Sisters reunited after epic journeys to safety
Two sisters who fled the brutal military regime in Eritrea – each following a different but equally tortuous pathway to freedom and safety – are now rebuilding their lives in Australia.
Allae her sister Yara braved brutal beatings, people smuggler gangs, desperate night-time border crossings as well as the capricious nature of African continental politics in their epic quests for a new life free of fear and oppression.
And the sisters both have first-hand knowledge of the brutal and authoritarian regime of self-proclaimed Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki.
For two decades, President Afewerki has ruled Eritrea with an iron fist. Human right groups say forced conscription of young people into military service has been prolonged indefinitely despite a decree limiting it to 18 months.
Political opponents are often jailed indefinitely without trial. Independent media is prohibited, and journalists imprisoned. Political parties and nongovernmental organizations are also prohibited; elections, a legislature, and an independent judiciary are all not permitted because the President argues they would weaken Eritrea’s defences.
Some religious groups are forbidden altogether while others are strictly regulated by government appointees. Implementation of a constitution approved by a constituent assembly in 1997 has been deferred indefinitely
After years of struggle, ‘Allae’ and ‘Yara’, whose names have been changed in this article to protect family members still in Eritrea, are now living and studying in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
And even in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, they are happy and grateful to be where they are.
But life might have turned out very differently for them.
Alla left Eritrea in 2016 as the oppressive regime in her homeland tightened its omnipotent control over her life and her “difficult situation” became more desperate.
“Eritrea is ruled by a dictator and there is military law. As high school students, we couldn’t graduate unless we completed Year 12 at a military education camp called SAWA, 300 kilometres from our hometown of Keren,” Allae said.
“We had heard a lot of bad stuff about the place. There were terrifying stories about how students were treated. The military were abusing students in what was a kind of slavery,” she said.
In August 2019 the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the students were fleeing Eritrea to avoid training at the SAWA camp, where they are subjected to systematic abuse, torture, harsh working conditions and punishments.
“Eritreans are subject to arbitrary arrest and harsh treatment in detention. Eritrea has had no national elections, no legislature, no independent media and no independent non-governmental organisations since 2001. Religious freedom remains severely curtailed,” HRW said.
“Myself and my parents were really scared but we had no other option; so in July 2014, I had to go there,” Allae said.
“It was a terrible time. We were woken up at 2am every morning. We were forced to clean the entire camp till 6am,” she said.
“We were given a small slice of bread and tea for breakfast and then we went to classes. But there really wasn’t any education. After classes we were sent to work on farms owned by the military officers running the camp.
“Every Sunday We would walk for three hours on foot to reach a place called Molover, a big Agro-industry farm, all farming activities were done by us. We spent about five hours working non-stop there. And then we would walk back to our camp for another three hours. We were not allowed to take a rest throughout.
“It was very hard work and there was a lot of abuse. One day I was sick and I asked if I could rest. The officer didn’t allow me to rest,” Allae said.
“But because I was ill, I couldn’t do a lot of work. The officer thought I was slacking, and he beat me, slapped me and made me lie in the dirt.
“On the farm it was really hot, but we were not allowed to take water with us. One day, I fainted from being dehydrated. The officer thought I was faking it and beat me even though I was not conscious.
“One of the most traumatising instances that I still remember to this day was when one of our unit-mates tried to hang herself because she could not take it anymore, I think, and I understand why. Luckily, another unit-mate noticed that she was acting strange and followed her to the restroom and saved her. Seeing her on the ground almost dead and everyone of us crying around her is something that I will never forget.
“This was a normal or typical day in the camp; it was really just slavery.
“And I think they made sure to let us know that it was slavery. I remember one instance when we were filling the jerrycans and our officer, who was standing about a hundred meters from where we were, had a cup in his hand and it fell. He then called me and ordered me to hand him the cup from the ground. I was baffled but had to do it regardless.
“Food was very limited, and we had to rely on parents sending us enough food to survive,” she said.
Allae lasted an entire year at the SAWA camp during which time she was not allowed to see her parents. She completed her high school education in September 2015.
“After we completed the matriculation exam, we had three months military training before getting the matriculation results,” she said.
“A typical day during this time would begin, by us waking up at 4am with a whistle then clean our dorms and restrooms until 5am. Then there would be fall-ins (military drill) and, we then would go running for up to an hour. At 6am we were given ten minutes to eat our breakfast.
After hours of gruelling military training, compulsory exercise, pointless manual labour and political indoctrination sessions, the day ended for Alla and her classmates at around midnight.
“This would be an ideal day, when we were lucky enough to not be punished throughout the day for silly reasons. They would also blow a whistle sometimes suddenly at about 2 am to do more fall-ins.
“On weekends we would go to farms owned by the officers. There was more mandatory exercise or cleaning, or we would go to collect wood and stones or do other menial tasks.
