End High School in Sawa

Radio Erena: 21 August 2020

In March 1988, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA) infiltrated the positions of several Ethiopian units defending the road between the towns of Afabet and Keren, and thus isolated the last of the Nadew Command, one of four army corps of the Ethiopian Second Revolutionary Army. When the men of the Nadew Command attempted to pull back along the road in a southern direction, they ran into an ambush between the Mashalit and Ad Sharum passes. Following a loss of almost 3,000 killed, 6,000 wounded, and 3,000 deserted or missing in action; having hundreds of its armored vehicles captured or destroyed; and losing vast amounts of supplies in what became known as the Battle of Afabet, the Nadew Command was effectively destroyed.

This bloody victory marked the beginning of the end of Eritrea’s thirty-year liberation war against the Ethiopian government. On 24 May 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) took the Eritrean capital back from Ethiopian control and secured Eritrea’s de facto independence. Four days later, with the help of the EPLF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (consisting of four oppositional political parties, the most notable of which was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front), overthrew the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa and assumed control of the country. In early July 1991, representatives of 24 political parties and ethnic groups met in Addis Ababa at a national conference to discuss the future of the country. The attendees recognized Eritrea’s right to independence, and on the final day of the conference, the EPLF announced the organization of a referendum on self-determination to be held in 1993. The referendum was held between 23 and 25 April, with 99.83% of Eritreans opting for independence. Independence was officially declared on 27 April.

On the surface, relations between the EPLF and Ethiopia’s main opposition movement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) might have seemed strong. After all, they had fought side by side throughout the liberation war to overthrow Ethiopia’s government. But, despite achieving their overall aim, their relationship did suffer during the war, due to differences of opinion on military strategy, economics, matters of national pride and ideology. This led to an understanding between the two groups that their relationship was purely a ‘tactical alliance’ and a means to an end. Unfortunately, it is evident in Eritrea’s policies following their independence, that the new president Isaias Afwerki, did not trust the Ethiopians, at all.

On 6 November 1991, only six months after achieving de facto independence, the provisional government of Eritrea introduced mandatory national service, including military service. This decree established national service as an 18-month ‘development service’ under the Ministry of Regional Administration. However, until May 1994, the 1991 decree was not implemented. In 1994, the Eritrean government began rotating all Eritrean students from grades 8-12, in month-long military training programs at Sawa military camp. In the early days, some of these students also served as construction workers and helped build the camp. In 1995, the proclamation on national service was formalized and published in the Eritrean Gazette on 23 October. It declared national service and reserve military service mandatory for men and women between the ages of 18 to 50. The initial period of ‘active service’ was 18 months, consisting of six months’ military service followed by 12 months’ deployment in military or government service. After this mandatory 18-month period, any Eritrean man or woman aged between 18 and 50 could be called upon to carry out reserve military duties, within certain emergencies, as stated by law.

The new Eritrean government, under President Afwerki, supposedly introduced conscription as an effort to unify the people of Eritrea under the national banner and encourage them to collaborate in rebuilding their nation. However, the objectives laid out in the proclamation of national service encapsulate a desire to inculcate the Eritrean people with a disciplined, militaristic mindset:

The establishment of a strong Defence Force based on the people to ensure a free and sovereign Eritrea; to create a new generation characterized by the love of work, discipline, ready to participate and serve in the reconstruction of the nation; to develop and enforce the economy of the nation by investing in development work our people as a potential wealth; to develop professional capacity and physical fitness by giving regular military training and continuous practice to participants in Training Centers.

The first clause of these objectives is somewhat ironic in its own terms, but in hindsight and with knowledge of the current situation in Eritrea, it becomes a bit less ironic, and a bit more worrisome. “Defence” and “love of work and discipline” appeared to be the primary objectives for President Afwerki, and perhaps there is merit to asking, as President Kennedy did, what we can do for our country, but the operative word in this well-known phrase is “ask” because it implies a choice. President Afwerki, in his attempt to exact national pride, love of work, and resolute military discipline on his people, ultimately produced the opposites of these “virtues”. The opening passage of the 1995 national service proclamation carries a similar tone, only with more reverence for the martyrs who freed Eritrea, of which President Afwerki was a leading figure:

The People of Eritrea have after thirty years of bitter and armed struggle characterized by heavy and high sacrifices succeeded in materializing their dreams of redeeming our country Eritrea from the oppressive and all aspect sufferings caused by the dark domination enabling it to become an independent and sovereign nation. The present and future generations have the historical responsibility of preserving a free and sovereign Eritrea as a legacy of thousands of martyrs. For the realization of this noble objective it has become necessary to proclaim and issue this proclamation on National Service.

