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Some women are born refugees: Remember your Eritrean sisters

The international community marks World Refugee Day this week, which refugees and human rights organizations in Israel will officially celebrate on Friday. But while the world commemorates the 1951 Refugee Convention, impossible suffering continues to be the fate of countless women. Professor Minna Rozen reminds us of what we have to be thankful for.

By Minna Rozen

Better to be a man than a woman. If you were a man, then everything you do would meet with more approval, financial compensation and social reward. Your medical problems would enjoy more attention and funding. Your commentary would be considered sober and responsible, in contrast with that as a woman, which is considered hysterical, exaggerated and baseless.

Better to be a white woman than a black woman. As a white woman, you’d enjoy more opportunities for education, medical treatment, shared child-rearing with the man who impregnated you, employment to support you and your children, and a longer life expectancy.

If you are a black woman, then better to be black in the United States or Europe than in Asia or Africa. While you will still face discrimination due to the color of your skin, your chances are much better in the United States or Europe than those of your African sister, or one whose luck landed her somewhere in Asia. Also, it’s often better to be a black Christian than a black Muslim – though that depends on who your neighbors are.

Last Thursday, an Eritrean refugee murdered his wife and her baby, and then committed suicide. The man had fled to Israel more than one year ago, leaving behind a life of slavery in the army of the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki. Even though the State of Israel prevented him from exercising his right as a refugee to work for a living, he labored in oppressive conditions, without a permit, until he managed to collect the thousands of dollars necessary to bring his beloved wife to Israel. As has become common practice in the last two years, once she was in the hands of the Bedouin border smugglers, instead of letting her cross into Israel, they demanded thousands more dollars in exchange for her release. As the money was slow in coming, they held her in Sinai for many months, torturing her and raping her relentlessly, as they have done with hundreds more women in the last two years.

Only when the man managed to collect the requisite sum did the smugglers release the woman, who was in advanced stages of pregnancy. After the murder, it emerged that the man could not even look at the infant, a reminder of the damage to his honor as a man who failed to protect his wife. Despite the difficulties the woman undoubtedly endured, she could not come to terms with giving up the baby, even though he was the child of one of her torturers.

A few days later, human rights activists helped separate a couple in an identical situation, fearing for the life of the woman and the infant about to be born. She doesn’t want the child under any circumstances, but in this case as well, it is too late to abort. If the infant is lucky, an Israeli family will adopt him.

It all depends on the stars under which one is born.

If you are an Eritrean woman, it can be presumed that like 88 percent of your fellow countrywomen, you have been circumcised to prevent you from enjoying sexual intercourse. You might have been forcibly drafted into the army, where you meet the various whims – sexual and others – of your commanders. If fate smiled upon you and you were not drafted, you will be the property of your father, husband or brother. If fate did not smile upon you and you were taken captive by a hostile tribe, or if you escaped Eritrea and tried to cross the border into Israel, you will be out of luck, as you will be repeatedly raped by many men. If your family did not manage to collect thousands of dollars in time, the smugglers might agree to release you only when it’s too late to terminate your pregnancy. If you have a partner, he might force you to murder your baby if you didn’t manage to abort, or you could meet the same end as the woman in last Thursday’s news.

Better not to be a black woman from Eritrea. A serious examination of your status in accordance with the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees will find you eligible for refugee status, even only in light of your being a woman. For now, you, the reader, should be thankful for your good luck, which landed you in a place where you can fight: for representation in determining the fate of your society, for equal pay for equal work, and to rescue personal matters from the hands of religious courts whose codex of laws were determined in the middle of the 16th century.

Remember your sister from Eritrea. Raise up your voice for her. The governments of Israel and Egypt know the identities of the rapists, thieves and murderers who smuggle refugees across the border. They even know their phone numbers. They could stop them – if they only wanted to.

Translated by Noa Yachot

Minna Rozen is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Haifa and a volunteer at the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Read more about her here.

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    1. Senait D.

      Interesting how we hear of Eritrean men “murdering” their wifes, of suicides and such all the time from Israeli media. All the news have few things in common: we hardly get names of victims. And on rare occasions when we do read names, they are not even Eritrean names at all! So what’s going on? Fake indetities? Suicide is extremely rare among Eritreans abroad, let alone inside Eritrea. So it’s always intriguing to hear such news. Often, the report is more disturbing than the indicdent itself.

      You also speak of Eritreans “leaving behind a life of slavery in the army”. If it was ‘slavery’ (an insult to the real modern slavery in Israel), then why are the so-called suicides/murders committeed in Insrael and not in Eritrea? Is life in Israel so unbearable as to force Eritreans to such extremes? Eritreas come to Israel for better economic opportunities (let’s face it, billions flows into Israel from USA annualy) because that is understandably preferred over the no-war-no-peace situation with Ethiopia which has meant prolonged military life.

