The Erosion of Eritrea's Foundation - The Family
By Nahum Kidan
“The development of a country has to start at the foundation of the society, the family”
(Begum Aga Khan)
When I ask people what Eritrea’s greatest loss has been during 30 years of PFDJ (mis)rule, a recurring theme emerges; the dissolution of the Eritrean family unit. Over the last 20+ years, we have observed the erosion of the Eritrean family through the regressive policies of the PFDJ, resulting in enforced separation and the dispersal of families throughout the diaspora. The exodus of Eritrean youth is a direct consequence of the PFDJ’s system of militarized education and indefinite national service, described as being “tantamount to slavery” by the United Nations (UN) and has been the principal contributor to the dissolution of the Eritrean family. Indefinite military/national service is frequently cited as being the principal push factor driving Eritrean youth to flee the country; at the end of 2018, UNHCR reported 507,300 Eritrean refugees receiving protection under its mandate (UNHCR, 2018). The systematic campaign to weaken the Eritrean family strikes at the very heart of our society as it attacks its very foundation, our culture, core values and the aspirations of Eritrean youth.
Since time immemorial, scholars, philosophers and religious leaders have recognized the role of the family as the foundation of society. The sanctity of the family is even recognized in international law, with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stating that: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
Unlike in western parlance where the term “family” is taken to mean the “nuclear family” (parents and children), in Eritrea, the household is often composed of extended family, including the nuclear family, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Families have a crucial role to play in the cognitive, social and emotional development of children (Seedat, Duncan & Lazarus, 2001). A loving, secure home is critical to ensuring the development of healthy and well-adjusted children. Furthermore, the capacity of parents to provide sufficient material support in the form of housing, nutrition and opportunities to participate in social and extracurricular activities is a vital part of a child’s social development. It’s also firmly embedded in our culture that younger members of the family will care for their parents and even extended family members in old age.
The integrity of the family unit is critical to sustaining the livelihoods of Eritrean families. With over 75% of Eritreans making a living from subsistence farming, fit, able-bodied young men and women play a critical role in assisting with the everyday tasks of rural life, such as digging wells, ploughing the fields and getting produce to market. Artisanal fishermen, carpenters, mechanics and many more have struggled because their sons and daughters have been snatched by the State and/or been forced to escape the country. Furthermore, family members in the diaspora provide much needed material support to those back home in the form of remittances. Remittances account for approximately 32% of Eritrea’s GDP (AfDB, 2020) and has been critical to the survival of many Eritrean families in the absence of a national social security system and opportunities to earn a living wage.
During the 30-year war, Eritreans sacrificed their family interests in pursuit of national self-determination, liberty and dignity; our martyrs’ children are a reminder of the sacrifices made by Eritrean families for the cause of independence. As Eritreans, we understand what sacrifice and loss means through our lived experiences, not just through the history books. When the PFDJ introduced the mandatory national service proclamation in 1995, Eritreans were ready to fulfil their ‘national duty’ for the stipulated 18 months, with the expectation that they would then return to civilian life. Likewise, during the 1998-2000 war, Eritreans were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Eritrea. When the war ended in 2001, the youth began to dream of a return to peace and normalcy, the continuation of their education, starting families, watching their kids grow up, graduate, marry and all the other beautifully normal activities and life events which characterize family life in a ‘normal’ nation at peace.
Sadly, the hopes of Eritrean youth were dashed post-2001. Even in relative peace, the younger generation were forced to adopt a war-time mindset; stripped of their agency, they were forced to internalise and practice the values of self-sacrifice and unquestioning dedication and devotion to the PFDJ in the form of unlimited ‘national service’. Every individual is now forced into military life, forced to leave their family and engage in activities imposed by military commanders.
Woldemikael (2009) has stated that the introduction of the Warsay Yikealo Development campaign in 2002 was an attempt by PFDJ to instill the wartime mindset among Eritrean youth in a bid to keep them compliant, thereby mitigating threats to Isaias’ hegemony:
“The new Eritrean state aims to establish absolute state power by bringing the whole society under the hegemony of the party in order to transform and reshape that society in accordance with its own vision. The PFDJ has been trying to create a mode of citizenship characterized by submission of individuality, culture, traditions, political aims, and human rights to the state’s demands without resistance.”
