Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders declared an end this week to the longstanding conflict between their two countries. Among the many questions still to be addressed is what the future holds for hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees, many of whom have fled extreme hardships and mandatory indefinite military service. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides mental health care in camps in the Tigray and Afar regions of Ethiopia, where many Eritreans arrive after escaping suffering in their country. Here are some their stories.
Ephraim is in one of the small counseling rooms of the MSF mental health center in Hitsats refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. Being able to share his story while remaining emotionally stable is an important step in his therapeutic process.
“I was studying in ninth grade, and I knew that I had to do military service soon. For some people it never ends and while you are in the military they pay you almost nothing,” he says. “For me it was clear that I did not have a future, not a future where I could freely choose what to do and be, and where I could provide for my family. So I decided to leave, like many other Eritreans,” he adds.
Ephraim was only 14 years old when he left Eritrea. With very little food and water, a long 13-day trip across the desert almost killed him. Then, while attempting to reach Libya, he was detained in Sudan. He was beaten and jailed for several weeks before being sent back to Eritrea where he was imprisoned again.
Each month, approximately 5,000 people flee Eritrea. Many of them are teenagers like Ephraim. The mandatory indefinite military service imposed on all Eritreans by an oppressive regime that deprives them of basic human rights is a major push factor for those who flee the country. For those who stay, the ”choice” is not without cost: arbitrary detention, violence, and intimidation are used against those who do not conform to the system.