Nightmares plague Eritrean shipwreck survivors

Teklemariam Bekit

BBC Tigrinya

Bokuresion Tsegezeab (R) and Bekri Mohammed (third from L) and other Eritreans who survived the shipwreck in a hospital in Tripoli, Libya
Bokuresion Tsegezeab
Bokuresion Tsegezeab (right) and Bekri Mohammed (third from left) with others from Eritrea who survived the wreck

Two Eritreans who survived one of the most deadly shipwrecks off Libya have told the BBC they still have nightmares about their horrific experience.

At least 115 people died when the vessel with about 300 migrants on board sank in July.

Bokuresion Tsegezeab and Bekri Mohammed, who are still in hospital in the capital Tripoli recovering from the ordeal, said they were desperate and disorientated when they decided to board the wooden ship.

They had been held for the last two years in a detention centre in al Khoms, some 120km (75 miles) east Tripoli, where they were locked up with little daylight.

“We boarded the ship to escape the dreadful life we experienced for the past two years,” says Mr Bokuresion.

The pair confirmed that they had paid the smugglers, but did not specify how much.

The smugglers had told them that the ship, which they boarded at about 23:00 local time one night in July, was in a suitable condition to cross the Mediterranean.

Bokuresion Tsegezeab
Bokuresion Tsegezeab
Bokuresion Tsegezeab says a passing merchant ship refused to help when their vessel got into trouble

But three hours into their journey, water started seeping and then gushing into the ship.

“We tried to remove the water using buckets but quickly the water engulfed the ship,” said Mr Bokuresion.

A merchant ship was passing by at the time and everyone shouted for help, but it ignored their pleas, he said.

Then their vessel started to sink and break up prompting all on board to jump off into the sea.

No-one had life jackets so everyone was desperate to find something to hold on to in the water.

Bekri Mohammed
Bokuresion Tsegezeab
Bekri Mohammed says he cannot remember much about the ordeal after the ship went down

Mr Bokuresion said he first grabbed on to a small broken jerrycan but to stop himself being dragged down by others he moved to a piece of floating wood, which he managed to hold on to all night.

“I only survived because God wanted me to survive, because I never learnt how to swim.”

Mr Bekri admits he cannot remember much about the seven hours that passed before help arrived.

They were eventually rescued by passing fishermen who took them to a police station in Tripoli.

They needed immediate medical attention because they were all vomiting from all the water they had swallowed.

It has been a month since the shipwreck but the two friends are still traumatised and uncertain about their futures.

“I have not slept a good sleep since then. The faces of my friends and fellow travellers come to my dreams," says Mr Bokuresion.

“I am also worried about my life. What will happen to me? We don’t know what to do.”

Sudan camp 'struggling with Eritrean arrivals'

Teklemariam Bekit

BBC Tigrinya

Young Eritreans at Shagarab camp in eastern Sudan, 2017
Getty Images
Many Eritreans at Shagarab camp are believed to have fled conscription, which is supposed to last 18 months but can continue indefinitely

A refugee camp in Sudan is struggling to cope with the high number of people fleeing Eritrea each month, the UN refugee agency has told the BBC.

The Shagarab camp in eastern Sudan currently hosts more than 47,000 refugees, with an average of almost 1,000 new arrivals each month between January and June 2019, the UNHCR said.

Most of the new arrivals are from Eritrea, thought to be fleeing the country’s indefinite national service.

Last month, refugees in the camp told BBC Tigrinya that there was a shortage of basic necessities like food, water and shelter – and said they were at risk of contracting typhoid and malaria during the ongoing rainy season.

UNHCR said despite continuous efforts to improve the lives of the refugees, the limited available resources were not sufficient to respond - and new arrivals further stretched capacity.

It said it was working to solve water and shelter problems by constructing additional houses and by installing a new solar energy system.

Eritrea denies school pupils are used as slaves

Emmanuel Igunza

BBC Africa, Nairobi

Woman in military uniform holding flag
Getty Images
Eritrea has mandatory national service to defend the country's border with Ethiopia

The Eritrean government has dismissed a report by Human Rights Watch which accuses the government of turning school pupils into slaves through a repressive system of indefinite conscription.

Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel says the claims were made by Eritrea’s detractors intent on smearing the national service.

In a series of tweets, Mr Yemane defended the service and said it was up to Eritreans and the Eritrean government to decide any reforms to it.

View more on twitter
View more on twitter
View more on twitter

The Eritrean government has always defended the mandatory national service, saying it was needed to defend the country during its border dispute with Ethiopia.

Eritrea 'turning teenagers into slave conscripts'

Soldiers in Eritrea
National service is meant to be for 18 months but can last indefinitely

Eritrea has been accused of turning school pupils and teachers into slaves through a repressive system of indefinite national service despite hopes that a peace deal with Ethiopia would end conscription.

The agreement ending a two-decade border dispute was signed more than a year ago.

The BBC’s Emmanuel Igunza says Eritreans have been running online campaigns calling for the closure of the notorious and isolated Sawa military training academy.

But a Human Rights Watch report says thousands of young people each year are forced into compulsory military training even before they finish their education.

It says all final year secondary pupils are sent to a Sawa, where they are subjected to military-style discipline and harsh punishments for even minor mistakes.

Some are sent into the army, others into teaching or other government jobs where they remain indefinitely.

Teachers are also forced to work at Sawa for an indefinite period where they receive poor pay.

The report -"They Are Making Us into Slaves, Not Educating Us" - says this has is having a devastating impact on the quality of the country’s education system, prompting large numbers of both teachers and students to flee the country.

“It’s unlimited service,” a 25-year-old, who had to teach at Sawa and fled last year, told the HRW.

“If you are conscripted to teach physics, you will be a physics teacher for life.”

