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Sealing off Eritrea: Domestic Terrorism

Totalitarian leaders are like scientists in that they are always in search of the perfect controlled laboratory environment, devoid of any interfering variables. And they are unlike scientists in that they never accept the results of their experimentation, given the fact that those results never match the ones they have already made up in their minds. All the horrors that take place in a totalitarian society are the result of endless attempts to close this impossible gap between attained and preferred results. At every such failed attempt, the experimental setting has to be drastically overhauled to meet impossible conditions, always at a horrendous price to the masses – as the Eritrean case amply testifies.

The first thing that a totalitarian leader does to make a perfect laboratory out of his nation (and perfect guinea pigs out of his subjects) is to seal off the nation from the outside world, not only to prevent outside variables that might compromise his experimentation from coming in but also to prevent inside variables essential for the success of his experimentation from escaping out. It is not surprising then that the most crucial question that a totalitarian leader or party asks is: how do I keep out those variables that potentially infringe on my independence to experiment as I simultaneously keep in those variables essential to the success of my experiment? The “independence” mentioned here is that of the leader’s (or the party’s) unfettered independence to do whatever he wants to do within the confines of his laboratory (the nation) to bring about the kind of results he wants to achieve – often, a utopian society made in his or the party’s own image. But since no such satisfactory result is ever achieved, the experimentation ends up being all about weeding out “interfering variables”, a process that ends only with the demise of the totalitarian system itself.

The control that a totalitarian leader seeks, unlike that of a scientist, is to be met at the two ends of the experimentation process: not only does he aim for total control of the setting wherein his experimentations are to be conducted, but the results that he is aiming at are also solely for purposes of control. The circularity of this totalitarian project is clear: the party or the leader controls the environment in order to produce controllable subjects. This is a case where the experiment itself keeps eating the very ground on which it is stands. That is to say, the setting of the experiment eventually becomes part of the experiment, a process which would have led into infinite regress had there not been national borders that physically confine the laboratory setting. That is why totalitarian systems, as in the case of all forms of fundamentalism, inherently abhor international borders; they cannot stand the contrast brought to perpetual presence by factors out of their control from the outside – hence the necessity they see in sealing off the nation.

When revolutions taken in the name of the masses degenerate, first, the independence of the people gets devalued into that of the party’s/front’s; and, last, when the totalitarian system is fully entrenched, it atrophies into that of the leader’s. Such has been the fate of the Eritrean revolution, where the concept of “independence” has taken this downward spiral to eventually mean the unfettered independence of the Dear and Beloved Leader to do whatever experimentations he wants to undertake in order to arrive at the exact formula that would finally work miracles for Eritrea.

Totalitarian experimentations, which in the end invariably whittle down to weeding out “interfering variables”, come in the forms of revolutions, endless campaigns, land expropriation, nationalization, food products confiscation, material deprivation, collectivization, monopolization, dislodgements, resettlements, indoctrination, reeducation, criticism and self-criticism, cleansings, reshufflings, purges, counter-purges, arrests, imprisonments, exile, forced labor, eliminations, disappearances, mass murders, genocides, wars, etc. – a hollowing out process of the whole nation that goes on continuously until the regimes’ last days of total collapse arrive. All the catastrophes that have happened to Eritrea – the wars, mass exodus, national service, slave labor, killings and massacres, prisons and concentration camps, dysfunctional education system, monopolization, land expropriation, food supply control, mass starvation, economic meltdown, etc – are variations of this experimentation. This entire domestic terrorism can thus be explained either as a cause or effect of the sealing off process of the nation conducted by the Isaias regime – a necessary condition for any experimentation to take place.

In a series of articles that I am writing on Eritrea and terrorism, I am trying to show the intimate link that exists between internal and external terrorism; so much so that one cannot fully grasp the regional terrorism that Eritrea sponsors without fully accounting the internal variables that motivate its terrorist excursions outside in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that the domestic terrorism that the Isaias regime conducts doesn’t deserve attention on its own merit. It does, and the international body should look at Eritrea’s domestic terrorism both with and without its external connections. This article then will look at domestic terrorism on its own merit, without linking it to outside factors. The symbiotic relation that exists between the internal and external forms of terrorism will be further explored in the next article, in Part II of “Eritrea’s Pragmatic Terrorism”.

Porous borders

Sealing off Eritrea is conducted through two means: physical isolation and self-reliance, which are two faces of the same coin.

When totalitarian regimes aim for isolation, they mean the isolation of the people. The isolation of the land is targeted so far as it can achieve the isolation of the people. If they are to make perfect guinea pigs of their subjects, there is no other way than to keep their contact with the outside world at the barest minimum. And the best way to do that is by hermetically sealing off their nations’ borders.

An equally important factor for the sealing off process of the nation is self-reliance. Every totalitarian leader dreams of ruling over a domain with a self-sufficient economy, not because he sees any economic merit in that but because it frees him from the conditions of mutual dependence. The aim here is not to excel but to produce enough so as to make the nation least dependent on foreign supplies so as to avoid economic and political vulnerability, the rationale being that economic dependence on the outside world cannot be sustained for long without giving in to its demands. Self reliance would then allow the regime the boundless margin of error it seeks to conduct its endless experimentations. So the much vaunted motto of all totalitarian regimes, “self reliance”, is nothing but a grandiose facade that creates all the needed space for the leader or the party to do whatever he/it wants to do.


