Tag Archives: Eritrea


I thought ‘it would be terrible for my mother to lose two sons in the same night’, and I left my brother behind.

It was the Italians that built my town, Elabaned, in Eritrea, where I was born 28 years ago. Just in case you’ve forgotten, we were your colony. I’m the first migrant in my family and I’m a marine biologist. I used to spend my days talking with fish, sectioning algae, studying the routes of the shoals of fish, analysing microorganisms in the sea. Day after day I would collect secrets from the waves as the wind played on them. But what there was beyond the sea was what I didn’t know yet, and what I didn’t ask. That was the last mystery to be revealed. To do that, there was no alternative.

I thought I knew the sea and I would observe it from above, from the land. I had to do it for my country when I did my military service, which starts when you are 18 and ends when you are in the grave. My wages were zero, sometimes less than zero. There was no alternative to that, either.

So I started walking. I was lucky because I knew in what direction to go. After 3 days of dust and sun, without stopping, I arrived in the Sudan.  My brother Samuel, who was a mechanic, lived there. Twenty-five years spent hoping. 1,600  dollars a head is the price of hope as far as Tripoli, Libya, and my brother and I made it there. Locked up in a house with another 500 Eritreans, surrounded by men with rifles, we waited. Yes, it was terrible. But I put up with it, because there was no other alternative.

There was the sea in the town, but I didn’t see it. I remained there for one month without even going out to look for it. All 500 of us left the house together: another $1,600, the cost of a second hope on board a fishing vessel. After hours spent in the sea, two boats appeared out of the night. One of them circled around us at a distance of twenty metres or so. And all 500 of us, in the black darkness of the night, started to smile through our clenched teeth. It was as if the darkness had already ended because we weren’t afraid any longer. We’re safe, we shouted. They’re going to come back and pick us up, I said to Samuel. I’ll be able to watch the sea again from the land, I thought. After more than an hour we realized that no one was going to come and save us.

One mile from the coast of Lampedusa we set fire to a blanket to attract attention. It was like lighting a candle in a tomb. A light in the middle of nothing. But there was no other alternative. [twitter_share]The blanket caught fire and we got scared. We all rushed to one side and the boat capsized. Those of us who were still alive began to swim. There’s no point crying water in water. [/twitter_share]

After swimming for three hours I turned and saw that my brother had fallen behind. He said: “Go on, Zerit! Get to land. Call home”. He said: “Bye Zerit”. And I was on the point of fainting in the sea, I couldn’t swim for the two of us, I thought ‘it would be terrible for my mother to lose two sons in the same night – and I left my brother behind. I called: “Bye Samuel”. I, Zerit, am alive because my brother is dead. My last goodbye I said to him at the camp when they showed me a photograph of a body swollen with water. I who spent my life studying the sea, I’ve explored the seabed and recognized the voices of the seashells – did not recognise my own brother. So he died a second death. The day of the funeral I couldn’t wait for the result of the DNA test that would tell me: ”Yes, that’s your brother Samuel”.

Now those people from television are asking me if I’m sad, and if looking at the sea makes me sadder. But it’s you that have got to give me an answer. Tell me why I wasn’t at my brother’s funeral. It was like leaving him in the water a second time. So I abandoned him for a third time. At the refugee camp on the day of the funeral, to which we – brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers – were not invited, it took us a minute to decide and all come together.

When we realized that we couldn’t go to Agrigento, that there would be strangers who would be throwing flowers on shiny coffins of expensive wood, while there were still bodies trapped in the rotten wood of the boat, we understood that they were dying for a second time. We also forced the gates behind which they wanted to keep us locked up that day, we prayed 4 times towards the south, between our fingers we held wild flowers that grew around the camp, and when it came to the hour of the tragedy we all went down to the sea. It was the sea that I asked about Samuel. Hoping that it will reveal this last secret, or that at least his soul may return that day.

I don’t look at the sea any longer. I’ll go anywhere as long as it’s as far away as possible from this island, and Italy. I don’t want to live in a land where my brother was left to fall asleep exhausted among the waves. Don’t call us migrant victims; we are just survivors. I’m alive because my brother is dead. That’s the truth of it, and you haven’t said it yet out loud. Perhaps the Italians want to know, but even if they don’t, they have to hear it all the same. There are 157 stories like this in the camp. You should get to know them all.