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    2. Simon M

      It is rather amazing how a professor of History would have no clue about the history of Eritrean women and their bravery during the struggle for Eritrean Independence. One third of the fighters were women. Through their struggle, they have equal rights and the same access to opportunities. Their right is guranteed by law and they are fully engaged in the development of the country as ministers, judges, engineers, doctors, technicians, teachers, etc. The writer is so racist in her remarks and this is no doubt a reflection of her ignorance. Black women in Eritrea are as proud and as much dignified as women in Israel can be. As for slavery, I wish she can look closer to home than far afield.

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    3. Rachelle Pachtman

      Minna, thanks for writing this story. It is horrible and heartbreaking what these women endure. I am wondering if you are familiar with ORAM? They support a free law clinic at Tel Aviv University that works to help these women gain protective status. Please contact me on FB if you would like more information.Also am thinking of making aliyah to become more involved in social justice work in Israel and would love to connect with you.

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    4. Leonid Levin

      A powerful essay… Heartbreaking… Why should people suffer like that? We are all sisters and brothers. How can we treat each other like this? Remembering my Eritrean sisters, your Jewish-Russian-European-Earthian-Universian brother Leonid

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    5. denden

      Another concocted story just to defame Eritrea because simply eritrea advocates self reliance. The free media has been in cahoot since Eritrea got its independence. This stroy explains how Eritreans were enslaved by their government in Eritrea. I wonder why did this young man killed him self while he was in Eritrea? but he chose to to israel and worked in oppressive conditions simply because the israeli government won’t allow him to work and won;t give him a work permit. So who is doing the dirty work and able to judge. It amases me even such a story to come out of Israel, if the israel governemnet knows any thing about slavery, opression and subjugation there is no country who has perfected in killing and mainming thousands of Palestinians and still millions are denied to live peacefully in their own land. It is better for israelis to put thier house in order before they could open their mouth to tell others how to put thier house in order. In deed it is reach from a country that professes Zionism to speak about other decent and peacefull people. Please wake up and smell the coffee, we are in the 21century not 18 or 19 century where the israelis and most of all the hiddiose Western hypocracy to lecture us on human rights and slavery.

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    6. Elsa Chyrum

      It is true that Eritrean women bravely fought alongside their male compatriots during the thirty year struggle for Eritrean independence. That struggle was basically to assert the collective human rights of Eritreans, to maintain their identity, and live as free human beings, free from torture inhuman and degrading treatment.

      However, it did not take much time for the promise, the dream, and longing for freedom of an entire population in general and the Eritrean women in particular to slowly fade. Except for few, the majority of the brave women are being discriminated against.

      In fact in post- independence Eritrea, female conscripts are sexually, emotionally and physically abused; and on a more sustained level, they are made servants and sex-slaves of military commanders. If they refuse, they are subjected to heavy military duties, torture and severe punishment. Many have ended up with unwanted pregnancies and many others have been infected with sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.
      It is not difficult to imagine the scar that women conscripts are left with due to the inhuman and degrading treatment they have been subjected to. Rape and sexual violence are subjects which are not discussed openly in Eritrean society and often victims prefer not to talk about it to protect their families’ reputation and to avoid the stigma that comes with it.

      So, what is happening to Eritrean women in Sinai desert is an extension to what has been happening to them inside Eritrea. This time, this living hell has become a business. The ransom amounts that are paid encourage the smugglers to raise their demands. The higher the sum, the harder it is for the family abroad to raise the money. This results in an even longer period of imprisonment, rape and torture for the refugees many of whom die before or even after the ransom has been paid. The impact of this tragedy will continue affecting the wider Eritrean community, as in the case of the man who killed his wife, her child and himself.

      I just want to tell you that the Eritrean government is directly involved in human trafficking in Eritrea, Sudan and the Sinai, and most of the ransom money collected through its collaborators goes to its coffer.

      Thank you Professor Rozen for being a Voice of the Voiceless. Please continue supporting the victims of this heinous crime and raise awareness of the human rights situation in Eritrea.

      Don’t be discouraged by some of the comments from the regime’s supporters. Unlike those who are fleeing Eritrea due to harsh living conditions, forced conscription, endless military service, lack of fundamental freedom and human rights, they live in democratic countries, enjoying the fruit of democracy, but they do not want to extend that privilege to their own people in Eritrea. Although they all claim to love their people and country, they all still want to live in diaspora and continue supporting an evil dictator – Isaias Afewerki.

