The Indefinite Nightmare


FencePolitics is often characterized by transience; opinions and policies oscillate from day to day with little warning. But for Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, it seems, everything is indefinite: dictatorship, military service terms, punitive detention, and Eritrean citizenship.

Now in his twentieth consecutive year of presidency, Isaias has manipulated his period of elected rule into an endless, totalitarian one. Eritrea has not held elections since it gained its independence in 1993, a policy that suggests no intention to change so long as Isaias lives. Furthermore, he promotes the indefinite ignorance of his population. In 2001, he singlehandedly annihilated Eritrea’s independent media and soon after seized the reins of the Internet. Such steps have rendered Eritrea one of the world’s most heavily censored countries in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Young Eritreans, too, are born into a bondage of sorts. The country permits its citizens to practice one of four state-recognized religions: Orthodoxy, Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Evangelical Lutheranism. But beyond the restriction of religious freedom, every Eritrean is bound to military service, for the government enforces mandatory conscription. The conditions of the military service are reputedly horrendous: torture is commonplace, detention to be expected, and sexual assault a frequent — almost routine — occurrence for women. Term length required: indefinite.

Isaias’ government, which clearly circumvents any sort of structural preservation of human rights, feels no duty to limit prison sentences and frequently carries out unwarranted extrajudicial executions. Yet perhaps the most extreme view this administration enforces is its “shoot-to-kill” policy, a brutally dehumanizing attempt at rendering Eritrean citizenship indefinite. Under this policy, all border patrol officers are instructed to shoot, with the intention of killing, any Eritrean who tries to flee the country. To defect, to seek freedom, merits death.Boat

But even in the face of such daunting punishment, almost 3000 Eritreans abandon their militaristic homeland monthly. Many of those who flee are orphaned youth; in 2012, a survey of an Ethiopian refugee camp revealed nearly 1200 parentless children. This is shocking, especially considering that the journey — in any direction — to potential freedom for Eritreans is perilous, to say the least. If refugees choose to flee north, they must cross the Red Sea and figure their way through Yemen, typically in absolute destitution. The alternate and more popular route takes emigrants through Sudan and then into North Africa, where they attempt to escape to Europe. But the most plausible means of travel through Sudan is via traffickers. Thus safety is incredibly questionable, and even if Eritreans survive this leg of travel, they must then navigate the politically unstable and terrorist-laiden countries of North Africa before embarking on the notoriously fatal sea journey to Italy.

In October of 2013, Eritrean refugees made headlines in the United States for the first time in months after their boat capsized off the coast of Italy. Over 300 people drowned, most of whose bodies could not be immediately recovered because the sea conditions were too treacherous even for the divers’ search team. Such tragedy merely discourages seeking refuge, reinforcing the government’s implicit hopes of preserving Eritreans’ indefinite imprisonment in their home country.

Eritreans thus find themselves trapped in an infinite loop of push and pull; terror drives them out and gun barrels drive them back in. For many, then, it comes down to weighing the risk of death against the risk of life, a tragic situation by any standard. And even more traumatizing, these citizens are ensnared by their own government: Isaias has constructed policies that drive his people into the very traps he has set for them. A tinge of hope remains only in this sentiment: perhaps after Isaias’ passing, this system of government itself will not pursue an indefinite term.


Works Consulted and Further Readings

Divers Recover 83 Bodies from Migrant Ship (New York Times)

Government Abuse Drives Eritreans to Flee, U.N. Says (New York Times)

Human Rights Watch – Eritrea

Situation in Eritrea ‘desperately bleak’ (UN News Centre)


Sarah Nesbitt is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at

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