For 12-year-old Eritrean refugee Ablel, the decision to flee his country was relatively simple.
“I didn’t want to be a soldier,” he says with a shy smile, revealing a mouthful of crooked teeth.
Getting out, however, was a harder challenge. He is one of thousands of youngsters risking death to sneak across Eritrea’s heavily militarized border every month into neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia.
Most, like Ablel, are running from open-ended military conscription imposed by the autocratic, isolated and impoverished government of the Red Sea state.
“The ones who become soldiers, even they are escaping, so why would I want to be in military service?” Ablel said, sitting in Ethiopia’s Endabaguna refugee camp.
He escaped Eritrea on foot in June, leaving without telling his family — a common practice in a country where family members are reportedly often jailed after a relative leaves, accused of involvement in helping their escape.
Ablel said he left because authorities closed his school to use the land for military training, with a new school not due to open for two years.
“I couldn’t wait,” he said.
This month marks the tenth anniversary of mass arrests of hundreds of politicians, journalists and suspected spies by Asmara. Experts say the country’s human rights record has deteriorated in the past decade.
The United Nations refugee agency said nearly 3,000 Eritreans flood into Sudan and Ethiopia every month from Eritrea, a country of some five million people and about the size of England.
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