Fleeing to Freedom

The saga of an Eritrean student who treks to Israel to escape the dictatorial regime in his home country.

TEKLEZGI (photo credit: Sara Levin)
(photo credit: Sara Levin)
FIRST THERE WAS THE TERRIFYING early morning knock on the door. Then the Ethiopian soldiers barged in and a 10-year-old Teklezgi, together with his pregnant mother and two younger siblings, looked on with horror as the soldiers took away his father.
“I was frightened. I was scared about what was going to happen to my father. The soldiers had guns. My father told me he would return. I was a child and I hoped he would return. But he didn’t. The soldiers took him to prison for three weeks and then sent him back to Eritrea,” says Teklezgi 12 years later as he sits in a small two-room apartment which a friend is renting in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. He requests that his family name not be mentioned A first-year psychology student at home, Teklezgi, now 23, has been in Israel two months now and has spoken to his family only four times since he left Eritrea four years ago. He spent his first few days of freedom alone in Levinsky Park, near the central bus station, until by chance he ran into his childhood friend on a Tel Aviv street.
“To be separated from your family is the worst thing,” he says, trying to stem the tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “I love my family very much, my brothers, my sister, my relatives, my friends. But there is something which forces you to leave your country. I did not leave my country because I was poor.
We have enough food. We have natural resources. We have gold. We don’t have a high population like Nigeria. I left my country because I want justice and my rights. We are coming here because our country leader is a communist dictator.”
He has been able to find only a few days work since he arrived because his conditional release visa does not allow him to work legally, so he is dependent on the goodness of his friend and his wife for shelter and food. When he does find work, he buys food for the apartment.
The African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) and they have helped him apply to the psychology department of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. As he waits anxiously for a reply to his application, Teklezgi spends his days chasing possible job leads and reading the books he has been able to borrow from the ARDC mainly on English grammar and a few novels.
WITH SERIOUS DARK EYES belying his youth, Teklezgi has come a long way from his slightly pampered youth in the Ethiopian city of Assault, 270 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, along the shores of Lake Auassa and far removed from the ongoing struggle for independence and territorial conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
His relatively well-off father owned a restaurant and Teklezgi remembers a beautiful city with a very nice house and birthday parties with plenty of friends, cakes and fruits.
But in 1998 when the conflict once again broke out between the two countries seven years after Eritrea gained its independence, all Eritrean nationals were forced to leave Ethiopia. Six months after his father was expelled from Ethiopia the soldiers went house to house searching for Eritreans and Teklezgi’s family was taken to prison.
“They had already taken our father and we already knew they were coming for us next,” he says. They were scared and forced to stay in crowded conditions in prison until enough Eritreans had been rounded up to send back to the border, he recalls now. They were forced to leave all their possessions behind and were only permitted to bring supplies for his four-month-old baby brother. The others had to buy their own food, he says.
They were then taken to the border on a suffocating six-hour ride in an overcrowded bus with the windows tightly shut. After they were reunited with his father in his hometown, the family went about the business of rebuilding their lives. His father turned to farming and Teklezgi helped him with the plowing, chopping firewood and bringing water from the well, something which he believes helped him prepare for the long and treacherous journey he began when he was 19 years old. With the fertile land and two sowing seasons, they managed to get back on their feet and Teklezgi applied himself to his studies Since then, Teklezgi has dodged bullets, worked as a slave laborer and almost drowned twice while attempting to reach Italy via Libya.
THE DICTATORIAL REGIME IN HIS home country continues to maintain a stranglehold on the population arresting dissenters, including numerous journalists, academics, and students, he says, preventing any sort of a free and democratic society from developing.
With a ninth and fourth grade education his father and mother were never politically aware, he says, but he was a diligent student and reader. His political awareness began to grow when he was 15 years old, as 15 government ministers accused of opposing the government were jailed without a trial. They are still imprisoned, he says. He read about how things were in other parts of the world and saw movies, beginning to realize “what was right.”
“We struggled for 30 years for independence and sacrificed our grandfathers, uncles, brothers, sisters. So many Eritrean people love democracy. Independence came from the people but not for the people,” he says. “That is the main reason why we are leaving the country.”
He, like all other high school students, spent his final year of high school at a military academy where, in addition to learning subjects such as physics, chemistry, math and English, students were required to take a political course which inculcated them with political propaganda. The army controls all institutes of higher learning and of the some 20,000 eligible young people only 2,600 make it into universities a year, says Teklezgi.
Once in the university, students are only permitted to leave the campus with special permission, which limits how long they can be gone and where they can go, By keeping the population uneducated, the government is able to maintain control and reduce the effectiveness of any opposition, he accuses.
