Eritrea has enforced a total lockdown since April 1, effectively banning all public transport, closing schools, and suspending everything in the literal sense, even postponing publishing the state newspaper—the only newspaper in the country—for five months. Although the pandemic’s consequences had been fatal across the world, in extremely impoverished countries like Eritrea where the essential food items are rationed in stores run by the ruling party, the magnitude of the lockdown is immense. Eritrea’s elites who hold absolute power have already frozen the state in time for more than two decades. Now families who have relatives in the diaspora depend on remittances to survive, subjected to extremely low exchange rates set by the ruling party’s financial sector, while the unlucky ones without family abroad suffer even more.
While the entire country has been put on hold, there is always an exception. During the past months, President Isaias Afwerki has traveled internationally three times to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt with his big entourage. He also received Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the President of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan in July and September, respectively. Prior to that he has been absent from the scene for more than two months ensuing the usual rumor of that he is incapacitated, or dead.
The second exception is secondary in school in Sawa, the notorious military training center. Since 2003, the final year of secondary school has been taught at Sawa. Eritrean secondary school students as young as 16 years old attend their last grade of secondary school at the harshest place and most unconducive environment. According to the country’s national service proclamation and other international treaties Eritrea signed, the minimum age of military training is 18. With barely any facilities; a temperature that reaches up to 45 degree Celsius (about 113 Fahrenheit); and very frequent sandstorms, Eritrean children in Sawa are officially introduced to the machinery of slavery. In the one-year program, students combine military drills and academic studies. After spending a year in the military camp, they sit for the secondary school graduation certificate examination, which decides the fate of their life: either join colleges or head to the army with no exit. The school has been described by Human Rights Watch’s senior Africa researcher as: “at the heart of its repressive system of control over its population.”
Many governments have been releasing thousands of prisoners and adopting their programs to ensure social distance since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. The Eritrean diaspora has been pleading to their “government” to release prisoners of conscience and disperse thousands of students in Sawa, known for its overcrowding. In early April, the head of Economic Affairs for Eritrea’s ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party, Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, in an online seminar said that Sawa and prisons are the safest places for quarantine as they are secluded. About three months later, Sawa hosted two heads of states with their first ladies accompanied by an entourage. In July, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, facing tremendous pressure at home and in search of externalizing his domestic crises, visited Sawa to observe “graduation-parade rehearsals.”
A month later in mid-August, Sawa held its graduation ceremony, televised live. President Isaias Afwerki, who has never attended any graduation ceremonies of the defunct University of Asmara or other colleges, never misses Sawa’s ceremony. There was no indication in the ceremony of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid the strictest lockdown, 11th grade students have been recalled in August in what the minister of information described as “partial easing of restrictions,” to make up for the lost months. The aim was to prepare them at Sawa to attend their final year of training. Partial easing of lockdown restrictions, however, did not materialize apart from the recall of the students.
According to official announcements from the country’s ministry of health, the latest cases of COVID-19 have been from nationals who have returned from neighboring countries and no local transmission has been reported since early June. Yet, the lockdown has not been eased and there are now different quarantine centers for nationals who are returning from neighboring countries. It seems the pandemic came as a blessing for the regime that has been looking for excuses to confine its population.
There is no sense of urgency in today’s Eritrea. It is a country under self-imposed political siege. Eritrean parents are still unsure about the fate of their children who were expected to start school in September. There is not any information about the lockdown’s end. In an already improvised state, famine has started hitting hard. The only response from the state has been to reinforce the lockdown.
There is no way to challenge the state policies from inside Eritrea. Former students of Sawa, in exile, have been campaigning to end the practice of sending secondary school children to the military camp. The campaign #EndHighSchoolInSawa has gained traction among the Eritrean diaspora and has been amplified inside the country with the help of the diaspora-based independent media. Some prominent figures, such as former defense minister and now an exile, Mesfin Hagos, have joined the call.
“The most important impact of the #EndHighSchoolInSawa campaign is it re-sensitizes as many Eritreans were numb and accepted this hideous policy as normal,” says US-based Haikel Negash, who was among the initiators of the campaign; she is also a former student of the school. Her colleague and a PhD student of history at Queens University, Samuel Emaha maintains that although they could not stop the school, “The campaign aims to bring the issue to the agenda and attention of the common people. The campaign effectively brought the problems associated with the program, mainly because former students lacked the platform to speak about the school.”
Many former students of the school have now been loudly describing their harsh treatment at the school. Some former students have shared that they experienced rape and sexual harassment at Sawa, in line with reports on the problem from human rights organizations for years.
But the campaign was unable to force the Eritrean government to change its policy. Since September 8, high school students from all over the country have been heading to Sawa. The possible consequences of such a policy in the pandemic is not difficult to imagine. Students in Sawa live in crowded military barracks in the most communal lifestyle anyone could imagine. Social distancing is not only impossible, but there is enforced physical proximity. None can justify that the benefits of this untimely pronouncement would outweigh the possible consequences. Many have been pleading for the government to reconsider its decision, in the face of pandemic. But the regime prefers to contribute to the fastest possible spread of the pandemic.