Alone in life, alone in flight

Raised in Ethiopia, relocated to Eritrea and called for national service, then jailed when he stayed home, Abraham, now in Kenya, struggles to know who he is, what to do next, and where to go. With a passport, he says, "I will just run."


NAIROBI—“Abraham,” the youngest of six children, was born in Asmara in 1979, grew up in Bahar Dar, Ethiopia where his father worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and moved back to Eritrea with his family after liberation at the age of 15. Four years later in 1998, he was called up for national service. But he didn’t go.

Abraham dropped out of sight to take up work in construction as a semi-skilled handyman. “It was a good time to find work,” he said when I spoke with him in Nairobi. He asked that his real name not be used to protect his family. His father has retired after working for Eritrea’s Agriculture Ministry for nearly a decade. All of his brothers and sisters are in the army or national service.

In May 2004, Abraham was caught in a giffa [round-up] in Asmara, put in jail for 24 hours and then stuffed into the back of a large lorry and taken to a sunbaked camp in remote southeastern Eritrea called Klima, where recalcitrant conscripts are trained and deserters imprisoned: “I didn’t know where we were. I’d been kidnapped.” He went five months without communicating with his family.

At the end of his military training—but without any job-specific preparation—he was assigned to be a jail guard at the same location. “For the first time in my life, I saw more than 800 prisoners there,” he said. “Some were religious criminals [jailed for practicing banned faiths], but most were people who had escaped national service.” He was warned that if he made a mistake, he would join them.

Abraham had not been an opponent of the regime, nor was he in any way political, just frightened, a little lost and a bit self-absorbed, as with many of his generation. He had been living day-to-day until his arrest with no thought to the future. Now, he said, he began to ask himself questions about the situation in his country. That August he saw four or five trucks arrive with loads of Bibles that were stacked in an open area and burned. “These people are crazy,” he thought. “Why are they doing this?”

He had grown up in the Bahá’í faith, which taught tolerance and service even as he and his family had had to hide their links to it and to other Bahá’ís after all but four denominations—Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Sunni Islam—were banned in 2002, though they had been low key about their beliefs for years as Bahá’ís had long suffered unofficial discrimination.

In 2005 he was given a 30-day leave to visit his parents, during which he decided not to go back. Seven months later, he was caught and sent to another prison in the Assab area. “I knew what to expect,” he said. But he was surprised to find one of his brothers there, who gave him personal support in the face of the depression that engulfed him. After six months, he was returned to his post with the same job.

A year later he escaped to Asmara, where he spent two years in hiding, mostly at home, until national security officers came looking for him. When they knocked on his door, he ran, losing himself in the streets he knew well, so they arrested his father.

After two hours he called his mother and learned of the arrest. “I am very scared and confused,” he told me. He was ready to give himself up, but his father, who had come back to Eritrea to help rebuild his country only to become disillusioned with the regime and resentful over the shabby treatment he received due to his work in Ethiopia, opted to spend a month in jail rather than cooperate. He sent a message to his son urging him not to turn himself in, as he insisted to his jailers that he had done nothing wrong.

He spent the next year and a half mostly at home, feeling “very depressed,” before he found a smuggler to take him to Ethiopia for $2,000. He was given a code and a phone. The smuggler would call one time only. If Abraham answered and recited the code, he would be told where and when to meet.

One day in December 2011, the call came at 10 a.m. He left on a minibus to Mendefera at 3 that afternoon with a dozen others carrying forged travel permits. Over the next six grueling days, they walked to the border, hiding in the bushes by day and carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs. What water they drank, they found along the way. One gave up and died before they made it.

Abraham spent two years at the Adi Harush refugee camp. “I am really happy because I am safe,” he said, but he was just sitting with nothing to do. He said he was also disturbed at the corruption he saw around him and did not feel accepted by his peers who mocked him as an “ameche” for growing up in Ethiopia [a nickname taken from a car company set up in Eritrea in the Italian colonial period but relocated to Addis Ababa when Ethiopia took over in the 1950s—designed in one place and assembled in another].

At the end of 2013, he got a pass from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to go to Addis  and with support sent by friends living abroad paid a smuggler to take him overland to Kenya, never thinking about crossing the Sahara and trying for Europe. “I only want to get to a place where I can live safely and breathe with freedom. Kenya was the closest and the cheapest.”

Abraham has since signed what the Eritrean government calls a “letter of regret” for his flight, remitted the 2 percent tax the regime demands from citizens living abroad (not much in his case), and paid a $200 fee for a passport, but he is still waiting for it and is not yet certain where he will go if and when it comes through.

Friends have suggested South Sudan, Uganda or Rwanda where there are growing Eritrean refugee communities. Or he may try for Mexico and the United States. “With a passport, I will just run,” he said.

But it is unlikely he will ever go back to Eritrea, whatever happens with the government in Asmara: “At this time, I have too many bad memories."