Eritrea (WWM/MNN) — A man named Eric* recently told World Watch Monitor that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to Eritrea’s refugee crisis, and he should know.
He and his family fled the country 15 years ago, and their reasons, methods, and experiences are not much different than they are today for tens of thousands of refugees. Eric relays the story of his escape from a government’s brutality and a quest for freedom of religion.
It started in 1991. Eritrea had just received its independence from Ethiopia, and the church grew rapidly. The new government watched in growing concern as the church spread like wildfire and decided to do something to stop it.
The solution? Limit religion to four categories: Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and one group from the Evangelical church. This severe regime still forbids all other religions and denominations, so a Pentecostal believer like Eric is technically a criminal.
The new nation didn’t allow for freedom of politics, speech, religion, or press. But even with all these restrictions, one of the most severe issues was and still is the national military service.
The government has the power to require people to be part of the military. Nowadays, that means before youth can graduate from high school, they have to complete 2 weeks of military training. However, that program actually goes for most of the year, and the abuse is so extreme that teens are known to drop out of school rather than endure this training.
And that’s not even the longest period of time someone might be forced into service. One study says that although people are technically only supposed to serve in the military for 18 months, the average is closer to 6 1/2 years. The abuse during that time is unbearable for most, and that’s where Eric was when he made his escape.
In the summer of 2000, Eric and two of his friends made their move. They left their military base and headed toward the Sudanese border. Even by foot, a journey that normally would take simply 1 day took 3. Eric and his friends were forced to only walk at night, and because of an ongoing war with Ethiopia, the trio had to hide whenever they heard gunshots.
Eventually they reached the border. Each man paid a group of villagers around $100 to be smuggled into Sudan. Nowadays, the price is closer to $6,000 per family.
After 2 years, Eric and his wife were happily reunited. They gave birth to a daughter, and when she was 6 months old, they finally decided it was time to continue their journey. The family was tired of living in constant fear that they’d be deported back to Eritrea, so they made their move. They were off to Libya.
The trio paid a group of men $1,000 to take them to Libya. After 15 days on top of a truck with 30 other people, they finally arrived. However, when Eric tried to pay another group $400 to take them to Tripoli, they were caught and arrested.
When Eric and his family reached the jail, they were devastated to hear how long some of the people there had been imprisoned. His wife was heartbroken for their daughter; would this be the world she would grow up in?
Yet God wasn’t done with Eric. After 5 days, an official announced to the prison that they were being deported back to Eritrea. During the chaotic screams and sobs that followed, the official turned to leave, but something caught his eye. He noticed the little baby in Eric’s wife’s arms, and he immediately asked that the family be freed.
Not only was the ecstatic trio released, another Christian imprisoned at the same jail gave them $400 dollars to use to escape. This time, they made it to Tripoli, and Eric was able to contact family members who sent money for the final leg of the journey.
The Final Stretch
The family spent two weeks in Tripoli before Eric finally decided it was time to take the last step. He spent 40 hours trying to convince someone to sail them to Europe, and when he finally found a willing captain, he didn’t even get to find out what the vessel was like.
At 4 o’clock in the morning, Eric took his wife and daughter to the docks and was horrified by the boat he saw before him. It was small enough that he could touch the water from his seat in the back of the boat, and yet they had no other options. They boarded the boat and set sail.
The family survived the trip, landing in Italy. After more than a year in a refugee camp, Eric and his wife and daughter were finally granted asylum in the UK.
As Eric watches the chaos overtaking his country, he says it’s no different than it was 15 years ago.
Religion is still heavily restricted by the government, so some flee from the strict oppression on their beliefs.
Military service is still forced on the people, and it’s causing teens to drop out of school instead of completing their senior year.
Nearby countries despise the refugees, and Eritreans who have crossed the border are often beaten and ridiculed as they make their journey to freedom.
And yet, Eric is a perfect example of how good can come from the hardship of a refugee’s life. He now holds a British passport and even pastors a church in the north of England.
As Eritrea quickly becomes one of the most common sources of refugees to Europe, Eric reminds believers to hold strong and to pray for those trapped by the oppressive government.
*Name changed for security purposes