Zerit was born in Eritrea 28 years ago. After graduating in marine science he decided to join his brother Samuel in Sudan, with him continue the journey towards Libia, and from Tripoli reach the Italian coast. Samuel died in the sea October, 3rd when he was about one hour away from the coast. Zerit arrived in Lampedusa.


Stop conferring citizenship on the dead, start giving rights to the living.

I was born under the heel of the Ethiopian dictatorship in my country Eritrea, and arrived in Italy in 1992. Not in a boat, but comfortably seated in an aircraft; I left with a regular visa. While power was being concentrated in the hands of a few, and mutual suspicion was growing in the eyes of many, I decided, having been warned by those signs of a war that was growing from the ashes of another one, with fortune on my side and a father in Italy, to try and see what is the destiny of free men. When you are allowed to say what you think, to decide what life you will lead, make your choices without having a gun to your head. I left one Eritrea behind and I found one million and a half, far from Asmara. They crossed the desert on foot, the sea on leaky boats, in the sights of machine guns always ready to shoot. Fugitives escaping from a regime that with one hand keeps them in chains, with the other leads them to the frontier. There are members of the Eritrean government that are involved in the traffic in human beings. Their names have been written, black on white, by the UN, maybe no one has read them. In that corner of the desert that is my country, where we had already celebrated the Liberation in 1991, the battle has never been over. After a history written with 30 years of war and three hundred thousand dead who had fought for the Independence, without knowing that they would win it at the price of liberty, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was concluded in 2000. Thirteen years have passed and four million and a half people think that the war is still on. “We are under attack”, says the regime. “Ethiopia is about to invade us”, says the voice of the one State television station. “Take up your weapons, men and women, from 18 years of age until death”, says the dictator, for whom that frontier that no one has ever erected is a shield and an excuse. The UN has written it, black on white, maybe no one has read it.[twitter_share] In Eritrea today, if your son has escaped, either you pay or you are thrown into prison. If you do not practise the official religion, either you pay or you are thrown into prison. If you are a dissident, you go to prison. If you are a conscientious objector, you stay in prison. The regime finances and trains Somali shababs in Eritrea. The UN has also written this, black on white, in a dossier, maybe no one has ever read it. [/twitter_share]

Sometimes I receive questions from those from whom I would like a reply. I told the Italian government: “Stop conferring citizenship on the dead, start giving rights to the living”. Stop all this salam halek in front of a bloodthirsty tyrant. There is a UN dossier that speaks of the not-too-limpid relations between Italy and Eritrea. Names have been put down, black on white, maybe no one has read them. I told the European government. “If you really want to help them, start from their country of origin”. There is a more blind person than he who does not want to see and that is he who has already seen. If the West writes treatises and is also finding ways of getting round them, it would be better to stop publishing these dead letters of yours altogether. “Five hundred irregular Africans died while trying to reach Italy”, said the regime seven days after October 3rd. They didn’t call them “sons”, they didn’t call them “fellow citizens”. And when the eyes of the world spoke of an Eritrean massacre at sea, the voices of the supporters and financiers of the power machine decided that a little bit of the truth must appear. So the official voices of Eritrea in Italy, important figures of the State, emerged from their Chinese boxes of the political game and were officially invited by the Italian government to participate in the funeral ceremony at Agrigento. Two plus two always makes four, everywhere in the world. It wasn’t relatives of the dead, but sustainers of the regime from which the migrants had been fleeing, who placed fake flowers on their coffins. On the day of the State funeral there were also some young Eritreans present, born in Italy, Sweden, Germany, their heads bowed before the tragedy. These young people, second-generation Eritreans, a European cell indoctrinated by a dictator from whom others of their same age had been desperately fleeing, recited their part. That day they said they were relatives of the victims, instead of simply the victims’new and younger executioners. Brought up in the comfort of democratic Northern Europe, then trained every year in Asmara, living the high life in a land that for others is only dust and death, they believe in those who say you are the new kadri, the new hope for our land. Deceiving also authorities and institutions, bilingual or often trilingual, they pretend to be migrants, mingle with those waiting to apply for asylum, enter the reception centres and draw up lists of fugitives, then file them with a photograph, and send everything off to Asmara. Where the families that have remained behind will be threatened with death lists. This time I have written their names, but no one has read them.

