20 September 2018

Every month, around 5,000 Eritreans flee their country. Half of them arrive in refugee camps in the Tigray and Afar regions of Ethiopia.

"I left Eritrea in 2015, three years ago. The living conditions were very difficult. We had a shop but we could not make enough money for food and rent. I was studying in 9th grade and I knew that I had to do military service soon. In Eritrea everyone does military service as part of their education. You only get a passport when you complete your military service but you never know when that will happen.

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees
Ephraim was only 14 years old when he first tried to cross the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Like many others, he was trying to reach Libya, but he was caught, jailed and beaten in a Sudanese prison. Photo: Gabriele François Casini/MSF

For some people, it never ends and while you are in the military they pay you almost nothing. 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.

The first time I left Eritrea, I arrived to a refugee camp in Ethiopia but I stayed only one night. I immediately went to Sudan with the help of smugglers. They took us to Khartoum, where they left us on our own. I stayed there for three months before trying to reach Libya. The trip across the desert was 13 days long. We were traveling in 5 lorries carrying around 120 people each, many from Eritrea but also from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Syria. The one I was traveling in had 124 people. All of us were really hungry and thirsty.

Each morning we received 1 cookie. In the evening they gave us a mix of water and some powder. It was not enough to satisfy us, especially in the heat of the desert. I quickly became very weak, to the point that the smugglers thought I was dead. They were about to abandon me right there in the desert when one of the people I was traveling with and that knew me a little realised that I was still breathing. He put me on his shoulders and carried me back to the truck. Some other people were not so lucky. I still remember this woman that died and was just thrown out of the truck, abandoned in the desert.

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia
The MSF mental health team in Hitsats camp – composed of supervisors, counsellors and incentive workers.
Photo: Gabriele François Casini/MSF

After 7 days we stopped. We stayed there waiting for supplies for 3 days. But then the Sudanese police arrived and started fighting the smugglers. The smugglers ran away and some of our trucks were damaged in the shooting. The police took us but kept us there for another 3 days, until they were able to arrange transportation for us. Luckily they gave us food and water and I started feeling better.


When transportation arrived, they took us to a prison not too far away from there, separating men from women and children. (The name of the prison is Dungula). They kept us there for 2-3 weeks, I can’t remember exactly. Then they separated the teenagers from the adults and took us to different places. I ended up with some other kids in a prison in Khartoum. After three weeks we received the visit of representatives from the Eritrean embassy. They brought food for us, registered our names and promised to have us released.

The prison was so crowded. We were over 1000 people from different countries, kept all in the same big room. There was only 1 toilet for all of us and we were sleeping on the floor, with no space to move at all. The conditions were so bad that we all decided to protest and we started a riot.

As a consequence, the guards beat us up. I was hit in the head with a shovel.

After the riot I didn’t receive any treatment at all. I had a big cut on the side of my head that left a scar.

After another 3 weeks, the Eritrean embassy staff came back but they pretend not to notice the dried blood in my hair and on my face. They put us in a car and told us that we were going to Shagarab (Eritrean refugee camp in Sudan). That wasn’t true. They took us back to Eritrea, to another prison. 

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia
Since 2015, MSF has provided health services in the area with a focus on mental health and psychiatric care in Ethiopia.
Photo: Gabriele François Casini/MSF

This one was basically a hole in the ground, with no windows and no lights. There were more than 80 people in the room with me. We didn’t have enough space to lie down so we spent every night sitting and taking turns to sleep. We stayed there only for one week. Then they divided us in 2 groups. One was sent to military training. The other one to military prison (Hashfarai prison). I was in the second one.

I was kept there for one month and three weeks. During that time I started becoming sick. I was feeling very stressed, I started having nightmares all the time, I stopped eating, I isolated myself, stopped talking and doing anything at all. This is when they called my mother and told her that they would release me if she guaranteed that I would not try to leave the country again. If I did, she would have had to pay 50.000 Nakfa to the government (currently over 2.800 euro). 

When my mother realised that I was not doing well she took me to the holy water for seven days (the traditional remedy for mental health conditions). My symptoms persisted. The only thing I could think about was how to escape again.

After 2 weeks with my mother, I tried to cross into Ethiopia again.

The soldiers caught me at the border, beat me up badly and sent me back to prison.

My mother was informed immediately and for three weeks she begged the soldiers to release me. She told them that I was just a kid and I didn’t deserve that treatment. They replied that if I was a kid I would stay at home, not try to leave the country.

While in prison, the injuries from the beating were getting worse. I started coughing and I couldn’t sleep because the floor was too hard and painful. I did not receive any medical help until things became pretty bad. At that point I was sent to the hospital. I was treated and sent back to the prison. 

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia
An MSF medical team member attends to patients in the IPD department of the health centre in Hitsats refugee camp.
Photo: Gabriele François Casini/MSF

Another month passed before I was released. My father, who is in the military, had been begging for my release together with the priest and community leaders from our area. My family paid the 50.000 Nakfa and I was sent home. They had to promise to pay again in case I tried to flee the country another time.

Every month I had to go to the military base and sign to confirm that I still was in Eritrea. I did that for 3 months but then I tried escaping again with three friends of mine who also wanted to leave the country.

We made it to Ethiopia at 3 in the morning of November 19, 2016.

The soldiers guarding the border tried to shoot us but they missed.

Once I reached Ethiopia, I stayed in the Endabuguna reception centre for 3 weeks before being sent to Hitsats camp. My friends were sent to other camps. My mother decided to leave Eritrea as well. 5 months later we were reunited in Hitsats.

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia
Afu, 49 years old, and her son Ephraim, 17 years old. Both are from Eritrea and are part of MSF's mental health program for refugees in the Tigray region. Photo: Gabriele François Casini/MSF

Up until recently I still had nightmares. I couldn’t sleep and I was feeling angry all the time. My mother came with 3 of my brothers and my 3 nephews, 1 girl and 2 boys. They are my sister’s children. Now she is in Germany and she has applied for family reunification, so that they can follow her there. It made me happy to be with all of them, but my nightmares and anger did not disappear. Then, one day, my mother took me to the MSF health centre where I started being supported by a counsellor.

Now I am doing much better. I am not angry anymore and the nightmares are gone.

I do not see people shooting at me anymore. My level of stress has also gone down. In the camp there is not much to do. I would really like to go back to school and create a future for myself.

In Eritrea there was no future and here in the camp is a bit the same. I hope that we will go to a place where I can have the freedom of choosing what to do with my life."

Find out more about MSF's work in Ethiopia