Imagine living in Fear: Children fleeing Eritrea

An in-depth article by Sophie Stocker.

Sophie has spoken to youth that are her age, but who are living a very different life. This in-depth article relates their stories. All names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Imagine living in fear. Imagine living in a world where all you know is dictatorship. Imagine having to leave everything behind for a slight chance to survive because you know that if you stay, you will be chained in a prison. The prison that you have lived in your whole life. The prison that you know will only shackle you tighter. So, you risk everything. You leave everything behind so that you might find a better life. A life with freedom. A life without a tightrope around your neck.

Trapped in Libya
Daniel is a 15-year old boy who is currently in Libya. Someone introduced me to him and I chatted with him on WhatsApp. He had to leave his home country, Eritrea, when he was 13 years old. He had gone to school since he was five, and one morning, while going to school with his friend Tesfay, he decided to leave without telling his family. He did not want to describe the exact events of that morning, but said that he and Tesfay saw an opportunity to go and they went. I asked him why he needed to leave his country, what he thought about when he left. He told me that he had to leave because there was “no freedom”. “No freedom” because of the indefinite national service that children have to go to once they enter into the final year of school, “no freedom” because of the restrictions in travelling, “no freedom” because of a future of forced labour under permanent national service. Eritrea is currently one of the most dangerous countries to live in because of its ruthless dictatorship. The president, Isaias Afwerki, imprisons everybody who does not agree with him. There are strict rules and if the people do not follow those rules, they go to jail. People have to flee, Daniel said, because there is no freedom in the most literal sense. He does not want to tell me more. He says: “another time”. It is too difficult to speak about these things.

Without family and friends
I then decided to speak to other students in my country, The Netherlands. Here is the story of Helen, a 17 year old Eritrean girl. She was 14 when she had to flee. She has five siblings, the youngest now being nine years old. The reasons she gives for fleeingare similar to those of Daniel. She explains that there is no freedom in Eritrea. She came with her family by plane from Ethiopia but before she could do that, she had to escape Eritrea. She had to walk one to two hours in the dark to cross to the border of her country. She then stayed in Ethiopia for two years before coming here. Luckily she made it to Europe, and she is now attending a school in the Netherlands. She loves her school, but she misses so many things from Eritrea, her family and friends included. Her grandparents had to stay behind and she does not have contact with her old friends. She has been in the Netherlands for 1 ½ years and has found a great community in her school. Her dream is to one day become a doctor.

Violence and money
I followed up on my chat with Daniel. He had left Eritrea on his own with a friend, Tesfay. He could not tell his mother that he left, because she had no phone. It has been two years, and he still has not been able to speak to her. On his journey, he met Eritrean smugglers. They helped him get out of Eritrea to Libya, for a price. The price he had to pay was 8.750 US$ (7.835€) which his family had to pay up for him, as he had no money. The family managed to collect the money by asking people in the church to help, and they then sent the money to Sudan, where the payment was made. Unfortunately, his friend Tesfay could not pay this money, and therefore he was left behind in Sudan. Daniel does not know what happened to his friend. Whether he is alive or not, he does not know. Daniel travelled on to Libya, where he is still to this day. Throughout his travels, he saw horrible things. People were beaten with sticks, and tortured with electric wires. People were sexually violated and raped. People died at the hands of the smugglers. I am shaken by the story.

Building a new life
In the Netherlands, I met a 16 year old boy and two 15 years old girls from Eritrea: Tesfay, Tsion and Mulugueta. They, like the rest, had to travel very far to reach a safe place. Tesfay, Tsion and Mulugueta have been in The Netherlands only for about one year. They did not know the reason they had to leave Eritrea, they just knew that they had to flee from their parents. Tsion and Mulugueta traveled to Ethiopia first, together, when they were 12. From there they took the plane to Europe. Tesfay went first to Sudan before coming to The Netherlands. They enjoy doing sports such as football and dancing, and Tsion wants to become a doctor. Tesfay or Mulugueta do not know yet what they want to be later on. All three of them speak Dutch, Tigre and Tigrinya. Tesfay has one sister in Sudan, Tsion has 2 brothers and 3 sisters, and Mulugueta has 4 brothers. Most of their family is now here with them in the Netherlands. They are very happy in The Netherlands, although Tsion and Mulugueta miss their remaining family and friends who are still in Eritrea.

Powerless to help
In WhatsApp, I contacted Daniel again, who is still in Libya. He talks to me about his sister. Daniel’s older sister lives in Sweden, and he was trying to join her. However, due to a mistake made in the system in relation to the date of birth of Daniel, he was not allowed to rejoin her through the UNHCR resettlement scheme. He therefore is stuck in Libya. If he wants to survive, he must get out. While talking to him it became very clear he was scared. He said so himself. He begged me to do anything I could to help him. I asked myself what I can do? He is so desperate. I feel very powerless. In the UNHCR Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) camp where he is now, there are 1,500 people, most of them young boys and girls, and pregnant women. I wish I could go there myself and take him out.