Don Mussie Zerai is a Catholic priest born in Eritrea in 1975. He has lived in Rome since 1992. He has founded an association called Habeshia and helps fugitives who have managed to reach Europe. He is the only person in Italy to have given names to the collaborators of the regime who have filed refugees seeking asylum in Italy in order to keep a hold over families left behind in Eritrea. He has been attacked on various occasions for his declarations. He has never stopped making them.

Shaital is the devil

I’m telling the story of my journey. From Eritrea we followed a road towards Sudan and that’s where I was caught, at Khartoum. They caught us and arrested us. There were 24 of us – there were also 3 Syrians. We were 19 days in that place. After 19 days we arrived at Sabha. There were another 19 men there. There were Somalis waiting for us together with Eritreans and Ethiopians. We were kept hidden all day. We don’t know where we were held – in the Sahara you never know where you are. We were in the Sahara for three weeks. There were Somalis keeping guard over us. There were other men who had been kidnapped, I don’t know how many there were. They took everything from us, money, cell-phones, even our clothes. They beat us, and we were naked, they with their boots. The guards were Somalis and Sudanese.

For their ransom they ask the Syrians for 1,500 dollars, us 3,000 to 4,000 dollars. We don’t understand why. Why they make all this difference between us, if we have all been kidnapped. They are almost all of them black, from Libya and Chad. They sell us as if we were just so much meat. Then Libyans of another clan, with fair skin, took charge of us across the Sahara to half way. There were many women among us. The women they exchanged them among themselves as if they were playthings. For the women it is worse. They choose them, they take them, they do stupid things with them (they rape them). They say: “this one, this one and this one” and they become their personal entertainment. They don’t let them go. None of us say anything. You can’t say anything. They are armed, we are naked. So your heart bleeds for them and you can’t do anything. These men have diseases, they have HIV and don’t use any protection when they are doing their things. They ask you, Ethiopian or Eritrean? If you are Eritrean, you are Christian and so they treat you worse. You can’t react in the Sahara. If you react they shoot you in the knee, in the head, and leave you in the desert. They can make you disappear just how they like. We can’t go on any longer: we’ve got no strength left.

I don’t know the name of the person who sold us, a Libyan stood guard over us. Those from Chad caught the people. There are also Eritreans who do that job, they help them. Ethiopians as well. I can remember some names: Vereket, from Khartoum, Isha, an Eritrean whose job was on the telephone, Abu, a Somali, the one who delivered us at Fukru. What really scares me most is that they are Eritreans. That Eritreans are working with them, that they are selling their own people. They beat us too. We pay 3,000 dollars, others 4,000 dollars. Our families pay. I don’t know what the difference is between us and the others; it’s something horrible, they divide people into ethnic groups, because we pay more. The black-skinned Libyans sell us to the fair-skinned Libyans. First one of our girls became the plaything of the group, as if she were their woman. She never left with us. She stayed there to be their plaything. You don’t say anything not even then, you clench your fists, and just hope. After a month in the Sahara you can’t even speak, imagine if you can react. In the Sahara it’s like coming to the house of the Devil. There are many of us here who came out of the prisons. We were delivered into the Sahara. I can’t fit it into my head, what I saw there. They were on the phone all the time with one another. One with the other.

When we got to Libya, when we were on Libyan soil, I thought we had arrived. There I found another 150 people who had been kidnapped. In Libya they took the girls during the night and did what they wanted with them. The Somali under arrest was there. Anyone who tried to escape was kicked with boots in the head or beaten with a belt. What they did to the girls I don’t even want to say. They didn’t kill us because they needed us for their money.

The Somali who was arrested in Italy was there too. He’s not a person, he’s the Devil. The one who accompanied us for the last part of the way was called Shaital. I tried to escape, they caught me and said, ”See this bullet? It’s for you if you try that again”. It’s a pity I don’t speak Arabic, I would have been able to understand the many things that they said among themselves. In Libya if you escape you can’t go to the police because the police work with them. When they have your ransom money you are of no further use to them. There were 340 people at the port. In Libya they sell and peddle people. There’s no government. First you end up in the hands of those people from Chad or Somalia, then in the hands of the Libyans. They’ve arrested the Somali now, let’s hope that with time all of them pay. We left our souls behind while we were crossing the desert. Before we left in the boat they kept us near the airport, which is next to the army barracks. Everyone knows what goes on there, everyone can see. Everyone knows what happens, it’s like a school. I don’t know how many people were left behind or died. At times they ask for a ransom even for dead people and ask for the money for their crossing in the boat. I have heard prison warders asking relatives for money for people who were already dead. I knew at least seven or eight of them. Here in Lampedusa there were ten of us who had been kidnapped. Four men and six women. The four men are here, the six women were left at sea. They died at sea on 3 October.