When any imposition on freedom is claimed in the name of security, it is important to examine the language used. In this case, one can already detect the germ of a narrative filled with worship for the legacy of the martyrs. In itself not too dangerous, perhaps, but if employed as a form of emotional blackmail, or to create a collective conscience of guilt, it can, and has been used for coercion. Constantly reminding the Eritrean people of how heroic their martyrs were, and how allegiance must be owed unquestionably to the nation that they helped set free, has formed a solid bedrock for the eventual imposition of unlimited terms of national service, and subsequent suffering. Further, there is a palpable hatred towards the former Ethiopian regime, captured most aptly in the phrase “The oppressive and all aspect sufferings caused by the dark domination”. This is understandable, given Emperor Haile Selassie’s, and then Mengistu Haile Mariam’s treatment of Eritrea before their respective defeats; but it is hard to decouple the animosity towards the former regimes, from the anticipated no-war-no-peace situation with the new government of Ethiopia. And indeed, there seems to lurk within the language a hostile attitude towards Ethiopia in general.

In 1997, the Eritrean constitution was ratified. A lot of its content encouraging. In ‘Article 7 – Democratic Principles’ it is stated, inter alia that “[…] all Eritreans, without distinction, are guaranteed equal opportunity to participate in any position of leadership in the country” and “The conduct of the affairs of government and all organizations and institutions shall be accountable and transparent”. Although signed by the Constituent Assembly, positive aspects of the constitution like these and others have never been put into practice. As we know, Eritrea is a one-party state with no independent media and absolutely no room for dissent. What is interesting, however, is that some parts of the constitution have been enacted excessively, such as the components of ‘Article 25 – Duties of Citizens’ where, among other things, it is stated that all citizens shall have the duty to: ‘owe allegiance to Eritrea and be ready to defend the country’. The abuse of this clause is only too painfully obvious when we study Eritrea in the present day. The constitution captures, mostly, the same feelings of glory, legacy, and the need to become robust in defense, which is sentiment in the proclamation on national service. And unfortunately, these feelings were the only parts translated into functional reality, whilst the positive aspects of democracy and openness have not just been neglected, but completely negated.

The currents of national pride and defensive military enablement that flow within Eritrea’s early documentation, are most evidently on display in the infamous Sawa military camp. Located in the isolated Gash-Barka region, near the border with Sudan, the camp serves one purpose: to take students and turn them into soldiers. In May 1994, the government announced that in the first round of recruitment, 10,000 young Eritreans who were registered in 1991 in the Asmara province would be called up to fulfill their national service duty. There are two principal means of recruitment, one is a formalized call-up system, facilitated by the systematic militarization of the education system, as was first carried out in May 1994; the other is forced recruitment by raids. In the Tigrinya language, these raids are known as ‘giffa’, and they are carried out by the police and the military in areas where those who have not responded to the call-up, or who have deserted, may be hiding. The raids involve house and workplace searches, as well as roadblock placement, and are further enabled by the help of local zone officials known as ‘Zoba’.

In an optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, on 25 May 2000, the following declaration was made “The State of Eritrea declares that the minimum age for the recruitment of persons into the armed forces is eighteen years”. Despite this commitment, and although the majority of students rounded up in the giffas are 18, some are as young as 16 when they are dragged away from their families. The ‘round-ups’ simply seize all citizens who appear to be of military age and cannot produce documentation to show that they are not liable for military service. Even more, ironically, the UN convention on the Rights of the Child was the first international convention ratified by Eritrea following its independence in 1993.

In 2002, things took a turn for the worst for the people of Eritrea. The government launched the ‘Warsai Yikealo Development Campaign’ (WYDC), which meant conscripts were deployed to posts in the civil service, local and national administrations, and state-owned businesses, in addition to the military. Most notably, the WYDC extended the statutory 18-month period of service indefinitely. The Eritrean government cited aggression and the threat of invasion from its neighbor Ethiopia as the primary justification for the necessity of indefinite service. This campaign followed the 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, wherein 100,000 lives were reportedly lost over both sides. In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt tells us that the lifeblood of a totalitarian regime is propaganda, woven around a central fiction; the conspiracy of the Jews, or the Trotskyites, or 300 families, for example. Propaganda inculcates the citizens with information that lines up with this fiction, but it is what Arendt calls ‘totalitarian organization’ that translates propaganda into a functional reality, to build up a society whose citizens act and react according to the rules of a fictitious world. Though not fictitious, the liberation war and subsequent border war have been propagandized by the regime, and Sawa Military Camp is the totalitarian organization that translates this propaganda into a functional reality.

Since 2003 all secondary school students must complete their final year at the Warsai Yikealo school inside Sawa Military Camp. Conscientious objection is not a recognized right in Eritrea. Jehova’s Witnesses are said to refuse to comply with compulsory national service demands, and in October 1994 this cost them their citizen’s rights. A government directive denied them government employment, government housing, business licenses, and passports. During the liberation war, large numbers of Jehova’s Witnesses were conscientious objectors and refused to take part. As of June 2009, there were a total of 12 Jehova’s Witnesses in prison in Eritrea as a result of refusing military service. Three Jehova’s Witnesses jailed in September 1994 for refusing military service were still in incommunicado detention without charge or trial in 2018, more than 14 years later.

Country Reports 2011 states that students whose family members fought in the thirty-year war are sometimes exempt from indefinite military service, and instead serve five months or less in the military and are then placed in technical college for further education. Although this has never been strictly proven. According to the British Embassy in Asmara, married women and women with dependent children are typically exempt from military service, and Country Reports 2011 also says that girls who are already married tend to be exempt from training at Sawa and further military service. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report also states that pregnant women may be exempt from service, or reserve duty. However, pregnant women are not promptly issued with demobilization papers to prove their exemption, and indeed some women in national service do have children.

Article 15 of the Proclamation of National Service states that citizens who are certified to “suffer from a disability such as an invalidity, blindness, [or] psychological derangement” can be exempted from national service. However, the certification of disabled individuals and persons who are medically ‘unfit’ for military service is done by doctors on military bases. Those certified as unfit for military service are nonetheless required to carry out 18 months of national service in “any public and government organ according to their capacity and profession”. Human Rights Watch’s interviews with refugees suggest that in practice, virtually all citizens undertake military service unless they are blind or “missing their trigger fingers”.

Attempting to evade military service, or trying to flee once in Sawa, are also commonplace occurrences. Unfortunately, violations of the Proclamation of National Service, including evasion through fraud, self-inflicted disability, and other methods, are punishable with two years’ imprisonment and/or a large fine. Further, the law states that those who flee the country to avoid national service and do not return to perform their duty until the age of 40, will be liable to punishment or to an imprisonment of 5 years until the age of 50, and their license, visa, land tenure and rights to work will be suspended. Human rights reports suggest that evaders and deserters are subject to detention without trial, or are charged with violations relating to national service, allowing authorities to imprison them indefinitely. Human Rights Watch estimates the number of detainees for national service evasion to be in the tens of thousands, and Country Reports 2011 stated that hundreds of these citizens were detained in 2011 in “harsh and life-threatening” conditions, and were often held in solitary confinement.

Once drafted, some conscripts become so desperate that they will take any chance to escape. On Sunday 3 April 2016, a host of conscript-carrying vehicles were driving through Asmara, on the way to the port of Assab. Reports of how the event unfolded are slightly skimpy, but here is what appears to have happened: Two conscripts took their chance as they passed through the city and leapt from the truck. They were instantly shot dead by guards. However, the conscripts had alerted their families and a city bus was used to block the road. When the vehicles stopped, other conscripts tried to escape. The guards, resolute on stopping the escape attempt, opened fire into the crowd. A total of twenty-nine people were killed or seriously injured. Six died instantly, and eighteen were taken to Halibet Hospital. For five days afterward no statements were made by the government, and it was only because the names of the injured were published on opposition websites that the authorities had to admit there had been an incident. A government spokesperson named Yemane Gebremeskel tweeted that two died and eleven were injured ‘when they jumped and fell from military trucks’, he then went on to say that the police stabilized the situation by firing a few warning shots into the air. There was no explanation given as to why the conscripts jumped from the trucks in the first place, or why shots had to be fired.

