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.
Elias was 15 years old when he was imprisoned for attempting to flee Eritrea. He was then sent to a military training camp where he tells of the starvation and beatings he and other children endured. Elias was finally able to escape and leave the country.
In 2009, when I was 15, I tried to flee the country. I was caught and put in Adi Abeto prison for 10 months. When I was 16 they took me to Wia Military Training Camp where I had 5 months’ military training. I was then assigned to a military unit. After one month, I deserted. After a year of living in hiding I fled the country.
During military training there were 370 children also being trained. Many died of starvation and thirst when they tried to escape through bushland from this brutal military training. Some were shot as they tried to run away. Beatings and torture of those caught were habitual. I am now in a refugee camp and have been told by someone who lives in my old village that my mother, who had brought me up single-handed, had been forced to pay a standard 50,000 Nakfa(equivalent to USD$2,500) in case I did not return.
Narrative provided by Human Rights Concern Eritrea