Thousands of refugees have made their way to eastern Ethiopia across Eritrea’s porous southern borders in recent years.
Many traveled by foot through the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth. Others slipped across the heavily militarized frontier with Djibouti. Still others escaped in small, single-sail dhows to Yemen. But they fly below the radar of most Western media, aid agencies, and analysts, largely because they remain in the region rather than joining the flood of other Eritreans trying to reach Europe.
They are the Afars, a tightly knit Muslim minority that has long made their home in one of the most inhospitable corners of Africa—and are determined to keep it and the culture that sustains them. In the 19th century, European colonial powers and a rising Ethiopian empire carved up the parched lands of this proud warrior people, largely for their strategic location on the Red Sea. Now, like the Kurds, they are divided among three countries—Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.
By far the largest number live in the arid plains and volcanic hills of eastern Ethiopia, which is where most of those fleeing Eritrea end up. I spent a week there as part of a year-long project on the Eritrean refugee experience that has taken me to camps and communities from North America and Europe to Israel, East and Southern Africa, and South and Central America.
Many tell similar tales of political repression, desperate escapes, and perilous desert, jungle or sea crossings to find a place where they can rebuild their lives in relative freedom and security, though each account has its twists. But the Afar stories carry the added dimension of an assault on their culture and identity by a highly centralized state run by the army that won the country’s independence nearly 25 years ago, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.
The EPLF runs Eritrea as if it were still a guerrilla base area, combining an obsession with secrecy with a compulsion for control that leaves no room for disagreement and has left thousands in prison for petty political crimes—or for simply trying to leave. But the Afars are as determined to hold onto their identity as to their culture, which frequently gets them into trouble.
Ali Ahmed, whom I met in the Assayita refugee camp, fled in 2007 to avoid a compulsory national service originally mandated for 18 months but extended indefinitely in 2002. The extension came after a devastating border war with Ethiopia that was halted by a truce in 2000 but never resolved, leaving Eritrea on a permanent war footing.