Unfortunately for the tyrant, so far, cutting off Eritrea from the rest of the world, in general, and from the neighboring countries, in particular, has been next to impossible. There are various reasons why:

(a) Geography: If a totalitarian leader is lucky, he will have an island like Cuba to rule, where inside variables could be literally kept in dry land and outside variables at bay. Unlike Cuba, Eritrea is impossible to isolate geographically. First, for a nation of about 120 thousand square kilometers in area, it is not a compact one; it spreads like an amoeba with far reaching tentacles for hundreds of miles. Its total border length (including the sea) is about 4000 kilometers. Second, it happens to be located in one of the most volatile regions of the world, with two disproportionately huge countries, with a lot of historical baggage, on its sides. And last, much of the border area is inhospitable (especially the Danakil part and the Sudanese border) and very hard to seal off, especially since the nomadic inhabitants tend to wander in and out of the area.

(b) Globalization: Unfortunately for the despot, the nation is born at a time of globalization, when nationhood doesn’t carry the kind of currency it used to fetch before. Politically, the very idea of nationhood is being subverted by global forces that a small nation can hardly control. The way to the future is not in starkly marking one’s borders, but in blurring them with those of others. And then there are the forces of the virtual world that are, to a great extent, immune to the traditional defenses of misinformation of a totalitarian regime; the internet, satellite TV and cell phone are making a mockery of this attempt to total insulation.

(c) Traveling: If a totalitarian leader can avoid it, he would prefer none of his subjects to venture outside his domain and as few outsiders as possible to come in. But not all despots are fortunate in this regard. The case of Cuba is a good example, where the nation is in dire need of the hard currency that tourists bring in. The case of Eritrea is a similar one. While the government is doing its damned most to prevent people from getting out, it is doing its utmost to bring in as many “tourists” – mainly Diaspora Eritreans – as possible, for it can hardly afford to lose the hard currency generated from their visits. But the incoming Eritreans not only disrupt the insular world that the Isaias regime aspires to achieve, their appeal also becomes a further reason for the mass exodus.

(d) Reliance on outside forces: There is this single fact that makes a mockery of any claim of self-sufficiency on the side of the Eritrean government: the bulk of Eritrea’s economy revolves around what Eritreans in Diaspora give or do. Remittances, tourism and “donations” account for the hundreds of millions of dollars that the nation gets yearly to get by. Without this “income,” the nation wouldn’t last a day, let alone years. And despite its bravado about coping without NGOs’ help, the aid that it is getting from world institutions is still substantial (World Bank, EU, etc.). The most recent verdict of its “self-reliance” mantra is to be seen in the current famine that is raging all over Eritrea; a fact that clearly tells us that it cannot do without foreign aid.

(e) Unaccommodating neighbors: The idea of millions of North Koreans flocking to the South is the worst nightmare that every South Korean dreads – a threat that North Korea has been effectively using to extract implicit “cooperation” from the South in not destabilizing it. No such potent “threat” is to be found in Eritrea’s hands. There is, of course, the threat of “Somalization” of Eritrea, but not so much as to make the neighboring countries cooperate with Eritrea on the mass exodus problem. Refugees have been flowing to Ethiopia and Sudan in their tens of thousands every year. Although occasionally there have been deportations from Sudan, overall the flow of refugees is going on unabated. To see what could have happened if Eritrea had accommodating neighbors, all that we need is imagine the rogue nations of Egypt and Libya for neighbors.

(f) Lack of a potent weapon: All totalitarian regimes sustain their isolation through an explicit or implicit understanding with their neighboring countries. With MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), the Soviet Union was able to keep the West’s interference in its main domain at a minimum level. That was why the East-West confrontation was mainly conducted through proxy wars in the third world. The reason why North Korea is attempting to develop nuclear arms is because it wants to reach such an implicit understanding with its neighbors. In contrast, Eritrea lacks such a neat means of holding its “enemies” at bay. Even though it is one of the most militarized nations on earth, it lacks the muscle of enforcing the sealing off process of the nation with its conventional military threat only.

While the fact that Eritrea is impossible to hermetically seal off might be beneficial in the long run, in the short run it has become the main reason for all the horrors taking place in the nation. Because there is no easy and neat way of sealing off Eritrea, Shaebia has to compensate this short-coming by resorting to unconventional means, all draconian ones, to seal off the nation. First, in its effort to stem the mass exodus, it has created layers of impediments inside Eritrea that an escapee has to go through before he reaches a safe haven. Almost all the ills in Eritrea now can be explained as a result of this elaborate mechanism put in place to stem the mass exodus. And, second, since it has no potent threat to hold off foreign forces, it has resorted to regional terrorism of all kinds to extract concessions that it wouldn’t otherwise get. But since this article is about domestic terrorism, in the rest it will focus on the former one only. And since the main cause for the mass exodus is the national service, we will look at three elaborate layers of impediment that the regime has put in place to stem the former by making the latter as our reference point.

[I have mentioned many of the negative consequences of the national service, in general, and the mass exodus, in particular, in my previous articles; such as “The Hollowing Out of the Army by DIA”, 2005, and “Famishing Eritrea”, 2009.]

Sealing off the national service

The physical isolation of the nation, in its crude form, is accomplished by cutting off all ties that the nation has with the outside world and by keeping all its subjects inside. There is a reason why all totalitarian nations hermetically seal off their nations’ borders: they would be able to accomplish these two tasks at one go.

The goal of sealing off a nation, as pointed above, is dual oriented: as a totalitarian leader keeps out those entities that would potentially infringe on his independence to do whatever he wants, he has to keep in all the subjects that are essential for the success of the experiment. In the case of foreign elements that have to be kept out, all that we have to do is watch as the sealing off process follows the borderlines of the nation on the map. In the Eritrean case, it is achieved through two processes (a) expelling all foreign entities that are deemed to be infringing on Shaebia’s independence, as it was done with NGOs, UNMEE, international media and other foreign elements and confining all foreign diplomats within the vicinity of Asmara; (b) and holding off neighboring nations at the border through cold war or outright confrontation, such as the border confrontations with Ethiopia and Djibouti.

There is no such neat and sure way of dealing with the subjects that have to be kept within the confines of the borders, for we have to remember that the perennial quest of the totalitarian leader to be independent (to do whatever he wants to do to get the elusive results he wants) is constrained not only by forces from outside but also by forces from inside. So where it gets real messy, and the map serves no more as reassuring guidance, is when the tyrant finds out that his independence is constrained by forces from inside. Now, the “Eritrea” he has to protect from its own people would have no exact fit with the Eritrea-of-the-map. That is why it would be instructive to see how those inside Eritrea are subjected to this “sealing off” process by being kept out of “Eritrea”, for that would be what the experimentation is all about. Since it is the same individual subject that has to be kept in as he is kept out, trying to find a physical correlation to his location would be futile because he has to be simultaneously located as standing on both sides of the border. But if there is another “Eritrea” that makes such a metaphysical split possible, then it is worth examining it, for that alien entity would be the main culprit for all the ills of the nation. Such an “Eritrea” is the ideal Eritrea being created in the image of Shaebia. Even though the whole of Eritrea has been turned into Shaebia’s laboratory, it is in the national service that this experimentation of creating an Eritrean identity ex nihilo is at its most intense level. And, consequently, it is there that the sealing off process is enforced at its stringiest.

In a Khmer Rouge like experimentation, it has been more than a decade since villages, towns and cities across Eritrea have been emptied of their most productive citizens in their hundreds of thousands and cordoned off in the wilderness, all in the vain attempt to mass-replicate the revolutionary guerrilla fighter of bygone years in modern day Eritrea. But no such revolutionaries can be created where there is no cause at all. The absurdity of this project then lies in the fact that it has to invent the very cause for which it has to fight. This is what I wrote in “Identity through ‘Equality by Subtraction’” regarding this experimentation:

“What makes this undertaking [the national service] sinister is that the Yikealo generation actually believes letting its younger generation go under the same hardship experiences that they have undergone in the struggle years is the best legacy they can leave behind. The fact that the cause that necessitated such a hardship doesn’t exist any more doesn’t bother the Shaebia generation at all. For them, it is the process, with its potential of reshaping the Warsai in the image of Shaebia, and not the cause, that matters. That is why recreating the ghedli environment, wherein such experimentation would be freely and excessively conducted, became an obsession to this generation. The beginning of this sinister task was Sawa, one that eventually culminated in the war with Ethiopia. This war was not only willed into existence by Isaias, it was also happily embraced by his generation for providing it the perfect context it had been desperately seeking for to recreate the mieda [field] experience into which it wanted to initiate a whole new generation. The extended military service which the Warsai have been subjected to for the last ten years is not so much a military necessity as it is a conducive environment for this sinister undertaking. Having triumphantly succeeded in recreating the struggle era (minus its cause, of course), the Isaias generation can now proudly point at all the ‘hard experiences’ they have let the Warsai inherit.”

In retrospect, the whole Eritrean revolution too has been a revolution without a cause. As such, its “success” can be explained so far as the success of the sealing off process of ghedli can be explained, the cordoning off of tens of thousands of teghadelti in Sahel and the Front’s ability to replenish its manpower as soon as it was getting depleted being essential parts of that explanation. The result of such insulation without any purpose has been a nihilist ghedli culture with all the horrendous consequences that we are witnessing now. A revolution without a cause, of course, could only produce “rebels without a cause”, where sacrifice is exalted purely for sacrifice’s sake only. Given this nihilism, their only purpose was finally reduced to its most elemental self: self- preservation, as any lowly animal would do. And self-preservation, at its most primordial stage, comes in the form of procreation. It is no wonder then that through the national service experimentation Shaebia is desperately attempting to reproduce itself by initiating a whole new generation into the culture of ghedli; that is, into the culture of martyrdom. But recreating this nihilist ghedli culture has now become next to impossible because of the utter failure of the sealing off process: the Warsai do not want to be molded in the image of Shaebia and are abandoning it in their hundreds of thousands.

