Fleeing slavery for uncertainty: One Eritrean migrant's story

Story highlights

  • Eritreans make up the the second largest group of migrants, after Syrians, reaching the shores of Europe
  • They are fleeing open-ended military service -- which some human rights activists describe as official slavery

Rome (CNN)"What are you doing here?"

A man in a red t-shirt and a long black ponytail shouted angrily at us as we conducted interviews at a center for migrants -- most of whom were from Eritrea -- in the Rome suburb of Tiburtina.
    "You should be in Eritrea interviewing that demon there!"
    That "demon," the man went on to explain, is Isaias Afwerki, the country's president since 1993.
    The man told us he was from Eritrea and had been in Italy for eight years, but declined to be interviewed, fearing his relatives back home would be punished.
    Eritreans make up the second largest group of migrants, after Syrians, reaching the shores of Europe.

    Fleeing military service

    But unlike the Syrians, the Eritreans aren't fleeing war. Instead they are refugees from what human rights activists describe as a system of official slavery—open-ended military service for all males and unmarried females between the ages of 18 and 50.
    Benjamin, 23, comes from Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. When we met him in a park in Ponte Mammolo in northern Rome, he had been in Italy for about eight days.
    "I ran away from Eritrea because I don't want to serve in the military," he told me. "I was hiding from place-to-place for a very long time. My family suffered too much trying to hide me. I had to move out. My destiny was to be in the military and that's not what I want. The only opportunity I have is running away."
    Benjamin spoke almost flawless English, which he taught himself while on the run. When we interviewed him, he asked that we not show his face. He was one of the few in the park who were willing to be interviewed at all.
    The day before Italian police had come in the morning with bulldozers and demolished a small shanty town of plywood and corrugated iron shacks that had housed around 200 migrants. Benjamin's "house" as he calls it, is a strip of cardboard he sleeps on under a tree.
    His story is similar to many we've heard from other migrants.

    Harrowing journey

    His family scraped together as much money as they could to pay what he described as "facilitators" to help him escape from Eritrea and travel across Ethiopia and Sudan to Libya, where he ended up in the town of Ajdabia.
    In Ajdabia, a town I spent lots of time in during the Libyan uprising in 2011, he stayed for a month in a house run by several facilitators, ironically, fellow Eritreans.
    The bonds of nationality didn't count for much.
    "He was a very terrible person," recalled Benjamin. "The only thing he wanted from us was money. He didn't feed us properly. To be honest I didn't take a shower for the full month I was in that house. You were allowed to go to the bathroom only one time a day."
    The facilitators "took our phones, they took everything we had in our pockets. I had €200. They took my wallet and my documents. All I had was the clothing I was wearing."
    Summing up the experience in Ajdabia, he said "it was the example of hell."
    From Ajdabia he and other Eritrean migrants were moved to the Libyan capital, Tripoli. There they were crammed with around 600 others onto a two-level fishing boat.
    "The engine burned out two or three times and the fan belt also broke. We stayed in the middle of nowhere for seven hours," he told me.
    "Everybody gave up on that boat," he said. "We were just praying to God to help us. Some people were fighting there. Some people were sitting inside the engine room. Many were unconscious. It was too hot, and people were vomiting."
    Benjamin was in a cramped, suffocating room on the lower deck. "I was vomiting from the time I got onto the boat. It was so crowded, but I sat on top of my friend and had my face in a little window where I could breathe. I don't remember what happened after that. I was just feeling my pain."
    After around 13 hours at sea, he heard a helicopter overhead. Someone shut off the engine, and they waited until rubber dinghies from the Italian Navy came to their rescue.

    A 'better life'

    The Navy took them first to a receiving center on the island of Lampedusa, and then they were moved to another center in Sicily.
    "After we reach Sicily, they start forcing the people to be fingerprinted so we decided to run away," he said.
    According to European Union regulations, migrants must be registered in the country they arrive in, and cannot go on to request asylum elsewhere.
    To avoid being registered, he and his friends left the center, saying they were going to a nearby church. "And once we went outside we never went back," he said.
    With help from friends, who gave him €50, he said he was able to get to Rome, with €7 left over. In Ponte Mammalo, local churches provided him and other migrants with food and clothing.
    Benjamin's goal is eventually get to Germany, where he hopes to get an education and a "better life." He has no relatives there, speaks no German, but clings to the vague hope that somehow he will land on his feet.
    "It's just me," he says with a smile.