Eritrea: A country like a prison
01 April 2011

Mai-Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, Kidan's new home after he fled across the border from Eritrea. (Frido Pflueger SJ/JRS)
While teaching, I had once used the example of my own experience of oppression in Eritrea to explain the practice of slavery to a student. The principal found out and I was warned not to repeat it again or risk being jailed. I was frightened. Eritrea is like a prison.
Mai-Aini, 1 April 2011 – My name is Kidan* and I am 33 years old. When I was five years old my family offered me to the Orthodox Church to serve the Lord all my life. As a result, I attended all the training necessary and became a priest**. 

I started my formal education at the age of 15. After completing high school, I underwent military training as this is the requirement for every young Eritrean man who wants to join university. After military training and a period of military service, I was allowed to join the university and study history. 

I had wanted to study psychology but the university did not respect my wish and placed me in accordance to what they wanted me to do rather than what I felt I could do better. I lost my interest and this affected my performance negatively.

After my graduation in 2005, the government assigned me to teach at a school in Sawa, western Eritrea, for a monthly salary of USD2 as part of “national service”. Every Eritrean has to serve the country in his or her respective area of studies for one year. The salary was not even sufficient to buy a pair of shoes leave alone cater for my other needs. For a long time I depended on my family for financial support. 

Although I had developed medical problems that needed constant attention, I was sent to a town very far from my family thus they could not support me anymore. My wife came with me so my meager salary had to cater for both of us. 

Teachers are exploited 

After working there for two years, I requested to be reassigned. I was placed at Dekemere Secondary School, around 40km east of the Eritrean capital Asmara, where I taught 36 hours per week. I also had to work extra on Saturdays and Sundays without being paid. 

After several attempts to get the government to fulfill its pledge to increase our salaries, we were given 700g of corn instead. Working seven days a week and having families, we considered this an insult. Was the corn meant for decoration or for food? One teacher was so angry that he made a necklace with the corn. 

For teachers, there were no career opportunities. I have witnessed how teachers with many years of experience did not get any response from the government as to how they could continue and upgrade their careers. I noticed that if I did not take action now, while I was still young, I would become like them.  

While teaching, I had once used the example of my own experience of oppression in Eritrea to explain the practice of slavery to a student. The principal found out and I was warned not to repeat it again or risk being jailed. I was frightened. Eritrea is like a prison. In this desperate situation, I lost my patience and I decided to flee.

Fleeing a lack of perspective

First, I sent my wife and my child back to my family so that she would not be arrested after my escape. Then, I arranged to flee during the school break. In order to avoid being tracked and arrested I told the school director that I was sick and going to stay with my family for a while. 

A year earlier I had first made plans to escape with a friend who had clear information regarding the way up to the Ethiopian border. But then he was forced to go for military training. After a year, however, he managed to escape and urged me to leave quickly. We decided not to take our wives with us because of the danger and uncertainty related to crossing the border.

We started the journey together and met three other companions on the way. After we had walked for eight hours, Eritrean soldiers spotted us and fired many bullets on us. For half an hour we lay quietly on the ground. Two of our companions were frightened and decided to return home. 

Luckily, the three of us safely crossed the border to Ethiopia. But we were not completely sure if we really were in Ethiopia. Finally, some Ethiopian villagers welcomed us. That was the happiest moment in my life. Many of my relatives and friends have been jailed or killed while attempting to cross the border. I could not eat and drink realising that we had made it safely across to the Promised Land. 

The challenges of refugee life

Of course we ran into difficulties after our arrival. I did not have any money to buy food. Besides, I was living in a hall. The little property I had received from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), such as plates and blankets, was stolen. I did not know anyone to spend my time with and I was worried about what would happen to my wife and my little child. It still gives me a headache because I really want to be reunited with my family. But the only way possible is to bring them here as it is impossible for me to go back. But I am scared of the risks my wife and my child would face on the way.

Currently, Eritrea does not offer a bright future. They [government] don’t even respect God and the church. I remember when I was in military training there were many religious including deacons, priests and monks participating in military training.

When I saw the JRS announcement for training in basic counselling skills, I ran home to get my documents. I registered immediately since I am interested in this field of study. The training has given me important skills. I have developed a much better understanding of counselling practice. The course has also helped me to see things differently; it has changed my attitude and perception. It has taught me to listen more to myself before making any decisions. I hope that this course will have a positive impact on my future life. I hope I will get a chance to continue this course in future or even work with JRS in the camp to serve my fellow refugees.

*not his real name
** the Orthodox Church allows priests to marry