“I cannot live without freedom.” This was how Henok Tekle, a young Eritrean explained just why he was driven to escape from his country not once, but twice!
He was shot at by border guards and almost drowning on his way to Malta.
“The waves were over our heads,” he said. “The captain wanted to abandon ship, with the only life-vest, but he was grabbed by a refugee, who would not let him go.”
Finally they made it to Malta, but rather than treated as refugees, they were imprisoned before being taken by troops to a plane and forcibly repatriated back to the Eritrean capital, Asmara.”You will be deported,” a Maltese officer told him.
His punishment was to be sent to the Dahlak Islands which contain some of Eritrea’s most notorious prison camps.
There, in conditions of 50 degrees centigrade and given just six cups of water a day, he survived for more than a year on a daily diet of little more than one helping of bread.
Some of the 600 prisoners with him died, he said; some during torture, others of disease. Panadol was the only drug the doctor at the prison would prescribe.
From there Henok was sent to Sawa – Eritrea’s military training base. But despite his past experiences, he was determined to escape and seizing his chance he crossed the border once more, making it to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
There, because of his extraordinary history, he finally managed to persuade the UN refugee agency to find him a safe haven in Britain, where he is now rebuilding his life.
The tenacity and courage of Eritrean refugees escaping from their country was highlighted in a seminar held at Amnesty International in London.
The scale of this is highlighted by the UNHCR’s figures: more than 300,000 Eritreans are now refugees. Almost as many Eritreans are captured by the European Union’s border agency as Syrians – and Eritrea is not a country at war!