There are an estimated 451,000 people living in modern slavery in Eritrea (GSI 2018). The small country has a unique system of compulsory, open-ended military service for citizens that makes it one of the most oppressive states in the world. The government has enforced its current policy of sending all secondary school students to serve for a minimum of twelve months since 2003. While Eritrean law puts the minimum conscription age at 18, many teenagers find themselves recruited during high school at age 16 or even younger. In rural areas, where formal education is rarer, the army will visit villages to round up young girls and boys who look roughly of age, to begin their program of combat training and forced labour.
Habtu was taken to Sawa training camp in 2010. There he was forced to cook the soldier’s meals and was subjected to physical abuse daily.
I was rounded up from the street in March 2010 in Enda Gerges near to Adi Quala, and sent for military training. I was an 8th grade student. I completed military training and was held there for three and a half years. With me there were 20 other minors at Sawa training camp.
I remember a 14-year-old student who was also rounded up from near to Enda Gerges, and was at the same camp. Both of us were assigned to a place called Adi Mero to dig trenches.
He was instructed to cook for 20 people and was a full time cook and did all the household work, baking bread, fetching water, etc. The 20 minors who were at the same camp were under 16.
The military training was very tough and brutal. The trainers beat us, stamped on our heads with their shoes, and we were subjected to all sorts of punishments. We were half-starved most of the time. We told them our wishes were to study but they did not listen. Once in 2010, a minor like us tried to escape, and they shot him. We didn’t know whether or not he died.
Narrative provided by Human Rights Concern Eritrea