In a scene from the FRONTLINE documentary “Escaping Eritrea,” a source shows secret footage from inside a prison.
The United Nations estimates that Eritrea is among the top three countries, alongside Syria and South Sudan, with the greatest proportion of their citizens who have become refugees — with 12,500 refugees per 100,000 people.
According to the U.N.’s last available estimates, released in mid-2020, more than half a million Eritreans have become refugees.
In FRONTLINE’s latest documentary, Escaping Eritrea, producer Evan Williams set out to learn what was driving so many Eritreans from their homeland. He talked to FRONTLINE about his investigative journey, which stretched across five years, as he found people who were trying to smuggle secret footage out of the country and worked to corroborate their findings.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you first come upon this story?
The refugee crisis was at a real peak [in 2015-2016], with people coming across the Mediterranean, and one of the biggest groups coming across into Europe, in particular, were from Eritrea. And the idea was, “Well, why are they coming from Eritrea, when technically there isn’t a war, or famine, or some other natural disaster there?” Particularly compared with why Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans were fleeing.
There had been a number of television pieces about the terribly dangerous conditions that Eritreans and others face when they go through the desert, and they’re going through North Africa and they cross the Mediterranean — many of whom, of course, drown. But nobody had ever tried to investigate at the source what was going on inside the country that made them want to leave. …
The documentary mentions this investigation took five years. Why did it take so long?
It’s a country that’s gone through many years of privations and a 30-year war against Ethiopia … and it’s had border hostilities with Ethiopia ever since. And this is very important because what it meant was that the country is a one-party, one-leader state. The place is run as a dictatorship, and it’s a very tightly controlled country, and with a small population, it’s very easy for them to control information. It’s actually very easy for them to control the population. [The U.N. estimates Eritrea’s population to be 3.5 million, although other estimates put it as high as 6 million.]
When we tried to contact groups who might be interested in trying to get some material out, it was very, very difficult — first of all, finding people who were brave enough to take those risks to try and get information out and also had the wherewithal to get it out, because the internet is controlled, mobile phones are monitored. It doesn’t have the same communication infrastructure that we are all used to, in developed and many developing countries. It just doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, it’s controlled. Or people believe that they’re being monitored or can be monitored through it.
That’s a long way of answering the question that we couldn’t just call an “opposition group,” if there was one, and say, “Let’s organize a secure way for you to transfer material.” We had to find groups that were already trying to do it or were interested in trying but just didn’t have the technical capacity. And that took time. …
We had a good initial start. We did find Michael, who came out reasonably early in the production, around 2016. He had a whole bunch of material that he had remarkably filmed secretly inside one of the prisons [that held people who tried to escape national service]. And that set us off on a course of, “OK, let’s try and get more about the detention centers that are across the country, because that’s one of the things that drives people away.” So, we discovered through our reporting that it was the country’s system of mandatory national service — which means military service at the age of 18 — that was driving many away.
The system in place is really one where, at 18, you do your training for several months and then you’re in the military service for as long as the government may want you. …
Read more: 500,000 Refugees, ‘Slavery-like’ Compulsory Service, No National Elections, Border Conflicts & Secret Prisons: 5 Human Rights Crises in Eritrea
If you’re caught trying to flee the country or escape that national service, that’s when you’re put in detention centers. That’s why detention centers became very important to us: trying to get visual evidence that, first, these places exist, because the government denies that; and second of all, gaining information about what the conditions were like inside those detention centers — and also then getting testimony from survivors and refugees and others about what happens inside them, and exhaustively cross-checking these reports, studies and other reporting.
How did you build trust with activists and eyewitnesses who were afraid to tell their story because of what might happen to them?
That took time, not only to find them but then yes, you’re right, for me to go and establish the right level of trust with them, so that we could work together. Once we’d agreed how to go forward, then it would take another several months in many cases for them to be able to obtain anything. And that’s one of the reasons it took so long.
And then of course we had the layer of, as I said before, you can’t just email it. It’s real old-school. So that meant someone physically bringing material out. Some of these are people who decided that this was the way they wanted to get the story out, they were leaving their country. It’s a phenomenal sacrifice. And yet this is what some of the people that we were working with decided that they would do. …
What kind of safety measures did you take to protect the identities and whereabouts of your sources?
They’re anonymized in the film itself. And we’ve taken steps not to give certain information away about them and their location. That’s number one. And when we were filming them, we would often have to choose locations that they were secure in. It comes down to being careful about who sees us with them. …
We had to be careful about communicating. I never called in to the country. We always used second or third parties from the community itself, who might have had other reasons to call. We spoke often in code. We would never directly talk about detention centers or secret filming or any of the key words that might trigger some sort of attention. We didn’t know whether that would or not, but we decided that’s how we would do it.
We worked together in establishing a safety protocol for the people involved in trying to film things. …
How did you work to verify the footage and the testimony that you were getting?