Thus the single factor that is threatening the whole experimental project of “Eritrea” is the mass exodus. Not only is it making a mockery of the sealing off process, thereby threatening the very viability of the army, but it is also the very subjects that are meant to be molded in the image of Shaebia that are voting with their feet in their hundreds of thousands as a response to such an experimentation. No wonder the regime is frantically attempting to stem this profuse hemorrhage at its laboratory by doing whatever it deems necessary. Almost all the ills in Eritrea now can be explained as a result of the draconian effort to stop the mass exodus that is taking place through the porous borders, which, in turn, is caused by the national service. In its relentless effort to stem the mass exodus, the regime has created layers of traps that an escapee has to pass through before he/she makes it to Sudan or Ethiopia. This is how I described such a multi-layered prison system in Eritrea meant to keep in the Warsai generation inside the country before (“Terrorism: in the Nature of PFDJ”, 2007):

“To comprehend the labyrinthine prison system in Eritrea, think of a Warsai [the youth that make up the bulk of the army] recently released from a prison, only to end up in ‘agelglot’ [national service] a huge prison in the wilderness, where hundreds of thousands of adults are quarantined for years without end. And if by any chance he succeeds in escaping from this hell-hole of never-ending slavery, he ends up somewhere in Eritrea where he has to remain hidden in fear – sometimes for years – until he either makes it to the neighboring countries or is fetched back by PFDJ authorities to repeat the same cycle of horror (if he is lucky). Probably, it is this state of a ‘prison within a prison within a prison’ that describes the domestic terrorism in Eritrea the most. Imagine this system as being made of three concentric circles, one embedded in the other. In the outermost circle, we find four million inmates (the whole Eritrean population); in the middle circle, we finds the hundreds of thousands inmates (those in the military service); and in the innermost circle, we find the tens of thousands officially recognized prisoners. The misery index of a citizen is measured by how deep into this system of concentric circles he finds himself in.

As the regime digs a long trench along the border to keep out Ethiopian forces, it also “digs” multiple trenches inside the country not only to prevent the Warsai generation from escaping to neighboring countries but also to keep them out of the “Eritrea” it wants to protect. The more dangerous one is found to such an “Eritrea”, the more trenches are needed to keep him in as he is simultaneously kept out.

Let’s now examine these three circles one by one, with the aim of tracing almost all the ills that currently stalk Eritrea to the national service. Since the national service is the incubator of all these ills, let me start with the middle circle.

The middle circle: national service (internal exile)

Hundreds of thousands of Warsai have been cordoned off in the wilderness for more than a decade for the sole purpose of control. Once identified as the number one internal enemy of “Eritrea”, this population group has to be contained by whatever means necessary. Their confinement within the middle circle is not only meant to prevent them from escaping but also from making contact with the rest of Eritrea. As a result, those in national service have acquired all the characteristics of an exile.

  1. In the image of Shaebia: In its effort to mold the Eritrean youth in the image of teghadalay, Shaebia has quarantined hundreds of thousands of Warsai in the wilderness under that misleading name “national service”, all in a quixotic effort to recreate the mieda experience – an experimentation of Khmer Rouge like proportions.
  2. Minimum contact: As dangerous exiles, with poisonous ideas to spread, this Warsai population group has to be kept away from urban population centers where they would otherwise create a lot of mischief – that is, according to the paranoid minds of Shaebia and its leader.
  3. Hard labor: As in the case of Siberian exiles, the Warsai have to be punished through hard labor; they have been wasting their productive years in modern-day slavery, hauling stones in futile Sisyphean tasks, with the only purpose of keeping this young generation preoccupied, at minimum, and breaking its spirit, at maximum – both purely for control purposes (all done and said under that misleading policy, “self reliance”).
  4. Watching over the “enemy”: In their place of exile, they are under constant watch by none other than the former guerrillas (the Yikealo); every movement they make is scrutinized for its potential danger to the regime. The control that has been achieved as a result of this ever-present vigilance is Orwellian both in its intensity and scope.
  5. Indoctrination: As in all kinds of political exiles, the indoctrination of the Warsai generation is essential to PFDJ’s [the ruling party] survival, the idea being to create compliant subjects willing to execute the orders of the regime without questioning. Anything that seems to compete for the mind of the youth, be it the family, education or religion is ruthlessly sidelined, overhauled or eliminated.
  6. Physical and mental punishment: Other forms of cruel punishment are also essential to break down this restive generation – from harsh regimentation to outright torture. Those considered non-complaint are subjected to cruel forms of torture such as “helicopter”, “otto”, “Jesus Christ” and “Almaz”.
  7. Victims of the elements: This huge mass of humanity lives in the open under arduous regimental conditions, slave labor, harsh weather, meager food supply and little medical attention, resulting in hunger and malnutrition and various lethal diseases. The latest news from Mussie Hadgu (“Update on the Famine Situation” in where hundreds of trainees died of meningitis in one training camp (Wi’a) tells the whole story.
  8. Abuse of women: The sexual abuse of Warsai women is one of the most repelling results of national service; the sexual coercion and rape by military authorities they have been subjected to have resulted in illegitimate pregnancies, illegitimate abortion, illegitimate children, HIV infection, mental traumas and life-long stigmas.
  9. Wasted lives: As in the case of ghedli itself, which has been the longest and most wasteful interruption in the history of the people, national service has interrupted the normal life of Warsai – no education, no normal jobs, no raising families, etc – for years on end. The Yikealo have made sure that the young generation would have no future at all; nothing better than the life they had gone through in mieda.
  10. Mass exodus: As every exile would undoubtedly do under similar circumstances, the Warsai are escaping in droves at every opportunity, only to be met with further hardships both inside and outside Eritrea. Many of them live in fear in hiding places inside Eritrea, are apprehended and imprisoned, shot at sight at border crossings, deported back in hundreds from rogue countries, perished in deserts and seas, wasted their lives in refugee centers, women raped in detention centers (especially in Libya), etc.
  11. Victims of war: Tens of thousands of them have perished and tens of thousands more maimed in a senseless war instigated by Shaebia – as part of the sealing off process of the nation made possible only through national service. And the rest are left in a permanent war footing with Ethiopia, with no solution in the near future in sight.