The PFDJ uses the secondary school system as a means to channel students (including underage children) into a life of indefinite service; since 2003, all secondary school students are rounded up to complete their final year (12th grade) at Sawa military camp, a harsh, isolated location near the border with Sudan. Every year, tens of thousands of students (many underage) are forcibly separated from their families and transported to Sawa, where they undertake 5 months of military training in addition to preparing for their National Secondary Education Certificate Examination (the ‘matricula’).
At Sawa, students (including minors) face harsh living conditions, military-style discipline, corporal punishment for minor infractions and forced labour, creating an environment unconducive with educational attainment and emotional well-being. Students are: “beaten with sticks; made to roll in soil while being beaten; left in the sun for prolonged periods of time with their hands tied; and made to carry heavy water containers and do repeated physical exercises for minor infractions” (HRW, 2019a). Recent evidence suggests that military officials continue to sexually harass and exploit female students (HRWa, 2019).
After one year at Sawa (and depending on their exam performance), so begins a life of indefinite service; some youth are assigned to civil service positions, while most are placed in military units, where they work as forced laborers on private and public works projects for an indeterminate duration and for meagre pay (HRW, 2019a). Many Eritrean youth are employed at large cash-crop farms run by the army or at party-owned construction businesses after completion of their military training. They earn a meagre salary, insufficient to support themselves or their families and live under harsh military discipline even when working on civil projects.
National Service Proclamation No. 82/1995 stipulates that all citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 must participate in an 18-month active national service programme. The programme is stated to comprise of 6 months of military training followed by 12 months of active military service and/or development work. However, following the introduction of the Warsay Yikealo programme in 2002, the national service programme was illegally extended from 18 months to an indefinite period, with many conscripts having served for decades (HRC, 2015; HRW, 2019a).
Proclamation No.11/1991 provided the statutory basis for national service prior to the promulgation of the current National Service Proclamation (No. 82/1995); its provisions exempted married women and single mothers from national service duties. The 1995 National Service Proclamation removed these exemptions for married women and mothers, contributing to the disintegration of families. Whilst the PFDJ claim that married women and single mothers are exempt, there is no legal basis for this claim; where they are exempted, this is done in an arbitrary manner and at the discretion of the recruiting officer (HRC, 2015).
The trauma faced by Eritrean youth doesn’t end when they cross Eritrean borders; harsh journeys through war zones, deserts and seas, often through networks of smugglers and traffickers compound their suffering. Racist immigration policies, social exclusion and lack of family support in third countries take a toll on the mental health and welfare of Eritrean refugees, many already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. A recent study found high rates of depression and anxiety among Eritrean urban refugees minors in Sudan (Badri et al, 2020). The alarming number of young Eritrean refugees taking their life in Europe is of serious concern; in 2018, Mulubrhane Kfleyeus became the fourth member from his group of friends to take his own life within a 16-month period of arriving in the UK; Kfleyesus had been suffering from mental illness at the time of his death and the seriousness was not recognised by UK authorities (Guardian, 2021). These reports are just the tip of the iceberg; the realization is growing that we are dealing with a deeply traumatized generation, separated from the buffering effect of family support and in urgent need of psychosocial support.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of Eritrean independence, citizens continue to be subject to arbitrary imprisonment without recourse to the courts, shattering the lives of thousands of Eritrean families. The tens of thousands of detainees held in Eritrea’s vast prison network include political dissidents, journalists, members of unregistered religious denominations and other prisoners of conscience. Imprisonment is indefinite, often incommunicado and detainees are subjected to harsh punishment including torture (HRC, 2015).
Ciham Ali Abdu, a U.S. citizen and daughter of former Information Minister Ali Abdu, has been detained incommunicado for over eight years. Ciham was only 15 years old when she was arrested in December 2012 whilst attempting to cross the border into the Sudan. Her father had defected one month earlier and sought asylum in Australia following irreparable differences with the President. Ciham has never been charged with a crime, has not been brought before a court of law and has been denied access to lawyers and her family. Human Rights Watch (2019b) observed: “By holding Ciham Ali incommunicado from the age of 15, the government has effectively disappeared her.”
Mother of three daughters, Senait Debesay was arrested in Asmara on the 15th of November 2003 and detained incommunicado in Karchele prison. It is alleged that her arrest was instigated by her husband, Beyene Russom (Permanent Representative of the State of Eritrea to Kenya), with whom she had been embroiled in divorce proceedings. She was arrested just days before she was due to attend court to file for custody of their children. To this day, information on her whereabouts and state of her well-being are unknown, though in 2005, it was reported that Senait was in poor health following a kidney operation (Amnesty International, 2005). Ciham and Senait are just two high-profile examples of how the arbitrary exercise of power by the PFDJ has destroyed the lives of thousands of Eritrean families.
