Our Refugees -- Why and How Many More?
Recently, I had the good fortune of joining a group that set out to visit the refugee camps in Tigrai, Ethiopia. The following is my personal perspective of one of the tragic consequences of basic human rights abuses in Eritrea today. I just want to share my outrage at how we are losing a generation with no end in sight. We saw people denied of a decent life in their own land and a natural upbringing of their children. Nothing about life in the refugee camps, not to mention the Sinai abductions and killings, is decent nor natural! Of course, the situation in the Sinai is by far worst than the safe but harsh living conditions in Ethiopia. Still - you look at all the beautiful young and old Eritreans stranded and hopeless and one asks - why and how many more do we lose before Eritreans stop hating their own homes and run away with no secured destination?
Although I have been thinking about visiting the camps for some time, I got the push I needed thanks to other friends’ plans to go and see the refugee situation around the borders in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I missed the visit of the two camps out of four but I spent four days total in the area, primarily in Shimelba and Enda aba Guna.
I flew to Axum and then took a taxi to Shire and met with the group. They had all just come back from Mai Aini and Adi Harsh camps. So we got together and we drove to Sheraro – 120 Km, then eventually to Shimelba over a rough and long road. Shimelba is the biggest and the oldest camp. This is where we have a big Kunama and Tigrigna communities living side by side but each maintaining their own culture and life-styles. The Kunama live in huts – which they build themselves as soon as they get there and the Tigrigna make merebaE. What is interesting is most of the Kunama don’t really want to go anywhere. They would rather stay if only they can get their basic needs met including holding meetings in their own language which apparently they were not allowed to do in Eritrea. The Tigrigna are all ready to go – go anywhere! As a result, you see a lot of desperation and frustration in them. Indeed, this particular camp is getting smaller because many have left and more are ready to go. We met a lot of young men and women who do nothing but sit at the tea-houses all day. Bright guys and gals who were students, the army, civil servants, older folks, etc, etc. You look at them and you say to yourself – what a waste of human resources!!
By the way – except for the hopelessness of their future - food, medical treatment, education and other basic needs are all adequate. In addition to the commendable services and various programs the Ethiopian government sponsors , there is the UNHCR and several NGO’s who do help. I was actually relieved to know that the ladies are given more than enough sanitary pads from one of the NGOs every month. It may not sound like a big deal but you know how important it is if you are a woman and can imagine living under harsh and hot weather conditions! Everyone also gets 15 kg of wheat per month oil, soap, sugar, lentils, etc. The government was also about to give them 2 sets of clothing each. We were told that these are clothes that were confiscated by the customs department for non-payment of taxes. While we should be grateful to the host country, the UN and the NGOs that at least these group of refugees are not famine stricken, we could see that the starvation for a dignified, independent, and peaceful life with a future to look forward to is what drove them out of Eritrea. Unfortunately, these can only be found in one’s own land which they just left behind!
One of the darkest and saddest days was when we visited a big “home” for the mentally challenged. These are a big group of men who have literally lost their minds. Some were violent and suicidal until a church sponsored by the refugees themselves and led by a great man, Qeshi Benyam, decided to take care of them under one roof. They are young guys between 20 and 40 whose lives have been messed up by the devil!! One was a deportee from Malta. He speaks to no one and only looks at the ground with both hands on his head!! Desperately looking for love and attention and someone to tell him all will be Ok soon!!
We also spent a lot of time talking to many from the Kunama community – men and women. Very impressive people. The bold and articulate women told us that in some ways life in the camp is better than in their villages back home. Here they have organized themselves under different interest groups: general support groups, women and youth. They discuss about their future in Eritrea, their health issues including HIV Aids, women’s rights and responsibilities, etc. These are topics they didn’t even know existed before. Unlike the common fear that Kunama are separatists, they told us that they see themselves as Eritreans first and look forward to a peaceful and democratic Eritrea where equality and justice prevails.
The second worst day of our visit for me was when we went to another camp - Enda ‘aba Guna. This is where everyone first comes to register and go through some basic interrogation to establish their refugee status. There we saw extreme age groups and of course, the usual young men and women. The first group were older men. One had left Asmara only a week prior to our meeting him. A former tegadalay, 58 years old. He had a lot to say but the bottom line is, he fled because he didn’t want to accept the new law of every man carrying a gun. He said they came to his house and gave him a gun and 180 bullets with no explanation as to what he is supposed to do with them. Hard to believe but true story. Another older man had also just arrived from Khartoum – running away from the Rashaida abduction that is going on there. He told us some horror stories about refugees being taken away from the camps at night. The second was when we met a group of newly arrived “under-age” kids. The kids you see in the pictures from ages 10 to max 15 did not come to Ethiopia with their parents! They came alone!! Most of them decided to run away because they had dropped out of school and had nothing to do. Why did they drop out? Because if they reach 11th grade they will have to go to Sawa and they don’t want to. In almost every case, their siblings are either in the camps or in Israel or elsewhere. In many cases, their parents are in the national service – so why and with whom would they stay!! What is interesting is that many of them succeed only on their 2nd or 3rd attempts. They get caught, they are detained for a few weeks – they wait a few more weeks after they are released and then they try again, and again!! We met an 11 year old Benyam who left on the third attempt although his first attempt was when he was 10! His guarantors pay 5000 Nqfa from the second time he is caught and released onwards. But – they still keep trying! Benyam’s older brother had also just arrived although they exited separately. Their parents? Father in national service and mother in Israel! It is such a tragic situation that I hope those who can will write a good book or make a movie out of these poor children’s acts of desperation. I just had to break into tears when one of them said, “….. adeyn aboyn nafiQeyom” How am I supposed to comfort such a kid? And it is not just him – every 11 year old child has every right to miss his mother and father’s love and nurturing. What is the future of a kid who missed out on family love, education, community life, national pride and the list can goes on and on.
Timnit – half Kunama and half Tigrigna from Adi Quala had one of the most interesting exits out of Eritrea. It took her many weeks to finally make it to Tigrai but the stories in between when she and her parents set out to escape -- her mother being captured, her father escaping from the security/army, and her determination to make it –on her own, and then meeting a lady with three children who was stranded in the bushes, etc, etc, was just beyond sad and heartbreaking!
On the fifth day, we returned back to Shire and then to Axum and eventually to the comfort of our respective places in Addis leaving those poor kids behind with no uncertain future!
It is a sad state of affairs. The good people of Eritrea not deserve to suffer like this. Some might say, these are economic refugees. But trust me, from what we saw – it is clear that each and everyone is fleeing the country because they see no future in it. They see their parents, siblings, neighbors, cousins, everyone going to Sawa or fleeing and not coming back to a normal life. They don’t like it, so they run away from it too. Can you blame them? Do you think a 10 year old boy is fleeing so he can make money and buy good clothes or a car? If this is not protesting against the government’s policy of keeping everyone in the service for ever with no end insight, I don’t know what is.
We all have to pray that God’s miracle stops this exodus and the perishing of our kids in the Sinai!! But, I also urge everyone of us to help the various groups and individuals who are trying to help these helpless victims. One day, this shall pass too!
With hope, respect and love for all,