The national service is, of course, justified by the regime as necessary for protecting Eritrea from Ethiopia, while it was primarily with the making and protection of the alien “Eritrea”, one created in Shaebia’s image, in mind that it has been indefinitely extended. So the regime doesn’t only have to dig trenches at the border to ward off Ethiopian forces from “proper Eritrea”, but also around the national service to ward off the Warsai generation from harming “ideal Eritrea”. The metaphysical split of the individual that I mentioned earlier is clear in this case: it is the same individual that is kept out of “Eritrea” by keeping him confined in perpetual internal exile that is also assigned to protect that same Eritrea from outside enemies. Given this dual task, it is no wonder that demobilization of those that have been serving in the army for years happens to be the most dreaded event by the regime. And so this horror of experimentation goes on unabated …

From the above, we can see that the terror unleashed by the national service is unimaginable both in its intensity and scope. And, so far, we have dealt only with what happens to the Warsai when they are cordoned off in the middle circle.

The innermost circle: prisons and concentration camps

More than 300 prisons and concentration camps where “dissenters” are kept have already been identified in tiny Eritrea. It seems this is the only “enterprise” that has been proliferating all over the nation at such a dizzying pace. We find them scattered all over Eritrea in villages, towns, cities, inaccessible deserts and desolate islands. They come in various shapes and sizes: sprawling open-air concentration camps in the middle of desert, medieval-like underground dungeons no sunlight penetrates, make-shift prisons that move along with the army, shipping metal containers that lack proper ventilation (freezing cold at night and scorching hot during the day), narrow cubicles with standing room space only, vacant villas turned into temporary torture chambers, police stations with “forgotten” prisoners (atsnihaley), etc.

The prisoners are subjected to all kinds of torture. Ingenious ways of tying up the victim so as to cause maximum pain, frequent beatings, genital torture, electrical shocks, deprivation of essentials (food, water, cloth, medication, sleep, air, sunlight, space, company, etc), isolation, hard labor, etc are all used in these prisons to break down the Warsai into total submission. Torture has been so pervasive in the life of Warsai that, like the Eskimos who have developed a large vocabulary to differentiate various kinds of snow that would otherwise look similar to novice eyes, they have developed innovative ways of labeling the different types of torture that they are subjected to: “helicopter”, “otto”, “Jesus Christ”, “Almaz”, “ferro”, etc. There are cases where prisoners lost both their hands as a result of being subjected to “helicopter”. There are also cases where prisoners were blinded by the sunlight after being kept in total darkness in dungeons for years. Deaths due to illness, malnutrition and torture are common. Executions and massacres are also not uncommon, as the cases of Adi-Abeyto and Wi’a amply testify.

To date, there are tens of thousands of prisoners languishing in these notorious Shaebia’s chambers of horror under the pretext of “national security”. The overwhelming number of these prisoners is directly related to the national service. If we categorize the prisoners related to the national service by types, they would be: (a) army deserters, (b) draft dodgers, (c) parents of escapees, (d) dissenters while in national service, (e) conscientious objectors (f) those accused of “insubordination” (g) those who refuse to serve in the army for religious reasons (ex: Jehovah Witnesses), (h) those practicing their religion while in national service (ex: Evangelical Christians reading the Bible), (i) and other reasons – for having misspoken, overstayed one’s leave, refused an officer’s sexual overtures, shown no zeal, failed in his/her regimentation, etc.

If the above is true, it is easy to see why, more than any other population group, it is the Warsai generation that the Isaias regime targets as the number one enemy of “Eritrea”. That is why I resent the fact that, when the opposition wants to draw attention to the plight of prisoners, it invariably does it by putting the faces of some few dignitaries at the top (G-15, journalists, etc) as the face of the prison population in Eritrea. While this is obviously false, it further undermines the grim picture of the prison condition in Eritrea that we ought to convey to the outside world: that it requires by far less than a serious political dissent at the top to end up in the dungeons of the regime. The issue is less political and more humanitarian: the majority of all those who are in prison have nothing to do with politics.