What we would do is go through all the material with the person who actually filmed the material. And that gives you a layer of authenticity about detail to start with. …
Read more: ‘I Didn’t Lose Hope’: Meet a Man Who Risked His Life to Secretly Film Inside One of Eritrea’s Brutal Prisons
Then we would actually show large sections of this to other refugees who had come out, who had been in the same location. … I would get them to describe for me conditions inside wherever they said they were held and see if that sort of matched with what I had. Then I would show them some of the material and get them to tell me where it was and what was going on. … It’s a process of getting them to lead you through it, rather than forcing them to tell you what you want to hear. …
Were you able to get into Eritrea at any point during the filmmaking process?
No, unfortunately. We asked the government if I could go in, towards the end of 2016, beginning of ’17, and they just didn’t get back to us. Which, again, is important, because I’ve exhaustively sought their response to the film. I gave them more than a month, once we had the final bits together, to respond. I’ve written to them several times. I’ve had conversations with the embassy in London and with the ministry of information, and we’ve been very specific about the allegations we make in the film and the material we have and would have welcomed their input.
But basically, their condition was, unless I could send them the entire film before it goes on air, they would not participate in a filmed interview. … We said we’d be more than happy to show them excerpts and some of the more important material in a filmed interview, with a representative of their embassy, and they rejected that. They said, quote, “We are not going to play the media game.” The ministry of information would only say the accusations were “astounding.”
Hanna’s story is one of incredible courage and resilience. Are people like her at risk, even though they are no longer in Eritrea?
No, is the answer. … You’ve still got people around you that would consider themselves part of the Eritrean independence revolution and would see any criticism as a betrayal of the nation. … But they’re not a physical threat, as such, to people. There’s been no evidence of them committing any violence against people, not even among Eritreans that I’m aware of. But they are noisy, and they can be threatening.
Hanna’s story is so incredible. In many ways, it embodies, in one woman and one family, the country and its struggle. It’s so moving and also so terrible that this could happen to somebody [like Hanna’s father] who was actually very powerful in the country. And I think the message from the government is probably … if they can do it to them, they can do to anybody. …
When people watch the documentary, what do you hope they take away from it?
With my current affairs hat on, I want people to know why these people are leaving their country. And I want us to then look, perhaps more knowingly, when we see refugees in our countries, about why people leave. …
I think all countries have become a lot tighter and a lot more unsympathetic towards [refugees]. So, hopefully, this will help inform people about this particular case of Eritreans but also then the broader refugee situation.
I also think there’s something quite moving in the examples of the human spirit here, where people have gone through all sorts of untold misery and problems, and yet they refuse to be broken by it.
If you look at Hanna, for example, she’s an amazing woman who just burns with this sort of incandescent hope. Remarkably. I don’t know how she does it. But she’s got that feeling about her, that she’s not going to give up. The fact that the teams themselves wanted to get this material out to me said a great deal about people’s courage, and their lack of willingness to just completely accept an unjust situation for themselves — where they perceive that to be unjust for them and their country people. …
When you were mentioning it, I recalled that in the beginning of the film the narration mentions that a lot of these refugees are younger, almost teenagers. Is that the makeup of the refugee population?
Remarkably, what we found is, I think the latest figure [from this U.N. report] was something like 8,000 were officially registered as unaccompanied children. So that means these were children under the age of 18 who had left the country on their own.
Now, when you think about that, there’s something pretty bad going on, if children under 18 are going to cross a hostile border with landmines and soldiers, with the possibility of being shot and imprisoned. And they’re doing that because they don’t see any hope. They see their elder siblings or relatives or neighbors going into the military and having what they see as a terrible life, or worse, if they’re detained for trying to flee it. …
They get officially dragooned into the military training service at 18. But some of the children told us that [the authorities] would do what they called a “giffa,” which is like a sweep. So if the military felt, or a unit felt, it needed to boost the numbers, they might go through and clean up all the kids that were roughly 18, 16, 17 and then get them in to train and get them into the barracks. …
You’ve now done quite a few films that involved really terrible atrocities, from ISIS to the brutal campaign against the Rohingya in Myanmar. How do you cope?
It is upsetting and it can be quite traumatic. … But I think I’ve just tried to channel any emotion into the project, in a way, to try and make that the outlet. We’re doing this for a purpose, which is to help these people tell the story that they couldn’t otherwise tell. …
Whatever impact it has on us as filmmakers is absolutely nothing compared to the experiences of the people we speak to and document. And while it can take a toll, it’s our job to try to give them a voice and reveal their reality.
Escaping Eritrea premieres Tuesday, May 4, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings). It will also be available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of documentaries, on YouTube and in the PBS Video App.
The phenomenal truth in Hanna Petros’ testimony: Eritreans are both victims and victimizers. It is time to stop romanticizing not only ghedli (the armed struggle) but the society itself.
Quite true, people still think there are in the past where eritrea was better, but can’t open their eyes and see that they are being brainwashed with propaganda.
There needs to be more eritrean refugees and diaspora trying to help start protests and human right campaigns in large numbers, to get support for freedom and human rights. And also ideas/plans of effective ways to get the dictatorship out and have the promised elections that have a true helpful government to work together with the people to build a peaceful and humble country.