There are an estimated 451,000 people living in modern slavery in Eritrea (GSI 2018). The small country has a unique system of compulsory, open-ended military service for citizens that makes it one of the most oppressive states in the world. The government has enforced its current policy of sending all secondary school students to serve for a minimum of twelve months since 2003. While Eritrean law puts the minimum conscription age at 18, many teenagers find themselves recruited during high school at age 16 or even younger. In rural areas, where formal education is rarer, the army will visit villages to round up young girls and boys who look roughly of age, to begin their program of combat training and forced labour.
In 2007, like other adolescents in the Northeast African country of Eritrea, Luwam Estifanos was taken to Sawa, a military camp near the Sudanese border. Luwam was forced to get up 5.30am, run for two hours before sunrise, followed by 12 hours of weapons training, marching and cleaning. She recalls how girls were forced to engage in the same activities as boys however they are also subjected to sexual assault. Luwam was finally able to escape in 2010, making a 12-hour trek through the desert into Sudan. After a year in Sudan, Luwam travelled to Uganda and following one refusal and months of waiting, was eventually granted asylum in Norway with the rest of her family.
At the age of 16, your life is not yours until God knows when. It’s actual slavery, because the service is non-stop. There is no end to it – you can serve for your whole life. We lost our youth there.
As girls, we were treated just like [male] soldiers.
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.
They would make you jump from the top of a building, or beat you heavily. Or if you lost your voice, they would bring snakes and scorpions to try to make you scream. So if anyone got sick, we had to try hard to hide it.
[Luwam fled the country in 2010]
I knew it was a matter of life and death but I was confident as we paid so much money the route would be smooth. It wasn't. We were shot at as we crossed the border and had to hide under a tree until it was over. I was so dehydrated I thought I would die. There were bodies and skeletons around us. When I got to Sudan I was even more scared because of human trafficking. Women were being tortured and raped.
The journey is horrendous, but so many people are now trying to escape. In my year, 20,000 went to serve and by the end, there were only 16,000 – the rest had fled.
Normally it used to be men who would leave and then bring their wives, but more and more [young] women are leaving now.
Narrative provided by VICE