Tigray the latest battlefront in Afwerki's three decades of wars

In this photo provided by Egypt's state news agency, MENA, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. [AP]

Getting news out of Eritrea is exceptionally difficult: it is - according to Reporters Without Borders - among the most difficult places in the world from which to report.

But in recent weeks news of the scale of the drive to recruit young (and not so young) men and women to be deployed in the war in the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Tigray has become apparent.

The BBC produced a well-researched article describing the burden this is placing on Eritrean families.

"Many in the capital, Asmara, were given notice on Thursday and moved to the border with Ethiopia's Tigray region, within hours, sources told the BBC. Reservists up to the age of 55 have been called up, they said." Families were in tears, as they send their relatives to a war in which, as the BBC explained "Hundreds of thousands have been killed."

The scale of conscription was reported to the UN Human Rights Council on June 14 this year.

"Thousands of conscripts have been forced into the Tigray conflict, with men, women and children taken and sent to fight on the front lines," said the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker.

One of the few ways of extracting information from behind the iron walls erected by Eritrea's only, unelected president, Isaias Afwerki, is by speaking to Eritreans whose relatives are in the country or have recently left. This is what I have done in the past week and this is what they said. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to name my sources.

The overall sense is of a country numb with pain and fear. As one Eritrean returning from abroad said: "There is a palpable sense of tension. Several times people said: 'you have come at a very bad time.'"

Anyone of conscription age - men up to 60 - are being picked up, but some women too. Even those who have not yet been called up are sent for training every day: Two hours before their regular jobs. This is prior to deployment to the front. No one knows when or where they will be sent: the instruction is "be prepared."

Visitors comment on how quiet the streets are, as families avoid their younger members being seen in public. It doesn't always work. Eritrea's notorious national security service goes door to door searching for anyone who has evaded the waves of conscription.

One Eritrean I spoke to described a man arriving home to find his wife being arrested because her son was in hiding, away from their home. The whole neighbourhood rallied around, begging the security services not to take her away. Eventually, they relented, but not before their son had emerged, and been marched off to fight. Conscripts can be forced to serve indefinitely.

The current conflict in Tigray has only the latest war that President Isaias has involved his country in. Over time the population has become numb to the loss of its citizens to wars or indefinite "National Service," as conscription is called.

Little of this is discussed in public. Eritreans have been living in a climate of fear for years, with neighbours spying on each other, and even members of their own families, as the UN Commission of Enquiry on Eritrea reported.

"Through its extensive spying and surveillance system targeting individuals within the country and in the diaspora, the Government engages in the systematic violation of the right to privacy... As a result of this mass surveillance, Eritreans live in constant fear that their conduct is or may be monitored by security agents, and that information gathered may be used against them leading to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, disappearance or death. They, therefore, engage in self-censorship with regard to most aspects of their lives."

The sense of anxiety and distrust has left neighbours wary of sharing even the simplest information with each other since no one knows who might be a spy. One woman told me of her discussion with a friend. "We are sending our children to their death ... they are not going to come back.' Then she put a finger on her lips."

In the capital, Asmara, hotels and restaurants are working at half their capacity, because their staff have been called up. Every business has been told to let staff go to the front, but no one can complain in public. "Just stay quiet" people say, before glancing over their shoulders.

No one can be certain how many lives have been lost in the war against Tigray that erupted in November 2020. Professor Kjetil Tronvoll, one of the best-known Horn of Africa scholars, has worked on the region since the 1990's.

In a series of Tweets he provided an assessment of the scale of the conflict.

"The world's biggest ongoing armed conflict is not Russia's attack on Ukraine, but Ethiopia and Eritrea's massive offensives on Tigray. A reliable estimate is that up to one million troops are engaged in the war theatre. The ongoing combined Eritrea/Ethiopia offensives against Tigray use WW1 tactics of ordering massive human wave attacks on Tigray defence lines. The carnage is horrendous. Likely as many as 100,000 have been slaughtered over the last weeks."

If this is remotely accurate then the politics of the Horn of Africa will be shaped by this war for years to come. For President Isaias, this is probably his last throw of the dice. Now 76, he has attempted to use Eritrea as a platform from which to exert influence across the region since his troops captured the country from Ethiopia in 1991.

The writer, Martin Plaut, is a senior research fellow on the Horn of Africa at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.