Better to leave than to live in fear
Selam and Tsegay were 13 and 14 when they had to leave Eritrea. They are now 17 and 18 and living in The Netherlands. They tell me that they had to leave because there was no freedom in Eritrea. They explain to me that as part of school, you have to go into the military. They left because of the fear that one day they would be recruited into the military, or that they would be thrown in jail for a crime they did not commit. They came to the Netherlands because they knew that it was better here than in Eritrea. Because they knew that in this country they could have freedom and continue their studies without having to live in fear every single day. They prefer the schools in the Netherlands because you are not punished, not in the same way as in Eritrea.

Selam has one 14 year old sister and two brothers who are 11 and 22. Before she left Eritrea, she did tell her mother and kept some contact with her. She walked to Ethiopia with four friends and stayed there, alone, for one year. Then her mother joined her there, and she stayed for another two years. Her brother had managed to get to the Netherlands, so she, alone, was able to come for family reunification with the plane to the Netherlands. Her mother had to stay behind in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, her father is in Israel from where he cannot leave.

Tsegay has 5 brothers. She went with her mother to Ethiopia. Her mother went off to the Netherlands first. Tsegay later joined her mother together with her brother.

Now that they are both safely in the Netherlands, Selam wants to become a nurse later and Tsegay wants to be a dancer.

Detention in the GDF
I am in touch again with Daniel. He tells me that one day he became very sick. He was lucky because a friend who was looking after him in the GDF building arranged that he was taken to hospital. If he had not received any help, he would probably have died. At that time he only weighed 31 kilos – a boy of 16 years old. When he was released from the hospital they told him to just leave. He had nowhere to go, no money and he did not not know anybody. He phoned his friend in GDF, who was also waiting there as a refugee, hoping for resettlement to a safe country. The friend helped him again. He told him to come to the centre and he begged the officials to allow him back into the centre. His health is now better and he has gained some weight.

Fleeing from ‘the King’
Then I spoke to Abrehet and Merhawit in their school in The Netherlands. They have very similar stories to Tsion and Mulugueta. Abrehet is 15 and Merhawit 16. They did not really know why they had to leave Eritrea and their parents did not talk much about it. They did however tell them that the President, whom Merhawit calls the king, is not good. That the rules enforced by him are not good. And that once again, there is not freedom. So Abrehet and Merhawit followed their parents down this dangerous road of fleeing their country.

Abrehet has been in the Netherlands for almost 2 years. She can speak four languages: Dutch, Tigrinya, Tigre and Kunama. She fled from Eritrea in 2017 to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and then took the plane to the Netherlands here. She, her brother and her sister were scared. Her mother had come first. To come to the Netherlands, she made a difficult journey. She passed through Sudan and Libya in the car. Abrehet told me that she had to pay a lot of money to be smuggled, and that if she did not pay it, her mother would have been killed. In Libya, she had to pay more to take a dangerous boat ride to Italy. Once in Italy she took the train until she reached the Netherlands. That is when Abrehet was finally able to reunite with her mother.

Merhawit left in 2018. She also fled and walked to Ethiopia and to Addis Ababa where she stayed for four to five months until she was allowed to take the plane. She went to Turkey first and then continued on to the Netherlands.

Nowadays, Merhawit wants to become a model and Abrehet aims to be a designer and both of them dream of one day returning to Eritrea. But only once the president has gone.

The war is getting close
I contacted Daniel again. I asked him how he was. He told me that he could often hear the planes coming over the center in Tripoli in Libya, and that the shooting and fighting was coming closer. Many people had come from new places to try and find safety in the closed building of the GDF, and it was overcrowded. Everyone was living in fear as the war was now so close. He said he just hoped that one day he could be free and that he could walk outside without fear. He hoped one day he would be able to talk to his mother. He hoped one day, he could speak to his friend Tesfay. He hoped one day, he could go to school…

A few weeks later, I checked in again with Daniel, he had good news. He said he had heard he would finally be able to go to his sister in Sweden, after struggling for so many years. I am keeping my fingers crossed…. Could this be true? But he also told me that there were many children, even younger than him, who were not so lucky……What would happen to them?

It could have been you
What would happen to them? This question is stuck in my head. Imagine living in fear. Imagine living in a world where all you know is dictatorship. Imagine having to leave everything behind for a slight chance to survive. So, imagine if that was you. Or your child. Or your sister and brother. Just imagine.


*The names of the refugees were changed for security reasons but the real names are known to the author.

The author interviewed Daniel on 2019, October 13 and 15 by phone. The other refugees were interviewed in their school. The original transcripts are with the author. The interview is part of a school project. The author is a 16-year old student. The name of the author is a penname.