Eritreans in Sudan: Their Struggle is Mine Too
One night in December, 2011, Grace refused to serve a Sudanese customer who used to drink tea and coffee daily without paying a cent. He would tell her “This is not your country; either serve me for free or leave to your home land where you can protest”. At that moment, he became enraged and poured the boiling water kettle all over her right side, from the shoulder down to the hips, causing severe burns. I met her 10 months after the accident, and she had not recovered yet. Her arm muscles seem to be severely affected. She had no money to feed, shelter or cover her medical needs, except for the donations she receives from time to time.
Grace has no official papers to file a case against the perpetrator who ran away in a street full of hundreds of people. She thinks that Sudanese people simply let him go because she is a foreigner. While working as a tea lady she was paying a guard to keep her tea set when the public order police raided the street and she ran away. She was caught several times by police officers who searched for money in her bag and the rickshaw she used every night to go back home.
Grace is one of the Eritreans in Sudan who stayed out of the recorded 115,000 refugees and 3000 asylum seekers. Her story is similar to a lot of Eritreans who crossed to Sudan seeking better opportunities but ended up in misery. The trip to Sudan is not easy at all; trafficking networks are very active in Eastern Sudan near Eritrea's border areas and extend up to Sinai desert in Egypt. Kidnapping of Eritreans happens all the way to Shegerab, the refugee camp. The most vulnerable are women who flee Eritrea alone. Stories of rape, sexual exploitation and torture are very common among the new arrivals.
Grace fled to Sudan on 2008, along with 9 of her friends who walked from Tisani to Kassala in six days due to the boarder's control. Rasheida trafficking gangs found them, and while the smuggler escaped, they stole from them all their money and papers. They were released after her friends' relatives in Europe paid ransoms to the trafficker. They continued walking towards Kassala, where they found a smuggler to take them to Khartoum. According to UNHCR over 1000 Eritrean refugees cross the borders to Sudan monthly, escaping political and religious repression, endless military service, and poverty. They flee Eritrea seeking better living conditions and opportunities, but Sudan is not their safe haven.
Eritrea is a small country located in the horn of Africa, with a population of 6 million persons. It witnessed 30 years of armed conflict with Ethiopia that led to its independence in 1993. From the beginning of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Eritreans have been crossing the borders to Sudan as their intermediate or final destination. After independence, their reasons for fleeing are arbitrary detention, torture, absence of freedoms, forced labor, and indefinite military service.
In the early morning of May 27, 2007 a police force raided Marry's house in Eritrea and arrested her and her husband because of being Protestants. She took her younger child with her and left the two elder children in the house alone. She was detained for 6 weeks in Adapeto prison and released because her child was suffering from skin ulcers. She signed a pledge not to practice her religion anymore. "Although I was arrested while I was sleeping, not praying," said Marry. After her release, she was isolated and stigmatized; people neither visited nor greeted her. They were all afraid they may be arrested too. She agreed with her husband about fleeing Eritrea before him to Sudan. She left her two elder children with her mother.
The government of Eritrea controls the religious activities and acknowledges four “recognized” religious groups which are the Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Evangelical Church. Other religious groups are not recognized since 2002, according to a HRW report in 2012. The Sudanese government also controls the religious activities of people. After South Sudan secession; the president has declared Sudan an Islamic country with no room for any religions' chaos. Soon after his speech, all the Christian holidays were cancelled. Even Christmas celebrations were banned without the security permission that churches have never attained. Last year, mass arrests of Christian youth occurred in Khartoum during Christmas time forcing them to flee the country soon after their release.
Bereket Issack graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture from Asmara University in Eritrea. He was immediately assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture where he completed his university service successfully, but the military service is indefinite and usually lasts for years with payment not exceeding 30 USD monthly. Bereket said "However, due to the unlimited national service, I was obliged to cross to Sudan, leaving my families behind. In September, 2010 I made a connection with a friend living nearby the borders of Sudan. Two weeks later; I was able to cross to Sudan via Hafir village to Shegerab along the way to Khartoum.” The story of Bereket called back my childhood memories of fear. During 1990's; hundreds of Sudanese secondary school graduates and youth including cousins and neighbors were fleeing the country because of the obligatory military recruitment through kidnapping them from the streets and public transportation and sending them to battlefield in the South.