The outermost circle: among civilian Eritrea

As the number of escapees reaching the outside world testifies – hundreds of thousands – sealing off Eritrea has not been successful. But this is not for lack of trying, for Shaebia has set an elaborate system in the outer circle to counter this mass exodus. As a result, we will see that most of the crimes that the regime commits in the outermost circle have also to do with the national service. These crimes take place as a result of (1) physical apprehension of the escapees; (2) replenishment of the ever-dwindling pool of army recruits as a result of the mass exodus; (3) structural overhauls imposed on traditional and modern institutions to meet the recruitment requirement; (4) and the consequences of national service (and the mass exodus that goes with it) at the civilian population level.

(1) Physical apprehension

To stop escapees from making it to Sudan or Ethiopia, Shaebia employs various unconventional means that could only be grouped under domestic terrorism: (a) The shoot-at-sight policy at border crossings is aimed at army deserters and draft dodgers, which make up the overwhelming majority of those attempting to flee to neighboring countries. (b) The innumerable roadblocks and checkpoints are meant to weed out escapees before they reach the border or other hiding destinations; the term for ID in Tigrigna says it all: menk’esk’esi. (c) The frequent unannounced round ups (giffa) are meant to smoke out deserters and dodgers from their hiding places and apprehend them before they make it to the neighboring countries. (d) The elaborate and pervasive security apparatus, with a huge number of informers, is meant to give escapees hiding in the country no respite; so much so, that currently it is no more possible to hide in villages where everyone knows everybody else.

But so far, all of this has little effect on the mass exodus. In fact, these brutal steps meant to contain Warsai within proper Eritrea have become further reasons as to why the Warsai want to go the hell out of the country. This has become the present day vicious circle from which the regime cannot get out. As tens of thousands leave the army every year, the regime fears the eventual meltdown of its army. So far, it has avoided that by falling back to unconventional means to replenish its ever-dwindling reserve. Structurally, as a long range strategy, it has been eliminating all institutions that may potentially compete with it for the loyalty of the youth. And more immediately, it has been targeting certain population groups for recruition that ought to be off limits: underage, overage, priests and women.

(2) Filling in at immediate level

At the immediate level, the regime has undertaken everything possible to find quick replacements for the tens of thousands that are abandoning its army every year: (a) The underage population is now targeted to fill in the gaping hole created in the army by the mass exodus. Currently it is believed that a huge chunk of the army is made up of underage recruits. (b) Even the clergy (wulad kahnat) are now targeted by the regime for army conscription, a measure of its desperateness to sustain the army by any means necessary; the regime is even known to conduct giffa in monasteries. (c) After the public outrage over the mass sexual abuse on women recruits by senior officers, the regime quietly withdrew most women from the trenches. Now, faced with acute shortage of recruits [women are less likely to venture to the outside world], the government is quietly reversing its self-imposed moratorium and is stealthily putting women back to the trenches. (d) Even the old are not spared. Now, it has become normal to see graying recruits in their late fifties and early sixties serving the army.

What the Warsai hate most is the indefinite nature of the national service. And the national service is getting longer and longer precisely because there are fewer and fewer recruits to replace the veterans because of the huge number of deserters and draft dodgers that are finding their way to Sudan and Ethiopia and beyond.

(3) Filling in at structural level

At the structural level too, the regime has taken all the preemptive measures it could take to eliminate any institution that would potentially compete with it for the mind of the youth: (a) The family is the main institution that Shaebia has been fighting against to gain full loyalty of the youth. That is why it takes sons and daughters away from their families at an earliest age possible and keeps them away as long as possible so as to mold them in its own image. (b) All “new” and minority religions are targeted in a preemptive move, disenfranchised and constantly harassed, as they are believed to be competing with the regime for the loyalty of the youth. (c) The whole educational system has been systematically gutted out not only to feed the national service, but also to serve the regime in the sealing off process.

The latter needs further elaboration. Let me just mention two nefarious steps that the tyrant has undertaken to stem the flow of Warsai to the outside world that has to do with a deep structural overhaul of the educational system to show the extent to which this regime is willing to go to seal off Eritrea: the creation and development of Sawa and the closure of the only university in the country.

To comprehend the insanity of the Sawa project, imagine a nation of more than four million forcing all students to attend their last year of high school in a single boot camp, far away from their parents. This is done not only to wean them out of their “dependence” on their parents at the earliest age possible so as to immerse them into the Shaebia culture at their impressionable age, but also to deny them an escape route, this being the year that most prefer to escape. The reaction was to be expected: students began to disappear at earlier age, just when they finished their tenth grade. Shaebia responded the only way it could: in border towns (ex: Adi-Quala), it began to apprehend students at tenth grade. The result has been a huge influx of underage refugees in Tigray.

