by Nathan Yohannes:
A typical student at the Sawa camp in Eritrea wakes at six in the morning to prepare for his day. He could have some chemistry homework to finish before class, or need to study for a quiz. later in the afternoon, he might enjoy a game of soccer or a cup of tea with friends. But each morning, before he can begin his homework, he must meet the rest of the student body outside for mandatory military training. At age eighteen this student is familiar with the calishen, or rifle, and is mature enough to take orders from an imposing commanding officer.
This is the life of a student at the Sawa Defence Training Centre, located in the small East African nation of Eritrea and strategically placed near the infamously contested Eritrean-Ethiopian border. Each year, teenagers from across the country come to the camp to complete their high school education, spending their 12th-grade year combining normal academics with military training. These students are the lifeblood of the nation; they are the warsay, the second generation since independence and the generation entrusted with keeping Eritrea independent.
This perennial need for able-bodied soldiers is a consequence of the “no-peace, no war” relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1998, war broke out between Eritrea and its former colonizers over contested land in the Badme region. This Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, which ended in 2000, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and killed tens of thousands of people. A United Nations-approved commission awarded Eritrea the Badme region and allowed Ethiopia to keep some of the territory seized during the fighting. But peace may be short-lived: Since 2007, both sides have been remobilizing their armies in anticipation of a flare-up.
Since 1991, the year it won its independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea has been one of the world’s most militarized states. Its ratio of military expenditure to gross national product is the ninth highest in the world. Eritrea’s soldier-citizen ratio is also staggering, with about 2 million of its 5 million citizens on call for military duty. To keep up with its much more populated neighbor, Eritrea maintains a sizable number of tegadeli, soldiers, at the border. Citizens are required to render the state at least two years of military service, including the year spent in training at Sawa. After service, Eritreans can either pursue a career in the military or return to the private sector, remaining a permanent reservist. The military requirement is more than just a patriotic duty: Only those who serve the conscription period are eligible to attend college or procure many jobs.
Esther, a 20-year-old who graduated from Sawa a few weeks ago, is now anxiously awaiting the results of her college entrance exams, which will determine whether she will be able to go to university or technical school. “I really want to go work for a successful company in the city and make enough money to have a family,” she said. looking back on her time in Sawa, Esther seems remarkably grateful. “My family was not very wealthy, you know.” She received a free education and was able to meet people from all of Eritrea’s eight different tribes. She is the ideal child of Sawa, appreciative of education, accepting of her obligations, and prepared for a life dedicated to bettering the state.
Most Western nations and international organizations do not share Esther’s views on the camp. Eritrea has been accused of a crime that makes Westerners shudder: the military conscription of children. The global humanitarian organization Amnesty International has officially condemned Sawa, accusing the camp of regularly forcing children as young as 14 to enroll. Organizations like UNICEF and Human Rights Watch have chastised the Eritrean military for rounding up street children for the camp and violating basic educational rights by requiring a period of military training for graduation. This reputation was all I knew of Sawa when I, an Eritrean-American about the same age as the soldiers, made a visit.
In 2006 my family decided to travel to my parents’ hometown. During this typical rite of passage for Eritrean-American kids, I visited the houses in which my parents were born, was enthusiastically greeted by scores of family members, and was greeted by shouts of “Yo what’s up doggy dog” from local kids fascinated by American pop culture.
One of my stops in the country was Sawa, which had just made the news for constructing a new hotel, comically out-of-place at the top of a mountain littered with mortar shells. While there, I visited a female relative, Sarah, who was then a student at Sawa. She and a friendly young officer became our tour guides. At the age of only 19, Sarah exhibited a stoic maturity well beyond her years. She proudly showed us her dormitory and her coveted new copy of an old Martin lawrence film. The officer, who had just married during his home leave, gave us a letter to give to his wife; he had not seen or been able to contact her for months.
Sarah and her friend took us up to the mountains where they are trained, to the rows of benches where they hold various assemblies. They let us give fake broadcasts in the Radio Sawa studio. Sarah taught me how to march like a soldier, chanting gam, man, gam, man to the rhythm of my own heartbeat.
Later at the hotel, I looked through my window towards the border and the horizon beyond. I could see the rows of dormitories out of the corner of my eye. These students – in some sense, my peers – sleep next to one of the most hotly contested, geopolitically volatile places on earth. They are trained daily to survive the perils of a military stalemate. And yet it’s impossible to forget that they are children, sequestered in a camp that is barely removed from the villages and small towns that make up their tiny, impoverished nation. During training sessions, the symphony of rifles and march chants from Eritrea’s promising youth can be heard for miles, the sound of a generation burdened with the responsibility of protecting a beleaguered nation.
In Eritrea, the camp is a source of great national pride. It is a training ground for young, educated, and patriotic people, prepared not only to fight for their homeland’s existence but also to work towards the country’s economicprosperity.They are charged with the responsibility of replacing the yikaalo, the golden generation that won independence from the U.S.-backed Ethiopian empire. Every year the camp holds a massive youth festival, filled with fanfare and broadcast on the national television station. At the festival, the camp proudly displays Eritrean youth at their finest, participating in patriotic marches and singing the storied songs of independence sung by soldiers past. But every year, the festival also sparks a rumble of dissent from within, as Sawa and the government must answer opponents who condemn forced military service.
Eritrea sees this method of conscription and education as molding soldiers and citizens who will keep the country free and one day make it prosperous. Western governments and organizations see a system that requires military training and service for high school graduation as a human rights issue. For Eritrea, a nation of just 5 million people and 19 years of existence, Sawa is considered a necessary tool to maintain preparedness for a day the country desperately fears, when “no peace, no war” becomes the third conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 40 years. As the two countries tiptoe the line between peace and war, the ultimate goal of all parties involved should be preserving and nurturing the young. Maybe then the warsay generation will be able to deliver not only sovereignty but peace.
Nathan Yohannes ’13 is in Pierson College.