Escape from Djibouti Prison:

Two Refugees from Eritrea Overcome Oppression and Imprisonment




Eritrean refugees have been coming to the United States for many years. They leave their home country to escape political repression, religious intolerance, and indefinite forced conscription. Many of them initially flee to countries such as Sudan or Ethiopia, and more recently Djibouti, only to experience similar repression and abuse. Two refugees from Eritrea, Haile and Isayas, spent three years in a Djibouti prison and agreed to speak with us about their stories, even though they only arrived in the United States late last December.


To understand Haile and Isayas’ story, we must first understand the history of Eritrea.
The east African country was annexed as a territory of Ethiopia in 1952. Ten years later, a war broke out between the two countries, lasting 30 years. Eritrea gained official independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The Eritrean government instituted martial law and now forces conscription into the military for all males and females age 18 and over, which can last indefinitely according to Amnesty International. Eritreans voicing political opposition or criticism of the government are imprisoned. Eritreans have been escaping to neighboring Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, despite the fact that if caught crossing the border, the Eritrean government will shoot to kill. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of January 2012, over 250,000 Eritreans had fled the country as refugees.


Of these 250,000, Haile and Isayas are among the most recent refugees accepted into the United States.  Isayas’ and Haile’s stories begin similarly. They were conscripted by the Eritrean government, and forced to join the army.  Haile was conscripted at age 19. He tried to escape in 2005, but was caught and imprisoned. Isayas was a carpenter until he was taken to a military training center at age 18. Isayas joined Haile at a military camp at the port of Assab, where military leaders watched the soldiers at all hours of the day and throughout the night.  During 2010, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the Eritrean government. The sanctions forced the leaders to leave the military camps. After many years of forced conscription, this was Isayas and Haile’s chance. They escaped into the fields next to the camp with another friend and made their way across the border.


It took three days on foot to cross into Djibouti. They had no food. No water. They had to drink their urine to avoid dehydration. Haile says they were “lucky we were able to cross.”

The first thirty-three days in Djibouti were “horrible,” says Isayas. At the border, they were fingerprinted and then imprisoned. Haile, Isayas and their friend were separated and placed in different rooms.


The prisons in Djibouti were horrendous. There were about 260 Eritreans imprisoned—20 to 40 of them in one small room. They only had a thin mattress on the floor. They were fed one piece of bread in the morning, one bowl of rice in boiling water in the afternoon, and one piece of bread in the evening. There was only one bathroom with one toilet. The toilet water was the only source of water to drink. If the toilet backed up, it wouldn’t get fixed. Many of the prisoners became sick and received no treatment. They later died. There were guards posted at the doors at all hours of the day and night. If they made a sound, they would be beaten. Guards attacked prisoners with tear gas, killing one person.  Isayas said, “We wondered ‘Why are we in prison without anything?’ We wanted to ask, ‘Why is this happening?’”


Isayas and Haile were locked up for three years without any chance of escape, except for the hope that they would be accepted to live in the United States as refugees.  They applied to the UN Refugee Agency to register for refugee status.  After they were verified as having claims of persecution, they had to go through two background checks, which took many months and years. The UN Refugee Agency then granted them refugee status. However, there was an extensive waiting period before they were allowed to come to the United States. Once Haile and Isayas finished the waiting period, they were sent to their final destination through our affiliate, Church World Services.


As an affiliate of Church World Service, Opening Doors resettled the refugees in Sacramento. Staff and volunteers met them at the airport and transported them to an apartment furnished with household items from donors.  We assisted them in obtaining identification documents, medical appointments, and ESL classes.  We helped them find employment opportunities.  They are incredibly thankful for the assistance.  They were especially grateful for the cell phones Opening Doors provided as soon as they arrived.  This has given them a way to communicate with their families in Eritrea after three years of no contact.  Tragically, Haile learned his younger brother was killed while trying to cross the border.


Haile and Isayas are thankful to start a new life in the United States. Isayas says, “We are lucky to come. There is freedom to speak, to go to school, and to better yourself.” Haile says, “If you are clever, you can succeed in school. If you learn the language, there are chances. At least here there is freedom and democracy.” However, Haile notes that America is not everything that he expected. “We used to think that coming to the US would be like living in riches,” he says. “I couldn’t believe there would be homeless in the US. I didn’t think there is hardship in the US. The people begging for cigarettes break us. How can the US help our brothers back home, if they cannot take care of the people here?”


Isayas says of their friends still in prison in Djibouti, “We don’t want our brothers to go through what they are going through. Please share our story. Everyone should know what is happening every day.”


At Opening Doors, we are committed to empowering refugees.  We assist them to establish a strong foundation, and then act as a support system, encouraging them to become self-sufficient and independent.  By sharing Haile and Isayas’ stories, we can empower them even further by ensuring that their voices are heard in a new country that grants them the opportunity to freely share their story and to improve their lives.