"It's really hard to get photos at the Eritrean site - everyone there is terrified of everything. I can't imagine what their country must be like to make you that scared."
This comment, from someone who knows the details of the migrant crisis better than anyone, acted to wake me up. I have slipped into the routines after three weeks here, I've stopped questioning and I've started accepting the situation as it is. Why are so many people leaving Eritrea? What are their chances of successful asylum claims? And berbere spice?!
I had to look up where Eritrea is when I first worked in Calais. It borders Sudan and Ethiopia and has a Red Sea Coast, and it's got a pretty devastating history. Colonialism, both Italian and British, left Christianity behind. The only step towards independence involved a federation with Ethiopia which later led to a 30 year war. The hard-won independence was followed by single-party dictatorship - there have been no elections since the rigged one in 1993. Wikipedia has some shocking figures about the compulsory military service. On paper, this is a compulsory service for 18 months, however the truth is:
"everyone under the age of 50 is enlisted in national service for an indefinite period until released, which may depend on the arbitrary decision of a commander. In a study of 200 escaped conscripts, the average service was 6.5 years, and some had served more than 12 years." 1
Despite appalling experiences, the guys I spoke to the other day were cheerful and joking. An intense football game continued while I chatted. Abraham told me about learning English at school and reading the Bible in his language which is Tigrinya. We laughed that he'd have no need for the shampoo in the pack we'd just distributed as he's gone bald, and he told me about missing the food from home. It took the help of several people to describe the spice mix he was telling me about. Berbere spice is a blend including chili, garlic, ginger and plenty more, which is common in Eritrea as well as neighbouring Ethiopia.
I can't imagine what Abraham's life was like, or the journey he made across Sudan, Libya, the ocean and Europe. I can't imagine being so far from home with such little hope to hang on to. So my homework over the next few days will be reading a lengthy Home Office document on asylum claims for Eritreans, as well as tracking down some berere spice in locked-down France. Wish me luck...
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