“It was impossible to live that way. “I didn’t want to lose my mind. It is my gift.”
I have seen so many… educated people jailed in underground prisons,” says Teklezgi, who describes the Eritrean government as “a conglomeration of all the bad things taken from different forms of government such as communism and Maoism. They say Eritrea is a democratic country… but the president is not elected [by the people] and if you ask for your rights you are immediately arrested.”
HE EMBARKED ON HIS JOURNEY with a like-minded friend from the university, whom he carefully selected. On their first vacation from university the two slipped over the border to Ethiopia. Many of his friends from his village had been shot by Eritrean soldiers as they tried to escape across the rocky border; he did not tell his parents about his plans.
“We were walking very slowly at night.
There are stone hills and it is very difficult,” he says. It took them two hours to cross the border and just as they neared the border Eritrean soldiers began shooting at them. The bullets whizzed by their legs and bodies. “At that moment I decided that either I die there or I run to my freedom. We both ran and kept running for an hour before we stopped.”
Miraculously uninjured, the two made it to a transit camp in Ethiopia, where they stayed for a month. After he realized that some of the Eritrean refugees had been there for over five years, Teklezgi knew he would have to leave if he wanted to pursue his dream of an education.
He headed towards Sudan because people said that is where he should go. But since Eritrea and Sudan maintain good relations, he knew he was liable to be sent back or imprisoned at any moment. He did not stay there for long.
“The only thing I knew was that I had to reach some place democratic,” he says. “A country that can give me my rights and justice and to make my dream come true until my country is free and led by a righteous administrator.”
He paid $300 to be part of a group of 30 other people who were able to pay the fee for a Sudanese smuggler to take them across the Sahara desert in packed trucks to the Libyan border. There was not enough food or water for the nine-day journey and one person from their group died of dehydration before they reached their destination, he says. Sometimes other drivers just leave the groups of Eritrean refugees in the desert once they have collected their money, he says.
At the Libyan border they had to each pay $200 to a Libyan who was to take them to Tripoli. But they were caught by the Libyan police and jailed. In jail they were used as slave labor and Teklezgi soon decided he needed to escape. He and four other prisoners managed to slip away from the guards.
“I was 19 years old and I believed I was strong enough. I believed in myself, that I was strong enough to challenge anything,” he says now. They had been given the phone number of an Eritrean in Tripoli, who arranged a car for them.
Teklezgi stayed on in Libya for two years, working to save enough money to pay smugglers to ferry him over to Italy, all the while keeping his goal of receiving an education in his sights. But after two failed attempts – and paying several thousands of dollars – when the overcrowded boats he was on nearly sunk, he abandoned that plan.
But his presence in Libya was also precarious.
Israel, he thought, was the only choice left to him and using up all the $3,000 he had saved, he paid Egyptian smugglers to take him through the Sinai desert to Israel.
“This money is my life. It was not easy saving all this money. I paid this money and I came to this country because I thought this country is a democratic country and a lawful country. I think I can continue my education in Israel,” he says.
The families of many Eritreans are forced to pay ransoms to buy their loved one’s freedom from the Bedouin smugglers, who keep them hostage in the desert under threat of death, he says. Though his group made it safely over to the Israeli border, he met several Eritreans at the border who had injuries from being tortured and held in captivity.
“Thanks to God all in my group got in safely. So many people are not able to pay the money and are still in the Sinai,” he says.
“It is very criminal. [The smugglers] are not educated people. They just want money and they don’t like us because we are Christian.”
HE HAS ONLY COMPLIMENTS FOR the Israeli soldiers who picked them up at the border and collected them into a “big cage” with a closed fence in the desert. The refugees stayed there for two days and were given food, water and blankets. After that they were taken to a prison camp were he stayed for two weeks until he was released and dropped off at the Tel Aviv central bus station on November 21.
“I like Israeli people. They are educated people and also they are cultured,” he says.
“They respect other people. Israeli people were refugees themselves, no? Israeli people should know what it is like to be a refugee.”
He says has not experienced any discrimination and the neighbors continue to be polite. But he he knows of two other Eritreans who have been kicked out of their apartment by their landlords. “What they are saying is because they don’t know the Eritrean people and Eritrean issues,” says Teklezgi. “Israelis only know Sudanese and Ethiopians.”
Though he does not regret leaving Eritrea, says Teklezgi, he never imagined his life would turn out the way it has. “I thought I would reach a place I want quickly, I didn’t know where, but a comfortable place where I could get my education. But unfortunately I have had so many troubles in my life,” he says. “But I am young and I am really glad I am alive because I know I will be someone educated and a good person in the future.”