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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Eritrea cracks down on draft dodgers
Eritrean soldiers
Eritrean soldiers say they just want to go home

Asmara has changed since the authorities decided to mount checks for young man and women who have not performed their national service.

Some businesses which rely on young staff have been forced to close as their employees stay at home to avoid the soldiers.

And the once-thriving night life has all but stopped.

Asmara street
Streets are deserted at night as people stay home to avoid arrest

Small groups of Eritrean soldiers are now positioned on street corners calling over young people to check their identity cards.

Those whose cards do not pass the inspection are often put into trucks, taken to a holding centre to check their status before being sent off to Sawa, Eritrea's national military training centre.

Started in the 1990s, the national service programme provided a ready cheap workforce for the country's national projects.

Over 200,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 are said to have been recruited.

Pay-back time

During the conflict with Ethiopia, the focus changed and national service recruits formed the bulk of the army that fought on the frontlines.

Now, with the war apparently over, it is pay-back time for those who missed or dodged the call up.

Eritrean soldier
For a salary of $20 dollars a month, most Eritreans are not too keen to sign up

As the news spread like wildfire, young draft dodgers in the capital Asmara decided to stay at home rather than risk being picked up.

On the streets, soldiers pounced on cars, taxis and buses checking for anyone whose identity card or military papers would reveal that they had not done the obligatory military service or that they were absent from the army without permission.

Scores of other soldiers targeted homes, doing house-to-house searches in parts of Asmara.

Military training

It is difficult to put a figure of those who were liable for the call up and did miss out, but it is estimated to be at least several thousands in Asmara alone.

The same round up exercise is also going on across the country.

At any rate, the round-ups are nothing new to Eritreans.

Asmara cafe
Eritreans now take their ID wherever they go

They are used to doing six months' military training, followed by 18 months or so of national service - straight after finishing high school.

But during the border conflict with Ethiopia, the length of the national service became unpredictable and some people are still serving with the army five years later.

There has always been resistance to drafting women, especially in the rural Islamic communities but that has now spread.

The experience of some women in the male-dominated army has engendered opposition to female particaption across communities.

In some of the more remote areas, resistance can be physical, in Asmara people just hide, and the community shelters them.

No hiding place

There is also anger among university graduates who had already done the six-week military training at the height of the war with Ethiopia, but who have been told they will have to back again.

And the meagre salary of $20 a month is not seen as a good incentive to honour the call up.

Some families say they have so many sons and daughters away in the army that to send any more children for national service is just unbearable.

Most of these families are still waiting to be informed of those who died during the recent border war.

Whatever their grievances, all of them have only two choices: To go voluntarily or keep hiding and hope the checks will pass soon.

In a country as small as Eritrea - with a population of three-and-a-half million - there are not many places to hide.


Border decision

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24 Apr 02 | Africa
29 Jun 02 | Country profiles
22 Feb 02 | Africa
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