“They would occasionally make us to move an avalanche of stones from one place to another and move it back again to where it originally was.
“There was a time when we were asked to collect chickpea sized sand grains for about three hours nonstop for no reason. We always were asked to do these kinds of strange tasks when we had nothing else to do or were simply taking a rest.
“I was lucky enough to pass my matriculation exam and qualify for tertiary education. So, then we were taken to the Eritrean Institute of Technology,” Allae said.
“This was a place also run by the military and life there was not much better than at SAWA.
“We had classes in the morning and in the afternoon, we worked for the military elite, cleaning their quarters and working on farms, doing weeding and other hard work,” she said.
Allae said the there was also a lot of harassment by military officers at the college as life became increasingly intolerable.
“We were under the control of the military. Every hour of our lives was controlled. One day in 2016, I couldn’t take it anymore and I tried to escape. But I was caught and detained. I was held in a prison cell for two weeks,” she said.
“In May, after I left detention, the military ordered all of us students back to SAWA for extra military training,” Allae said.
But while waiting to be sent back to the SAWA camp, one night Alla and group of friends managed to escape from the college campus.
“It was 20 kilometres to Asmara, the capital, and we walked all the way through the night. I was determined I was not going to go back to SAWA,” she said.
“I phoned my uncle and he came to meet us and helped us. I hid in my uncle’s house for four weeks until he arranged for people smugglers to take us to Sudan.”
Allae and her fellow escapees spent an arduous and tense nine hours hidden in the back of a truck to a town called Teseny from where they faced a 150km dangerous and difficult trek to safety.
“To escape, we had to walk at night and hide and sleep during the day to avoid the Eritrean border patrols. We knew that if we were caught, we would go to prison and the soldiers were ordered to shoot-to-kill if people tried to escape after being stopped,” she said.
“We walked for four days and nights and finally managed to get to Kassala in Sudan. From there we were helped by local people who took us to the UNHCR camp at Shagarab.
“We told our stories to the UN and were given refugee ID. But we couldn’t leave the camp and living conditions there were difficult,” Alla said.
There were instances of Eritrean troops snatching people from the camps and local militia groups had been known to kidnap Eritrean refugees and sell the on to human trafficking gangs.
“It was a scary place and not safe,” Allae said.
“The idea of going back to Eritrea was frightening so we decided to run away from the camp and go to Sudan’s capital Khartoum,” she said.
The group was taken to a secret place by the people smugglers where they waited hearts-in-mouths for their families to pay the smugglers by credit transfer before they were released.
“After a few hours of driving, we reached Khartoum and were taken to the house of the people smugglers’ boss. My sister Zizi was already in Khartoum and I called her so she could collect me,” Allae said.
Meanwhile, Yara – ten years older than Ahlam – had made her way to Khartoum under similarly traumatic and tortuous circumstances.
“I fled Eritrea to avoid having to go into forced military training. I remember two or three weeks into the school year in Year 11, soldiers arrived at our school,” Yara said.
“It was 2005 and these soldiers surrounded our school and randomly picked 35 boys and 14 girls from grade 11 to go with them. I was one of them.
“Everyone freaked out. We weren’t due to go to the SAWA camp until the following year and I still don’t know why we were picked out,” she said.
Over the following weeks Yara and her classmates faced brutal and inhuman conditions.
“I remember they took us to a strange city we hadn’t seen before where we stayed for three days. After that they took us to a very bad prison which was an hour and half from the Sudanese borders,” she said.
“They took us to a prison in Keren, we spent three days at the prison with little food and water and with no explanation why we were detained or how long we will be detained in the prison. They also refused to let my parents visit me at the prison. We were beaten and abused by the military officers and there was no medical help for when detainees got sick.
“After three days we were transferred to Teseney prison.
“The prison was basically a camp and we had to work in the bush from early in the morning until night time,” Yara said.
“The prison cells were basically freight containers. It was very hot, the prison was overcrowded and there was limited food. If you didn’t wake up when they knocked, the soldiers would throw water on you, slap you and push you and roll you in the mud and dirt.
“Sometimes we were beaten with sticks – and we’d have no idea why. We were in a desert area but we were allowed to shower only once a month. Also, there were no proper toilet facilities,” she said.
After more than six weeks enduring the terrible conditions, Yara and a few friends decided to take their fate into their own hands.
“I was in a group; myself another girl and three boys. We decided we had no future if stayed. One day, we were being watched by just one guard so we saw out chance and we ran. And we ran and ran and ran and ran,” she said.
“At times we hid behind stones and trees and we walked at night and hid during the day. Each of us had only the clothes we were wearing.
“Our parents didn’t know where we were but we made it to a place near Kassala. There we found a local tribe who helped us; they showed us the way to Kassala. When we got there, we thought we were free, we were safe,” she said.
