7 Years a slave: story of a ‘National Service’ survivor

My name is Robel Tesfai and I was born in 1979,” A video message from the young Eritrean man starts. Rebel is a survivor of the Eritrean ‘National Service’.

Speaking in his native language of Tigrinya Robel says, “To me National Service is slavery.” And he should know, he spent seven years of his life in the ‘National Service’. Since the totalitarian dictatorship declared a mandatory 18 months-long military service in 1993, the government has been forcefully conscripting everyone between the ages of 18-ish and 50-ish.

Robel describes how he was forced to ‘serve’ without compensation and without hope of ever being released from ‘Service’. Robel confirms that conscripts are routinely made to work as laborers in farms and construction works, often for the benefit of army commanders and Party inner-members.

If the accounts of the thousands of young Eritreans leaving the country every month, such as Robel, is to be trusted; then the Eritrean government has effectively legalized slavery. 7yearsslaveEritrea’s “National Service” comes complete with all the paraphernalia associated with the practice of slavery: justification of economic importance, cultural superiority of the masters (the revolutionary culture– ‘temekuro mieda’), emphasis on the ignorance and unruliness of subjects if left to themselves, reiterating the importance of slavery for national security, etc.

Often army commanders (slave masters) are granted almost unlimited power over their subjects. Commanders routinely punish disobedient subjects  harshly through denial of annual leave and travel permits, denial of medical treatment, etc. Commanders are granted the freedom to  deliver all sorts of physical and mental torture they see fit to get the job done.

Robel concludes his video message with a touching message telling us why he decided to speak out, “I now live in Bologna, free and leading a peaceful life. I wish peaceful and free life to all compatriots who are still denied freedom. But I don’t wish that they flee their country and suffer the risks of Sinai or the Mediterranean like I did to be free. I wish to be their voice and express my desire for their misery to come to pass. I wish for the National Service to finally be for the benefit of our country. This is my hope.

The video was posted as part of “Stop Slavery in Eritrea” campaign. Over the past months the campaign has been active in facilitating survivors to make a statements by posting photos of themselves wearing the “Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea” T-shirt.


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