Some students have escaped from Sawa camp during 12th grade without completing their school year. Because Sawa is effectively a huge prison, escaping it is no easy task, and those who have made it out describe braving machine gun fire, barbed wire fences, and several days of trekking through the dry desert with no food or water. Those who attempted to escape but did not manage were subjected to various torture methods and abhorrent practices. Otto, is a punishment where the arms are tied together behind the back, and conscripts are made to lie on their stomachs. This was the most prevalent torture method described by former conscripts and detainees, practiced at Sawa. Other torture methods carried out by military superiors are designed to scare students from trying to escape the camp. One account gathered by Human Rights Watch details how unsuccessful deserters from Sawa were tied to a corpse, with one witness saying: “One had been shot running away, the other two had their hands tied to the feet of the dead person. They were paraded around the camp in the back of a Toyota pick-up truck. The intention was for everyone to see”.

For those students who do end up at Sawa, the conditions, as you can imagine, are horrid. The pretense of a final year of ‘schooling’ or ‘education’ is quickly demystified. Students completing their final year of high school at Warsai Yikealo follow a schedule that combines preparatory classes for the country-wide matriculation exam, a pre-requisite for entry to one of the few state-run post-secondary institutions; with mandatory military training. However, the primary focus is to turn students into soldiers, thus students are under military command throughout their final year, including during their study time, and military officials subject students to maltreatment and severe punishments for minor infringements, military-level discipline, and forced labor, which often eats into students’ study and rest time. One former student on Twitter said “Sawa is a place for military training. Sawa is not suitable for study”. In an interview with Shabait, in 2010, the director of Warsai Yikealo school Mr. Kiflay Andemichael told the interviewer that in 2008 just 30% of students who took the national matriculation exam passed to a higher level of education. Not exactly a gold standard of achievement, but not surprising when students, for example, are made to perform arbitrary labor tasks during their study time, such as wood collection. At weekends, students are assigned to forced labor at a nearby government farm, again impeding their ability to learn and prepare for exams. A teacher who was teaching at Sawa under national service said “The students could not study. They were always being forced to leave the class for some kind of military service”.

Another factor in the quality of education at Sawa is the teachers. Lots of students receive a poor quality of instruction because their teachers are often unmotivated or absent, with teachers skipping lessons and many of them fleeing overseas. As a result, lots of students miss classes and units as there is nobody there to teach them, or occasionally classes must be merged, meaningless one-on-one, teacher-to-student attention. Sometimes students go without a teacher for weeks at a time. Any protests that have formed against government education policies have resulted in violent responses, including security forces using live ammunition to disperse protests and conduct mass arrests. There is little recourse for teachers or students to express their dislike of the education system or to find an alternative to fleeing. The Eritrean government has acknowledged some of the challenges facing the education system in its Education Sector Development Plans introduced in 2013. However, these plans do not mention the negative impacts of national service or the use of Grade 12 as a recruitment channel, the rights of students and teachers, or the issues limiting access to quality secondary education.

Not only do students suffer from a lack of serious education at warsai Yikealo, and a fear-instilling atmosphere, but in many cases, the female students are the victims of sexual abuse by military officials. A study published by Cambridge University Press in 2017 based on data collected through snowball sampling from 190 former conscripts now living in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, South Africa, Kenya, and Sweden; found that sexual abuse is rampant throughout the Eritrean national service, particularly among female conscripts who are assigned to work at Sawa military camp subsequent to the six months of military training. Further, an Amnesty International report on Eritrea in 2018 stated that “Women, in particular, faced harsh treatment in the camp including sexual enslavement, torture, and other sexual abuse”. In a Vice News article published in 2017, a former Sawa conscript describes the situation in the camp “Many female conscripts are subject to sexual assault and harassment by higher ranks in the military. There is normally one girl for every 16 or 17 men, and you all have to sleep in one room. During our training, we were careful not to get close to guys or be alone with them, but this can be hard to avoid. Unless you serve them – making food or coffee – you become a target. After our training, we heard of a lot of girls who got pregnant”.

