Eritrea Marks 25 years of Controversial Conscription

Eritrea is marking 25 years since the start of conscription, celebrating the fact that 500,000 people have undergone training in that time.

It is now a controversial issue, but that was not the case when national service was introduced after the country gained independence following a three-decade armed struggle.

It was intended to help reconstruct the new nation and every individual between the age of 18 and 40 was expected to serve.

But it was mainly those in their last year of school who attended the remote Sawa military camp.

Rufael Fesehatsyen, a member of the first round of conscripts who now lives in the US, said the recruits were willing participants at the time: “We wanted to contribute to the country’s well-being.”

Recruits say there was a positive atmosphere in 1994 despite the difficulties faced such as no tents, poor food and harsh treatment from the trainers.

“I do not know that the trainers were instructed to do but they were very abusive toward us; they often used batons to beat us and tried their best to break our spirit,” said Yosief Asmerom, who is now a pastor living in the UK.

But the first batch managed to transform the camp into a liveable and functional place and after completing the six months of military training they were dispatched to various military units and government departments for a year.

After that, they all went back to their civilian lives.

Until a border war broke out against Ethiopia in 1998, those who had completed their training were sent back to Sawa once a year for a month-long refresher course.

“When I was in training I used to view it as war play. I will never forget the time when I experienced real war where human beings were falling in front of me,” recalls Pastor Yosief, who fought in the war.

The two-year conflict over the town of Badme left about 20,000 Eritreans dead, many of them young conscripts.

But Eritrea’s military chief Maj-Gen Filpos Woldeyohannes says without them the country would have fared much worse in the conflict.

A peace deal was signed in December 2000, yet the two sides remained on a war footing until last year when they re-established diplomatic relations.

That 18-year impasse meant that national service became open-ended in Eritrea and could sometimes go on for years, with little or no pay.

Yonas Geza’i said he decided to flee the country to the US after serving for eight years.

Many others were doing the same and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea said in 2013 that between 3,000 and 4,000 Eritreans were leaving each month.

Gaim Kibreab, an Eritrean researcher on refugee studies based in London, says things need to change:“Now that a peace accord has been signed between the two feuding countries, national service should be normalized, and those who stayed in the service for years should be compensated for their services before they go back to their normal lives.”

Most of the ex-conscripts interviewed by the BBC acknowledged the need for national service in small countries like Eritrea but said the system should not be abused or exploited by the authorities – or run at the expense of recruits.

By the BBC