When Fatima (not real name) escaped Sawa, a military camp in Eritrea, she had already been there for two long years doing the compulsory military training that is supposed to end after 18 months.
For many young Eritreans, the service never quite ends.
The months become years and many youth, men and women, find themselves stuck in the military service for over a decade.
Fatima and five of her friends escaped one night from the camp without any sense of direction. They walked for three days until they reached the border with Sudan, digging up mud to drink water and having nothing to eat.
There, they found themselves face-to-face with Sudanese soldiers who detained them for two days. The rest escaped except Fatima. She was left behind and remains in Sudan, ten years later.
Fatima was then taken to a military outpost and not long after, late at night, she was rapped by one of the soldiers.
I met Fatima through a friend who found out about her story through another Eritrean in Khartoum.
I didn’t even hesitate for a minute when I read my friend’s email and agreed to meet her the next day.
My friend thought her story was worth telling, I felt humbled by the opportunity to tell her story.
I opened the door to find an Eritrean man David (not real name) who is probably in his 50s. And inside there was Fatima.
Although I’ve read a guideline to interviewing victims of violence online at the Dart Center’s website, all of a sudden, I didn’t feel like I could do this. How could I remain composed through all of this? This was a huge challenge, but I felt a responsibility to tell this story and look for other women who have suffered a similar ordeal.
First, I chatted with Fatima and David about Sudan. In fact we talked about if they liked tea sugary or not too sweet. The conversation flowed smoothly and Fatima began telling her story and answering my questions without hesitation.
As Fatima spoke, her thin body drowned in her Sudanese toub (a cloth worn by Sudanese women) and her face testified to years of suffering endured.
At 24, Fatima entered Sudan in 2000 and until now, in her 34th year she’s still stuck in Sudan.
At the military outpost, after her brutal rape, the soldier took Fatima to live with him in his tent.
“I later became very sick and I found out that I was pregnant,” said Fatima. She said she tried to escape at least three times, but was always caught and returned to the soldier, a man she had two children with.
After she had her first child, she says she halfheartedly accepted her reality and realized it is very difficult to escape. She stayed there, raising her two children with a man who verbally abused her and sometimes, beat her.
Their house was a tent inside the military camp with no access to electricity or the basics. She cooked with coal or wood and never left the tent.
“He worried that I would get to know people if I left the tent, so I never left, I never went to the market, I know I was in Kassala, but never saw it,” said Fatima.
For 10 years, Fatima was forcibly living with a Sudanese soldier. As time passed by, she learned Arabic, a language she did not speak a word of when she came from her homeland.
“When I was alone, I cried until my eyesight was almost gone,” said Fatima who was holding her glasses.
Two years ago, the father of her children stopped coming to see them for a long time. He didn’t come home everyday but this time he didn’t come for over a year and a half.
Three months ago, one of soldier’s friends told Fatima that the soldier fell sick and was now in Khartoum. A few days later, she was told he passed away.
“After all what he did to me, I was sad, he was the father of my children after all,” said Fatima. She could no longer stay captive but Fatima had known nothing much about Khartoum in the ten years.
She was told by the soldier’s friend to pack up and move. In the morning, Fatima was brought to Khartoum with her two sons. She was abandoned in Al-Daim, a neighborhood in Khartoum South that is known for its large communities of Eritreans and Ethiopians. She had no money, no contacts and for someone who has not interacted with people outside the military camp for years, it was an utter shock.
Fatima asked people in the street about the nearest house of an Eritrean and she was led to the house of Zeinab (not real name), who came to Sudan two years ago.
Fatima now cleans houses to make ends meet and her children attend school; she still lives with Zeinab who is now a close friend.
Her children don’t know what really happened to their mother. She protects them from all this hoping their lives will be better than what she has seen so far. But her life in Sudan remains uncertain as none of them have documents to prove their Sudanese nationality.
Fatima still keeps her Eritrean ID but an Eritrean activist in Khartoum told me that the children can only get an Eritrean ID when they turn 18.
Besides Fatima is not keen on returning with her children to Eritrea. Among others she fears her family would never accept her and her children. She also worries her boys could one day be forced into the obligatory military service yet her life in Sudan has only been of unspeakable brutality.
“I want to go somewhere else and raise my children there,” she said then asked me, with tears in her eyes, whether I think she has a chance to be resettled to a third country.
No one knows the exact number of Eritreans in Sudan, but there are thousands in the refugee camp in Al-Shagrab refugee camp in East Sudan. Since 2010, I’ve heard horror stories about how refugees are kidnapped and their kidneys are forcibly taken from them. In Khartoum, their suffering continues, they are subjected to ill-treatment and humiliation at the hands of the police who extort them after threats of deportation Eritrea, another brutal dictatorship.
Fatima’s story is one of many untold stories.