During their tumultuous journey some of Yara’s group became separated.
“With the help of some local people, I tried to find my classmates. I was with my friend Aster but I still have no idea what happened to the boys we were with,” she said.
“Aster knew some people who lived in Kassala but I had no one. She called them and I went with her to stay with her people. From there people smugglers were paid to take us to Khartoum.”
Yara faced a new set of dilemmas in Khartoum after re-establishing contact with her family in Eritrea.
She was able to gain an Eritrean passport through friends in Asmara who bribed government officials.
She was supported by an aunt living in Australia who sponsored her to go to university in India in 2006.
“I studied at a junior college in Hyderabad and completed years 11 and 12. I graduated in 2008 and applied to go to university. I graduated in pharmacy in October 2012. Graduating was one of the happiest days of my life,” Yara said.
“But after that I couldn’t stay in India because my visa had expired.
“I could not go back to Eritrea because I had fled and would be imprisoned without trial and eventually I would face indefinite national service if I returned.”
Yara had no other option but to return to Sudan.
“My siblings supported me to find a house and I found a job in a pharmacy where I worked for two years,” she said.
In 2016 Alla arrived in Khartoum after her own epic journey. But despite the joy of being reunited with her sister, Zizi’s Eritrean passport expired and she was unable to get a new one.
“I ended up with no ID at a time when the Sudanese Government was doing a lot of round ups of illegal immigrants,” Yara said.
She was forced to quit her job and move to the refugee camp at Shagarab, leaving her sister to stay with friends in the city.
But in 2017 conditions in the camp had deteriorated significantly with food shortages and a lack of hygiene.
“The situation in the camp was difficult. One day I would go hungry and the next day I would eat,” Yara said.
“There were also Eritrean military people in the camp posing as refugees so they could snatch people who opposed the government and take them back to Eritrea.
“I realised I had to find a way out. So, I paid what little cash I had left to people smugglers to take me back to Khartoum.
“I worked in a pharmacy and at the same time we applied to go to Australia as refugees. At the time, things were getting worse in Khartoum. There were anti-government demonstrations and violence on the street.
“One day my sister went out to get Injera bread and some soldiers started shooting in the street. It was no longer peaceful so, again, we needed to find a better life,” Yara said.
Allae and Yara arrived in Melbourne in July, 2019, sponsored by their sister and brother in law already living in Australia aunt under the federal government’s Community Support Program (CSP).
Yara had waited five years for resettlement while Allae had waited three.
“After years of waiting in limbo in Sudan, we were finally able to come to Australia and start new lives. It was one of the best days of our lives and we are very grateful to be here,” Allae said.
“But even though I’m now in a safe place, I still have nightmares,” she said.
Allae is studying Information Technology at Swinburne University and Yara has been studying Community Pharmacy.
Both have been active in volunteering as they work to establish careers in Australia.
Eritrea has been a one-party state ever since the liberation forces attained independence 26 years ago.
It has never held a presidential election. All the governors, mayors and other political leaders are members of both the military and the party.
The regime relies on force and a large network of informers to report on dissidents.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch says Eritreans are subject to arbitrary arrest and harsh treatment in detention.
“Eritrea has had no national elections, no legislature, no independent media and no independent non-governmental organisations since 2001. Religious freedom remains severely curtailed,” the group said.
In 1993, after 30 years of violent conflict, Eritrea achieved its independence from neighbouring Ethiopia. Until 1942, Eritrea had been an Italian colony and was run by Britain after the Italian forces were defeated during WWII. In 1952, it was annexed by Ethiopia, officially as part of a UN-sanctioned federation.
Successive Ethiopian governments attempted to suppress independence movements.
A Marxist government was overthrown in 1991. At the time, Isaias Afewerki, the leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), was an ally of Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, an alliance of rebel movements that were based in various regions and accepted the idea of Eritrean sovereignty.
Eritrea thus became a sovereign state in 1993. Afewerki became its president, and the EPLF became the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the nation’s only political party.
Meles went on to become Ethiopia’s prime minister. Afewerki and Meles later fell out, and a brutal war was waged along the border in the late 1990s. Both sides lost thousands of soldiers.
Some estimates say the cost $US1 million per day for both countries and the bloodshed increased poverty.
In 1994, the Afewerki government introduced a compulsory “national service”. Its training camp Sawa is an army camp. Every year, 10,000 to 25,000 high-school students are recruited, and they undergo military training in Sawa for a period of six months.
For all school pupils, Year 12 takes place here. The service has no time limit, however, and the women and men drafted do not know for how long they must serve. Some are not set free before their 50th birthday.
Human Rights Watch says that “several thousand people” flee from Eritrea every month to escape the national service.