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n 2015 and 2016 thousands of Eritreans came to Holland. Almost all of them got a residence permit. Most Dutch people don’t know anything about Eritrea. Is there war? Why are people fleeing the country?

Eritrea is a country found in the eastern part of Africa (in the horn of Africa) and its capital is Asmara. It is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south and Djibouti in the southeast. Eritrea has an extensive coastline along the Red Sea (1347 km.) and 350 islands.

Eritrea has nine ethnic groups. Its population is around six million. Most of the people speak Tigrigna, the first language in Eritrea. The country has six regions (‘Zobas’).

In 1890 Italy colonized Eritrea until 1941, when it was defeated by the British in the battle of Keren. The British took over the administration of the country and colonized Eritrea until 1950. In that year Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia.

On 1 September 1961 the Eritrea Liberation Front (ELF) under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, waged an armed struggle for independence. The Eritrean war for independence went on for 30 years against successive Ethiopian governments until 1991.

Following an UN-supervised referendum in Eritrea in which Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence, Eritrea gained international recognition in 1993. The EPLF (former ELF) seized power, established a one party state along national lines and banned further political activity. There have been no elections since then. Eritrea was ruled since 1991 by one party and by one president: Isaias Afewerki.

One party only
One party only

All Eritrean young people that finished their highschool must go to the military service. Compulsory military service was instituted in 1995. Officially, both male and female must serve for eighteen months, which includes six months of military training and twelve months doing national reconstruction. But in reality it lasts for decades and sometimes life. Everyone is enlisted in National Service for an indefinite period until they are released, which may depend on the arbitrary decision of a commander. The average time of service is seven years and some people have served more than fifteen years. They are forced to work in the road building, agricultural activities or house constructions without any salary.

No time out
No time out

Students go to Sawa where some of them get higher Education in colleges and others go to military bases. In the colleges the students don’t learn the topic they want. They learn what the government chooses for them.

After the students finish the school, the government gives them any type of work. The students can’t choose the job. For example: some one that graduated in marine works as mathematics teacher, some one that graduated in physics works in finance department. So their work has nothing to do with their education.

There are no current independent media in Eritrea. All media outlets in Eritrea are from the ministry of information, a government source. In 2001 in an effort to stop the burgeoning dissent about the future of People´s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the government closed down eight independent newspapers and arrested an unknown number of journalists.

In Eritrea there are two daily printed newspapers, three radio stations and two television stations. All these media are operated by the ministry of information which means that they are all under the government.

No freedom of speech
No freedom of speech

There are many prisons in Eritrea. Many of them are unknown, underground prisons, often containers, where torture is common. Even for small things, people end up in prison. For example: if you travel to another city without a permission paper from the government. Without this permission you are not allowed to travel within Eritrea, and you go to prison. So imagine what happens if you escape military service or are caught while trying to flee the country.

To get out of prison, people need to pay money. This is not a legal fine; it is just corruption money. Since it’s not allowed to travel freely within the country and most people don’t get a passport to travel out of the country, the whole country of Eritrea is actually one big prison. To get out of there, a lot of money is needed. Smugglers ask around € 2000 per person to get people across the border to Ethiopia or Sudan.

In a difficult and dangerous journey they cross the Sahara to reach Libya and then they go to Italy by boat. For some people the journey takes one month, but for some much more. Some people have been kidnapped, tortured and killed in the desert. Others have been left behind to die in the Sahara or they drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. About 4000 Eritreans leave the country each month and struggle to live as a refugee in a country they don’t know.

How to survive
How to survive

Written and photographed by B.T. with support of Tanja te Beek (text) and Rob Godfried (photo’s).

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