External Affairs

The Songlines of Eritrea Adrift on the Sea of Exile

First to Sudan, then back to Asmara and finally Switzerland, Mehrawi has moved wherever the shifting currents of war, displacement and hope have taken him

In an old building in Asmara, Eritrea. Credit: Andrea Moroni/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Spiral to nowhere: In an old building in Asmara, Eritrea. Credit: Andrea Moroni/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Geneva: It’s a splendid evening in Geneva: the ultramarine sky, the soft golden light of the evening, the gently flowing Rhône, and the leisurely stroll of people returning from work. Mehrawi* soaks in the last vestiges of summer before the winter gloom wraps the city in its frigid embrace.

Mehrawi graduated recently. He hopes his new masters degree from Switzerland will finally end a frustrating five-year job search. He remembers fondly how the last time he left the university at Asmara, almost 18 years ago, life seemed bursting with possibilities in newly independent Eritrea.

That euphoria has grudgingly morphed into despair over the years as hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled their country. Forced military service and few economic opportunities have impelled Eritreans to seek a better life elsewhere. Many steal their way to Sudan and Ethiopia, from where they plot their journey onwards to Libya, and with luck, wash up at the shores of Europe – or drown in the Mediterranean.

The United Nations estimates that 5,000 Eritreans leave the country every month. The exodus shows no sign of abating. The number of Eritreans applying for asylum in the European Union doubled to nearly 37,000 in 2014 from the previous year. There are now over 400,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers globally, originating from a country of less than four million people.

Barring a brief interlude, following the country’s independence in 1991 up until 1998, when renewed fighting with Ethiopia buried any lingering revelry, Eritreans have been forced to live in stealth.

Flight to Sudan, then back to freedom

During the grinding 30-year struggle for independence against Ethiopia, thousands of Eritreans streamed out to neighbouring Sudan.

Mehrawi grew up in Asmara, and loved watching films in the art deco-styled Cinema Impero, built by Italian colonisers in 1937. He attended a religious school, hoping to be a priest one day. Life continued in the shadow of the freedom struggle, until a major Ethiopian offensive in the early 1980s pushed Mehrawi’s family further north to Keren. His father soon sneaked across to Sudan, while the family stayed back.

The Art Deco-style Cinema Impero on Harnet Avenue, Asmara, Eritrea, opened in 1938 and still functions as a movie house. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr CC 2.0

The Art Deco-style Cinema Impero on Harnet Avenue, Asmara, Eritrea, opened in 1938 and still functions as a movie house. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr CC 2.0

Acting on a whim, one Sunday, 10-year old Mehrawi and his nephew left for Sudan. They hitched a ride with a camel caravan ferrying cereals across the frontier. He recalls with trepidation the desolate landscape where they were abandoned after a six-day ride. Sun-scorched, the barren land stretched infinitely. The loose soil flew into a rage as soon as a gust swept by. A scree-sloped mountain asserted its presence in the distance.

Reaching the crest, the exhausted adventurers saw a cluster of makeshift huts in the distance, most probably, they assumed, belonging to nomads. But the flickering hope was soon doused when they were chased away by the community. Luckily, they soon found a man, freighting wood on a camel, who led them to the town of Kassala, where Mehrawi’s father had settled.

A trading town at the eastern flank of Sudan, Kassala sits at the foot of the Taka Mountains. Gigantic granite lobes jut out from solid mounds of earth. Beneath the imposing view, a medley of cultures intertwines. The town has been a haven for people escaping wars, and has seen waves of Eritreans, Ethiopians and internally displaced Sudanese arrive at varying intervals.

It was 1983 that Mehrawi arrived in Kassala. The rest of the family followed in his wake and they soon grew accustomed to the daily rhythm of the Marabat quarter in town, largely dominated by Eritreans. As time wore on, Mehrawi lost both his father and mother. Meanwhile the struggle for self-determination was reaching its denouement, and one day in May 1991, Mehrawi heard the news he had been waiting for on a local Arabic radio station: Eritrea was finally independent.

He recalls the entire quarter erupting in ecstatic frenzy. After centuries of successive occupation by Arabs, Italians, British and Ethiopians, they could now finally smell the whiff of freedom. Tears of joy rolled through their eyes, as they hugged and kissed each other, and celebrated through the night.

“I was mad with happiness”, recalls Mehrawi. “We had been waiting for independence for so many years”.

