Thousands of Eritreans risk their lives each year trying to reach the United Kingdom and one man’s successful journey meant suffering privations for three years
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He remembers running, a mad dash towards the hills as the ground rippled with the mushroom puffs of bullets. The soldiers were close behind, scrambling across the plain as he fled barefoot across the rocks.
These were Mehari Solomon’s first steps of what is considered the world’s most perilous migration route and already he had learnt that luck would be his most cherished companion.
It was October 2010 and Solomon’s sprint across the lunar landscape of northern Eritrea marked the start of a three-year odyssey to Britain that would see him chased by traffickers, forced to drink his own urine, held at gunpoint by smugglers and cross the Channel in the back of a lorry carrying chilled cabbages.
Solomon’s story, far from unique, is a very modern tale of migration, his journey articulating the increasingly desperate scramble from one of the world’s most rapacious regimes to a place that Eritreans regard as the promised land.
That October morning, Solomon gazed back at Me’eter prison where he had spent nearly two years, living beneath a vast tent with almost 500 other prisoners of conscience caught during the government’s crackdown on Eritrea’s minority churches.
Me’eter military jail was one of Eritrea’s most notorious, certainly its most remote. Encircled by mountains, watchtowers and wide thorn bushes designed to rip a man to shreds, escape was considered impossible. Inmates died from the extreme heat. Others were tortured to death.
But that morning Solomon made a break for freedom. ”Twenty-four of us were sent out to collect wood with a detail of armed guards. I started to move discreetly to the edge of the group and just ran to the left. They started shooting and chasing me.”
He ran all day, pausing to wrap his shirt around his bleeding feet, living off strips of bread made from sorghum flour that he had wrapped around his body. For three days the 20-year-old picked his way south, circumventing military checkpoints, past the town of Shieb and on to Ghinda, where he flagged down a passing lorry and hitchhiked to his birthplace, Asmara.
For several months Solomon laid low with relatives in the city’s northern suburbs. But the net was tightening. Periodic sweeps were conducted by the military to seize ”dissidents” on the run. In February 2011 his luck expired and he was picked up by the military and sent to the Wia military camp near Massawa and from there spent 18 months working in a government metal factory near Asmara.
Solomon began plotting the next stage of his escape to the UK. The UN believes that almost 4,000 Eritreans a month are secretly fleeing the repressive rule of the country’s dictator, Isaias Afewerki; hundreds of thousands have already left. A sophisticated black market trade has evolved to facilitate such massive migration. The trick is knowing who you can trust: spies are everywhere. In May 2013 Solomon successfully obtained fake identification papers for 10,000 nafka (currently £400) and caught the bus west, towards the infamous army checkpoint at Teseney. Failure to convince the guards can mean death. ”Months earlier five men were taken to the market square and shot,” he said.
Solomon survived and travelled to the town of Omhajer, a 50-minute walk from the Sudanese border. At nightfall he and a guide set off. Solomon recalls he could see the silhouette of sentries, the observation posts and the nests of machine-gunners. ”We headed between two security huts. To the left was internal security, to the right the border guards.”
His fixer turned back and Solomon crawled between the watchtowers whose border guards have been instructed to shoot on sight. No one knows how many migrants have been killed or kidnapped by corrupt Eritrean military officers along this stretch.
Another danger soon materialised. Armed gangs from the Rashaida tribe, operating as human-trafficking syndicates, scour the border region. Eritreans caught are taken to Egypt and sold to Bedouin tribes who have been consistently linked to cases of rape, torture and the execution of Eritreans.
Solomon walked 12 hours through the night, traversing 50km before being taken by Sudanese soldiers to Shagarab, the United Nations refugee camp which held around 29,500 people. Finally, Solomon should have been safe. But Shagarab had become a magnet for traffickers. Solomon recalls being sized up by Rashaida gangs walking to the ration centre. ”They stared, looking if you were strong enough to make them good money. Once there was a woman and they picked her up; she was screaming but they still took her.”
When collecting dung for fuel, Solomon witnessed several kidnappings. ”There were two girls walking ahead, 15 metres from us. Suddenly these pick-ups came speeding towards them, very fast. They began running, but the pick-ups cut them off and took them.” Solomon reported the incident to a camp official, but never discovered what happened to the victims. He assumed that they were taken north to Kassala, the Rashaida’s principal trafficking hub in Sudan, and sold as sex slaves.
The situation deteriorated. Four months before Solomon arrived, the UN confirmed it was ”seeing rising incidents of abductions and disappearances of mainly Eritrean refugees … in and around refugee camps.” In 2012, 551 people disappeared from Shagarab. In his 20 days inside the camp, Solomon believes at least 10 people were abucted.
There is anger among Britain’s Eritrean community that international agencies were too slow to protect them. Afwerki Haile, of London-based religious human rights charity Release Eritrea, said they wrote to the UN last year demanding answers, but had yet to receive a response.
At the start of June, Solomon was warned by other Eritreans to leave the camp after his role in furious clashes with the Rashaida over the abductions. Although the traffickers withdrew, they pledged to return and wreak vengeance. ”I was told we would be murdered.” Solomon and around 100 other Eritreans paid 500 Sudanese pounds (currently £55) to a local people-smuggler who claimed he could evade the Rashaida. Even so, it was potentially dangerous.