This testimony was given by an Eritrean refugee in the Tigrinya language. It was translated by an Italo-Eritrean. The Tigrinya are mainly Christians and live in the region in which the Habesha culture developed historically.

From Eritrea to sleeping on the street in the UK

Anthony was born in Eritrea. When he was 10 his father died and his mother, who was sick, decided to send him to stay with an uncle who lived in Sudan, to save him from being called up for military service. “My father was a soldier, that’s how he died, in combat. My mum wanted to save my life, stop me from ending up the same way.”

Anthony worked for three years in his uncle’s bar, often for gruelling long hours and without ever going to school: “My uncle sent his children to school, but not me.”

The treatment he received from his uncle became even more harsh when Anthony’s mother, who had never recovered from her sickness, died. The boy could see his dreams vanishing day by day. He would have liked to study, have the chance of building a future, so, as soon as he was 14, he decided to run away in search of a place where he could study and grow up. “

Anthony came to Europe when he was little more than a child. He crossed it all alone, from the Mediterranean coasts as far as the United Kingdom. There he stopped and presented a request for political asylum and tried to attend a school.

He hadn’t imagined that it would be so hard to study in Great Britain as well: “A teacher told me that as soon as I had obtained the status of refugee I would be able to attend a school”.

Anthony waited for five interminable years. When the reply came he found that his request had been turned down and that he was no longer eligible for any form of assistance. “Four or five of them took me,” the boy remembers, “and threw me out of the house, with all my belongings.”

“I’m leading a precarious sort of life. At times I have a bed to sleep on, other times I sleep in the street; sometimes I find something to eat and other times I don’t, and often there’s nowhere to have a shower.”

The Refugee Action association, who found out about him and have made his story known, are trying to help Anthony find a fixed place to stay and are helping him to re-present his request for political asylum.

Semret, sold and raped

Semret, 25 years old, is Eritrean. When 20 members of the religious congregation she was part of were arrested and imprisoned, Semret realized that she was in great danger and decided to turn to a smuggler to cross the few kilometers that separated her from the western frontier of Eritrea and get to Sudan. What Semret could not imagine was that her journey would turn out to be a long and terrible nightmare.

Semret fled at night, on foot, in the company of four fellow-nationals who like her were seeking a safe place to live. After walking all night, they reached Sudan and stopped to rest in a vast desert area next to the frontier. It was then that the woman was assailed by a terrible doubt, noticing that their smuggler was making telephone calls and making sure not to be heard. When the small group saw a jeep arriving with three men aboard, it was immediately clear what was happening: they had been betrayed and sold and the traffickers had come to pick up the goods they had just bought.

“We scattered in all directions,” she says , “I was the first to be caught. I tried to get away but they got hold of me again. At which point they beat me and dragged me to their vehicle.” Semret was taken to a small isolated village made up of a brick house and some huts made from straw and mud. She didn’t have anyone to pay her ransom so she remained there for months, at the mercy of her jailers, sinking deeper and deeper into a nightmare from which there was no awakening, in which sexual violence and beatings were the daily norm.

“They came to me any time they felt like it, sometimes they brought me a Cola and a piece of cake and that was how it went on for seven months. When I became pregnant they stopped locking the house and that was when I planned my escape.” Semret covered 40 kilometers on foot before reaching the town of Kassala where finally, thanks to the help of UNHCR she was given a dignified place to stay and above all a psychological support scheme to help her through the dramatic trauma she had undergone.

Today Semret lives in the Kassala refugee camp. Her daughter, who was born in January, she has called Heyabel, which means “Gift of God”.

Yonathan: “In the torture camps I couldn’t even kill myself”

Yonathan comes from Eritrea. In his country military service is compulsory, and if you try and get out of it that is a crime punishable with years in prison. Despite the risks, Yonathan, 26 years of age, with a degree in information engineering, decided to leave his country as a ‘deserter’ and try and re-start a new life in another African country.