Another unthinkable step that the tyrant undertook was to close the only university in the nation and replace it with “colleges” that are practically boot-camps run by illiterate colonels. They are deliberately built away from urban centers where monitoring them would be easy. He also made sure that these new colleges have no international accreditation. This is intentionally done to deny students incentive to move to the outside world for higher learning after they finish their “college education”. This idea came to Isaias after the South African fiasco, when thousands of students that were sent for higher education to South Africa opted not to return.

The idea is simple: get the students as early as possible and keep an eye over them for years to come, be it in Sawa, national service or “colleges”. Even the educational system has to be entirely restructured to fit into this nefarious scheme of sealing off the Warsai generation.

(4) Consequences to the larger society

The terror that has been unleashed in the national service goes beyond the Warsai generation and affects the whole society. Below are some of the dire consequences of the national service on the larger society:

  1. The national service has become the economic black hole that swallows most of the resources of the nation, such as arming, feeding, clothing, providing medical care and overall maintaining this huge army.
  2. The national service also has tied up most of the nation’s labor force. This has specially affected the rural areas, the results of which we are witnessing in the full blown famine all across Eritrea.
  3. Since most of those voting with their feet tend to be young and educated, a bleak future awaits the nation. Given the relevance of education in our era than at any time before, the existential consequences is: will it make it in the 21st century?.
  4. If the desertion from the army continues at the current rate, which is in tens of thousands per year, the eventual meltdown of the army is imminent.
  5. The demographic effect of the mass exodus on women is also devastating: the fact that the overwhelming majority of those fleeing the nation are men means that a whole generation of women faces a bleak future with little prospect of marriage.
  6. So is it with demographic effect for the nation, where both the mass exodus and the quarantining of adults in the national service for years on end means a lower fertility rate.
  7. The parents of escapees either end up in prison or are made to pay hefty penalties for the “crimes” of their adult sons and daughters.
  8. The national service remains the epicenter of HIV spread in Eritrea; the higher seroprevalence level among this population group is due to the extended military life it is subjected to.
  9. But, above all, the mass exodus has made an already paranoid regime extremely paranoid, it being the reason for all the Khmer Rouge like measures it is undertaking in its desperation to stem this lethal hemorrhage that is slowly bleeding the army to death.


By now, the “Warsai problem” has become so pervasive that the regime has adopted a “pragmatic” approach to deal with it: human recycling. On a yearly basis, tens of thousands of Warsai try to escape from this hell hole called national service. Many of them are apprehended at border and camp crossings, through deportations, in giffas and other traps. The regime cannot afford to put this large number of detainees indefinitely in prisons and concentration camps. If it does that, half of the army would be put away in these prisons, and the meltdown of the army that it dreads would come sooner than later. The result has been constant recycling of the same people from one circle to the other: one who has escaped from the middle circle (the national service) to the outer circle (the larger civilian Eritrea) is apprehended by the authorities and sent for punishment to the inner circle (the prison system) and stays there for a year or two and is then sent back to the middle circle to repeat this cycle of terror until one day he/she succeeds in breaking out of this cycle by making it to one of the neighboring countries.

If one doesn’t call this cycle of horror that the Warsai are subjected to domestic terrorism that requires international sanctions, nothing is.

Self reliance and national service

Although the self reliance mantra, as a carry-over policy from mieda (bistfrina), was always in the background since the day of independence, it was only after the border crisis that a serious attempt was made to implement it in full force. The national service not only made the execution of the self reliance policy possible, it was also the main reason that necessitated it. Since self reliance is the other face of the same “sealing off” coin, it would be instructive to look at these two aspects of the national service.

With the border war, the national service, which initially was meant to last a year and half only, took its indefinitely extended form; now there are many who have served for more than a decade. This means that at any moment, there is more than 200 thousand strong free labor force serving in the army in active duty. This is the perfect pretext that Shaebia needed to implement its self reliance policy: the whole productive population was at its disposal to use it as slave labor in whatever project it deemed necessary. The Warsai-Yikealo campaign was created just to do that. These projects are, for most, Sisyphean tasks: roads where hardly a car moves, docks where hardly a ship shows up, the biggest international airport in the land (in Massawa) where hardly a plane lands, a dilapidated railway with archaic trains that cannot accommodate modern freight, wheat farms where no wheat can be grown, schools without teachers, hospitals and clinics with no medicine, housing projects with absentee residents (in Diaspora), etc.

The national service not only made the execution of the self reliance policy possible, it also became a further reason for its necessity. Shaebia has to find a way of feeding this huge army, and what better alternative can it find than using this huge labor force to feed itself. This, in turn, caused the flagrant land expropriation throughout Eritrea. Since there is only a limited arable land, the army became a great competitor of land ownership with the peasant. The latest fiasco where all private tractors were expropriated so that they could attend to military farms first shows the extent of the self reliance insanity. This is compounded by the legendary incompetence of Shaebia; for instance, most of its wheat farms in Kebessa have been total failure. These failures, instead of instilling caution in Shaebia, have become a further reason for expanding its land ownership.

