By law, every single student in Eritrea must spend their final year of high school at the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School and Vocational Training Centre — no matter where they are from or where they attended classes before. The school is inside a military camp, however, and students have no guarantee that they will ever be allowed to return to civilian life.
According to the Eritrean government — led by President Isaias Afwerki since independence from Ethiopia in 1991 — the policy is a kind of radical egalitarianism designed to level the educational playing field, ultimately ensuring that all students have equal access to university, and consolidating the “harmony and social cohesion” of each new generation.
But students themselves tell a very different story, describing a system of systematic abuse, torture and repression that has forced hundreds of thousands of young Eritreans to flee their country.
“You don’t understand if it’s a school, or a military camp,” said one former student. “Sawa is hell: they do everything to make you want to leave,” said another.
Sawa is the name of the military camp, and is how most students refer to the school that is based there.
Satellite Imagery of the Sawa military camp, including the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School, recorded in January 2015. Imagery © DigitalGlobe – Maxar Technologies 2019; Source: Google Earth
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an 84-page report detailing the experiences of students at Sawa. The report is an unprecedented glimpse into what daily life is like at the school, and an insight into what the harsh environment is designed to achieve. “Eritrea’s secondary schools are at the heart of its repressive system of control over its population,” said Laetitia Baeder, who, as the lead researcher on the report, conducted interviews with dozens of former students.
‘Punishments were so hard’
Sawa is located in inhospitable, isolated terrain near Eritrea’s western border with Sudan, where temperatures in summer can reach up to 40°C. It is divided into educational and military areas and, in total, can accommodate up to 30 000 people, according to the ministry of information (Eritrea’s current minister of information did not respond to a request for comment for this piece; nor did Eritrean authorities respond to repeated attempts by HRW to obtain comment).
At the beginning of each school year, grade 12 students are bused in from all over the country. Most, but not all, are over the age of 18; according to HRW, some are as young as 16. On arrival they are divided into groups that mirror army formations, and each given a plastic plate, cup and utensils. The food — mostly lentils and bread — is notoriously poor.
Military training begins immediately. “From the first month, the alarm rings at 5am. They make you run to the toilet, you had five minutes to wash — if we had water, which wasn’t always the case — five minutes to put your uniform on. You get punished if you don’t manage,” one former student said. “We would have military training until 8am … The military trainer is always with you; he stays in the dorm. The [physical] punishments were so hard; I was desperate to escape them and so I would try to stick to the rules.”
According to HRW, the year at Sawa is divided into one or two months of physical fitness training and military discipline; four months of military training, which includes weapons handling and a three-week “war-like simulation exercise”; and six months of academic teaching.
In addition to these responsibilities, however, students are expected to perform manual labour such as cleaning and carrying supplies, and also to assist with farming at the state-owned Molober farm, 7km from Sawa. This leaves very little time for actual studying.
Students are punished for even minor infractions, such as oversleeping, or for complaining about their conditions. Punishments include — but are not limited to — being beaten with sticks, being left in the sun for long periods of time, and being made to roll around on the ground while being beaten.
For female students, the dangers are even greater. Referring to Sawa and other military training camps, the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea found in its 2015 report that “Women and girls are at a high risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence … They are often forced into concubinage by superiors in the camp.”
‘It’s just slavery’
The end of the school year brings no respite. Students with high marks may be allowed to go to one of the country’s seven tertiary colleges, while the rest are forced into Eritrea’s involuntary and indefinite conscription program, which has been described by both former conscripts and rights groups as a form of modern-day slavery. A university degree merely delays the inevitable, with graduates still required to participate in national service once they have obtained their degree.
Although conscription is officially capped at 18 months — six months of military training and six months of national service — in practice it can last for several years or even decades. Conscripts are given no say in the work they are required to do, which can include everything from accounting to farming to construction. College students are often assigned to be secondary school teachers, even if they have no teaching experience or subject expertise. The pay is paltry, the food is still bad and there is no legal entitlement to any leave.
“It’s just slavery. You toil day and night and you get nothing,” said Dawit, a former school teacher, speaking to the Guardian in 2018.
Young Eritreans have come up with creative solutions to avoid national service, such as deliberately flunking Grade 11 to avoid being sent to Sawa; or, for women, by marrying young and becoming pregnant. But these are far from foolproof: periodic police and military raids — known as giffas in Tigrinya — round up people who are perceived as trying to avoid conscription.
There is no provision for conscientious objection in Eritrean law, so “draft dodgers” are often jailed. One student, who tried to escape national service in 2014, described his experience to HRW. He was 14 at the time.
“I spent six months in Gergera [prison]. The cell was about 4m2 and there were 180 people in it. We would put up our sheets and sleep on them. No windows, no light. Never allowed out. Only to go to the toilet and to eat.
“I was held with detainees of all ages. Some detainees were there for escaping, some for trying to evade national service. [Because] I was young and injured, they just held me for six months and then released me. But most are held for six months and then sent to military service,” he said.
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that thousands of young Eritreans are fleeing the country every month. Half a million Eritreans now live in exile, mostly in neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan, from a population of just five million — that is, 10% of the country’s citizens.
Many make the perilous journey to Europe, braving the civil war and human traffickers in Libya and the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean: they have calculated that the risks are worth it for the chance of a better life somewhere else.
So much for the “harmony and social cohesion” that the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School and Vocational Training Centre was supposed to deliver.
“Ending abusive and open-ended national service, reining in military officials responsible for abuse, and allowing students to determine their futures will be key to Eritrea’s prospects,” said Bader. “People who see that they have a bright future in Eritrea are less likely to need to flee.”