Last week, Eritrea marked 25 years since the start of national service, saying it had greatly benefited the country.

But campaigners say Eritrea needs to change given that relations with its neighbour have improved.

“Now that peace with Ethiopia is restored, reforms on human rights, starting with the rights and freedom of the country’s youth, need to follow,” said HRW's Laetitia Bader in statement.

Community mourns Eritrean killed in Dayton shooting

Family and friends are mourning Saheed Saleh, originally from Eritrea, killed in Sunday's mass shooting at Dayton, Ohio.

Saleh and 28 others were killed in two separate shooting incidents in the US states of Texas and Ohio.

Yahya Khamis, president of the Dayton Sudanese community, who spoke on behalf of Saleh’s family, said several members from across the state came to Dayton to pay their respects.

According to Dayton Daily Times, they remember Saleh as a kind-hearted and hard-working person.

"We are here as a family, no matter who we are, as the city of Dayton is a welcoming city, so we are trying to come over with it," Mr Khamis said.

Saleh’s funeral is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, 10 August, Mr Khamis said.

Eritrea marks 25 years of controversial conscription

Samuel Ghebrehiwet

BBC Tigrinya editor

Eritrean soldiers pictured in 2018
National service in Eritrea is supposed to last 18 months but it can continue indefinitely

Eritrea is marking 25 years since the start of conscription, celebrating the fact that 500,000 people have undergone training in that time.

It is now a controversial issue, but that was not the case when national service was introduced after the country gained independence following a three-decade armed struggle.

It was intended to help reconstruct the new nation and every individual between the age of 18 and 40 was expected to serve.

But it was mainly those in their last year of school who attended the remote Sawa military camp.

Rufael Fesehatsyen, a member of the first round of conscripts who now lives in the US, said the recruits were willing participants at the time: “We wanted to contribute to the country’s well-being.”

Recruits say there was a positive atmosphere in 1994 despite the difficulties faced such as no tents, poor food and harsh treatment from the trainers.

“I do not know that the trainers were instructed to do but they were very abusive toward us; they often used batons to beat us and tried their best to break our spirit,” said Yosief Asmerom, who is now a pastor living in the UK.

But the first batch managed to transform the camp into a liveable and functional place and after completing the six months of military training they were dispatched to various military units and government departments for a year.

After that they all went back to their civilian lives.

Until a border war broke out against Ethiopia in 1998, those who had completed their training were sent back to Sawa once a year for a month-long refresher course.

"When I was in training I used to view it as war play. I will never forget the time when I experienced real war where human beings were falling in front of me,” recalls Pastor Yosief, who fought in the war.

The two-year conflict over the town of Badme left about 20,000 Eritreans dead, many of them young conscripts.

But Eritrea’s military chief Maj-Gen Filpos Woldeyohannes says without them the country would have fared much worse in the conflict.

Eritrean soldiers
Eritrea remained on a war footing for 18 years

A peace deal was signed in December 2000, yet the two sides remained on a war footing until last year when they re-established diplomatic relations.

That 18-year impasse meant that national service became open-ended in Eritrea and could sometimes go on for years, with little or no pay.

Yonas Geza’i said he decided to flee the country to the US after serving for eight years.

Many others were doing the same and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea said in 2013 that between 3,000 and 4,000 Eritreans were leaving each month.

Gaim Kibreab, an Eritrean researcher on refugee studies based in London, says things need to change:“Now that a peace accord has been signed between the two feuding countries, national service should be normalised, and those who stayed in the service for years should be compensated for their services before they go back to their normal lives.”

Most of the ex-conscripts interviewed by the BBC acknowledged the need for national service in small countries like Eritrea, but said the system should not be abused or exploited by the authorities - or run at the expense of recruits.

UN confirms Egypt is holding five Eritrean refugees

Teklemariam Bekit

BBC Tigrinya

The office of the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) in Egypt has confirmed that authorities there are still holding five Eritrean refugees who had been arrested during a demonstration on Sunday.

They had been protesting outside the UNHCR's premises about delays in processing registrations for newly-arrived asylum seekers.

The UNHCR told BBC Tigrinya that it regretted the protest ended with arrests. More than 40 were picked up initially, but most were later released.

The five Eritreans who remain in custody have been requested to appear before the public prosecutor’s office.

UNHCR said it following the case closely and also working hard to minimise the delays in processing newly-arrived refugees.

Eritrean refugees held in Egypt after demonstration

Teklemariam Bekit

BBC Tigrinya

Egyptian police are still holding five Eritrean refugees arrested during a demonstration in the capital, Cairo, on Sunday.

The refugees were protesting at the offices of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) about delays in processing registrations for newly-arrived asylum seekers when police arrested more than 40 of them.

Most were released later the same day, but five were kept in different holding cells, the BBC has learned.

One refugee following their cases told BBC Tigrinya that the police are trying to find out who organised the demonstration.

The London-based rights group the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights said they fear the group could be deported back to Eritrea.

The UNHCR office in Egypt has not commented on the issue.

Samsom Tekie/Facebook

All African countries now signed up to free trade area

Eritrea has signed up to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA) meaning that all countries on the continent have now agreed to the deal.

The AU says that AfCFTA will create the world's largest free trade area.

It also estimates that implementing AfCFTA will lead to around a 60% boost in intra-African trade by 2022.

View more on twitter

The first step is to cut tariffs for goods from countries within the bloc but the timeframe to do this is yet to be announced.

Economic superpower Nigeria signed up earlier this month leaving Eritrea as the only country outside the deal.

Eritrea did not participate in the negotiations leading to the deal because of their conflict with Ethiopia, according to the Commissioner for Trade and Industry of the AU Commission Albert Muchanga.

But the situation has changed now that there is peace between the two countries.

Read more: