JUBA, South Sudan —Two years ago when Peter moved here from nearby Eritrea, things looked pretty good: South Sudan was a new country getting international help. The city of Bor, where Peter opened a general store, was along a major corridor of emerging oil wealth and prosperity.
South Sudan was in fact a refuge, politically and religiously freer and less repressive than Eritrea. Peter, who will not give his real name for fear of reprisal, could escape what has become Eritrea’s notorious forced conscription policy, where the government is grabbing men up to the age of 50 for indefinite Army service. Plus, getting across the South Sudan border was not too difficult.
But now he finds himself caught in South Sudan’s brutal civil strife. A slight man with a short, shaggy Afro, he is living in a refugee camp of 10,000 people in the capitol of Juba. And at this point he just wants to leave this place and find some safer haven.
Peter is one of several hundred Eritreans who, as foreign refugees, take a place on the bottom rung of the dispossessed – and are the forgotten among the already forgotten local South Sudan refugees, in a country now at war for three months.
He shares a tent of plastic sheets with eight other men who, like him, fled the bloody tribal violence that erupted suddenly in mid-December between loyalists to South Sudan President Salva Kiir and troops led by his political rival, Riek Machar.
“It’s very bad in Bor,” Peter says of the city on the White Nile where he settled in 2012 and had to flee in late 2013 when violence broke out. “Everything was destroyed. But how can I return to my country? If we return, we’ll be imprisoned or killed.”
Like South Sudan, which formally broke from Sudan in 2011, Eritrea did not live up to the bright promise of its own 1993 independence from Ethiopia, which also followed a brutal and prolonged insurgency.
Conditions in Eritrea and the out-migration of its people is not much noticed – though their plight did get headlines last fall after some 300 Eritreans drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.
Today Eritrea is one of the most repressive regimes in Africa. Since 1993, it has had one president, Isayas Afewerki, and no presidential election. The government allows little free assembly or media, and thousands sit in jail without trial. There are reports of torture and the disappearance of dissenters.
“In our country we don’t have rights,” says Peter. “We don’t have democracy, we don’t have religious freedom.”
But the biggest issue for Peter is the government policy of indefinite military conscription. The International Organization for Migration in Nairobi estimates that of the 21,000 Eritreans who flee their country every year, the majority are young men escaping national service.
Peter is one of them. He says he spent nine years in the Army before getting out. All eight of Peter’s tent mates say they also left to escape the military.
The nine men spend their time chatting and lounging on a few thin mattresses, waiting for food aid. But even with so much time to talk, they’ve made a pact to not speak in detail with each other about their “personal problems” back home. They may be in a safe UN camp. But they worry about informers who could carry information back to Eritrea where it could be used to punish their relatives.
Yet when separated from each other, some of the men will speak. One said he left Eritrea after refusing to follow orders from a superior. Another said he’d been persecuted for his evangelical faith, which isn’t one of Eritrea’s four officially recognized religions.
Nor are the Eritreans the only foreign refugees. There are over 300 Somalis, and 160 Ethiopians, says ACTED, the NGO organization running the camp. Some fear returning home due to violence and political persecution, too.
“I ran away from Ethiopia because of problems. Now in South Sudan there are problems,” says one Ethiopian in his mid-twenties who comes from a family opposed to the ruling party. “I don’t know where I can get my human rights.”
South Sudan may seem an odd destination for refugees. The health care, schools, and security conditions here were dismal even before the current fighting.
But Yonas, as he gives his name, the chairman of the Eritrean community in the Juba camp, says that South Sudan was the least bad option available – better than sitting in an Ethiopian refugee camp, or risking run-ins with Eritrean agents in Sudan, or signing up with brutal human traffickers to get to Israel.
Undeveloped South Sudan, Yonas says, offered a place to lay low and start over.
“We selected South Sudan because it is comparatively better,” he says. “We don’t have any documents. We don’t have any visa. But we can go freely in South Sudan.”
Getting here wasn’t easy. Peter says Eritrean border guards shot at him when he first dashed across a dry riverbed to Ethiopia in 2006.
Mary, who lives a few tents away in the Juba camp, speaks of walking for weeks from her hometown in Eritrea to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, before bribing her way to South Sudan. She boils tea next to a smoking pot of incense, and says she came last year to join her husband who fled Eritrea’s national service five years earlier. She waits on tables and her husband ferries goods with a motorbike. The couple had started saving money to send home to her parents. In early December, she became pregnant.
Then came the war.
“My first child will be born in this,” Mary says, becoming emotional as she describes the possibility of giving birth in the cramped, unsanitary camp. “I need a safe place. I want to be a good mother.”
Mary, like Peter and the others, says she just wants peace. And a real place to call home.