Giving hope to Eritrean Refugees in Hitsatse Camp in Ethiopia
By Magdalena Wolnik
We hear about them in the news, in reports about successive boats that have sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. They come from a country where there is no war, and yet considered one of the worst places in which to be born and to live. Many risk much to flee the country. For us they are anonymous numbers that have long ceased to awaken any great emotions. Fr Hagos Hadgu, a project partner with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), knows many of their names and faces.
In 2015 about 50 thousand Eritreans reached Europe to become one of the largest national refugee groups, after the Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans in whose countries bloody wars are an everyday reality. Before they reach Europe, the USA or Canada, Eritreans pass through Ethiopia; one of Africa’s most hospitable countries, presently caring for about 800,000 refugees. Though some 10 million native people are starving here, they still continue to welcome those fleeing from neighbouring Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. About 120,000 Eritreans have sought refuge in four camps located in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Ethiopian Camps receive 300 people every day. Many of the refugees are young, educated men, fleeing the prospect of endless military service. Fr Hadgu Hagos, a Catholic priest of the Ethiopian Rite who, together with Fr Ghiday Alema, visits refugee camps in Shimelba, Mai-Aini and Hitsatse every week, warns that a good number of the refugees are often minors and even unaccompanied children.
(Fr Hadgu and Eritrean Catholics in the chapel at the Hitsatse Camp © Aid to the Church in Need)
Hitsatse camp, surrounded by a mountainous desert, situated more than 70km from the nearest town, with its hundreds of simple brick barracks and shabby UNHCR tents, is home to many large multigenerational families. Humanitarian organizations work here, focusing on providing access to drinking water and food, children’s education, support for people with disabilities and women suffering from abuse. There is also the spiritual dimension, which is why the camp has several chapels: Orthodox and Catholic, as well as a Muslim place of prayer. The camp numbers 25 thousand people, with a tiny Catholic community. The camp at Shimelba – 128 km from Shire town – has over five thousand Catholics and is better organised with youth groups and catechists. In the camps Fr Hagos and Fr Ghiday from the Adigrat Eparchy perform the sacraments, and together with catechists, prepare those who request it to be baptised, catechize, visit families, and play ball with the young.
(UNHCR tents at the Hitsatse camp © Aid to the Church in Nee
“People having suffered psychological deprivation, need consolation, reconciliation, you have to care for them, work with them. You have to tell them about God” - explains Fr Hagos, as he opens a modest chapel in the Hitsatse camp; accompanied by an old dried out man in oversized glasses, who explains that although he worked at the American Embassy in Asmara, he has been waiting for a visa for over three years. And yet he remains hopeful and confident, that he will soon be able to fly to the US with his wife. He adds that they could not have survived all this, without their faith. “We left everything behind, but we came here with our catholic faith. And thanks to the camp chapel we can continue to express it. There are no Catholics in the surrounding area, when people come here and see the chapel, they are filled with hope. We gather around this church, and thereby also express our gratitude to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), for building it.”
Eritrean Christians need to have strong faith. Fr Hagos explains that these persecutions and illegal border crossings leave people traumatised. They have to sell all they have to pay the soldiers at the checkpoints. When they reach the camps, they have almost nothing to survive on. A sense of hopelessness, frustration and depression is common, aggravated by separation from family, longing, idleness, and an uncertain future. The consequences are often drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.
“If they fail to earn money to pay the smugglers and leave, life in the camp ceases to have any sense for them. They begin to hate themselves. I saw a girl who set fire to herself in the camp”, recalls Fr Hagos. “They can’t stand the tension. But they rarely talk what they have experienced in the camp and on the road.”
The majority do not intend to stay in Ethiopia, faced with drought and famine, with no prospects for work and a normal life. The legal road involves waiting for a visa to Europe, the USA or Canada. Four families a week receive them. But the queue is long and the wait time ranges from 3 to 7 years. Older people, unable to face the challenge and hardships of the journey, have to wait to be relocated, and are more often than not left to their own devices. Young people on the other hand, impatient and not prepared to waste the best years of their lives, undertake the risky journey through desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Illegal routes to Europe lead through Sudan, Egypt, Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
“The young move me”, declares Fr Hagos “they often wait, sometimes for years, without any certainty about their future. They dream of a better life. We try to convince them against choosing the illegal option, but if they are desperate they decide to go and risk it. Sometimes someone disappears, only for us to learn, several months later, that the boys with whom we played football, who served at the altar, had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. One day, we lost 16 such boys. Their relatives cried, and I cried with them. One of them was Tadese, a bright and capable young lad, a contentious student, who encouraged other young people to get involved with the Church. We liked to joke together… He drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last year. I can still see his face…”
Before ACN carried out the construction of the chapel to cover spiritual and psychosocial needs of the Catholic refugees living in Hitsatse camp, the community was celebrating Holy Mass under the trees. In 2015 the Catholic charity supported projects in Ethiopia with more than $3.2 million.
(The recently completed chapel at the Hitsatse camp © Aid to the Church in Need)
According to some sources 20% of Eritrea’s population of five million have fled the country since independence - 5,000 people every month. Even the national football team exploited an away match to flee. So far, almost all have sought, and have received political refugee status, though as a consequence of Europe’s refugee crisis, only a third presently succeed; the remainder risk being sent back to Asmara to face a military tribunal ready to sentence them for desertion.
Why do they flee? Eritrea, which gained independence in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war with Ethiopia, is considered to have one of the most repressive and ruthless regimes in the world. Authors of the 2015 UN Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea accuse the authorities of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, rape and slavery. The country, inaccessible to outside observers, is reminiscent of a military barracks. There are no independent courts, newspapers or foreign correspondents, whilst the fictitious parliament deliberated for the last time in 2002. Every male between 17 and 70 years of age is required to enter military service, likewise all unmarried woman. Citizens are called to serve for indefinite periods of time, sometimes for a dozen or more years.
This young country, unceasingly at war with its neighbours, and despite the overwhelming poverty of its inhabitants, spends around 20 percent of its GDP on arms. The average wage is $30 a month, whilst the prices of basic goods can grow to absurd levels often overnight. From among 187 listed, the country is 182nd on the Human Development Index (HDI). Wojciech Jagielski, from the Polish Press Agency (PAP), notes that the West has no instruments with which to put pressure on Asmara. It cannot withhold loans, investments, or food aid, because it has granted Eritrea neither.
Human Rights Watch describes Eritrea as a “Big Prison for Christians”. America’s Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports that over two thousand people are detained in labour camps because of their faith, including Patriarch Antonios, still recognised as leader of the country’s Orthodox Church, who has been imprisoned for over eight years. The few witnesses in the camps report that beatings and torture are aimed at inducing inmates to renounce their faith.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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