Surprisingly, some Eritreans justify the repression and crackdown on civil liberties; some see it as a ‘necessary evil’ on Eritrea’s journey of transformation into the ‘Singapore of Africa’. The promised rewards, such as rapid economic development, food security and self-reliance have been nothing more than a myth; the actual outcome of PFDJ policies has been a rapid decline in economic performance, living standards, the accumulation of an unsustainable debt burden and an entire generation, devoid of hope, looking to escape the shackles of dictatorship.
Unemployment, lack of basic infrastructure, illiteracy, insecurity and mismanagement have been the main obstacles to growth. In relation to human development, Eritrea's HDI value for 2019 was 0.459— which placed the country in the low human development category— positioning it at 180 out of 189 countries/territories (UNDP, 2020). Eritrea's gross public debt reached 189.2% of GDP in 2019, up from 185.8%, and the country is in debt distress (AfDB,2020). The latest child nutrition data shows the stunting rate to be excessively high, at 52%, and the wasting rate to be 15.3%. Eritrean citizens are currently facing an extreme hunger crisis which has gone unnoticed by the international community due to PFDJ’s lack of transparency and the absence of a private press. The hunger crisis is due to a combination of drought, locust infestations, economic restrictions and mismanagement and an enforced national lockdown for over 12 months, which has kept families trapped at home with totally insufficient social welfare support from the PFDJ.
We shouldn’t really be surprised at where we are, because development which isn’t centred around the needs and interests of the citizenry will not be sustainable, just and equitable. Good governance is not possible where there is unaccountability and citizens are not engaged as principal stakeholders. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon said in 2014: “the very achievement of development goals depends on how well families are empowered to contribute to the achievement of those goals.”
If Eritrea were a democratic country governed by the rule of law, we as the citizenry would be able to defend the rights of the Eritrean family. Article 22 of the ratified but unimplemented Eritrean Constitution refers to the family as: “the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to the protection and special care of the State and society.” It goes on to say that “Parents have the right and duty to bring up their children with due care and affection”. As such, militarized education, the forced conscription of minors (without parental permission) and the illegal detention of citizens goes against the Constitutional rights of the Eritrean family. In any civilized society, the Government’s role must be to empower families, not to abuse and degrade them.
Furthermore, Eritrea is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the protection of families from unlawful interference. Protection of the family and its members is also directly and indirectly guaranteed by other Articles within the Covenant, such as protection of the child, under Article 24. The absence of an independent judiciary and National Assembly (legislature) to hold Isaias and the PFDJ to account has facilitated the degradation of the Eritrean family.
Since Isaias Afewerki and Abiy Ahmed signed the joint declaration during the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace summit in Addis in July 2018, no steps have been taken to institutionalize the agreement and the Eritrean people are yet to reap the dividends of ‘peace’. The PFDJ have made no announcements regarding implementing the constitution or phased demobilization of Eritreans trapped in indefinite military/national service. Instead, in November 2020, Isaias unilaterally took Eritrea into another war it did not ask for and had no business involving itself in. As a consequence, countless youth will die on all sides, more families shattered, and the generational cycle of vengeance will renew itself.
Surely, there must come a point where we ask: “what gives an unelected, self-proclaimed authority, operating with impunity, the right to snatch our children without permission?”; Or “what right do a handful of men (with no legal or God given mandate to rule) have to detain my family members without recourse to the courts?”
To defend the Eritrean family, and by extension, Eritrean society, we must reject the regressive and illegitimate rule of Isaias and the PFDJ. There is an African proverb which says: “A family tie is like a tree, it can bend but it cannot break.” We must remain resolute, our heads unbowed and unbloodied, until we restore the institution of the Eritrean family, the very foundation of our society.
I shall leave you with the words of Pope Francis: “The family is the most important wealth of a nation. May we endeavour to defend and strengthen the foundation of society.
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Woldemikael, T.M. 2009. ‘Pitfalls of nationalism in Eritrea’, in O'Kane, & Redeker-Hepner, Biopolitics, Militarism and Development,1–16.
Proclamation No. 82/1995 – National Service (Current) https://www.refworld.org/docid/3dd8d3af4.html
Proclamation No.11/1991 – national Service (Old)
Ratified Constitution (not implemented) http://confinder.richmond.edu/admin/docs/Eritrea1997English.pdf
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
NB: Picture taken from the Internet