I represent Eritrea, a country known otherwise as an open prison; the North Korea of Africa - Luwam Estifanos
Four years ago Luwam Estifanos fled from the military in Eritrea in east Africa and paid $4,000 and risked her life to be smuggled across the border.
The 25-year-old now lives in Norway, where she lobbies the international community to highlight the conditions in her home country.
Here is her dramatic story, as told at the One Young World summit in Dublin last week:
“I represent a humble but nevertheless oppressed and enslaved people; I represent a nation, whose current human rights record is beyond poor. I represent Eritrea, a country known otherwise, as an open prison; referred to as the North Korea of Africa by Human Rights Watch.
In an era where human rights is highly valued and guarded, Eritreans suffer severe human rights abuses in all forms.
The youth are forcefully conscripted to an indefinite military service, where their labour is exploited and they survive with just $10 a month. Worse, women conscripts are subject to sexual assault, by higher ranks in the military.
Underage conscription to the open ended military service, is a standard practice; random roundups and arbitrary arrests of civilians, is a routine occurrence. Freedom of press is non-existent and mere uttering of displeasure against the regime can land you in prison. Conscripts are prohibited from exercising their faith. Possessing holy books, can lead to severe punishments. As a result, the youth are fleeing the country en masse.
This is also my story.
I was conscripted in the military at the age of 16. Four years later I fled through a dangerous route from my country, surviving the shoot to kill policy at the border.
My father was an anonymous writer for the opposition and the Government was starting to find out who he was and he was not safe. He went to a conference in Norway in 2008 and applied for asylum. My mother and youngster sister were following him over in 2010 when my mother paid a smuggler $4,000 to get me out too.
It was scary. I knew it was a matter of life and death but I was confident as we paid so much money the route would be smooth. It wasn’t.
We were shot at as we crossed the border and had to hide under a tree until it was over. Then we started off on foot at 7pm and walked across the desert until 6am. I was so dehydrated I thought I would die. I was scared.
There were bodies and skeletons around us. I wanted to go back but he said we couldn’t. We’d be shot.
When I got to Sudan I was even more scared because of human trafficking. Women were being tortured and raped. I stayed there with a cousin one year and seven months, too scared to go outside. Norway had refused my application.
Then I went to Uganda and stayed with a friend. It was beautiful. It was the first time I felt safe.
In 2012 I was finally accepted in Norway as a refugee and I lobby the world to know about the modern day slavery that is going on in Eritrea and bring the sad reality of Eritrea and Eritreans to light.
In July this year, my colleagues and I initiated a campaign against the National Slavery in Eritrea. I gave my testimonies at the UN headquarters in Geneva, in the process up to the establishment of a Commission of inquiry. Its job is to investigate the human rights violations in Eritrea. This is only the second time after North Korea; it has been established on a country not engaged in civil war.
I do this, for the young Eritrean man, who is languishing in jail. He could have been Meb, the Eritrean American athlete, who recently won the Boston Marathon; inspiring thousands. Or the young Eritrean woman, serving in the military and being sexually harassed. She could have been Mieraf, winner of the 2014 European championships in Zurich, who escaped to Sweden through treacherous routes. Or the young girl, who got shot at the border, trying to escape. She could have been me.
The One Young World in Dublin was amazing. Everybody has a story to and everybody is doing something positive in their community."
Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC)