I am afraid you haven’t got an idea or even grasped my question yet but keep on trying.

  • Mitsilal H. August 17, 2015

    It seems sadly, that “we are a society that has forgotten how to cry and respond”, with all of Eritrea’s continuous disasters and bad news. When is it all going to end? AmlaKh yiteArekena.

  • Hilbub August 17, 2015

    Now things will be reverses. We shall go back home with dignity but the criminals will be forcibly brought to the ICC.

  • seyoum tesfaye August 17, 2015

    Dan thanks for giving face and voice to the general suffering of the people of Eritrea. The individual narratives make the struggle more vivid and concrete. Who would have expected this level of betrayal and brutality. Please continue to document the tragedy. Thanks for your service. You have been with the people of Eritrea through the ugly,the bad and the good time. The people are undaunted. You will see their triumph once again. Keep giving their voice a platform. Thanks Don!!!

  • Berhe Tenesea August 17, 2015

    The people of Eritrea are facing a hardship of historical proportion, that is not faced by any people in the world during peace time.
    The young of Eritrea are becoming the play ground of Generals, Rashida, and human smugglers.
    In Asmara a graffiti is written on downtown toilets that says’ Haile selassie was bad, Derg colonization was ba, What is the meaning of independence now.
    Every on who goes in the toilet comes out in slent agreement and doing head gestures.
    The worst enemy of the people must be eliminated.