Escaping military service and kidnap, one Eritrean woman’s Ordeal

By Reem Abbas

When Fatima (not real name) escaped Sawa, a military camp in Eritrea, she had already been there for two long years doing the compulsory military training that is supposed to end after 18 months.

For many young Eritreans, the service never quit ends. The months become years and many youth, men and women, find themselves stuck in the military service for over a decade.

Fatima and five of her friends escaped one night from the camp without any sense of direction. They walked for three days until they reached the border with Sudan, digging up mud to drink water and having nothing to eat.

There, they found themselves face-to-face with Sudanese soldiers who detained them for two days. The rest escaped except Fatima. She was left behind and remains in Sudan, ten years later.

Fatima was then taken to a military outpost and not long after, late at night, she was rapped by one of the soldiers.

I met Fatima through a friend who found out about her story through another Eritrean in Khartoum. I didn’t even hesitate for a minute when I read my friend’s email and agreed to meet her the next day. My friend thought her story was worth telling, I felt humbled by the opportunity to tell her story.

I opened the door to find an Eritrean man David (not real name) who is probably in his 50s. And inside there was Fatima. Although I’ve read a guideline to interviewing victims of violence online at the Dart Center’s website, all of a sudden, I didn’t feel like I could do this. How could I remain composed through all of this? This was a huge challenge, but I felt a responsibility to tell this story and look for other women who have suffered a similar ordeal.

First, I chatted with Fatima and David about Sudan. In fact we talked about if they liked tea sugary or not too sweet. The conversation flowed smoothly and Fatima began telling her story and answering my questions without hesitation.

As Fatima spoke, her thin body drowned in her Sudanese toub (a cloth worn by Sudanese women) and her face testified to years of suffering endured. At 24, Fatima entered Sudan in 2000 and until now, in her 34th year she’s still stuck in Sudan.

At the military outpost, after her brutal rape, the soldier took Fatima to live with him in his tent.

“I later became very sick and I found out that I was pregnant,” said Fatima. She said she tried to escape at least three times, but was always caught and returned to the soldier, a man she had two children with.

After she had her first child, she says she halfheartedly accepted her reality and realized it is very difficult to escape. She stayed there, raising her two children with a man who verbally abused her and sometimes, beat her.

Their house was a tent inside the military camp with no access to electricity or the basics. She cooked with coal or wood and never left the tent.

“He worried that I would get to know people if I left the tent, so I never left, I never went to the market, I know I was in Kassala, but never saw it,” said Fatima.

For 10 years, Fatima was forcibly living with a Sudanese soldier. As time passed by, she learned Arabic, a language she did not speak a word of when she came from her homeland.

“When I was alone, I cried until my eyesight was almost gone,” said Fatima who was holding her glasses.

Continue reading “Escaping military service and kidnap, one Eritrean woman’s Ordeal”

South Sudan Independence; A new journey begins

Flag of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Mov...
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Tonight at midnight, South Sudan will be covered with jubilations, from Juba to Warab, Torit to Yambio, Wau to Raga and all other corners of the new republic. Several dignitaries from around the world will be there to give their blessing to the divorce and for the new nation on Saturday.

And the dream of many like John Garang de Mabior the great South Sudanese fallen leader will come to pass. He once said:

“It is not my intention to change the Comprehensive Peace Agreement but I must say South Sudan needs its own independence. I see it coming even when am not the leader of SPLA/M.”

South Sudanese reporter, Anthony Kamba wrote a piece capturing what the mood in Juba was like ahead of the historic day.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrong an opinion and called it Standing by South Sudan and in there, he captured the countries challenges but most important the opportunities.

‎”…South Sudan has remarkable potential. With substantial oil reserves, huge amounts of arable land and the Nile flowing through its center, South Sudan could grow into a prosperous, self-sustaining nation capable of providing security, services and employment for its population.”

It’s this optimism that I carry a few hours from the independence declaration. I was chatting with a South Sudanese friend and he said to me to understand the feeling I would need to talk to people who lived in places like Kenya where colonial struggles claimed many and lived long to see the Union Jack come down.

South Sudan has been born at time when Africa has made substantial steps in development unlike the 60s. With a population that is not even half that of my country Uganda, South Sudan will need its neighbours who are already a step ahead in all sectors and am optimistic they will be a good asset. Women in Sudan are more than 60 percent of the population, yet 80 percent of them are illiterate. Empowerment of women of South Sudan will be key to the country improving the gloomy development indicators faster. I remember I met one woman on one of the trips to Sudan who said they didn’t want to be like women of Eritrea “who fought but in the end they were pushed out of the system and told their place was only in the kitchen once independence was declared.”

In April I was in Juba working with grassroots women leaders. Juba is a melting pot. It’s where East, Central Africa meets the north and horn of Africa. It’s one of the most diverse African capitals I have visited. My Boda Boda rider was a young man about 20 years old. He was born in Torit, he lived in Masindi in western Uganda then Kenya before finally coming back to Sudan. He speaks about ten languages. Language is important for integration and most Sudanese have spent many years living in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. These experiences can be harnessed to bring about changes in the new republic. South Sudan can take advantage of the booming sectors like education in Uganda where graduates spend years with no job.

It can get professionals from regional capitals who are not being put to use by their countries. These young people can be good for South Sudan as it starts from scratch. The new rich country where production is almost none existent will put pressure on its neighbours for some time because it is a great market for almost everything from food to industrial products to human resource. This can make South Sudan prosperous some years down the road.

But the all this optimism can only mean much if South Sudan can tame its ethnic divisions, corruption and the culture of hero worship. I know dangers of this culture because I am Ugandan. Twenty years after people fought to take power, we are still told if you didn’t fight for the five years in the bush, you are probably useless and you shouldn’t demand for good governance and a your share of the national cake. So Sudan must keep those heroes and heroines accountable. All Sudanese paid the price in this liberation and the country’s ruling party must start embracing alternative views.

I remember at one of the meetings a woman told me that in South Sudan if you don’t support SPLM you are equated to Bashir’s spy or the enemy. This stifling of people’s right to choose a party and oppose policies the way they see fit must be abandoned. And then the tribalism! You don’t want to see another Kenya of tribal politics and high inequality in the new country.

SPLM government must ensure they work for the good of all South Sudanese and shouldn’t hold the country at ransom and its oil revenues. The optimism rests on whether Salva Kiir and his government can deliver that country that many desired and fought for and died for. A country where they could be free and be free indeed.  When the midnight bells rings today, it will be a celebration of many thankful souls. Thankful that after all the loss and despair they went through they have lived to see this historic day. A day I pray will have even greater meaning when people of South Sudan look back some years from now.