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Satellite Imagery of the Sawa military camp, including the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School, recorded in January 2015.  Imagery © DigitalGlobe - Maxar Technologies 2019; Source: Google Earth

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.

Each year, Eritrea’s government forces thousands of secondary school students, some still children, 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 take place amid a lockdown. To curb the pandemic, the government imposed strict movement restrictions and closed schools. Yet it still decided to send the students off to Sawa and risk exposing them to the virus.

That is likely because 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 we 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 there is crowded, facilitating the spread of the virus if introduced. The danger is compounded by its 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.

Even in “normal” times, life at Sawa is grim and abusive. During the pandemic, it is likely even more dangerous. Eritrea will not build education back better after the pandemic if it funnels students into military camps. 

Instead of bussing new students to Sawa, the government should allow students serving in Sawa to return home and let them choose where they complete their final year in school, including at public secondary schools closer to home. It should end compulsory military training during secondary school and ensure that no one underage is conscripted.

Eritrea’s youth deserve real reform if they are to have any hope of a brighter future.

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