Each year, thousands of secondary school students in Eritrea are forced to attend their final school year in the infamous Sawa military camp, where students study but also undergo compulsory military training.
This year’s departures should be a little different as it takes place amid a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and the health of the student, some of them just children, a top priority.
But videos and photographs circulating on social media earlier this week showed buses in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, crowded with students, who were not wearing masks, as they were separated from their families and sent off to a military training camp in the country’s west.
The final secondary school year in Sawa serves as the government’s main conveyor belt through which it conscripts its citizens into indefinite government service.
Last year Human Rights Watch reported on what life in Sawa looks like: students under military command, with harsh military punishments and discipline, and female students reporting sexual harassment and exploitation.
Apart from Sawa’s other defects, dormitory life in Eritrea is crowded, facilitating the spread of the virus if introduced. The danger is compounded by the country’s very limited health facilities.
This has a devastating impact on students’ futures. From Sawa, those with poor grades are forced into vocational training – and most likely military service. Those with better grades go to college, then into a civilian government job.
Students have little to no choice over their assignment.
Former Sawa students abroad have campaigned recently for the government to stop sending students to Sawa, but in vain. (Source: HRW)