“My plan was to leave Eritrea as soon as possible. After University I would have had to join the army, but I refused. I went to Asmara, the capital, where I worked illegally and stayed out of sight. When some of my friends started to disappear I thought that I might be the next to go. I had to go, no matter where. I was born in Sudan and I know the language, so I decided to make for there. I knew there was a danger of being kidnapped so I decided not to get involved with the smugglers for my escape and count only on myself and the help of some friends. When we arrived at Kassala, in the eastern region of Sudan, men of the Rashaida ethnic group tried to capture us but there were six of us and we managed to fight them off, then Sudanese soldiers arrived and took us to the Shagarab refugee camp.”

At the refugee camp Yonathan and his friends realized immediately that they hadn’t been saved. The Rashaida came and went every day, checking on new arrivals, while the guards, who were supposed to be in charge of the security of the camp, pocketed banknotes and pretended not to see anything.

“Three weeks had passed since our arrival at Shagarab, it was morning and we were gathering firewood when they burst into the camp. They grabbed me and two other guys, loaded us on to their trucks and beat us up, then took us to somewhere up north of Kassala where we were put together with other Eritreans who had been kidnapped like us. In the following days other co-nationals joined the group, until we were ready to be considered a profitable number.

On the border with Sinai, the group, which had now become more than thirty people, was handed over to some Egyptians who took them in their boats to Aswan on the other bank of the Nile, and then on to Suez. They used a big truck to transport them, one of those that they use for poultry. Where they took them was the market, they were the goods.

“They divided us and handed us over to different traffickers. Me and another thirteen were taken to a torture centre where they asked us for 3.500 dollars for our release. They made us call our family two or three times a day and during the telephone call they beat us so that they could hear our cries on the other end of the line. My family and friends managed to put together the money and paid for me. When the money arrived they loaded us up in a car, we had been sold to another trafficker, he wanted 30,000 dollars, he had paid a lot of money for us, he said, and he had to have a return for his money.”

The second torture camp where Yonathan was taken was hell. The detainees were given a slice of bread a day and the maltreatment and torture was programmed. It was administered in such a way that the pain was greatest at the time of the daily telephone calls with families. There was also three women detained together with Yonathan, of whom one was pregnant, and they received the same treatment as the men.

“They hung us head down tied by the ankles, other times by the wrists and they poured molten plastic over us. After a week, one of the guys who had been kidnapped with me died, and I was in really bad shape. I had a broken wrist and my ankles lacerated by the chains that were too tight, I couldn’t see much and it was hard to stay on my feet. I knew that my family would never be able to pay 30,000 dollars for me so I lost all hope. I tried to commit suicide by slashing my jugular with a cable, but it was too old and rusty and didn’t work so I begged one of the translators who was an Eritrean to procure some poison for me, any poison that would help me to kill myself, but he refused to help me. I couldn’t help thinking of my mother who was receiving these calls, who didn’t have the money and who wouldn’t know what to do.”

It took the family three months to put together the money necessary to free Yonathan who was by now almost dead, almost always unconscious, too weak to walk and with his hands partially gangrenous owing to having been left hanging by his hands for too long. Yonathan does not remember much of his journey towards Israel, he fainted after a few steps and had to be carried by the men who were sharing this last tract guided by their new custodian, this time a Bedouin. The Israeli patrol that came across the group of refugees had Yonathan transferred immediately to a hospital where he remained for several months.

“I contacted my family to tell them that I was alive but I said nothing about the injuries to my hands. I had lost many of my fingers and those that remained I found it difficult to move, so I had practically lost the use of my hands. They told me that everything that was possible has been done, but more could be done with more advanced surgery. I spent more than a year in a refuge at Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, I felt very bad because on the one hand I was happy to have survived, but on the other I thought that perhaps it would have been better if I had died because from now on I would have to depend on others. I had always counted on my own strength and had never had to depend on others. In Israel people like me they consider “infiltrators” and it didn’t matter how many times I repeated what had happened to me. With time I realized that I would not be able to request political asylum and that the law allowed the government to arrest me and detain me for more than three years. This situation was ghastly because after everything that I had been through I was being treated as a criminal. I wanted to leave but I didn’t have a passport, and I couldn’t turn to my Embassy because I was a deserter.

I was telling some journalists about what had happened to me when I met some European activists who invited me to Brussels in December 2013 to tell my story to the European Parliament.”

Today Yonathan is 28 and lives in Sweden where he is completing the procedure that will finally enable him to obtain refugee status. Thanks to a network of German donors he will be able to receive special surgical treatment for his hands as soon as his position has been regularized.

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