Committee to Protect Journalists identified Eritrea as one of the most censored countries in the world for the past 6 years. With the total absence of independent media; the world has no access to what's happening inside Eritrea. No single news agency was able to investigate the coup attempt of January 2013. Jamal Himad, an independent journalist who worked for the Eritrea's Liberation Front in 1991 and as a presenter in Eritrea's official radio station was forced to flee to Sudan in mid-1995. He was fired from his job because of not being affiliated with the ruling party. He, along with many educated Eritreans in Sudan, formed Mabdara, a civil society organization that aims to spread values of democracy and human rights, and "Adoulis" the Eritrean Centre for Media Service. He said "Eritrea is a piece from hell, with no constitution, no legislation, no independent media, and no civil society or trade unions, except those affiliated with the ruling regime,"
Sudanese authorities are the extended hands of Eritrean regime. In October, 2011 Mr. Jamal Himad was arrested in Khartoum by the Sudanese security and detained for 2 months just before Isias’ visit to Khartoum. A few days before Himad’s arrest, Sudan deported 300 Eritrean asylum seekers to Asmara, leaving them to face torture and imprisonment. In December, 2012, two Eritrean journalists in Khartoum were arrested by security and detained for 3 weeks. The Eritrean Embassy has filed a complaint against them because they have organized a workshop on disaster management for Eritrean youth. One of those journalists was the person who introduced me to the Eritrean community in Khartoum. His arrest has terminated many plans we've put to support Eritrean refugees.
Random abuse by Sudanese authorities is a threat to Eritreans in Sudan similar to threats incited by the Eritrean government against its opponents. Bereket was arbitrarily arrested nearby his work place by two men wearing police uniforms and two men in plain clothes. He faced no charges, but they took his yellow refugee card and threw him into jail for two weeks with many Eritrean men. While he was in detention, his fellow Eritrean detainees advised him, as long as he can afford paying a bribe, the police will set him free.
Social integration of Eritreans in Sudan has always been an obstacle for non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking Eritreans. Sudan is imposing a certain dress code for women, alienating minorities and oppressing the personal freedoms especially for Eritrean women. While Sudanese women are taking the risk and challenging the public order laws of the dress code; Eritrean women have always been an easy target. Listening to Grace and Marry has touched me personally. They called back all memories of violence and harassment I've experienced because people thought I'm "Habasheia" a term used to describe Ethiopian and Eritrean ladies.
In May, 2012, I stopped with my boyfriend in a juice shop to drink some lemonade, after a long exhausting day. A man was moving around us and staring at me. I asked my boyfriend not to start a fight with him because I'm too tired and I just want to go home. While my boyfriend was looking for a taxi; the man attacked me for reasons I couldn't understand saying "Habasheia; go back to your country, Damn you". He touched me and started beating me up. I shouted loudly to him and called my boyfriend. When he noticed, I was chasing the man in the street and shouting at people to catch him, but they just let him go. If you look like an Eritrean you will be treated like them. For this reason; many Eritrean ladies try to change their appearance and give themselves Arabic names.
Marry is usually wearing a black Abaya and a cotton scarf. She looked at my braided hair and my jeans saying that this was her favorite appearance in Asmara. Now she would never dare to wear jeans or take off the scarf, putting her at risk of abuse by revealing her non-Sudanese identity. Another woman testified that she was arrested for not wearing a Hijab; the police officer told her, “You are not Sudanese; if you want to go out with “naked” hair it is better to get back to your country”.
Marry and Grace found themselves with limited opportunities of employment as they haven’t been to college, just like thousands of internally displaced Sudanese women. They end up competing over informal sectors like tea business or domestic work. Resettlement also seems to be difficult for Grace without getting her refugee status. Marry finds it impossible to leave for a third country far away from her two children in Eritrea. Although she hasn't seen them for the past six years, she doesn't want to be far away.
Jamal has recently been resettled in Australia. As a friend of his, I was sad to say good bye. He is one of us and he shouldn't go, but I remembered that most of my fellow activists have fled Sudan. Bereket applied for resettlement in Canada and Switzerland, but luckily he found his way out and got a postgraduate scholarship in the German University of Hohenheim. With all the unfortunate incidents that he faced, he still thinks Sudanese people are generous and friendly. He is planning to get back to Sudan for his thesis research and try to help his people in Sudan. He thinks there should be cooperation between UNHCR and the Sudanese authorities to ensure the security of the refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan. Such cooperation would be in favor of protecting them from random abuse by the authorities, but would never secure the opponents of Isias’ regime as long as there is diplomatic cooperation between the two dictators. Resettlement remains a solution for selective cases and will not provide a solution for most Eritreans.
The dilemmas of Eritreans in Sudan are not their own; but also ours. The situations that drive them to flee are mostly the same that force Sudanese people to leave their home. The discrimination they face inside Sudan is what the Sudanese people struggle to end. The culture of exclusion deeply influencing the behaviors towards “others” is what must be changed. The “other” is a refugee, an IDP, a person from different ethnic background, a woman or a person with different beliefs. I long for a radical solution for Eritreans’ and Sudanese dilemmas: working towards maintaining democratic states in Eritrea and Sudan and promoting human rights and appreciation for the human diversity within the societies.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.