This downward spiral, from which the regime cannot find an honorable exit, has been cropping up in everything it does in the implementation of its self reliance policy, the ongoing raging famine being the best example:

“The problem with the self-reliance policy is that it has not only ushered the current famine, it is also preventing measures that could have softened the impact of the famine; it has drained all the coping mechanisms available in traditional Eritrea. Let me mention four such mechanisms now rendered impossible: (a) Access to richer areas of sidet [migration] has been severely limited to internal migration only; traditional areas of sidet like Humera (the meshella and seli’t farms) and Kessela (the cotton farms) are now off limits to peasants and pastoralists. (b) Seasonal manual jobs where peasants used to supplement their income are no more available; the government has either killed these jobs (ex: all construction work in Asmara) or has been exclusively using slave labor (ex: Warsai-Yikealo projects). (c) Fair-priced food markets have been rendered off limits to peasants (be it as buyers or sellers) due to myriad factors: from preference given to urban areas to inaccessibility to traditional markets. (d) And, as pointed out many times above, no food aid from foreign donors is coming in, that being the most important component of all survival strategies and the last resort in hard times like the current one.” [“(I) Famishing Eritrea”]

It is easy to see how the sealing off process is the main culprit. Not only has it made food aid and food markets from outside unavailable in a self-made embargo, but it has also denied the population traditional places to temporarily migrate for relief. Such sealing off process though is not confined to the outside. For instance, it has been a while since Asmara has been sealed off as a market; peasants have no access to it. Many food products that peasants attempt to sneak in to Asmara are confiscated on the spot. This policy was later expanded to include almost all cereal markets in towns and cities across Eritrea. In addition, government owned markets, such as dukan rit’i, are off limits to peasants. So the peasant can neither sell his food products at a fair price nor buy food products at subsidized price. Now, if we add the sealing off the adult peasant population in national service, thus depriving the farming community its most productive force, we can see how both the external and internal “sealing off” come at a huge expense of the peasant, those being the main reasons for the current famine in Eritrea.


We can now see that almost all the ills that afflict the nation can be traced to the sealing off process from inside and outside. From the inside, almost all the ills can be traced either to the sealing off the national service, where hundreds of thousands of adults are being cordoned in Shaebia’s grandest experimentation to create a new generation in the image of itself, or the counter-measures taken to keep in those who are fleeing from this experimentation. Like a hydra’s head, the very counter-measures the regime takes to stem the bleeding of the army cause further holes that need further measures to stop that additional bleeding that cause further holes that need … and so on. Now, if we add up all the problems that has accrued as a result of the severing off of relations with the outside (the sealing off from outside), namely all out confrontations with neighboring countries that has put the nation in a permanent war footing and drained its economy and the expulsion of NGOs that used to help the country in securing enough food for its people and the enforcement of the misguided “self-reliance” policy, which are the two main causes for the ongoing famine, we can see how sealing off the nation has turned out to be deadly to the country. It is nothing short of genocide against its own people that the Isaias regime is committing.

The shipping metal container is an apt metaphor for Eritrea. First, it has become a ubiquitous item in prisons and concentration camps all over Eritrea, thereby reflecting the exploding number of prisoners that cannot be accommodated in traditional forms of prisons, and aptly depicts the excesses of the regime. Second, the horrors of getting imprisoned in a sealed off container reflects the bigger picture of the Eritrean masses who have been denied elbow room to breathe within the sealed off Eritrea. And last, it shows that the whole nation has turned into a huge sprawling prison of various gradations – the biggest open-air prison in the world.

In light of this all encompassing terror under which the Eritrean masses live, it is sad to see that the reaction of the outside world has been totally unsatisfactory. It cannot bring itself to conclusively decide that the only way to respond to this terrorism is by severely punishing the regime through sanctions (and of the severest type, if I may add). The fact that Isaias Afewerki (or the nation he leads) doesn’t easily fit into the image of a fundamentalist or ideologically driven terrorist that has evolved after 9/11 has forced the West to search for redeeming qualities that his regime has never had. Part of the reason for this is that the West has never factored in the terrorism that the tyrant has unleashed against his own people in its calculation.

Neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has ever mentioned the internal terrorism under which the Eritrean people live in the same breathe with the external terrorism that they have been preoccupied with. For instance, in her recent travel in Africa, the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said a lot about the Eritrean terrorist connection in Somalia, but not even a word on the gross humanitarian abuse inside Eritrea. The same holds true with Jendayie Frazer. Even though her unequivocal recommendation to designate Eritrea as a terror-sponsoring nation is to be highly commended, the way she framed the whole issue in her Wall Street piece was in terms of US and regional interests only. Again, the interest of the Eritrean people, who are the primary victims of this terrorist regime, is what is totally missing from the equation. The same goes with Britain’s latest addition; the emphasis was, again, on external terrorism.

This article has been an attempt to explain that the internal terrorism that the Eritrean government conducts against its own subjects, albeit confined to the national service only, is not only by far worse than the external terrorism it conducts in the region, but that it requires sanctions looking at it on its own merit. And for those that are wavering on the sanctions issue by looking at the regime’s external terrorism only, adding the internal part to it might just do the trick. And last, for those who want to see the symbiotic relation between the internal and external forms of terrorism that the Isaias regime is deeply involved with, it is necessary that they understand the former on its own merit first.