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    7. Meron Estefanos

      Minna God bless you for this great article, and thank you for being the voice of my voiceless Eritrean mothers and sisters.
      Yes it is true that Eritrean women struggled for Eritrea’s independence, fought with men side by side. But what has become with the brave Eritrean women? The brave Eritrean woman is languishing in one of the thousands Eritrean prisons. The brave Eritrean women are now selling parking tickets. The brave Eritrean women are now cleaning streets or hospitals. The brave Eritrean women are now begging on the streets. The brave Eritrean women sacrificed her youth; her husband died at war. Now let us ask what has become to the children of the brave Eritrean woman and why are her children deciding to leave their beloved country, why do they chose to take perilous journeys?
      Eritrea’s extensive detention and torture of its citizens and its policy of prolonged military conscription are causing her children to flee the country. Arbitrary arrest, torture, appalling detention conditions, disappearances, forced labour, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, and worship is forcing her children to take any desperate measure in search of freedom.
      We all know military service is compulsory for all men and women aged 18 to 40. There is no limit on length of service. There is no exemption for conscientious objectors. If you try to flee you risk the possibility of being shot by Eritrean border guards. The government also punishes the brave Eritrean woman if her children manage to escape or desert from national service with fines or imprisonment. However, being an Eritrean youth the only choice you have is either to take the drastic decision to leave your country on this perilous journey or spent years in trenches facing Ethiopian forces dug-in across the border. Out of necessity and survival it’s no wonder that the children of the brave Eritrean woman will decide to undertake perilous journeys in search of a better life.
      Her children will have to take pains and risks to reach the Eritrea-Sudan border and become a refugee in hiding – in hiding because of the existing irony: the UNHCR and the Sudan do not recognize Eritreans fleeing from ‘their own’ regime as refugees. They do not feel safe due to the constant movements of the Eritrean security officials who enter the camp at night and capture the people trying to escape. In addition, as a refugee you are not welcome by the Sudanese security forces and are subjected to verbal and physical abuse from time to time. Hence the children of the brave Eritrean woman decide to travel further to Libya or Israel.
      The children of the brave Eritrean woman are facing a harrowing journey on his/her way to Israel. In addition to physical ailments, punishing heat and exhaustion, they are often subjected to physical and sexual abuse from smugglers, who demand payment of $12,000 up to $20,000. While the brave Eritrean women is watching quietly, her poor children are being gang raped by 4 up to 12 Bedouin men at a time, they are under constant physical torture, their hands and legs tied with chains, they are being electric shocked. Once the poor children of the brave Eritrean woman arrive in Israel, they are mentally and psychologically depressed; some will consider suicide as an option. So if you had to choose your nationality, would you want to be a black woman from Eritrea?

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    8. Gabriel Guangul

      Not much to add to comments written by Elsa Chyrum and Meron Estifanos. Both testify to what is going on in Eritrea as whole. As for Senait D., Simon M. and Denden, they know exactly what they are saying but are not yet aware of their contribution to this gross human injustices. They have not only chosen to silence and discredit voices that expose these inhumane and horrendous plights of refugees, they actually do not realize they are integral parts of the whole operation that perpetuates such practices. They are many like them and they always hide behind that awful word ‘patriotism’ while they enjoy their democratic rights elsewhere. Minna Rosen, thank you for highlighting the intolerable conditions Eritreans are enduring – inside and outside Eritrea. It’s just too much and difficult to absorb.

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    9. Inbar

      Thank you Minna… I shared it on my wall.

      I feel helpless in cases like that, not sure if I can do anything and if yes, what?

      Remembering is all we have left?

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    10. Selam H.

      Prof. Minna Rozen, Thank you for remembering women, especially of Eritrea. in which case their misfortune is two fold. First they are Eritreans, then they are women.

      I agree with most of what you say although I strongly disagree that religion, especially the Christian religion (for that is the only one I know well), should be brought like that. About 50% of Eritreans population is Christian. To avoid long comment, let me just say that, unless one has a problem with how the standard mainstream Christianity (like that exists in Israel and else where), treats women; you can hardly blame religion! The problem might be with the culture though, which is often mixed and confused with religion.

      Thanks again for remembering Eritrean women!

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    11. Thank you Prof. Minna. A touchy story that Eritrean people in general and women in particular have faced and continue to face for almost a decade. Eritrea has grown as a thorn-filled field where youngsters have lost faith in life in Eritrea. All these waves of immigrants and the consequent atrocities they face is nothing but an end-result of the oppressive regime back home. I have been reading some comments-trying to paint a different picture, as if Eritrea today is a land where a human being might wish to live in. Stop sarcasm! Yes, Eritrea is a nation born of equal participation of men and women, nobody disputes that. The state of ruin where we are now is what matters. The regime has paid a deaf ear while witnessing what is happening to citizens across African deserts, drawing a pleasure ‘Let them burn’. Later on the ambassadors appear in music stages, again to spread the nets of masking the truth and present themselves as guardians to their people.Enough!

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    12. Kibrom tesfay

      First of all this article is not entirely true and it is fabricated. It is obvious Eritrea will risk death to be self reliant. And put positive with negative please and down try to put Eritrean people down OK. Don’t forget too ERITREA IS THE ONLY COUNTRY IN AFRICA THAT IS SELF RELIANT. You understand while Ethiopia and others are begging and receiving hand outs and are dying of aids. Eritrea is standing on its own two feet You are only right about us having a rather bad govt But we will Clear it up Soon. But don’t get confused No one is touching our ocean unless we say so and Ethiopia will still remain landlocked. When we get a new govt in Eritrea, Eritrean refugees will wantto come back to their contrys to stay forever. Awet ne hafash awet ne eritrawiyan deki hagerey and please make sure your article is 100% true next time because we are not fools

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    13. syed

      I don’t beleive any Eritrean Man can kills his own wife and baby and committed suicide.Eritreans are brave and true warriors.

      Reply to Comment