EXCLUSIVE: Horrors of Eritrea’s Sawa Military Camp

By Matthew Norman


A REGIME obsessed with national security will remove every last freedom of its citizens to achieve it. Eritrea, a small nation in the Horn of Africa, is dominated by such a regime.

Due to a long history of war with neighbouring Ethiopia, the dictator of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, is set on ensuring his citizens are always ready for conflict. The biggest recruitment channel for soldiers in Eritrea, one of the most militarised countries in the world, is the education system.

This military-educational complex sees 11th graders forced from their homes every August and taken to Sawa Military Camp, a facility that sits in the Gash-Barka region on the border with Sudan, to complete their final year of study.

Joe, a former student at Sawa who was able to flee Eritrea, was taken to the camp in 2011 when he was only sixteen years old. Itself a violation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which Eritrea was a signatory.

Joe told us: “There is never adequate time to study in Sawa […] as students, we were made to collect stones from the mountains far away from our dorm. We used to collect stones of 1m in height, 5m in length and 10m wide, shaped like a cuboid, that were for truck collection someday. No wheels can get into those places and there were collections from several years back.”

Sam, another former student who agreed to be interviewed, when asked if he felt he had adequate time to study whilst at Sawa, said: “No, mostly you’re called for attendance, running, etc, so they blow a whistle in the middle of your studies, there is not adequate time”.

This kind of arbitrary task is part of a common collection of orders given by the military commanders who run the camp. The whole system seems designed to disrupt students from studying.

Joe says that tasks could be “wood fetching – for fire and fence, rock collecting, harvesting, seeding, cultivating, watering and weeding farms, moving anything from place to place, cleaning far and irrelevant places, guarding brigades and hangar, washing hangar top and many more”.

Sam adds “Cleaning the yard at midday, cleaning the leaders’ bathrooms and bedrooms.”

To add to the militaristic milieu, students at the school are underfed and undernourished. “Breakfast is a fist sized bread and a cup of tea. Lunch is a very watery lentil soup and two breads, and dinner is the same as lunch.”

There are also reports that the food can have insects in it, and that the dormitory beds are not clean, with lots of students suffering bites from parasites. Fainting and sickness are everyday occurrences. The diet is not enough to sustain the energy levels required to undergo daily runs and other exercise drills, let alone to focus on studying for the matriculation exam.  

Healthcare is another concern in Sawa, Sam said “There’s a hospital but there was no doctor, there was one nurse who showed up twice a week, and most importantly there was no medication, just oral rehydration salts for diarrhoea and small red pills for anaemia.”

He recalls his worst memory: “I almost died because of anaemia, I didn’t think I was going to survive, I came back from death.” He went on to tell us “I was just lucky I got an infusion when I fainted after three days without food, everything I tried to eat was vomited back up. I was begging the nurse to do something for me because I couldn’t move from the bed”.

Moreover, students are punished for minor discrepancies, usually something like marching slightly wrong, or not holding formation to the precise standard.

Joe said that “Every punishment is elongated to the worst possible length of time, so even sitting in a chair is a harsh punishment when it is for 48 hours.” He also said that him and other students were frequently beaten with sticks, and on occasions he endured overnight cuffing with rope.

“They tell you to come the next day to repeat the same punishment after you’re done for the day”, so “Then starts 24 hours of stress and anxiety.” Joe went on to say that “One cannot normally study, when they don’t even know if they will die tomorrow”.

The grade of their matriculation exam is the determining factor in whether a student gets sent to college, after which they will be conscripted into national service anyway, sometimes as a teacher at Sawa Military Camp, or whether they will be conscripted straight into the military or other labour.

Joe shared a fact initially uttered by the dictator: “85% of Sawa students fail to make the necessary grade for college”, and thus are kept on in the military indefinitely.

Names given in this article have been changed to protect identities.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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