‘Psychological derangement’ is also a ground for exemption from military service and appears to be a common way of trying to evade service. Recruits of Sawa in 2010 described a significant increase in the number of conscripts in the camp exhibiting signs of severe mental illness. Conscripts described a new disease that mainly affected young women in the military camp, called ‘lewt’. One male conscript explained: “In every cohort at least 10 girls die. The girls cannot handle pressure and punishment. The symptoms are a bent back, walking backward, and some of them shake and fall. They become like zombies; they just stare at you”. But, as another conscript said, “I’m not sure if they are genuinely crazy or if they are just pretending to be crazy in order to be demobilized”. A 2007 report from Awate.com states that: “After their return from Sawa, the young boys and girls have been telling their parents harrowing stories. The Sawa regiment, which is designed to build what the army calls ‘texawarnetn maximum’ (endurance and stamina), includes long gu’ezo egri (walks), idleness and a starvation diet. The students wake up at 4:30 am and are given their first meal at noon. Some students report receiving as little as three rolls of hard bread and lentil stew as their daily ration.

The students’ biggest aggravation is the state of healthcare at Sawa. They report that no one is referred to the hospital even in critical circumstances. Those who are suffering from falciparum and plasmodium (malaria), pneumonia, or a muscular spasm, are simply given a painkiller. Several students report avoidable deaths and delirium as a result of negligence and last-minute referrals to Keren hospital. In the present day Covid-19 pandemic, Sawa is an extremely dangerous place to be, and recruits are at constant risk of contracting the virus. Despite temporarily closing schools and beginning a period of lockdown in Eritrea, the government recently said in a press release that all 11th grade students are to return to their respective schools for 10 weeks in preparation for reporting to Sawa military camp for the standard year of militarised education. Aside from the fact that all the 11th graders have had their 11th year of education cut short, they will now be exposed to an environment conducive to the contracting and spreading of coronavirus.

Students at Sawa are not given masks, they are expected to perform marching duties in close proximity to one another, and to share dorms. Further, as previously discussed, the healthcare situation at Sawa is dire and threatens to ignore the medical needs of students who may contract the virus. The UN Special Rapporteur and Human Rights Watch have made calls for the Eritrean government to allow students at Sawa to return home and to release political prisoners who are held in overcrowded, unsanitary detention centers, but Isais Afwerki has ignored the requests. After a significant outbreak, Iran took measures to ensure that coronavirus was kept at bay both in its penal system and in regular society, by temporarily releasing 85,000 prisoners from its jails. The first case of coronavirus was recorded in Eritrea on 21st March 2020, and as of today, 17th August 2020, there have been 285 cases recorded in total. It is likely that more cases have not been reported and given that the virus is at its most dangerous in confined spaces where there is prolonged contact, the detainees and students in Eritrea’s prisons and military camps are at significant risk. If Iran has taken measures to alleviate the impact of the virus, then Eritrea should be taking the same steps.

A campaign group on Twitter, comprised of former Sawa students, operating under the hashtag ‘EndHighSchoolInSawa’ is fighting for reform. They recently published a press release reiterating the government’s decision to send 11th graders back to school and then to Sawa military camp. They state that new infections have been recorded in the area surrounding the camp and that if authorities go ahead with this plan, tens of thousands of already vulnerable Eritrean youth face a high risk of exposure to the virus because precautionary measures such as social distancing would be impossible and the hygiene provisions and healthcare services are wholly inadequate in the camp. The campaign group demands that the Eritrean authorities immediately reverse their order to send students to Sawa in the middle of the pandemic, and they call upon institutions and governments who help fund Eritrea’s education system – the African Development Bank, Global Partnership for Education, the European Development Fund and the Government of the Republic of Finland – to condition their help on their ability to audit the government’s decoupling of education and military policies that continue to be the root cause of Eritrea’s human rights crisis. Especially during the critical time of the coronavirus pandemic.

By Matthew Norman.


Matthew Norman: Freelance Journalist with a background in international development, now fighting for the extension of universal human rights.