The following is the text of the exclusive interview that Samuel Ghebrehiwet and Noel Medhane of Radio Medrek conducted with Prof. Mike Smith, Chairperson of the UN COI and Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth member, Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in Geneva.
Q. In the report of COI the National Service was described as tantamount to modern slavery with a lot of abuses taking place in the national service. Could you please sum up what were your observation or what evidence you have to conclude what you have concluded. What stories were in between and what makes you believe them? Tell us more about the approach that takes you to that conclusion.
Mike Smith Well, at the start of our inquiry, when we started to talk to people – people who had left Eritrea because of the concerns of what had happened to them – it became very clear that the major elements of people’s concerns were, where they have felt abused related to the national service system. What particularly upset them was, first of all at the age of 16 or 17 – some times even younger i.e at the time when they are young and developing and they have dreams and ideas of what they are going to do all are all taken off and forced to go to Sawa or some other area for training. Most people go off quite happily, some people get picked up in Giffas and so on but many people are quite happy to do that service for their nation; but they expect it to be only for 18 months.
The problems we noted when people started talking about this started right from the start; because they found it instead of being a place where they can pursue their studies and do some military training on the side, they are put in to very harsh military environment, where it was very strict discipline, where you could not question or do any thing against what you are told, and if you were you are punished very severely; and for young people this was quite traumatic.
On top of that if you were not succesful on your exams which is to say if you are not one of the really bright ones, you would find your self, at the end of the 18 months training, being sent off to a military unit where you again will be forced working in very harsh conditions vey often for indefinite period. We came across people who had been working in military unit mainly doing labouring job – working on the roads, working on the building and construction, working in agriculture, at very low pay- 500 Nakfa a month. There is no chance to go home, to build a family and pursue their dreams. A combination of all these things is that let us to conclude that in effect this is a form of enslavement – peoples choice of what they do is taken away from them and they are not paid approperiately for the works they are doing.
Sheila B. Keetharuth: I would like to add one very specific element:the total control of all those who get to that system of national service and the elements of not being able to manage any other aspect – except giving their labour, at very low pay. The control, the low pay and the never ending elements of the national service.
Mike Smith: We heard many harrowing individual stories and our report is essentially built out of these individual stories. By interviewing a lot of people and getting people to describe the experiences they had were able to gradually built up a picture of the sort of the system that is being operating which enables us to draw conclusion the sort of conclusion we have. As an example I can just talk about one person that we have interviewed: he was a guy in his 30s, he had come from a rural part of Eritrea and at the age of 17 when he was still in year 5 ( because he has not been able to start school any earlier) the military came around his house when his parents were not there and simply took him telling him that ‘ you are going to the military training’; his parents were not told where he was being taken, they were not even there when they took him. He went in to Sawa, Sawa was not too bad for him, he said he did not have any bad exprience except to the fact that he wants to go back to school to continue his education. At the end of that time he was sent off to a military unit where he was working in agriculture, he was working on construction sites. I asked him how often did he get home in that period and he said he asked to go home every year but he was only able to go home about once every 3 or four years. So over a period of ten years he only went home three times. What happen was towards the end of that period his parents has died, he had younger brother and younger sister. The sister wrote to him and said: ‘our younger brother has been taken by security you need to come and fix it.’ So, he went to his commanding office, and said ‘I got a crisis at home, I need to go home to sort it out’, the officer said ‘no you are not permitted’. So he took leave without permission and he went to his home and then he went to the detention centre where his sister said his brother has been taken. There he could not get any information, they said ‘we can not tell you any thing, we do not know any thing and you should not even ask because if you ask you will be arrested’. Not having succeeded in doing any thing of that he wanted to he went back to his military unit. when he got back there he was brought before his Colonel and his colonel said ‘you must be punished because you went without permission’. He said then he was tight up in the OTTO (number 8) position for five days and left on the ground. He said one hand was realised in the morning and in the evening for him to eat some food but otherwise he was tied up and left there for five days. He said after that he realised he was kept and treated like a donkey for the rest of his life. They have taken away his dream, he has done no further education, he has no hopes of doing any thing else, he could not even help his family – so the next opportunity he had when he was on guard duty was to walk across the border.
That is the kind of story that made us understand this is a system that treats people like just work units, like just their domestic animals, for the system they are not real people who have a personality, who have a dreams who have a family who have friends, who deserve to be able to make some choices in their life. This person at the age of 17 lost all of that, until he walked across the border.
Q, what about the day to day life of the members of the national service in terms of living conditions in general?
Mike Smith: In terms of the conditions of military training service, I think it is worth while remembering the people who are going there are still children 16 – 17 years old who have been living at home with their families and suddenly they are put in a quite harsh enviroment. Some people did not mind that much, they were able to submit to the discipline but others found it very difficult indeed. One guy who was very small, I mean he said he was small in age, he was picked up by some people; the trainers wanted him to be a spy, they wanted him to tell stories about what others where saying and he did not want to do that and he refused. When he refused he was punished and beaten.
Of course in many ways the worst treatment was for young girls, because often what happened was – and we have heard this from many many sources – when the new intake arrives the officers and senior trainers would go around them and choose the women that they wanted for themselves to ‘serve’ them and they would approach them and say ‘you I would like you to make coffee for me’ or ‘I would like you to come and clean my house’. These girls because they are in a military disicpline environment they can not say no, because if they say no they are in ‘breach’ of military discipline so they have to go there and once they go there in that position they are in a very vulnerable place and usually the officers demand much more from them including that they stay and sleep with them at night.
This is terrible situation and it can get even worse when the girls get pregnant. We heard sometimes the officers force them to get an abortion because they did not want to have children. In some cases after being there for six months with them they would throw them out and bring another young girl from the new round. This is appalling. according to the international criminal tribunal and according to international jurisprudence it amounts to rape in a systematic way which amounts to crime against humanity.
In terms of the scale of it we were not too sure but we certainly had dozens of young women who talked about their personal experience to this effect and we had many many more including men who saw what was happening and were themselves deeply upset by what they saw happening. We even had some testimony from trainers themselves who since left who described how the senior officers choose the women and so on. We have no doubt this was not happening; we are not saying that it is a government policy, we do not believe the government directs to do this but what happens in any society or in any country when people have a lot of control over others when there is in total impunity that is when people are not punished for misbehaving for doing the wrong thing or hurting some one these sort of things is inclined to happen and we have no doubt that it has happened sufficiently and widely to constitute a crimes against humanity.
….. To be continued