Dreams of a better life floating in their minds, the Eritrean diaspora traced their steps back to their homeland. The unwavering and organised freedom struggle waged by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front had earned the group tonnes of goodwill and inspired confidence that they would lead Eritrea to a prosperous future.

For a brief moment, Eritrea was the shooting star of Africa.

Steered by Isaias Afwerki, the new president, the country began to haul itself out from years of deprivation. It bet on an export-oriented development strategy, drawing inspiration from the success of Singapore, and reinforced its banking, financial and port services.

“I returned to Eritrea, because I love my country and I said to myself that it was enough”.

Slide into authoritarianism

File photo from 2002 of President Isaias Afwerki meeting US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Credit: Wikimedia

File photo from 2002 of President Isaias Afwerki meeting US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Credit: Wikimedia

Mehrawi finished university and, after one-and-a-half years of compulsory military service, took a job at the Commercial Bank of Eritrea. But even before he could collect his first salary, war flared up between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998. Ethiopian air raids were swiftly followed by counter attacks, and all Eritrean government employees were required to join the army.

Mehrawi spent several months at the frontline managing an arms depot. When he returned to his usual work at the bank after the end of the conflict in 2000, he felt the buoyancy of the post-independence days slipping by.

Despite the end of hostilities, the spectre of Ethiopia loomed large in the imagination of the Eritrean elite. Development projects were abruptly cast aside in the name of securing the country’s defences. The ruling party, Afwerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, used the tension with Addis Ababa to consolidate its hold on power. It spurned the draft constitution of 1997 and dissolved the national assembly in 2002. Laws were now established by government decrees.

A United Nations report released in June this year claims that the government of Eritrea has built an Orwellian network that aims to uproot any shoots of dissent. It faults the government for committing extrajudicial executions, torture, holding conscripts indefinitely and using forced labour. The report concludes that widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population have taken place in Eritrea – a charge that carries individual responsibility, and opens up the prospect of an eventual trial at the International Criminal Court.

Indefinite military service, however, is the chief reason why many Eritreans wish to escape, contend human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. According to a Swiss agency, Organisation Suisse d’aide aux Réfugiés, the education system in Eritrea has been militarised and the forcible recruitment of students below 18 years has taken place in recent years.

Ironically, yet another UN report “applauds Eritrea’s development programmes, which have improved the lives of many people”. Indeed it is one of the few African countries expected to meet the health related Millennium Development Goals.

Life in Switzerland

Two Eritrean refugees arrive in Spokane in the US. The bag is the only luggage they brought with them to start their new life. Credit: Viktoriya Aleksandrov/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Two Eritrean refugees arrive in Spokane in the US. The bag is the only luggage they brought with them to start their new life. Credit: Viktoriya Aleksandrov/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mehrawi evades questions about why he left Eritrea or how he reached Switzerland. He simply suggests, “political reasons”. All he is willing to concede is that he spent several years working for the government and the United Nations, before leaving the country in 2010.

But political asylum in Switzerland was not necessarily a stairway to heaven. “You don’t know the people, the culture is different, you really feel handicapped”, he confesses.

A 2010 report, commissioned by the Swiss government, documents some of the challenges refugees face. In Switzerland, they are eligible to work only in one of the 26 cantons to which they are assigned, thus limiting their access to the work market. Language barriers, incompatibility of past experience with current demands, and fierce competition make it difficult for many to find work. As a result, unemployment is rampant among refugees and they are exposed to a high level of poverty.

“It’s as if I was just born now”, says Mehrawi. “I have a lot of experience in my country, but it’s not acknowledged here”.

There are days, he says, when he is seized by melancholy. But even if he were to go back, he laments, he wouldn’t find the Eritrea he left. “The environment is already destroyed. My family, friends are all scattered. What do I go back to?”

We are sitting in a park named Island Rousseau, where on one side, stretches Lake Geneva, and on the other, glides the Rhône. Most of Mehrawi’s life was like the water of the river, flowing towards wherever it found sustenance. Now it seems more like the trapped water of the lake, where every once in a while the wind agitates the water only to see it eventually settle back to a placid rhythm.

“You have the feeling that you get something, and then you lose it”, says Mehrawi. “When I was in Sudan, I learnt Arabic, but I never used it when I went back to Eritrea. Now here I am trying to learn French”.

*Name changed to protect the identity

Arjun Claire is a humanitarian aid worker, currently based in Geneva