”A previous group of 14 men and women had been attacked, one was shot in the leg and the kidnappers got some of the women.” Solomon left Shagarab on foot, navigating the fast-flowing river Atbarah at night by small boat, a crossing that has seen up to 20 refugees drown in previous attempts.
From there, Solomon caught a bus north, passing through New Halfa, a route that risked fake checkpoints manned by bandits who, Solomon said, were keen on Eritreans because they were vulnerable kidnapping targets.
Even in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, Solomon learnt there was no respite from traffickers. Smugglers patrolled the city. The Sudanese government, in concert with the Eritrean, sanctioned frequent raids to repatriate migrants. Melissa Fleming, UN spokesperson in Geneva, admitted they were deeply concerned over the recent forced returns of Eritreans from Sudan. Solomon spent nearly four months keeping a low profile. Finally, word reached him that a reliable smuggling network could take him to Libya. His family wired $1,600 and one September night last year Solomon and 250 other Eritreans boarded a crowded DAF truck and, crossing the Nile, lumbered towards the Sahara.
Soon the road became a sandy track, the vehicle became frequently stuck in the dunes, its occupants ordered to dig it out with shovels. By day three, Solomon remembers feeling very weak. There was no room for food on board, just the water he sat on. On day five the truck stopped so a passenger could bury her dead son by the side of the track. ”When someone looked like they were about to die they passed us shovels ready to bury them.”
It took six days to reach the Libyan border, including a 48-hour wait after the vehicle broke down. Mechanical failure routinely precipitates death for Eritreans crossing the Sahara. In April, nine illegal immigrants died among 300 abandoned by smugglers in the Sudanese-Libyan desert. Haile said: ”A month ago we heard that another 30 people were left to die in the desert.”
They were met at the Libyan border by a squad of heavily armed traffickers, apparently working in tandem with corrupt border officials. Within three days Solomon’s water supply ran out. By that stage, everybody was drinking their urine to survive. ”I was the last one to start. We all thought we were going to die.”
Solomon described how his fellow travellers had changed. They looked different, their skin crinkled like leather, eyes sunken. Solomon says his voice became a hoarse whisper until he could barely speak.
On their 12th day in the desert, several pickups arrived with fresh water. ”That saved my life, I was convinced I was going to die,” said Solomon. Sixty hours later they arrived in the Libyan town of Ajdabiya, where they were ordered to squeeze even more tightly together while cartons of washing powder were stacked around the truck perimeter, blocking the migrants from view. Solomon had heard how a similar ploy involving cement had gone wrong, crushing 30 Eritreans to death as they lay in the back.
They set off again, travelling another 10 hours along Libya’s coastal highway. Solomon counted eight checkpoints. Each one could spell a depressing end to his journey. If caught he would be sent to one of Libya’s 19 migrant detention centres, which are packed to overflowing and rife with allegations of mistreatment. A recent investigation by Human Rights Watch found inmates who had been locked in shipping containers, beaten, whipped and hung from trees.
They reached Tripoli at dawn and were effectively placed under house arrest by heavily armed guards. ”It was like a prison, they were extremely ruthless. We were not allowed to make a sound or be seen.” His traffickers demanded more money and Solomon’s relatives wired another £1,000. Five days later Solomon was herded into a van at gunpoint and released at night by the coast, possibly near the port of Zuwara, a major hub for clandestine Mediterranean crossings.
They were ordered in single file into the dark water and towards a boat. ”There were no lifeboats, no food, it was very crowded.” In total, 240 – mainly Eritreans – crammed on board and they set off towards Europe. It was a well-worn route. Around 13,000 Eritreans have made it across the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year, according to the UN, more than the total for all of 2013.
After 12 hours at sea, Solomon became anxious as the waters grew choppy. Just three weeks earlier 350 migrants, mainly from Eritrea, drowned when their boat sank off Lampedusa, his destination. More than 1,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year. Eighteen hours after leaving Libya, Solomon said that people around him began crying with joy. An Italian coastguard vessel was sighted ahead; he had reached Europe. ”Everyone began shouting, praising God.”
From Lampedusa, Solomon was flown to Bari by the Italian authorities and from there caught the train to Milan, where he spent a month with contacts from the Eritrean diaspora. In early November he caught another train and kept heading north, to Calais. He joined a group of Eritreans living beneath a tarpaulin shelter off the Rue des Garennes, 800m from the port.
After four days, he jemmied open the door of a lorry parked in a nearby industrial zone and climbed inside with six other Eritreans. From midnight to 5am they lay in silence among a cargo of chilled cabbages. Then the vehicle began moving. They never said a word as they crossed the Channel. After an hour the truck stopped, Solomon opened the rear doors and ran. ”I had no idea where I was, but I was smiling.” He accosted a passerby and asked how to reach Croydon, site of Lunar House, where he could claim asylum. The Home Office sent him to Cardiff and, seven months after arriving, granted him asylum.
Last week, as he sipped a cup of coffee in a cafe in Newport and recounted his journey to the Observer, Solomon took a phone call. Grinning, he announced: ”That was my agency, they’ve got a job for me. Starting tonight!”