For many teens, the last year of high school is a time of excitement filled with studies, athletics and dances. But young Eritreans spend the year at a military camp preparing for mandatory conscription and indefinite national service, where they face physical and mental abuse.
A new report by Human Rights Watch offers the most detailed look to date at Eritrea's conscription system, which forces young people to complete their final year of high school in the desert town of Sawa at a facility that's part school, part boot camp.
The report, They Are Making Us Into Slaves, Not Educating Us, draws on interviews with 73 former secondary school students and national service teachers to provide details on what happens in the camp.
HRW found that authorities at Sawa keep students under military command throughout the year, beat them for minor infractions and force them to perform labor. Teachers at the camp are not much older than the students. Since they are compelled to serve at the camp, they are often indifferent or absent.
Impossible 'to be a student'
In an interview with VOA, Laetitia Bader, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the system makes young people feel helpless.
"There was this sense that not only were young people not given really any control over their destiny," Bader said, "but it was also the sense that, in the year at Sawa in particular, it was impossible, really, to be a student, to think like a student in such a militarized environment."
Officials have required young people to complete 12th grade in Sawa since 2003. Each year, between 11,000 and 15,000 students arrive at the camp, according to HRW, a facility the group compares to "a large prison" surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
HRW also discovered that young people are dropping out of school in 11th grade to avoid being sent to the camp.
Students and teachers alike are risking their lives in large numbers to flee the country, the advocacy group said.
In the report, former Sawa students describe training that began before daybreak, harsh drills, survivalist exercises requiring them to sleep outdoors in extreme heat, and food and water deprivation.
"Sawa is hell; they do everything to make you want to leave," a 19-year-old told HRW. "From the first month, the alarm rings at 5 a.m., they make you run to the toilet, you had five minutes to wash — if we had water, which wasn't always the case. Five minutes to put your uniform on. You get punished if you don't manage."
The minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel, defended his government's tactics on Twitter, suggesting the national defense strategy contributed to stability within the country and peace across the region.
Earlier this month, the government held a three-day-long celebration in Sawa commemorating national service with parades, songs and speeches. In an interview at the celebration with journalists dressed in military attire who belong to state media, President Isaias Afwerki emphasized that national service is a continuation of Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence.
"Maybe when you're comparing it with the struggle for independence, the sacrifice might be different, but to develop a country is more difficult," he said.
Teachers feel trapped
HRW found that teachers felt as trapped as students and take great risks to escape. One teacher interviewed in the report said, "If you are sent with the national service to teach physics, you will be a physics teacher for life."
Bader said the interviewees were desperate: "We also spoke to people who had been teachers for decades and who had, on multiple occasions, tried to be discharged from the national service jobs. But it came across very clearly in the research that being discharged is very arbitrary."
A recent peace agreement with Ethiopia removes the justification for the current system to continue, HRW said. The group urged the Eritrean government to set a timetable for demobilizing national service conscripts and allowing students to complete their education at non-military institutions.